Edgar Rice Burroughs and making pulp fiction classic

Classic is a subjective term. Tarzan of the Apes is included in some classic libraries and excluded from others. None of the 100+ other Edgar Rice Burroughs novels is mentioned in any discussion of classics.

But they are classics to me. Even as a child, I recognized their flaws, but I didn’t care. Burroughs took me to Africa and Mars. Even more, he helped me learn to love to read. To me that makes him a classic writer.

ERB’s books followed common plot arcs: Hero meets Damsel. They are indifferent toward each other. Damsel, unmindful of what meeting the hero in the beginning of an adventure story portends, is careless in her personal security. She is kidnapped by slave traders, or some other impolite group.

Hero flies to Damsel’s aid, not out of any personal regard for her, but because a hero wants employment for his skills. Hero rescues Damsel. They talk a bit more and each comes to the unwilling conclusion that the other has cute dimples or some such endearing trait. Things seem to have turned in a good direction.

Edgar Rice Burroughs - the first author I couldn't put down.

Edgar Rice Burroughs – the first author I couldn’t put down.

Yet, there is trouble brewing. The villains have not yet been brought to justice (i.e. killed in self-defense) and we are only halfway through the book. Tragedy strikes when Hero says something innocuous that is misinterpreted as an insult by Damsel. She storms off, leading Hero to conclude such a mercurial woman isn’t worth his affections, her cute dimples notwithstanding.

This emotional rollercoastering causes Hero to lose focus, allowing the slave traders to capture both. The bad guys intend to croak Hero, while proceeding to auction Damsel to the highest bidder, if the rogue leader can keep his grotesque hands off of her until then. He’s noticed her dimples too, and realizing how mercurial she is, he’s really hot for her.

Hero and Damsel are taken in different directions — he to a gruesome death, she to be ogled by a horrid specimen of humanity, who somehow can’t actually bring himself to touch her, but is upon the point of doing so at every moment. Her torture is magnified by knowing Hero is probably dead by now, and realizing she didn’t actually hate him that much when he was alive. In fact, had it not been for his uncouth behavior . . .

Her hopeless eyes are a big turn-on to the villain. They give him the juice he needs to finally come at her with his filthy, greasy hands. His bulbous nose and his brown teeth, together with the smell of animal fat on his unwashed body, cause Damsel to scream exactly once before closing out the chapter by fainting dead away.

While all this foreplay is going on, Hero is brought to the apparatus necessary for the imaginative killing of heroes that is ever being conceived, yet never actually executed, by bad dudes in the arts. Hero quickly assesses and demonstrates the flaws of the lethal apparatus to his captors by killing them all with its safety defects.

Hero flies to the succor (again) of the insufferable Damsel. Though he may give a passing thought to her dimples, he races to her aid for reasons truly noble. It is, after all, more heroic to rescue somebody he doesn’t like, dimples or not.

Hero interrupts the impending outrage just as things are about to progress to where they cannot be allowed to go in the early 20th century. Though Hero takes no pleasure in dispensing death, the lust-crazed fiend will accept no resolution less than giving complete satisfaction to the incensed reader. But he will not die before advising Damsel that she has misinterpreted Hero’s words toward her.

Content at providing closure, the villain breathes his last. Hero and Damsel realize the foolishness of letting a misunderstanding come between them, and they kiss, with no tongues.

I eagerly followed this plot every time. Maybe I was just young and callow, but that doesn’t matter. I was entertained and my imagination was sparked. It kept me reading. That’s what matters.

Moby Dick – Part II: I’m with the whale on this one

The following is Part II of my critique of Moby Dick from my old web site. At this point, I had finished the book, which was quite a relief to me. Last week I posted Part I, written when I was only half way through the novel. If you want to read Part I first, click here.

Part II: Finished with Moby Dick

Previously, I shared some thoughts formed while reading the first half of Moby Dick. Though I was not thrilled with the story, I was determined to finish it. I had seen a faint glimmer of potentially smooth storytelling and was really hoping this potential would blossom into an engaging second half.

Having finished the book, I am here to report that my hopes were dashed upon the rocks of long-winded meandering. The novel peaked somewhere between the 10 and 13 percent marks (as read on Kindle), and never came near reaching those heights again.

Moby Dick is bereft of likable characters. If I had to choose, I would say my favorite (i.e. the least annoying) character was Moby Dick himself. He is my favorite because he shows up for only the last 10% or so of the book, which is also good advice for any potential reader. Unlike Ahab, Starbuck, and all the other prominent, hard-bitten sea-farers, he doesn’t talk too much. I appreciate good dialog in a novel, but these sailors are forever spouting some drivel that means next to nothing. Even when they are not speaking, they are thinking pointless drivel. I wonder if Melville attended the same writing workshops as James Fenimore Cooper.

Moby Dick shows up for the climactic final scene, takes care of his business, wagging his jaw no more than necessary to crush a few boats, and then goes home. He wastes no time tripping over insipid attempts to make himself sound intellectual. If only the author could have been half as efficient.

The whale's not much for dialogue. He just takes care of business and goes home.

The whale’s not much for dialogue. He just takes care of business and goes home.

Instead, Melville wanders. At the beginning, it seemed like a major part of the plot would be the unlikely friendship between the Yankee narrator and a partially-civilized cannibal. Yet, by the time the ship shoves off from the dock, the cannibal has become no more noteworthy to the narrator than any other of the harpooners. This may be a blessing in disguise, for if nothing else, it prevented the cannibal from indulging in drawn-out soliloquies.

