Sunday, 12 February 2006

Crimes of Writing

Been reading Alias Grace this weekend: tremendously disappointed. A novel needs to be really, really good before I can forgive it for containing sentences like these:

Criminals will read about themselves endlessly, if given the chance. They are as vain in that way as authors.

The book is as formulaic as an episode of Law and Order: SVU, and just as repugnant, but at 500+ pages, needlessly longwinded and without even the cheap and nasty stuff that you can't look away from. It is like the novelistic equivalent of an Oscar bait movie; formulaic, full of pretentions, shallow, bland and psychologically crude. Melodrama without honest emotion or honest thrills; all too calcuated and fey. And that is all I have to say about it. Frankly, going on at length about exactly what's wrong with a bad book has never seemed like a worthwhile activity to me; I'd rather just move on to something that IS worth the effort. Unfortunately I have to teach this book this semester. I'm going to need chemical assistance.

Just before Alias Grace I read a book called The Missing by Andrew O'Hagan, which I bought cheap and blind on the strength of another of this author's novels, and it's in every possible way a much, much better book. (LibraryThing's twenty-five thousand users have 239 copies of Alias Grace among them, and only one [mine] of The Missing.) It too is a kind of true crime story (Fred and Rose West's murders), in part, though the book is also and mostly about people who go missing or whose lives end alone and unknown. Surprisingly, it is not the slightest bit prurient or sensational and pulls off the quite incredible feat of exploring the depths of human horribleness without either disavowing or pandering to the less savoury strains of readerly curiosity. Perhaps one thing that enables this is the way the true crime narrative is mingled with other genres, in this instance memoir (although it is quite free of whatever the thing was in Experience that made that book so incredibly irritating). O'Hagan writes about the effects of reports about missing children on his own younger self in a way that both particularises that mobile, shifting fear, and opens it up as well, because he describes a remembering reader inside the narrative who goes through some of the emotional reactions we experience as we read the story ourselves.

I know exactly how futile it is to ask such a question in a blog post for god's sake, but what is it about murder stories, serial killer narratives especially, that is so compelling? Silence of the Lambs is one of my comfort movies, to be watched any time I feel listless and down and too tired to think of a way to do something about it. Which is kind of odd given how much it terrified me when I first saw it - afterwards, driving to my home some distance out of town on dark lonely roads, I was literally quivering with fear in case there was a flesh-eating psychopath in the back of my panel van (it was the first time I'd ever driven alone after dark since getting my probationer drivers' licence.) I was very much taken aback to read in the BFI book on the film that it's widely regarded as fatally gynophobic and homophobic, though I can see some justification in the homophobia charge. To me it seems in many ways a very compassionate movie.


R H said...

Silence of the Lambs is weak.
A little fairy tale, full of holes. But that's Hollywood, what can you expect. Sensation, that's what you can expect. A ride on the Ghost Train. Boo!
The truth is very small. Very ordinary.

random said...

Catharsis, I always thought. Vicarious terror to flush the bad vibes out. Bound to work especially well if the problem is basically just middle-class anomie. It's quite hard for a person to have a problem that doesn't pale besides (e.g.) decapitation.

Or, more disturbingly, vicarious serial killing to flush the murderous rage out of the system. Best not to dwell on that one...

Just as an aside, I remember being alone in the house one night and crouching in one corner with an iron poker from the fire, absolutely convinced that a serial killer was about to walk into the room. I don't watch scary movies anymore. :)

Hil said...

I have puzzled at how much praise Atwood receives, because I was disappointed by both Alias Grace and The Robber Bride. They both seemed to me to have endings that dissipated whatever the story was building towards.

In hindsight, the thing I liked best in Alias Grace was the quilt square illustrations. I have a sketch of them all somewhere - I'll post them on my blog if I find them.

Lucy Tartan said...

They both seemed to me to have endings that dissipated whatever the story was building towards.

Yes. The secrets or riddles or whatever at the end (did she / didn't she, is it him or him or him?) are really limiting. The answer to the first is ostentatiously withheld and the second is just dumped in our laps. No genuine uncertainty there, and with historical fiction, that signals an unappealingly arrogant attitude to understanding things long past and over.

In the copy I read the quilt blocks are not reproduced very nicely. But I agree this was one element that came off relatively OK.

elaine said...

My comfort movies are Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Jane Eyre (the BBC one with Timothy Dalton, I know I am sorry about that but there it is). I get too scared in murder/horror films.

As an aside- I just won bazlotto!

Kate said...

I really like Atwood, but I didn't enjoy 'Alias Grace' or 'The Robber Bride' very much, mainly because the first bored me and the second was a mishmash of various ideas and I didn't feel it worked at all. However, I love her sci-fi and 'The Blind Assasin' is one of my favourite books.

I read 'The Missing' a few months ago, picked it up on a whim at the library... found it very interesting and moving.

Lucy Tartan said...

Good, I'm happy to hear someone else has read it. I was disappointed by the librarything ratio, although it's true the majority of members there are North Americans and my impression is contemporary British writing (outside a few global superstars) is regarded as a bit of a specialised taste there.

I'm very fond of some of Atwood's other books, too - Surfacing in particular, and some of her short stories - so all the more puzzled by this one. It's not as if she can't write.

