Monday, January 5, 2015

Enthusiasm wanes as capability increases

I received my corkboard and my index cards! I also started reading another mystery novel within the set of books that I would call my inspiration for my story. This one, Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem is entirely different from Dennis Lehane in terms of... well, everything. Gun, With Occasional Music is a satirical science fiction detective novel that adheres faithfully to the more cliché tropes of the noir genre. While it is telling a story, it seems to me that the focus is more on the tone and the world that it builds than the story itself. I say this in part because I’ve read the book at least twice now, and I still can’t remember what the story was at all. But I can remember that I loved it, and that the world that it built was engrossing and entertaining, and the tone was engaging and usually hilarious.

In Gun, the protagonist is a disillusioned, mostly broken PI in a world where no one but private inquisitors and the police are even legally allowed to ask questions, not even the most basic ones like “what’s your name?” (I assume this gave Lethem fits trying to write.) I think this adheres more to the literary ‘definition’ of the noir trope in that we see the PI go from a state of jaded apathy about the client who walks through his door—knowing there’s little he can do to help and sending him on his way—to a grudging, ungenerous refusal to accept that anyone is beyond hope in a just world; refusing to let go of the idea that maybe, just maybe, the world is still just.

My favorite definition of a noir protagonist, and the one I’m calling the ‘literary definition,’ is this:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

I’m trying to keep that definition in mind while writing my main character, Cassidy. I think much of my difficulty comes from the fact that I want her to be so much braver than I am.

My first draft came out very tame. While I believe that the mystery was interesting, no character was pushed to the point of desperation, and no real danger was ever encountered—because I have a hard time imagining a person actually taking the actions of a desperate man and sincerely intending to do bodily harm to another person.

When I read it in my mystery novels, it’s shocking because it’s not an action genre with bullets flying and punches punctuating every paragraph; it’s gritty and ugly and real and when someone gets shot, they don’t get back up and keep running. So while I don’t think I’d have a hard time writing the more exaggerated, unrealistic combat scenes that you might see in a Marvel movie or an episode of Buffy, I hesitate to broach the kind of violence that belongs in a noir book, because it needs to be grave, not glorified. It needs to be tense and terrifying, not inconvenient or irritating. In a noir book, the violence should be the thing that ends the book, because it ends either the good guy or the bad guy. It’s not an obstacle.

And then, when the protagonist does struggle to his or her feet, it seems all the more triumphant.


Now that I have my tools in hand, I am predictably hesitant to begin the process of rewriting. After all, I messed it up so bad the first time... of course, without my first try, this story wouldn’t exist at all. I need to start thinking of the words of my first draft as being the shell around the nut of the story. Crack it off and throw it away, and you’ve still got more than you had before. Sure it’s incorporeal, and the second draft may not be much better than the first... but it’s a lot more likely to be closer to the truth of the story than the first was.

So, I am now picking up my index cards and my sharpies and I’m writing things on them. For example:

Cassidy Byrne

Lonely. Brave. Realistic. Observant. Intuitive. Driven. Disadvantaged. Aloof. Curious. Honest. Snarky. Educated. Blunt. Careful. Self-assured. Self-alienated.

Puts ‘morally right’ in front of ‘legal’ in the alphabet, but operates within the confines of the law as often as possible. Desperately wants to know who she was before she ‘woke up,’ but not to the detriment of her clients. When presented with leads on her own case, has a hesitancy to follow them that she doesn’t understand.

Anyone out there struggling with their own re-writes, or first drafts, or inspirations?

1 comment:

Alii Silverwing said...

I read Gun, With Occasional Music! It's so funny what I remember vs. what stuck out to you. Like, I remember the aggregate informational radio symphony news in the morning, and the weird animals having being advanced to human intelligence, but pretty much nothing about not being able to ask questions. Also - 'occasional music' is probably my favorite thing ever.

I like your description of Cassidy! :)