What’s Wrong with Perfection

My copy of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (2006) is missing a portion of its back cover and last few pages—like it’d been chow for roaches or pulled across asphalt, at a sharp and insensitive angle.
But I bought it at Goodwill—in a 10 books for $2 deal, where the lady tells me at the register that I’ll pay $2 regardless of how many books I have, so I rush around slow shoppers inspecting wooly sweaters to the back of the store and look under a stack of water-damaged Dave Barry books to find some works of fiction. And so it’s expected that this “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER,” which has sold something like five million copies, will have a bit of damage. I’m okay with it. All necessary pages are intact. And plus, it gives the book “character,” which some reviews will tell you this book is sorely lacking.
Oh, burn, snap, roasted, etc.
The initial premise is promising: an Ivy League vet-in-training walks right out of his exit exams (because he can’t think about anything but his recently deceased parents) and right into a traveling circus.
The structure is rigidly perfect. It has all of the things you’d expect from a well-crafted (read: well-edited) story. The complications mount throughout the book. The stakes rise. A deadline is introduced. Obstacles are episodically overcome.
Which brings me to my thoughts about the separateness of plot and character. Robert McKee, in his legendary Story, explains that the two are inextricable. They are the same thing, for plot comes out of character and character is developed through the action of the plot. And thus all arguments re the precedence of plot over character or vice versa are vacuous: because they begin from a false dichotomy.
My initial thoughts about the book were mostly technical—which I admit is one reason I read the book: to get better at plotting and structure, but also description and pacing. But the book didn’t hit me in the gut, didn’t make me care or feel. The blame rests on the characters, because I didn’t see humans in this book. I saw tropes, caricatures—depthless understudies who on the night before the big production got the call but hadn’t experienced the far reaches of their character through weeks of preparation.
A couple notes about our main character: (1) The plot device/delivery system of the story is a back-and-forth given by a dreaming, ornery, unsympathetic 90-year-old in an assisted living institution—he relives the main story through dreams while he lives a poor, static story (with a good, Hollywood ending); (2) The main character is flat; even the climax of the story is observation (inaction) by the main character, our hero, our protagonist; he doesn’t act but gets swept up by the crazy world around him—literally, and larger, this is what happens through the story proper.
So back to character v. plot: I wondered how the plot could be so good yet the characters so weak—which many people say about Michael Crichton, right? And for this book, WfE, the characters are as technically perfect as the plot.
They match. They’re congruent.
(Which, hello, the author’s name is in that word, so that’s something.)
But we don’t want perfect characters. We want imperfections, what we call humanity. That’s the source of conflict, real conflict—not what this book is littered with. A stock villain and a stock character cannot offer true conflict, because—it seems to me—true conflict develops off the page, in a reader’s consciousness, her expectation of what will occur. So if what’s expected is what occurs, then that’s the absence of conflict.
So does that mean that situational irony—the discrepancy between what the audience expects and what actually happens, like “The Boy who Cried Wolf”—is the framework of our current storytelling? Irony is central. That’s for sure. But I don’t think we necessarily need situational irony, at least not as brazenly as in the aforementioned fable.
We just need to meet real characters who get motivated by the little ironies that all humans do. And not the same retreaded ones, please. Like adulterous love affairs.

Park Backwards is Krap and Cheever is a Funny Last Name

John Cheever’s Bullet Park (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize. About which fact, who am I to comment? It was written to introduce the topic, as a fact that might also validate the reading of the novel and give some credible context.

Anyway, here’s what happens: a mysterious dude named Hammer moves into Bullet Park (a suburb of NYC), meets a quiet man named Nailles (who has a son that goes through a depression), and then interacts with Nailles’ son. To inform you of the interaction would be to report the climax of the novel. So that sounds like a really brief, uneventful plot, right? Well, it is. The book’s narrative action isn’t full. But the novel nevertheless persists as a page-turner.

Rather than hooking the reader with its plot, the novel seamlessly introduces and then penetrates practically each character within the course of its reporting of the narrative proper. This is to say that we meet someone and then are told—again let me stress that this telling is consistently seamless—a history about that person, which explains who the character is and usually why they are committing the action at hand.

So I think Cheever really succeeds with the real truth that everyone has a story, rich and unique. But the problem is that none of the characters are good.

In Bullet Park, as in everywhere else the novel’s characters travel, people are fundamentally vapid and materialistic and narcissistic. And that’s only true when the characters actually choose to act. Most of the time, they just go along with whatever decision is easiest, as determined by their environment—like a woman who would make a cuckold of her husband but various odd coincidences prevent her from it. Usually the easiest decision is indecision and acquiescence to an understood way that things should be, like they were before, like we were taught.

Cheever, with two (it could be argued three) characters, investigates depression and a lack of fulfillment with the kind of world he builds, but these characters are either greatly thwarted or miraculously (read: inconclusively) cured.

Now again, the novel, at the micro-/page-to-page-level, is pretty great. Cheever’s a wonderful writer, with real talent for description and quick characterization. And he broaches some terrific techniques—that could be classified as postmodern; like, here’s the first line of the novel: “Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark.” This introduction clearly calls one’s attention to the artifice of fiction writing. Again, mid-novel, Cheever begins to comment on the way we talk about traveling, seemingly taking writers to task, or at least calling attention to techniques of storytelling: “We speak of travel—world travel—as if it were the most natural condition. ‘Mr. X,’ we read, ‘then traveled from Boston to Kitzbühel.’ How far this is from the truth!”

But when we step back to inspect the novel from a macro-level, the worldview of Mr. Cheever—a man who lived longer than I have and wrote more than I have—is hopefully, like some of our turns of phrase, “far…from the truth.”

Mr. Waugh Makes Us Laugh

Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948) shares a young British poet’s hapless situation in Hollywood. Dennis Barlow penned his one successful volume while serving in the war, but inspiration isn’t so easy to come by these days. So he works at Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery.

The novel is about death, in more ways than animals. The first character who speaks dies shortly thereafter. Sir Francis—like Dennis, a transplanted Englishman—was abruptly fired from a studio and then hangs himself. So Dennis, left to take care of his friend’s corpse, goes to a real cemetery, Whispering Glades, where he is entranced by the production, the commercialization (and capitalization) of the dead. He hopes, at first, to take some of their more successful innovations back to Happier Hunting Ground.

But he falls in love with a cosmetician at Whispering Glades, and here’s our love story—full of deceit, envy, another man and death.

The novel delivers a few laughs, maybe like one out-loud guffaw a chapter (for this reader). And it attempts to comment on capitalism and death and materialism, but alas in this progressive age, these ideas have mostly been subsumed in our monolithic cultural attitude—not reckoned with, just dismissed as something purportedly dealt with, and because it (the knowledge of our materialism) is everywhere, we can easily recognize it. And in Mr. Waugh’s way, to apply the materialism to such a bleak subject (a loved one’s death), that comical distance allows us to view the point from afar, without any personal investment or feeling, so we can laugh at these characters because they share nothing with us readers.

But that is the way of satire, sometimes, I guess. However, there are plenty of reasons to read this book. It’s short, funny, and spattered with inspections of the artistic temperament (because, as you’ll recall, our protagonist is a poet).