Thursday, March 20, 2008

Self-Referential, Self-Indulgent Claptrap (but I call it "Texture")

In one of Paul Reiser’s stand-up routines, he told a particularly obscure joke and received only a few chuckles, while most of the audience merely stared, blinking in puzzlement. “That’s okay,” he told them. “Some of these…are just for me.”

Do you toss things into your stories that are just for you? Names that have meaning but will probably go undeciphered, allusions that could only be understood by a handful of readers, references that couldn’t possibly be grasped but by you and a couple of friends?

Not all my characters have meaningful names; some of them just sound right. But in my (unpublished) first novel my protagonist was a middle-aged man who was so skeptical and reductionistic that he had gradually cut himself off from belief in anything he couldn’t touch and quantify. I wanted him to be mundane in the literal sense of the word, so I made him a professor of geology. And I wanted a name that reflected that pedestrian, materialist nature, so after a long browse in the phone book, I named him Walker Clayborne. (I also dug out an astrology computer program and found him a birth time and date that made him a triple Virgo, the most intellectual of the three Earth signs.)

In my work-in-progress, one of the main characters is a biologist who specializes in the rain-forest canopy. She is named Miranda but goes by Mira, which is an anagram of Rima, the bird-girl of the trees from Green Mansions. Well, some of these…are just for me.

A character in Shock and Awe is named Lamont Richter. I think "Richter" is a nice, harsh-sounding Germanic name, but also has an association in most people's minds (or at least the minds of most people in the Western US) with the Richter scale of earthquake fame. I decided to name him "Lamont Richter", because he's somewhat elegant and old-school, and I think "Lamont" reflects that; but those who care about earthquakes may also catch a hint of the Lamont-Doherty Seismographic Network and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observation Lab.

Long, long ago, Lawrence Block wrote a series of comic thrillers featuring Evan Tanner, a hero whose sleep center had been destroyed by a wound received in the Korean War. In one of the Tanner novels, The Scoreless Thai, Tanner is being shown the ins and outs of Bangkok by a CIA agent who points out key drops, including a tobbo shop. A tobbo shop? Whazzat?

A “tobbo shop” is a typesetting error for “tobacco shop.” Block decided to let the error stand, just to add a touch of (faked) authenticity, and noted that the way the world of words works, he might very well find a novel some day in the future making reference to “the notorious tobbo shops of Bangkok.”

In my novel Tomorrowville, my protagonist is taken to a futuristic (well, come to think of it, it is the future), 24-hour drug‘n’drink bar. Above the door is the sign Tanner’s Tobbo Shop (We Never Sleep). And inside, at last the waiting world (all five of us, I'd estimate) learns what a tobbo shop is.

Contrived? Yes. Silly? Certainly. Obscure? You bet. But it gives me a sort of glow of pleasure, and I think it reads sensibly in the story even if you have no idea where it came from.

Similarly I put the words of acquaintances into the mouths of my characters, or have my characters actually quote them in the form “This psychologist I know says…”

And don’t even get me started on little writing stunts I pull just because I want to break some “rule” I’m tired of hearing.

I rationalize this sort of behavior by using Hemingway’s theory that the iceberg of a book should be seven-eights underwater—that the reader can sense things the author knows yet has not put on the page. Roger Zelazny operated on this theory as well--he claimed that every one of his novels had an "invisible" chapter, one he wrote but deliberately excluded. In my rare moments of lucidity, I suspect this is all masturbatory behavior, and that the only argument that can be made for it is that it keeps my butt in the chair long enough to get some work done.

Do you guys do this sort of thing? Are “Some of these…just for you?” Or am I weird? Or maybe both?


Anonymous said...

No... you're not weird at all.

In my WIP, one of my characters is named after a character in a novel I adore. I won't name the novel or the character, because, well, it's just for me.

And I don't think what you describe is all that odd and I suspect it's gone on for as long as people have been telling stories.

Joan said...

I haven't been reading your blog long enough to give an accurate assessment of your weirdness level ;-), but I can say that I, too, do what you've described. And not even when I'm writing.

On a few occasions, I've left a little joke in a library catalog I've worked on. In one case, after a long, aggravating day, I was cataloging a book by an author named Lammers, about the California penal system. A flight of whimsy took me, and I added a title entry (in the fine tradition of law titles like "Corbin on contracts") for "Lammers on slammers."

Will anybody ever see it? Doubtful. If anybody does, will they smile? I hope so. Did it make me feel better, leaving my hand print in the virtual concrete of a library catalog? You bet.

Tim Stretton said...

I certainly do this all the time. Now I think about it, it's a surprisingly large part of the fun of writing - more so than making 'meaningful statements'...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--Yeah, I imagined this might go on a lot, but you can't tell when it's happening...because in a skilfull story it deosn't call attention to itself.

