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Classics You’ve Never Read, Part 4- So Wrong, They’re Right

Classic: a book people praise and never read.

-Mark Twain

This one took me forever. Not to read, but to figure out. How to classify this classic work?- and yeah, no shot you’ve read it, dear reader, none- that question puzzled me until, to steal the words of The Grinch, my puzzler was sore. The movies clearly ranked it science-fiction: of course, because they wanted to play with the special effects. A horror tale? I really thought so, because the main character is such a threat- but I found myself chuckling so loud and often as I read, I knew it wouldn’t be honest to say so. The  author’s opinion on the flyleaf subtitle calls it “A Grotesque Romance”, but being written in 1897, I knew full well that was only going to confuse people. Back then, neither word meant what it does today. The synopsis definitely doesn’t go “ugly-boy-meets-girl, etc.” In fact, for most of the last half of the book. no one meets the main character at all! Hence the chuckling, amidst which a realization fell on me like a bolt. This story is really all about the crowd– the others, the bit characters and how incredibly wrong they get it (while still being right).

That’s the theme that runs throughout The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.

I’m not going to pretend there’s a vast trove of unknown lore you need to catch up on by reading this book. The plot would fit on the back of an airmail stamp.

Now you see him...
Now you see him…

Obsessed amoral scientist turns himself invisible, tries to get back to normal, can’t, hurts people and causes chaos, dies. With that title, there’s no whopper of a mystery going on! But that’s where the thread picks up. As with some of his other works, Wells chooses to describe and judge his main character to you through the eyes of everyone else in the story. A mysterious man wrapped from head to toe arrives at a small town inn, and never comes out of his room. So it’s not his thoughts, but those of the tavern-crowd we are treated to. Mrs. Hall the innkeep’s wife is thrilled to have a “gentleman” boarder, but of course insatiably curious, henpecking her indifferent husband to invent excuses for knocking on the door. The regulars at the bar look on, as the guest’s increasingly aberrant behavior comes out onto the landing or is shouted through the walls.

And what do they guess? These sleepy village folk, simple rustics with that classic stolid sense of “what’s right”, do they come close to figuring out what the title character is up to? Not by a country mile: an ‘arful accident, p’raps some nasty disease, that’s what brung him into those wrappings, surely. The story continues- the mystery guest becomes ever more combative and erratic. Windows open and close by themselves, the local prior is robbed, nosy landlords appear to eject themselves from the second-floor guest room. Still no one can make heads or tails of it- you’re screaming “INVISIBLE MAN, IDIOTS!” but it does no good. The crowd continues to bumble and guess wrong- yet somehow, they manage to flush out the IM, brilliant scientist or no. Because

Not this one!
Not this one!

he’s the bad guy- treats people arrogantly, never pays up (“put it on the bill!”), loses his temper. T’isn’t right- and while the full population of the village can’t assemble one clue between them, yet there’s a kind of righteous tide, simple questions pile up and the villain is unmasked, forced from his rooms with some of his criminal intent exposed.

Wells is not faithful to any particular individual in the crowd- your PoV jumps from one stubbornly inane opinion to another, sometimes for the length of one line and never to return. A fair bit of time is spent with an unfortunate hobo, a poor fellow accosted as the IM roamed “naked” through the countryside (what are the odds?) and beaten, petrified into helping him along for a while. In the final third of the story, we settle in the house of IM’s former school-mate, another scientist fortuitously living in the vicinity, to whom he can at last begin to explain his progress.

Here the veil of humor drops away, and I must say the story of his experiments are not appropriate for all audiences. The IM coolly describes how, from his London apartment, he first tried his experimental process on the landlady’s cat- and only later discovered how agonizingly painful it was. “So that was why it meowed so awfully all those hours”- this more than anything coming before or after shows me what a beast he always was. It’s a dreadful scene: perhaps even his fellow scientist is affected by IM’s ruthless, sociopathic attitude. An attempt at betrayal leads to another rampage from the IM, who without clothes always has the advantage (or seems to). The ending is unimportant except for how it reinforces some of the themes I’ve been harping on- the many in the crowd, the entire district roused to action by the threat of an invisible menace who has declared war on mankind, and eventually they get him. In the process, they don’t do much that’s right, and some make horrible mistakes as usual (the laughter is gone from the tale by now- and I STILL don’t know what genre this really should be called). In the end, the IM reappears, which is to say, he dies.

I totally see Kevin Bacon
I totally see Kevin Bacon. You?

Good.

Hollywood seems to have followed the same general idea, both in the 1930s version with Claude Rains and the usual steroid-pumped remake (“The Hollow Man”) with Kevin Bacon. I haven’t seen all of either one, but it seems clear this theme of the common folk is preserved in the first, lost in the second. Without these untrustworthy narrators, without the gaggle of wrong-footed yokels to stare and puzzle and go off on tangents when they theorize, the tale loses a vital something.

