Sue Grafton: W is for Wasted [Time]

Grafton W is for WastedIt’s actually a bit harsh to imply that reading W is for Wasted is a waste of time. Grafton is too good at her craft for that: the story is multifaceted and the elements unravel and then knit up together in a satisfying enough way. But it’s such a plodding book overall. First, Grafton seems to believe that she has to recap Kinsey’s history and living situation in detail every single time. Maybe she’s right about that strategically: not everyone reading W is for Wasted will have read A through V, after all, and she doesn’t want them to be confused or feel left out. That doesn’t make it any more interesting for those of us who already know all that. I’ve been trying to think how the other authors of long-running mystery series handle this continuity problem. That I can’t remember ever being bored or annoyed by, say, Robert B. Parker, or P. D. James, or Elizabeth George for the same reasons suggests that whatever they do about it, it’s somehow more artful. Grafton’s decision to keep Kinsey in the 80s also contributes to the boredom, I think: she and her life haven’t changed or progressed very far in the 30 years the series has been coming out.

Then there’s Grafton’s T. M. I. problem, which I’ve written about beforeW is for Wasted is just as lifelessly detailed as whichever one of her novels I was reading then. I’m not a fan of the silly “show, don’t tell” rule — but that doesn’t mean you have to tell us everything. There are examples of needless specifics on pretty much every page; here’s a representative bit from Kinsey’s arrival at a low-budget motel:

I unlocked the door and flipped on the light. The interior was dank. On the beige wall-to-wall carpet there was a ghostly foot path from the bed into the bathroom. A small secondary side road ran from the bed as far as the television set. I did a quick circuit. The heating and air-conditioning system, if you want to call it that, was a narrow unit installed just under the windowsill, with seven options in the way of temperature control. Heat: off or on. Cold: off or on. Fan: on, off, or auto. I tried to calculate the number of possible combinations, but it was way beyond my rudimentary math skills. The bathroom was clean enough and the motel had provided me two bars of soap, neatly sealed in paper. One was slightly larger than the other and was intended for the shower. I unwrapped the smaller one, standing at the sink. The chrome fixtures were pitted and the cold-water knob squeaked in protest when I paused to wash my hands. I felt a tap on my head and looked up to find water dripping slowly from a ceiling fixture. I unloaded my toiletries from the duffel — shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste — and lined everything up on the vanity. True to form, there were no other amenities provided, so I was happy I’d brought my own. I tried the wall-mounted dryer and smelled burning hair.

I was getting a bit long in the tooth to stay in places like that.

 I’m getting long in the tooth waiting for you to get on with it! OK, I understand, you’re setting the scene, but (1) you really don’t have to, since Kinsey is going to spend exactly one night in this dive and nothing of significance will happen to her there and (2) even if for some reason you want us to be able to really picture it, you could pick some resonant details (the worn path on the carpet, for instance, and the smell of burning hair) and leave out the fan options, the number of bars of soap, and the list of her entirely predictable toiletries. The book is padded like this throughout, as if Grafton just can’t tell what to leave in and what to leave out:

I opened the bottom drawer and pulled out the telephone directory. I flipped to the Ss in the business listings and ran a finger down the page until I found “Santa Teresa Hospital.” There was a general number listed, a number for the emergency room, one for poison control, and then a few department numbers that could be dialed directly, including administration, billing, patient accounting, human resources, development, and public affairs.

Even setting aside the irrelevance of these details to the plot, who are the readers who need to be told this? She even makes sure to acknowledge the most mundane conversational moves:

Two rings, and he picked up.

“Is that you, Drew? This is Kinsey Millhone.”

“Hey, great! I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you.”

We spent a few minutes congratulating ourselves on finally managing to connect and then we moved on to the subject at hand.

We know how these things go, don’t we? We don’t need to be walked through them in what starts to seem like real time. I don’t see why a good editor wouldn’t point this kind of thing out. Maybe once you achieve best-selling status you don’t get interfered with by editors. Maybe I’m just too fussy. Maybe I just don’t like her style — except I don’t see this as a style but more as the complete refusal to be stylish. And one reason it frustrates me is that I think this labored method has smothered the fun of the series. I teach A is for Alibi often in my ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ seminar and it’s much more entertaining — brisk, tongue-in-cheek, and also innovative in its use of genre conventions. It’s also literally half the length of W is for Wasted. I often wish for more from the mysteries I read: more character development, more thematic richness, more interesting use of language. What I don’t want is just more words. I think I might not make it to the end of this alphabet.

