Deep Reading “Bel Canto”

Let’s make it clear right off the bat: This is not a book review. This is an attempt to glean off some lessons about what makes a book good from Ann Patchet’s novel Bel Canto. This book is a New York Times best seller and the winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award, which is a lot more than the majority of us will ever achieve with our novels, so whatever its faults (and there are many) there is definitely something to be learned from this book. Naturally there will be some spoilers, so if you have not read the book, Spoiler Alert.

Go to Amazon, or Goodreads and you will find a healthy mix of good and bad reviews. Here is a part of a good one:

Bel Canto is one of those novels that is good on so many levels, it’s taken me days after finishing it to put my thoughts about the story and the characters into words. This work is as lyrical and dramatic as any opera, and the word “brilliant” isn’t excessive to describe the talent of author, Ann Patchett.

Here is a part of a bad one:

From the get go I felt my heart sink and chapter after chapter I read in disbelief that this was the same book that others gave such accolades. The book rang so false to my ear. The melodrama and overly disgustingly sweet sentimentality was jarring, discomforting and infuriating.
I somehow suspected that Ann Patchett had subcontracted a junior writer from Disney Animation and another burned out writer from Harlequin Romance to come together and churn this out while she joined their ideas and linked them with a very few gorgeous passages. The characters were absolute caricatures with extreme gender and ethnic stereotypes. The emotions and story line were completely illogical and the whole experience left me both angry and depleted.

By every measure, this is a successful book. It sold over a million copies, and its sales are certain to increase once the movie adaptation is released. (It is rumored that a central role will be played by Ken Watanabe, who, one hopes, will finally be able to show his character depth for the Western audience.) It has been translated to over 30 languages. It has won the Orange Prize for fiction and the Pen/Faulkner award for fiction, and was short listed for many others. It has been praised by book critics from around the world. There are over eleven thousand reviews of this novel on Goodreads alone, with a four star average. And most importantly, it has caught the ire of numerous intelligent readers who hate this book with a passion, which is usually a sign that the writer has done something terribly right.

The book is about a terrorist plot gone wrong. A group of terrorists in a Latin American country break into a private opera concert in the hopes of taking the president hostage. It turns out the president stayed home to watch TV. What was intended to be a quick breach-and-grab operation turns into a prolonged hostage crises in which an opera singer, her accompanist, an interpreter, and a hodge-podge mix of multinational dignitaries are kept in the vice president’s mansion. Monotony sets in as the hostage situation stretches on for months and the captors and hostages slowly descend into Stockholm syndrome. The story comes to an abrupt and bloody ending as the SWAT team charges into the compound and eradicates the terrorists along with some inevitable collateral damage.

The story was inspired by the Japanese Embassy hostage crises which happened in Peru in 1996, but the story is only very loosely based on real events and the country is never named. The material could have been used to write a political thriller, instead what Patchett created might be called the polar opposite. The story genre is classified as “magic realism”, which usually means there are no Harry Potters and Vondemorts, and the stage is set on planet Earth, not Arrakis, but you might find something mystical, magical, or fantastical along the way. Therefore, it could insult the sensibilities of people who want a more realistic portrait of human suffering, or a clearer insight into the socioeconomic background of Latin American rebellions, or a clinically accurate depiction of hostage psychology, all of which is a given. Sure enough, most of the complaints about the novel is that it is “unrealistic”. One disappointed reviewer wrote:

It upset me to realize that Patchett was using a piece of Peruvian history with no intention of telling a story of Peru or its political unrest or even including a proper description of the country.

Peru is not even mentioned. In fact, what country the stage happens to be is irrelevant to the plot. This book is not at all about the politics of Latin America. The hostage crises is just an excuse for Patchett to turn the occupied mansion into an isolated capsule, a magical world closed off from the rest of the universe, a Hogwarts in the here and now. You cannot please everyone, and Patchett started off by boldly dismissing a huge segment of the reading public. This novel is not for you, gents. Please find books to your taste elsewhere. Not necessarily a good marketing scheme, but a clear and gutsy writing decision, one that every writer needs to make to some extent.

The novel seems to deliberately defy story writing convention. Anyone who has read a reasonable amount of instructional books on how to write tight, tense, suspenseful novels would immediately see where Bel Canto deviates from the template of “marketable” fiction. There is much telling where there should be more showing and too much showing where the story could be told. Four pages into the first chapter, the story flashbacks to the childhood of one of the hostages instead of focusing on the action involving the terrorists breaking into the house. The novel fits the seven point story structure very badly, if at all. The inciting incident is recognizable, but there is no catalyst, no inflection point, and no obvious climax (The SWAT team bursts in the house a page and a half from the end of the last chapter and finish off everything most unceremoniously). Half way through the book, it is still not clear who the main character is or what he/she wants. The only thing that is clear from the beginning is that this cannot end well. There is much foreshadowing about the deadly outcome, but there are also many spoilers along the way about who will survive. Chapter six begins with these words:

Years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.

“He” would remember “this”, “she” would remember “that”, would each give away who will survive. She tells us in the first chapter that the terrorists would not. These giveaways barely serve any purpose other than enhance the ambient mood. Even though it is obvious that many of the characters will eventually die, the author steadfastly refuses to build any suspense around who will come out alive.

If you tried to read this book with any expectation of finding a thriller or a realistic political adventure, you will no doubt be frustrated. It is only when you accept that this is a story set in a magical floating world that the events make any kind of sense. This is a fairy tale without the fairies, a fantasy without the wizards, and characters bounce around aimlessly like balloons in a playpen. Even in the face of death, people find it difficult to understand what they really want. The novel is not realistic because it drops all pretense of realism in order to focus on the core truth of the human existence.

