I’ve been lugging piles of books from upstairs to downstairs. When the cat ran under my feet I had to drop the books and grab the bannister and in that moment of slapstick, I noticed that the slew of paperbacks down the stairs were all comic novels. There was one only book within reach as I sank down on the step, Marina Lewycka’s ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ and so I read the opening paragraph and it struck me as a particularly good example of both comic writing and the art of the opening paragraph.
“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”
Despite a huge amount of bookish writing on-line, there is surprisingly little analysis of contemporary novelists’ style, so I’m making my own small contribution here.
So, why is this good writing?
Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée.
Statement – short, pithy and attention-grabbing. A little odd, quirky, something different, eccentric even. Humorous. Comic – cleverly so – with understatement. Personal. Sadness in the background.
He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six.
Bald statement, no elaboration about the shock of age difference. Leaves that up to the Reader. Conversational, gossipy tone infers writer’s confessional pact with the Reader, understanding, invites empathy, complicity.
She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.
The ‘fluffy pink’ would have been a clichéd bunch of qualifying adjectives if it weren’t for the incongruity of their use with ‘grenade’. Fluffy pink grenade is a great image. ‘churning up the murky water‘ is ominous and darkly promising of foul revelations to come. At least the Reader hopes so. But the image of the murky water is developed with the idea of things coming to the surface ‘a sludge of sloughed-off memories’ – makes you think of dirty domestic things like a ring around the bath. These sordid memories had been ‘sloughed off’ like dead skin in the murky bathwater of family life, they had been in some sense, washed away, though the ‘sludge’ remained. The figurative language raises the narrator’s game as far as style is concerned, and then the colloquial ‘kick up the backside’ brings a nicely robust comic touch. This is not the style of a writer who is going to stand on ceremony. The family ghosts get a good kicking. The fact that there are ‘family ghosts’ is a good start too. There are things to uncover here.
I would love to be able to write prose like this. Authors of comic fiction run the risk of creating characters that are not ‘real enough’. It’s like the difference between pantomime and proper drama. The risk isn’t confined to comedy but I think in comedy there’s a finer line to be drawn.
Chick-lit (hate the word but my two novels have been marketed under that label) chick-lit (I spit on the word) is mostly pantomime, populated by stock characters. ‘Tractors’ has stock characters too, but they work in a more sophisticated way because they come with subtle undertones of menace. The character of Vera, for example, could be the stock type Bossy Big Sister – at least in the early chapters. It’s done well in ‘Tractors’ because the author acknowledges the psychological stock roles in the family.
Pantomime is a kind of shorthand. Stock characters are shorthand. It’s dangerous for a comic writer to want to be taken seriously. What if it’s just not funny anymore?