Sunday, January 27, 2008

From Passenger to Backseat Driver, or, A Winter's Day, from My Living Room

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From eight a.m. yesterday until twelve-thirty this morning, I did very little (a brief run, listening to Thriller, some cooking, a load of laundry) aside from read Tana French's In the Woods (2007). From the first pages, I realized that this was the sort of book that, like a rented Nintendo when I was ten years old, could easily spirit away a whole day barely noticed--but I also knew that was going to require some complicity on my part.

Ordinarily, I approach pretty much all reading, from cereal boxes to genre fiction to Proust, the same way. I'm always thinking as I read, conducting a sort of running conversation in my head with the author, trying to clarify their ideas, suss out their plans, explore their methods. It's so ingrained that I rarely even notice it; reading for me is engaged, critical reading.

Once in a while, however, in the early pages of a novel I'll realize that a critical approach is just going to lead to frustration--yet at the same time, I can feel the tug of the narrative; I can tell that if I surrender like the author is asking, disengage my critical faculties, the ride will be worth it. It's like making a choice to be a true passenger rather than a backseat driver, and it happens rarely--I think reading Scott Smith's The Ruins (2006) was the most recent time. When I read that way, there's always an odd doubleness to the experience, as if at the same time I'm caught up in and enjoying the book, I can imagine a different me on different day in a different mood hating the book, screaming inside at every sentence, arguing back at it, Kingsley Amis-style, "Oh, no that's not at all what they would do!"

I say all this largely to warn you: In the Woods is that sort of book. To be fair, I should make clear that it's a far better book than The Ruins, which, with its overwritten yet underdeveloped characters, gets by on action and fear alone. In the Woods, on the other hand, features a handful of well-imagined characters, a believable Dublin setting, and, some straining at too-literary effects aside, a compelling prose style.

But what makes it impossible to stop reading is the character of the narrator, a police detective working a child murder with eerie similarities to a traumatic incident in his own childhood when his two best friends went missing and he alone was found, bloody and amnesic. His quest for answers to both cases quickly becomes the reader's quest, its pull convincing me, despite my critical mind's murmured objections, to accept certain implausible characters and situations; that acceptance seemed a small price to pay as I followed the narrator's investigation through the murky present and the lost past.

But then--as it neared midnight--French began taking so many wrong turns that even the most complacent passenger wouldn't have been able to avoid raising objections. Pierre Bayard, in his Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery (1998), writes of the construction of a thriller:
The detective thriller does not function as a seamless whole but works in two successive movements. The first of these, which lasts for most of the book, is a movement of opening meaning and tends to multiply leads and solutions. Without exploring all combinatory possibilities--far from it--this movement develops explicit proposals as well as more discreet suggestions, conjuring before the reader's eyes for brief moments a multitude of possible worlds in which different murderers commit virtual murders.

The second movement, which intervenes at the end of the book, is a movement of foreclosing meaning. It brutally eliminates different possibilities and privileges a single one, charged--in conformity with the Van Dine principle--with clarifying all proposed mysteries in retrospect while giving the reader the feeling that it was there in front of him all the time, protected by his blindness.
It is precisely when French begins to close off possibilities that In the Woods goes wrong: the mechanics of the plot turn out to hinge on one of the least convincing of the characters, one whose manner and role are so unlikely that they warp the reactions of even the more well-imagined characters, conjuring up the specter of the author's intrusive needs. Suddenly critical disengagement is no longer possible: the single proposed solution is less believable--and thus less interesting--than the many previously conjured possibilities. The mystery writer's greatest enemy, arbitrariness, begins to rear its head, and the reader can't help but begin to question even the well-developed characters. (There's another, larger problem with the plot as well, but (oh, the frustrations of writing about thrillers!) I can't really discuss it without giving too much away; fortunately, I've written about this very problem before, so if you're willing to risk learning too much, you can read about the second book discussed in this post and draw inferences from there.)

A peculiarity of the mystery genre is that a failure in the second movement can easily render all the content of the first movement essentially pointless: if we don't care who done it, why did the author ask us to waste our time caring how and where and when? In the Woods is a better book than that: the fact that the build-up was so good made the fizzled payoff extra-disappointing--but at the same time the build-up was so good that it seems unfair not to credit it as a real achievement on its own. Tana French managed to tie me in knots all day, and the ultimate disappointment led more to feelings of a chance missed than a long winter day wasted. Though the resolution was deeply frustrating, I don't regret surrendering to the story, and I may even try French's next book. But oh, what could have been!


  1. Anonymous9:07 AM

    You say, "the mechanics of the plot turn out to hinge on one of the least convincing of the characters, one whose manner and role are so unlikely that they warp the reactions of even the more well-imagined characters..." If you've never known anyone like that "least-convincing" character, consider yourself fortunate. In "In the Woods," Tana French does an awesome job of portraying a very real, very scary character type (I've known a couple, and she nails them). You may have to read the book again to see the subtlety with which that person is portrayed and the way in which he/she works to achieve his/her malignant ends. I recognized the type early on and was in a chill for days after finishing the book.

  2. Thanks for the comment. You've made me think that, in an effort to not give too much away, I may have failed to be clear: I found that character a bit tough (though I'm willing to believe what you say (and glad I've not experienced it!)), but what I really found hard to fathom was the reaction of the narrator to said character.

    In the scenes between them, his responses seem unlikely: Character X demonstrates really wild swings of mood and tone, acts overly coy to the point of seeming (to me at least) obviously manipulative, yet he's completely and unquestioningly drawn in.

    In addition, his partner, Cassie, despite clearly seeing through Character X, is only willing to share that information with him in oblique fashion, rather than coming right out and saying what she's thinking--despite the fact that, due to Character X's position in the case, her read on the character would seem likely to be of crucial importance in understanding the case.

    It's the sort of information that I can't imagine her not sharing directly and openly with her partner. It was at that point that I felt the author's hand at work, that she was making Cassie act in a way that didn't make sense--especially since the oblique, hinting method that Cassie ultimately chooses for conveying her impressions involves unprecedented personal revelations--an approach that thus not only risked her partner missing the hint, but also involved difficult emotional choices.

  3. Ooh, I love learning about the "Van Dine Principle"! I always learn something when I read your posts :)

    I am going to check the Bayard book out of my local library right now!

    P.S. My favorite genre-theory book is "Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction" by Patricia Highsmith. More a practical how-to than lit. theory, it does break down several principles of the suspense/thriller genre and has been a perennially helpful resource for me.


  4. Anonymous8:27 PM

    Levi Stahl, Wow, you read with care and thoughtfulness! I wasn't startled by how thoroughly Rob was taken in (guys in real life are also disturbingly susceptible to Character X's kind of manipulation), but see your point as to why Cassie wouldn't have clued him in more directly. You should be an editor...