Doing a Steinbeck

Definition: when someone does something that is incongruously, or unexpectedly, stupid

See also: brainfart, blonde moment.

Plotting a novel, I have often said, is a bit like top-level sport, in that it is, more than anything, about making the right choices at the right time. Some writers appear, or appeared, to have a natural flair for it, and their novels are the most satisfying and exciting plot-wise. This talent has nothing to do with prose style; there are some wonderful prose stylists that probably couldn’t plot a novel if the fate of the entire human race depended upon it; William Gass, for example, I believe, has admitted that story-writing isn’t his forte. The problem for those who rely more on plotting than prose [we’re going to ignore characterisation, although obviously this is important too] is that it is far more noticeable when things go wrong, it is far easier to derail your novel with a false move than with a bad metaphor.

To illustrate this point, consider, briefly, the notorious [to my mind, anyway] literary mis-steps found in The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles and The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa. While the prose is strong in these two novels, it is the story that is king, and the allure, more than anything, is in the excitement engendered by wondering just where it is going next. Unfortunately, both novels take disastrous turns [The Sheltering Sky in particular] which almost manage to completely alter one’s perception of the books in question.

In Llosa’s novel it is the moment when one of the characters blesses himself with his leader’s watery waste. Yeah, you read that right. One of the characters, a man involved in a kind of religious cult, takes some of his leader’s thin faecal matter and blesses himself with it. And, uh, yeah, I get it, y’know, I understand that it is meant to show just how passionately he believes in his ‘prophet,’ that he sees him as saintly to the point that his waste is no longer something human and disgusting. But, er, it is disgusting, which is even sort of ok, but it is comically disgusting. And that’s a real problem. What is most frustrating about the scene is that there are a million other ways Mario could have made the same point[s], which wouldn’t have involved one having to trundle down the scatological route. Furthermore, there is another scene, which takes place some 500 pages into the book, which is, by the way, long after I think the novel ought to have ended [this is another plotting issue: writers who don’t know when to stop; tantric writers, i call them], when a man who has been, throughout the book, clearly in love with his wife suddenly decides to engage in some near-rape of his housekeeper. Uh? Why, Mario?

My issues with The Sheltering Sky are centred around the abrupt change in tone and atmosphere about two-thirds of the way through the book, when the central female character takes to the desert and gets involved in a lot of ridiculous bollocks [and some more rape. Ugh] that wouldn’t have been out of place in Carry On…Follow That Camel. Some of the choices in the final third of Bowles’ novel are so spectacularly bad that it could almost have been written by someone or something else, his dog perhaps or the proverbial monkey at the typewriter.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath suffers a similar fate to that of both novels previously discussed; only the point at which Steinbeck makes his false move is so close to the end, his choice so utterly bats, so out of character in relation to the rest of the book, that one cannot help but do a double-take. Did he really go there? Oh yeah, he did, he did go there. Wow. All this will seem a bit vague, but I don’t know whether I want to spoil it for you, whether I want you to experience it for yourself. In any case, I think that what I’m talking about can possibly best be represented with an image:


You have been warned.


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