Sunday, November 15, 2009

Two Chunksters at a Time

I am reaching the end of one of those rare weeks for me - 7 days during which I have not finished a single book. Not one. I should have seen this coming but it still feels strange. It's not that I haven't been reading at pretty much my normal pace for the last week or so but I started two books on the same day that, between them, total right at 1,000 pages. Now, almost 800 pages of reading later, I'm only now approaching the end of the two novels.

One of the books I've been immersed in for the last few days is the new John Irving novel, Last Night in Twisted River, a 553 page saga that covers three generations of one family over a period of 50 years. I'm over 500 pages in now and still feel ambivalent about the book but Irving has reminded me of one storytelling technique I have always found interesting.

In this story, Irving spends several hundred pages building suspense about the threat that two of his main characters are trying to escape. The years pass - the threat refuses to go away - and it seems more and more likely that time will finally force a deadly confrontation. When it finally happens, Irving sets the scene in great detail and brings the suspense to its peak level. Then, just when the action is about to begin, he does something unexpected by revealing the end result of the confrontation in what at first seems like just a descriptive throwaway phrase at the beginning of a sentence.

It takes a moment for the words to sink in but when they do the reader is stopped in his tracks. Irving spends the next dozen or so pages describing what happened but the reader already knows how the scene ends and is reading from a whole different perspective than the one most often offered in thrillers (not that Last Night in Twisted River can be called a thriller). I find this to be a very effective way to handle suspense and tension in a novel and I've come to prefer it to the more straightforward, linear approach to storytelling.

I wish I could think of other specific examples of this approach but, even if I could, they would probably be "spoilers" and I couldn't use them. In fact, I can already see that reviewing Last Night in Twisted River is going to be a tricky.


  1. New book for you: "Gang of One," by Fan Shen, by a man who escaped Red China after spending his youth in the Red Guard as part of a good revolutionary family.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Ms. Factotum...I'll take a look.