Thursday, October 4, 2012

Finding Form: Analysis of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Okay so a while back I promised to write on the topic of finding form, which is a seldom covered topic in writing (as say compared to style and plot). What I call form is basically the format of a story. It has a little bit to do with length and voice and style, but more importantly structure--how a story is folded up and unfurled to the reader. In the process of writing my story-a-day-for-a-year, I struggled with finding new and different forms and there really isn't much out there written down that's meta about form. So I set out to study it myself by just going through books and figuring it out (and I have a lot of antsy time on my hands what with the underemployment and the lack of an intense writing project. Anywho).

The first book I randomly picked from the local library (Vancouver Island library system, holla!) was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This book was in my peripheral vision a while back so it undoubtedly made some splash on the bestseller lists (it's 3:30am, and I'm very not bothered to check my facts) but it's not something that would appeal to me if I weren't randomly selecting books from the library. The cover, the title, the words "potato peel" all scream twee and girlie to me. Not my thing. However, upon cracking the book open I was pleasantly surprised to find it written as a series of letters between characters, which is an epistolary novel, the low hanging fruit of fictional form (on my first pluck!) I was also pleased, as I began to read, to find out that the book is about World War II, and England (two things I love...well I don't technically love war, no fan, but I love learning about all the facts about WWII. It is an epic chapter in human history).

I hoovered through the first fifty pages than began to tire. Why? All the characters (save the most villainous one, if she can be called that) really sounded the same. The authors of the book used the epistolary format to lay out great facts about the war, and described vividly the sorts of things people would have gone through on the island of Guernsey under Nazi occupation, but it was ultimately undermined by the narrative sameness. Every character was so damn polite (it's sort of a British thing mind you, but still), and so interested in classical literature, and so against modernism, and sort of shallow about the crap that happened to them and blah blah blah. I feel like I know the authors and their personal picadillos through these characters, because the same voice keeps coming through. I couldn't make it past one hundred and twenty pages or so, but it's not a shame because I'm not the intended audience for this sort of book. There wasn't enough shiny stuff to attract my particular flitting brain.

So, here's the takeaway. The authors kept all the letters to a reasonable few pages or less, with many just a few lines, short missives between some of the characters. This made for speedy reading, which is always good. You always want to keep the reader moving through the pages, and at best, devouring the words as they fly by, and that part of the form was successful. Where the form seemed to sag was in a subplot of the main character being wooed by some wealthy guy that was completely unrelated (at least 120 pages in) to the main narrative going on in Guernsey. Maybe there was a payoff later on, but for me it really dragged the story down and felt unnecessary (even the main character felt dragged down by it). The letter format needs to be kept tight, with clear characters (since it is all first person), and lean (sure, to keep it realistic, there will be some mimicking of what real people do in letters which is to introduce tangents...but don't go overboard).

The other interesting aspects to note is that this format potentially eliminates the need for chapters, and this is very freeing--you're not obligated to set up a series of grouped scenes of a particular average length, it's more free flowing. Also you get to play with first person narrative with *all* your characters, and this would be really clunky in another format (say, heaven forbid, alternating chapters with different narrators). You can hide things from certain characters, show different alliances between characters, and show subterfuge and lying pretty effectively. I'd like to read other books in the epistolary format to compare to this one because I can see it as being really powerful.


Jude said...

I guess you've read Frankenstein? Perfect example of how an epistolary style can be amazingly powerful. Brilliant book. (Interesting post too, btw.)

KaOs said...

You know, I haven't yet (and feel very guilt about it). It's on my to-read list!