Still Going Away

Following on from my review of The Gone-Away World, Tom Abba suggests another way of looking at the novel’s structure:

The opening section, establishing the scenario of the Gone-Away War and the aftermath the world finds itself in, reads as the opening episodes of a TV series, and what follows – the digressions, the meandering and joyous romp through the pre-history of the post-apocalypse, is Lost or Galactica as conceived by Tarantino for commercial broadcast.

That’s not to say it completely works in those terms, but I think it does offer a solution as to Harkaway’s intention with his structure. As a result, the reader’s desire to get back to the beginning is part of a strategy more familiar in monthly publication, or as weekly serialised installments. A strategy that serves Harkaway well, much moreso than Lost managed in its third season (before the end was announced, and thankfully we now have a conclusion in sight, which has sharpened the writing up no end), largely because of the formal qualities of the novel itself.

After that first 28 pages of scene setting (episode 1), we’re dropped back into the narrator’s childhood, but always with the knowledge that there’s no more than an inch and a half of paper until Harkaway has to get back to where he started from. That he takes just short of 300 pages (or most of a season of shows) to do so doesn’t actually matter, because we, the reader, always knew he had to, and that the meandering journey would be over in due course. TV doesn’t offer that security, which unstuck Lost for a good while, until Lindelof and Cuse decided on an endgame, and the televisual equivalent of an inch and a half of paper was restored. Neil Gaiman (although he extended his own deadline as he went along) did the same with The Sandman, announcing that the story begun in issue 1 would conclude sometime soon, and ensuring his readers knew that an end was in sight, that threads had to come together and resolutions would be reached, the act of which went a long way toward turning a monthly comic book into a serialised novel. Dave Sim did something similar with Cerebus, but proper analysis of a 300 issue strategy is going to have to be left for another post.

And then, proving the eternal truth of summon author, Harkaway comments:

I think you’re the first person to nail me on televisual narrative structure. It rings true with me – at least to a point – and something along those lines is inevitable, given my life as a scriptwriter for nine years before I wrote TGAW.

To which I guess I can only say: fair enough.

Actually, I find Tom’s analysis interesting for a couple reasons. One is that, while I think we’re quite used to hearing TV shows described as “novelistic” these days, and have some idea what is meant when that description is used, I’m not sure you’d get the same general understanding if you just said to someone that a novel was “televisionistic” (if that were a word). Certainly my first thought, if you asked me to think of novelists who follow the narrative conventions of TV, would be someone like Scott Lynch. Reviewing The Lies of Locke Lamora in NYRSF, Farah Mendlesohn said something like “he captures the rhythms of the Saturday morning serial perfectly”, and I’d agree. The chapters of Lynch’s books are usually complete subunits of story, like TV episodes, broken down further into short, digestible chunks that function like the different acts of an episode. Lynch often cuts between two scenes for effect, and the way he introduces characters and locations often feels like a camera lingering on a dramatic entrance or vista.

None of that really applies to Harkaway, whose chapters are notable for their continuousness, the way they carry you from point A to B via points Q and 12. On the other hand, when it comes to the macro-scale structure of the book, which is what Tom is actually talking about, there are definite resonances with today’s serial television, and the season or multi-season structure of much contemporary American genre tv. So the second issue raised by Tom’s post that interests me is the way it links the success or failure of a story to reader/viewer expectation, which is in turn dependent on reader/viewer knowledge.

Crudely, Tom found The Gone-Away World satisfying because he could be confident the payoff would come, because a book has a last page; and I found it somewhat unsatisfying at the time because the structure made me impatient, and because I couldn’t be sure the payoff would be worth the journey. (One of the reasons I wanted to talk about the structure in the review was, essentially, to say that yes, I think the journey is worth it.) And yet, I have happily watched TV series where I was even less confident about the quality of the payoff, and enjoyed them for the journey. And just yesterday I had a short exchange with Abigail Nussbaum about whether knowing the ending to The Sarah Connor Chronicles — based on some comments made by the show’s creator — would undermine the viewing experience or not. Her position is that it would:

I’m actually a little more dubious about Friedman’s almost flat out saying that the characters won’t prevent the apocalypse. Certainly the show could go either way, but it detracts from my willingness to watch if I know ahead of time that everything the characters are striving and suffering for is for nothing.

