Thursday, August 18, 2011

Three Differents and One Menace - #46

STORY:  “The Most Beautiful Apartment in New York” by Justin Scott

FROM:  MANHATTAN NOIR, ed. Lawrence Block (Akashic Books, 2006)

BASICALLY:  Bob has finally found the New York apartment of his dreams, complete with unparalleled view of the Empire State Building.  He’s ready to buy, but the owner’s playing hardball with an exorbitant price.  Bob’s friend the real estate broker is helping as much as possible--but the friend’s newfound obsession with exacting revenge on his supposedly evil ex-wife is starting to get creepy.  A suspenseful tale with a deadly climax and a surprising final twist.

This is a story that fairly cries out to be broken down, like so many Lego castles, into its component parts.  I’m kind of obsessed with structure you guys!  Not because it’s my favorite thing about literature though—quite the opposite.  The reason I’m always wanting to know how stories are put together is that my instinctual understanding of the mechanism is precisely nada.

Now, lovely prose, that I get.  I’m making no claims to an immortal style of my own, you understand, but I do think I have a good strong gut feeling about what works and what has quality and how words sound nice together.  Sometimes I can even coax these qualities into my own sentences!  But large-scale narrative structure—like plotting, pacing, and overall balance—doesn’t come naturally to me in the slightest.

That’s why a story like “The Most Beautiful Apartment in New York” is such a boon to a writer like me.  It’s entertaining and interesting, and yet simple and formulaic enough that I can study it to understand why writer Justin Scott chose to include the elements that he did and how he knew where to put them.

I feel like I’ve got to insert a caveat, here—I definitely don’t see learning to write to a formula as one of my writerly goals.  (Noooooo!  I am lofty and high-falutin’!)  It’s not that I think formula fiction has no value, but it wouldn’t make sense for me to start penning popular thrillers; that’s not what I read and it’s not where my passion lies.  However, I do want to learn how literary formulas function.  Why are they so pleasing to readers?  What effect do certain narrative choices have?  It’s that whole “you have to learn the rules before you can break them” thing—not that you have to do anything at all, or do it in the way that I do it.  I’m just groping along in the dark, here.

I’ve run across a couple of links lately that have given me a lot to mull over in terms of formula and structure.  First, it was this breakdown by Michael Moorcock, a respected science fiction writer who’s written many a non-formulaic novel in addition to his bald-faced moneymakers.  In it, he explains his approach to churning out a 60,000-word potboiler in a mere three days.  That discovery led me to this method by Lester Dent, successful pulp writer of yore, for writing a 6,000-word short story.  Let’s take a look at some of the ways “The Most Beautiful Apartment in New York” (or “TMBAINY,” as I shall henceforth call it) accords with their principles.  By the way, some serious spoilers ahead.

So, if you look at Lester Dent’s method, you’ll see he starts right in with some good specifics about what your unique formula-driven story will need:  

One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.
I wasn’t sure what Dent meant by “different” in this context, but it seems to make sense once I apply the concepts to “TMBAINY.”  The murderer, unhinged real estate broker Tommy King, uses in this instance a scalpel.  As murder weapons go, it’s not especially shocking and in no way over the top, but neither is it the kind of thing you hear about every day.  It’s, y’know, different.  And author Justin Scott amps up the interest level by having Tommy talk about his fascination beforehand:
“I’m going to buy a surgeon’s scalpel. What she did to me. I just have to figure out how not to get caught— What’s the matter? You’ve never been mad enough to kill anybody?”
At the time, this is fairly casual.  Of course, once you know that Tommy does try to cut his ex-wife’s heart out, it’s a bit more grim.

I wouldn’t say that Tommy is seeking anything especially different in this story, but he’s not clearly a villain until most of the way through.  As Bob the protagonist’s friend and real estate broker, Tommy’s goal (revenge against his ex-wife) is meaningful because it remains hidden until the climax.

Next, Dent calls for “a different locale.”  (And check out his tricks to convince editors you’re familiar with any random faraway place.)  (I could spend forever musing about the ways such shenanigans have become both easier and harder in the Internet Age.  But I’ll spare you.)  This story takes place in New York.  New York!  Pretty-well-known slash not-so-different.  There must be a million and one other stories that take place in that city.  Yet I think Scott’s New York serves the same function that an exotic and thrilling locale would for Dent.  The main thing is that it’s absolutely integral to the story.  New York itself is intertwined with the protagonist’s goal—everyone everywhere wants to live in a nice place, but in a gargantuan city where real estate is scarce, apartment buying achieves epic importance.  The other main thing is the specificity, how place permeates this story in its smallest details.  The intractable owner, for example, insists that his apartment’s a great investment because
“Nothing will bring it down. It didn’t go when the Towers went down. I was watching on CNN thinking, Oh, God, the Empire State Building’s next, I’ll never get my price without the view. Then I realized the terrorists don’t know from shit about the Empire State Building. You gotta be a New Yorker to love the Empire State Building—sure enough, they went for the Pentagon.”
Now, this is an excellent passage for several reasons, but most fundamentally it melds the story’s What to its Where.  Plot and setting are about as elementary as narrative components come—but when they’re well-united, as they are here, they add a powerful dimension to the storytelling.  (And I don’t see how the truth of this is limited to pulp or formulaic writing.)

