Tuesday, 27 March 2007

First things first

Onwards! One review filed, so now I should be reading more books including, but not limited to, the new titles by Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Steph Swainston and Richard Morgan. And no doubt several others.
Instead, of course, I finished Neil Gaiman, finished (for the fourth time) The Diamond Age and read the text of Mamet's A Life in the Theatre. Plays are fantastic; you can read them in about a tenth of the time it takes to watch them, and go back again and again. And I love Mamet; this is great on the page, with the sort of pitch-blende appeal of Donald Barthelme or WG Sebald (when he's not being too pompous) and very funny.
I was going to write about the Neal Stephenson but there's too much there. Another day, maybe. I know nothing about steampunk, really, but I like The Difference Engine, The Diamond Age and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic obviously, the film was a shocking disappointment. All that money wasted). Above all, though, I love John Crowley's Great Work of Time. And I love what they're all descended from, or at least what their set dressing is descended from; Stevenson's Suicide Club, Conan Doyle, bits of Chesterton. But I haven't thought it through.
So how do you choose which books to read while you're avoiding the books you should read? If you've read them before you try a few lines or paragraphs at random and then think "Wow, that was great, I'd forgotten how good this is". If it's PG Wodehouse or Ed McBain, you've also forgotten what happened because they're all exactly the same and all reliably brilliant. In a bookshop, you read the first line. (Or two or three.)
Here is the trouble: if it's too good, it's slightly offputting. You can get round this by taking the Earthly Powers approach, the most shameless first line ever. That says, I know this is a problem, watch me joke my way out of it. You can save the punch for the second sentence (Gravity's Rainbow, Catch 22). Both of those establish tone without risking everything on it. You can put all your cards on the table (Lolita). Watch me, I'm writing, that says. Or you can knock the ball right out of the park (One Hundred Years of Solitude). I think the last is probably the best first line I can think of, but it does more or less declare: "I am that good, and what follows is a masterpiece, so get used to it". Fortunately for Marquez, that works in that instance.
Another thing to do is similar to plumping for titles like Mrs Dalloway or Barchester Towers or David Copperfield (Dickens was the undoubted master of using titles that way), and just bidding for iconic status for the character. "Howard Roark laughed" (The Fountainhead - good title, lousy book) is a shining example of this falling flat on its face. Most of us laughed more at the end of the film, perhaps the kitchest scene ever commited to celuloid.
There was a cartoon once (it must have been in The New Yorker; it's the archetypal New Yorker kind of cartoon) of Dickens in his publisher's office. The publisher is saying: "It was either the best of times or it was the worst of times. It can scarcely have been both."
William Gibson's Neuromancer has a very good first line, but I am going to stick my neck out. The best first line in sf appears in Bruce Sterling's Involution Ocean. But please, contradict me. If there are better ones, that will be another load of books I shouldn't be reading.
I haven't bothered to type all these examples in, because it's dead easy to find most of them on the web. Or read the books. There will be no similar post on the best last line ever, since that is Middlemarch, as any fule kno. The best opening chapter is If On a Winter's Night a Traveller.
Today I had Chinese food (what? again?) for lunch, and tortelloni with cherry tomatoes, black olives, capers, chili and sping onions for dinner. With garlic bread, Peter Kay fans.

sf: The Great Work of Time, John Crowley. And Little, Big. OK, it's fantasy, not sf, but it's wonderful.
crime: The Case of the Seven of Calvary, Anthony Boucher
discover: The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien (I know it's well known, but you can't be too evangelical about it)
listening to: Wurttemberg Sonata No 1, CPE Bach, Glenn Gould

3 comments:

Jeteraus said...

Please tell me what you see in 'Diamond Age'? I've attempted to read it, but stopped. Attempted to listen to it, ipod, but stopped. I find it dreadfully boring. All the digressions about princess Nell? Honestly, tell me why you like the book. I'm a firm believer that good ideas and clever writing die on the vine if the story doesn't pull you along. On the other hand, a good story can rescue crappy writing and weak ideas. Now, I loved 'Snow Crash' an 'Cryptonomicon', so this is not an anti Stephenson situation.

Jeteraus

mckie said...

Jeteraus, I confess I don’t share your problem with the incorporation of the content of the primer into the narrative. It is, after all, a book about a book, and a book which is made up of other books at that. So the use of archetypal fairy stories is useful for illustrating one of Stephenson’s points; which is that stories can set a moral example for action. On a larger canvas, of course, the whole of The Diamond Age is about that. It is the narratives which cultures create which help to make some of them more successful than others.
On a practical level, I like the stories of Princess Nell, anyway, and I don’t feel they hold up the action, any more than cutting from Hackworth’s story to (real) Nell’s, or from Judge Fang to Miranda, does. I think they’re also useful in giving us a sense of the link between the ractor and Nell, and that Miranda’s character is the more rounded for it.
Funnily enough, I think that Snow Crash suffers more from its discursive elements. I like them and think that on the whole they work. And they’re certainly interesting; Stephenson’s prose is graceful enough to allow for exposition of that sort. But there’s no question in my mind that, terrific though the book is, Snow Crash is a thesis novel, with too many of the underlying themes worked in in didactic modes of address. The Diamond Age is more like the Arabian Nights, breaking off from the main story to tell you another, subsidiary tale. But if you really hate the excerpts from the Primer, you wouldn’t miss much in purely narrative terms by skipping them.

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