On the run with Peter Carey and Gil Adamson

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Say you’re a writer, and you’ve decided to produce a novel about a sympathetic character on the run from the law. You’re not planning on winning readers over through the novelty of your premise; you know it’s a well-worn, commonplace plotline, one that any reader will find familiar. Instead, you’re hoping that the suspense inherent in a storyline involving a character in flight will grab and the attention of your readers and draw them into the book. But once the audience is hooked, what then? You have to find some way to fill the several hundred pages between the moment when the fugitive hits the road and the point at which the chase comes to an end.

One obvious strategy is to make the threat of capture constant throughout the novel, so that the suspense is perpetual and inescapable. But from the perspective of an audience, this can be exhausting and ultimately boring: the first car chase is bound to hold an audience much more rapt than the fifth. Also, perpetual suspense doesn’t leave much room to pursue whatever thematic or character ends a writer might have in mind: the focus is always on moving things along and bringing the next plot twist, near miss, or tense encounter to the page.

In 2008, the acclaimed Australian writer Peter Carey and the Canadian debut novelist Gil Adamson each published books about characters fleeing the authorities. Neither book relies much at all on generating suspense by placing characters in imminent danger of capture. Instead, Carey attempts to keep the reader interested by manipulating his story’s timeline and selectively withholding information, and Adamson takes an episodic approach, introducing a series of loosely connected characters and events while the protagonist hides from her pursuers. Though both writers attempt to do something unusual and fresh with an overfamiliar plotline, neither book is entirely successful.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

Adamson’s The Outlander (not to be confused with the similarly-titled Diana Gabaldon bestseller) opens with a young woman, known at first only as “the widow,” as she flees her pursuers across the Canadian west at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The widow has murdered her unfaithful and unkind husband, and as a result she’s wanted by the authorities, and also by her husband’s brothers, who intend to bring her to justice or else kill her in the attempt. In the novel’s opening pages, Adamson establishes an appealing setting and a character who is at once sympathetic and (fascinatingly) guilty. She had my empathy and attention at the start, and I was eager to see how the widow’s story would play out against the grand backdrop of the Canadian west. But once the widow puts some distance between herself and her pursuers, The Outlander quickly loses energy and then descends into a series of largely unbelievable episodes involving insufferably quirky characters. The widow has an affair with a rugged mountain man who might as well have come straight from a spaghetti western; she meets reticent Indians and hard-living horse thieves; she befriends an irascible dwarf and a quiet Italian giant; and she lives with a preacher who goads his parishioners into fistfights as a key as a key part of his sermonizing. Adamson squanders the considerable promise of her novel’s setting, protagonist, and premise by indulging in these kinds of caricatures at great length. The resolution of the central story involving the widow’s flight from her brothers-in-law in the end comes off like an afterthought: her pursuers are easily thwarted, and the widow finds a new love and life without really dealing with any of the problems that sent her on the run in the first place.

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

Most of Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self also takes place while its protagonists—the young son of a sixties radical and a woman who he believes to be his mother—hide out in a remote place. This time, the setting is Australia, where the two flee after a complex series of events render the woman a fugitive suspected of kidnapping. His Illegal Self succeeds as an exploration of the ugly, violent fallout from the compromised idealism of the sixties, and also as a fascinating exploration of the relationship between power and privilege. The boy is a son of a leftist terrorist, but also the scion of a wealthy and powerful family; his caretaker/abductor comes from a much more modest background, and has worked hard for years in an attempt to secure a place for herself as a professor in the elite halls of the Ivy League. The whims of the powerful destroy in an instant the life she’s built for herself, leaving her a fugitive and a refugee, and suggesting strongly that the revolutions of the sixties, for all their import, still fell well short of being able to dislodge or decenter the power of the privileged. The novel also serves as a meditation on the nature of motherhood, and on the responsibilities that come with having great power over the life another human being.

That said, I was extremely frustrated by the way Carey chose to structure his book. His Illegal Self frequently moves back and forth in time, and Carey uses these timeshifts primarily as a means to withhold information from the reader in order to build suspense. Fragmenting and reordering the timeline makes it possible for Carey to conceal plot points and background information about his characters and events. This technique worked insofar as it had me turning pages early in the book, eager to find out exactly what was going on and what the motivations of the characters might be. But soon enough it became clear that the suspense was entirely artificial: that Carey was simply choosing not to share with the reader all kinds of things that the characters knew about or had experienced. In the end, I felt manipulated: there was no reason for Carey to keep that information to himself other than to string the reader along. The suspense didn’t emerge naturally from the situation, characters, and plot, but instead from self-conscious authorial artifice.

Another, simpler example of this same technique employed in another context: on an episode of Mad Men (which is generally an exceptionally well-written show), a character in a moment of crisis removes an item from a locked desk drawer, his expression burdened and serious, as if he’s contemplating drastic action. The camera does not reveal exactly what it is that he removes from the drawer, but the intention of the shot is to make the viewer suspect that it might be a gun. In a later scene, the true nature of the item is exposed: it’s not a gun at all, and it becomes clear that the whole purpose of the previous scene was to artificially manipulate the viewer’s expectations. Rather than relying on the considerable inherent suspense of the situation—involving a character fearing that his life is about to become unraveled due to revelations about his past—the show instead plays a cheap trick, toying with viewers instead of trusting them. Carey’s manipulation of time and perspective causes the same problem in His Illegal Self: it suggests that he doesn’t think readers will be sufficiently engaged in his story and characters unless he uses structural tricks in order to create artificial sources of suspense.

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