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Laurell K. Hamilton and the Plot of Doom

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (okay, really it was only over here a few years ago), I wrote an article about plot.

The past couple days, I've been reading Laurell K. Hamilton's latest book (I use that term loosely, based on the fact that it was produced by a publishing company, possesses a front and back cover, and has words inside). It made me think of that old article I wrote about plot ... because this book doesn't have any. Plot, that is.

Now, the way I see it, satisfying plot generally has a tendency to build. Event A occurs, and then Event B raises the ante, only to be followed by Event C amping things up even more, until eventually it all leads to something emotionally satisfying. That emotional satisfaction might be an explosion of grief, a feeling of shock at a sudden realization, heart-breaking pity ... "satisfaction" doesn't mean it has to be a positive emotion. It just means it follows through on the promises made by the rest of the story.

There's a wide variety of different kinds of plot, of course, and some of them are pretty darn unconventional: Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene, Jose Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Louise Erdrich's books such as Love Medicine and Tales of Burning Love, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, and movies such as Memento, Wings of Desire, The Red Violin, Donnie Darko, and Lost in Translation. You can do plot really differently, uniquely, and you can still do it well.

But those are exceptions. Most plots build in pretty standard ways. A1 leads to A2 leads to A3 leads to A4, with each step somehow building the tension toward an eventual resolution. (For example, we follow Detective Joe Shmoe's investigation of a string of murders as he discovers crime scenes, looks for clues, etc.) There are usually subplots -- B1, B2, B3, C1, C2, etc. -- which are interwoven as the book goes along, giving a more interesting read, instead of a simple progression. (For example, Detective Joe Shmoe might have a love interest with its own little story going on, or maybe he's going deaf but no one knows, or whatever). So the author weaves them together and we end up with a plot that looks something like:

A1 - A2 - B1 - A3 - C1 - B2 - C2 - A4 - etc.

So it isn't a simple 1, 2, 3 plot, but each plot (A, B, and C -- the murder investigation, the love story, and the increasing deafness) is always somehow progressing. What "progress" means varies tremendously, since most plots will involve ups and downs, but things will always be somehow moving forward. Also, good authors can make even backward movement interesting, can have us following them through loops and circles, or whatever. But, again, those are the exceptions. Most authors -- even most good authors, like Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Wallace Stegner and Oscar Wilde and Robertson Davies and Susan Minot and Jennifer Johnston -- most tend to write a fairly standard type of plot progression, though everyone plays with it differently.

Now, the reason I've been thinking about this so much the past couple days is because Laurell K. Hamilton has, quite literally, lost the plot. Her first few -- or even several -- Anita Blake novels were fairly standard Detective Joe Shmoe-type stories. There was a criminal investigation, a love story, and some sort of metaphysical magic shit, and they all developed in fairly satisfying ways.

Her past few books (Anita Blake novels, that is, since I don't read her other series) have been complete crap. Or, rather, fine one-handed reading (as long as you don't mind some mildly freaky stuff and various supernatural beasties), but useless otherwise. The plots of her last 2 or 3 books have looked something like this:

A - B - C - S1 - S2 - S3 - D - S4 - S5 - S6 - E

If you haven't guessed, the S's are sex scenes. So the books are mostly sex scenes, but she sprinkles a few random events here and there (Anita meets with some violent clients, Anita visits a crime scene, Anita raises a zombie who behaves strangely, Anita's friend calls her in a panic, blah blah blah), but they are very few and far between. The sex scenes strangle any possible plot until it is simply crushed. Instead, we end up with these random events (which is why I've labelled them A, B, C, etc., instead of A1, B1, etc.) which don't build on each other and have no apparent relation to each other. And then, in the final 20 pages or so, we get a few expository lumps that explain how C and D were actually related to each other and they explain some big mystery. Voila. Instant dissatisfaction. Because A, B, E, F, and G were all there, too, but they didn't seem any less or more important (or related to each other) than C and D did. So cobbling together some kind of random answer in the last few pages is just ... lazy. Lazy writing.

Now, I'm not trying to say that mystery writing itself is bad. It's in the nature of mystery writing that there will be many different pieces of possible evidence presented, but that only some of them will turn out to be important. But in a good mystery, there's still a sense of building tension. There's still a sense that you are slowly gathering enough information to maybe almost almost almost get a glimpse of the truth.

There's none of that in Laurell K. Hamilton's recent books. Instead, we have a few blobs of possible clue in the first couple chapters, then Anita Blake has sex (with an ever-increasing number of supernatural partners, all of whom are male, of course) for about 600 pages, and then there's a dozen pages of explanation about why you should think those first couple chapters were important.

In a way, I wonder why I bothered reading Incubus Dreams (godawful title, but then she's gotten so tacky that it's probably appropriate), but Laurell K. Hamilton has accomplished one thing with me: she's made me care about her characters. (Or, at least, some of them. She has a couple of Riley-esque characters who make me want to barf, but they're in the minority.) Since this book centered largely around one of my favorites of her characters, I sort of enjoyed that. But the entire time I was also nearly pulling out my hair about her plotting (or, rather, her lack thereof).

I read the book in two days. Why? Two reasons. (1) It's easy to read garbage quickly. (2) I refused to allow the book to affect any more of my life than that.

Sheesh. Well, with that all off my chest, I think I'll go do something less frustrating.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 2nd, 2004 02:27 am (UTC)
Thank GOD I'm not the only one who thinks that. I've read all of LKH's books (apart from Incubus Dreams which isn't out over here until next week) and the last couple have just been really.....blah!

I DID enjoy Obsidian Butterfly because I love reading about Edward and I think that was the last one I really enjoyed
Oct. 2nd, 2004 08:00 am (UTC)
i'm not sure a defense of Hamilton is even something i want to attempt, especially since i pretty much - again - agree with your take, but i did have a couple thoughts upon reading this that might be misconstrued as a defense, so what the heck. ;)

the one major exception to dangling plotlines=BAD is a series. not that i think LKH has a really legitimate claim to overarcing resolution, since she's left so MUCH up in the air with the Anita Blake series, but she did manage to pull off one or two long-delayed plot lines. sort of. and within them, i was pretty much rolling my eyes and saying "OK, KNOCK OFF THE SEX ALREADY" (which, wow, for me) and waiting for her to finaly just sort out the whole Jean Claude/Richard mess. the Belle Morte mess. the Asher mess.

she can use these dangling S33 scenes to help advance her character-specific/interaction plot dramas, and that at least is interesting. to me. to you, maybe, since you mention you read for her characters. i do, too.

i agree her mystery synthesis has gotten extremely weak, but (and it's a small but), i do think she normally does a decent job of tying up her mystery loose ends. adequate. i didn't tend to come away from her books with a "um, HOW did X kill Y, again?" then again, i haven't read the newest. i didn't know there was another one out, and now you have made me afraid.

be afraid. be very afraid.
Oct. 2nd, 2004 12:19 pm (UTC)

I came across this entry via Miss Murchison's friends list.

I haven't read the latest novel you mention, but I've been following the Anita Blake series for some years, and I've noticed all the things you mention here. (The other series is even worse - because only the first book is any good at all). And I've also noticed the faint whiff of homophobia.

And yet, and yet.... like you I care for the characters, and I want the books to somehow magically be worthy of them again. It's all very frustrating.

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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