This Week In My Classes: Marching Along

February break is only a memory now: even this short distance into March, it feels as if we’re hurtling towards the end of term. I usually find this an invigorating time in my classes, as all the ‘getting to know you’ stuff is over, we’ve developed some routines and, ideally, some rapport in the classroom, and we’re far enough along in the material that usually students’ confidence for engagement is greater.

I’m not feeling quite this surge this term. One reason is that the attendance in my Introduction to Prose and Fiction section has not been … robust. I’m trying not to take it personally; it helps that I’m hearing plenty of anecdata suggesting that absenteeism is a conspicuous issue for my colleagues and maybe more broadly around campus these days (“I’m glad it’s not just me,” said yet another colleague as we chatted about this on the stairs on Friday). I have been speculating that a discussion-based class might seem particularly expendable to students because of the excessively results-oriented culture they are currently steeped in: if they aren’t intrinsically drawn to the material (which is likely, in a course often taken to fulfill a requirement) and the results of attending (or not) aren’t overtly quantifiable, other things might well take priority. Naturally, I think that’s a shame: one day they may look back and realize that they missed a fairly rare (and potentially transformative) opportunity to get involved in a conversation with at least one person guaranteed to be “listening very intently to everything” they say. But who knows: maybe I (inevitably, egotistically) overestimate the value of spending that time in the room with me following my lesson plan! I have tried hard in recent years to make quite explicit the ways I see our classroom work feeding into the assignments on which they will be evaluated (and the skills and objectives both of these aspects of the course serve). But if they don’t see the pay-off  (or they aren’t even present to hear the peroration) and don’t care about the discussion for its own sake, there’s not much more I can do. Once again the gym analogy seems apt.

road

For those Intro students who are coming to class, we’re working our way through The Road. I put a lot of work in preparing materials when I taught it for the first time last winter, so it’s nice to have a file of ideas and notes and handouts to draw on this time around, and to feel more certain what are useful lines of inquiry. For tomorrow’s class, where we’ll be focusing on McCarthy’s style, one of the most useful resources I have is my own blog post from last year, in which I asked (not disingenuously) whether McCarthy is a terrible writer – working through the post and then keeping up with the discussion that ensued was very stimulating, and as I’ve been rereading the book this year I’ve kept trying to figure out if there’s any way to answer the question more confidently than I could then. I’m still not sure, but I will say that on this rereading I’m taking what I can only describe as a tactile pleasure in his writing: I pause to read individual words or phrases out loud and enjoy their crunkly feeling, their resistance to easy reading — “rachitic,” “gryke,” “kerfs,” “claggy” — or, more rarely, their rhythmic poetry: “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” I also found, a bit to my surprise, that having spent more time intellectualizing the novel has not distanced me from it: rereading the final section this afternoon I found myself weeping uncontrollably. As I remarked on Twitter, I realize that crying over the book does nothing to settle the question of whether McCarthy’s a “good” writer. I wonder what value, if any, does attach to this kind of visceral response. There’s a way in which being moved to tears by a book is inarguable proof of at least something — but is it something about the reader or something about the book? It’s about the connection between reader and book, I suppose, that mysterious alchemical combination by which language becomes meaning and feeling of a particular, and sometimes particularly personal, kind. I value that kind of emotional connection: surely you would hardly choose to specialize in Victorian literature if you didn’t! But at least when I’m wearing my ‘professor’ hat I try to retain some skepticism about it too. Just because you can make me cry doesn’t make you right!

In my Women and Detective Fiction seminar, I’ve also been fretting a bit, not so much about attendance (though this group has not been as reliably present as I am used to in upper-level seminars) as about participation. Last week’s classes were pretty sluggish. But yesterday there was an up-tick in energy, so for now I have deferred my cunning plan to use some of the strategies I’m more accustomed to deploying in lower level classes: “think-pair-share” exercises, break-out groups, and so on. We are currently reading Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi: I had the sense on Friday that they mostly hadn’t even tried to do more than just read it, and I wonder if at first they were lulled into passivity by the fast-paced prose and suspenseful plot and forget to apply the critical frameworks we’ve been developing. By tomorrow we’ll have read to the end, so I expect we’ll talk a lot about [spoiler alert!] what it means that Kinsey turns out to have been sleeping with not just a suspect but one of the murderers: the novel raises all kinds of interesting questions about the temptations and risks of submission and the ways sexual desire can undermine a principled commitment to independence. The novel focuses especially on sexual politics as played out in marriage, but Kinsey’s role as a detective also prompts us to consider how these “private” issues intersect with wider questions of justice and accountability. I haven’t taught Grafton in a while and I’ve appreciated getting reacquainted with her tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. I kept up with the series for a long time, but my interest in it has flagged over the years, partly because the humor that keeps this first one so fresh gives way to a much more sententious style. I should probably hunt up the latest ones just to see where things have gone. We start Indemnity Only next week and at this point I’m one Sara Paretsky behind as well.

