Recent Reading: Technique

So I’ve had this book, THE BLUE PLACE, by Nicola Griffith, on my TBR pile for a couple of years now. Lesse . . . ah, I see it was published way back in 1998. Well, I haven’t had it in the TBR stack for quite that long, but definitely for some time.

It’s one of those books where the publisher, in its infinite wisdom, declined to put any kind of plot or character description on the back or in the inside flap or anyplace. The front cover says “a novel of suspense”, which at least gives me a hint, even though all the text on the cover is lower case, including the author’s name, which look suspiciously literary and kind of pretentious and is something of a turn-off for me.

The back cover just has a couple of lauditory quotes, which is all very well, but doesn’t exactly carry any kind of information about what the book is ABOUT, right? I mean, there are hints about theme, and that’s fine and dandy, but can I have a hint about the plot?

Why did I get this book in the first place? I remember making a deliberate decision to buy it, so it’s not like I found it at a garage sale. Did somebody recommend it? Don’t remember. Was it just the lauditory quote that goes “language brilliant and clear as sun-glittered water”? Can’t have been because I would have wanted more than that to go on, though praise of the language is always a draw for me.

Anyway, my first point is, one major reason why this book languished for so long in the TBR stack is that I couldn’t even tell what genre it was, much less get intrigued by a bit of clever back-cover copy. I see the publisher was Avon. Well, stupid decision on Avon’s part, or at least for me it totally backfired. I only picked it up now because I’m trying to clear the TBR pile of the books I’m LESS excited by, on the grounds that it’s just ridiculous to have some books in that pile for year after year. Time to read ’em or get rid of ’em, I have decided.

Turns out it’s a thriller or maybe suspense-mystery. I kind of thought it was SF, but I’m sixty pages in now and I don’t think so.


First two paragraphs:

An April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and warm and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with torn leaves and fallen azaliea blossoms. Nearly midnight. I had been walking for over an hour, covering four or five miles. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t sleepy.
You would think that my bad dreams would be of the first man I had killed, thirteen years ago. Or if not him, then maybe the teenager who had burned to death in front of me because I was too slow to get the man with the match. But no, when I turn out the lights at ten o’clock and can’t keep still, can’t even bear to sit down in my Lake Claire house, it’s because I see again the first body I hadn’t killed.

Now isn’t that interesting? Remember I didn’t know the protagonist was an ex-cop when I started reading, so that second paragraph has extra kick. Granted there’s a hint that she might be a cop or something, but we don’t know yet, not just from this.

We get that the book is probably going to be pretty violent and the protagonist is going to be struggling with inner demons because of some nasty stuff in her past. It’s a nice hook if you’re in the mood for a novel of suspense or a thriller or something of that kind.

But I’m more interested in the first paragraph. Did you notice the first couple of sentences aren’t actually complete sentences? Isn’t that interesting?

This immediately reminded me of a bit in Robert Olen Butler’s book on writing, FROM WHERE YOU DREAM, which actually I did not in general find very helpful — too geared toward letting your subconscious flow while writing literary masterpieces, not my thing — but check this out, where Butler is talking about writing as cinematic. I did find this whole chapter thought-provoking.

Butler says, “Now this is the great thing about fiction. We can move from fast action to slow motion to real time seamlessly and with great nuance” and then goes on to quote several pages of Dickons’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS, including this bit:

. . . “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”
A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
“Oh, don’t cut my throat, sir,” . . .

Check that out! Not a single complete sentence in that whole descriptive paragraph.

Why? asks Butler, and goes on to answer that question: “Time has stopped. What are the parts of time that signify the passage of time? Active verbs. Things happen. But here nothing is happening except perception. It is beautifully appropriate — and you don’t even notice, except afterward …”

You don’t usually see this kind of technique in genre fiction. (Maybe you do, more, in literary fiction, but I really don’t know for sure because I read so little literary fiction, having been burned too often by nihilistic themes that have no appeal for me whatsoever. (And here I’m thinking of Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA, where the basic message of the book appeared to be: You can’t win against the forces of human prejudice and stupidity. Well, thanks lots, but personally I’d rather have a slightly more positive message.))

But for me, beautiful technique is a draw in itself — and here, it replaced the kind of interest that would usually be roused by back-cover copy. I read that first paragraph and was hooked by technique, before I got to the second and was caught by interest in the protagonist’s evidently brutal past and what it suggests about her immediate future. I am, as it happens, actually playing with this exact technique in a novel I have just barely begun. How interesting to see it here!

Now, just waiting to see how the book turns out . . .

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2 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Technique”

  1. I’m delighted you like the beginning. Regarding the end: I’m definitely not a nihilist but I will suggest you don’t finish this book for the first time in public. And remember there are two others (Stay and Always)…

    Sadly, an author has no control over the cover. Sorry about that.

  2. Actually, I kind of liked the cover art, at least . . . until I read the book and was utterly baffled as to why the publisher found it appropriate.

    Yep, I know, cover art and design is luck of the draw for the author.

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