Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Sequel Harangue for the Literary Farang
1. Right now I'm halfway through reading John Burdett's The Godfather of Kathmandu, the fourth in his series of vivid Bangkok-set crime novels featuring Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep; I've already read the first three.
2. You know the whole thing about sequels, right? The conventional wisdom, whether it's regarding movies or books or whatever? How the sequel's never as good and possibly much worse? Well, check two cases in point:
(1) William Goldman's 1974 novel Marathon Man was made into a terrific movie in 1976, but, as if amazingly, the original book was even better.
Remember? What a richly textured, character-thick narrative for all that it was a popcult thriller, right? What an excellent read.
But then there was the sequel, Brothers. Which was like Goldman revisiting those characters while he's goofing around on vacation somewhere and visiting upon those characters the mere framework of a farfetched plot in a story containing barely any of the textures and depths of the original.
A disappointment, to be sure.
(2) Same thing, IMHO, same damnable progression, same devolution following from Erica Jong's excellent 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying.
Well, sure, I completely skipped FoF's immediate sequel, How To Save Your Own Life. But, by the time Parachutes and Kisses, the third in the series about Isadora Wing, was available and I'd given it a try ... all I could do was give it was a try.
Again: It was as if the author had decided, Well, okay, I put enough work into the first novel, and never mind reveling in the depths of character, let's just streamline this one so it requires less effort for me to write and for the average reader to consume.
[ Listen: If we wanted to read Teflon-coated Lite fiction, we'd already be doing that (we already do do that, occasionally) with the wide variety of options available and constantly renewed everywhere else. We don't need, from deeply capable writers, Lite scribblings that so many others can crank out. We need the heavier stuff that only they can provide. Stuff, say, in the diverse Atwood/Mieville/Mantel/Lethem-inhabited range between Harry Potter and Ulysses. Yes? ]
3. And so, sweet suffering Buddha, how weird to discover
what seems to be the opposite of the lame progression noted above.
John Burdette's Bangkok series was a delight from the get-go, the briskly paced police procedurals made more flavorful and exotic by their Thai setting and the engaging, near snarky philosophical musings of the half-Anglo protagonist, Det. Jitpleecheep. The novels weren't the most strictly nutritious literary meals around, sure, to wrack a metaphor; but neither were they merely Asian-flavored paperback potato chips. But now here's the fourth one halfway down my reader's judgmental gullet ... and damned if Burdett isn't reversing the sequel curse.
The Godfather of Kathmandu is both spatially thicker than its precursors and more deeply written than them, regardless that the thrill & mystery of the story remains undiluted (and is, I'd insist, enhanced) by the more complex textures of character and philosophy woven therein. I have no idea how it's going to end, and I don't really care: I'm caught up in the story around the plot, and in Jitpleecheep's ongoing, conflicted, journey-of-self megillah; and when the book's over, okay, where's the next one, please.
About that: Burdett's fifth in the series, Vulture Peak, is due out from Knopf in January 2012. I've already bugged the Austin Chronicle's books editor about letting me review it when it's available, as soon as the advance copies are released. Hell, yes.
4. What I haven't mentioned in this extended harangue is the urge ... the faint but incessant urge ... to write some sort of fanfic wherein Det. Jitpleecheep teams up with Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander to solve an international series of murders stretching from Thailand to Sweden.
And I won't, goddamnit.
I won't mention that urge.