Monday, March 29, 2004

Alexander Besher, Chi, and the structure of novels

Alexander Besher is the author of Chi, a novel which I found by the simple device of wandering round the library till I came across something that looked interesting. This is not an infallible method, but it has produced some winners in the past: John Lawton and William Smethurst for example (the latter's novels, by the way, not the Archers books).

Chi is a remarkable novel in many ways, absolutely bursting with interesting ideas. Science fiction, of course, so it may not be your thing. It did bring home to me, however, that no matter how talented you are, you do need a certain grounding in technique to write a book which is absolutely going to grip the reader by the balls -- or possibly some other suitable attachment. And Besher, I fear, falls a tad short in that ball-gripping department.

To be precise, there are too many flashbacks for my taste. His time frame goes back and forth at a great rate of knots. Yes, I've used flashbacks myself, and it's always tempting, but really it just slows down the action, at best. At worst, it can put you off completely, as it did in my case with Martin Cruz Smith's last one, Tokyo Station. Never did finish that, though I usually enjoy his stuff.

Then there's the rather confusing array of characters in Chi. Just a few too many of them for my simple taste. Besher would have been better off, in my view, by sticking to three or four main characters, with each chapter being told from the viewpoint of one of them. That is perhaps the ideal structure, if you're interested in doing the job well. Ken Follett's The Key to Rebecca is a model which would repay study.

The trouble is, of course, where does a chap go to get trained in this narrative structure stuff? A new, young, beginning writer that is. An MA course in creative writing? Oh, please, don't make me laugh, I shall loosen me stitches. His editor? No, no, you really must stop. Once upon a time there were editors who understood these things. Marie F. Rodell, for example. And Barbara Norville. But they seem to be an extinct species. Modern fiction editors are too busy reading synopses and doing lunch to have any time to think about structure.

What about a writer's agent? Well, now we're getting somewhere. It's perfectly true that the best books about fiction have been written by agents because they're the people at the sharp end who know what sells and what doesn't. So if you're interested in knowing how to write an effective piece of fiction you could do a lot worse than read Al Zuckerman, Paul F. Reynolds, Scott Meredith, and Malcolm MacCampbell. At least half of whom are out of print, of course, but there's always the secondhand market. Dean Koontz wrote a decent book about popular fiction too. In fact I think he wrote it twice.

I can't help wondering how many copies Chi actually sold. Not a great many, I suspect, at any rate in the UK. And it must have taken a great deal of time. No wonder he seems to have a modest output, and it's just as well that he has other strings to his bow.

No comments: