So, I’ve been hard at work on many things and one of those many things is a paper for my Plot class on “stories that haunt me”. I’m going to publish my paper as it stands right now (there will probably be some tweaking before I turn it in). So, here it is:
Convergence, or A Brief Journey Through My Library
I had books in my crib. Books that I read in my crib. When I was a child it was clear very early that I loved three things: books, drawing and dinosaurs. Now, up until third grade I very much thought that I had my career planned out, I thought I was going to be a paleontologist. I could even spell the word. I read books about dinosaurs and I drew dinosaurs and during the summer of my seventh year while on a trip to South Dakota, I met some paleontologists and saw some dinosaurs while they were still in the dirt. I had this idea about dinosaurs that dovetailed a little with Indiana Jones and the people that I met didn’t completely shake that notion from me. One of the things that I noticed, while watching these paleontologists work was how small each bone was and the work it took to catalogue each and every little piece. That idea took about a year to noodle through my brain before I realized that I loved the idea of dinosaurs much more than I like the idea of laying in the middle of the desert using a toothbrush to dig them up.
Looking through my library and I see that it’s full of ideas–ideas that slip in and out of different genres and formats. It’s eclectic and the only thing that seems to tie all of the various volumes together is that I want to read them. I’ve never been able to pick a favorite book, the best that I’m usually able to accomplish is a top five for right now. Themes or characters or writers might be consistent, but the books usually change. It does make sense, after all, I change. I’ll begin by going through the genres (or formats, graphic novels are not a genre, though they have been grouped as such, but rather a format for telling stories) I have littering my shelves (of which there are many).
My graphic novels seem like as good a place as any to begin. I have only collected three series all the way through to conclusion: Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man, and Andy Diggle’s The Losers. To be fair, The Losers didn’t require the investment that the others did, as it only had two volumes, so I’ll focus on The Sandman and Y: The Last Man. Both of these have stuck with me (and encouraged me to get the next volume as soon as I could). I have read a lot of comic books and graphic novels, but I can only afford to buy a fraction of them and I have these. The Sandman uses the ten volumes to tell an epic story about stories, the focus of the series being Morpheus, the King of Dreams. He is a member of a family that represent endless concerns and, as such, are referred to as The Endless. His brothers and sisters are personifications of Despair and Death and Destruction. He is Dream, the Prince of Stories. The stories that flow out all involve him in some way, though it is not always immediately apparent in what ways, and over the course of the stories we find his tragic tale woven throughout, a tale that comes to fruition in the penultimate volume: The Kindly Ones. We learn about Morpheus’ relationships with humanity, his siblings, as with himself as these volumes unfurl and in the ninth volume choices that he has made chase him like the Furies in The Oresteia chased Orestes for his crime of killing Clytemnestra (in the classical tragic structure, Orestes must kill Clytemnestra for her crime of killing his father, Agamemnon for if he doesn’t, he is damned. Though, but killing her, he is also damned.). Morpheus’ crimes and his decisions aren’t as clear cut as Orestes’ were, but they lead to the same place: he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The whole cycle of stories we learn, isn’t just about this character, but about this character coming to his end and learning to accept it. Mr. Gaiman wrote in the introduction to a later collection of tales featuring The Endless a pretty good summation of the series, “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” There are no flashy costumes or major battles with foes punching each other through buildings, in the end it is Dream sitting down with his sister, Death, and having a chat about things ending. Then they do. The tenth volume is titled The Wake and is about what happens after, with the new King of Dreams and to the people connected with Morpheus. The series proper ends with a story from the past, Morpheus talking with William Shakespeare at the end of the man’s career (an earlier episode of which involved Shakespeare putting on his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the inspirations of the story in the land of Faerie) about his final play, The Tempest.
Y: The Last Man covers a similarly large arc and it is also contained within a certain number of installments. The story follows the last man on Earth, after an unknown event has very suddenly killed anyone male, with his pet monkey Ampersand as they try to find his girlfriend. The series has him meeting up with a secret agent known only by her code name, 355, as they travel across a wasted planet looking for the reason all the men died, why he did not, and to try and find his girlfriend Beth. It’s less esoteric than The Sandman, but has just as many levels, which explore culture, war, peace, mania, and pretty much anything else you see in the media, minus the men. The explanation for the sudden death of every man is slightly unsatisfying (at this writing I can’t remember exactly what caused it) but the solution and play-out of the story is pretty remarkable. Our hero, Yorick, finds his girlfriend, but they go their separate ways, finds out a great many things about himself and, by allowing himself to be cloned, finds a way to save the human race. In the end though, it goes back to the beginning as he is trying out one of the many escapes that he was good at as a magician. He is an old man and he escapes the world he helped create, literally, in his image.