TMI

I’m still exploring options for my upcoming seminar on ‘women and detective fiction.’ Frankly, right now I’m feeling tired of the whole project and wouldn’t mind not reading any more mystery novels for a long time: after a while, the machinery just seems so creaky. Start with a prologue introducing the crime or the criminal. Sound an ominous note to create suspense (from the book nearest to hand, for instance, “If they’re the ones who killed Mary Claire, why wouldn’t they kill me?”). Introduce the detective, more or less alienated from work or partner or family or society. Start investigating. End lots of chapters with ominous notes, of the “little did she know how things would turn out” variety (“Things seldom went this swimmingly for me, which should have been a clue”). Reach putatively thrilling denouement. Fade out.  Repeat as necessary. I know, I know. The good ones are not like this, or do it well. Still, genre fiction is, inevitably, formulaic. A particular phenomenon I’ve been struck by lately, though, that actually bothers me more than the essential predictability of the form (which is, as P. D. James has argued, in some ways a strength of the genre as it establishes a firm structure within which the author is free to explore themes and characters as desired): there seems to be a trend towards overwriting, providing lots of unnecessary literal detail that contributes little to either plot or atmosphere but is just there. Now, I’m a Victorianist, and I like details: I’m not one to argue in favor of brevity for its own sake. But I like the details to be somehow resonant, whether with thematic or symbolic significance or with literary interest or pleasure. Dickens’s details, for instance, hum with life. But I don’t feel any life in this kind of writing:

I dropped my shoulder bag near the copy machine and crossed to the shelves where the yearbooks were lined up. The 1967 edition was there and I toted it with me, riffling through pages while I activated the On button and waited for the machine to warm up. The first twenty-five-plus pages were devoted to the graduating seniors, half-page color head shots with a column beside each photograph, indicating countless awards, honors, offices, interests. The juniors occupied the next fifteen pages, smaller photographs in blocks of four.

I flipped over to the last few pages, where I found the lower school, which included kindergarten through fourth grade. There were three sections for each grade, fifteen students per section. The little girls wore soft red-and-gray plaid jumpers over white shirts. The boys wore dark pants and white shirts with red sweater vests. By the time these kids reached the upper school, the uniforms would be gone, but the wholesome look would remain.

I turned the pages until I found the kindergartners. I checked the names listed in small print under each photograph. Michael Sutton was in the third grouping, front row, second from the right.

I’m no best-selling author, but I can’t see why a reader needs to know most of this. We’ve seen yearbooks, after all. The uniforms are, I suppose, period details and class markers, but the number of pages, or rows, or photographs per row, seems tediously irrelevant. How about this, instead:

I dropped my shoulder bag near the copy machine and crossed to the shelves where the yearbooks were lined up. I found Michael Sutton’s kindergarten picture in the 1967 edition . . .

The whole book is padded with this kind of excessive, and excessively literal, description of mundane objects and activities:

As long as I was downtown, I covered the seven blocks to Chapel, where I hung a left and drove eight blocks up, then crossed State Street and took a right onto Anaconda. Half a block later, I turned into the entrance of the parking facility adjacent to the public library. I waited by the machine until the time-stamped parking voucher slid into my hand and then cruised up three levels until I found a slot. The elevator was too slow to bother with so I crossed to the stairwell and walked down. I emerged from the parking structure, crossed the entrance lane, and went into the library.

I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that once she is actually in the library and has spent a couple of paragraphs explaining about the directories she’ll consult, she reaches into her bag and “remove[s] a notebook and a ballpoint pen.” The blow-by-blow description slows down the action without developing anything else–not atmosphere, character, or theme. In other ways, this particular book is well built: Grafton is clearly interested in experimenting with form beyond the journal-like first-person narration she has used in most of her novels, and here she varies her point of view and alternates between past and present events in a fairly effective way. Still, the novel  could have been much shorter and not lost anything valuable if someone had edited it more strenuously. I’m reading The Girl who Played with Fire and feel very much the same way about it: it just goes on and on and on.