Thursday, February 21, 2019

Metaphors in the Attic

READING: What book did you not enjoy, but motivated you in your own writing?

by Catriona 

This is timely. In the last month I've given up on a recent hit crime novel  - lauded as "original", "a triumph", "blisteringly real", "utterly compelling", "beautiful"  and "astonishingly good" . . . I made it to page fifty before breaking my "give it a hundred pages" rule over my knee and throwing both bits behind me.

Then I read Flowers in The Attic.  Oy, oy, oy.

Flowers in The Attic was yet another bit of American popular culture I felt I'd missed out on that would be worth catching up with. And enough reliable pals praised it - looking at you, Kristopher Zgorski - for me to give it a go.


The incest - consensual between siblings, not child abuse by an adult - was believable in the context and served as evidence of the mess these kids were in. BUT the lingering over the details was still - here comes a literary theory analysis - icky. And I learned nothing. I already knew that the authorial stance you take in relation to potentially titillating details is crucial.

Then - seriously, SPOILERS - one of the kids died. A little boy with golden curls who'd tamed a mouse and learned to play the banjo . . . died.  Not since I switched off that episode of season one of The Wire and sat staring at the black telly screen, have I been so reluctant to believe what my eyes just told me. "Maybe he's been hidden? They didn't see the body. Keep reading."

But no. He died. I didn't exactly learn anything from that. I already knew it was wrong because Stephen King (curtsy) said, on a discussion about the difference between a short story and a novel - "Misery" or Misery -  that "no one wants to root for a guy over three hundred pages only to discover that between chapter sixteen and chapter seventeen . . ."

Of course, little Cory wasn't the hero of FitA. But still there was something off-kilter about his death and its aftermath. It served as a reminder that if you're going to kill a child in fiction, you need to get it right. I think it can't be tidy, facile, quickly handled, plotty, or convenient. It can't be a lesson. It shouldn't have the look of a fridge-magnet homily.  

I think if you're going to kill a fictional kid it should be like that episode of The Wire. It should be shocking. 

But what I really learned from FitA was the importance of pacing. And that's a lesson I badly need*. The book - after Cory's death - fell off a cliff. The plot start to move faster and faster and the resolution I'd been rooting for for three hundred pages wasn't just rushed. It was cursory. I was left with the suspicion that, sometime towards the end of the writing, Andrews got the idea that it was going to be a series and didn't want to leave herself with nothing to say in book two.

I have no evidence for that. But I took it to heart anyway. Forget the career. When you finish a book you should be completely spent; everything on the page and nothing up the sleeve.

*My editor fixes the results of this habit of mine before anyone else ever sees it, by the way. I close the draft with a bang. She pleads for another chapter or two. I moan and do them. She's right. I'm wrong. The book is better than the draft was.

So, all in all, I'm glad I read Flowers in the Attic. I could have lived a happy life without the image of that amaryllis stalk swelling into a plump bud, mind you. That was worse than Hitchcock's worst.

Should have left it here, Hitch.
And the recent "vivid gem", "tragic and brave", "poignant" and "unputdownable"? It was a debut. And it taught me to stop worrying that I maybe don't have another book in me after twenty five of the things have come out of me. Instead, I'm going to be glad I'll never write a first book again.


Kristopher said...

Melodramatic was a word invented for Flowers in the Attic (not really, but you know what I mean.)

I think much depends on when you read the book in one's life - I know that both I and LynDee Walker will stand by this book - but I suspect if either of us had first read it now, our reaction would feel very different.

There is still much debate about how much of FITA was fiction and how much of it was directly influences by Virgina's life. Wheelchair-bound and isolated, there is no doubt in my mind that her view of life was tainted by a lack of socialization. And sadly, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a history of abuse in her life.

As for Cory's death, I will defend that forever. He was a true innocent and I want my books to reflect the real world. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sure, it's fine to be one of those folks for whom the risk to children or the death of an animal is is just "too much" for an enjoyable past time, I get it. But as readers of crime fiction, we really can't "throw stones" because more than one of our favorite novels is sure to have questionable content and deaths that somehow we manage to overlook.

It's not a classic piece of literature and it's not intended to be. It's a pulp novel intended to shock. I won't go into details, but interestingly, the fifth book in the series (a prequel) negates much of the action in FITA that seems questionable - while opening other avenues of equally disturbing behavior.

There are continuing themes through all of VC Andrews' books, even once the ghost-writer took over and continues her legacy. I don't see the amaryllis metaphor as any more objectionable than Thomas Hardy's sudden rainstorms in books like Far From the Madding Crowd. Literature has a tradition of using nature to signify sexual activity. Whether that is good or bad is debatable, but it's a trope for a reason.

LynDee said...

I will follow on to much of what Kris said above—I was 13 the first time I read this book, and the world was a different place than it is today. We didn't have every horrid thing a human can conceive of doing in our faces every minute thanks to smartphones and the Internet, and we didn't have people who stormed into schools and churches on shooting sprees. So the crimes against the children in this book were shocking, horrifying, and at least to me at the time: so unimaginable that had to be make-believe. I suspect if I were to open FitA for the first time today I would react in much the same way you did, Catriona. But back in middle school, I read books where kids dying was a central plot point every single week (Lurlene McDaniel, anyone?), and Cory's death in the book didn't really shock me that I recall. I just felt sorry for Carrie, and I loathed and despised the mom and grandma because, as a child myself, I identified with the kids, put myself in their shoes, and thought about all the ways I would try to get back at the villainous people keeping them locked away.

Today, especially as a mom, I imagine I would find it difficult to comprehend how anybody could be so cruel and evil, and maybe too heartbreaking to read about children trapped in such a horrid situation. Now that I think about it that way, I wonder if that's why these novels have been repackaged and marketed for YA since I read them. When I was a kid they were solidly in the "general (read: grown-up) fiction" section of the bookstore, which was part of the appeal for me at the time.

And at 13, it seems I was a bit naive, because the metaphor about the flower bud went right over my head. I don't even remember it. :)

catriona said...

All so very true, Kris and Lyndee.

A book is only half the story and I can't imagine what I would have made of FitA if I'd read at 13. I didn't identify with the children - I wanted to steam in and save them - and I didn't identify with the adults (because their choices had put me beyond feeling any interest in what had led to those choices). I identified with the author. I pretty much read the whole book in inverted commas.

Even at that I was in (amaryllis aside) until the last forty pages, when the pacing turned into what felt like a domino fall of revelations.

Susan C Shea said...

Yes, the murder of Wallace in the first season of The Wire was a shock to everyone, and absolutely haunting. George Pelecanos wrote it and he later said he heard it was an emotional day for the cast and crew. "Everyone loved Michael B Jordan [who played Wallace]. " It was so traumatic that I was actually thrilled to read Jordan is alive and well and co-starring in The Black Panther! I was rooting for Wallace and wanting to shelter him. Great writing, great acting - it had so much meaning.

catriona said...

WAIT! That's Wallace? He was such a goofy looking little kid and he grew up to be Erik????

Susan C Shea said...

Yup! does that make your heart sing?