Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

May 18, 2011

Style vs Narrative (tangential to Whale Music)

I have long considered myself a Paul Quarrington fan. I started with Home Game, a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an ex-pro baseball player and a band of circus freaks.  Shortly after reading that, I met my now-husband who was also, as it turns out, a fan of Quarrington and who lent me Civilization, a fish-out-of-water tale featuring a movie stunt man and a band of early cinema freaks.  Then King Leary won Canada Reads 2008 (a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an ex-hockey player and his team of hockey freaks) and I read it too.  In the meantime, I bought Spirit Cabinet, Galveston and Whale Music, all for future reading.

Whale Music is considered, I think, to be Quarrington’s best. It won the Governor General’s Award in 1989 and was made into a film a little while later. My husband has long teased me for not having read it so this month I finally did. I was unsurprised to find it a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an addled rock star and a wealth of music-industry freaks.   Whale Music was a great book, but I fear I took too long getting to it.  I had, basically, read it already.

Quarrington’s books share much, maybe too much.  The main character is addled – often by addition (booze, drugs).  He’s haunted by a trauma in his past, and much of the novel is told in flashbacks. The hero’s memory of the trauma is obscured and avoided, eventually to be revealed after a culmination of smaller, present-day stresses.  A motley and colourful cast of weirdos and freaks bring humour and life to the hero’s past and present.  Ultimately, all four Quarrington novels I have read have been the same story: redemption and reconciliation with the past.  The setting changes, the characters get new names, but the rest stays the same.

The thing is, I like Quarrington’s style.  I don’t begrudge him his voice, and I don’t expect him to re-invent himself with each subsequent novel.  My favourite authors are typically people with very strong authorial voices and styles, distinguishable from a paragraph.  I prefer an authorial voice separate from his story, like Robertson Davies or T.H. White – “Let me tell you a tale…”  It works well when the author is a masterful storyteller.  There’s something comforting about hearing a new story in the trusted voice of a favourite.

The trouble comes when the author has a strong voice and a distinct style but doesn’t have a new story or, worse, doesn’t tend to write “narrative” novels in the first place.  Then we get a real feeling of repetition.  This is perhaps why I shy away from non-narrative writers in general.  They can be master stylists until the words run dry, but unless they find a way to re-invent their style and voice in every subsequent novel, another 300 pages of the same flowing verse every three years isn’t an attractive read.  Certainly they could just keep reinventing their voice.  But then, what’s the attraction of “a new novel by…” if it bears no similarity to the previous novel?

I’ve the same reaction to musicians or bands who feel the need to reinvent themselves, by the way – unless the new direction is a genuine organic growth into a new style (like Robert Page’s fantastic newer work with Alison Krauss), the “new” version of an old band often just feels forced and devoid of whatever made them good in the first place.  A rare artist is really musically mobile: most of them should stick to what they know.

Quarrington falls somewhere in between.  He isn’t a strictly stylistic writer, but his style extends into his plots – he writes the same style of narrative, in the same style of voice.  Plot differences keep my attention just enough to give up his books as truly redundant.  But I’m becoming disheartened. He had a wonderful voice and was a great writer of funny stories – why couldn’t he pick up a new story somewhere along the way?

But then, where are any of the great storytellers these days? Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and I (don’t I keep great company?) have recently written treatise on the same thing: contemporary fiction is losing the art of great storytelling.  Style just isn’t enough.  Look at Canadian literature’s recent prize-winning offerings.  Young first-novelists with a great handle on style and language burst out the gate and wow us all with their debut novel, short on plot, perhaps, but beautifully written!   Then they disappear into obscurity as subsequent novels are vaguely praised as promising.  Because we’ve already read their story, you see.  Now what remains is a stylishness – but what shall it be applied to?  If these writers have it in them to be great storytellers, that is an element of their writing which isn’t being encouraged. “Narrative” styles don’t have a great literary reputation.  God help you if write a historical novel. A science fiction novel. A mystery, a Western, or something nautical.

I was a little heartened to hear this morning that I am not alone in feeling some great writers are really repetitive.  Of course Roth is a brilliant writer – but so what? Why read a new, same-old book when I could read the best of his older books again?

One Response to “Style vs Narrative (tangential to Whale Music)”

  • JK says:

    A worthy exploration, and you’re right, a good story might make all the difference. It’s why I’ll keep reading John Irving novels even though the voice and the topical material is so repetitive that Wikipedia made a chart out of it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Irving).


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