I enjoy mysteries and thrillers, but mostly mysteries that have strong characters leading the story rather than being lead around by it. I have all of Dennis Lehane’s books, all of Michael Connelly’s books, all of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone mysteries (I’ll work my way through Spencer once I’ve finished with Jesse), and all of Barry Eisler’s books. The thing I like most in a series character is when the character grows from book to book and is actually impacted by the events that have proceeded the current story. This is true for Connelly, Lehane, and Eisler. Parker is a little looser with his stories, there is a fair amount of the status quo that lingers and the books themselves are pretty interchangeable, but he crafts a strong character that inches along slowly, and makes reading the stories pretty enjoyable. Jesse Stone at the beginning of the series isn’t drastically different than the Jesse Stone at the end, but there are degrees that make reading each installment worthwhile. Connelly’s character Bosch grows older during the series, makes choices that reverberate through the series, and ends up at the end of his career with a young daughter. Lehane’s detectives Kenzie and Gennaro have stayed in the rough Boston neighborhood that they grew up in, but as the series moved along they made choices along the way that irrevocably altered them. The deal with the after effects of their cases, both personally and physically (they begin a relationship after the events of the second book and split after the decisions made in the fourth, Kenzie ends up scarred, physically and emotionally, with nerve damage). Eisler’s lead character is an assassin who slowly tries to move out of the profession and changing his personal code as he becomes involved with some people, both romantically and professionally, that alter how he works and whether he works at all. These characters are all rewarding to follow and the individual books in the series find a great mix of suspense, action, romance, and story that don’t always conclude neatly or happily.
I love Gregory McDonald’s book Fletch and have been seeking out all the installments of the series. Once I have them all I will devour them, until I do I am waiting. I just read (this week) Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher book The Killing Floor and will seek out the second and third very soon. I’ve read a few of David Morrell’s more recent books and found myself admiring his skill as much as the story.
I enjoy horror and science fiction novels as well, for the sake of organization, I’ll look at them together. William Gibson is an author that I return to quite a bit for science fiction, though I think that he’d argue that his stuff shouldn’t be classified that way. It’s part of a sub-genre called cyber-punk and it explores technology and society. What good science fiction does, and what I think Gibson does with his books, is show how an idea (technology, weather changes, interaction with aliens) affects and effects people. It is a way to gaze upon the current culture by imagining a future one. Most of Gibson’s books occur in a sort of post-apocalyptic culture, though not in a Mad Max sense. Rather, it shows a culture (our culture, with equal bits of western and eastern influences) after it has changed (his books involve an economy that has collapsed and changed, a world that is overpopulated, countries that have changed from governmental structures to corporate ones) and then shown small pockets of them changing the world some more and being changed by technology. In 1984 he wrote the book that named cyberspace and imagined the internet culture that would spring up. Now he writes his stories much closer to the present and science fiction becomes fiction as everyone is carrying laptops and iPads and cellphones and smart phones.
I love Stephen King, though I’ve only been able to read a fraction of the books he has published. He is a great storyteller that isn’t afraid to go into the dark places (and has become very successful doing so). His books, the ones with the supernatural creepy-crawlies and the ones without, all begin with characters that feel as real and flawed as you or your neighbor. They all feel lived in and the stories that they find themselves in happen organically (sometimes it feels a little too organically as the page count creeps past 700, 800, 900, 1000 pages) but the sprawling story develops and enraptures readers as King creates whole communities and puts them through the paces. I read Pet Semetary in ninth grade and it was chilling. I finally read ‘Salem’s Lot two years ago and was still a little unnerved by it. I’ve just started reading F. Paul Wilson after many recommendations and the desire to see someone construct a series character in the horror/ dark urban fantasy world (as I am doing). I’ve been dipping my toe in Clive Barker’s waters for years and I love all the twists his twisted tales take.
