I’m a big re-reader of most things, particularly cereal packets and shampoo bottle labels (depending where I’m sitting), and recently I decided to take another trip into Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 ‘classic’ The Songlines.
I first read this for a university module a couple of years after it came out. Aged 22, I was suitably dazzled by its post-modern mash-up of fact, fiction, storytelling, reflection, scholarly insight and travel book. Now, having just been to Australia for the first time (albeit to a Perth suburb more akin to Neighbours than anything approaching a dusty Outback settlement) I thought I might once again pick up on the ancient Aboriginal vibrations cited by Chatwin, and thereby find my way from Bristol to Bath without a satnav.
Sadly, this time around the book was a crock of shit, as the Aussies might say. The kaleidoscopic, encylopaedic sprawl that seemed to cast new light on a culture long since consigned by White Australia to the empty beer can of history was nothing more than an exercise in literary showing off. At best, it seemed dubious (not that that’s always a bad thing); at worst it was short-sighted, Eurocentric and – crime of crimes – it didn’t have much of a story.
There, I’ve said it. A book about the oldest stories known to man has, at its heart, little or no story-telling skill, no narrative structure. I didn’t want Dan Brown, for sure, but passing acquaintance with the classic three-act drama might have been just a bit helpful. In the 80s, such quaint notions were extremely unfashionable (and yes, maybe it’s my age) but today the desire for gripping stories, well-told and with characters we either love or hate, but are never indifferent to, is, I think, stronger than ever, especially in deeply uncertain times.
I’m not alone in this. Among the coterie of hip late 80s writers Martin Amis stood out as being particularly tricksy when it came to plot. Yet even he seems to have mellowed. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he had this to say about one of his best-known novels: “I was snooty at some radio event where people read your novel – it was London Fields – and then you take questions from them, and a lady said, ‘I’m sorry, but I struggled with it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t care about the characters.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m afraid you should really not be thinking about that. You should be thinking about what the author’s trying to do.’ But I think she was dead right.” It is the truth before which all matters of style melt away. “You have to give a shit.”’
You certainly do. Indifference to character is, in my book (so to speak), one of the greatest disappointments a reader is forced to bear. You HAVE to make your reader care about your cast. It’s no use hoping that three-quarters way through the book they’ll suddenly start to admire the curmudgeonly white middle-aged man spending his life watching Netflix. Yes, he can be this character right the way through the narrative but if he’s the one taking us into his world we have to care about it, and him. And when I say ‘care’ I don’t mean ‘empathise’. ‘The Sisters Brothers’, by Patrick DeWitt features two of the most despicable, unlovely and murderous people ever to walk the earth but because they’re so well drawn we can’t help but root for them – even if we do want them to die right from the beginning. The satirical German novel ‘Look Who’s Back’ (Timur Vermes, 2013) is another case in point – dammit, by the end of the book we’re actually cheering on Adolf Hitler!
Chatwin’s sound and fury is in sharp contrast to a much lower-key book I read late last year (and have re-read and re-re read). ‘Neither Dog Nor Wolf’, by American author Kent Nerburn, is also a road trip featuring Indigenous people (American Indians this time) and the author is again at the centre of the story. This time, however, the sense of the white man not just learning something, but being subsumed and even humiliated into considering a way of life that mixes patient understanding of the universe with deep and righteous anger, is quietly palpable the whole way through. By degrees, the book builds into a visceral climax which involves sacrifice (of sorts) and redemption too. Last year the book was made into a low-budget movie that reflects all the stillness, reflection and rawness of the paperback.
You don’t have to be gentle with your characters. You don’t have to like them. But you have to show them off, in all their dimensionality. Character drives plot, not the other way round. Characters act the way they do because of who they are, and how they react. Chatwin’s book is, if anything, too convenient. He had the ‘plot’ – he just needed a few stock characters to flesh it out. Hence its one-dimensional nature, and a lost chance to describe a way of thinking about existence few had heard of at the time.