Monday, August 27, 2007

A Prayer For Owen Meany

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - note because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ - and certainly not for Christ, which I've heard some zealots claim. I'm not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I've not read the New Testament since Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I go to church. I'm somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in the Book of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days - the prayer book is so much more orderly.

And so begins A Prayer for Owen Meany - a story of two friends growing up in the 50s and 60s, one of whom, the narrator, shares his childhood with an extraordinary boy called Owen who, as stated, kills the narrator's mother, but who then proves the existence of God to the narrator through his actions and the eventual coming true of his long foreseen destiny.

In Owen Meany John Irving has created an amazing narrative structure that slips effortlessly between three separate time periods, makes repeated references to previous descriptions to keep them alive in the reader's mind (lending itself well to one continual read or to a disjointed read over several weeks - which is often the case with me). Symbolism is rife and the outcome of the denouement proves just how strong Irving is in honing a broad story filled not only with a plethora of engaging characters, but also a long and deep history for each - Irving isn't one to go jumping into writing a story until after many months of thought and preparation.

In a way, much of this book has the same feel as To Kill A Mockingbird. Admittedly it's not about race, and it does tend towards the slightly miraculous, but that shouldn't discourage anyone - which, I suppose, is why it made the Top 100 in the BBC's Big Read (It reached 28).

The narrative is weighted so that while the beginning opens with the clear message that Owen is going to kill (albeit accidentally) the narrator, Johnny's, mother (the reader's needed suspense to sustain the then following passages which draw us back through religious viewpoint and the setting of Johnny's family), all the important reasonings, the great reveal, and the epiphanies only come in the last 100 pages. You get a clear sense that Irving has started at the end and worked his way back to the beginning, lacing everything with meaning (though I'm guessing that since the work is semi-autobiographical it may have been slightly easier to write than starting from scratch).

Anyhoo, since my latest work raised some questions about the nature of dramatic suspense, I've found that Owen Meany's first chapter has added weight to the argument. I've been worried about the amount of knowledge I should pass to the reader. My first chapter ends in a car crash that both characters in the car know is going to happen - they will it to happen. I wanted to keep this secret from the reader until the final moment, so that, like a car crash in motion, the reader is stuck in this situation baring witness to it in complete surprise.

However, as Owen Meany, and Solvey, have demonstrated, dramatic suspense is a far stronger tool than surprise - this harks back to Hitchcock's theory of the two men talking whilst a bomb ticks underneath their table - neither of them know, but the audience does, giving expectation and suspense - we were not to know, we wouldn't be hooked.

I was watching Child of our Time on the Beeb a few weeks back and one of the children was perpetually distressed that her dad was going into hospital and might die (he was going to give a kidney to his brother). The parents had decided (in their infinite wisdom) that it would be best to prepare their daughter for the worst. This ties into the theory that dramatic suspense is by far the most gripping tool any storymaker can use. The poor girl is now stuck in the constant anticipation/aprehension that her father is going to die in surgery - unfortunately for her, dramatic suspense feeds off our anxieties a time-lock or option-lock situation is slowly ticking by, the outcome getting closer, out of our hands. (IMHO they should only have told her he was going into hospital and would be a bit tired and ill from it... not dead)!

Take horror films for example, more often than not only a handful of times does the killer come from nowhere and kill - surprise doesn't last long, and only serves to change the direction of a story or scene. Horror and thrillers use dramatic suspense far more than simple surprise - we know the killer is around here, stalking our hapless hero/heroine, and we're waiting for the crunch. We are held in a continual loop of suspense until it all unravels with the attack, and though we can't be held like that forever without a break, it can be sustained for quite some time.

In Owen Meany, we learn that Owen will kill Johnny's mum in the first paragraph. It doesn't happen for another 40+ pages. So, we left hanging, waiting to see exactly how she will be killed, trying to ascertain motivation, second-guessing the development of relationships, waiting, waiting, waiting for it to come.

In the Bourne Ultimatum, the chase half-way through the film involves a failed attempt by Bourne to save a contact. He is on the back foot when he realises that he is now the target, and by implication, Nicki (who is now working with him). The chase ensues not with the simple lets-all-chase-Bourne, but with the badguy heading back along the streets to seek Nicki and execute her, and Bourne desperately trying to beat him there. He's late and Nicki has to call on her own initiative to evade the badguy. This extends the suspense as we're certain that whilst Nicki has her own skills she will be no match for the badguy.

With this in mind I need to alter my opening to cover the knowledge of the impending crash... simple really, just lots more work. Sigh!

No comments: