Saturday, July 2, 2011

Style is Everything

Okay, not everything, but if you want people to pay attention to you and to understand you, how you communicate is important. You can feel heaps of inspiration on your morning walk, or for that matter, while you are high, but you are really not saying anything unless you say it deliberately. I used to want to write poems about feelings that I thought were important, but most of them were useless and cheesy because they weren't focused and the style was shallow (even if what I was trying to say was not). Style relates directly to audience and writers must be very aware of who they want to talk to.

Apparently young adult authors are not wanting to talk to me. Let me explain what bothers me about Mark Zusak's bestseller The Book Thief.

Now I am only on page 46, but I need to give my thoughts on style before I get sucked up in plot. First of all, lets look at the back. USA Today says, "Poised to become a classic" and Time compares it to Slaughterhouse Five. This book may be very popular, but will never become a classic to be placed next to Slaughterhouse Five because it is a young adult book, written in young adult book style.

Let's start with the narrator. If you want to tell a character's story not from the perspective of the character and not from the perspective of the author, you have a couple different choices. You can write from the perspective of another character (sometimes this starts out with a character telling a story to another character, like in Ursula Le Guin's  "Ile Forest") or you can take an omniscient narrator approach (yes this is different from the author inserting himself as a narrator). The omniscient narrator is usually described as one with "god-like" knowledge, but Zusak turns this around and writes from the perspective of Death, combining the omniscient narrator with the "other character" narrator.

It is a very clever idea, but I have a hard time with Death having a personality with human-like thoughts and frustrations ("Mistakes, mistakes, its all I seem capable of at times"), but also full access into humans lives and thoughts ("Liesel had no idea where she was.") This leaves me feeling like this is a story written by Santa Claus, he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, but he enjoys Christmas lights on his way to work and he might not get all the toys made in time for Christmas. I am left wondering who is Death, what is Zusak trying to say about Death (if anything), and what are the limits of Death? This distracts from the story of Liesel. Death becomes too central to play the role of an omniscient narrator.

So Zusak cheats by using Death. You may say that you can't cheat when you are writing fiction. There are no rules a writer has to abide by! And I would agree with you, but whatever a writer does to break the rules, it has to work within the story and for me it does not. Zusak could have made Death work as a narrator, but so far, he has just made Death too unrealistic. You say, "of course Death is unrealistic, the character is not real!" Yes, I know all that, I can trust the author and jump into a fictional setting, but the parts have to be realistic within the context. Let me show you why it is not.
1. Why is Death trying to prove to the human reader that he is cheerful? This seems beside the point, again this goes back to why Death has a distinct human personality in the first place.
2. What the heck does Death mean by "the sound of the smell"? Writers often mix senses to create a certain imagery, but this is so vague that it doesn't have any imagery.
3. Death talks about color being perched on his shoulder as you die, but then he talks about your color being in the sky. Which one is it? Or perhaps Death is an unreliable narrator. A new twist!
4. "Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me." Uh... what people? Why is invisible Death chatting to "people" about what color suits him. Are these people other death people? Am I missing something here?

If its not enough for Death to be an unrealistic narrator, Zusak himself is unreliable at times. For example, in one moment, frozen blood is cracked across Liesel's hands from digging for her dead brother's body in the snow, and the next she walks away holding hands with her mom. Wouldn't clutching a book in one hand and holding your mom's hand with the other hurt your bloody, frozen hands? Wouldn't Mom notice that her daughter is all frozen and bloody? No, Zusak makes it too easy.

Next I will explain how the style of this book is too cliche. Zusak relies way too heavily on fragments, this successfully makes the tone more dramatic but at the price of sounding cliche. He also uses cliche phrases like "dynamic duo." You can the describe the guards any way you want and you choose to use a phrase that has been used so much all it has left to mean is two? Yes, we understand that there are two of them already. Are you trying to tell us that they are great buddies? There are much better ways of doing this. Zusak also gives up credibility for cliches, like with these sentences, "Somewhere in all the snow, she could see her broken heart, in two pieces. Each half was glowing, and beating under all that white." Really? A nine year old imagines her bloody heart in two pieces, beating under the snow? Children are honest, they don't usually see themselves or the world in cliches. On another note, have you ever seen anybody with metallic, soft, melting silver eyes? Of course if we did, we would automatically see that they are the eyes of someone worth a lot, as Liesel saw in Herr Hubermann. Gray maybe, but silver?

Only one more thing to complain about. Zusak constantly breaks the first rule of good writing: show, don't tell. He abruptly tells us the important things we need to know instead of carefully showing us through the characters thoughts and actions (this way makes the reader feel the story much more deeply). For example, instead of telling us that Liesel stood in disbelief, it would have been much more powerful to show it on her face, or in how she walks. Another example is that Zusak tells us Liesel can't believe that her mom loves her, even though she heard "I love you" and knows why she was abandoned. It would have been much more powerful to show them interact, to show Mom standing over Liesel in the middle of the night, Liesel waking up and touching the premature wrinkles on her mother's face, and then showing Mom jerk at her touch, turn away and leave Liesel in the dark. I think that would do the trick, and it would be much more believable coming from a child. However, the most obvious way Zusak shows instead of tells is with Death's interruptions marked in bold and surrounded with *****. Doesn't he have any faith that the reader can pick out what is important without marking it with stars??

Perhaps I have had too many English classes or read too many good books. Now that I've gotten this out though, I am going to try to put Zusak's young adult style behind me and enjoy what looks like a promising plot.

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