Finally, literature. If there was ever a genre designation that I’ve disliked more (even more than “graphic novels”) it is literature. There is an air of self-importance about it and it’s a little bit disingenuous as so many things get lumped in there because someone feels that they are canon or are worthy enough (or sometimes they just don’t fit anywhere else). So, I’m going to go with Barnes and Noble’s definition of literature for the purposes of this essay as I showcase titles. I love Ernest Hemingway, or at least the books that I’ve read of his. I especially liked The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. I enjoy Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys is one of my favorite books) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked are completely wonderful). Arthur Phillips’ book The Song is You is terrific and made me go out and buy three more of his books immediately. Chuck Palahniuk is a fabulous provocateur and social satirist and I gobbled up Fight Club and Diary and Choke years ago. Great Expectations is wonderful. I love Neil Gaiman (whose books fit across nearly every section that I’ve covered). There are more, but to keep as close to the theme of “books that haunt me” as I can I’ll limit it to the ones that I can pull from memory.
The question then is, what do these books share in common? Is there a common strand of DNA that runs through Hemingway and King and Gibson and Palahniuk? Where do Gaiman and Chabon and Hornby fit in? As I look at the list that I’ve laid out the first thing that jumps to mind is bittersweet endings. They all conclude in some way that satisfies they’re particular story, but none of them could really be considered to have happy endings–there are some that have the protagonist closing out the book with the partner you feel they should have, satisfied with the way that they’ve overcome some obstacle or life event, and then it ends with a reassuring glow of “it’s all going to be alright.” They come close, closing the story like that, but what it seems to be saying more is, “it’s all going to be alright until it’s not and then I’ll just have to deal with that.” I like that. I like that Pip and Estella don’t end up together at the end of Great Expectations. Sure, they end up in the same place on the last page (regardless of the version) but Dickens does everything he can to make sure that it doesn’t read “happily ever after.” Pip either runs into her on the street as she is pushing the baby carriage or they end up in the Haversham house playing cards. Two souls that are intertwined and unable to escape the pull of each other, but not romantically destined to be together as Captain Wentworth and Anne seem to be. At the end of the thrillers, the protagonist is bruised and battered after overcoming an obstacle, but that’s all they have accomplished. They’ve lived to fight another day and that’s what we’re left with. What does that mean, live to fight another day? Well, in the world of a mystery or thriller series we see that means they have to almost get themselves killed again and again trying to stop bad people from doing bad things. That’s about as bittersweet as it gets, I think.
They all seem to have pretty strong characters that drive their stories as opposed to plots that lead their characters through the paces. To me, it boils down to choice. Do things happen in the books based on how the characters interact under the circumstances, or is there a lot of things that happen because they need to happen for the next thing to happen. That type of story is okay if you just want your plot to be a puzzle that gets unraveled (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you) but if you want the things that happen to feel like they’re created as the story is moving forward, then amounts to choice–the characters make choices that impacts what happens in the story and how the conclusion comes to be. Pet Semetary is terrifying because everything that happens occurs despite the characters knowing the right thing to do. They are told that the Indian burial ground brings things back, but brings them back wrong. They acknowledge this, say yes, that would be terrible, and then when the family pet dies they go there first thing. Then the cat comes back wrong. Then the child gets hit by a truck. They were told to not bury things in the Indian burial ground because they would come back wrong. The cat came back wrong, so logically it would be stupid to bury a small boy there. Logically it would, but these characters are emotionally making choices that impact the next event that leads to the next choice until finally the protagonist is waiting at the kitchen table as his recently dead wife walks back from the graveyard to stick a knife in his skull. It is a horror story that could very easily be confused, structurally, for a classic tragedy. What is Macbeth but a story of an ambitious man whose arrogance and desire for power allows himself to be manipulated to do horrific things and then be forced to deal with the results. In Macbeth there is murder, blood, deception, ghosts and witches and yet it is not known as one of Shakespeare’s great horror plays. It is just a damn good story where the character’s choices damn him to a fate that seems as inevitable as it is completely avoidable, if only the character made different choices.
This barely scratches the surface of the stories that have at one time or another grabbed ahold of me and not ever fully let go. There will probably be a dozen or more that I think of as soon as this essay become ink on paper and a dozen more after it is out of my hands and in yours. I began by talking about dinosaurs and Indiana Jones and neglected to mention Jurassic Park. Already I’m forming a list and, like the characters I enjoy reading about, I have to make a choice to stop now. And like the endings I admire, this one is bittersweet for all the books that aren’t mentioned and all of the choices that could have been made, but weren’t. The conclusion that I walk away with from this paper is that I’m attracted to a story that grips me, makes me want to find out what happens next, and an ending that says, more or less, “Isn’t it a hell of a thing?”