Cozalcoatl said...

I don't mind reading murder/serial killer/forensic novels. Not sure why really, but i've noticed more women than men read (and write) murder mysteries.
I don't have a huge sample to take this from but in my circle of family and friends it seems to be the case. I've always wondered why?

Armaniac said...

Silence of the lambs was a brilliant book.

I make forays into this area from time to time. Mostly to read Grisham, because, though he's largely crap, I am a lawyer and he comes up with bits I can identify with.

Like lots of people getting out of law and fleeing to some exotic location with a bucket of cash - yay!

What's the appeal overall? Don't know, but some stabs include:

*fascination with 'dark side' of human potential;
*factors intrinsic to thrillers that help move plot along;
*applicability of fear to reader's everyday life;

etc etc.

I am curious about caleb carr, may give him a go, sounds like he's not complete crap.

Kate said...

It was a while ago but I was very struck with O'Hagan's description of his childhood, especiallu the opening sequence where he compares how he and his mates used to torment other little kids with the two young teenagers who killed the little boy (names escape me). The line between ordinary life and tragedy is so fine.

I might have to reread it.

R H said...

Laura I might go and see Capote; my first movie in twelve years. Is it any good? Ask the Valve.

Women are fascinated by murder because it's gossip.
Scandal, that's all.

The Nineteenth century was full of lady poisoners.

I like Jack the Ripper for his writing style; his letters to the London Metropolitan police. They are sweet, playful, brilliant.

(Leopold and Loeb - millionaire's teenage sons - killed the little boy, just for fun. America, I924)

R H said...

Laura I've just looked up Leopold and Loeb on google. The Wikipedia entry has some very interesting film and Lit information in the final paragraph. General stuff.

Ray Davis said...

I thought Silence of the Lambs was nice, but what comforts me the most in hard times is George Romero. The zombie movies, the vampire movie, the government reacting really badly in a biological warfare leak movie, maybe not so much the hippie biker movie. Or His Girl Friday. I don't know, it's just relaxing that art can be honest about these things even if I can't. Catharsis I think they called it.

Lucy Tartan said...

Yes Hitchcock's Rope is derived from the Leopold & Loeb case.

I'm fond of vampire pictures too. Is there a definitive film of Dracula? I'd say no, the sum is far greater than the parts.

RH, if you do go see Capote you'd better write down your opinions for posterity. Send them to me and I will post them at Larvatus Prodeo. That ought to make whyisitso really, really annoyed.

Pavlov's Cat said...

What a very Machiavellian remark.

After agonising and hand-wringing about it for some years, I came to the conclusion that everything is gynophobic and homophobic if that's what one is looking for. Especially if pressure is being put on one to look for it.

I agree with you absolutely about The Silence of the Lambs, and what's more, it actually seemed to me that Hannibal came out big-time as the opposite of gynophobic. The whole point of what happens to Starling in that sequel is that no matter how good she is, her femaleness, one way and another, does her in professionally. I love it that Starling and Lecter run off together in the end. I think of Lecter as in many ways a feminised character (how far outside the patriarchal order can you get? A foreigner, a lawbreaker, cattywumpus to the forces of law and power in every possible way), and it makes perfect sense to me that these two should form an alliance.

dogpossum said...

Three words: In Cold Blood. I'm reminded of it by the new film about Capote which is coming out soon...
True Crime done right.

Brownie said...

Lucky me - live alone and not scared of anything, not spiders, mice, or intruders, and no crouching with pokers. This is probably because I HAVE NOT SEEN Silence Of The Lambs.
I get creeped out by Ruth Rendell novels for goodness sake.
Re 'fascination with serial killers': my daughter bought a John Wayne Gacy painting of Pogo The Clown for $300 some years ago, and recently put it up for ebay auction. Bidding was up to US$2500 when ebay took down the auction. pfft! gone in a flash. complaints. well!

The only Dracula film for me is George Hamilton in Love At First Bite.
Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers is good too.
Really looking forward to Hoffman as Capote and have loaned my copy of the Gerald Clarke biog the film was based on, to a friend so they can enjoy the film more.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only person who was bored shitless by Alias Grace.

Brownie, speaking of Ruth Rendell, have you read the Barbara Vine books? A couple of them, "Asta's Book" and "A Dark-adapted eye", do what Alias Grace trys to do but fails.

Helen Balcony

Hil said...

Laura, I thought of your question re Silence of the Lambs when I caught a snippet of an interview with Prof. Patricia Duncker on RN's Book show last week. She commented that women in particular liked the film, and she said she thought it worked on a subliminal premise that 'the man you love the most is the one that wants to kill you'.

It sounds strange to me, and I've never seen the film, but I thought you might be interested.

Lucy Tartan said...

Thanks, Hil, I am very interested in the program you linked to & I will download it tonight.

The ineffably brilliant Kazuo Ishiguro was educated at East Anglia. But I don't know if he studied creative writing there or a more traditional literature course though.

I don't really recognise that decription as fitting what's so remarkable about Silence of the Lambs; Jodie Foster has this incredible moral strength and power - it's female power, maternal and sisterly - and she resists everyone who tries to reduce that strength to woman as sexual object.