Sunday, 14 November 2010

The 'Ruby in the Smoke' Paradox

I do a lot of reading aloud. Not on my own, you understand. To actual people. It's great when it’s going well – when it’s bowling along, when it’s got that captive-audience-jumping-up-and-down-whathappensnext?-buzz. But a bit flat when it isn’t. This week was the turn of The Ruby in the Smoke, and it highlighted, I think, and interesting paradox.
So – observations from the reading lab. Chapter one of Pullman’s book’s got style, there’s no doubt about that. The opening turns the ‘going to kill a man’ trick well. (“By the end of the day, she was going to have caused the death of...” or “Before the week was out, he would be a murderer...”.) Stephen King likes to play an admittedly milder version this card - usually in short italicised sentences along the lines of: “Or so he thought.” It’s foreshadowing with bells on. Nothing wrong with that, of course – and it worked a treat. Sally Lockhart returns to her father’s shipping company having received an anonymous note, and seeks out someone who might be able to help decipher it. Sally reads a section aloud; the response of one of the partners is to have a heart attack and crash to the floor, ‘dead as mutton.’ This went down very well indeed. Conclusion: fat and sweaty cigar-smoking shipping magnates toppling over – a winner. Mysterious notes with the power to kill grown men – a winner. And smashing metaphor about ‘the corner of a web had been shaken, and the spider in its centre was waking’ – a winner. Duly noted, aspiring YA author.
Chapter two is a different matter – and this is the interesting bit. Pullman introduces four characters at once, using that cinematic Dickensian thing where the reader seeming glides above the city, zooming in to witness key moments all happening concurrently. There’s Mrs Holland, the foul old lady who washes her false teeth in the teapot, and Adelaide her maid. There’s Major Marchbanks, reading a newspaper report covering the death in chapter one. And there’s the opium addict coming ashore in London, carrying with him a secret he can’t reveal. This didn’t go so well. It felt gluey. People started looking out of the window. Chins resting on hands started to sag downwards. We made it through alright, but the momentum had been lost a little. It was back again by chapter three, and we trundled along merrily again, but the four-characters-at-once thing really didn’t do it for them, splendidly written though it was.
It’s The Ruby in the Smoke paradox, I reckon; you need a cast of lively and engaging characters, you need a connection which draws them all together – each on their own strand of the web – and you need to pull them gradually into conflict as your narrative develops. But when the web’s a big one, and Pullman’s is, you face the inevitable dip that comes with readers processing lots of new information at once. And here’s the key question: if there’s going to be a dip, where’s it best placed? Chapter two, it seems to me, is a little early, a little risky, even when it follows the going to kill a man trick, which can often sustain a reader for ages.
It puts me in mind of the old argument record execs use to have when an artist had delivered a ten track album that included one stinker; the ‘nine killer, one filler’ problem. There were two ways of solving it, apparently. You put your weakest track either ninth, or second. Duly noted.

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