Monday, July 9, 2012

The Stuff in Thrillers

All fiction is a lie, of course, but thrillers tell an especially big porker, which is that life is thrilling. Life is not thrilling. Thrills are unusual events, usually of short duration, and people who want more thrills than that have to spend large sums of money on helicopter skiing or sky dives. Those who are required to enjoy thrills for long periods of time—for example, a rifle company in battle—often end up with PTSD. The thriller genre exists in both media and written form so that people with comfortably non-thrilling lives can dive into thrills in a controlled way, vicariously.
This is one of the mysterious glories of fiction, that we can do this, experience real somatic chills, and weep real tears in response to the actions of beings who do not exist. The problem with thrillers is that the reality they depict is preposterous. You see this most clearly at the movies at one of those fist-fight, car-chase, and explosion-rich items they make for teen-age boys to watch. On occasion, you’ll hear laughter, even from the teen-age boys, because the movie has crossed some perceptual edge into the ludicrous. In written thrillers this jumping-the-shark point is not so obvious, but it’s there, and ever in the mind of the writer, or at least mine.
Where the individual reader places this shark-jumping point will vary, and I admit not being able to read many very popular thrillers because I find them outside my zone. But even if all thrillers are preposterous by nature, many are a pleasure to read, and one key difference between the failures (at least to me) and the successes is what I call The Stuff. Churchill once said that in war the truth is so important that it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies. In thrillers, similarly, the lie must be protected by a bodyguard of truth. For example, if you can create a Southern small-town law office, or Vienna in 1955, or an aircraft design shop, or a banking operation in 2008, or the bureaucracy of the KGB with enough convincing detail, then you can get away with the necessary idiocies with respect to the plot and the characters. Bathed in a narcotic bath of accurate facts and factoids, the reader will give a pass to, say, an agent of superhuman skill and unnatural luck, performing a mission that would never take place in the real world.
So unless one is actually a spy, private detective, femme fatale, or Roman centurion (and few writers are) you will have to get the Stuff through research. Needless to say, research is a lot easier than it once was. I probably have nearly five thousand books in my house, of which a large proportion are devoted to subjects that have appeared as Stuff in my work, and I used to have to spend considerable time in university and public libraries. Now almost everything comes from the internet, because when you’re writing fiction, plausible factoids, the backbone of internet content, are really all you need.
You may wonder, why research at all? It’s fiction, why not make it all up? The reason is that almost all readers have some expertise or experience, and will be irritated beyond reason by boners that they detect, and when they detect them, the bodyguard of truth will be penetrated and they will throw the book at the wall and write a nasty note. For the record, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham took place outside Quebec, and not Montreal as I stated in The Book of Air and Shadows, and Braddock PA is a nice suburb of Pittsburgh, not a decaying rust-belt town near Lake Erie. It’s impossible to overstate how distressing such lapses are. I recently read a novel by a writer I respect, who has the talent to shield the native preposterousness of the thriller behind a densely imagined historical background. Yet this novel’s plot was entirely based on a murder frame-up that involved a silenced revolver. Since there can be no such thing as a silenced revolver, I read the rest of the book in a mood of cynical doubt. If he could be wrong about something that simple to research, what good were all the atmospherics? Who could believe them after the revolver?
On the other hand, maybe I’m just being obsessive. One of the great things about research is that it helps avoid the horror of sitting in front of a blank screen and having to think up what to put. I’m afraid this is what’s happening with The Charles Bridge, the novel I’m writing now. I’m becoming an expert on the period 1786-1848 in central Europe, where and when it takes place, learning probably more than I need to know about the era. I actually hired a research assistant, something I’ve never done before. I’m also having to learn about horses and fencing, subjects on which I was utterly ignorant before starting. Ignorance, it should be said, is no bar to writing a successful genre book: Patrick O’Brian knew nothing about sailing and Mario Puzo knew nothing about the Mob and Tom Clancy knows nothing about advanced weapons, at least according to people who really know about such things. It’s all concocted, it’s all just The Stuff.
Whether strictly necessary or not research does serve to pass the time merrily and, as I say, put off the horror of the blank page. But besides the internet and descriptive non-fiction, a primary source of research is fiction itself. If you want to find out what Pakistan, say, is really like, read lots of novels by Pakistanis. If you want to know what warfare in the 18th century was like, read the class of fiction known as memoirs. Just now, in furtherance of the current project, I’m reading War and Peace and Les Miserables.
This reading, let us be clear, does not suggest the scope of my ambition. You can’t write novels like that nowadays, talent aside: no one would buy them and no one would read them. Like the Shakespearean verse play and the cave painting, they are artifacts of lost worlds. Still, the project of bringing the past to life remains interesting to me. As often said, the past is another country and they do things differently there, and observing people who are sympathetic yet hold ideas utterly alien to our own about what we consider the unshakeable verities of existence tends to rattle us a little, and question those verities. Maybe they’re temporary dodges and not verities at all? Maybe we just concocted them to shield us from some unpleasant underlying reality? This confrontation is similar to the confrontation with the Other that is one of the chief services of fiction. It’s true that it’s not often found in genre fiction, which is mainly about the affirmation of the verities: yes, the boy will get the girl, yes the criminal will be brought to justice, yes the code of the West remains valid.
But it’s possible to embed real novels inside genre husks, to confront instead of assuage, to provide stimulants rather than soporifics, which is why I try to write the way I do. It’s not a real good way to sell a whole bunch of books, however.


Steve Bodio said...

I just linked to you in my blog, and did a very short general appreciation of your books here.

I had a longer essay on you once, but it got lost when an older website expired. If you click on "Home" in the blog, you will see a long quote from "Stuff in Thrillers" a few posts down as well.

Steve Bodio said...

It occurs to me that your readers (and you?) might like the work of Montana's Peter Bowen, another unique "thriller" writer. An essay called "Of Peter Bowen and Gabriel DuPre" that might point to why is on the Peter Bowen site; Google-- can't seem to put in HTML.