The Disappointed

I’ve had pulp on the brain this past week, virtually have it running out of my ears. And not in a good way.

I just finished reading The Next by Dan Vining, the sequel to The Quick from a couple years back. These books have a very pulpy setup, a twist on classic detective noir. In this case, the detective is part of a group of people called Sailors, who died and were then reborn, apparently to finish up whatever unfinished business they had in life, or at least to find out what it is. Vining’s noir prose is almost a parody of Dashiell Hammett, very poetic, and he creates a sense of place so vivid that the city — Los Angeles in The Quick and San Francisco in The Next — becomes another character in the story.

I’ve also been watching movies. Lots and lots of movies — the lovely wife is on a movie kick for some reason, even though I would really rather be working on something else, but never mind. Last night we watched The Departed, the Martin Scorsese picture that just won best picture.

Tonight, we watched, as the second part of a double feature, The Gathering, an English movie from a few years ago starring Christina Ricci.

What do these various works have in common? Plot holes big enough to drive trucks through. Beyond this point, there be spoilers, so stop reading if you might actually want to read or see any of these.

Well, they may not be plot holes, exactly. A plot hole, technically speaking, is a logical inconsistency in a plot. Assigning anything resembling logic to any of these pieces would be a generous application.

In each case, things happen that are never explained or accounted for, or that have no purpose in the story. In The Next, we learn that a character, one of the main characters in the story, engineered an elaborate ruse in order to get another main character to do something, for no purpose that I could see. She couldn’t just pick up the phone and say, “Hey, Jimmy, it’s been a while. Could I ask you a favor?”

Likewise, The Departed is full of unexplained elements. What purpose was there in spending so much time on Costigan’s dying mother? Considering what ultimately happens, what was the purpose of spending so much time on Costigan? Why did Dignam do what he does in the end? Why did Queenan and Dignam go meet with Costello? What was the purpose of it? What was the purpose of finding out, when the movie was almost over and for all of about 30 seconds, that Costello had a second mole in the police? There was never any indication of that at any point in the movie previously, and it didn’t really serve any purpose. Basically, the movie simply didn’t make any sense. After seeing it, my only thought was that, if this was the best movie of 2006, the rest of them must have really, really sucked awfully hard.

The same is sort of true for The Gathering, although this is an entirely different sort of pulp. It’s a horror movie in which, like The Next, we have characters who apparently have been granted a form of immortality. It’s also a horror movie in which the supernatural creatures… watch things happen. They don’t make bad things happen, although there’s a hint that they may nudge things along a bit, but in the end, all they do is watch. But the biggest problem in the movie is that it introduces intriguing concepts that are, ultimately, never explained and never play any role in the plot. What is the significance of the first century church having a crucifix facing away from the church? What was the point of the church having been buried 1,200 years later? Why is it that the Gathering showed up on works of art through the ages? Photos I can see, but why works of art? It’s not like the artists were documenting events as they happened. “Hold still, you guy in the background — I’m working on the highlights.” Why was the killer targeting the boy, who wasn’t even born yet when he was, apparently, molested by a number of upstanding village citizens? Basically, none of it made any sense.

This is a problem that occurs all too often in fiction these days — plots that not only don’t hold together if you think about them, but plots that don’t hold together if you just pay attention. Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the blurring of the lines between pulp and more literary efforts.

For a goodly bit now, literary fiction has been mostly about writing good sentences, even to the point where the fact that the pages and paragraphs that those sentences make up don’t make any sense, yet the works are taken seriously anyway. There are any number of writers out there now who have started to apply this literary principle to pulp topics — whether it’s literary writers slumming it or pulp writers putting on airs, I couldn’t tell you. Probably a little of both.

Then again, there’s also the fact that there are just a lot of bad writers out there, and some of them actually get their stuff published or turned into movies, or bad directors, or even good writers and directors who are having an off day.

From my point of view, I’m willing to forgive a work a veritable plethora of sins if the plot is interesting and holds together well. Good writing is great, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tossed aside a book simply because the dialog was too cheesy to tolerate. Likewise, movies that would otherwise seem to be winners — The Departed is a prime example — get low ratings from me because the plots don’t work.

So, for my pulp novel, it’s important to me that I get the plot right, that it not only hangs together and makes sense, but that it does something interesting in and of itself. I don’t know if the plot outline I’ve written up here previous does that at the moment, but it’s good enough for a starting point, I think.

You have to start somewhere.

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