Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Possibly the hardest thing about writing a novel is writing a middle that lives up to your beginning. Starting a novel isn't really so rough. Big Bang openings occur to writers all the time. And endings aren't so bad either. In short stories the end is where things either come together or fall apart, but with a novel, readers can be quite forgiving of a so-so finish. One of my favorite novels is Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House (about a librarian who falls in love with a teenage giant) and I don't like the last chapter one bit. (same with Bel Canto's crazy epilogue) Yet I still call it one of my favorite novels. Because I could happily live in the middle forever. With popular genre fiction, the middle tends to exist merely as a bridge to the end. It's the thing you get through as quickly as possible to find out what happened. But with literary fiction, the middle is the part where readers want to linger, where they don't want to reach the end... so, of course writing the middle is hard. Because if you have a Big Bang opening how do you write an even bigger middle?

I like to think of this as making a mystery of the middle. And in Geek Love, Katherine Dunn does it masterfully.

Her title, her table of contents, her epigraph, and the first two pages of her book all set up expectations for what's to come. It seems like this will be a quirky, probably humorous, tale of a family of carnies (including an albino dwarf, a set of Siamese Twins, and Arty the AquaBoy all born to a carnival ringleader and his chicken-head-eating wife). The parents seem like they will dominate, the family will be threatened by the outside world, and their bond will prevail. It will be an examination of darkness that shows how darkness is really lightness. What we think is dark is not. At least that's what I expect on reading the first couple of pages. And that's enough to make me read on...I'm interested in that book. But what I think really makes the novel a success is the way that the middle of the novel regularly subverts our expectations and gives us a much bigger, and more surprising, novel than we anticipated...

One of the novel's tricks is to use a fairly traditional frame in which there is a present tense story where the characters are grown older and readers can see how dramatically their circumstances have changed. This is one way to make a mystery of the middle--getting readers to ask how did our characters get from point a to point c, but I actually find it the least interesting of the tricks Dunn uses. Perhaps because it's the most expected. The real reason the frame is important, I think, is it demonstrates how Oly, the narrator, is impacted by everything that happened in the middle. She's not really the center of the plot in the middle. The frame lets her be the center of the plot in the end. So that's one unexpected aspect of the middle--the peripheral nature of the first person narrator.

Conventional wisdom says short stories are harder to write than novels, but don't you believe it. In a novel, as in a short story, you need the sense that a story is escalating and building, but you need to sustain that over such a long period that you run the risk of entering the absurd. (this is how tv shows jump the shark). Dunn takes her novel into really extreme territory in terms of character behavior, this is how she creates a novel that is bigger than her quite large opening. But she's very savvy about how she builds to that extreme. You realize on page seven (after the loving family scene that opens the novel) that these kids are "abnormal" because their parents bred them to be that way. This is pretty startling. But the extent of their parents science experiments is withheld until p. 53, when you see the many failed results. But just when the reader starts to see the parents as villainous, Doctor Phyllis, a crazed surgeon arrives and you see how she's even worse. And just when you think you can predict that Doctor P. will be the dark heart of the novel, you realize Arty, the Aqua-Boy, is the even bigger villain behind it all. So these other characters act as evolutionary steps on the way to Arty. This escalates the plot, surprises the reader, and makes the extreme actions of Arty more believable because they are worked up to gradually.

Yeah, this novel has an actual villain in it. But it's key that he's not a single villain in a world of good characters--he's a higher step on the ladder of bad. So it's surprising but not unbelievable...

A note on villains: this is one place the choice of Oly as narrator is very useful. Seeing Arty through Oly’s childish and sisterly eyes helps make him more palatable. The reader is never asked to love or forgive Arty—only to understand that Oly does

Another regular trick to making a mystery of the middle is to bring in and develop new characters while letting others fade to the background. Sometimes these faded characters come back into the center, sometimes not. Some of these new characters come in and you expect them to be more important than they are—it’s sort of like a murder mystery where there are multiple suspects and they each have their own mini-story, but they don't all factor in at the end. They do all factor in to the story somehow however. They change what can happen.

In Geek Love, a new son is born in the first third of the novel (new character enters) and he brings with him the first "magic" of the novel. Up until then everything has been true to our physical world as we know it. But Chick, who looks normal, has special metaphysical powers. Now in workshop I'd probably caution a writer against suddenly having a magical element enter a novel so late. Traditionally a novel would establish itself as fantastical very early on. But Geek Love works as an exception because this is such a heightened world--not quite real anyway--that it feels like a surprise, but not impossible. Like with Arty's villainy, it's an evolutionary step away from what came before, not a total shock. And again this takes the middle in directions the reader hadn't anticipated.

Dunn also uses conventional methods like foreshadowing and flash-forwards to heighten a reader's curiosity. But whereas in a novel where the middle is a bridge to cross, she does not withhold her answers to those mini-mysteries for very long. So questions are raised in the middle and they are answered in the middle. Then new questions are raised and answered. Sometimes on the same page, sometimes a few pages later, sometimes fifty pages later...you can't predict what you'll learn when.

And finally, one last technique, that I don't think works so well actually, is introducing new voices into the text in the middle. In the novel's last third, a newspaperman enters the story, and so we get his notebooks and articles. This provides a break from Oly's first person voice and gives us information that she can't and a perspective outside hers. But personally, I didn't need it. It can work though, just in this case, it felt like it told me what I already knew.

I don't want to suggest these things are formulas you want to apply (the season six commentary on "Lost" persuaded me never to talk about the hero's journey in class again because the writers seemed so sure that merely hitting the steps on the "journey" would make their story work). The main reason Geek Love is such a classic is the ideas, the characters, the words...but structure helps too, it allows for all the rest to feel like it adds up to something.

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