Weblog #4: On being interesting

It’s been slow going with my current read, Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. The novel is a philosophical mystery that focuses on minute detail, such as the microscopic evidence collected from a missing man’s keyboard or simulating the gesture of slowly raising a coffee cup to the lips and taking a sip. The corporate world of the narrative also has a Kafkaesque absurdity to it, and the main character, the Inspector, can’t be sure if he’s talking to the people he thinks he’s talking to, or actors hired to stand in for them. It doesn’t seem to matter though; the actors come up with excessively detailed imaginings of what the actual person might have thought or done and their testimonies appear to be just as relevant – and insane – as what passes for fact.

I was intrigued, until the Inspector got mired in the tiniest of details, while every one of his encounters seemed meaninglessly mad. He couldn’t move the investigation forward, and the plot went loopy without getting anywhere. I’m a bit of a pedantic reader so I don’t do well with absurdist narratives where you can’t take things literally the way you normally would and the whole point is that you don’t know what’s going on (or at least not on the first read). It wasn’t until I accepted that and just kept reading that I managed to make decent progress.

Then, suddenly, the pace picked up and the book piqued my interest again. Why? Because the Inspector calls Isabella, the forensic analyst he’s been working with.

She revitalises the narrative partly because comfortingly level-headed in comparison to the Inspector’s increasingly wobbly mental state. Her reappearance grounded me when I felt like I was losing my grip on the book. What really struck me though was the force of her passion for her work, and the way she gives us other ways of looking at the world:

We spend too much time looking at the fucking stars! […] I hate it. That urge to look to the transcendent. This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled. Honestly, give me grandeur, give me my feet. […] We are generally, I think, so prejudiced when it comes to scale. There is enough in a simple glimpse of the ground. […] The earth surface is an infinite mesh of bio-trails. […] If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.

This passage, on page 112, is actually what convinced me to buy the book. I’d read an article suggesting that, instead of judging a book by its cover or its first page, you should read page 112. The idea is that lesser books have a lapse in the middle, so if page 112 is good, then the book is more likely to be good from beginning to end. And that’s where I found Isabella, with an idea that took me all the way to the till and, now, to Part Two of the book.

The Inspector is no less dedicated than her, but his is more of a plodding determination while she is bold, refreshing, animated. You can see her getting fired up but it’s hard to imagine him laughing or losing his temper.

In Lauren Beukes’s short piece ‘On Beauty: A Letter to My Five-Year-Old Daughter’ (2014) she writes, ‘You are interesting because you are interested, you are amazing because you are so wide open to everything life has to give you’.

Interesting because you are interested. That’s what I like about Isabella and that’s how she gives the narrative the energy it needs to get out of the doldrums.

Interesting because you are interested. This came to mind again when I was thinking about Melanie, the main character in The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey. I think she’s an easy to character to love because she’s fascinated by life. At the beginning of the novel she doesn’t even know what it’s like to be outside, but she hangs on to every word she hears from the adults around her (not realising that she’s a prisoner being held for experimental purposes) and uses that to construct a physical, moral and sociopolitical landscape. For her, even the tiniest pieces of information we take for granted – such as the date or someone’s first name – can change the architecture of the world, as Carey phrases it.

Her interest isn’t restricted to learning; it gives her a great capacity for compassion and love, but also the strength to protect what she loves or take whatever action her moral compass points to. And, like Isabella, her enthusiasm means she offers us great ideas and dynamic ways of looking at things. Someone with less interest, someone less interesting, is just going to see things the way most other people already do. They’re more likely to bore us, I suppose, because they can’t give us anything other than the stories we hear all the time.

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Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

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S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

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I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!