Neuromancer, tempo, and flaws

I’m rereading Neuromancer.

No, strike that, I’ve just finished rereading Neuromancer; probably my fifth time through the book. This time I’m reading it with more of a critical eye, trying to train myself as to why it lit things on fire, why it spawned a generation of imitators, how it inaugurated a genre that, to my annoyance, I’m still writing in thirty years later.

Annoyance is a strong word. We Were Gods is consciously cyberpunk, at least at the beginning, born out of the same desperate loneliness and desire for contact in a confusing and overloading world that Neuromancer finds itself situated in.

I keep being reminded, strongly, of Nimbus, which I also reread this past year. A lesser known work by local author Alex Jablokov–“oh, my grimdark murder mystery,” as he described it, when we were in line together at a past Arisia. It too is a confusing tale of uneven tempo and avalanche of technological details and of twisted minds. Of layers of reality and memory that get pulled away and re-constructed.

I recommend it, if you like that sort of thing. Don’t think I don’t. It’s a good book, it is just–like Neuromancer–deeply, deeply flawed on many levels.

And that’s what this is about: seeing the flaws in others’ works, and letting them be, and realizing they aren’t fatal.

Neuromancer’s great flaw lies in the absolute deathly boredom of its main character. Case is a non-entity; other than slipping up at the beginning, and one tiny little hero’s choice toward the end (which is really more of a “eh, this is probably fake” moment), he doesn’t DO anything. The novel happens to him; events push him around. The outcome seems inevitable from the get-go, robbing the second half of any sense of tension; we worry, perhaps, for the health of Molly, his razor-fingered girlfriend-cum-bodyguard. We wonder a little bit at the mystery of Wintermute, of Neuromancer, but that ball only gets dropped at the very end, and so the entire middle is a chase scene with no motivation.

The tempo is quite uneven. I’m very sensitive to tempo; talking to my film-making cousin this past week, he is too, and it’s one of the fundamental things that he hammers home when he teaches comedy writing and film-making. Tempo is all; the lines, the scenes, are beats within the greater piece. Tempo determines when the major events and major reveals must happen for the work to seem seamless; when the surprises are “allowed” to happen, and when they cannot.

I watched Reservoir Dogs this morning, for the first time ever. It’s got all the hallmarks of a brash young film-maker flaunting the rules of the screen, converting a stage play to film. The lines are overwritten and spoken on a sound stage; the action a story recounted by an idiot to a fool. He even goes so far as to put himself in the company of Tough Guys at the start, and then (his own joke) kills his own character off quite early, and off-screen. The few characters are flat and cartoonish, their motivations unbelievable, reducible to a single word, or simply ignored.

But as in Pulp Fiction, there’s a masterful control of tempo. Tarantino uses the flashback and the story-frame as judo throws to keep the pace up despite the dialogue, despite the closed-room aspect of the bulk of the action. (I first saw Pulp Fiction pretty much in chronological order–not film order–so my experience of it is very skewed. It was on auto-repeat on the campus TV channel and I kept tuning in earlier and earlier. A bit like that re-cut of Memento someone did, with the plot told linearly.) The tempo carries us along–along with the benefit of the closed doors of the movie theater, a luxury that fiction novelists do not share–and so when the inevitable, almost droll conclusion finally occurs, we find surprising only its abruptness.

Meanwhile, We Were Gods had to undergo a rather traumatic editing pass. When half-way done, it was focused on smoothing out the wrinkles–pushing plot wobbles forward toward the end, like ironing a folded shirt, filled with concerned about what I’ll find when I press forward.

The original ending was a bit slap-dash, and unsatisfying–full of sound and fury, but not really holding up to scrutiny once you’ve closed the book. Part of me was concerned that I can never come up with an ending good enough to justify making the reader wade through 600-odd pages of action; an ending that unravels or explains or at least lands the twenty or thirty different plot points I want to cover.

And then I read and watch the endings of “great works”, of things that have had such a drastic impact on their respective fields, and remember that, to a first approximation, nobody knows how to write endings. Perhaps Mr. Gaiman, who seems to pluck them out of the mythologic ether and work backward to form them into a story.

I guess we do the best I can, and figure out what might work, and perhaps it’ll be good enough. If not–there’s always the second edition, the Director’s Cut, in this age of mix and remix. Right?

(originally published 2013)

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