March 25: JG Ballard, Dan Chaon and Donna Leon

It’s been six months of stagnation, so I decided to change the name of the blog…again. It didn’t feel instructive to read books on how to read fiction and rehashing what they had to say (kind of boring actually). I thought that it would be better to make my own observations on the fiction that I’m currently reading.

I usually read more than one at a time. Keeps my ADHD well tuned.

I’m currently reading a mystery book that takes place in Venice (to do some research on the city) Uniform Justice by Donna Leon, the painfully beautiful Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington, a short story by Andy Duncan and I just started up High-Rise by JG Ballard. I also, had the wonderful opportunity to read the opening chapter of Ill Will by Dan Chaon (thanks NPR.org) and will be obsessing about it until my library hold comes through.

I won’t be commenting on the Tarkington or Duncan today (save those tidbits for later).

But the others I have commentary for. I wanted to start on the theme of Using Small to Get to Big where little details seem to indicate bigger things in the story or in the character’s inner world.

With J.G. Ballard I’m cheating a bit. Starting with the opening line of the opening chapter, but it is a doozy.

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” That’s how it opens. Already, you can see that you’ve dived right into the middle of something precarious (and all we needed to indicate this was the word “Later”). He’s eating a dog. We don’t know if he’s eating his own dog (as in “honey, I think the dog needs to be let out”) or a neighbor’s dog. Maybe it’s THE dog who has been a bane to him, his nemesis, this last three months and he finally had it out with a smack down, show down. He showed him who the top dog was. Of course, Ballard, who is known for making social commentary, is making a subtle reference to the old adage “dog eat dog”. Many people often use the adage in the context of the sentence”we’re living in a dog eat dog world.” Already we know what the world of High-Rise is going to be like and all we have is a sentence.

The rest of the page indicates that this is the future where entire cities (banks, schools, shops) are located in giant, unfathomably tall apartment buildings, yet I didn’t read this on the back of the book. Ballard doesn’t mention anything about the future, but the building that he describes doesn’t exist – yet. Its four thousand feet tall and contains things that no single building can possibly contain. It’s definitely beyond what we have now and nothing else like it has existed (certainly not it was published). So, we see into the future without mentioning gadgets or time, just a strange building where everyone must fight to survive.

Ill Will is somewhat the opposite of High Rise. It’s more of a personal story about what a character must learn, not about society, but himself. It reads similar to Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (though a bit less angry) where the character has survived the slaughter of his family as a child. Many years later, as an adult, he has blotted out, or the very least, blunted the memory of the event to keep himself going. And then the body of a young man surfaces in the river and memories start to surface.

The opening chapter is too soon for this character who has worked hard to put as much distance as he can between him and “the event” for him to remember those horrors, so nothing graphic is described, yet there is a subtle darkness to the few ineffectual memories that surface whether he likes it or not.

There’s a wonderful detail that stuck out in my mind. The main character is thinking back to the night that his parents were to be murdered, just hours before it happened: “And Kate reached down and without thinking scratched a bug bite on her bare ankle and Dustin was looking surreptitiously, the way her fingernail made a white mark on the reddish tanned skin, the fingernail which had some polish on it that was flaking off.”

There’s something about the rawness of this, scratching a bug bite, scraping a white mark into reddish skin (red the color of blood), and the polish that is flaking off. All details of little, vicious imperfections where something is being destroyed – just a little bit. It feels like foreshadowing. It’s something innocuous that feels a bit off, a bit disgusting and horrible. It feels like the before time: the silence that signals the storm. Perhaps it only feels less innocent, because we already know what’s going to follow. Maybe that’s how memory works. This is probably also a signal to us, the reader, that this is going to be a story about faulty memories.

Donna Leon’s Uniform Justice is a little less interior in scope, a bit less symbolic in prose, but it is commercial mystery fiction, so it’s intention is different. It’s well written, but just a bit more plain. The action on the page is the story itself and subtext is minimal, but that isn’t to say that it is non-existent.

There are some wonderful interior moments, mostly experienced by the lead detective, Brunetti. The one I’m most fond of is his reflection on his stint in the armed services (apparently required of all young Italian men). After his wife complains what vipers soldiers are, he has a different point of view (if a guilty reflection).

“Brunetti had, in his youth, done eighteen months of undistinguished military service, most of it spent hiking in the mountains with his fellow Alpini. His memories, and he admitted that they had acquired the golden patina of age, were chiefly of a sense of unity and belonging entirely different from those his family had given him. As he cast his mind back, the image that came through with greatest clarity was of a dinner of cheese, bread and salami, eaten in company with four other boys in a freezing mountain hut in Alto Adige, after which they had drunk two bottles of grappa and sung marching songs. He had never told Paola about this evening, not because he was ashamed of how drunk they had all got, but because the memory could still fill him with such simple joy.”

This small moment of remembered happiness in the armed services is contrasted by the rest of the soldiers throughout the book who act as bullies and authoritarians in an elite club that sneers at the Public and complain of persecution when they are caught doing something hideous. The opening quote of the novel is: “You expect fidelity in men, in soldiers?” Perhaps his interior memory is to show that what appear simple from the inside is actually quite complex when viewed objectively. Perhaps to the soldiers their rules and their strict hierarchies make sense to them, but only them. This might be why they treat outsiders so unkindly, because they can’t follow their rules. Maybe they haven’t been made to see that the world outside is much more subtle and complex than their interior rules. I don’t know. I haven’t finished the book yet. I’ll let you know.

Anyhow, this gives a nice illustration of how a small detail can illustrate a larger theme or story structure (or character detail). Every book has this, it always sticks out as this small lovely detail that paints a vivid picture and sticks with you throughout the book and beyond.

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About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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