Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A new technique-related literary crush: not simple

I recently finished a quietly devastating work of literary fiction by Natsume Ono called not simple.

Things that impressed me included the following:
  • Reverse chronology as necessity
  • Tightly polished artistry
  • Distancing techniques to prevent brutality from becoming melodrama
  • Beautiful intersection of form and content
  • Trust in readers to follow story and understand
  • Title and its relationship to form and content

Knowing how a story ends chronologically does not have to kill the narrative tension.  not simple tells bits of the story mostly going backwards as the book advances toward the end (and not quite the beginning).

Every conversation accomplishes multiple purposes.  The story you thought you knew because you knew the ending keeps needing revision in the reader's mind.  I had to stop reading to ponder each new, horrific revelation and how it affected the future I had previously read about and what I had seen of the past, etc.  The reread value for this one will be quite high with all the revelations, nuance, subtext, and other well-done stuff.

This story could so easily be a melodrama.  One way the author avoided this slide was the use of emotionally stunted characters under-responding (not just to keep things from being hysterical but because that's who they are and how they would respond).  No histrionics here, folks, just tragic people trapped in fractured relationships (reflected in the short, choppy, fragmented scenes and non-linear progression of the story) dealing with blow after blow until they reach an end you already know from the beginning.  Scenes that could have been shown but would have pushed things over the edge were related as conversations, often relayed second-hand.  We learn about characters by what is unsaid and by their actions.  The balance between show and tell feels organic and pitch-perfect.

This story has to be told as a graphic novel.  There is not enough inner monologue for it to work as a prose story.  As a story made of text alone, it would be too bleak and too talky while also being too image-driven.  Pictures make this story work (you know the cliche about how much a picture is worth).  At the same time, I don't think this would make a good film.  The chronological jumping around and all the fragmented, short scenes would make my head hurt, and the emotional deadness would be hard for living actors to portray, I think, without trending towards the outrageous melodrama.

There are a lot of times where Ono doesn't spell things out, but careful readers will feel the craters left by the implications of specific lines.  No way, so that's why . . .   Yes, that's why, dear reader, but the author doesn't bludgeon you with it and never intrudes as a narrator.  It's up to you to find the heartbeats of the story.

The phrase not simple is used by people to describe the protagonist's life and life story.  It could be used of just about every piece of the work itself.  The characters are complex, and you could sum up their situations in a trivial way, sometimes, but it's more complicated than it seems.  Not artificially complicated, just organically complex.  Could the story have been told just as engaginly in straight chronological order?  Yeah, probably.  But it wasn't told with the mixed chronology as a gimmick.  I get the sense that the author told it that way, so she could end it with the heartbreaking hopeful tone she does.  Does it have a happy ending?  Well, yes and no and more no but also kind of a bafflingly uplifting yes.  It's just not that simple to explain. 

You should probably read it to find out.

1 comment:

  1. Oh... wow. Have you read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell? I read it a couple weeks ago, and except for the bit about form and content, you very nearly could have been describing it.

    I would like to read not simple, but I haven't any good way of getting my hands on manga. I think I need a book version of netflix.