An unexpected ludicrous moment, a twist into tragedy, a flash of tenderness: surprise by a character is a crucial element of a riveting story. Speaking yesterday at the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio, Marcus Zusak discussed this as well as describing how he wrote multiple drafts of The Book Thief, trying out different narrators as he worked to understand what the book was really about. It wasn’t until he knew that his novel had to speak of beauty existing in the worst of circumstances that he went back to using Death as a narrator. But not a conventionally-personified, insensate Death; instead, his Death persona is haunted by human cruelty, sickened by having to “clean up” after us, and looks for something beautiful in the tangle of suffering and pain we create. This point of view is one of the surprises of the novel.
Marcus’ talk was a surprise in itself. Spotlit in a large, darkened theatre, he spoke fluidly without notes. A young, married father from Sydney, Australia, slender in jeans and a gray crewneck sweater, he was humble, funny, articulate, and refreshing. Generous and personal in his response to questions, he opened himself to his audience the way the writer’s soul is opened to the reader in books that endure.
I came home from the talk and watched the evening news, saved on the DVR. My chocolate Lab fought me for the couch and, as usual, ended up with two thirds of it. I can only stretch out by draping my legs over her. Why she thinks this is fair I have no idea. Anyway, The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany. Atrocities so horrific they can only be imagined in the telling of one story at a time. Last night–as so many nights–the news was about one of our contemporary wars. Pick a war, any war. We have plenty. The program I watched detailed yesterday’s violent capture and death of Muammar Gadhafi. Tracked to a drainage pipe, he’d first been deliberately wounded as he begged not to be shot. Bloodied, dying, he was dragged out, beaten, and propped against the hood of a car for pictures. Then the rebels’ passion or rage was too great for restraint: he was executed. Exultant, they crowded around to have their pictures taken with the body. Young men jubilantly fired automatic weapons in the air as others struck the corpse with shoes. Each one a human being, each one with his bullet or his shoe, each one a story. One more mutilated body.
These rebels had deposed a dictator because he abused and tortured people and ignored the rule of law. The world, including America, has been behind the revolution. In the end, Gadhafi could have been captured and put on trial. Instead, I can’t distinguish the rebels’ behavior from Gadhafi’s.
Now I’m thinking about surprise in storytelling, about how a writer uses it like a sudden jag in the straight path to where a reader thinks a story is going, may even want it to go. At the same time, I’m revisiting Zusak’s offbeat, undeniable character, Death, who’s appalled by human behavior. Given the ideals of the Libyan revolution and given human history, I’m trying to decide if I believe the rebels’ actions were or were not a surprise. How should the novel be written?
Your ideas, please.