Monday, February 09, 2009

Diddle-iddle-ah...wah wah wah

(in case it's not obvious--and it isn't, because it was a pretty inept effort--that was meant to be the iconic opening chords from the main theme of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)

Jorge Luis Borges' first story collection is called A Universal History of Inequity. It consists of a series of brief, mostly-historical accounts of infamous characters throughout history, with that Borges edge. They don't much resemble his later, more famous work (although you can certainly see the roots), but they're interesting nonetheless.

One of these stories is "The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan," by which is meant Billy the Kid, although a quick googling informs me that his actual real name is uncertain. It is three and a half pages long, and it traces Harrigan's life from his youth in a gang of feral children in New York City to his journey west and his establishment as a killer through to his own inevitable murder at the age of twenty-one. There's a bit of speculative psychologizing in the story ("so long as his his trigger finger didn't fail him, he was the most feared (and perhaps most empty and lonely) man on that frontier"), but the overall thrust of the story is that there's this guy--more legend than man, really--and you can recite these bare facts, but you're never really going to understand him or know what exactly was going on in his head.

It's a striking piece of writing. But what if you wanted to write a novel about Billy the Kid instead? Obviously, you couldn't make it exactly the same but longer; short-short stories and novels are not the same thing. Obviously. You could go a bit longer, sure, but if you have three hundred-odd pages about the guy and all you're saying is "look how unknowable he was"--wouldn't that get kinda boring? Simplistic? Very, very limited? I submit that, yes indeed, it would get kinda boring, even if you were a decent stylist. Of course, you could ameliorate the problem by making it less about The Kid and more about the people around him and how they react to him.

But what if you decide, fuck that--it's gonna be about him and how he was a violent motherfucker, and that's all there is to it. I'm not sure what to tell you. I don't think your book will be all that interesting. You might try to say, oh ho, what I'm actually doing is deconstructing American mythology. Booyah! To which I would say, okay, that's cool. It could probably use some deconstruction. But dude: the people by whom the west was won weren't flippin' robots, and if you treat them as such--or maybe they're not technically robots, but they might as well be, because they're endlessly violent and totally unknowable--then how much insight do you expect to be able to bring to the proceedings. Okay okay--they were violent motherfuckers. Is that all you have to say? For hundreds of pages? Because if so, you're not a smart or clever or insightful writer. Sorry. And fuck you.

So tell me, gentle reader: at what point did YOU realize that the whole point of this post was just to take yet another gratuitous swipe at Cormac McCarthy? Probably pretty early, right? You're so perceptive.


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