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.
12 July 2012
I keep hearing there is a dumbing down of America. I don't want to believe it, but I'm reminded that:
- Educators have stopped teaching cursive writing in elementary schools.
- We are relying more and more on spell check rather than knowing how to spell.
- More and more we are using a text-derived shorthand language, which is neither correctly spelled or as a gauge of a good vocabulary.
Editors have said the average language level for our novels and short stories should be written for an eighth-grade reading audience.
Just as I am buying into the "dumbing down of America," I find a spark of hope. The last couple of years, I've spent considerable time with young people on a regular basis. From my new grand daughter and our time with children's programming on television to the college students I've been fortunate to interact with, I can vouch that the reading audience is out there and selectively reading on a better grade level than what we have been told to expect.
Cuddled with my grand daughter, we found on Sesame Street, Eva Longoria presented the word of the day: exquisite.
That afternoon, Word Girl concentrated her energies on the word pensive. These are early school educational programs. It looks like the writers for those programs expect the next generation to have extensive vocabularies. Good for them to recognize the need for quality education for our little ones.
Those books that reach a popularity with the masses that have introduced new words for our dictionaries --like muggles from the Harry Potter series -- and quark from Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce and the word, robotics, from Isaac Asimov, have done a great service to readers. They made reading FUN.
Something about knowing the new "in" words found in a story we love and then sharing them with our friends is a wonderful way writers can ensure readers continue being readers all their lives. I think those authors finding ways to encourage their young reader's to embrace a larger vocabulary with choices like tesserae and apothecary from The Hunger Games, is doing anything but dumbing down American readers.
So what about the adult mystery audience? I don't enjoy novels that force me to head for the dictionary every page, but I do like learning a new term or phrase. It's my opinion if we can keep learning, we grow old slower than those who have given up on additional knowledge.
The idea of being the writer of great mysteries means delivering all the clues in just the right measures to allow the reader to almost guess the outcome.
As a writer, I've read between the lines too much not to usually guess who-done-it and why. That's why when I discover writing that surprises me with its delicate hiding of clues where I should have noticed them like the envelope hidden in plain sight in Poe's The Purloined Letter, that I am in awe and more than eager to read more from the author.
I don't want to be treated like someone without a brain who needs someone to lay the clues all out like a clear blueprint which a child could understand.
As a reader, I want to be entertained and elevated by the language. As a mystery reader, I want to be mindful of the careful plotting and clues being planted and tenderly cared for so as not to be disturbed before they are ready to emerge like tiny buds on a rosebush. Pretty enough to keep my interest and just thorny enough to be dangerous is exactly how I like mysteries.
I adore films and television, but not so much those that are expecting not to know when to laugh so I'm provided with a prompting laugh track. I don't want to know in the first scene who committed the crime. I don't want the detective in a series to deduce the criminal's motives in the initial setup.
That's probably why I was astounded to find how wonderfully written the television series "Revenge" turned out to be this first season.
Good writing is being done everyday all over America. Isn't it nice we still have an audience for such clever authors?
American readers are smarter than they are given credit for being. Thanks for being one of them!