26 February 2020
I'm reading a thriller by Kwei Quartey called The Missing American. New writer to me, but he's got half a dozen books under his belt. This one is about internet scams, and takes place mostly in Ghana - along with Nigeria, Ghana is pretty much ground zero for this racket. We get a fair amount of creepiness - the sakawa boys who run the swindles are themselves prey to priests who do weird shit to live chickens and task their acolytes with specific fetish contributions: have sex with a European tourist and bring me her soiled panties. It's garden variety repellent, but not horrific. They make the boys bulletproof, so they can't fail. The marks keep sending the boys money, and the witch doctors take their cut. Criminal hierarchy.
I recommend the book, which I haven't finished yet. I strongly suspect it's going to get a lot spookier. Quartey was born in Ghana and brought up in the States. He's not going to give us the generic guys in the bone necklaces, stamping around barefoot, but what he's going to give us is the foreignness.
I'm reminded of, say, Gorky Park. The environment as character. The Missing American does this by sliding bits under the radar. The fact that different languages are spoken in Ghana, and a non-native speaker has a familiar accent, but clearly not his own. One-man-thousand. It's a mess of fried anchovies.
Martin Cruz Smith did this by presenting a place that was the next best thing to science fiction. You park your car, you take the windshield wipers off and bring them inside, because otherwise they'd be stolen by morning. Your sergeant comes into your office, you pick up your phone - a rotary dial - you dial it up to zero and stick a pencil in one of the holes. It blocks the signal, busy but not off the hook. KGB isn't listening to your conversation. Renko treats this as second nature.
The guy who did this best, to my mind, was Jack Vance. If you don't know his stuff, you oughta. He had a line in imagining very strange cultural shibboleths. And he managed to make them entirely convincing. A planet where half the world was dark for six months, and where there was only sunlight the other six. A society where scent, apparently the most evocative of our senses, has to be protected - at supper, we mask our faces, because smell may make us swoon, forbiddingly. The Last Castle, one of the more astonishingly anti-Asimov stories, AI as dystopian, or Animal Farm.
I'm thinking of environment as story. Another good Martin Cruz Smith example is Polar Star, the slimeline on the factory ship. It's very much the narrative. John Berryman famously remarked that Stephen Crane's The Open Boat began with the title. It begins, "None of them knew the color of the sky," but the real first line is, in fact, The Open Boat. Where it happens.
What's the shape of the story. I'm suggesting this isn't simply local color. The climate, and the weather. Rain or wind. Gators and snakes. Stony uplands, or quicksand. Vocabulary is climate. One-man-thousand. Those anchovies. It's all about the specific, or the remarkable.