What the writer does: Sherlock Holmes edition

Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.

That’s Arthur Conan Doyle, from A Study in Scarlet, and it applies to what novelists do too: not just describe events, but put “events together in their minds” and see what happens as those events play out.

One reason I tend to argue against people who say they have no time or inclination for fiction is reality: in the form of nonfiction, even narrative nonfiction, it imposes limits on the imagination in a story (which may be one reason why so many people, especially those writing memoirs, are inclined to make shit up to make the story better). Fiction removes the reality constraint, and instead imagination imposes its own necessary and proper restraints on imagination.

At times fiction also pokes at the problems posed by reality, as in Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man. A chair is the pretext for a major fight between a married couple, and the man is describing a scene to his father-in-law:

“When she wouldn’t get out of the way, I set the bag down and took her by the shoulders. . . . Then . . . I don’t know. She must have tripped over the bag. I heard a crash, and when I turned she was there on the floor. She’d fallen into . . .”
He stops, unable to continue.
“The chair,” I say.
He stares at me through moist, confused eyes. “No, the stereo cabinet.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say. I my writing workshop I’d have explained to my students why, for symmetry, in had to be the chair.

In fiction symbols can align neatly as they so often don’t outside of fiction. The “train of events” runs smoothly or unsmoothly on the writer’s tracks, or on “their own inner consciousness.” Not always to an interesting end, but to an end that shows things nonfiction, whatever its virtues, often doesn’t.

Flashback — Dan Simmons

There are shades of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle all over Flashback. Problem is, they don’t really go anywhere. The novel opens in the near future with a mystery: Hiroshi Nakamura is a wildly wealthy Japanese man who needs Nick Bottom to solve the mystery of his son’s death using a drug called Flashback, which lets one relive in the past as if it’s the present. The setup is clever; Nick, rather than being a classic detective-alcoholic, is a flashback addict and feels “the flashback itch crawling in him like a centipede. He wanted to get out of this room and pull the warm wool covers of then, not-now, her, not-this over himself like a blanket.” He wants his time warped, in other words, as the centipede tells him. He wants to retreat to childhood: hence the blanket. It’s a nice image, and double so because the novel doesn’t have many of them.

Flashback is frustrating because it has so much promise that goes unfilled. There are lots of “as-you-know-captain speeches” (as there were A Game of Thrones), like this one, six pages in:

The polishes cedar floors and fresh tatami mats, in contrast, seemed to emanate their own warm light. A sensuous, fresh dried-grass smell rose from the tatami. Nick Bottom had had enough contact with the Japanese in his previous job as a Denver homicide detective to know that Mr. Nakamura’s compound, his house, his garden, this office, and the ikebana and few modest but precious artifacts on display here were all perfect expressions of wabi (simple quietude) and sabi (elegant simplicity and the celebration of the impermanent.

How do you have fresh dried grass? Shouldn’t it be fresh or dried? Beyond that, the phrase “Nick Bottom had had enough contact” signals that we’re about to be told a bunch of stuff. In and of itself, that’s fine. The problem is the sheer number of times the story pauses for no particular reason to regurgitate stuff at us. Susan Bell’s essay “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” (part of The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House) details how deftly F. Scott Fitzgerald avoids such problems in The Great Gatsby, with the help of Maxwell Perkins. We’re not so lucky here. In Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, digressions feel organic. Here they feel forced.

So do the italics that give us Nick’s thoughts; toward the end of chapter one, he thinks, “You know why you’re going to hire me for this job, jerkwad. Let’s get to it. Yes or no.” I’ve heard similar sentiments in a thousand detective novels and movies. They don’t add anything to the story or Nick’s character. They’re distracting. The problems in the first chapter continue throughout.

There are good bits, as when Nick decides not to flashback to sex: “he was simply glad that his video-recorded idiot’s face wouldn’t be showing the uncoordinated spastic echoes of his orgasms from eighteen years earlier.” We get the self-loathing, the professional’s unhappiness at being caught unaware, the thought of “uncoordinated spastic echoes” that capture a look in a way that’s fresh and vital. Such moments are just too rare. The book is too fat. It deals with balkanization and terrorism in ways that are interesting and imagines a future without state or national infrastructure, which is a scary one. It just doesn’t do so well. There’s a palpable fear of Muslims and what, for lack of a better word, I would call multiculturalism or pluralism; a character thinks:

Los Angeles [was] celebrating the events of that old holiday called 9-11, September 11, 2001, the date—as Val had been taught in school—of the beginning of successful resistance to the old imperialist American hegemony and a turning point in the creation of the New Caliphate and other hopeful signs of the new world order.

We get a lot of conservative ideology here: the distribution of dangerous ideas in schools; the idea that liberals see American hegemony as dangerous and imperialist; and the fear of Islamists taking over the world. Women “in full burkas” sit, and one has “bright blue eyes” who Val says “was Cindy from his Wednesday Social Responsibility class.” None of these fears seem likely, and after the Arab Spring, they seem even more ludicrous. The world is mostly inching toward liberalism, not authoritarianism, bikinis, not burkhas, despite the United States’ present penchant for spying on its own citizens. A college professor begins to question his own received wisdom, and experiences “Doubt [about] whether America’s eventual retreat from the rising success of radical Islam’s influence around the world was the wisest course.” Except that the U.S. is successful precisely because its culture promotes letting people live as they choose, so long as they don’t harm others: this is part of the reason why the U.S. is very good at integrating minorities, while Europe struggles. The idea that the U.S. will ‘retreat,” whatever that means in the context, is ludicrous.

I’m not opposed to novels with political messages, as long as those messages are thoughtful, reasonable, and well-integrated, and dumb politics aren’t limited to the right (on the left, see: John Steinbeck). I’m opposed to novels with dumb politics, like this one, but I’m even more opposed to weak writing.

You can have a book with little plot and spectacularly unusual sentences or language use; this is basically what Joyce and John Banville do (or, think of Banville’s alter ego detective fiction writer, Benjamin Black). You have a book with lots of plot and uninteresting or banal sentences, which is what a lot of thrillers do. But it’s really hard to have little plot and average sentences, which is what you see in Flashback. It’s got a great premise and doesn’t deliver. I got to page 200, mostly because I had time to kill while waiting to meet a friend. Flashback did fill time and did offer an intriguing premise. It didn’t do much else.

EDIT: I am not the only one who is disappointed in Flashback.

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