Friday, October 16, 2009

(Long-Winded) Coda to my Black Angel Post

Okay, so I thought I didn't like The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich, and in case you missed it, I told everyone exactly why here. And I didn't. However, it's one of those books that proves the theory that there is a fine line between love and hate (that line being made up of the letters p-a-s-s-i-o-n, all in a row, saluting their sergeant). No, I didn't like it at all. However, unlike something about which I might have said, "Oh, I don't know. I kind of thought it was okay. Well, no, maybe I didn't like it too much..." this one has stuck with me, and I've been thinking about it a lot. Dammit! I wish I'd been at the live discussion and had been able to talk about it with others.

The closest thing I came to that was Ms. Musing's comments on my post and Dorr's post on it. And then there was the email from one of those friends of mine who does not comment on my blog but will email a response to me when I write about familiar books and authors. That email read as follows:

Too bad you didn't like the Woolrich. I've read a smattering of his books, and no one does anxiety like him. Of course, he knew nothing about women. Look up his bio: he lived a reclusive life with his mother in a hotel room, for God's sake. It's all in the style, sugar: you think Chandler's plots make any sense? The best way to read him is with a bottle of scotch and a headcold.

So, a million thoughts ran through my brain after reading this email, not the least of which was, "Maybe I ought to look up a little something about the author and the book before writing my posts." But no. I've told everyone before why I don't do that. I want to write about books the same way I want to read them: knowing absolutely nothing. When I decide to read a book, I try not to read too many reviews, and I will not read anything that warns that it contains spoilers. In fact, I get very annoyed if anyone (book reviewer, blogger, well-meaning friend...) tells me too much about a book I have decided to read. Call me independent, but I want to draw my own conclusions. When I write and talk about a book, I want what I write to be pure, simple, gut reaction. I do not want it to be influenced by knowing too much about the author or how the book was received by the public or by critics. I was not an English major. Literary analysis is not my thing. I just happen to be someone who loves to read and who responds to books on a visceral level.

Then again, I also happen to be someone whose parents ought to have named her Insecurity (a very pretty name, no?). That means I can easily be found splashing around in waves of doubt, wondering if my instincts and gut reactions are way off base. I mean, if Woolrich is someone who obviously knew nothing about women, then it stands to reason that he was not trying to write a real character here. He must have, as Ms. Musings mused, been digging at something much deeper. I gave this book far too superficial a reading. I should not have been expecting this character to be the least bit believable. That was not her purpose. Her purpose was to give us far bigger truths than I'd given her credit for understanding.

But then, naturally, the piece of me who is always off partying with movie stars and other well-known figures and never has much time to stop back in at home to remind the others hanging out in my brain that she is a member of the family, and who resents the fact that her bedroom is now a huge walk-in closet, in other words, Ms. Secure as Fort Knox, decides to come home. She takes one look at the thoughts strewn all over my brain and decides they need to be kicked around some. Suddenly, some new thoughts begin to emerge. One of these is the oh-so-obvious,

"If Woolrich knew nothing about women, then why on earth did he decide to make a woman the main protagonist of his tale and proceed to tell the whole thing from her point of view?"

I mean, good question, right? I am a writer. No matter what sort of point I am trying to make, there is no way on earth I would decide that I need to make it using the voice of a gay, sixteen-year-old Brazilian boy. I mean, I know absolutely nothing about being a gay, sixteen-year-old Brazilian boy. How could I possibly write such a work? My ego would have to be far larger than it is for me to do decide to do that.

I stick to my guns, then. I don't mind an absurd plot if it's being carried out by real characters, characters that not only do things that make sense, but characters with whom I could have a conversation without wondering if they are some sort of visitors from another planet pretending to be Earthlings. I do not, however, want an absurd plot that becomes insanely absurd because the characters are not the least bit believable. Dorr was correct to point out that I was probably wrong to state that women aren't likely to stand by their men in such a way. It's true; some do (I read Wally Lamb's edited collection of stories written by women in prison only to discover that almost all of them were in prison because they happened to be accomplices to crimes that were actually committed by lovers), so it's believable that Alberta seemed to be willing to do anything for her husband. It's believable that a woman might break the law in order to prove her husband's innocence. However, it is not believable that a woman would meet a very creepy doctor; decide to come back to his place at night, all alone with no protection (especially since she already suspected he could be a murderer before she met him); and follow him into his unlit house. Maybe young women on other planets do such things, but certainly not women living in New York City (in any era). Like the idiot girls in Michael and Jason Take Freddy's Nightmare, who hear an odd noise and decide to go down to the basement to see what it is, instead of leaving the house as fast as their beautiful long legs can carry them, she lost all credibility at that point. That means I lost my interest (which is okay when watching a slasher movie, because there will always be some scene to jolt the interest back -- like those unbelievable girls being stabbed to death by an unbelievable masked mad man everyone was sure was dead, while the one character who will survive has been smart enough to get out of the house and is busy trying to start the car with the engine that seems to have died -- but is not okay when reading a book).

If Woolrich wanted to encourage me to explore some deeper issues, he should have done so by giving me characters who made sense. That means, since he doesn't seem to have known anything about women, he should have given me a man who was trying to prove his wife's innocence. Now, that might have been both an interesting philosophical exploration and a believable book. And if he weren't trying to do that, if all he was trying to do was give me a fun, thrilling yarn, well, then, he failed miserably. However, I do still think that the story, if in the hands of the right writers, directors, and producers (a creepy doctor who follows her instead of her coming to his place, anyone?) could have been improved tremendously and made into a great movie. If I ever get around to watching the movie, I'll let you know.


Dorothy W. said...

Very interesting! There's so much to think about here. I'll admit my own bias -- I don't like to say that one person can't write another person wildly different from him or her, and I probably take this claim too far. So I want to say do we really, truly know Woolrich didn't know anything about women? And what does it mean to know something about women? Are women a category that can be known? I guess my impulse is to want to take Woolrich out of the picture entirely, since we can't really know what he knew or didn't know. And that leaves us with the text itself, which ... well, I agree with you that it got unbelievable and became a lot less fun as the book went along. I suppose, for me, it became unbelievable not so much because the main character did crazy things (I think people do wildly crazy and amazingly stupid things all the time) but because the plot sped up so much and Woolrich stopped taking time to describe things well. I got knocked out of the world of the story by bad writing.

Clearly we need to talk about this in real life. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post! (I hope I don't sound obnoxious in this comment -- I'm just trying to think through my responses.)

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, you don't sound at all obnoxious. When we next get together, we must talk about all this. I'm beginning to wonder if my biggest problem wasn't just the bad writing you mention, and that I'm focused on an "unbelievable" character, because characterization is so important to me, when it was really just a poorly conceived and written book. This is making me think even more about plot and characterization. Meanwhile, I, too, am one who wants to believe that a writer can write a character who is wildly different from him/her, particularly because I certainly hope I am not doomed only to write about white, Southern, females who moved North. However, I'm not convinced a writer can write about that which she or he knows nothing. But you're right. How do we know, really, whether Woolrich knew about women or not? We can't get that from a Wikipedia article. And is that what really bothered me so much, or was it the complete absurdity of such things as the dance club bit, which, really, wasn't just unbelievable plot, but rather, maybe BAD plot. But how do we tell the difference? It must come down to the writing, no? The friend I quoted in this post had more to say to me about my need for believability in art, but really, isn't that what art is all about: making the unbelievable believable? Consider painting. What do we love about it? It makes the two-dimensional believable to those of us who live in a 3-dimensional world. Just so much to discuss... Thanks for continuing the discussion with me.