This is something you see in epic fantasy all the time- on either side of the village’s only street as the strangers arrive, in battles and at church, and ESPECIALLY of course inside the tavern. They drink, they argue, and most of all they get it comically, horrendously wrong. Through their beloved bigotry and hackneyed catch-phrases I learned a lot about the world, the problems facing the heroes. One tavern scene I chronicled in The Ring and the Flag had so much going on, I visited it again on the same night in Fencing Reputation. {All different material, all still wrong!} And the famous Mark’s Inn of Wanlock sees repeated action in The Plane of Dreams. Some of the greatest heroes the Lands will ever know passed through its door and the regulars hardly noticed, yakking on about adventurers, crime, and the ever popular what’s-wrong-with-the-world-today. They’re totally off about who the heroes and who the villains are, much more often than not. But they get it right in the end. Things ARE going all sideways, and those adventurers (wherever they are), they don’t belong here.InvMan33

More than that; I realized from reading The Invisible Man that Wells was really double-casting the entire process of reading a great adventure. Get this, it’s brilliant. The main character isn’t really there, right? Because he’s YOU. The writer: struggling, trying for genius, losing it- and desperate to keep people from finding out your story until it’s done. And the crowd? The inn-folk, the villagers standing around and apparently too silly to guess what two and two add up to- they’re the readers of your tale. You WANT the reader to be just like them- not catching the whole thread, but very curious and grimly determined to find out more. They press you, they don’t get it, annoying yet persistent. They’re good people. And in the end, both crowds inside and out get it right. That famous saying about how often the customer is not wrong? It applies.

Whenever you hear from the crowd in a fantasy tale, you can see the readers right in their place- it’s a wonderful way to draw them in, make them feel as if they’re standing by the bar, or in the second row. None of them understand your main character, but they’re getting interested in finding out. The Invisible Man teaches a lot about people, the common character of what you might call human nature. And that’s really good news- unless of course you’re a bad person like IM himself, trying to spread chaos and evil with your tale. Then they’ll hunt you down and kill you. But that’s not your problem, unless you’re George R. R. Martin…

Where is the crowd in your story? Are you pulling readers into the book by using the masses?

Getting to the Third Level of Writing

The writing I love. It’s literature I can’t seem to get along with.

In 10th grade, the final essay question on our test for “Catcher in the Rye” directed our attention to the final passage where Caulfield speaks longingly about his desire to serve as a kind of life-guard for children playing in a meadow- literally, the title of the novel. The question posed to us was “What did Holden REALLY mean?” I wrote a full response arguing simply that he didn’t mean anything- it was a job he had thought of and he really wanted to do that. Because hey, that was a great job! The teacher and I got into a rather furious argument- I know for a fact, she told me exactly what she thought about the true underlying meaning of the speech, but I couldn’t remember one word of it an hour later. Still don’t.

That stuff never meant a thing to me. I still struggle to get there, this third level of writing. Coming up on six years of formally chronicling the Lands of Hope, I begin to see, just dimly, a distant… something. It’s not something I do particularly well, or on purpose. But at least now I think I see it.

One more time, it bears repeating for those who just came in, I’m merely a chronicler. I have less control over what happened in the Lands of Hope than a first-time student driver on an Alpine ski slope with the brakes cut. Make it up? Puhleeze- it happens, I take it down. But no question, I can improve the way I describe it to all of you. You’ve done this yourself, right? The Lands of Hope are like a movie that you’ve seen but your friend hasn’t. There’s a way to describe the thing- concise, evocative, fascinating- you’re working uphill because every picture is worth a thousand of your words. If you get them interested enough to go see it on their own, give yourself a prize.

First level- the Plot

You need to put the events in order, they must lead to something, make sense by the end. Stories with plot weakness simply can’t work; the suspension of disbelief fails and there’s a chance the reader stops, never to start again. When I spot a loose end, or a lovely piece of description that doesn’t point to anything, it’s not fatal but I usually feel disappointed, or a bit impatient. Nowhere is this more of a danger than in epic fantasy- the world-building train so effortlessly becomes a runaway locomotive, taking the reader down a steep siding about magic forces, or the adolescent growth cycle of a gryphacorn, the alignment of the northwestern sky-quadrant… hey, where’d everybody go? Of course, fantasy carries a balancing advantage because you can have the most incredible things happen to sustain the interest level (at least temporarily).

Pretty much everyone does plot- I’ve read a lot of harsh editorials about how all indie pub is garbage, but I couldn’t have been this lucky in the stories I’ve downloaded. Personally, I have a lot of experience with story-telling: I’ve never thought that History was anything else, frankly, and I told those stories to high school students five days a week for thirteen years. I didn’t have any control over what happened in the Alleged Real World either… but I flatter myself that I got pretty good at putting the facts in the right order, having it all make some sense.

