Friday, May 27, 2005

I Made It

I made it through Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. But it wasn't easy.

Chasing Vermeer is a book about coincidences and whether or not there are connections we just don't see between so-called unrelated events. The author tries to build an art mystery around that basic--and, really, interesting--premise. Unfortunately, coincidence is deadly in a work of fiction. It wrecks all the elements that go into building a piece of writing. A novel about coincidence needs to be very carefully written.

Chasing Vermeer is not carefully written.

The events in a plot--whether for a mystery or any other kind of book--need to lead from one to another. Event B happens because Event A happened; Event A leads to B leads to C, etc. It's called a causal relationship. Something causes something to happen. There's very little causal relationship in Chasing Vermeer. The events in the book are more or less just a list of things that happen. This probably helps explain why the characters' reactions to events often seem to come out of nowhere, too.

Speaking of characters--two suddenly appear out of nowhere as a plot device. They literally appear to open a door for the main characters. Then we never see them again. That's definitely a flaw. As a matter of fact, all the secondary characters move in and out of the book in a very jerky, clunky way.

Chasing Vermeer also has long sections that sound "instructive." Teaching kids to think seems to be a very important part of the book. Now, you may be thinking, "I love books that make me think!" But do you love books that provide you with instruction on how to do so? Children's books have a history of being "instructive." What children's literature existed in the nineteenth century was often of an "improving" nature. You can still see that thread in children's publishing to this very day. It's not a particularly attractive thread.

Think about this: Would instruction be tolerated in a novel for adults? A poor plot, clunky movement of characters, yes. But instruction? Write a textbook!

I know that I sound as if I'm harping about writing technicalities. But writing isn't some kind of magical or romantic thing that just happens. (By the way, there's some romanticizing of writing in this book, too--one of the characters is interested in writing.) Even if you think of writing as an art and not a craft, artists know the technicalities of their art. Writers need to know the technicalities of theirs, too.

To try to end on a positive note, I've heard that there are readers who are into puzzles and riddles who enjoy Chasing Vermeer.


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