Monday, April 18, 2011

“Undrinking Butlers & Unflirting Housemaids of Metal” - #26

STORY: "The Invisible Man" by G.K. Chesterton – Another short story you can find online easily. Maybe I should be reading more stories published this century?

FROM: THE ANNOTATED INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN, edited by Martin Gardner (Dover, 1998) – Story originally appeared in 1911.

BASICALLY: A far-fetched mystery in which a young man (named Angus) tries to help his romantic rival catch another romantic rival (this one EVIL) in the act of leaving threatening messages all over the place. Angus enlists the help of a reformed-criminal-turned-private-investigator (named Flambeau) who is being visited by the unimpressive-but-observant Father Brown. They do solve the mystery--too bad the first romantic rival still gets butchered. Oh well!

Leave it to me to unknowingly seek out the one "metaphysical detective story" that contains robots. Of course, Chesterton's Edwardian robot is a vaguely imagined "clockwork invention for doing all the housework by machinery," and inspired, as annotator Martin Gardner notes, by "L. Frank Baum's Tik-Tok of Oz except it was headless." These so-called robots turn out to be only minimally important to the story, merely the successful invention with which Angus' first romantic rival—a diminutive man named Isidore Smythe—recently gained his independent fortune. (I suppose they're a possible red herring, too—part of me, I must admit, hoped the Robot Butler Had Dunnit. But it was not to be.) Honestly, robots seem completely out of place and fairly ridiculous in this otherwise plain Edwardian setting. Of course, because I am me, they still kind of made me like the story more. (I mean, if nothing else, I appreciate that once upon a time Genre Conventions were not quite so rigidly defined and enforced as they are now.)

In his fascinating and helpful Introduction (which you can read here, yay Google Books), Martin Gardner explains that 

Father Brown stories obviously belong to the classical tradition of mysteries in which the reader is challenged to solve a puzzle. The story is a game between reader and writer. The author tries to play fair, yet at the same time surprise readers with a simple solution that they could have guessed but did not. Like so many Sherlockian plots, and those of Agatha Christie and other great masters of the puzzle genre, the plots of Father Brown tend to be enormously improbable. Indeed, improbable is an understatement. 
He then goes on to detail the ways in which current detective shows and movies (current as of 1985, anyway), with their car chases, bare-knuckles boxing, and bimbos, are just as fantastical in their own right. And he's got a point. What seems realistic to one generation is the cheesiest claptrap artifice to the next… isn't it kind of strange that it ever seemed realistic?

But that's the sleight-of-hand of entertainment in whatever medium—it succeeds based on a verisimilitude that is entirely manufactured. For the writer of fiction, that's both enormously freeing (since you can, in theory, make anyone believe anything) and burdensome (since it means there's no objective measure—the slightest irregularity can inadvertently puncture the fictional dream).

This quote by James Wood (spotted on the Tin House Books Blog) seems to apply here: 

I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level. 
Let that sink in. Genre, literary, whatever kind of fiction—and heck, nonfiction too—it all comes down to the degree to which the writer has managed a hunger in the reader for itself and its characters.

In "The Invisible Man," Chesterton's management is clunky at best. I'm baffled by Gardner's note that "This is perhaps the best known, most anthologized of all Father Brown stories." Father Brown doesn't even show up until twelve pages in. Before that, we get Angus (who, as I far as I know, is not a recurring or otherwise significant Chesterton character) peering in at a sweets-shop window, entering and proposing to a pretty shopgirl he barely knows, then her long tale of the two men (ugly! and loafers!) who already spontaneously asked her to marry them, and how they went away to seek their fortunes which they already had but she ;lajksdfa;ljwhocares… It really goes on for quite awhile.

Should I excuse this as some kind of generational thing? If I expect a mystery story to dash out of the starting gate like a hopped-up greyhound, it's got to be because of genre conventions, right? In 1911, maybe a guy was free to write his romance-slash-mystery with a little bit of AWESOMEROBOTS thrown in for color. Maybe he didn't have to plunge right into murder, but could take his time and weave a little story about some people inveigled in curious circumstances.

Except that Chesterton's own subplots, which dominate the first two-thirds of the story, don't appear to interest even him. After the first of Angus' romantic rivals is killed, and then the second is caught and shown to be the killer (how he got away with it—not who he is—is supposed to be the story's clever reveal, so that's not really a spoiler), Chesterton dispenses with the love story he spent pages and pages setting up with this unevocative sentence: 

John Turnbull Angus went back to the lady at the shop, with whom that imprudent young man contrives to be extremely comfortable. 
---.  Uh, great.

So it's not that Chesterton was mixing different elements in some unorthodox way. It's more that he doesn't seem to have gone back once he reached the end to make sure that it still had something to do with his beginning. I cannot hunger for the reality level of "The Invisible Man" because it isn't sure, itself, of its level. Some wise editing could have made this a much stronger story. Gardner mentions several times that Chesterton wrote the Father Brown stories for money and that they do not represent his finest writing and I get that. It's probably even truer today that most people making a living off their writing can't afford to be too fussy about it when deadlines and cashmoney are involved. I'm also not immune to being charmed by the quaint weirdness of these stories, in spite of their flaws. So it is with everything we read as writers—we are always taking stock on what to steal, what to love, what to discard, and what to improve upon.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted you to know that I have gone to your blog because of the keywords posted on facebook-I like it! I am new to the world of the blog-yes, a little late..

Rick McAllister

Lisa Barrow said...

Thanks, Rick!

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