Structure and Function
by Jonathan Hayes
A song’s structure is readily apparent in minutes, unlike, say, that of a movie or a book, where it slowly heaves into view over the course of hours or even days. Pop songs are almost instantly comprehensible because of their repeating structures: intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/instrumental break/verse/chorus/outro.
With music, though, the immediate legibility that makes the songs accessible can also make them facile and disposable – what I like about most of the music I love is that each time I listen to it, I hear something new there. Indeed, I might not like it much at all the first time I hear it. Really well made pop music – U2, say, or the Beatles, or the Beach Boys – keeps rewarding the listener, but most has a pretty short expiration date. And that’s okay: one of the things I like about pop is that it is definitively of its era, sometimes going so far as to define that era.
I listen to a lot of music – indeed, I got my start as a professional writer by writing a montly music column – and can usually find something to enjoy in everything, but most of what I listen to generally falls under the rubric of alternative or indie rock (with a healthy dose of everything else, particularly electronic music, dance music and modern classical music). I posted my five favourite songs of 2010 on my blog; for me the clear #1 was “Helicopter”, by the Athens, Georgia band Deerhunter:
Now I grew up in a classical music family; at some point I pretty much stopped listening to lyrics, because I tend tend to find them both similar and facile. I listen for melody, but even more for texture and timbre, and I thought “Helicopter” was just magnificent – that point at the 0:31 second mark when the song suddenly opens into an infinite ocean of space and possibility just blows me away. How is it possible for something to be so exquisite?
For all its radiant beauty, “Helicopter” is lyrically a grim thing. The song is inspired by (or inspired, I’m not sure of the order) a narrative by the transgressive (do we still use that word? is it still possible to transgress in 2011?) writer Dennis Cooper about a 14 year old boy who becomes a male prostitute in Russia; for a while he’s feted and sought after, but eventually his moment passes, and he’s routinely abused and raped. Finally, an embarrassment to the powerful men who once desired him, he’s taken by helicopter over a remote forest in northern Russia and thrown out. (This is probably one of the reasons I don’t listen to lyrics much.)
I love all four of Deerhunter’s albums, and their various singles, and collect their cover versions of other artists’ songs – I’ve not been as excited about a band in years. But I saw them live for the first time last night, and they were astonishing. Their songs share my obsession with texture and sound colour – they tend to the psychedelic, a post-Phil Spector wall of sound, welling chords from the two guitars meshing into thick waves of melody and noise, digitally processed, shaped and augmented. Their song structures are generally fairly classical, but they often smear the verses into the choruses, and use odd time signatures and unexpected tempo changes.
When they play live, they rework the song structures aggressively. A somewhat trite pop song turns into punk thrash, the singer’s voice drowned out by fast, grinding guitars. And the fast songs get split wide open, the instrumental breaks stretching out to swallow the last verses. For me, the highlight was a transcendent moment when they snapped the spine of “Nothing Ever Happened” open into an roaring two-guitar symphony, and then laid Patti Smith’s “Horses” on top. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and, when the song coalesced again and its original structure reemerged, I had tears in my eyes.
(I’m grinning now because I know that if you watched that entire video, some of you might have tears in your eyes of a different sort, but trust me: it was transcendent last night!)
I really admired their willingness and ability to play with time-tested structure; it’s not something genre writers in particular often do. Part of the stricture of genre is that there are certain conventions of the form that must be satisfied for the story even to qualify as belonging to a particular genre. Indeed, before we even reach the level of genre, the vast majority of stories hew to a classic three act structure, breezily summarized as “get your characters up a tree, throw some rocks at them, then get them back down”.
The problem is that stories, and genre stories in particular, have a certain narrative sameness. And the corollary of that is that, for the experienced reader, these similarities make books blur together, make them predictable. Similarly, I think most of us have gone to the movies, and found that what we’ve just seen was decent, but pretty much the same as the last 20 films we’d seen.
What this sometimes leads to is “forced twists” – events inorganic to the story, placed by the author just to cobble up a little surprise. Personally, I hate it when the killer turns out to be – gasp! – the detective’s brother or what have you. In Precious Blood, I quite deliberately set out to write a forensic thriller with a direct linear narrative, a serial killer story where the case progressed as cases have always progressed in the hundreds of murders I’ve worked on: methodical police work, a little intuition, a little luck, eventually the different elements coming together like ice floes to form solid footing. (A note: I’ve never worked a case where the killer turned out to be the lead detective’s brother. Not that it couldn’t happen, but you’re going to have to work pretty damn hard to convince me.) For most readers, Precious Blood worked as a strong, unusually vivid procedural, but some felt it needed more twists.
I’d chosen a serial killer story for my first novel not just because the story came to me cut almost in whole cloth, but also because the serial murderer brings his own instant ticking clock, allowing me to focus on the mechanics of character and scene and dialogue. With A Hard Death, the sequel, I expanded the number of characters and points of view, and rather than having one protagonist and one antagonist locked in life-or-death pursuit and combat, I put Jenner in a town seething with bad people. I think of A Hard Death as following in a noir tradition; Jenner finds himself in a world of festering moral decay, and while he is ultimately infected by this amorality, he’s not consumed by it (which would be the true noir outcome).
Precious Blood, since it gave me a way of dealing abstractly and somewhat discreetly with some of my post-9/11 experiences, is a deeply personal book, and I love it, but I think that A Hard Death is the stronger of the two, at least at the narrative level, and readers seem to agree. I don’t think it’s simply because of the increased complexity of the story, and the broader vista of its setting; I think that with each book you write, you understand the mechanics of story better. At least, I damn well hope so.
At the end of the day, genre fiction is a bit like reggae: there may be certain formal criteria for making a song a “reggae song”, but within that rubric, there’s a huge range of possibilities, from the stadium pop of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” to the drek pop of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” to Burning Spear’s mesmerizing “Marcus Garvey” and its dub version, “The Ghost”. There is life even in the most familiar formula, and it’s up to the writer to tap that; the art of genre is to transcend its formal limitations.
And of course there’s plenty of room to mess with the structure of a story/novel – I’m just not well-read enough to know who’s doing it well in crime fiction. In, uh, “literary” fiction, three books I have loved did just that:
Georges Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual bases its narrative structure on a physical structure – an apartment building – with each chapter built around the inhabitants of a particular unit, the stories gradually interlocking to become a woven narrative (Perec is also famous for A Void, a book written entirely without the letter E; I think the more astonishing achievement was that of Perec’s translator, who took the French original, Un Nul, and converted it into similarly E-less English.)
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad dedicates different chapters to different points of view, each chapter taking place at a different time and place; over the course of the book, recurring characters (not always immediately identifiable from their previous appearances) help the reader construct the core narrative. It’s a beautifully written book, and one of its most beautifully written chapters takes the form of a Powerpoint presentation.
David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest I liked more than loved, in part because DFW insists on punctuating his narrative with voluminous foot notes; the print book is over a thousand pages long (at least, it feels like it), and flipping back and forth is a royal pain in the ass. If you’re going to read this book, for crying out loud, read it on an eReader!
I’m sure there are some really strong crime fiction authors using unusual structure in their work. Anyone care to recommend something a bit different, and help me out of the shadow of my ignorance?