Ann Patchett is a remarkable writer who is not afraid to write bland prose. In fact, if I posted some sections of her work on a writing group in Facebook as my own, it would most likely be diced, sliced, and mutilated. Deceptively slack passages and seemingly careless expositions abound. Maybe the reader should be on Ecstasy to better capture the vibe. The author dedicates the book to her editor, which is understandable because any editor who did not “get” the drifting style of the author would be sorely tempted to tighten up the narrative.

This is the opening sentence of her novel:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. 

Not particularly sharp or mysterious, and the sentences that follow are competent but not exceptional. Many paragraphs follow before even a careful reader detects any profound artistry in the sentences. It is not that the author is incompetent. She is so confident with her craft that she does not care to impress.
And then, nearly half way into the book, it is revealed that two of the terrorists are not young boys but young girls. The hostage negotiator learns of this from the interpreter and is flabbergasted but the interpreter is drifting somewhere else.

“Such a remarkable thing and no one even mentioned it,” Messner said.
“We were all thinking about the new accompanist,” Gen said, his knees feeling looser with every step. Femur, patella, tibia. “We had already forgotten about the girls.”

Who would have thought inserting the Latin names of the bones in one’s legs – femur, patella, tibia – would so vividly express the rhythm of an uncertain gait? Such rare magic of words are thrown in at the least dramatic places almost wastefully. The author does not bother to open the book with a slick line, or to finish it with a particularly memorable one. Nor does she bother to inject powerful words in chapter divisions or inflection points in the story. But she throws in magical sentences when we least expect it, hitting us like sudden death. Even in this, she defies convention.

She also defies common image associations. You do not associate a staid middle-aged Japanese businessman with love, romance, and sex. If this story was written by a Japanese man rather than a Caucasian female, I would have said that the author was delusional, or perhaps that he was projecting his fantasies in his fiction. A rebel boy’s talent is first foreshadowed through his ability to perfectly dice eggplants. An unlikely romance is triggered by an unwelcome confession of unilateral love from a large sweaty Russian, who tells a story about his mother’s treasured book of impressionist paintings. The story is brimming with unlikely pairings.

One reviewer on Goodreads had this to say:

The writing is so well-crafted sentence by sentence that it ends up being somewhat characterless and a little dull in large portions. The prose in Bel Canto almost seemed as if it was written to specifically defy any editorial criticisms. It does this with aplomb, but the problem is that it never takes any risks either.

I disagree. This book takes plenty of risks. Too many by far. It defies our expectations of a novel about terrorists and hostages. It dismissed the entirety of the Latin American audience by saying nothing about Latin America. It ignores the structure of story telling. It gives away the ending. It pairs unconventional imagery. It almost never uses crafty prose at the pinch points. It has practically no action at all. And that is before we even reach the infamous out-of-left-field epilogue. And yet, this is an award winning, critically acclaimed, million selling best seller. Now, let’s try to figure out how a book that defies almost every element of a marketable story can end up being so successful.

If this book teaches us aspiring novelists anything, it is that there is life after James Scott Bell and Joseph Campbell. If you have been indoctrinated to adhere to the “hero’s journey”, the seven point story structure, and pacing the story through “motivation-reaction units”,  you will find this meandering-of-consciousness either a breath of fresh air or an abomination. This book goes against everything we have learned from How-to-Write-a-Marketable-Book instructors. Maybe being tightly plotted, fast moving, and emotionally gripping is not all there is to a book.

Another thing this book teaches us is that we should not be afraid of bad reviews. This book was destined to displease some people. Lots of people. It breaks so many conventions, there is no way it could have avoided bad reviews.

So how does this book work at all? Firstly, what kind of fiction is it? It does not seem to fit any of the seven basic plots (overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth, rebellion against the one, mystery). It is actually more like an opera than a novel. Eugene Onegin is a dull story if it were not for the music. Patchett herself says she wanted to writes something like an opera. The story matters less than the sounds.

I think it was Richard Corliss who said of the trend of intricately designed other-world movies of the early ’80s, like Alien, Bladerunner, and Dark Crystal that “texture matters more than text”. When the world you are creating is utterly compelling, what actually happens in that world does not matter as much. This can also apply to books. The first few hundred pages of the Lord of the Rings trilogy might fit this description. The texture is beautifully written, while the story hardly moves at all.

But the real strength of the atmospherics comes from the music. I looked through the internet to see if anyone had made a compilation of all the songs and musical pieces that appear in the novel. (Somebody should have made that compilation by now.) There is a big difference if you can hear the music when you read the novel or not. I am not a big fan of opera and I could not recognize some of the names of the music, and there is a marked difference when you can hear the tune in your head. This is probably one of the reasons there is such a difference in the reactions among the readers.

Japanese author Kaoru Kurimoto once wrote in her instructional book that all you really need is one sensory image that sticks to your reader’s minds. In the case of Bel Canto it is an auditory one. In particular, it is the one in which the teenage peasant guerrillas hear the soprano opera singer for the first time in their lives while trying to infiltrate the mansion through air ducts. It is from that moment on that the music becomes the “texture” that binds the story.

Ann Patchett has written quiet character studies before, but The Patron Saint of Liars was a portrait of three people. The Magicians Assistant was a portrait of two. Bel Canto features at least six central characters and as many supporting characters. The thing that ties it all together is the built-in background music. Strangely enough, the author writes that she was not an opera fan until she started researching for the book.

Bel Canto is proof that you can write a million dollar book while defying every convention of a marketable novel. It is a difficult task, but it might help you pull it off if you managed to implant a strong sensory image.

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