Because the only thing more terrifying than velociraptors are velociraptors that can fly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Treat Yo Self (With Words!)

Recently, a work friend of mine offered to lend me a book of his that he thought I might enjoy. It's called, The City of Dreaming Books. He described it to me and since it sounded pretty cool, I took him up on his offer. As it turned out, the world of TCDB is one I'd been in before, although I'd not read that particular novel. The story takes place in a place called Zamonia, a fantastic isle where strange and sundry creatures live, and is the creation of a German man and illustrator, Walter Moers. 

I've read two other books by Moers, The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, and Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures. Both of these novels, like TCDB, are what is knows as "picaresque" novels, a word whose meaning I had to look up. A picaresque novel is one that is characterized by an adventurous main character, usually of low social status (but not always) who journeys through a corrupt society having all sorts of adventures. Moers's books are also known as "random event plots" in which much of the story just sort of happens.

But don't get me wrong and think that last sentence is a criticism of the plots of Herr Moers's stories. Far from it. By focusing in intense detail on his richly-embroidered world, Moers makes Zamonia come alive, in some cases, the world seems more real than our own.

On almost every other page, a reader of Moers's works is treated to descriptions of wondrous things, whether its Bee Bread--warm bread spread with honey and roasted bees (not always de-stinged), or Trombonphone music--a scientific form of music created by blowing through the discarded shell of a specific crustacean that can interact with the brain and cause listeners to experience intense hallucinations.

In short, Moers has firmly established himself in my Hall of Literary Heroes. I often hear that one (an author) should ask oneself with every section of a story, "Is this relevant?" "Does the story make sense if I remove this?" (Whatever this may be.) Essentially, editing as pruning--removal of extraneous literary branches so that the whole might thrive. And I see the value in this idea. Getting too bogged down in perfectly describing something completely irrelevant to the plot essentially wastes the reader's time. If they are forced to expend serious mental energy only to realize what they've been pondering is basically fluff, the author has irritated his reader.

However, "fluff" is almost the point of a picaresque novel. Focusing on vast numbers of strange things in the course of a normal story is not a good strategy, I admit this. If the core of the story is the plot, then anything that supports the plot must stay. Everything else (to a degree) must go. Just look at Hemingway.  That man made a career, almost a complete literary school, out of cutting his stories to the bone. They remind me of those Zen paintings where the artist is able to capture the essence of a forest in only a handful of strokes from his brush.

I am not a Zen painter, though. Stories like Hemingway's are not what I aspire to create. I aspire to be like Walter Moers or Jack Vance, writers whose work is full of richly embroidered details that aren't necessary to the plot, because some of the best things in life aren't necessary. Cushions on couches aren't necessary. Fine wines aren't necessary. Pampering yourself, with physical objects, delicious food, or magnificent words, isn't necessary. But it's delightful. And I think we could all use a little a bit more delight in our lives, don't you?

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