Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Breaking the Wall

Review: Matthew Templeton and the Enchanted Journal by Natalie Grigson, Kelpie Dreams by Steve Vernon

One of the hardest techniques for an author of fiction to master is addressing the reader directly. Speaking directly to, acknowledging, or including your audience through the imaginary box of observation is known as "breaking the fourth wall". It takes a very light hand, and is easily overdone. Many readers—myself included—dislike it intensely as an annoying distraction from absorption in the narrative.

It can be done, however. In order to succeed, the narrator must include the reader with asides that share expectations or acknowledge a quiet joke at the characters' expense. It must also be continual; a sudden comment to the reader in Chapter Eight is a jarring occurance, but a string of subtle asides that begin in Chapter One becomes part of the narration. Gentle, quiet, and subtle will be less annoying than sudden, jarring and unexpected

Matthew Templeton and the Enchanted Journal

This novel was a Kindle Scout nomination of mine that was not selected. I bought it anyway, intrigued by the concept of a journal that could bring about anything written into it. (Shades of Stranger than Fiction here; I kept thinking of Emma Thompson writing Will Farrell to death.) Matthew's journal is a birthday present from his librarian, Ms. McCaffrey. 

A thirteen-year-old boy might be presumed to be less than delighted at receiving the gift of "a diary", but it beats what Matthew got from his hideously self-centered and mean parents: nothing. Well, nothing except a promise of military academy, despite his intense wish otherwise on his "birthday match". 

Throughout the tale of Matthew, his only school friend Ryan, and the others they collect on their adventures, we are invited to laugh at the folly of the humans, snicker at the petty evil of Matthew's parents, and enjoy the daft way the journal continually skews what Matthew wants by misinterpreting his written words. Ordinarily I would despise such asides, but Grigson has a sweet way with them. They help the reader along rather than breaking the fourth wall.

This is a tale of revenge and murder, treachery and lies, with knights and their ladies fair, lost princesses, evil wizards, montrous wergs, and rebellious villagers. Yet not one of them is what we expect; every character (except Matthew's parents, perhaps) has a unforseen side. The result is a light-hearted, humorous, and thoroughly delicious novel with the promise of a sequel.

I'll be waiting on the other side of the wall, with bated breath, for Grigson to break it again.

Kelpie Dreams

This novel, by contrast, was accepted as a Kindle Scout publication. It had a HOT label on it from the first, and I understood why when I read the concept: a paranormal romance novel (kelpie librarian, 200-year-old sea captain, zombie lighthouse keeper, sea hag villain) for folks who HATE to read romance novels. That's me! I thought, and nominated it. (Besides, I had nominated Vernon's A Blurt In Time, bought it when it was not selected, and enjoyed it a little. Surely I would enjoy this one a bit more?)

I barely read the excerpt, I was so taken with the concept. If I had, I would have noticed the blaring asides, the all-caps shouts. (And paragraphs of hyphenated stuff, breaking oddly due to my font-size settingI should have remembered them from Blurt.) I was never allowed to simply become absorbed in the tale, but was constantly dragged from my observer's post to get involved in the action. 

Perhaps it would have been less annoying if the asides and comments weren't so crude and gauche. OK, there's a bit of a snicker in someone's mother wanting to name her Hemorrhoid. But:
Can you actually imagine spending your entire lifetime constantly spell-checking your own name? Go ahead—just try to close your eyes and spell out H-E-M-O-R-R-H-O-I-D without having to resort to a discrete peek at a medical dictionary. I dare you.

If that was the only such, I might have forgiven the writer and moved on. But there is scarely a page without a similar observation, blatantly breaking the fourth wall to drag me, the reader, into the character's head. I don't come to discover the main character's motivation, I am drenched in it:
My son had died picking his nose in a stolen neon yellow Audi. Try and think about that, if you will. Let the thought crust and dry, and let it stick to your mind’s finger like a hard and completely unflickable booger of undeniable truth. I had always thought that the word irony was the opposite of wrinkly, but if this wasn’t ironic, I don’t know what else it could be.

OK, I'm not with it. I don't get it. Except occasionally, I do, and then I regret every one of the break-wall asides I got annoyed at when I come upon something really cool and evocative:
I stared right back. I was not going to give the man a single inch of leniency. I mentally tried to evoke a psychic soundtrack of all of the Ennio Morricone background music from all three of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name westerns. Ooeeooeeoo . . . wah-wah-wah. Ooeeooeeoo . . . wah-wah-wah.

Eventually, having battled nearly half-way through the up-and-down narrative, I quietly closed the book and abandoned the effort. That was mid-May. I told myself, Steve Vernon shouldn't have to suffer a bad review because of my inability to get past his brittle-wall syndrome. It wasn't until I read Matthew Templeton and the Enchanted Journal that I realized breaking the wall doesn't have to throw the whole labor onto the reader.

Vernon has a readership, and my comments will come late in the stream, easily ignored by them. But this is one time I'm really glad I didn't pay for a book.