Last of all, Dent says a menace has to hang like a cloud over the hero.  This mystified me at first, but then I looked at “TMBAINY” and realized that a certain feeling—yea, one might even say a menace—does hang over the whole story.  Bob, as protagonist, is intently focused on his own goal: he wants that apartment something fierce.  The importance of his desire is increased by the New York setting, an external impetus, and also by his growing sense that in his life, he’s always accepted second-best—the lesser apartment, the lesser wife, the lesser life.  And then even the guy selling the apartment suggests that maybe he’d be better off buying an apartment in Brooklyn.  Infuriating!  So Bob’s got forces within and forces without pushing him to do whatever it takes to get this apartment.  He’s even willing to spend time with Tommy King, sleazeball extraordinaire.

Bob and Tommy are presented as friends, but it seems fairly clear that it’s a friendship based on, to put it nicely, practicality.  Bob is unnerved by Tommy’s ex-wife fixation and this feeling only grows throughout the story as Tommy’s fixation seems to balloon out into a real desire to do harm.  Bob also finds himself seriously doubting Tommy’s loyalty—is he showing the apartment to someone else who’ll buy it out from under him?  The story’s focus is the acquisition of the apartment, but the thing with Tommy is like a gadfly that won’t let up.  As a reader, I felt a mounting anxiety about it—I didn’t know how Tommy’s violent impulses would end up affecting Bob’s goal, but I could sense that something was going to have to give.  Of course, this only works if the two separate strands end up crashing into one another.  If that had never happened, if it had turned out that Tommy King’s ex didn’t actually figure in the story at all, it would have been baffling.  In a short story, what’s there needs to get used.

That’s something Michael Moorcock says in his advice on writing sword-and-sorcery action to formula.  I haven’t talked much about Moorcock’s approach, mainly because it’s designed to apply to a short novel rather than a short story (and even Dent’s method is meant for a much longer story than “TMBAINY”).  But one bit from Moorcock stands out because it happens to be the main way in which “TMBAINY” fails.

Moorcock says,
You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you've got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.
It’s the thing about cohering that matters.  In “TMBAINY,” the conflict comes to a head with Bob humiliating himself by borrowing money from his working-class parents, who have painstakingly saved it to retire on, but then it doesn’t even matter because the owner’s already sold to a woman who wants a “pied-a-terre for her boyfriend.”  The woman just happens to be Tommy King’s ex-wife.  She has no idea that Tommy’s even involved, she just loved the place at first sight—but he is literally lying in wait for her.  As she tours her new piece of real estate, he attacks and kills her.  Bob has guessed Tommy’s plan, but he hesitates just a moment too long—fully aware that her murder would mean that “the price of that apartment was going to plummet.”

She dies.  And Bob does get the apartment, which brings us to the problem with the story’s cohesion.  Bob finds that he can’t enjoy his wonderful new apartment because everywhere he looks, he sees this woman’s ghost.  Literally.
Samantha was waiting in the window, her heart-shaped face super-imposed on the Empire State Building. Her ghost? Or just my guilty imagination reflected in the glass? Didn’t matter which, I saw her clear as I saw the sunlit spire by day and the white iceberg at night. I tried moving around the room, shifting perspective. At angles, the nineteenth-century glass distorted the light, but she kept moving with me…“Why didn’t you stop him?” she asked one morning. And that night, “You knew he wanted to hurt me.”
My big problem with this part of the ending is that it just doesn’t fit.  There’s been no indication that we’re in anything but the mundane world—now, suddenly, I’m supposed to accept a supernatural judgment?  Irascible apartment owners cohere with sleazy real estate brokers, and big-city apartment hunters cohere with ex-wives, and excellent views of the Empire State Building cohere with human motivation—but none of that coheres with the sudden appearance of a mournful, guilt-inducing ghost.

When I re-read “TMBAINY,” I realized that the author had actually mentioned ghosts numerous times before the ending.  The guy selling the apartment, for example, mentions that the only thing that brings down prices on apartments like his are hauntings.  And the word gets used metaphorically more than once.  So Scott clearly made an effort for the ghost thing to cohere.  But it fell flat; the departure was too great.  I think he would have had to include some early hint that supernatural events actually could occur in the universe of the story—lacking that, protagonist punished by his own guilt in the form of a ghost just feels like a cop-out.

Luckily, that’s not quite where the story ends.  The true ending has a much better twist, and I think I’ll leave it unspoiled for you.

Even for this major flaw, though, “TMBAINY” is a really fun little story.  To me, that’s the big power of formulaic approaches—even when other elements aren’t as strong as they could be, the formula points to the pieces that make a reader want to keep reading.  Most people, I believe, would vastly prefer an exciting and interesting tale with some slightly wooden characters and a few weird plot turns to a beautifully-composed, carefully-rendered story in which nothing seems to happen.  And to me, it’s not an either-or proposition—the very best fiction serves up pleasure right alongside art.


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