Monday, October 05, 2009

Proper Endings

Fret not, true believer, this is not my final post. Rather, we're concerned here with the manuscript and properly ending a story of the fantastic and (potentially) absurd. You'll see what I mean.

I finished Iain Banks' novel Excession -barely. It was a lot of work getting to that last page! Not because of length (500 pages) or lack of interest, but due to a payoff deficit: everything so painstakingly established in the first half went absolutely nowhere in the second. The major threat was not explained, and the B-plot turned out to be a rather maudlin romance. Here's a rough breakdown:

At page 200, we've met the central characters and the milieu is firmly established as a sprawling space epic with spaceships who communicate via chat rooms (the book was published in the mid-nineties);

by 300 the tendrils of a plot have become apparent and things have started happening;

then we hit 400...

I almost didn't get there. In the intervening pages from three hundred onward we are lavished with a glut of character backstory. At first I didn't entirely understand why this information was put on hold for so long; this was before I knew the stories and how unremarkable they were. The turning point for the romance was startling and could have huge impact, if it wasn't summarily revealed and resolved in a matter of three pages. Hmm and hmph! Given that this happened at page 373 rather than 73 meant that my expectations for dynamic character motivation were piqued out of all proportion; in the midst of so many amazing and provocative ideas (the author is a factory of neat concepts), it was disappointing to find that at the heart of them was a workmanlike love story.

I could have forgiven that and carried on in the spirit of l'amour fou, truly. But then, Banks had to go and insult me, his loyal reader, by dragging out to excruciating length the next logical plot development. Was he lingering in fine detail because the development was going to be another razzle-dazzle display of imagination? Would he reveal new dimensions of passionate love in a far-flung future?


On top of this, the main plot thread involving the potential destruction of the universe and all we hold dear in life, love, and pinball was wrapped up incoherently. I was more confused on the last page than when we first began, which one can only hope and pray was not the author's intention.

The moral of the tale? Love, invented a couple thousand years ago, is resolutely the same in a couple more millenia, and danger from beyond the edge of time and space will stymie all who behold it, not least prognosticative authors from Glasgow. Seriously, shouldn't there be some substance to future predictions? Am I too insufficient a geek be less than satisfied by a couple dozen gee-whiz ideas that constellate around a pedestrian, bewildering story?

Here's the thing: if you want to build a novel around cool ideas, do it elegantly. Don't bother pretending human love is at stake, when the love described is pedestrian at best, fictional at worst. I'm not so postmodern that I want my space opera to be about stuff that's fake.

The ending of my manuscript is regularly in mind whilst reading -why not? It's on my mind the rest of the time, too. Fear is a motivator; fear that it will be incomprehensible or come screeching to a halt with nothing more accomplished than a silly excursion into Halfbakedville. And though I'm not published, I know that the threat must be viable. This was driven home yet again at the end of Banks' novel, when I tasted anew the curious taste of defeat (it resembles peach yogurt). A talented, prolific writer who threw everything he had on the table but failed to make a good meal of it. If it could happen to Banks, why not a neophyte like me?

This is why I type out this review with heavy fingers, because it has refreshed that fear. Could it be that readers won't tremble and feel the angst of my platypus whisperer from Galtron-IX who promises to extinguish all hair dryers in the known quadrants of Robot Haven Zabulor? The impending triumph of evil is obvious, how could they not?

1 comment:

E. said...

Have no fear. Because I, your loyal and hideously honest beta reader, will send it back to you (and back and back and back if need be) until it is good.