Hi, Joan--"Lammers on Slammers" is pretty funny. Maybe it will catch on as the way the books is referred to!

Howdy, Tim--Yes, it IS fun, isn't it? But I'm glad to hear that I'm not alone in this. It's one of those things that isn't talked about much...

Anonymous said...

I do, though, think there are times when it's gone too far. I recently read Michael Connelly's ECHO PARK and was jolted out of the story because he named two off-stage characters after people who are well known in the crime fiction world: Sarah Weinman and Duane Swierczynski.

Granted, a bestselling author like Connelly has quite a reach, so I'm guessing the vast majority of people reading the book thought they were just names he made up. Still, I wished he hadn't been so obvious.

Usman said...

Now, I understand why I'm unpublished. I'm not weird enough.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I do it with dates (no, not assignations, but calendarized datum). My WIP, set in contemporary Spain, opens with a prologue set on November 19, 1936. The novel features a rogue network of disgruntled Mossad agents - its codename: N-27. The cadaver of a murdered character is identified as 26437. A character casually refers to February 23rd,1981. The action takes place over eight days in May. Phone numbers, car plates, hotel rooms and other numeric identifiers are usually (though not exclusively)based on a significant date. It's fun - and, as you say, "keeps my butt in the chair". Ok, it's wanking, but I justify it because if the reader does recognise the dates then it opens up a whole other level of meaning which finds echo in allusions within the text. I suppose what I'm also trying to do is reach out to my ideal reader who - as well as marvelling at my elegant prose - will be in awe of my erudition. As if...but it keeps me amused.
- - -

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--

No, you're right--perhaps most of Coneelly's readers won't recognize Sarah Weiman, but she IS pretty widely known, and Swiercynski isn't exactly a name you run across every day...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Some are born weird, some achieve weirdness, and others have weirdness thrus upon them.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Anon--

Oh, that's very obscure indeed. Though Guernica is a great reference to a corpse if anyone happened to be looking. You're right--hardly anyone will notice, but those that catch on will have fun!

Anonymous said...

Yep - Guernika (the WIP is about an art theft and its political consequences)
N-27: Kristallnacht.(Nov.9th=2+7)
November 19: the eve of the deaths of:
José Antonio Primo de Rivera - the figurehead (near deity)of the Falange.
Buenaventura Durruti - revered anarchist militant.
Franco - the butcher - who was kept alive so that he would finally officially die on that date, so welding his memory to that of Primo de Rivera.
Seven Days in May - Frankenheimer movie about atempted coup in the US. (and coiniciding with festival of San Isidro)
February 23, 1981 - attempted military coup in Spain.

haarland phillipps

Usman said...

David Hi,
You had me laughing with that weirdness qoute.
I'll have to figure out which one of the three I am.
btw, the ones who are born weird, is that a reference to werewolves and vampires.

Janet said...

Oh yeah, I'm doing stuff like this too. Some of my characters have names I chose quite deliberately for the allusions. Not the main ones, strangely enough.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Some are born weird, some achieve weirdness, and others have weirdness thrus upon them.

And some get bit by vampires or werewolves.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Haarland--

Yes, I worked out the 1981 reference. The rest would have required research--but a reader might do that research once they caught on.

I remember "Seven Days in May" (the novel) but didn't connect it to Eight Days in May.

Your book sounds like an interesting read. Keep me posted.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Well, maybe you're not tagging the main characters with allusive names because you're smart enough not to mess around with the main machinery. Some of us aren't so wise.

My niece has asked if she can be included in my WIP as a "spunky yellow puppy."

I told her maybe, but not to expect me to use the word "spunky."

Jen Ster said...

Oh my God, YES YES YES, I do that all the darn time...I quote song lyrics ("a sea of palms in an ocean of snow"), I make Warren Zevon jokes ("Send lawyers!! Guns!! And money!!"), oblique references to "Star Wars" ("Well, that's Stuart, always thinking of his stomach") and whenever possible I make some joke about "my old great-aunt Maude" for Joan, who is a Wild Wild West fan. I figure those who will get it, will get a laugh, and those who don't, won't really miss anything. Most recently I had a character mispronounce another character's name, using a member of my writing group as the mispronunciation. (Hi, Kellum!) Flattery gets you everywhere, as my old great-aunt Maude used to say.

David Isaak said...

"Oh my God, YES YES YES..."

Wow. Say that again, will you?

I never really thought of stuffing people into my stories as flattery, but from now on I'm going to assert that it is. Sounds like a good libel defense.

Jen Ster said...

Truth is no defense to libel. The best defense is, "BUT IT'S FUNNY!!!!!!!"