Sunday, November 7, 2010

Monique Truong's "Bitter in the Mouth"

Plot twists are hard to pull off.

Quick clarification: by "plot twists," I don't mean the part of a Law & Order episode where they figure out who the murderer is. The surprises that happen in mysteries, detective stories, and a lot of stuff that ends in "noir" aren't really plot twists because the reader expects them. A mystery, by definition, is going to have a big reveal or two at the end, so that reveal isn't a plot twist. It's just part of the plot.

No, a plot twist happens in all the OTHER kinds of stories, where the reader has been bopping merrily along the path laid out by the author, following the plot under a given set of facts, and then, BAM! Something gets revealed that changes all of the previous facts and assumptions the reader's been following this whole time. A good plot twist has to be completely unexpected, but also completely logical, requiring little further explanation.

"Luke. I am your father."

The plot twist in "The Empire Strikes Back" is a perfect example. The viewer knows that Darth Vader has a hard-on for this Skywalker kid, seeing as he blew up the Death Star. And Luke has vowed to kill Vader and defeat the Empire because Vader killed his father and the evil Empire is evil (I think. Aside from blowing up planets that are strongholds for violent insurgents, do we ever get a good explanation for why the Empire is evil? I haven't seen the movies for a while, so if you know, put it in the comments, I'm happy to be schooled in Star Wars lore.) The baddies and the goodies have all the motivation they need to hate each other as soon as the movie begins. Since that isn't a mystery that needs solving, the audience isn't expecting the plot twist. And the twist itself immediately makes perfect sense in the context of the story. "Luke, I am your father." "No, that's impossible." "Search your heart, you know it to be true." Three lines of dialogue, and everything the audience knows about Vader, Luke, and the whole Star Wars saga up to this point changes. The twist is simple, elegant, and adds depth and pathos to the story.

Now, consider "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (and my incredible geekiness). All of the Harry Potter books are guilty of the clunky, awkward and gratuitous plot twist, but "Prisoner" is my favorite book in the series, so it's going under my knife. The big reveal at the end is that Sirius Black didn't betray Harry's parents to Voldemort and then kill Peter Pettigrew; Peter Pettigrew betrayed Harry's parents, faked his own death, framed Sirius for everything, and has been living in disguise as Ron's pet rat for 13 years. It takes an ENTIRE CHAPTER AND A HALF to deliver this information, all of it crammed down the reader's throat in one enormous chunk of exposition worthy of a James Bond villain. Furthermore, the big reveal doesn't fundamentally change the way that we view the characters or the story up to this point. It doesn't shift our perception of the events of the book or give them any depth or pathos they didn't already have.

That's why plot twists are difficult to pull off properly, because they aren't really about plot at all. They're about perception. A plot twist doesn't change the story so much as it changes the way the reader views the story. The characters experiencing the twist can be moved by it as well--Harry and Luke are both surprised as hell when the truth comes out--but if the twist doesn't change anything about the reader's relationship to the story, then the twist has failed as a literary device.

All of this just for me to say that I didn't much like Monique Truong's novel "Bitter in the Mouth."

Seven years passed between Truong's first novel, "The Book of Salt," and her second, "Bitter in the Mouth," and I had such high hopes. "The Book of Salt" is easily one of my favorite novels of all time, at least in the top 5, if not the top 3. Basically, it's about the gay Vietnamese cook of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas when they were living in Paris in the 1930s. It's an amazingly rich and dense book about food, language, colonialism, travel, love, family, betrayal, and identity. I'll review it the next time I read it, which will be soon, because I love that book like a fat guy loves cake.

But Truong fell into a sophomore slump with this one. "Bitter in the Mouth" is about a young woman, Linda, from the South who grew up with undiagnosed synesthesia, which causes her to taste words. I think Truong was trying to write one of those Faulkner-esque Southern family dramas, and to a certain extent, she succeeds. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of Linda's relationships with her family: distant mother, doting father, heinous grandmother, beloved great-uncle. But any bits of the book dealing with her synesthesia, which is about half the book, just drag the whole story to a screeching halt. Much is made of Linda keeping her sound-taste sense secret from the rest of her family, and while there is inherent drama in the distance created between family members by any kind of secret-keeping, synesthesia isn't a strong enough vehicle to carry such emotional weight. As far as secret mental disorders go, it's actually kind of lame, especially compared to the other family secrets revealed in the book: rape, adultery, closet homosexuality, cross-dressing, cancer, none of these events get as much attention in the book as Linda's synesthesia. I feel that Truong placed undeserved importance on this one aspect of her narrator's life story, and that's not even my biggest complaint with the book.

The reason I opened this post with a discussion of plot twists is because "Bitter in the Mouth" has two of the worst plot twists I've ever encountered. The first occurs exactly halfway through the book, and while it did alter my perception of Linda and her family, it also required about 50 pages of exposition immediately following the big reveal. That's basically as long as all of the big plot twists revealed at the end of all 7 of the Harry Potter books. The second plot twist comes about ten pages before the end of the book, and those last ten pages are used to, again, explain the plot twist. I say that these are the two worst plot twists I've encountered because (1) plot twists that require extensive exposition/explanation are just bad writing, (2) both of the big reveals could have been revealed at the beginning of the book for much bigger narrative impact, and (3) the second plot twist is treated as a cathartic moment between Linda and her mother, but doesn't actually address the main reason they are estranged from each other. Linda was raped when she was 11, and her mother maybe knew about it, or covered it up, or was in love with the rapist--something of that nature, it's never really revealed. Truong spends a lot of time at the beginning of the book setting up the rape as an example of how awful Linda's mother really is and how the rape was proof that Linda's mother never loved her. Then at the end of the book, Linda and her mother lay all their secrets out on the table so they can love and trust each other again, and neither one even mentions the rape. What. The. Hell.

Of course, I did read this whole novel, so it wasn't actually that bad. It's just that whenever I find myself walking down the street and talking to myself about the books I read, I spend a lot more time bitching about "Bitter in the Mouth"'s faults than I spend praising its virtues. Those plot twists really ruined an otherwise solid novel for me. As I said, a good plot twist is difficult to pull off. And after walking to Brooklyn Heights and back yesterday, mumbling to myself about Star Wars and Shakespeare and Fight Club and Harry Potter and Edith Wharton, I've determined that a plot twist, even a really good one, is evidence of good-but-not-great story. I think about great novels like "The Age of Innocence," or plays like "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet," and the thing that they all have in common is a dreadful sense of inevitability. We learn the endings of "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet" at the beginning of the plays: Macbeth will be king, but not for long; Romeo and Juliet fall in love and commit suicide. Edith Wharton is the queen of inevitability. Her characters never make brave or grand choices; they make realistic choices, practical choices, and obvious choices, always following the paths set for them by society and their own human limitations. There are no plot twists in the truly genius tragedies of the ages, because the most poignant tragedy is the one that's spotted from miles away, and the audience can only sit and watch as it rushes toward us, inevitable, immutable, and unchangeable.

However, that kind of storytelling is even more difficult to pull off then a good plot twist. You have to be damned talented to keep an audience enthralled when they already know the ending of the story. And you have to be willing to go bleak--really, really bleak. Not everyone wants to write bleak tragedies; not everyone wants to read them. A story with plot twists is more likely to be a comedy, or an adventure story, or a comic book (comic book plots are constructed almost exclusively out of well-done plot twists, which is why I enjoy them so much). I like to read those, too. My reading diet is mainly composed of comedies and plot twists, with great tragedies thrown in like the rare shot of whiskey in my afternoon tea.

That actually sounds pretty good right about now. I'm going to have tea with whiskey and read another book. What a twist!

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