As both an amateur writer and an amateur critic, I have a weird relationship to art. I want to immerse myself completely in a story. The narrative and the emotional arc should knock me over if they’re doing their job right. But I can’t stop looking for the moving pieces. Give me a thousand dollar watch and I’ll take it apart.
You build up a tolerance for aesthetic devices, the same way you do for pseudoephedrine or heroin. When things start going too well for our heroes, you know a plot twist is about to upset everything. You know the murderer is someone introduced in the first act. The heroine will choose love over money. The hero can’t kill the villain until the villain pulls a gun. Critics get snotty when we see these devices too often, but we get vicious when we see they’re absent. Watch a movie that completely botches the third act climax (like Streets of Fire) and see just how far an artist is allowed to stray.
This continually critical eye has added an odd trope to my library: the Respected/Abhorred Device. The Respected/Abhorred Device is a story element that I admire the craftsmanship behind, even if I still find it completely dumb.
Take Stephen King’s The Stand (SPOILERS). The climax of The Stand comes when the literal Hand of God descends from heaven and detonates a nuclear warhead in Las Vegas, blowing up all the villains in one stroke. I read that with no small amount of disgust the first time I came across it. Ending a thousand page novel with a deus ex machina is bad enough; ending with a literal God out of a literal Machine just seemed lazy.
Then I read King’s On Writing and saw his process behind it. The Stand is about moving on from the civilization that built a superflu virus, not about rebuilding it. The heroes can only triumph over evil by abandoning their plans, placing their faith in God and setting out west for Las Vegas. Mother Abigail spells it out for them in those precise terms: after the committee meeting in Boulder is sabotaged by a dynamite bomb, the heroes have to leave for Vegas that same day. The novel’s about the triumph of faith over humanity’s conquest of nature. So it’s only fitting that faith – the literal Hand of God – have the last word.
I find that sort of moral abhorrent. But I respect the craft that it took to put all the pieces in place.
I had a similar reaction to fellow Overthinker Matthew Belinkie’s reconstruction of the Saw film series. In the series, master psychopath Jigsaw constructs sadistic traps that give their victims a choice: mangle themselves or die. As the series has progressed, minor elements from earlier films have been reintroduced, and heightened, in later films. There’s a large, overarching narrative being told by the movies. It darts backward and forward in time.
From the article:
In Saw III, we see a character read a letter and burst into tears, shortly before flying into a homicidal rage. We don’t learn who wrote this letter until Saw IV. We don’t learn what it said until Saw VI.
Saw III shows us the five minutes immediately after the end of Saw II. Saw IV shows us what happens immediately after THAT.
Saw IV actually takes place during the events of Saw III, which is only revealed when a character from Saw IV literally walks into the final scene of Saw III, about two seconds after the previous film cut to black.
This is impressive stuff, even though it was clearly worked in after the fact. That doesn’t change the fact that the apparent moral of the series – torturing people makes them really appreciate life – is repulsive. But I respect the craftsmanship.
And those are just two examples. Consider also Infinite Jest, or A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Man Who Was Thursday. All examples of novels whose conclusions I find regrettable, but which are so well-assembled I can’t help but respect them. Stories like those present a problem for me. They push buttons on two opposite sides of my brain. I have to recommend them with a caveat.
I don’t know what it means. But since I’m not giving up on either creating, criticizing or reading fiction any time soon, I suppose I’ll just have to deal with it.