Friday, June 27, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Rules? What Rules?

A GREAT MANY years ago, I had lunch with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. And when I say, "I had lunch," I don't mean I was in a hotel ballroom  and that he was at the head table while I was sitting far off, near the fire escape. No ... a local library society had asked him in to speak, and because I was a local author (I had written one—count it, one—book at the time: a travelogue of American mountaineering) they asked me to attend and then, at the lunch afterward, placed the two of us across a table from one another, assuming we were kindred spirits and would have oodles of things in common.
   They were wrong. I'd not yet begun to write fiction at the time, and Vonnegut and I had virtually nothing in common. But as my book was outdoorsy, he told me about his most recent outdoorsy vacation: a cruise to the Galapagos islands. I remember him pantomiming the courtship dance of the blue-footed boogie, using dinner rolls on forks (a la Charlie Chaplin) as facsimiles for the boobies' feet.
   This is a significant memory because I now understand that vacation was the genesis of Vonnegut's 1985 novel Galapagos, a book I consider significant because it breaks most of the so-called rules for writing a novel.
   The narrator of the novel is dead. He is Leon Trout, a Vietnam veteran who moved to Sweden after the war, got a job in a shipyard, and was decapitated by a falling piece of sheet metal. Throughout the book, Leon is a ghost, telling a first-person, present-tense story from a point 1,000,000 years in the future, when human beings have evolved to become sort of a cross between a dolphin and a seal, and their brains have all shrunk (because a smaller cranial cavity is more hydrodynamic and makes a person better able to catch fish).
   But while Trout's narrative is austensibly present-tense, he is talking about an event a million years in the past when (as a ghost haunting the ship he'd been working on when killed) he accompanied the members of a doomed cruise on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. 
   Being a ghost, Trout can inhabit other people's bodies and know what they are thinking. So he does that, oftentimes multiple times per scene, which for most narrators would be the storytelling error of head-hopping (using more than one point of view per scene), but works just fine in Galapagos because the primary point point of view is that of the ghost. Vonnegut's narrator also does a great deal of telling, rather than showing, which again is something the writing conferences rant against, but works just fine in Galapagos, as Trout does not think he is telling a story; rather, he is explaining why it is good that human beings evolved to have smaller brains, because it was big brains that created all the problems that almost led to our extinction.
   The list goes on. Trout doesn't want to shock his readers unnecessarily, so eventually every character will have an asterisk in front of his or her name: this is the narrator's way of warning the reader that this particular character is going to die in the next few pages.
   Funny thing is, it all works (you can see for yourself as, at least as of this writing, Galapagos is selling for a buck-ninety-nine on Kindle). And reading this book tells me that none of the fiction-writing rules are actually rules at all, but merely suggestions. 
   Then again, if you want to violate those suggestions with impunity, you'd better be a Kurt Vonnegut.

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