Whereas I’m more favourably disposed. In part that’s probably because I never really expected them to prevent the apocalypse — one argument of the Terminator franchise thus far has seemed to be that this apocalypse will happen no matter what — but in part it’s because seeing how the show’s characters struggle will be (depending on execution) interesting to me even if I know they’re going to fail.

Which leaves a question: why didn’t I shift into that more patient frame of mind when reading The Gone-Away World? And I think the answer has to be expectation: I expected the novel to be one type of story, it turned out to be another, and I didn’t change gears fast enough to keep up. There’s also a part of me that thinks there would have been a more effective way to switch between the two types of story: as I said to James in the original thread, it would have been interesting to read the book without that first chapter, and to thus be blindsided by the arrival of the Go-Away War.

Posted in Books. Tags: . 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “Still Going Away”

  1. Nick H. Says:

    “Which leaves a question: why didn’t I shift into that more patient frame of mind when reading The Gone-Away World? And I think the answer has to be expectation: I expected the novel to be one type of story, it turned out to be another, and I didn’t change gears fast enough to keep up.”

    I seem to recall that I once said something along those lines, and you slapped me down over it. :P

    That aside, one thing I haven’t seen noted yet is the fact that “The Gone-Away World” isn’t the original title of the book; my understanding is that when Harkaway first sold the book, it was called “The Wages of Gonzo Lubitsch”. I wonder if knowing that before time would have altered expectations any, given that the two titles actually appear to be giving different messages. One says “This is a book about a place,” and the other says “This is a book about a person.”

    In any case, I’ve only read the first 28 pages of the book (then had to send it on for a request), so I can’t really talk about the book with any authority. The only thing I can say on that count is that I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of it when I get the chance.

  2. other things | Some More Going Away-ness Says:

    […] Niall responds to yesterday’s post here (this is going to turn into pingback city if I’m not careful). The televisionistic notion is […]

  3. Niall Says:

    I seem to recall that I once said something along those lines, and you slapped me down over it. :P

    Said it as a gloss on my reaction to another book, or about your reaction to another book?

    it was called “The Wages of Gonzo Lubitsch”. I wonder if knowing that before time would have altered expectations any

    Yes, but perhaps in an equally unhelpful way. I think whoever made the decision to change it was dead right to do so, but I don’t want to explain why until you’ve read the book. :)

  4. Tom Abba Says:

    Sorry about excessive pingbacks..!

    Niall’s point about my satisfaction with TGAW is interesting. I think I’d agree, within the terms of his argument, but I don’t usually feel that way about serial narratives. Twin Peaks, for example, I enjoyed (and still do, on a pretty much bi-annual viewing) because I don’t think it has ended. It’s stopped at an interesting place, but not provided closure. I’d usually pitch myself as much more of an open text kind of guy, and was surprised that there’s an interpretation of my viewing/reading habits that contradicts that.

    Nick – there’s a hint of an explanation (of sorts) for the title change at http://www.flickr.com/photos/27379375@N08/sets/72157605411336500/

  5. Nick H. Says:

    “Said it as a gloss on my reaction to another book, or about your reaction to another book?”

