Monday, September 03, 2012

Writing dramatic scenes - Cannery Row

There’s a lesson about creative writing that Hunter S. Thompson never managed to learn: some things cannot be described. Some events are so momentous or extraordinary or strange that description can only ever be an anti-climax. Unless you are there, the telling can only be a pale imitation of the actual. Thompson failed to learn this over and over and over and over in his tedious catalogue of abuse, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Scenes of drunken debauchery cannot adequately be described and you had to be there for it to be funny.

To understand this, and to understand how to approach the description of such scenes, turn instead to a real writer, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck understood writing craft. He understood that if something is built up to heroic heights, no description is ever going to succeed: the anticipation will always outdo what the writer could convey in words.

Cannery Row essentially builds up, over the course of the whole novel, to the final party at Doc’s. The first party is a disaster. The second, planned with the best of intentions, will also, almost certainly, be a disaster. Mack and the boys have the capacity for destruction built into their DNA; things always go wrong around them; violence is never far from the surface.

So, having spent the whole novel building up to a cataclysmic party, how can Steinbeck make it work? He writes it the only way it possibly can work, by understating it completely. Instead of presenting the action directly, after the fight with the tuna boat boys, which is told directly, Steinbeck slips back into summary mode for the remainder of the party:

The enemy was driven half-way up the lot when the sirens sounded. Doc's birthday party had barely time to get inside the laboratory and wedge the broken door closed and turn out the lights before the police car cruised up. The cops didn't find anything. But the party was sitting in the dark giggling happily and drinking wine. The shift changed at the Bear Flag. The fresh contingent raged in full of hell. And then the party really got going. The cops came back, looked in, clicked their tongues and joined it. Mack and the boys used the squad car to go to Jimmy Brucia's for more wine and Jimmy came back with them. You could hear the roar of the party from end to end of Cannery Row. The party had all the best qualities of a riot and a night on the barricades. The crew from the San Pedro tuna boat crept humbly back and joined the party. They were embraced and admired. A woman five blocks away called the police to complain about the noise and couldn't get anyone. The cops reported their own car stolen and found it later on the beach. Doc sitting cross-legged on the table smiled and tapped his fingers gently on his knee. Mack and Phyllis Mae were doing Indian wrestling on the floor. And the cool bay wind blew in through the broken windows. It was then that someone lighted the twenty-five-foot string of firecrackers.
This is brilliant. It still conveys the anarchy of the party but the distance the author establishes by reporting it in this way gives it a strength that direct narrative would have failed to convey.

2 comments:

DIY Papi said...

I did a double when I read this: Hunter S. Thompson never managed to learn: some things cannot be described....Thompson failed to learn this over and over and over and over in his tedious catalogue of abuse, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas...To understand this, and to understand how to approach the description of such scenes, turn instead to a real writer, John Steinbeck
I love Steinbeck's work and never read Thompson, except for snippets here and there.

Can you point me to an example in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where he fails to convey? Even better, do you have a few examples?

Thx

Tom Conoboy said...

thanks for commenting.

The point I'm making is that sometimes scenes can be so over the top they become impossible to describe. No words can actually convey the chaos or anarchy or mess that is involved. The Steinbeck party could have been like that: the author had effectively built up to this party for the whole novel. It would, in that case, be almost inevitable that what he described would therefore be an anti-climax. So Steinbeck, realising this, cleverly decided not to describe it, but to pull back and report it, leaving us to imagine the details.

Hunter S. Thompson, on the other hand, goes from scene of excess to scene of excess, every time trying to convey the drug-induced chaos. It never works. You really have to be there, and be in the same drug-induced state, for that to be effective. I wrote about it in more detail here:

http://tomconoboy.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/fear-and-loathing-in-las-vegas-by.html

hope that makes sense. Thanks again

Tom