…the essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle. What this means, in effect, is that he has discovered a way of slowing down and suspending the English sentence – or let’s say the American sentence, because Mr. Leonard is as American as jazz. Instead of writing ‘Warren Ganz III lived up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County’, Mr. Leonard writes: ‘Warren Ganz III, living up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County’. He writes, ‘Bobby saying’, and then opens quotes. He writes, ‘Dawn saying’, and then opens quotes. We are not in the imperfect tense (Dawn was saying) or the present tense (Dawn says) or the historic present (Dawn said). We are in a kind of marijuana tense (Dawn saying), creamy, wandering, weak-verbed. Such sentences seem to open up a lag in time, through which Mr. Leonard easily slides, gaining entry to his players’ hidden minds. He doesn’t just show you what these people say and do. He shows you where they breathe.”
– Martin Amis’ review of RIDING THE RAP
“The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity. Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…
My organisational principles, therefore, derive from an inner urgency, and from the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections. The method, plus the use of footnotes (to preserve the collateral thought), should give a clear view of the geography of a writer’s mind.”
– Martin Amis, from his memoir, EXPERIENCE
A person may plan as much as he wants to, but nothing of consequence is likely to come of it until the magician Circumstance steps in and takes the matter off his hands….Circumstance is powerful, but it cannot work alone; it has to have a partner. Its partner is man’s temperament–his natural disposition. His temperament is not his invention, it is born in him….A circumstance that will coerce one man will have no effect upon a man of a different temperament.
“[Take] poor Columbus. He elaborated a deep plan to find a new route to an old country. Circumstance revised his plan for him, and he found a new world. And he gets the credit of it to this day. He hadn’t anything to do with it.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis in anthropology was rejected by the University of Chicago. “It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Vonnegut writes. “One must not be too playful.” This excerpt from PALM SUNDAY, is the gist of his argument:
Anyone can graph a simple story if he or she will crucify it, so to speak, on the intersecting axes I here depict:
“G” stands for good fortune. “I” stands for ill fortune. “B” stands for the beginning of a story. “E” stands for its end.
A much beloved story in our society is about a person who is leading a bearable life, who experiences misfortune, who overcomes misfortune, and who is happier afterward for having demonstrated resourcefulness and strength. As a graph, that story looks like this:
Another story of which Americans never seem to tire is about a person who becomes happier upon finding something he or she likes a lot. The person loses whatever it is, and then gets it back forever. As a graph, it looks like this:
An American Indian creation myth, in which a god of some sort gives the people the sun and then the moon and then the bow and arrow and then the corn and so on, is essentially a staircase, a tale of accumulation:
Almost all creation myths are staircases like that. Our own creation myth, taken from the Old Testament, is unique, so far as I could discover, in looking like this:
The sudden drop in fortune, of course, is the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which an already hopelessly unhappy man turns into a cockroach, looks like this:
Have a look [at “Cinderella”]:
The steps you see, are all the presents the fairy godmother gave to Cinderella….The sudden drop is the stroke of midnight at the ball….But then the prince finds her and marries her, and she is infinitely happy ever after. She gets all the stuff back, and then some. A lot of people think the story is trash, and, on graph paper, it certainly looks like trash.
But then I said to myself, Wait a minute–those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament. And then I saw that the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity.
The tales were identical.
UPDATE: Vonnegut goes over this again in A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY, which I’m currently listening to on audiotape (so no diagrams…but never fear: Gerry over at Backwards City has posted the chalkboard graph of “The Metamorphosis.”)
Pryor began to reconstruct himself first through the use of sound—imagining the sound of Frankenstein taking LSD, for example, or a baby “being birthed.” His routines from this time regularly involved gurgles, air blown through pursed lips, beeps. He also began playing with individual words. He would stand in front of an audience and say “God damn” in every way he could think to say it. Or he’d say, “I feel,” in a variety of ways that indicated the many different ways he could feel. And as he began to understand how he felt he began to see himself, to create his body before his audience. He talked about the way his breath and his farts smelled, what he wanted from love, where he had been, and what America thought he was.
– from “A Pryor Love,” a profile piece in The New Yorker, Sept. 13, 1999
As if to counter Meg’s complaint (and mine, too) that so many graphic novels seem to be written by men “who are emotionally still teenagers”, Chris Ware chimes in:
You’re on a time delay as a cartoonist, I think. It takes so long to draw comics that you end up writing about things that happened maybe 15 years or so before. Charles Burns just finished, after 10 years, a book about his teenage years. And he just turned 50. So that’s about the relative spectral red-shift that we’re on as artists.
Well, that’s kind of depressing. Listen to the whole interview.
Charles Burns’ BLACK HOLE is a graphic novel set in a Seattle suburb during the 70s. It follows a group of horny teenagers who contract an STD that basically turns them into mutants: they grow tails, they shed skins, some even grow second mouths. I decided to pick it up after listening to a pretty good hour long interview with Burns and Chris Ware. Since 1995, BLACK HOLE has been serialized in 12 installments, but having read none of them, I came to Burns’ work with fresh eyes: I’d only seen a small clip of BLACK HOLE in McSweeney’s 13, and his cover art for THE BELIEVER.
Reading it, I was reminded of John Neborak’s senior project presentation, in which he talked about the unique verbal/visual blend of comics as a narrative. Burns’ artwork is admirable, no doubt about it: his masterly brushwork is intricate and meticulous, and his command of black and white is great. However, when it comes to storyline, BLACK HOLE really falls flat for me. Mostly what you get from reading it is a sustained, creepy mood. Because the sexual metaphors that evoke this mood are purely visual (the vaginal gashes, the hot dogs roasting over an open fire), I’m wondering what BLACK HOLE would read like without any words.
I’d go on, but Meg sent me an e-mail that really summed it all up:
Graphic novels aren’t art and they aren’t a novel – they’re both, and too few graphic novelists (even the so-called “pros”) seem to get that. If either the art or the story aren’t really up to par it ends up detracting from the whole thing. I feel like so many graphic novels are written by men who are emotionally still teenagers in high school who get a big charge out of drawing scantily-clad women. Sometimes I just want to tell the authors to grow up a little. That’s what made a novel like FROM HELL so good, it rose above all that to tell an interesting story.
Couldn’t have said it any better myself. (And didn’t.)