The Recipe Book of Writerly Contrivance

Recently finished Gordon Dahlquist’s Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, and have been itching to write a blog about it. Not because I was incredibly impressed, but because the flaws of the book are distinctive enough to be interesting.

The novel received a $2m advance for its author, but lost its publisher nearly $800K. The reasons for both are easily identifiable.

First, the good. Dahlquist creates three strong and distinctive main characters, The three characters have credible, consistent, empathetic interior voices and react logically to what goes around them. Dahlquist has obviously put some heavy work into giving his characters very different styles of viewing and dealing with the world they’re presented with, and this gives the book better pacing than its 700+ pages would otherwise indicate.

The three characters retain independence from each other, indeed Dahlquist separates the structure of the novel into three different point-of-view strands for each character, interweaving them at the bookends.

A miraculous appearance or perplexing disappearance at the end of one section may be explained in a subsequent (but chronologically earlier) section from another character’s perspective. The sections dovetail with commendable neatness, which mean that foreshadowing in one chapter is repaid with interest in the next.

Dahlquist also has a beautiful eye for descriptive language and an imagination for the bizarre and macabre. Whether it’s an assassin who spends his spare time in a library or the woman whose body is turning slowly to blue glass, Dahlquist throws disquieting  imagery and scenes at the reader regularly, but with enough mundanity interleaved in to prevent the reader from becoming too jaded.

The book falls down, however, on two of the basic building blocks of a novel: plot and setting.

The setting is nominally “steampunk” (a genre with as many detractors as supporters), with leather masks, great tubes heaving with infernal liquids, an airship and a bona fide mad scientist. But the setting remains generic Western Europe; maybe a cliche’ steampunk London and maybe not. Despite Dahlquist’s gift for description, the overall feel is very generic, the hotels and noble houses a warren of interchangeable, sumptuously appointed rooms (oh, plus devices of hideous design and purpose of course). It’s feels neither true to life nor impressively inventive. It’s the setting for the story to play out, and for the characters to move within, and it really feels like that’s all there is. The supposedly massive and nefarious plot (on which more later) doesn’t feel like it will effect that world in any particularly profound way. If plots affect individuals, we need to have emotional investment in those people. If plots are ambiguously implied to affect the fate of nations, then we need to emotionally invest in those nations, either through a character’s viewpoint or through useful proxies.

Dahlquist tries to charge his setting with sex and sensuality, but – depending on how erotic you find voyeurism and outright sexual assault – doesn’t really succeed in anything more than titillation. The lead character is a virginal young woman, and Dahlquist really angles his book around the idea of sexual temptation and awakening for that character. But given that she’s in fear of her life for quite a significant period of the novel, and is too busy surviving to develop that side of her character, it comes across as creepy window-dressing rather than exploring the character’s growth.

A more distasteful interpretation is it’s used as seasoning to spice up the evil nature of the antagonists, which turns it into a cheap and nasty flourish rather than a key factor of the settings and characters Dahlquist is trying to craft.

Secondly, the plot. Now a contrivance or two is unavoidable in fiction, which as I’ve noted previously, needs to work in a far more linear way than life actually does in order to work as a narrative. But the book is drunk on coincidence, on fortuitously-overheard conversations, discovered documents, lucky breaks and revelations that improbably link together unconnected characters and their tragic backstories.

One or two serendipitous accidents are necessary. In many cases, there is no option other than to cheat on the recipe in order to get it right. But you need to make sure you make too many substitutions for genuine ingredients, because there is a limit to how many your reader can take before hurling the book off the bed and turning off the light (which I did on several occasions with this book).

Part of the problem is structural. Third-person limited narrative perspectives have many strengths, but are not ideal in providing complex exposition. All the information needs to emerge from the experiences of the main characters., which constrains what you can reveal, and when. Dahlquist (perhaps with an intentional nod to the fiction of the period of his setting) sends his characters careering into secured areas, donning disguises to infiltrate secret gatherings and coming across confidential documents with annoying frequency.

Conversations between villains  devolve into a sea of euphemisms and ambiguous ellipses because the writer needed them to keep the reader ignorant, not because it was plausible for them to be circumspect.

To add to the problem, the author kept the actual details of the plot so close to his chest I failed to care about the ill-defined evil masterplan. There was never any moment of revelation as to what the consequences would be if it came to fruition. I found myself wondering whether I should care rather than being shown why I should. As a minor (if glaring) flaw, there’s also some Bond-villain level stupidity involved in the conspiracy attempting to dispose of the main characters.

Once again, I’m not sure whether some of this isn’t just a Perils of Pauline-style homage. Ultimately the repeated use of the same recipe substitutions for good writing turned me against this book, which tasted worse and worse every time I detected their tang  on my palate until by the end I was just waiting for the sourness to spread across my tongue at predictable intervals.

Now the above may have come across as a bit more harsh than I actually felt whilst reading the book, but if you fail to be carried along by a story because you can still see the fingermarks of the author’s hand on every plot turn, your final impressions will be more negative than not.

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1 Response to The Recipe Book of Writerly Contrivance

  1. Pingback: Pace Pays the Narrative Bills | Dispatches from the Gilded Cage

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