Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Setting by Example: Brown

Continuing our discussion of setting--

Last time, we looked at a paragraph from Ishiguro's Booker winner, "The Remains of the Day." This time, for contrast, I thought we'd look at a sample from a commercial novel. Here's a paragraph from Dan Brown's bestseller, "The Lost Symbol."

For Robert Langdon, the Capitol Rotunda--like St. Peter's Basilica--always had a way of taking him by surprise. Intellectually, he knew the room was so large that the Statue of Liberty could stand comfortably inside it, but somehow the Rotunda always felt larger and more hallowed than he had anticipated, as if there were spirits in the air. Tonight, however, there was only chaos.

(Unrelated note: Why does Robert Langdon always refer to himself by first and last name in his own pov? This happens over and over throughout the text. I can't decide if we're meant to conclude something from that.)

The first thing I noticed about this paragraph is the use of three landmarks together. Rotunda, St. Peter's, Statue of Liberty. It's that rule of three again, but this time, instead of using it to create a spatial orientation (as in Ishiguro's paragraph), it is used to create magnitude and tone. These are more than landmarks. These are symbolic buildings, monumental in both size and emotional context.

Using symbolic references like this can have the side effect of making the text feel abstract. Brown counteracts this by relying on emotion signifiers --surprise, comfort, anticipation -- to try to bring it all back to a particular context. Does this technique work? Why or why not? Do any other words in the parapraph enhance or detract from the sense of abstraction? (These are real questions meant to prompt discussion in the comments. I have my own opinion, but it's a subjective response and I want to see what everyone else thinks.)

Regardless of the overall effect of the set-up, that final sentence is meant to act like a punch, reversing everything that's been set up so far in the paragraph. Hallowed monements, sanctified spaces, national symbols, ghosts in the air -- but not today. Today it's chaos. This is a good technique to keep in mind -- setting up a tone, and then jerking it away. The contrast can create tension just like the Ishiguro paragraph with the past/present cabinet/bookcase.



L.A. Colvin said...

I think this technique works if you don't go too far outside the parameters. In my opinion you need to keep the sentences related to each other. You can do this and still jerk the tone away. The last sentence does that but it feels rickety. The word "however" shows how things are disimilar. Chaos is not disimilar to size. Size is the thought thread he creates for us at the beginning only to veer off with chaos. The only word that might come close is hallowed but that's still not close enough. Maybe that's what Mr. Brown wanted. I think it's irratating but I like this book. I would have incorporated more of the peaceful, quiet nature of the monuments along with the size. Then the "Tonight, however, there was only chaos." would flow better and make sense. He's a published author while I'm not so maybe he's on to something..

Adrienne Giordano said...

For me, it worked. I think I would have liked something visceral in the beginning. Something that lets us feel his surprise rather than being told.

I like the shock of the last line. I haven't read the book and I was envisioning the rotunda being quiet. Then he hits us with a power word like chaos and it's a smack. I like the contrast of quiet and chaos.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

I wrote an enormous response to this, rewriting the paragraph and then analyzing why I changed what I changed, but it was too big to post and then I lost it so I can't even post it on my blog. Crap! Well, I'll recreate the part where I answered your questions...

No, I don't think his technique works. Maybe he just doesn't use it enough. The text feels very abstract to me. The words "For Robert Langdon," "had a way of," "intellectually," the repetition of "large," and the use of "anticipated" all make it seem very abstract to me. By contrast, "the Statue of Liberty could stand comfortably inside it" (personalization, I guess) and "spirits in the air" (which made me think of Ariel, not ghosts) mitigated the effect, but they weren't enough for me. They kept it in Langdon's head, instead of his soul, I suppose.

The final sentence doesn't feel like a punch at all to me. Probably because of what L. A. Colvin said--chaos isn't the opposite of space. I think he should be talking about focus instead, or starting the paragraph with more of a sense of peace and then switching that around to chaos. And saying there's chaos doesn't give me a sense of that, either, so I didn't feel that a tone had been set up and then jerked away.