A month ago I posted an essay on second-person point of view and its ambiguity and rarity in fiction—especially genre fiction. Thanks to that post, I learned about a crime thriller, Bigger Than Jesus by Robert Chazz Chute, in which the protagonist, a hitman, narrates the story entirely in second person. The concept interested me. I wondered if the author could sustain the narration for two hundred or more pages. He does. Bigger Than Jesus is a stylish thriller with a likable antihero and an engrossing story.

Jesus Salvador Umberto Luis Diaz works as a hitman for the mob, but he’s not a sociopath. Just a former soldier without job training for anything else. He performs his duties because he has no choice. His goal is to acquire the money his latest victim stole from the mob so he can escape to Florida with his girlfriend. The trouble is, he finds himself embroiled in an internal struggle for power—a Machiavellian game in which he is merely a pawn. Jesus’ greatest talent is the ability to talk his way out of dangerous situations. He faces quite a few of them. The more he’s forced to lie, the more urgent it becomes for him to find the money before the lies catch up with him.

A Cuban émigré who came to the United States illegally, Jesus relates his horrific childhood experiences in flashbacks that might have slowed the story if they were less adroitly done. Instead they give a deeper understanding of Jesus and his motives while telling a gripping story of their own. As with the main story line, Chute’s pacing is perfect.

The second person narration feels natural from the first page. After a while I stopped noticing. The second person is essential to Jesus’ character and the way he relates to himself. Jesus aspires to be a ninja, quicker and craftier than the other players. After setting up an elaborate ambush, only to get bushwhacked, he comments, “You aren’t a smart ninja.” In first person, the remark would be an admission of incompetence. Spoken to himself, it becomes the humorous jeer of a spectator.

Near the end, the author presents the reason why Jesus thinks in second person. It ought to be unnecessary. The reason occurred to me earlier in the story, and anyway the narrative voice works beautifully and needs no justification. But I can guess why Chute does it. Some readers might be annoyed or unsettled by the strangeness of second person, so he explains. If these readers hang in there long enough to reach the explanation, it ought to satisfy them.

With Bigger Than Jesus, Robert Chazz Chute proves that genre fiction can be inventive and unconventional in its use of language while delivering a suspenseful story. I look forward to the sequel and the further adventures of Jesus.

Snjezana Marinkovic’s powerful memoir Born in Sarajevo tells two stories: (1) how the beautiful and venerable European city is destroyed by war and ethnic cleansing and (2) how the author loses her home, sees her friends killed or lost to her, and has her family torn apart in the conflict. Integrating the two narratives is a difficult obstacle, one the author hasn’t completely overcome.

Her personal story is compelling and heartbreaking. As a person of mixed heritage, she doesn’t belong with any of the warring groups. She lacks a secure place even within her family since her mother abandoned her and father remarried, and neither he nor her stepmother seems to care about her. Only her paternal grandmother, who raised her, gives her real love. The bond of affection between them is, for me, the soul of the story. It explains how the author survives so much cruelty and destruction without losing her compassion and hope.

Marinkovic is a passionate poet. Her poems, written while she was just a teenager, express her loneliness, anguish, and yearning for home. While a refugee in Czechoslovakia she writes:

I will draw a world without hunger,

without wars,

without anything that I can’t call by the name of love

I will draw the world for you, world for me

world with peace for everyone

The larger story, the tragedy of Bosnia, never quite comes into focus. It’s hard to blame the author since the history of the Bosnian war is complicated and largely unknown to most Americans. She gives a very brief explanation at the beginning, but it isn’t enough to orient readers. During her personal story – the body of the book – she relates horrific events. Often, though, I don’t have a clear picture of what’s happening in the larger context of the war. Granted, it’s difficult to move back and forth between her subjective experience and an objective account of the siege of Sarajevo and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

In the concluding chapter, the author finally provides some history and analysis along with a plea for peace and understanding between all peoples. Though frequently moving, the chapter meanders from topic to topic and dissipates some of the energy created by her personal narrative.

But in the end, the strengths far outweigh the shortcomings of this memoir. Those of us who live in peace forget how fragile our world is, how suddenly it could be destroyed, and how human nature looks for someone to blame. And punish. Nine-eleven gave Americans a taste of this truth. Born in Sarajevo serves readers a bitter dish sweetened by Marinovik’s enduring belief in the goodness of people.

 

 

 

 

In her novel The Wife, Meg Wolitzer tells the story of a talented writer who sacrifices her own career to marry a man who becomes a famous novelist. Or rather, Wolitzer lets Joan tell her own story, beginning with her decision to leave her husband, a narcissistic philanderer, as the two of them are flying to Helsinki, where Joe will accept a prestigious award. The couple are in their sixties, their children long gone from the nest. Their comfortable golden years await.

