Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One More, Just for Fun

Ah, good old Lemony Snicket. Those stories are so darn much fun precisely because of the way they play with reader expectations. My brother, who was unfamiliar with the series, recently watched A Series of Unfortunate Events with his young children and was shocked by the premise. "I had no idea," he kept saying. "They were trying to kill those kids!"

Yes, they were. heheheheheh

I have to throw this similar but more adult example into the mix. Alicia, I'll see your omniscient narrative warning and raise you one first-person transmogrified demon:


Burn this book.

Go on. quickly, while there's still time. Burn it. Don't look at another word. Did you hear me? Not. One. More. Word.

Why are you waiting? It's not that difficult. Just stop reading and burn the book. It's for your own good, believe me. No, I can't explain why. We don't have time for explanations. Every syllable that you let your eyes wander over gets you into more and more trouble. And when I say trouble, I mean things so terrifying your sanity won't hold once you see them, feel them. You'll go mad. Become a living blank, all that you ever were wiped away, because you wouldn't do one simple thing. Burn this book.

It doesn't matter if you spent your last dollar buying it. No, and it doesn't matter if it was a gift from somebody you love. Believe me, friend, you should set fire to this book right now, or you'll regret the consequences.


That's the opening from Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker. Barker has been writing kid lit for the last few years, and I think this opening shows it in the way he echoes Lemony Snicket. The book shows it in other ways, too -- much as I love Barker's writing, he was off his adult game here. The plot was underdeveloped, stripped down like the plot of a children's book. The premise was hammered into the reader until I wanted to beg the narrative to move on, already. I'm generally a huge fan of Barker's novels, but this one didn't satisfy. Yet I can't help thinking my middle grade and early teen nephews would love it.

But look at that opening -- again, as with the Sherry Thomas opening, we're not in scene. No dialogue, no action. The first person narrator is directly addressing the reader, which is unusual and intimate in all the right ways. The promise of the opening is explicit: reading this book will horrify you and change you.

I also love the way he plays with the notion of book burning. Who burns books? Crazed mobs led by wackos with no respect for ideas. Who refuses to burn books? Rational, intellectually-oriented people who are occasionally passionate about the First Amendment. In other words, readers. Asking readers to burn a book doesn't merely toy with their expectations of story and character, but it challenges, on some level, their self-concepts. This is the kind of subtle engagement that will make a reader turn the page.

It also introduces a major motif, fire, in a very direct way. The plea for fire is repeated (a few too many times) over the course of the book, but the reader's understanding of this request changes as the plot advances. By the end, we understand that it wouldn't just be a book we're burning, but the altered corpus of a demon who no longer has fingers to flick the match himself. It's a neat trick to have the request remain constant and the reader's understanding of the request evolve.


1 comment:

Edittorrent said...

I love that opening-- wish I'd put it in my POV book! Too late now. :(