Saturday, February 21, 2009

What should I tell the alien survey team?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

When someday the aliens beam me up and start asking questions, I fully expect them to ask me--once they've gotten beyond the obvious ("Did adults really watch The Dukes of Hazzard?"; "How did no one realize Cheney was a Skrull?"; "Can we hate the Yankees, too?")--what it is we readers enjoy in novels. And after I rave about the capaciousness of the form, its ability to accommodate both Moby-Dick and A Month in the Country, both A Dance to the Music of Time and Tlooth, I'll talk about how its very filler, the clutter of objects and incidental descriptions and necessary transitions that begins to really thicken up in the Victorian era, can itself here and there beautifully capture and hold our world as we pass it by--as the very action of the novel itself passes it by.

This all came to mind a few days ago because as I was reading Abraham Rodriguez's strange, staccato, stylized crime novel South by South Bronx (2008), I decided I'd hit upon the perfect illustration of that aspect of novels. In the opening pages of the book, a young blonde woman in a soaking wet minidress, trying to escape from some unknown peril in a South Bronx downpour, climbs a fire escape, and as she's climbing she's afforded a momentary, anonymous glimpse of intimacy:
Through the open window on the third floor she spotted a couple, dancing. Luis Vargas playing soft on the stereo. The one candle flickered unreliably. The woman was in a red dress, fringe splashing her thighs like water. The guy was bare-chested. Black dress pants, like a matador. She watched them dance slow and close. Took a moment before she realized the guy was wearing an eye patch.
It's a perfect little snapshot of the other lives that exist, quietly, in the eddies of a realist novel; even as they serve their essential purpose of coloring and fleshing out the world of the story we're following, they also necessarily represent directions not taken, stories unexplored.

Yet it turns out I was wrong: later in the novel it's revealed that that's not a throwaway scene, that the man with the eye patch is an important character. And though that fact essentially destroys the utility of this scene for my demonstration, at the same time it makes me even more impressed with Rodriguez's talent: how rare it is to have a secretly important detail conveyed so smoothly, so casually, yet at the same time in a way that insures it will be remembered when the time comes? It's a sign of the invention and dynamism that runs throughout the novel; South by South Bronx is impressive enough that I'll soon be heading to the bookstore in search of Rodriguez's previous novels.

But that still leaves me needing a scene to share with the inevitable aliens--unless, that is, I am willing to assume that they won't ever read all of South by South Bronx. Which, come to think of it, sure sounds like how Han Solo would handle the situation.


  1. OK, that's definitely a wishlist click for this Bronx reader. (North, which is to say kind of boring, Bronx, but who's keeping track?)

  2. Personally, I think I'd just steer them to something like "The Master and Margarita". I figure a book as brilliant as that one ought to be self-explanatory. Or I'd give them "Ender's Game" and while they're busy reading, destroy their entire race. You know, the usual.

    Silliness aside, that's an intriguing quote. That the eye-patch character becomes important later on does sort of kill the point, but if you hadn't pointed it out, unsuspecting readers would have never known...

  3. Is Galactus attacking the monkey? Proposing a toast? Is it a planet-eating monkey? Secret Wars 3? These questions beg for answers.

  4. I believe Galactus and Gladys are participating in a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony, and they're at the point in the ceremony when Galactus is supposed to pointedly admire the beauty of the workmanship of his teacup.