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Monday, 28 July 2014

The Zodiac Posts: AQUARIUS [1]

The Water-Bearer and The Silkworm

Theme #02 for this series of posts is Aquarius, so my challenge is to think of two topics that I can blog about taking "Aquarius" as my theme.

Capricorn is, I'm told, an Earth Sign, and apparently Capricorns tend to be family-centric individuals, so I took that as an idea and wrote about developing characters over time - e.g. in a family saga - and the difficulties that presents, and then discussed ageism in fiction and positive portrayals of maturity in KidLit.

This time, I've got more of a challenge! Should I write something based on the Aquarian traits (although different sites say different things) or perhaps on what the water-bearer is, or represents, or what?

Tricky.

I discovered a 1922 text available via sacred-texts.com that gives me something interesting to work with:

Those born under the influence of Aquarius possess extremely complex minds and dispositions often unconsciously as well as consciously absorbing impressions and information on all kinds of topics and out-of-the-way subjects, their interests being widely spread and far-reaching; and, as their symbol the Water-bearer suggests, their diffusive natures give them an extraordinary facility in the passing on of knowledge to others in a manner easy to understand, their well-stocked minds full of reminiscence and anecdote making them most interesting companions when they choose.
This actually fits in quite well with a book I've recently read - THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith. I wanted to write a review of this book ever since I finished it, and this topic fits in pretty well with that! I'd like to blog about the book from the perspective of conscious and unconscious writing, which is something that really interested me - and bothered me - about the second detective novel in this series.

Here's why.

For those of you who are unaware (and this isn't a spoiler - it says so on the dust-jacket of the book and in every review), Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of J. K. Rowling. This piece of information has completely ruined the Cormoran Strike series for me now. I read The Cuckoo's Calling, the first book which made it to the bestseller list and sold a modest few thousand copies - average for a crime bestseller, I believe - and got good reviews from critics who noted that it didn't read like a first novel. They were right - a lawyer tweeted and spilled the beans that Robert Galbraith was in fact none other than Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling, and immediately caused uproar. Fans of Harry Potter rushed to buy this latest secret gem. Reviews of The Casual Vacancy were mixed, and I have to admit I didn't read it. I didn't have a lot of faith in it... but The Cuckoo's Calling, which achieved quiet acclaim all on its own, that I did have time for, because it was clearly very good

I read it, and only on a few occasions did I think, ah yes, I see J. K. Rowling behind that dialogue, or that sentence is very Rowling-esque. You know, it's the style and the way the sentences are constructed that give the game away - the syntax an author uses is a kind of fingerprint, and every narrative voice is unique to its author in some way. Even though I tried to pretend I didn't know who Robert Galbraith really was, I kept seeing the veneer slip every so often because I was, at times unconsciously and at others consciously, looking for the clues. That annoyed me, because it's a great detective read. It really annoyed me because I'd been tempted to buy The Cuckoo's Calling when it first came out, and couldn't justify the expense at the time, because I was flat broke. If only!

The furore about the real identity of its author also didn't bode well, in my opinion, for the second novel.

Rowling had consciously written the first detective novel in a style that was slightly different to her usual one. The voice and feel and tone were different. Her narrative, while still sprinkled with Rowlingisms, had obviously been edited and carefully pruned to make it appear as if the author was (a) male, (b) genuinely an ex-army guy, and (c) a new author fresh to the Crime Fiction scene. It worked very well. It was very well written, it flowed beautifully, the dialogue was realistic and the insight into the world of the paparazzi, the fashion industry, and the internal world of the main characters, Strike and Robin, remarkable. It was a great read.

But, with the second novel, the secret was out. There was no point in going through all that care and attention to get that novel at the same level as the first, because everyone knew. So, sprinklings of Rowlingisms became, as I'd feared, blatant peppering. She hadn't bothered to disguise her hand this time, and it showed. I felt a little cheated of the mature sparkle of the first one, as if the second one had had less conscious time and effort put into it. The story itself is great. It's dark, twisted, and bits of it freaked me out a little. I'm still haunted by some of the scenes and the descriptions, and I'm still thinking about the cast of characters a few weeks on after finishing it.

