I've been meaning to talk about The Book Thief by Markus Zusak for several days now. Briefly, it tells the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, as she is raised by her foster parents during World War II. I don't want to review the book--there are plenty of good reviews around. Instead, I want to talk about the book from a writer's standpoint, because it made me think about effective writing and why this book "works" in some ways and not in others.
To start, though, I'll say that I didn't love this book. When I read the prologue, I was excited to continue. But, for me, as the book progressed, I felt a little cheated. I felt like there was a lot of material that was trivial, so those pages were a waste of my time. I guess I wanted the prose to be more dense.
That's not to say that I don't admire Zusak, though. He has a lot of strengths as a writer. I'm going to talk about some of what I thought were his strengths and then digress a bit into some more general views and questions.
Zusak's characters in this book were particularly strong to me. What made them effective was that they were clearly rendered and stayed true to the initial personalities established in the beginning of the book. Each character had a strong personality and had a mix of both positive and negative traits. I found, though, that they weren't particularly complicated. For the most part everyone could be quickly understood and classified as "good" or "bad" with the exception of the Mayor's wife, who was by far the most interesting character for me. Compared to other literary characters such as, I don't know, say, Anna Karenina, Zusak's characters were flat. But, I realized that these flat characters, in part because they were flat, also made them memorable. They were simple and clear, like a nursery rhyme. And I wondered if maybe the more complicated a character is, the harder they are to render in the same memorable way.
Zusak also chose an interesting setting for his story. Setting the story in World War II naturally allowed the book to inherit a lot of emotion and drama. With the devastation of war in the background, even the most ordinary events could come off as haunting. When I was in graduate school, I had a teacher tell me that our stories should be about individual people, but hung against a backdrop of something that is more universal. Zusak did exactly that when he portrayed this German family in the middle of war. But is it "cheating"? Does such a dramatic subject matter serve as a crutch that lets a writer get away with not creating as much emotion on his or her own? The emotional climaxes of this story were completely reliant on the emotional events of war. In a way, it didn't feel earned, and yet it was still effective.
I'm neutral about the structure and formatting of the book. For those who haven't read it, the book contains some short and bolded lines like headlines, along with some illustrations and comic-book type sections. For the most part, I thought they worked, but there was quite a bit of redundancy in the headlines. Often I felt as if I had read something only to have to read it again in headline form. It became too cute for me. The illustrations, however, worked, and I did appreciate that variation from the norm. As far as the structure of the story went, I thought that was clean and straight forward. Like I mentioned in the beginning, some (and I might even say many) of the scenes felt trivial. I don't skim through books, but I wanted to in several spots while I was reading this.
What I found most interesting about this book, though, has to do with my post a couple of weeks ago on the changing definition of "literary" writing and the combination of insightful prose with other elements of the story, mentioned here. While The Book Thief did not have what I would consider to be beautiful, literary prose (in the best sense of the word) it did have the other elements that I find missing in some contemporary literary work: character, plot, premise. These are important elements! I feel as if we as writers have somehow separated prose quality from all the other important parts of a story and wrongly classified them as two distinct genres or branches of fiction. The snoots care only about the beautiful prose, while the mainstream writers care about everything else.
It may seem like an obvious choice. After all, prose is only one element in a story, and apparently not always a very relevant one. But, what I find among the best prose writers is that it is in those small moments that the deepest emotions of life come forward. A good prose passage provides dozens of insights into the world instead of simply guiding a reader towards The End the way simple prose does.
Take this short excerpt from Nina Barberova's story "The Resurrection of Mozart":
The silence was so complete that when they stopped talking and returned to their own private thoughts, they could hear through the open windows the clock ticking in the large old house. The sky was green, clear and lovely, and the stars were just beginning to shine, so few and far-flung that they failed to form any definite pattern. The old trees--acacias, limes--neither breathed nor trembled, as if standing stock-still were a safeguard against something that was invisible to men but somehow immanent in the summer evening. The hosts and their guests had just finished supper; the table had not yet been cleared. Some wine-glasses were still on the table. Slowly, the green light of the darkening sky transformed the faces of the seated company which was not obscured by shadows. They were talking about war and about the omens of war. A young woman, a guest who had driven out from town with her husband and sister, restraining her brassy voice, remarked that she had seen a meteor a fortnight before.
The way I see it, all of the other elements can lead to one good story, but good prose creates dozens or even hundreds of additional good stories draped over that one good story.
The truth--or at least what I believe to be the truth--is that readers want it all. Perhaps when given the choice, some would choose plot over prose or vice versa, but the only reason they have to choose in the first place is because so few books are able to combine all the elements that make up a truly excellent book. I don't think that lets either camp off the hook. I believe we should continue to challenge ourselves to truly reach that balance.