Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

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Missing Person, by Patrick Modiano, a Review

The Novel:

What is possible when the missing person you seek is you? Where are the clues that will lead you to yourself? Only in the past. The past, for the protagonist of Patrick Modiano’s novel Missing Person, is the period of the German occupation of Paris prior to and during World War II. It is a past of which, when the novel opens, he remembers nothing. He suffers from near total amnesia., He has lived a decade as a private detective, solving other people’s mysteries, under an identity provided by his boss. He is Guy Roland. As the novel opens, his boss retires and closes the agency, and Roland begins to investigate his own identity. “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the cafe terrace, waiting for the rain to stop; the shower had started when Hutte left me.” Cover photo Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

And so begins the journey from nothing to something. The novel projects the irony of the detective searching for himself. All those he meets know him, but he knows none of them. His memory begins to return in bits and pieces, brief snatches of the past. And he discovers at the heart of his search for himself a dark secret, gradually revealed. His role in the disappearance of someone very close to him.

The Author:

Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Missing Person is an early novel (1978), but it embodies the themes for which Modiano has become known—the power of the past and the search for identity. The prose in this short novel (under 200 pages), while exploring these themes, exhibits his beautifully crafted style and his haunting, melancholy tone.

His protagonist says, “I believe that the entrance-halls of buildings still retain the echo of footsteps of those who used to cross them and who have since vanished. Something continues to vibrate after they have gone, fading waves, but which can still be picked up if one listens carefully. . . [I omit a phrase here to avoid a spoiler.] . . . I was nothing, but waves passed through me, sometimes faint, sometimes stronger, and all these scattered echoes afloat in the air crystallized and there I was.”

Beautiful stuff.

Rating:

I loved reading this novel, like slowly eating a perfect lasagna, or ravioli, with a glass of good Cabernet. You chew each bite slowly and savor it. I would have liked to give Missing Person an unqualified 5-Star rating, but when I got down to that last bite, I found it beautiful but unsatisfying. The tone of the short final chapter is exquisite, and the final two sentences are stunning. But alas the resolution of the story was left open-ended, and I confess I felt betrayed.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who loves finely crafted style in literature and the deep exploration of human identity. Those looking for high action will be disappointed.

The Preacher: Nordic Noir in Clear Prose and Diffuse Plot

The Preacher

The Preacher, a Nordic Noir mystery/thriller by Dagmar Winther and Kenneth Degnbol, a.k.a. Sander Jakobsen, offers a beautiful prose narrative. Not surprisingly for Scandinavian crime fiction, the style leans toward the literary. It tells the story of two murders, each of a woman, apparently unrelated. As the police draw closer to solving the first, they realize the second is indeed closely related. 

Style:

Cover image of Nordic Noir novel The Preacher

The novel opens with the murder of the wife of the vicar of a small Danish village. The writing is evocative throughout. After the investigative team has finished their work, “Then, once again, calm spread its wide blanket over the vicarage.” And as the vicar stands looking over the disarray, “His body had sensed and recorded it, the distance to reality dulled by death itself.” He walks around the house observing all the little memorabilia of his dead wife. They are like “treasures in a museum, when Karen’s death in small incomprehensible bits invaded and claimed him.” The style here reminds me of Thomas Enger in his novel Cursed (See my review here).

Characters:

The main characters—Thorkild, the vicar; Frank, the brother of the second murder victim; Birgitte, the old girlfriend who moves in with the vicar to take care of him after his wife’s murder; and Thea, the detective from Copenhagen, who is drawn into the case emotionally as well as professionally—are well developed, very human, and sympathetic. The reader pulls for them, identifies with them.

Point of View and Plot:

If I have complaints about the novel, they have to do with point-of-view and plot. The point-of-view is third person subjective, alternating between all the main characters and even some of the lesser ones. As a result, the reader struggles to find a sympathetic center. The title, The Preacher, leads the reader to assume that the vicar is intended to be that center. But, in fact, the detective, Thea, often steals that role. The problem becomes that none of the characters take control of narrative perspective. In the end, the point of view is diffuse and unsatisfying.

