22 June 2007

He Wondered If He Would Ever See Julius Again

On page 124 of Lionboy: The Chase, Zizou Corder inserts what seems at first glance to be an extraneous paragraph. Young hero Charlie Ashanti is trapped with his lion friends in a Venetian palazzo, wondering where his parents are.

At that moment the novel brings up someone else entirely:

He thought about them in bed that night, wishing that Julius was asleep on a bunk above him. Julius knew so much, he would have been able to help. But he had never been able to tell the truth to Julius, because he was a circusboy and would not have understood how the lions had to escape. That didn't stop Charlie from missing him, though. He wondered if he would ever see Julius again.
This paragraph seems to have nothing to do with the preceding scenes. We last saw Julius in chapter 1, when he and his fellow circus performers on board the Circe discovered that Charlie had absconded with their lions. The narrative hasn't shifted back to the circus ship since page 31.

Furthermore, there's no sound logic to Charlie's thinking. Julius's expertise lay in knowing how the circus worked; he'd have little to say about the politics of Venice. So this passage tells us about Charlie's emotional state, but does it serve the narrative in any other way? In short, what's it doing in the book?

I think it's there so that sixty-five pages later when Charlie's parents have found their way to the Circe to talk to the circus boss, and "a curly freckled boy ran up to them," we readers quickly think, "Yes! It's Julius! Julius is Charlie's friend! Julius will help!"

Without that reference on page 124, we readers would be more likely to have forgotten Julius and how nice and knowledgeable he was. But just a little reminder, which seems to be nothing but Charlie moping before going to sleep, can be all it takes to tie things together.

I think Corder (actually author Louisa Young) does an excellent job through most of the Lionboy trilogy in doling out those hints and reminders and details from her several plot threads. The small exception involves the ending of volume the third, Lionboy: The Truth, and thus the ending of the whole trilogy.

******* SPOILER ********

The dénouement depends on Charlie having extraordinary computer skills. Page 208 reminds us: "Months ago, in Major Tib's cabin [on the Circe], he had listed among his strengths 'good at computers.'" But by that point Charlie's already started hacking into a worldwide corporation's main system, which goes well beyond being "good" at typing and videogames. A little damage is done, therefore: Charlie's skill appears more convenient, and thus contrived, than it has to be.

I think Corder could have inserted a few more references to Charlie hacking computers over the course of the book. Yes, that could be a challenge since he's usually on the run and kept incommunicado. But there are opportunities, given all the little computers he meets with: a boat's autopilot, cell phones, etc. Just a few references, every sixty to eighty pages, and his special skill would have been no surprise.


Sam Riddleburger said...

Good point. There's nothing worse than this sort of line, which appears in about 15 of Dickens' 17 novels on page 989.
"The man removed his muffler. Firken Slibber, for it was he, produced a folded note...."

The reader has only the vaguest recollection of Slibber, who was on page 89, which the reader read 3 weeks earlier.

J. L. Bell said...

Or, given how Dickens serialized his novels, fourteen months earlier!

Lee said...

Not having read Corder, it's impossible for me to comment on the trilogy, but in general the point is a good one. An author needs to decide how much is enough without becoming too much. I tend to side with subtlety and understatement, but perhaps I make the misguided assumption that people read carefully; and reread.

J. L. Bell said...

I think there are (at least) three levels of planting such information. One is what readers must know to follow the plot. The next is what they must know in order to believe the plot, the subject of this particular musing. And the third is info that's not necessary but adds to the story, either on first reading or on rereading. Different stories demand different treatments of info.

Lee said...

Useful distinctions, if very fluid - in part because of the reader, not the text (expectations etc). And even from a textual standpoint, what readers accept (or believe) about a plot has, I suspect, less to do with info and more to do with things like voice and tension and emotional resonance; to borrow from film, with juxtaposition and cutting and framing. Another way of putting this is that info is contextual.

Lack of info - ambiguity - also leaves room for readers to 'solve' problems, to rewrite the novel in their own minds.

I'm not arguing that info is unimportant, just its role needs to be seen in perspective.