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Spare the banter, please

July 31, 2008 |  4:43 pm

Nickandnora0731_2 Jacket Copy's ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move" continues....

The challenge of writing crime fiction on deadline is dependent on one's ability to perfect the great lost art of witty banter. I found this out a few months ago when I was charged with writing an entire 300-page novel in three months — this from a writer who took two years to write a novel that clocked in at just under 200 pages and about 10 years to write a story collection that is on the bright side of 175 (though, to my credit, there are 12 entirely different stories there, so that's something) — and spent the first month doing things like playing Scrabulous on Facebook, googling the symptoms for various diseases I was certain I was coming down with and, strangely, completely dedicating myself to physical fitness for the first time in about, oh, 10 years. Maybe 15.

At any rate, those three months became two months, and I didn’t have a word on the page, so I decided I just needed to get people talking and eventually things would sort themselves out and I'd find that elusive flow. What I learned was that, unlike in my literary fiction, where characters utter a few lines of subtextual dialogue that then leads them to ruminate internally on the way their parents/husbands/wives/children/Elvis ruined their lives and brings them to a dreadful moment of self-realization, in crime fiction half the joy is pretending you're conjuring Nick and Nora Charles, where every line of dialogue is loaded with conflict, sexuality, violence, hubris and, periodically, a shred of evidence.

To get to those shreds, however, you sometimes end up going on and on, falling in love with the way your characters sound; in my case, I was thrilled by this new toughness that was coming out, the muscularity of the sentences, the staccato beats. (The other half of the fun, incidentally — and particularly if, like me, you've spent the balance of your career writing about the sad passages of memory and trauma — is blowing stuff up.) In a perfect scenario, you then go back and cut away the excess and find those nuggets of conversation that convey character, reveal your character's emotional state, deliver conflict and move the story forward ... while still being witty.

(More after the jump)

In the case of Denis Johnson's second installment of "Nobody Move," I found him falling in love with the new freedom of hard-boiled dialogue to the point of annoyance at times (particularly in the scene with the FBI agents that Carolyn already pointed out) and then perhaps not having a chance to clean up his writing because of the deadline. (Of course, the idea of the deadline here is probably somewhat fungible since the lead time on Playboy is probably three months.)

The FBI scene is notable because it is the first of several unwelcome appearances of Convenient Expositional Characters — a tick in the writing that is, for lack of a better term, beneath Johnson's skill. The agents give information they'd never give to anyone — Jimmy — who is a suspect the moment he opens his mouth. It takes the story from noir to farce pretty quickly, which I think undercuts Johnson's ability to create real palpable tension. Likewise, when we meet Anita's husband, Hank, again outside the courthouse, things go from dark to slapstick, which is OK provided everyone has a reason to suddenly divulge their darkest secrets. Then, perhaps what I'm really feeling about "Nobody Move" is a sense of the missing connective tissue of narrative: Because Johnson essentially leaves it up to the dialogue to do the heavy lifting, we miss out on some of the nuances of storytelling he does so well — be it in "Angels" (which is already one of the finest noir novels of the modern era) or "Jesus' Son" or "Tree of Smoke" (which I haven't actually read but frequently tell people I have and thus want to keep up the façade) or even the underappreciated "Resuscitation of a Hanged Man" — which is that he's able to ponder the moves of the deeply troubled and not rely on dialogue that exists solely for the reader.

That's not to say I'm not enjoying the ride here, merely that I'm aware of the writing for the first time in a book by Johnson; that I can see the machinery at play. A perfect example of a recent noir novel that handled this problem of how to omit and reveal at the same time was Scott Phillips' "The Ice Harvest." In that novel, you know nothing about anyone, and all you learn about them comes through action and dialogue and glimmers of thought, so that while there is plenty of witty banter, it never devolves into exposition. You are always moving forward, learning more about the deception at play, until the novel finally ends and you realize that talking was never going to solve anything. ... Someone needed to die. Or everyone needed to die.

I sense the same conclusion coming from "Nobody Move" and only hope that Johnson is able to dig a little deeper to get there. Pages of banter are fine, but I think Johnson now has to find the substance, too.

Tod Goldberg

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