This diffuse p.o.v. reflects, and to some degree creates, a diffuse narrative structure as the novel attempts to juggle and maintain several competing plot lines—solving the first murder, solving the second murder, the relationship of Thorkild and Frank, the relationship of Thea and Thorkild, and the role of the killer in all of these. I began to feel like a ping-pong ball, going back and forth, never landing on a narrative thread I could anchor everything to. The title role of the novel—the role of “Preacher”—can ultimately apply not only to the vicar, but to Frank, who preaches an angry laissez faire philosophy, or to the killer, who “preaches” a Nietzschean doctrine of the Superman. At times the “preaching” overcomes the narrative drama.

BUT, in spite of all this, I consider the novel a good read. The problems are technical, and perhaps my pet peeves, rather than total failures in the story.

Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go: Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder, who died in 2002, won six Oscars and was one of the most admired of screenwriters. The following ten tips were aimed at writing screenplays for movies, but if you are familiar with the three-act structure in fiction, you will see how they apply to fiction as well as they do to screenplays. photo of Billy Wilder

  1. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character. The key issue Wilder addresses here is “character arc,” which simply means the trajectory of development your character undergoes. All the actions of your leading character should clearly contribute to his or her line of development, and that line of development should be coherent and seem inevitable.
  2. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer. Your plot points in fiction, those major incidents that are turning points in a story, may look quite different in various genres. The plot points in a literary novel might indeed be quite subtle, but in most genre novels, they are more prominent and fall in predictable places.
  3. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. “Setup” is a key idea here. Everything that happens in the third act should be predicated on what happened in the first. Getting this thread of causality right is usually a matter of revision, going back in the later drafts and making sure you have what you need in Act One and then refining how it plays out to the end.
  4. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie. The plot point at the end of Act Two is the catalyst that leads to the big climax in Act Three. You might say it’s the point of no return. After it, the leading character is committed to a course of action that makes the climax inevitable.
  5. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then –that’s it. Don’t hang around. Once your catalyst kicks in at the end of Act Two, it’s a dead run to the climax. Again, this is more prominent in genre fiction than in literary fiction. In writing a thriller, romance, or mystery, this final section has to sustain the intensity, and when the climax happens, Wilder says, wind it down and get out.
  6. The audience is fickle. We’ve all heard the advice “Know your audience! Know who you’re writing for.” Well, Wilder seems to be saying you can’t always count on that audience. I would add that the only audience you can really count on is yourself, so write for an audience of one.
  7. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go. Wilder seems to say writing that grabs the reader’s mind and emotions (the throat) won’t be sabotaged by a fickle audience. Intensity, drama, is important.
  8. Know where you’re going! I frequently advise writers who struggle with plot to write a draft of their final chapter, then come back to where they felt lost and write toward that chapter. It helps them know where they’re going.
  9. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. The more readers can add to a work, the more they will invest in it, the more they will remember it. Wilder is telling us not to explain away the subtleties of our work. Good writers find the sweet spot between obscurity, on the one hand, and explaining, on the other.
  10. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing. As applied to screenwriting, this tip has a quite different meaning than it does in fiction. I’d say “voice-over” in fiction refers to the author’s use of narrative voice, and it’s an extension of Tip #4. Though the narrator is positioned at differing distances in different points of view (1st-person, 3rd subjective, omniscient, dramatic), Wilder’s concept applies to them all (perhaps least so to the dramatic p.o.v.). The setting and the action, including dialogue and thought—i.e., “what the audience already sees”—should carry most of what the reader needs to know. An insecure author may be tempted to use the narrator to explain what the author fears the reader won’t understand.

Billy Wilder was a highly successful writer. And though he tosses writing tips out like peanuts at the zoo, I’m pretty sure he’d agree experience—hard work in The Forge—is the only way to make them stick.

Here’s a final thought from Wilder that’s worth keeping in mind in all of this: Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.

 

 

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