In Greek tragedy plot was primary. Not much has changed in the realm of genre fiction. A publishable mystery can lack interesting characters every bit as much a Greek heroic poem; it can lack insight and metaphor, aphorism and a sense of place, as long as the simple two stroke engine of what-happens-next is turning over. This is not to say that most published mysteries are so thinly-written and debased. Many detective novels have fascinating characters and settings, sharp writing, vivid imagery. But they could have been published and read without those things.
Only one element stands as essential.
Take the analogy of music. If you’re writing ‘house music’ for a German disco club, nothing really matters but the beat: bang-bang-digga-digga, bang-bang, digga-digga on an endless loop. A simple 8 bar blues melody can be floated on this current, like a canoe. You can add key changes and witty lyrics as Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard of the rock band Postal Service do. That might be analogous to teak brightwork on the little boat; or titanium paddles from Hammacher Schlemmer. But no one dancing at the 90 degrees club on Dennewitzstrasse would care … even if the words were in German. Only the current matters: diving into that swift water and being pulled downstream.
They’re dancing to the beat, not the lyrics.
But Aristotle is discussing the writing of plays; that’s why his work applies so well to screenwriting, and has been so extensively ‘anthologized’ by Syd Field, Robert McKee and others.
"Plots are either simple or complex, since the actions they representare naturally of this twofold description. The action, proceeding in the way defined, as one continuous whole, I call simple, when thechange in the hero's fortunes takes place without Peripety or Discovery; and complex, when it involves one or the other, or both.These should each of them arise out of the structure of the Plot itself, so as to be the consequence, necessary or probable, of the antecedents. There is a great difference between a thing happening propter hoc and post hoc. "
Of course by Peripety he is referring to the reversal of fortune, usually in the second act (and some would insist, on page 78) that is the core of both screenwriting advice, and most modern screenplays. Along with unity of action, the idea that nothing extraneous can be permitted in the story, that the gun over the mantel in Act One has to go off by Act Three, as Chekhov instructed, we can see the basic parameters of the modern screenplay emerging. Authors like the ones mentioned above, the first to realize the relevance of Aristotle, have made a fortune from his work without fear of copyright infringement.
Whether these strict rules – and the reductive way they are applied -- are healthy for the cinema is a subject for a different essay. The question here is: can these principles be applied to the novel, a much longer and naturally more discursive medium. The answer is clear, at least in terms of genre fiction: yes, of course. But in the realm where genre fiction approaches literature, where the conventions of the mystery novel, for instance, are played with, investigated, even subverted, can these rules still hold true?
There’s an instructive example on Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. This is a sprawling 900-page book that encompasses much of Indian history in the twentieth century. It’s a portrait of modern Bombay, and study of Hindu-Muslim politics and simultaneously a compelling procedural police novel. Simply put, Chandra is doing everything I’d like to do. Though I am to some extent in retreat from those ambitions, it’s still inspiring to see them accomplished with such breath-taking skill and audacity.
In the first third of the book, Sartaj Singh and his partner Katekar investigate a murder. Three successful young thieves have had a falling out; one of them winds up dead. Sartaj’s work on this case runs parallel with the larger story, in which he seeks to understand why Bombay’s most powerful gangster chose to kill himself and his mistress in the basement of a newly built fallout shelter. Several other cases also intertwine throughout the story, but by the middle of the book the murder sub-plot has been resolved. Sartaj and his partner discover who the boys are, and plot to catch them in the act of fencing their loot. The ambush goes awry and Katekar is killed; Sartaj shoots the murderer as he flees down an alley. So a faceless killer is lying in the dirt, and the case is closed, but Sartaj derives no satisfaction from the senseless slaughter. It feels both pointless and grotesque.
Throughout the book, Chandra introduces chapters he calls ‘insets’, which present stories of marginal significance to the main plot. Anjali Mathur, the chief government agent working with Sartaj, was mentored in the service by her father’s best friend; one inset shows his early days, fighting the Chinese in the Hindu Kush. Another reveals the fate of Sartaj’s Aunt Navneet, who perished during the Partition.
These are sidelights, apparent violations of the Unities, but Chandra gets away with them because they deepen our knowledge of the book’s characters and their world. Plus they are compellingly written. Aristotle didn’t have much to say about the benefits of a muscular prose style, though you could cobble together a sense of it from his descriptions of Thought, Melody and Spectacle.
Near the end of Sacred Games, Chandra seems to push his fascination with the peripheral too far. In a final inset, he describes the life of a small town boy from Rajpur named Aadil Ansari. Aadil loves reading and becomes the first boy in his village to finish high school; he even goes on to college, working for two years in between, driving trucks and maintaining them, to pay for his schooling. He studies Zoology and in a just world, he would have become a university professor. But college is a torment because of money. Often he can’t afford to both eat and buy books. Meanwhile his rich friends laugh at his complaints and call him a typical weak-willed bumpkin when penury, stress and exhaustion force him to quit school. Of course, no one offers to help. These friends of his are a familiar type: born on third base, certain they hit a triple.
So Aadil goes home, to work his family plot of land. Requests for help from the local Raja get nowhere; and on top of that, the Raja is actually stealing Aadil’s family land, one thin strip at a time. There is no law court to dispute this encroachment: the government is corrupt from top to bottom. Aadil becomes bitter and winds up joining the Communist party. He’s the perfect candidate for a Marxist revelation. Eventually he becomes a full-fledged revolutionary, blowing up buildings and committing assassinations. It’s only when he witnesses a horrific episode of mutilation and torture that he becomes disillusioned with the cause.
He flees to Bombay, moving frequently to avoid being recognized. He goes back to his books, reading botany and biology texts for the sheer pleasure of it. He hires some boys to do his marketing and other errands, but his funds are running low. He is an expert at military operations, and he trains the three boys in the skills of commando-style larceny: careful planning and artful use of the threat of violence.
This is the first moment when you get a narrative twinge at the back of your neck. Three boys?
That sounds familiar.
The boys become successful and eventually have a falling out. Two suspect the third is talking more than his share of the proceeds. They confront him; it turns into a fight and then into a murder. Aadil tells the boys to leave their lodgings and meet him two days later at a certain hotel. But the police are onto them and the rendezvous becomes a catastrophe. The boys are arrested. As Aadil flees in panic, he kills a policeman. He is shot himself, and dies in the street.
Then you realize: this is the faceless thug who killed Katekar.
The revelation opens under you like a trap door and you plunge into the troubled understanding that there are no faceless thugs, that every incident has layers of irony and tragedy that make you cry for the whole human race.
So in one devastating coup de theatre, the Unities are preserved: nothing is irrelevant and everything is connected.
And Vikram Chandra wins the prize – the summerslam championship belt goes to Sacred Games: the Great American Literary Genre Novel.
Take the month of August and read it.
Sorry about the spoiler.