After one or two pages I was already wondering why Joan stayed so long. The novel provides a complicated answer, a tangle of circumstances and character.

In a series of flashbacks, Joan relates how she and Joe meet and fall in love back in the 1950s while she’s a student at Smith. He’s her creative writing instructor (what a surprise), married with a newborn daughter (even less of a surprise). Their affair discovered, they flee the college in disgrace and begin their life together in a shabby Greenwich Village apartment. Joan goes to work to support Joe’s ambition to become a successful novelist. Although she has considerable talent as a writer, she sees little point in trying to pursue a career of her own.

In the 1950s the literary establishment was dominated by men and the stereotypical male novelist — a lusty, macho guy who wrote sprawling novels. Think Normal Mailer and James Jones. With a few exceptions, women’s writing was undervalued.

While at Smith, Joan attends the reading of Elaine Mozell, a writer whose first novel had good reviews but dismal sales. At the party afterward, Elaine warns Joan she cannot hope to win the attention of the male reviewers and editors “who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives.” These gatekeepers make sure “women’s voices [will remain] hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud.”

Elaine Mozell’s warning echoes in Joan’s head for years afterward, a reminder that she would have failed anyway.

In the 1970s the literary landscape begins to change, but by then Joan has settled into the marriage. She has three children. She thinks it’s too late. So she stays in the marriage and puts up with Joe’s preening and fooling around with other women. By the end of The Wife, the extent of her sacrifice becomes clear. It’s heartbreaking.

Despite the sad story, The Wife is often savagely funny. Wolitzer gives her protagonist acute vision, cutting wit, and rage all the fiercer for having been suppressed. Of her once sexy husband Joan says:

Now he was old, with a humbling bio-prosthetic heterograft porcine valve (however you slice it, it’s just pig meat) stuck like a clove into his heart, and pig memories somehow looped into his brain: happy images of rooting around among old nectarines and tennis shoes.

Wow. Joe is sleeping beside a razor and doesn’t even know it.

Days after finishing The Wife, I’m still pondering Elaine Mozell and the role she plays in Joan’s choice. Elaine speaks the truth without regard for the damage it will do. I guess that’s a good thing. Better than lying, anyway. But it’s truth shaded by bitterness. Come to think of it, Elaine never tells Joan to stop writing, only to forget about impressing the men. She says, “Find some other way.” Advice so buried in negativity that Joan doesn’t understand it for decades.

I want to believe there’s another way — always — and failure won’t happen unless I give up. But I know too much about the intractability of life to think it’s that simple. Sometimes there are no good choices, only bad and worse ones. I’ve gone the wrong way more than once. And probably will again. I value Joan’s story, with its less than happy ending, for showing how even a terrible choice may be redeemable if one can face the truth.

Christian psychoanalyst M. Scott Peck has participated in exorcisms and seen the devil. He saves this revelation until near the end of his book People of the Lie: Hope for Healing Human Evil. Otherwise I might have stopped reading. Folk who claim to have seen the devil lose a certain amount of credibility with me. Instead, Peck begins the book with a case history.

A teenage boy comes to see him for treatment of depression after the suicide of his older brother. The kid is apathetic and uncommunicative, but Peck eventually learns from him that his parents gave him a birthday present: the gun with which his brother killed himself. Peck calls the parents in for a session and asks them why. They become defensive. They’re poor working people. They can’t afford to buy expensive birthday presents. They’re not educated like the doctor with his fancy medical degree, so it’s easy for him to criticize ordinary people like them. Try as he might, Peck cannot get them to acknowledge the implications of their gift. He finally gives up and arranges for the kid to move in with an aunt in another city.

These parents are examples of what Peck calls evil personalities. They refuse to take responsibility for what they do. Instead, they lie—to themselves and to others—to preserve their own self regard. They shift the blame to anyone who challenges them. Peck categories such people as “malignant narcissists.” He distinguishes them from sociopaths, who have no conscience and are incapable of feeling guilt. The “people of the lie” suppress their conscience because listening to it hurts too much.

Peck sees the same psychological pattern at work in collective behaviour. He was one of the psychiatrists charged with investigating the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnamese war. Those involved in the killings maintained they did nothing wrong, yet they lied and covered up what happened. He and the other shrinks came up with an ambitious plan to study the psychology of the soldiers at My Lai, but—surprise!—the military wasn’t interested in funding it.

