Sunday, November 30, 2008

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

Years ago Kate Atkinson wrote a literary first novel that I loved--Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Then she wrote a literary second novel that I also loved but that was rather similar to the first. Then she wrote a third that wasn't that appealing to me (but which still got good reviews). But for her fourth novel (Case Histories) she was suddenly reborn as a mystery writer. And it really worked--her way with language, her characterization all made for a really appealing commercial novel. I suppose she's never looked back (or been allowed to by her publishers). But the nice thing about a literary writer turned mystery writer is how clearly it demonstrates that the lines between high culture and low aren't always so thick and that masses of people enjoy a well-written book. And When Will There be Good News? is a well-written engaging mystery. Bound to be another bestseller (especially now that Janet Maslin has named it a favorite of the year).

Lately I've been collecting lines of characterization that I especially like and here is one: "She [Reggie] didn't add that Mrs. McDonald was rapture ready, that she embraced the end of all things and was expecting to live eternally in a place that when she described it sounded a bit like Scarborough."

(if I may blur blogs for a moment: consider describing a character's conception of heaven as an invention exercise)

Most mysteries have a detective protagonist--usually either a girl (or boy) detective, a world weary cop, or a beleagured private investigator. One of the clever aspects of this novel is Atkinson has all three and they start out with three separate story lines, but ultimately converge to make a funny little crime-solving "family." Awhile back I had the epiphany (while watching the film The Darjeeling Limited) that it's all well and good to write about partnerships between two people, but when you add a third there's a good deal more opportunity for tension and variety. (I guess this is not a particularly revolutionary thought, but there it is).

Atkinson also has the good sense to create a truly heroic dog. I mean this is like a superhero dog in the manner in which it protects the novel's beloveds. Heroic people need to be a bit magic, we don't really believe in them anymore, but a heroic dog just needs to have been top of its class at doggie school.

I suppose my one quibble with the novel is the unnecessary coincidence that gives it a poetic ending. Some consider me an over-zealous crusader against coincidence in fiction, but that's because they seem so convenient. So written. Coincidence in life is appealing because it's so hard to believe and yet it's true. So how to convey in fiction something that is hard to believe but true? The problem is it's not true. The reader knows it's made up. It's like the wizard having the curtain pulled back. But then again coincidences do happen in life so they ought to be allowed in's a conundrum.

1 comment:

eric b. said...

Julian Barnes has a great chapter about coincidences in _Flaubert's Parrot_ (the narrator hates them as coincidences, but loves them as "ironies"--showing how they're more or less the same thing)--Since the whole book is more or less about the problematic distinctions between "books" and "life"--it speaks directly to your thoughts about how coincidences happen in life (or do they?) but seem forced in fiction.