Second level- Character

Yeah, we’re going in ascending order here, this is substantially harder than Plot. You have to convey the tale through the vehicle of beings whose lives and choices the reader comes to care about. I bet there is isn’t a bad character on the internet- we authors often don’t introduce or describe them well enough, is all. That’s partly because there’s more wiggle-room: your character doesn’t have to have clear set goals, the conflict can hit them in differing ways, they don’t even have to be protagonists or antagonists in the traditional sense. But in my honest assessment, the biggest problem at this level is that the author assumes too much and shows too little. I’ve read halfway through a book before exclaiming to myself, “oh, really? This guy loves his country? That explains a lot!” or something similar. The patriotism was assumed by the author, but now as a reader I have all the work of thinking back, reconstructing everything that happened from that perspective- and I don’t want to do that, it’s already ruined.

When I try to assess my own craft, I would say again that Character is harder than Plot, but

I believe it’s the part I do best. I love and admire the heroes of the Lands, and I believe I can bring a certain depth-perception to describing them within the plot that helps inform, entertain and move the reader. In The Plane of Dreams, the intrepid stealthic Trekelny has taken it upon himself to open a cage in the enemy camp, freeing a wild tiger to roam in the nearby woods. The rest of the party catches up, and when one of them tries to reproach him for it, Trekelny coolly responds “I happen to like cats.” There is an entire story- Three Minutes to Midnight – from nine years earlier in his career to reinforce this one fact. And that’s just an example I can point to in publication. Time and again, I benefit from being able to back up a preference, or a love of something in my characters like that. I could tell you a whole story about it. Don’t challenge me on this- I will bury you.

This far I’ve been able to go on my own, by chronicling. And it’s made me rather happy, I won’t scruple to deny. Before I was telling these tales, setting my notes and memories to narrative, my brain was tenser, life less settled this past decade. The vocation of teaching gave me such great personal joy I didn’t miss out. But having a new life course, where I teach only as a pinch-hitter, plus the lack of contact with the Lands in other important ways, just made me miss it  more. So the telling has helped me tremendously.

And I think I always knew, I wasn’t getting where the really good, much less great writing went.

My daughter is home-schooled, so I overhear her mother talking to Genna about The Great Gatsby these days. And that’s what really pushed all these thoughts I’m having around the bend: I think to myself, “how could your writing ever be treated like this guy’s?” I say again, I never liked literature. The English teachers in school would gather to one side of the faculty room discussing books, even books I had read, in ways that made me feel stupid. Yet they were so engaged- gushing, really- over the deep meaning of it all. Those books had something I wasn’t noticing, a level of appreciation that maybe I’m not built to “get”, and if so, then I’m a poor guide to describe what it is to you. But a distant, misty glimpse is still something seen.

I call the third level, for now, Theme

It’s another entire strata tying the tale together, like Plot and Character, and I only guess from the clues of others and my inchoate vision, it’s the level that makes everything mean two things at one time. While all the stuff is happening, as the characters are displaying their virtues, vices and quirks, there’s just another THING that it all means. I can joke about it rather easily, even in my ignorance: pull my glasses down my nose, mimic holding a brandy snifter and say, “of course, it’s man’s struggle against himself”. Or nature, or the futility of breathing; or maybe it’s all of those things all the time, I just have no idea. Theme is the word one of my close friends advised me to consider, in the second year of my chronicling (2009). I was drafting my beloved opus, the work closest to my heart- and coincidentally the tale that’s coming out beginning this summer, at long last a trunk novel no longer. Judgement’s Tale means more to me than I can readily say, so it’s fair to describe my state as constantly heightened these days. But my close friend urged me to think of the theme of any longer work like this- what is the one thing it really means, he asked. And I could tell then he was onto something, I knew it. But I also knew that if I made any part of my work beholden to it- if I refused to continue before I answered the question- I would stop altogether, and probably for good.

Looking back, now that the novel is done and I’ve polished it seriously twelve times, I think I have an idea or two about what it means. There are some themes that run through the book. I know it would be better if I had noticed them from the start, worked them in and not settled for just letting things happen or for characters to grow and deepen in (my) ignorance of them.

But not to put too fine a point on it, that’s what writers do. Not me. My tales will either have deeper meaning for you, or they won’t. I pray for the former because I’m vain and because no one wants to do something less well than possible. But trying to describe the themes I see to you, as if some exciting movie I’d just watched, that’s where my train stops and I get off. I shall keep my counsel, for a change- but I am eager to hear your feedback around Theme especially, as you discuss the way you analyze tales.

Do you get to the third level in your writing?