Denis Johnson's 'Nobody Move' ... and story neatniks
Jacket Copy's ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move" continues....
In one of my novels, a thriller set in the 1950s called "The Devil’s Wind," at one point the heroine is presumed to have committed suicide, apparently drowning herself in Lake Mead. Later she shows up and starts offing the bad dudes. The bloated and disfigured body that had, indeed, been found in Lake Mead wasn’t hers, but somebody else’s. Which was as much explanation as I wanted to give. I didn’t bother putting in sentences about lots of people having killed themselves in Lake Mead and still doing so, blah-blah, and this case of mistaken identity being perfectly reasonable, especially back then, blah-blah-blah. Anyway, my editor in New York, a very demanding guy and a big thriller honcho, accepted what I’d done without a blink. Likewise the publishers in Germany and Spain. But this plot-point drove the French and Dutch editors crazy. I got polite e-mails from Paris and Amsterdam, asking, "Well, whose was that body in the lake?," then not-quite-so-polite ones suggesting I tie up this loose end in the story quilt, or they wouldn’t publish. So I did, and the current discussion about Denis Johnson and his story blips got me wondering why some very attentive readers didn’t register or worry about my carelessness (and it was that, to some extent, I just thought, "Come on, you don’t really want me to explain that, do you?") while others — well, it just bugged the heck out of them.
Partly it’s just a question of simple human difference. Story neatniks want everything tied in a bow. Others don’t bother with what Jonathan Demme calls "fridge-door questions," the thing that happens when you get home after a movie, want a snack, open the fridge door and suddenly find yourself thinking: "Hey, Bourne had the briefcase when he crashed the car, then we saw him getting out of the car without the briefcase, but it was in his hand in the next scene. What was that about?" But there is, too, the question of the attitude and expectation we bring to genre.
expectation and attitude after the jump.
The detective story is about solving the problem, getting to the center of the labyrinth and restoring some sort of order. The crime story is about chain reaction, about events and the ripples that move outward from them. The detective story demands greater story coherence; crime stories are more about style and energy. Chandler, who wrote mysteries, made story mistakes, and we forgive him what we wouldn’t countenance for a second in Agatha Christie because his style was just so utterly, joyfully, mind-blowingly wonderful. I guess the advice to writing students would be: If you’re even slightly sloppy about story, you'd better have plenty of other stuff going on. Johnson scores big time here, of course, but Susan’s note has made me nervous about going back again to Ross MacDonald’s "The Galton Case," which I’ve always thought of as a groundbreaking detective story with a perfect and revolutionary plot. Somehow discovering a story hole there — something not explained, like my second corpse in Lake Mead — would bother me in a way that it just wouldn’t in books for which I have an equal if different regard, Hammett’s "Red Harvest," say, or "Black Friday" by David Goodis.
Story works best when it just happens on the page. At the same we, as readers, crave shock and event. From the writer’s point of view, the big and surprising twist creates a huge amount of energy — and always, always problems later. Novels, even novellas written to order for Playboy, are written over time and tend not to be seamless. Perhaps this is for the best — it’s another way in which they can reflect the mess of life. Famously, Emma’s eyes change color during "Madame Bovary," and we don’t know whether Flaubert intended this or just made a mistake. We notice it, but we don’t really care; when we care, then the writer’s in trouble, as I was with my Parisian Serie Noir dude.
Photo of Lake Mead by Gary Bembridge via flickr