Now that Peck has pointed out this pattern of lying to oneself, lying to others—anything to keep from facing the nasty truth about oneself I see it everywhere. Politicians do it a dozen times a day. Herman Cain especially seems to be a master of the technique. Every time there’s a war, something like My Lai happens. But nearly everyone occasionally falls back on lying or blaming when confronted by criticism that threatens their most cherished image of themselves. I do. My fragile little ego can’t stand up to a really scathing self-examination, and I resent it when others take it upon themselves to pass judgment on me. I fall back on a time-tested defense: “That’s right, blame me,” I say bitterly. “I’m always the one who’s wrong.”

So for M. Scott Peck, an evil personality comes down to a stubborn unwillingness to look honestly at oneself, no matter what, a relentless smothering of the conscience until it’s dead at last. Peck hopes for a resurrection, but I have my doubts. Some people are just assholes.

During my research of serial killers I snatched up the book The Sociopath Next Door, figuring it was perfect for my purpose. I would learn all about that guy whose neighbors shake their heads in disbelief after he’s arrested for torturing and killing prostitutes. “He was so quiet,” they say. “The last person you would have suspected.”The Sociopath Next Door [Book]

But the author, Martha Stout, isn’t particularly interested in serial killers. Sure, they’re sociopaths, but so are lots of other people. Four percent of America’s population, according to Stout, is congenitally unable to feel any affection for other human beings. This four percent can hurt or even kill others without feeling any guilt. But most aren’t driven by blood lust to become another Ted Bundy. They’re motivated by other emotions — fear, envy, anger, sloth, the desire to win. Really, sociopaths feel the same things as the rest of us with the one exception. They cannot love. Sociopathy is characterized by the absence of conscience. You don’t feel guilty about hurting other beings unless you can empathize with them — feel their pain.

I’ve known people who clearly fit Stout’s definition. Some of the plagiarists in my composition classes felt no shame whatsoever. Sure, they cried. But the tears dried fast when they failed to get results. When I was using drugs in my twenties, some of my fellow druggies had no compunction about taking advantage of their “friends.” Some might argue it was the drugs. But while drugs do have a way of corroding one’s moral fiber, many people use them without becoming cold and ruthless. Even so, I haven’t noticed that anywhere near four percent of the people I’ve known are sociopathic. It seems I’ve missed quite a few. And these days I move in circles less likely to be frequented by sociopaths. Still, I wonder about that statistic. Stout never explains who arrived at the percentage, or how.

And the percentage applies to the United States, not to other parts of the world. Stout notes that the incidence of sociopathic behavior is lower in many Asian countries and theorizes that cultural differences are the reason. In cultures that stress interconnectedness, people born without the capacity for empathy learn how to fake it. American individualism, on the other hand, encourages them to express their true selves. Makes sense. Many un-sociopathic Americans feel entitled to do as they like. They accept the exploitation of one human being by another as natural and hate the constraints of “big guvment.” They break the speed limit all the time without remorse — until a cop pulls them over.

Stout spends a couple of chapters on the evolutionary and personal advantages of sociopathy and its opposite, conscience. She concludes that while sociopaths make great warriors, they are by and large miserable human beings. People of conscience are happier and ultimately more successful. Conscience being a moral concept, the book ends with musings on morality and religion. Stout writes well enough that I kept reading, even though I knew she had nothing to teach me about serial killers.

In a post a couple of weeks ago, All Characters Must Die , I wondered why readers care so fiercely about fictional characters. I figured the key was identification and empathy. Readers find enough of themselves in the characters to climb inside their fictional skin and experience the story. But understanding isn’t enough. As a writer, I have to know how to breathe life into characters.

First, let me bring you up to date on Lady Catelyn, the character in A Storm of Swords whose death pissed me off. It’s relevant, I promise. You might recall that Catelyn is murdered along with her son and his followers at a wedding celebration. But that’s not the end of her. Since this is fantasy, she gets to come back – not from the dead but as the dead. A magically animated corpse, she wrecks vengeance against the villains who betrayed and killed her son. I no longer empathize with Catelyn. It’s not so much that she looks monstrous (her body was in the river a few days before the mage and his crew fished it out), as that nothing is left of her but vengeance. She orders the death of a woman who had been her friend. Alive, she would have heard the woman’s explanation and most likely shown mercy. Not anymore. Her soul is gone.

Now we jump from the fantasy world of George R.R. Martin to the gritty realism of Plain Jane, a thriller by a James Patterson wannabe. The principal characters are a female cop, her partner who is also her lover, and a brilliant FBI profiler who used to be her lover. Almost halfway through the novel, I still don’t give a shit about these characters. Oh, they have their amusing quirks (the profiler loves comic books), but somehow they aren’t quite real.

Maybe it’s because they don’t have lives beyond their trite love triangle and frantic campaign to find the serial killer before he strikes again. They aren’t shown at home or thinking about their families or eating scrambled eggs. They lack emotional depth and physical reality. I have no idea what kind of music stirs them. They never have a fanciful thought. They work without sleep and are supposedly dead tired, but nothing gives me the experience of that exhaustion.

