Sunday, October 7, 2012

What Happens To The Passages Of Novels That We Skip?

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

I try to leave out the parts that people skip, Elmore Leonard once said, when asked about his rules for writing. Perhaps those who pick up Leonard’s novels read every word; as for the rest, we’re all guilty of skipping lines, sentences, paragraphs, and even pages. So what happens to all these ignored passages of novels?  Which circle of hell are they consigned to? Your intrepid columnist has the low-down.

The Dungeon of Details. You can hear the piteous moans and rattling of chains even before you enter their cell. In this corner, descriptions of bedrooms and living rooms stretch out their hands. On that ledge, the styles of characters’ clothes toss and turn. In the front, plucking at the bars, are the objects people fiddle with, from cigarette lighters to ivory-handled daggers. At the centre, you can see images of city streets, parks and buildings. Up on the rafters, the colours of people’s eyes lie defeated. It’s crowded here, and more details are dragged in every day.

The Maze of Minor Characters. Round and round they roam, ceaselessly searching for a way out, all those people on the periphery and in uninspiring sub-plots. The hero’s brother-in-law, the heroine’s best friend’s best friend, the florist with a ready smile, the ageing in-laws, the ship’s crew members and the former classmates spotted at school reunions. Some are fuzzy to look at; others have a single attribute that they repeat over and over again. Bumping into each other often and then drawing themselves up to their full heights they continue onwards, in search of the recognition and attention that will forever elude them.

The Wilderness of Weather. Upon a remote, blasted heath they swirl and rage. The temperature, the shape of clouds, the pitter-patter of rain on windowpanes, the sun’s blaze, the waxing and waning of the moon, the way the skies darken at night, and all the other descriptions of the changing patterns of climate. A typhoon with the power to capsize ships grumbled about how unfair it was that he was banished, as his actions had a great bearing on the novel’s plot.

The Cave of Connections. Far from civilization, by the side of a rocky outcrop, is where these hapless creations dwell. The doors that characters opened to get from one room to another, the flights taken between cities and countries, the routes followed to get from Point A to Point B, the horse-carriage rides down Central Park.  It’s not fair, they say: it’s because of us that characters were able to move around. We don’t belong in the dreary desert sand of dead habit, they yell, as they trip in the dark. But there it is. The way of the reader, like that of the Bushido blade, is pitiless.

The Labyrinth of Lists. Located next to the Maze of Minor Characters, this is where lists furl and unfurl all day and all night, separated only by the space of a semi-colon. On and on they whirl: the contents of shops and shopping lists; the particulars of  breakfast, lunch and dinner; the sunscreen, hats, towels and balls taken to beaches; the make and mechanism of armaments and explosives. Trees were cut down to make room for us, they proclaim indignantly, and look at our predicament now. That’s the way the biscuit breaks.

The Laboratory of Low Goals. Not a place of banishment per se, but a research centre where characters’ motivations are put to the test. Among those that don’t make the cut are the need to simply achieve happiness, the desire to retire to a beach-front villa, the urge to tell off the annoying co-worker and the necessity of catching the eye of the cute person next door. The technicians in this claustrophobic area work around the clock; the waiting room is always full. Recently, the inclination to clip toenails failed miserably, and was instantly shipped to the Valhalla of Weak Expectations.

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