There are numerous articles on “writerly jealousy,” as a simple search via your browser will reveal. This post is to be yet another. However, I feel I need to begin by clarifying that, by definition, it cannot be referred to as jealousy – it is envy.
It is one thing to love something enough to want to read it again. It is another thing entirely to enjoy how a plot (or lack of plot) unfolds, the depth of the characters and how they interact, the authenticity of the setting, and the deft manner in which themes and motifs are intertwined so much that you want to deconstruct the work, to study and learn from it. This is a sure sign of envy.
That being said, here are the Top Five (a nod to High Fidelity) literary works I currently envy the most:
5. Pulp Fiction
Wait! What are you talking about? That’s a movie!
Yes, you are correct. And granted, film making is a collaborative process. It may begin with a screenplay being written, yet many more hands eventually mold it into what becomes the final product we see. (Oh, how often I’ve wished to be part of such a process.) Tarantino is so methodical, however, and his plots so well structured, I imagine once he’s completed a screenplay, it doesn’t veer much during production – what you see is what he’s written.
Sure, his films are as visceral as a slaughter-house – violent, emotional roller coasters. But his characters have substance, his dialogue is authentic and alive, and he seamlessly intertwines themes worth taking a second (third or fourth) look at. What was is in the briefcase? Marsellus Wallace’s soul? The Hope of Mankind, implying the briefcase was a Pandora’s Box? Then there’s the “honor among thieves” motif running throughout, not unlike the cowboy’s unspoken “code of the west.” Pulp is inhabited by lowlife, disreputable folk. Yet they come to display an unusual integrity of character and sense of duty when the time comes. This allows us to care, if not like, these people we would otherwise never want to actually meet.
Finally, Pulp Fiction has a literary-sense to it; from its circular, episodic narrative to the way it’s divided up into prologues and chapters. It will forever be my favorite Tarantino film, as well as one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. (For more gushing about Tarantino, check out my post Once…or Twice.)
4. A Clockwork Orange
Talk about a violent, loathsome protagonist. Yet, we somehow come to care about him. Possibly because he comes to sincerely seek redemption on his own, without forced behavioral re-programming. We’re not soulless machines. Our thoughts and feelings must be our own; the desire for atonement, the need to do right must be genuine. Otherwise, there is no meaning – within ourselves, within our lives. Or, possibly, we come to recognize that on a greater level the actions of the government upon Alex were as morally heinous as the crimes he committed.
For my tastes, I find politics and art rarely mix well. What I admire about Burgess’ unique novel is his ability to convey a powerful message without being as preachy or smarmy as my explanation above. I also love the language he created for the book’s narrative. Sure, it may be a little hard to read at first. But Burgess unapologetically and enthusiastically moves forward while respecting his reader’s intelligence enough to keep up. A Clockwork Orange is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
3. The Red Violin
Yep. Another movie. One of the most beautiful movies ever made, in my opinion. It is a great lesson in storytelling, as well.
Although it spans centuries and takes us back-and-forth from past to present, it requires little effort from the viewer to follow along as it unfolds deceptively easy. Deceptive because it shares it secrets slyly, through the turning of a 17th century fortune-teller’s tarot cards juxtaposed with the results of modern-day scientific testing being done on the violin preceding its pending auction in Montreal.
It is an ambitious production that deftly avoids pretension and never condescends to its audience. Film critic Roger Ebert summed it best when he wrote: There really is a little something here for everyone: music and culture, politics and passion, crime and intrigue, history and even the backstage intrigue of the auction business.
All of which began, I feel, with a great piece of writing.
2. A Prayer for Owen Meany
It’s no secret my favorite writer is John Irving. And of all his novels, in my opinion, the story of a boy with a wrecked voice remains his best.
At its core, it is about having religious faith when there is no obvious evidence for the existence of God. Throughout his life, thus throughout the course of the book, Owen Meany develops the conviction that he is “God’s instrument.” It isn’t until the novel’s climax that his best friend, John Wheelwright (the story’s narrator), comes to believe, as well. As we read, we too become, if not fully convinced, at least open to the possibility of a higher being. A testament to the strength of Irving’s writing.
There are so many things to envy about Irving’s abilities. The richness of his characters and settings; his detailed, layered plots; the way he manages to make the complexities of his novels so readable. The best example of Irving’s skill can be seen in the opening to A Prayer for Owen Meany. As Irving himself puts it, “What makes the first sentence…such a good one is that the whole novel is contained in it.”
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
Man, I wish I’d written that!
When I decided to take writing seriously, some 30 years ago, I had subscribed to Tomorrow magazine, a monthly anthology of speculative fiction edited by author and critic Algis Budrys. It was a fantastic source of contemporary speculative literature, which I longed to write. In the February, 1995 issue I came across the short story Convert by Valerie J. Freireich. It’s difficult to summarize, but I’ll give it a try:
The nameless protagonist is a salesman for Universal Man Corp., a company that manufactures people – in this case, surrogate infidels to be slaughtered by the Visorittes as examples of what happens to non-believers. As the salesman states, “If the Visorittes and others like them didn’t have manufactured infidels to kill, they’d find real ones. People like me wouldn’t be safe.” Yet, what happens when one of the Universal Man Corp. products converts to the Visor beliefs. His life is spared, but since he’s not a real human, his presence might breed discontent. The high priest wants a refund and the defective item taken away. Now the salesman is stuck with the “defective” merchandise, and for some reason can’t bring himself to return the convert back to Corp. for disposal.
This isn’t the only time Freireich examined the idea of manufactured humans – How would they be accepted by society? Would they have souls? This concept is the core of her Harmony of Worlds series, which includes Award-winning novels Becoming Human and Testament. In fact, Convert could be considered part of that series.
What I admire most about Freireich’s writing is her ability to drop you into the world she’s created with little or no explanation as to what exactly that world is. She’s a master at showing-not-telling; her exposition is so seamless as to be non-existent. Yet, she creates realities and characters that are immensely detailed and fully fleshed-out. We only need to see the tip of the iceberg to understand the depth of what lies underneath. Oh, how often is the writer’s hand present (mine included) to the reader. Not so under Freireich’s touch. From the very start, we are immersed in the story, its creator wholly invisible.
That is what should be most envied, I think, in all writing. Because in the end, the story is all that matters.