They act in ways that seem incredible. During a strategy session, the female cop allows the profiler to pull her pants down and draw on her stomach with a magic marker. Okay, I understand he’s a dashing and charismatic guy, and she still has a thing for him. Granted, he’s talked her into helping him pull some dubious stunts. But if anyone undressed me in a roomful of men, I wouldn’t stand there thinking it was lucky I had my crotch hair waxed. Moreover, I have trouble imagining how any woman tough enough to be a cop would let herself be humiliated like that. Not that it’s impossible – human beings are capable of almost anything – but to believe it, I have to believe in the character. And the more outrageous her behavior, the more compelling that belief has to be.
 
The characters in Plain Jane are kind of like the reanimated Lady Catelyn. They have motives but no soul. I might go ahead and finish the novel anyway. I enjoy a puppet show every once in a while.

Speaking of puppet shows, anyone remember this classic?

In Stephen King’s Misery a novelist finds himself at the mercy of a fan infuriated because he has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. The woman is obviously a lunatic, yet a few days ago I found myself sympathizing with her. At the very least I wanted to write fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin an indignant letter.

Right now I’m engrossed in his Ice and Fire series. I can barely tear myself away long enough to do meet my obligations and do necessary work. The first volume, A Game of Thrones, runs more than 700 pages, the other three more than 1000 pages each. And I can’t wait to turn those pages. Martin writes a great story. On one level he serves up typical sword-and-sorcery fare – dragons, wights, dire wolves, skin-changers, giants, sorcerers, brave heroes on horseback, etc. – but he creates his imaginary medieval world in abundant detail and peoples it with complex and believable characters. And along with the many battles come political intrigues and betrayal.

He narrates the story from the point of view of a dozen or more characters. I have grown attached to a couple of them, only to have the author kill them off in one gruesome way or another. In particular I came to like Lady Catelyn Stark, maybe because she’s a woman around my age. Of course my husband isn’t the lord of a castle and I don’t have five children, but I understand and sympathize with Catelyn’s motives even when she screws up. Which she does, more than once. One mistake results indirectly in her husband’s death.

Before going on, I should warn that a spoiler is coming.

Poor Lady Catelyn sees her husband falsely accused of treason and beheaded, her two younger sons murdered, one daughter engaged to a sadistic prince and the other daughter missing and probably dead. But she still has Robb, her eldest son. He becomes king of the northern realm and goes to war with the prince and his scheming family. Catelyn worries endlessly about Robb. He’s only sixteen. Though he wins every battle, he makes a fatal political error. He’s pledged to marry a granddaughter of a crazy old coot but falls in love with another girl and marries her instead. Robb tries to make peace with the old coot by arranging for Catelyn’s brother to marry the granddaughter instead.

Off they go to the wedding. When they arrive at the old coot’s castle, Catelyn senses something wrong but figures they’re protected by tradition. It’s anathema to kill a guest under one’s roof. But the old coot, being nuts, has no problem ignoring the ancient rule protecting guests. At the end of the wedding feast his men ambush the northerners. Catelyn watches helplessly as her son is pierced by several arrows and stabbed through the heart. Then someone cuts her throat. Afterward her body is thrown naked into the river.

Reading this, I was stunned and indignant. For more than 2000 pages Catelyn had been an important part of the story. How could the author bring her so far and then kill her off so horribly? At least he could have let Robb survive and go on to win the war. Of course one of the few remaining Starks could triumph in the end, but I won’t let myself hope. I no longer trust George R.R. Martin. I think he’s going to snuff out every one of them.
 
But that won’t keep me from reading to the end. I’m Martin’s captive until I finish A Feast for Crows.
 
The larger issue here – the one that matters to writers – is that readers would care so much what happens to characters who are, after all, only constructs. I want readers to care that intensely about my characters. I want them to feel like writing me an angry letter when I kill one off. There’s no secret to it, really. Readers have to find enough of themselves in a character to empathize, to feel as if they themselves have lost a husband, a child. Easy enough to understand.
 
Making it happen is the hard part.

I’m thrilled to be a guest blogger on the site Review from Here. My post describes the moment when my imagination came to life:

 When I was four, my family lived in Soldiers’ Summit, Utah, a forlorn place high in the Wasatch Mountains. Population two or three dozen people, tops. Our house was heated with a coal stove. It had running water but no indoor toilet. My father had been working as a dispatcher . . .

Talion has received a short but sweet review from Mystee on her blog, A Moment with Mystee .  The blog is worth checking out for the many giveaway opportunities as well as the reviews.