Saturday, July 21, 2007
Another Shelter Review
Jeff Vandermeer wrote a nice review of Shelter for the Washington Post. He basically likes the book; his main points -- which seem to be the consensus among people who (unlike the Publishers Weekly reviewer) understood what I was trying to do, are that characterization's my strong suit (I agree), but that the book's too long (I also agree), and that the ending doesn't work because it's too happy. One blogger called it a "fluffy bunny" ending; Vandermeer calls it a "rare failure of nerve."
This part I don't agree with. Criminy: I've been torturing my poor characters for 576 pages! Don't they deserve a little happiness, for a change? And in both Shelter and The Necessary Beggar (to which many readers have had a similar reaction), the happy ending's highly qualified, anyway. The characters are forever scarred by what they've been through; their lives will never be the same, and they can't go home again.
I suspect, though, that the problem's less with the happy ending than with the way it occurs in each book, with things being tied together too neatly and quickly. Vandermeer says the ending's too "compact," after an overly long novel: it's a proportion problem. The sudden, improbable turn for the better -- what mythopoeic types would call a "eucatastrophe" -- rings false to many contemporary readers. (In my experience, that's how many actual real-world happy endings happen, but as I'm constantly reminding my students, life isn't art.)
Oddly enough -- or not -- the new piece I wrote for Mythcon is about exactly this problem, among others: how does one reach a happy ending out of tragedy?
It occurs to me that this is also an issue of literary expectation: if a book has begun as tragedy, readers expect it to stay there, not to turn into comedy at the last minute. (Note that I mean "comedy" here in the technical sense of ending happily -- classically with marriage, rather than tragedy's death -- and not in the contemporary sense of slapstick ha-ha.) In life, we welcome eucatastrophe with exclamations of joy, but in fiction -- or in mine, anyhow -- it too often feels like a violation of genre.
Anyway, I wrote Shelter partly in response to the very accurate charge that the villain in my first novel, Flying in Place, was too cardboard. Nobody's calling Meredith cardboard (although some find her annoying), so I guess I resolved that issue.
My next challenge will be to write a book with a happy ending that doesn't make my readers feel cheated or unsatisfied.
I refuse to give up on happy -- or happier -- endings entirely, however.
I'll keep writing about Rickety Contrivances of Doing Good. And I'll make you like them.
Bwah hah hah!