    Broadly speaking; my reaction to “Forest of the Dead” not living up to my expectations, to which you said criticising it on the grounds of my expectation wasn’t a valid response. In any case, I don’t want to dwell on that too much, as it’s only tangentially related to the discussion here, and I fully intend to watch the episode again on DVD before writing about it again. I’ve also been drafting, for the past few months (drafting slowly, it has to be said) something of an essay on expectations and criticism. Anyway. Moving on! :)

    I think, though I could be wrong, that the title was changed because the American publisher didn’t like it. My gut feeling is that I like both titles in their own way, with perhaps a slight preference for the original one as I find that a bit more idiosyncratic and interesting, but that’s just me. I’ll have to see what I think once I’ve read the book. I may even consider getting hold of the hardback now instead of waiting for the paperback.

  6. Niall Says:

    Tom:

    I’d usually pitch myself as much more of an open text kind of guy

    Interesting! I suppose there’s a difference between knowing that there is an ending coming and knowing that said ending will provide a definitive statement. Certainly The Gone-Away World‘s ending is open to the possibility of more story.

    And that cover photoset is brilliant.

    Nick:

    Broadly speaking; my reaction to “Forest of the Dead” not living up to my expectations, to which you said criticising it on the grounds of my expectation wasn’t a valid response.

    Ah yes, I remember now. But I would like to think that my response here is to do with the expectations engendered by the structure of the story at hand, whereas you were disappointed because it didn’t live up to your expectations based on the author’s other work. Clearly, these are totally different situations. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    More seriously, I will be very interested in that essay if you ever finish it.

  7. James Says:

    “I think the answer has to be expectation: I expected the novel to be one type of story, it turned out to be another, and I didn’t change gears fast enough to keep up.”

    That exactly sums it up for me.

  8. Nick Harkaway Says:

    Just a quick note about the title…

    I had “The Wages of Gonzo Lubitsch” set as the title in my mind because a few of the very earliest concepts I assembled to get the book started riffed a bit on “La Salaire de la Peur”, the endlessly-copied-never-equalled film noir about putting out an oil fire. When we came to publication, there was some concern about that title on several counts:

    1. “Gonzo” looks like a Hunter Thompson reference, especially in the States. I was actually thinking mostly of the muppet, but that is apparently not universal. Thompson had just died and a lot of books with “Gonzo” in the title were on their way to the shelves.

    2. What the hell does it mean, anyway? The title of the French film doesn’t seem to mean a lot, when you get right down to it, and in any case there’s not much in the way of influence from the film. It’s a red herring. There’s a biblical reference to “The wages of sin is death”, obviously, but then the book doesn’t have any biblical stuff in it, and it’s isn’t about Gonzo getting his just deserts, so… TWoGL didn’t seem to help us.

    3. (this one was the kicker for me) you can’t say the old title across a table to someone and not have them go “What? I didn’t hear you.” Seriously. Try it. They look at you as if you’re speaking a foreign language – which I suppose in a way you are: TWoGL makes no sense until you read the book. That could have been a plus or a minus, but since word of mouth is vital, it seemed problematic that we had a title which was actually impossible to pass on that way :)

    The question of how to build appropriate expectations about the book is obviously one which I worry about; it’s hard to describe – even for me – and I become very concerned when it gets slotted into an easy category because I can’t help but imagine people will go looking for something fitting squarely into that category and not find it, and get disenchanted.

    Suddenly I’m making a connection with the Korean movie “Save the Green Planet” in my head – I loved that film, but it’s absolutely impossible to pin down. I wanted that frenetic energy… maybe the downside is that you lose easy categorisation – and hence risk alienating people when they discover the category they thought you fell into isn’t entirely what the thing is.

    Hmm. And now I’m going to blog this and expand on it some, because I’ve interested myself – though alas, I may have bored you…

    Nick Harkaway

  9. Niall Says:

    though alas, I may have bored you…

    Not in the least; thanks for commenting. The question of the expectations that fiction generates (or doesn’t) is something I find fascinating, so I look forward to your post. In my earlier comment, I was thinking of something along the lines of your point 2, which is that TWoGL and TGAW seem to promise different stories. I think a cue to focus on Gonzo from the start could have been to the book’s detriment.


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