04 January 2008

Why Hero Has Trouble Taking Off

Yesterday I wrote that Perry Moore's debut novel Hero suffers from "much too much going on." That seems particularly evident in the book's opening. As Thom Creed starts telling his story of coming out as a superhero and a young gay man, he introduces many (though by no means all) of the book's themes and plotlines through a meandering, ultimately confusing, series of descriptions, flashbacks, and backstory hints and explanations.

Starting in the book's first paragraph, we read about:

  • Thom looking back on all the experiences in the novel ("I never thought I'd have a story worth telling...").
  • Thom playing a high school basketball game in which he's scored 22 points.
  • Thom's father's past as a costumed hero.
  • His father's meetings with people who recognized him after he retired.
  • His father's encounter at some point with a wife beater.
  • A basketball game four years before.
  • The night Thom's mother "disappeared for good."
  • The other basketball team's past legal transgressions.
  • Earlier in the current game.
  • Thom's growth spurt in fifth and sixth grade.
  • Thom's first epileptic seizures.
And that's the first five pages. On page 6 the narrator says, "Let me backtrack for a second." Then we hear about:
  • Thom's father choosing where to buy a house and raise a child.
  • "Last summer," when Thom found a crack pipe in his yard.
  • A break-in at the house after Thom has had knee surgery.
  • When Thom's dad saved the country from "telepathic starfish-shaped aliens."
  • Thom signing up to work as a tutor at the community center.
  • Thom reading The Lorax to a group of kids at the center.
  • Thom being reassigned to another job at the center the following week, and meeting someone he recognizes at the basketball game.
  • Thom having trouble making friends in school because of his father's notoriety.
And back to the basketball game again.

Pages 19 through 28 portray a bench-clearing brawl, a terrible injury, the first manifestation of Thom's superpower, the approach of an epileptic seizure, a last-second victory, someone calling Thom "that gay guy," his father realizing that he really is gay, a superhero flyover, and a woman slapping Thom's dad for some unexplained deed he'd done as a hero.

And then comes chapter 2.

I fear that's asking too much of readers: too many facts to remember, too many conflicts to follow, too many problems to care about. Many readers are intellectually capable of tracking all those issues, but the real challenge for an author is getting readers to buy in emotionally. We need good reasons to care about the protagonist, but too many reasons dilute and divert our attention.

Writing the first chapter of a novel, I think, is like launching an airplane. You don't want to be weaving back and forth across the runway and going back to the terminal to pick up more stuff. You want full power and forward momentum.

I've found myself struggling with that challenge in some of my own writing projects, and I see it in other people's manuscripts, too. The first chapter has so much backstory, so many themes and characters and situations to establish, that it never gathers much momentum. Flashbacks are a particular temptation and trouble. Some of the solutions:
  • Take some ideas out of book 1 and save them for book 2. (In this case, we really don't need the Lorax scene.)
  • Find a different starting-point, one where the most important information grows naturally from the scene.
  • Move some flashbacks into the present or into later chapters, after the story has started moving. (Why not combine the abusive husband and the slapping wife?)
  • Splice instead of knotting. Use a single detail or episode to introduce two or more themes or facts instead of creating new details for each. (Thom's healing could attract more attention, and lead directly into the gaybaiting.)
Of course, if it were that easy, I'd never have this problem.


Anonymous said...

By coincidence, just finished this title as part of my post-holiday recovery coma.

I agree - big time - about the book's plot claustrophobia. Too many elements, too many themes that never really converge. Half the narrative stuff might have made a more resonant reading experience.

Hard not to think that the movie-producer author didn't fall into some of the classic Hollywood traps regarding the ratio of action to contemplation.

That having been said, the principal issue with the books is going to be its gay themes. The book's failures of craft are going to be overshadowed by its utility as what - for want of a better word - I'll call a socializing object.

This book might - almost certainly will - find its way into the hands of kids who will be moved by it, encouraged by it, given courage by it. For those kids, literary merit will be less of an issue than identification (I know, I know... but still).

Impossible not to read this title without trying to imagine what my early-teenaged self would have made of it. It's a completely different climate for gay kids now; this book would have been unimaginable when I was that age.

But had a copy been snuck to me through a time machine, how would I have reacted to the story and its hero?

Thrilled in more than one way, I suspect, by the existence on paper of a character I could identify with in that way. No way not to start with that.

Intimidated, too, though, since the character belongs to a school clique - overachieving jocks - that I wouldn't have had any social access to. Crushes on unavailable athletes is an all-too-familiar feature of life for gay kids in any era. As an adult, I'm actually pleased to see this kind of gay character: my own coming out involved the discovery of my own inner athlete and now I spend as much time running and biking as any of the straight boys I used to fall for. We've also got no shortage today of gay role models in art, fashion and design.

But as a kid, I think my reaction would have been more like: I may only be thirteen, but if I learned nothing else in middle school, I learned which parties I'm not invited to.

In some ways, this ties to the post about Jules Pfeiffer and Robin.

Wasn't much of a comics fan back then (still not, where mainstream superhero stuff is concerned) but I don't think you have to be a real participant in that world to get what you need to read this book.

If Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson had been gay, that would have been a different story. I'd have had a whole different level of identification there. I literally can't imagine the fan-boy euphoria I would have been subject to.

More broadly, if the principal point of this book is as a socializing object ('Look, terrified gay kid! You're not alone!')... would it have worked?

On some pretty basic level I have to admit it would have. And for that reason, I'm passing it along to people. I'd still recommend Boy Meets Boy first, though, as more generous-spirited and accessible. I think that book is actually the greater imaginative achievement, since for all of Hero's fantastical elements, it doesn't posit a world where prejudice is a non-issue.

I think it's frustrating to feel grateful for a book you don't entirely respect as a work of art. And it's tedious to listen to acclaim for it when the acclaim has as much to do with the socially correct ground the author has staked out (and, let's face it, with the author's looks and media connections) than with the experience you have while reading.

But the list of flawed books that have genuinely touched readers is a long one. And in the case of Hero, I'm ultimately OK with that.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that Hero is still a valuable book for its relative rarity: both as a book for gay teens and as a serious use of the superhero mythology. I hope it leads to more of both. I even think Perry Moore could write a better novel if he relaxed and didn't worry about stuffing in everything.

For a gay teen who also likes superhero comics, I think a lot of the weak spots in Hero that bothered me—like the kryptonite issue—just wouldn't matter. Superhero comics are usually melodramas with plenty of plot overload (more palatable in monthly doses), so even the book's swirling themes might seem familiar.

Especially if you're not finding many other stories that speak to you.

I like your point about Hero being a fantasy about a gay teenager that doesn't just wish the prejudice away.

I hadn't considered the jock/non-jock element of the book, which indeed parallels with Feiffer's resentment of Robin. In that respect, it feels meaningful that Thom's power is not great strength or zapping rays or anything equally macho, but some sort of healing.

Thanks for the comments!