Life Sentence

Random thoughts about publishing, stamp collecting, politics, popular music of the 60s and 70s, mooses, and my motley other obsessions.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Some things novelists should never write

A couple of nights ago, I decided to re-read Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop, which I read about 30 years ago and didn't remember at all. I must have liked it somewhat back then, because I'm pretty sure I finished it. But the story, the writing, and my reactions to it left no trace in my memory.

My copy has some student's notes scrawled in black ink in the margins, which didn't exactly enhance my reading pleasure. I've never understood why people do that to books. ("It smells of rotten mortality," said Finn. is underlined, with LEAR scrawled beside it. Grrr. The phrase is "rotten death," and it isn't from Lear. As I read that line, I was reacting to the student's stupidity. And it also made me aware of how Carter clumsily substituted mortality for death, making the phrase feel more abstract -- a tiny example of her tendency to over-write.)

My reaction to one part of the book struck me. The passage (which is early in the book, on page 17 of the Virago edition) was:

The lilac bushes stirred. A small, furry, night animal scuttled across the lawn in front of her and vanished with a scrabbling noise into a pile of grass cuttings; the creature, whatever it was, had no more corporeal substance than wind-blown leaves.
"I never thought the night would be like this,' said Melanie aloud, in a tiny voice.
She shook with ecstasy. Why? How? Beyond herself, she did not know or care. ...
I was right with the writer, intrigued and enjoying, until I hit "Why? How?" At that point, Carter lost me utterly, and it took at least another 20 pages for me to get back into the story. I felt I was in an English class, and suddenly the teacher was pulling a snap quiz. Of course, I didn't know the answer to either question, because Carter hasn't provided one. And her next sentence, "she did not know or care," immediately reflected my own reaction. I didn't know why the character was over-reacting, and the book had abruptly lost me as a reader, so I no longer cared.

Writers do that quite often, and I always edit it out. There are variants of the same thing, but they all have one effect: they focus the reader not on the story, but on the reader's reactions to or understanding of the story. "Who could believe such an amazing thing could happen?" (Well I did, until you pointed out that it wasn't believable.) "Fritz could not understand why he had betrayed Ignatz." (Well yes -- now that you point it out, it is true that the character development makes no sense.) "The sun rising over the misty lake looked like a picture postcard." (It's true. All of the settings in this book are terrible cliches.)