The author’s focus drifts in the wind throughout the book. Even at the very end, it is still drifting. Melville seems to forget, until it is nearly too late, that the narrator must actually live if we are to put any credence in the story he has just spent way too long relating to us. The narrator is almost certainly floating toward the light when Melville hastily yanks him back into the mortal world with an afterthought of a tale about his unlikely survival of the final battle.

It turns out that the great whale was efficient, but not completely thorough in his actions. He left one man alive to tell the tale. I wonder if he regrets this oversight as much as I do.

Moby Dick – Part I: Somebody should make a story out of this

Having had my mental energy usurped by a recent upswing in the intensity of my day job, it seems the perfect time to reintroduce my critique of Moby Dick from my former web site. It is a two-parter; the first part is impressions of the first half of the book. The second part was written after finishing the novel.

Part I: Half way through Moby Dick

I found a free Kindle version of Moby Dick. Since I am a sucker for finding out what’s going on with the classics, this was a clear incentive to give it a try. I should make it plain that I am only half-way through at present.

Most people think Moby Dick is a long book, but it is actually three long books. The first is a whaling primer, complete with whale classifications, history, and even a couple of chapters on how whaling is depicted in the fine arts. The second book is a defense of the occupation against other mariners, and general society, who may be inclined to look down upon the whaling trade. The third, and smallest, book is a novel, generally touching upon the subject of whaling.

There may be an audience for each of these three books. Unfortunately, the books are all mixed up, hodgepodge, into one. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader takes a spoonful of whale-product pot luck without knowing into which of the three books he is delving.

Three books in one, what a bargain!

Three books in one, what a bargain!

It is common among pieces of 19th century literature to meander into unfortunate asides that interrupt the narrative. Consequently, I am willing to give some leeway on this point. But Melville takes the inch I give and turns it into a mile, educating me on many topics about which I would just as soon remain ignorant, if I could save an hour by doing so. He spent a chapter explaining what’s wrong with the color white.

The storytelling itself (when it can be unearthed) suffers from a major point-of-view problem that would brand any modern author an untutored novice. Moby Dick is narrated by Ishmael, one of the crew of the ship. It does not take long for Ishmael to flee his own skin and flit about as a fly on the wall in places where his body is not present. The narrator describes scenes that Ishmael is in no position to see. Heartened by this omnipotent superpower, the narrator jumps into the heads of Ahab and his three ship’s officers to give us a glimpse of their most intimate thoughts.

You may be asking yourself, “Why has this dolt kept reading, if he finds so many problems with this book?” The answer is that there is one truly bright spot I hope will blossom in the second half.

In the actual narrative portions, when the story is really being told from the first-person, the prose is rather engaging. Melville’s style can be quite charming, as it was for almost three chapters in a row, in between sessions of Whaling 101 class. I’m hoping the last half of the book contains more of this type storytelling and less instruction and thought-reading.

I will continue reading, hoping that Ishmael is satisfied I’m now trained to competently follow the story of a fictitious whaling expedition. If I can also satisfy him that I want a chronicler of events as he experiences them, rather than a mind reader who presents me with every character’s thoughts, we may just be able to get along until the end.

What could be better than Mr. Magoo?

In my last post, I mentioned that I am reading A Christmas Carol to my son. I want him to know the original text. Here’s how I discovered the original.

I first stumbled across A Christmas Carol one January when I worked at a bookstore. Normally, mid-January is not the best time to read a Christmas tale, but for a retail worker, that is about the time when you finally are allowed to enjoy the Christmas season, so it was not an untimely find.

I found it among some unsold Christmas books, pulled from the shelves when their season passed. Having nothing better to do on my lunch hour, I began to read. I’d never read Dickens in school and I thought I had done well to avoid him. I’d known the plot of this story since toddlerhood, when Mr. Magoo performed it for me. I expected to find that this Dickens fellow had merely supplied a stiff, uninspired outline that Mr. Magoo had turned to gold with his top-of-the-line production values and his sterling acting ability.

I was mistaken. I found myself engrossed in an excellent story, beautifully told. Dickens did not bore me; he charmed me. If I had not loved this story until that point in my life, it was only because Mr. Magoo, and all the many Scrooges in film, had not done it justice. It was hard to think of old Magoo in this light, but the printed pages told the truth of the matter.

Scrooge Magoo

Even a genius of entertainment like Magoo couldn’t match the the magic of the original.

There is a reason why A Christmas Carol has endured for 170 years, and it is not because Mr. Magoo and Scrooge McDuck waste their valuable time remaking narrative duds. You can’t throw a cherry cordial in a department store without hitting a DVD knock-off version. I use knock-off glibly because even the best film versions are knock-offs compared to the original text. People out to make a quick buck repackaging an old product don’t pile onto a loser.

A Christmas Carol endures because it gets so many of the elements of story-telling right. The plot arc is a pristine bell curve of narrative art. There are no awkward outliers to skew the meaning, nor burrs of unresolved plot points. The narrative moves forward with purposeful strides through every scene.

The writing is colorful, witty, playful, and endearing. These are not words often associated with Victorian works, which is why the book surprised me so much. The greatness in the work is that the writing is also very powerful. Combining playful and powerful is a rare accomplishment in any era.

If a traditional plot arc is not your thing, A Christmas Carol may not be your favorite. I wouldn’t argue with that opinion, but I would suggest that any time you read a Christmas story about a character’s redemption, that character is probably a long-lost grandchild of Ebenezer Scrooge.