Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Your Purple Prose Just Gives You Away

By Kevin Guilfoile

In his infamous Harper's manifesto, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, Tom Wolfe recalls an incident that occurred while he was writing his first novel:

I first wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities serially for Rolling Stone, producing a chapter every two weeks with a gun at my temple. In the third chapter I introduced one of my main characters, a thirty-two-year-old Bronx assistant district attorney named Larry Kramer, sitting in a subway car [his clothes disheveled], his eyes jumping about in a bughouse manner. This was supposed to create unbearable suspense in the readers. What on earth had reduced this otherwise healthy young man to such a pathetic state? This chapter appeared in July of 1984. In an installment scheduled for April of 1985, the readers would learn of his humiliation by a wolfpack, who had taken all his money plus his little district attorney's badge. But it so happened that in December of 1984 a young man named Bernhard Goetz found himself in an identical situation on a subway in New York, hemmed in by four youths who were, in fact, from the South Bronx. Far from caving in, he took out a .38 caliber revolver and shot all four of them and became one of the most notorious figures in America. Now how could I, four months later, in April of 1985, proceed with my plan? People would say, This poor fellow Wolfe, he has no imagination. He reads the newspapers, gets these obvious ideas, and then gives us this wimp Kramer, who caves in. So I abandoned the plan, dropped it altogether. The Rolling Stone readers burning thirst, if any, to know what accounted for assistant D.A. Kramer's pitiful costume and alarming facial tics was never slaked.

I thought about that anecdote on Monday when I read Sara's post about Edward Bachner, the suburban Chicago man who is accused of stockpiling pufferfish toxin, allegedly for the purpose of murdering his wife. Sara noted that the FBI was allegedly aware that Bachner had solicited people on the internet to kill his wife several years ago, and yet they did not tell her. "I would love to see the dialogue that went on in the FBI office when they decided not to charge Bachner and not to tell his wife about the 2005 alleged attempt to hire a hitman," Sara writes. "I can guarantee that if any of us wrote it, our editors would reject it as bogus."

That is certainly true. But while real life frequently trumps fiction, it also gives novelists license. Now that it's actually happened and a stink has been made in the media, a reader might accept such an absurd scenario in a novel (see the comments in Sara's post for some funny attempts). A plotline can go from "that would never happen" to "ripped from the headlines" in a heartbeat.

The Goetz incident might have preempted one proposed scene in Bonfire, but it has spawned an untold number of scenes in others. Wolfe had his fictional ADA cowering on the subway because it was the only reaction he considered plausible at the time, but since Bernhard Goetz we've had any number of unlikely city vigilantes in fiction, Jodie Foster's NPR hostess turned one-woman justice machine being only a recent example. They don't seem so incredible because we know it can happen. And they keep recurring in fiction because we haven't yet processed all the hows and whys of the actual event.

I've just read a book due out next month on Leopold and Loeb (more on that at a future date). As that pair, both from wealthy families, prowled Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood for a victim, Richard Loeb imagined that he and Leopold were supervillains like the ones he had read about in the pulps. Although they were motivated by nothing more than the desire to experience the sensation of killing (and to see if they could get away with it) they concocted a demand for a ransom they didn't need because the fictional villains Richard knew always had some criminal motive. Leopold and Loeb themselves did not find plausible a villain who murdered without motive, even as they were planning a murder that had no motive.

Ironically, their trial introduced the public to just that idea--the killer who murders for the sensation of killing--and in Leopold and Loeb's long wake mystery and thriller readers have been treated to a multitude of villains who kill for the "art of it," even as actual such killers have proven to be rather scarce. Reality--or at least the public perception of it--has provided the mystery writer with license.

In his essay, Wolfe argues that the ideal novelist is a reporter who observes the world carefully and is frequently able to anticipate events before they happen.

To write Elmer Gantry, the great portrait of not only a corrupt evangelist but also the entire Protestant clergy at a time when they still set the moral tone of America, [Sinclair] Lewis left his home in New England and moved to Kansas City. He organized Bible study groups for clergymen, delivered sermons from the pulpits of preachers on summer vacation, attended tent meetings and Chautauqua lectures and church conferences and classes at the seminaries, all the while doggedly taking notes on five-by-eight cards.

It was through this process, documentation, that Lewis happened to scoop the Jim Bakker story by sixty years--and to render it totally plausible, historically and psychologically, in fiction.

True enough, but real life doesn't really need fiction to make it plausible. Real life needs fiction to make it understandable. Fiction sometimes leaps out ahead, as was the case with Elmer Gantry. Most of the time it trails behind, trying to make some sense of it all.


Libby said...

Fascinating post, Kevin. And very true. I think fiction should strive to make real life understandable. But what bugs me -- and maybe someone else can address it -- is the plethora of serial killer novels that do NOT, at least to me, make the motives of the serial killer understandable. They seem to pick up where Leopold and Loeb stopped -- the killer wants the sheer enjoyment or sensation or power of killing. I don't know about the rest of you, and maybe I'm a moralist, but I just don't find these novels believable or interesting.

Anyway, thanks for making me think on a lazy summer day.

Dana King said...

I agree with Libby, and go to great lengths to avoid serial killer novels. In my case, old-fashioned as I am, I still like Chandler's position, that there should be a sense of redemption in a crime story; serial killer stories lack that. He kills a bunch of people in a gruesome manner for no reason at all, then the good guy kills him. Period. It doesn't pass the "so what?" test. It's the rare exceptions, where character comes into play (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, MANHUNTER)that made the genre, but most of its adherents only see the gore.

Sara Paretsky said...

Kevin, you always amaze me with the breadth of your reading/knowledge. This was such an interesting post. And it gets to the heart of what story is. With all our anxiety to be heard, make money, make a mark, stand out, we lose track of what we're really about as story tellers, and this post makes me step back and think about that all over again.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks Sara and Libby. And Dana, too.

As someone whose first novel included a serial killer subplot, I'll try to defend the genre a little.

Serial killers pass the license test. They are real and they are fascinating. They also allow the writer to explore the psychological and philosophical horizons of human beings.

I think we still write about serial killers because we still don't understand them. Historically, novels have been decent places to explore existentialist mysteries and serial killers are good subjects.

There is a practical plotting reason for the serial killer's proliferation, as well. With the serial killer story you get both mystery (the investigation into the first murder) as well as thriller (the tension of trying to stop him before he kills again). It's a mystrillery! As a result it can be a bit of a crutch sometimes--a shortcut to suspense.

But not always, I don't think.

Dana King said...

I know it's splitting hairs, but I never considered your character to be a serial killer. He was more of a hit man. Some may think that's a distinction without a difference, but your killer had a purpose and a mission; he wasn't just walking around looking for likely victims, or showing off his abilty to fool the police. He had motivations beyond the mindless killing. They were perverse, but legitimate in his twisted value system. To me, that makes all the difference.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

First of all Dana, thanks so much for reading the book!

Yeah I agree. I don't think Mickey The Gerund qualifies as a SK. I was actually referring to The Wicker Man, who is not so much a character in the novel as he is the object of an obsession held by several of the characters.

(But then again maybe he really is a character in the novel...)