Cheap Gimmicks? Oh yes, dear yes...

E.M. Forster famously lamented the need for plot in Aspects of the Novel. He imagined the response of a bus driver to the question "What does a novel do?" The fellow sputters and replies, "Well--I don't know--it seems a funny question to ask-- a novel's a novel--well, I suppose it tells a kind of story."

Then Forster envisioned asking a second man, one playing golf and put off by the interruption: "What does a novel do? Why tell a story of course, and I've no use for it if it doesn't. I like a story. Very bad taste on my part, no doubt, but I like a story. You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story. And I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife's the same."

Finally he imagined a third man, who answers by drooping his head regretfully and saying "Yes--oh, dear yes, a novel tells a story." Forster says he respects and admires the first man, fears and detests the second, and is the third. He writes,

Yes--oh, dear yes--a novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish it was not so, that it could be something different--melody, or perception of truth, not this low atavistic form.
When I first read Aspects of the Novel years ago, I immediately recognized myself as someone Forster would detest and fear. I am, for whatever reason, one of those people who have an affection for plot. Call it immaturity, call it artistic dishonesty, call it nascent philistinism, but I cannot deny it. I know the contrivances of storytelling are manipulative and gimmicky, but I can't help myself. I love artifice, clever button endings, surprises, and all manner of twists, turns and big fakey dramatic fade outs. I sometimes find myself saying with a drooping and guilt-laden voice, "Yes, dear yes, a novel should aspire to something greater."

Once upon a time I even imagined myself a fiction writer, but my efforts never amounted to much because I never aspired to anything beyond resolving the plot. There was no melody, no perception of truth. Eventually I gave up writing fiction. But when my son reached the age of three, he developed an insatiable appetite for stories. His mother and I often tried to satisfy this craving with stories made-up on the fly or retellings of whatever childhood myth or fairy tale we could bring to mind. I must have told the story of Jack and the Beanstalk from every conceivable point of view (the giant’s, Jack’s mother’s, even the cow’s). Still, the boy’s appetite for stories showed no sign of diminishing. Each afternoon when I picked him up from preschool, he asked to hear a new tale.

Inventing these from scratch, especially after a long day at work, was often more intellectual effort than I cared to exert. So one day I hit upon the idea of telling a single story that could stretch for days, weeks, or even months, which spared me from having to begin anew each afternoon. And so began the Marco Mystery Stories.

The gist was that Marco was a fellow whose telephone number was one digit different than the number for The Great Western Detective Agency. When people misdialed, he took the case. The first Marco stories were silly affairs. Marco solved the case of a missing caterpillar (it had become a butterfly), and he cracked the theft of some bug-shaped diamonds. I am not even sure I remember most of these early efforts. Eventually, however, the stories became longer and more involved. In one that lasted weeks, Marco tracked down the infamous mobster Charlie the Tuna, who was found smuggling yachts in Mexico with his moll, La-La Laroushe, the famous chanteuse.

Whenever I grew too tired (or too lazy) to devise an original Marco story, I shamelessly cannibalized the plots of just about every film and piece of literature I had ever encountered. Indeed, Marco saved Henry Baskerville from the hell hound, and he survived on a secluded island where the guests were vanishing one by one (a la Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians).

Once, while telling a very long story, it occurred to me that I had managed to steal elements from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Ian Fleming’s Dr. No, James Buchan’s The 39 Steps, the Indiana Jones films and an episode of Gilligan’s Island. Indeed, the stories were always cobbled together affairs. At one point I had Marco, his valet Rudy, and noted Sherpa guide Tensing Norge, held captive by sky pirates in a secret Zeppelin base hidden inside Mount Everest. Oh, and did I mention Dr. Watson was there, too? (Yes, that Dr. Watson).

I was surprised by how satisfying it was to immerse myself again in all the gimcrack and phoniness of storytelling. As I mentioned, I once fancied myself something of a writer, but two years in a creative writing program disabused me of this notion. I realized just how much discipline and dedication it took to be a serious writer, and I also knew myself well enough not suffer illusions about the caliber of my ambition. Even so, inventing and telling the stories did satisfy some itch that had long gone unscratched.

The best part was pulling into the driveway each night, dropping a cliffhanger on the boy, and then hearing him say, "Dad! You can't stop there!" In the end, there's just no hope for my cheesy, artless, gimcrack-riddled soul.


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