But what irked me was that in terms of its writingThe Silkworm felt, to me, like watching a play where the curtain had gone up too early and ruined some carefully planned surprise, so that the actors behind said curtain were left to play the scene anyway knowing that everyone in the audience already knew the punchline but would applaud wildly no matter how the lines were delivered.

I didn't guess the end of the actual plot - I suspected, but I didn't quite have it all together. I say this as a veteran of crime and detective fiction. I read more crime and detective novels than fantasy novels! In fact, I hardly ever read fantasy novels. I don't dare, any more, in case it turns out my ideas are not at all original and I've actually been unconsciously ripping off some published person for years. Epic fail. That said, I do occasionally tentatively Google, just to make sure I'm not going to end up being sued for accidentally plagiarizing something I've never read.

I digress.

The point is, while the story was brilliant, the plot worked well, the pace was fine, the ending delivered, and the characters were all spot on pretty much, and I'd love this series to continue, I just can't help but feel it's lost something because it's now well known that there is no Robert Galbraith. I liked Galbraith's writing. It was fresh and polished. Now, I'm reading a Rowling novel that isn't so fresh or polished, and actually has Dumbledore quotes paraphrased and coming out of the mouth (or rather, being thought in the head of) a character that is supposed to be new to me.

Exploration of death and murder and what it takes to be a killer are themes Rowling has looked at with great effect in the HP series, and naturally returns to in the Strike novels where people are being disemboweled, pushed over balconies and covered in acid, not to mention stabbed and shot at. But really? A whole paragraph about murder not being easy, and the phrasing making it sound like almost the same speech? (Potter fans will know what I'm talking about here).

Before I am burned as a heretic by the internet, I too am a Potter fan. Oh yes... I queued up at midnight for the final book, and saw a midnight showing of the final film. I phoned my High School best friend after Desert Island Discs to discuss Rowling's interview. I rang various friends after her first TV interview and we fed off that for weeks. I printed off whole Sequoia-worths of fan rumours about the next books and brought them to school to share and shout at other obsessive teens with at break and lunch and in between classes. And in classes. I seriously considered auditioning for Hermione and actually genuinely thought each film was the best film I had ever seen until I became older and a tiny bit more discerning. Oh yes. Let it not be said that I am not a fan.

I'm not saying that revisiting themes are a bad idea - quite the opposite. It's just the way you put forward these perspectives, and the way you handle the material, needs to be fresh and polished, otherwise you run the risk of it looking like recycled writing. It seems to be unconscious, embedded and a part of Rowling's psyche and deeply held life-philosophies, but that's the kind of thing Robert Galbraith would have hidden better - consciously scouring the manuscript for giveaways like this and rephrasing them into shadows of their former, obvious selves, so that people might assume "Oh, Galbraith has read Harry Potter and agrees with Rowling about murder not being easy to commit, much like Gaiman has read the Discworld series and agrees with Terry Pratchett about that belief-creating-and-sustaining-gods philosophy". Reading that section of The Silkworm, it was obvious that Galbraith had not read Rowling, Galbraith was Rowling. And that, for a minute, jolted me out of the world of Strike. I felt like a paying member of an audience whose surprise had not only been spoiled by the premature curtain raising, but who was now acutely aware that they were watching a play. That was a real shame.

I would absolutely love it if Rowling could forget that everyone knew who she was. I would love it if she wrote the third in the series with the same pretense and care as the first one. I would love to see her writing style developing and growing into something new and exciting, while still retaining that familiar sparkle of wit, whimsy and magic. She does all that so well. And I sincerely hope that the next time she or another famous author chooses a pen-name, they don't get outed before they are ready to do the Big Reveal, even if that turns out to be posthumously. It ruins it for the rest of us who like to guess, and like to experience new novels on their own terms, without the overhanging shadow of unconscious judgement and comparison clouding over what would otherwise have been a dazzling read.

That said - I loved The Silkworm. Loved it. Go and read it, and maybe you'll see what I mean!