Tom Simon (superversive) wrote,
Tom Simon

Tyrion 13:4

Ten things I hate in a book, continued:

3. Chapters named after the cast of thousands of POV characters.

This device, if one can call it that, has been popularized by George R.R. Martin in his monster epic A Song of Ice and Fire. He may have derived it from Stephen R. Donaldson, his friend and fellow New Mexican, who used it in the last three volumes of his (unusually literal) space opera The Gap. Donaldson can’t remember offhand where he got the idea, but it may have been from Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn. (I have not so far succeeded in tracing the pedigree any further.) Instead of giving their chapters proper titles, these worthy gentlemen simply slap a character’s name at the top of a fresh page, followed by his or her inmost thoughts and experiences in gruelling detail.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this in itself. There are many ways of naming chapters, including the time-honoured one of simply using numbers. I happen to like chapters with titles, and all the more if they are interesting or witty. My favourite sort of chapter titles, and the kind I strive after myself, are those with double or triple meanings. Perhaps my favourite movie title of all time is A Shot in the Dark, which accurately describes both the murder with which the story opens and Inspector Clouseau’s method of identifying the killer. That is a fair sample of the flavour I prefer. But if it will ease a cherished author’s passage through this vale of tears to call his chapters ‘Eddard’ or ‘Angus’ or ‘Daneel’ or ‘Jim-Bob’, he can do it with my blessing.

The trouble, at least with Donaldson and Martin’s use of the trick, is that they eschew all other methods of identifying chapters. To begin with, they do not number their chapters. This is a serious offence against the reader. If I am reading an 800-page book, a task I do not routinely accomplish at a single sitting, I want a foolproof method of remembering my place in case the bookmark falls out between times. Page numbers are too transient and too difficult to remember, especially for someone who is generally in the middle of four or five books at once. Chapter numbers are just right. Chapter titles, without numbers, are unhelpfully hard to find when the book (like most novels) has no table of contents.

When there are 23 chapters with the same name, and not even the dignity of a Roman numeral to tell them apart, madness beckons from its twitchy horse and takes me for a gallop. I could with but slight difficulty find my way back to Jon IV, or Jon X, or Jon CLXXVI, Dei gratia capitulum, but Messrs. D & M do not even accord me that exiguous courtesy. The only thing for it is to pick a likely-looking chapter at about the right place in the book, read a bit of it, and then cast backwards or forwards a chapter at a time until I find where I last left off. And that is not foolproof, for I often find the characters agonizing over the death of somebody who was alive and well when last I saw him, and wonder if I have missed a crucial stretch after all.

This brings me to the other defect of this method, which is not intrinsic to the method itself, but seems inextricably associated with it. Authors, it seems, do not commonly name their chapters after their respective viewpoint characters unless those characters come by regiments and battalions. I once counted all the POV characters in A Song of Ice and Fire; I believe I lost count somewhere around three thousand, but my memory may be at fault. Probably it was more. The result of this is that a character’s story arc will be interrupted in mid-scene with a glorious cliffhanger, well worthy of the old Doctor Who at its cheesy best, and then nothing more will be heard of the matter for two or three hundred pages.

Lately, Martin has taken to driving his characters in two sets abreast, so that some of the cliffhangers in the third volume are not taken up again until the fifth. There comes a point at which mere suspension of disbelief is no longer enough. What is wanted is a sustained effort at the suspension of memory, and it takes a steel cable of Verrazano-Narrows gauge to carry the load. It was this, more than any other fault of Martin’s, that caused me to give up on ASOIAF after the first three volumes.

Yet one seems to get very little meat out of this method, no matter how much the plotline of these books resembles something filmed in an abattoir. For once we have caught up with Pauline still in her peril of a thousand pages or two hours ago, and see her suitably extricated, we are then obliged to sit down and listen while she discusses or soliloquizes at great length about what all the other characters are doing, and where they are now, and whether they can be counted on to have done what they set out to do, and whether they are dead or only shamming.

There is a certain amount of this in most good books. The Lord of the Rings derives great poignancy from the constant uncertainty of Frodo’s position, as Aragorn and Gandalf and the rest strive superhumanly to perform heroic deeds that will be entirely wasted if Sauron recovers the Ring. But there are only eight (surviving) members of the Quest, not eighty, and they do not all sit around between battles and wonder what all the other seventy-nine are up to. In both The Gap and ASOIAF, the enormously complicated plots are largely driven by groups and nodes of characters trying to second-guess each other, and generally getting it wrong.

There must be a better way to construct a five-volume novel, and there certainly are better ways to maintain narrative tension. But both Donaldson and Martin appear to have become inebriated with the exuberance of their own ingenuity, as well as their verbosity. Their books would be shorter, neater, and more effective if they could resist the temptation to chase up side-issues and minor characters in the same detail as the deeds of their principal heroes. They set out to be architects, but spend most of their time and skill carving gargoyles for their drains.
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