Monday, November 30, 2009

Dropping Larsson, Barreling through Pelecanos

I'm back... just in time to get one post in for November.

Over the holidays, I finished a draft of the heist novel that I've been working on for a while. It was very satisfying to write "[END]." This is the first time I have finished a whole novel -- and I've started a few. This one actually has a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The whole process, if anything, makes me more forgiving of some writers -- or at least maybe gives me better understanding of how we end up with a certain kind of finished book (which is a different sort of understanding than one brings to bear as a critic -- literary, popular, cultural, or otherwise).

I've backed off being a critic over the last few years -- though I'm still a dues-paying member of the National Book Critics Circle. In part, I don't want to say unkind words about books that I don't like -- and even if I don't like them, I now know a little what goes into writing one.

I will, however, be mildly critical (but not cruel) about Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (A literal translation of the title from Swedish would be Men Who Hate Women -- apparently not so appealing for the U.S. publisher.) I probably wouldn't write about it, except that Mr. Larsson has passed on (and my comments won't make a dent in the formidable estate). Basically, I liked Girl okay -- it held my attention, had interesting characters, a complicated set-up, and so on, but I gave it up. The mass market edition is 644 pages, and I stopped at 252. If it were 400 pages, I would've finished, but not 644. It's not to say that it was too long per se, but it was too long relative to the action and general progress of the characters and story. I like brooding Swedish crime novels. More than a decade ago, I read all the Martin Beck novels, and I've read a few Henning Mankell. I like (not to stereotype) the dreary weather, the stark landscapes, the introspective characters, but in the end, I dropped Girl. Now the more interesting question, which I can't answer, is how did this book catch fire in the U.S. (and elsewhere)? My own tastes don't necessarily correspond with an "average" reader's (if there is such a person), but I have a high tolerance for slow pace, meandering, etc., and imagine that if a genre book gains wide popularity, it does so for its pace. Maybe it is Girl's family saga and back story of wealth that find favor with readers. I'm just not sure.

So, I dropped Girl and picked up George Pelecanos's Right as Rain and read it at breakneck speed. It's the first of the Derek Strange-Terry Quinn novels, and I'm going to the next one just as soon as I can. Though Pelecanos has a lot of action and plotting, he always maintains significant focus on character, and almost always has scenes where people are just sitting around, boozing it up, partying, spinning tunes, etc. These scenes are interesting because they are not essential to moving the plot forward, but they add to the pace -- a pause before the next action -- and define character and scene -- make everything more real. And maybe I'm more indulgent of Pelecanos's DC milieu that Larsson's faraway rural Sweden.