The last two books I read were murder mysteries: Death of a Red Heroine, by Qui Xiaolong, set in Shanghai (and GZ!) during the reformist 1990’s; and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon, set in the fictional Jewish state of Sitka, set to revert back to Alaska a la Hong Kong in 1997. Chabon’s book shows the difference between someone who understands and appreciates language and someone who merely writes.
Aside from the fact that Qui (and his editor) lets one of my bugaboos into the book (misuse of ‘comprise’), the language is flaccid, and devoted to the plot. It serves the action and just moves things along. It’s like much popular writing, which is why it’s easy to read: it doesn’t really involve complex ideas or metaphors that demand you pause and consider them. It’s all stock except for the setting, which provides most of the intrigue, and near the end even the mystery tapers off. It’s not a bad book, but I wouldn’t read it again and I am hard pressed to recall even one standout sentence.
Chabon’s writing thrums. Sentences levitate off of the page and circle about your brain. You pause as you think about some of the images, but not too long because you must keep reading. And though the writing certainly rockets the plot forward, the language exists for your pleasure. You read to find out what happened, and just to read some more of the delicious sentences. Chabon doesn’t go to the far end, either, letting the plot and story go to hell for the sake of a perfect sentence. He stays well within the hardboiled genre, with the taut structures and descriptions—though not parsing it down to the piano wire terseness of recent James Ellroy, who seems to have dispensed with whole sentences in The Cold Six Thousand. I can’t recall any exactly right now, but I know that I was stunned probably once per page by Chabon’s writing, and I would pick it up again right away if I didn’t have something else to get to.
The difference is similar to that between The Dark Knight (still fresh in my mind) and, say, any Tarantino film. This is not to say the Dark Knight is badly written, for it isn’t, but there isn’t a line of dialogue that isn’t explicative—not in the Steven Spielberg, talking-head-gives-the-plot mode, but still purposeful and obvious. It’s a hardboiled detective story (Batman is certainly a hard man walking down a hard road in the Chandler sense), but you wouldn’t read the Dark Knight script the way you could read The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep . Tarantino’s dialogue also moves things along—rather nicely in some spots—but it exists on its own, too, which makes it much more like stage drama, even in something like Deathproof. It’s that literariness (for want of a better word) that distinguishes much of film from stage.
On Saturday I watched The History Boys, which is pretty much a filmed play. Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which I love, is as well (okay, so it’s a filmed opera, but whenever I can talk about just how fabulous it is, I will) but uses its locations cinematically, whereas Hytner’s The History Boys doesn’t. That’s where a lot of literarily languaged films and TV shows fail: they have the words but they lack the show. But when they succeed, you get things like Tarantino’s movies—come on, they all stand out from crowd from the first syllable; David Mamet’s movies, though American Buffalo screens like a play, which isn’t due to it’s limited location since Fincher’s Panic Room is definitely a movie, but something in the way that the camera and people relate to the space; and great shows like Deadwood, in which foul words tumble like golden dice in a crystal glass; and, just thinking of it now, Serenity.
I love good dialogue, and though a movie certainly doesn’t need any of it—just see Sunrise or The General—words crackling and spitting up rather than being dying embers just add to the joy. Batman’s dialogue smouldered along. It would have been amazing to see such a great cast delivering lines that sparked up the screen.