Writing Criticism

published: Sat, 4-Mar-2006   |   updated: Sat, 4-Mar-2006
4th July fireworks at Avon, CO

For the last five years or so, I've written technical stuff. I've written about algorithms and data structures, about software development methodologies, about programming languages and design patterns and frameworks. Every now and then I write about something that captured my imagination and had to find out about. I'm a mathematician morphed into a computer scientist, who happens to like writing.

I also read a lot. Agreed, a lot of what I read are technical books, about all that stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph, but I also read a lot of fiction. Back in the day, when I was a teenager, it was science fiction and science fiction only (the good, the bad, and the pulp), but from my twenties onwards I started reading from a larger palette. Some of the books I've read have been thoroughly engrossing, others, I've had to drop.

One of the things I've thought about doing, but have only done once or twice so far, is to review books (or films, or music, for that matter) and try to explain my reasons for liking or rejecting them. For me, unfortunately, this simple task has too many reminiscences of those English Lit. exam questions at school: "In the book The Red-Hot Dawn, Mark and Michele vow to live together in the turreted house. Discuss the allegorical meaning of the turret in contemporary literature." You know: the type of question that would just make me run screaming from the exam hall.

Anyway, I was chatting with some friends at work, and I mentioned I really enjoyed Memento, the film directed by Christopher Nolan, written by the Nolan brothers, and starring Guy Pierce. But it took me a while to articulate why. The reason is, just like the protagonist Shelby who has a completely faulty short term memory, we don't know what's happened. If you like, the narrator of the action is completely unreliable. He can't remember, so we have no idea why he's in this tawdry motel. We find out through the use of a serialized set of flashbacks, going back further and further in time, until we understand what happened and the film ends.

This notion of the unreliable narrator is one I enjoy a great deal when I read. Generally, the books that employ this tactic are written in the first person. You read the book and it's as if the narrator is speaking directly to you. You believe him or her. You go along quite happily until you start realizing that maybe the narrator isn't being entirely truthful. Maybe it's because they're narrating from a viewpoint with which you are unfamiliar. Or maybe they're deliberately hiding something from you. Or maybe they're delusional or ill and have a completely skewed view of the world. Or maybe their memory is just faulty: what they remember is only an approximation of reality or it's conflated with some fiction.

The first novel I read which employs this literary device (and I hate to call it that, because it implies a cold calculated feel to the text) is The Affirmation by Christopher Priest. I cannot adequately express how that novel affected me when I first read it. It was stunning.

Priest has written several other novels since where you can't trust his protagonists to tell you the truth. The most recent was The Separation where he also explores the notion that you can't believe your eyes either, by populating it with doubles, lookalikes, and twins. Which person just spoke and to which person? You're continually kept just a little off balance.

Actually, one reason I mention Priest is that his novel of Victorian magicians, The Prestige, is currently being filmed by Christopher Nolan, for release later this year. This time there are two protagonists, each trying to outdo the other, and we see them from the viewpoint of their descendants a hundred years later as they read the magicians' unreliable memoirs. In a way, memory is only what other people validate.

It kind of speaks to a paranoia I suppose, like those Cold War novels from the 60s that John le Carré or Len Deighton used to write. In these novels the author wasn't playing games with your mind (well not usually), but he was playing games with his characters. Who is the double agent? Everyone seems to be flawed in some way, but which character is so flawed that he or she has been turned? The most impressive for me of these types of novels were The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (le Carré), and The Ipcress File (Deighton), both of which were made into pretty gripping films (the former with Richard Burton and the latter with Michael Caine).

So, in conclusion, I think I'm going to review as an occasional series books and films and music I've enjoyed. Only by writing criticism (or attempting to) can I get better at it, and only then might I be able to understand the meaning of the turret in Mark and Michele's lives and let you know.