First impressions of Gorgonzola cheese

Wednesday, 8 December 2004 — 11:30pm | Literature

Rejoice, ye citizens, for here be a literary post.

A series is an interesting thing to commit to (terminating preposition fully intended). Theoretically, the easiest to get into are the ones that lack an overall narrative arc, where the brand-name power resides strictly in a central character or characters. If you take Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, you don’t necessarily have to start with The Mysterious Affair at Styles to have a grasp on what the Belgian sleuth is up to in Murder on the Orient Express (though admittedly, a familiarity with Styles is a necessity prior to tackling Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case). In fact, someone who begins with Orient Express will notice nothing familiar about it being told in the third person rather than narrated by Poirot’s analogous Watson, Captain Hastings.

The trouble with these, of course, is knowing what to read first. I keep hearing people tell me how well Pratchett and I would go together, but they all scurry away as soon as you ask them where to start. It’s always tempting to start with the earliest-published work, but it’s like trying to evaluate Star Trek: The Next Generation based on the first season – you risk an unfair appraisal because often, the author has yet to find his footing. Occasionally you will have a genre-defining maven like Raymond Chandler who had his rhythm in order right away (that being Philip Marlowe’s debut in The Big Sleep), but that’s hardly a common occurrence. Sometimes the first book in the series is a really good read, but lies prior to the establishment of any conventions that only come out through repetition; this is the likeliest explanation of why Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale has yet to be adapted to film, the Peter Sellers-starring spoof aside. And sometimes, an author’s early work is just plain bad; of this, there are too many examples to list.

The type of series you hear a lot more about nowadays is the one where each successive volume may have a self-contained unity of its own, but claims as its primary purpose to develop an overriding story arc where each entry keeps you guessing about the next. As before, sometimes it takes a few books for an author to really start delivering the goods, but the constant here is that in order to make heads or tails of what is going on, it is in your best interests to start with the first one. The overriding continuity drives both the story and the sales.

This creates an interesting trap. Let’s say an author builds moderate success with his first few books and establishes a dedicated fan base that expands via word-of-mouth. He opens up a number of dangling plot threads that yearn to be resolved, and pull you onwards. The series reaches a saturation point where every new release is going to sell. Once an author develops this hit-churning momentum, the editors offer less scrutiny. This can lead to one of two things: either the author refines her craft and sharpens her wit like a knife, adding dimensions to the story that are unexpected, yet insightful and consistent (see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix); or conversely, spirals out of control and goes patently nuts for several hundred content-free pages at a time, but compels you to read on anyway because those plot threads remain unresolved (see any of Robert Jordan’s later works – the exact point whereat he falls apart depends on how much you let him tax your patience).

I just finished A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin‘s first volume in his saga A Song of Ice and Fire (currently consisting of three volumes, with a target of six). It was recommended to me by someone who reads a lot of fantasy, but would benefit (as I believe everyone would) from being a cross-genre reader who dabbles in everything. To his credit, this was one recommendation that was on the ball. I came out of this first book with a very positive impression, and I think I know why. Martin captures everything that worked for Robert Jordan – the backroom squabbling of prissy nobles in overvalued estates, pre-Westphalian kingdom-to-kingdom “international relations” if you will – and dispenses with most of the annoyances.

What Martin has that Jordan doesn’t includes, but is not limited to, the following: controlled shifts in perspective that present new information in a logical manner; conscious discernment between characters who matter and characters who don’t; no silly names with random apostrophes; seven hundred pages of action and development, not ten at the beginning and ten at the end; minimal internal monologue that does not beat the reader upside the head; chapter endings that keep you interested without trailing off in ellipses; the conspicuous and welcome absence of Mary Sue; an overall narrative flow that contains the polyphony of stories being told; a demonstrated ability to write prose.

(Admittedly, Jordan does have Martin beat when it comes to video-game boss battles. I say that flippantly, but it is honestly and tellingly one of The Wheel of Time‘s recurring highlights.)

On that point about the silly names with random apostrophes: the consistency with which Martin’s nomenclature falls into a schema that reminds one of Middle English (yet demarcates cultural distinctions in language, as with the Dothraki) is quite remarkable. Mind you, this is something that we should normally be able to take as given, but nomenclature in modern fantasy is so wildly out of control nowadays that it’s a relief to see an author do it in a way that doesn’t outright suck.

His prose is fairly standard fare, and while it leaves a lot of room for study, style is not in any way the locus of his literary depth. Martin’s storytelling manner won’t wet a critical reader’s pants, but to its credit, it fails to annoy. This is clearly the kind of book where the narrative is at the service of the plot. As far as thick paperback tomes go, A Game of Thrones is highly readable, and part of it is because the plot is so well constructed. It’s a risky, gutsy story that treads in a murky sea of moral ambiguity. The best kind of plot for a Romantic tale of this overarching scope is where it feels very much like the author tossed all the characters in a cauldron and let them boil amongst themselves; the reader should never see him stir. If you start caring about certain characters that meet untimely ends (and in this book, do they ever), it comes off as your own damned fault.

I hear that in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, Martin stays on track. I’ll evaluate that claim soon enough, but classify it as good news.

The other series opener I just read was the first in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (The Bad Beginning). Apparently, the upcoming film will also incorporate events from The Reptile Room and The Wide Window, which isn’t entirely surprising, given the brevity of the first book. That is to say, it’s really short. On the upside, it’s also the soul of wit.

Snicket (or would that be his “representative,” Daniel Handler?) writes at a level that is readable by an audience younger than Rowling’s, but his control of the language (even amidst self-imposed limitations of length and vocabulary) is masterful. But that’s only one aspect of what I managed to glean from 162 pages in large print.

Maybe this comes from writing a recent paper on the assessment of performative speech acts in “Signature, Event, Context” – but I can’t help but feel that Lemony Snicket is Jacques Derrida for kids. I kid you not. In the key sequences of The Bad Beginning we see a fictitious enactment of precisely what Derrida says in celebration of contexts for performative acts (in this case, the classic example of the “I do” of a wedding ceremony) that J.L. Austin dismisses as parasitic. This isn’t even a matter of analogy – the example comes directly from Austin’s claim that a theatrical performative isn’t valid or legally binding, and Derrida’s response that we would never recognize it as felicitous in the first place were it not a repeatable formula.

Then we get to Violet’s coup de grace at the climax of the novella, which I will not spoil here, but hearkens back to what Derrida says in the same essay about the validity of a written signature acting in the absence of a speaker. This isn’t just kid lit, guys – this is a tour de force of twentieth-century thought condensed into the most deceptively elementary package imaginable.

In conclusion, I really should have started reading Lemony Snicket a long time ago, because I could have written a much, much better term paper. I do plan to get through the rest of the series soon in conjunction with the considerably more voluminous second and third parts of A Song of Ice and Fire, among other books – The Bad Beginning is short, sweet and readable in one easy sitting, and its ten sequels don’t look much longer.

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