This is another in a series of love letters to favorite books.
For the most part, when I read the standard-issue advice to writers I despair: “Show, don’t tell”, or “Murder your darlings”, etc. Because this advice seems custom-made to eliminate everything that I love best in books. I like writing that calls attention to itself. I like long authorly digressions. I like abrupt shifts in the point-of-view. I like books where keeping the plot moving is the very last concern. I even love adverbs!
I’m also not a fan of Aristotle’s theories, if that’s the word, about tragedy, at least not in the form that they’ve been corrupted and passed down in every discussion of plot from high school onwards. (For one thing, they don’t fit a single Greek tragedy that I know of, not even the supposedly illustrative Oedipus Rex. What’s his tragic flaw supposed to be? You’ve got to really, really stretch to make the case for hubris–what causes his downfall is nothing about him, just his circumstances.) His followers’ advice too: the “rising action-climax-falling action” diagram, for example. Fairy tales follow none of these “rules”, and obviously very many of them are completely satisfying and great. Rapunzel meeting the blinded prince in the desert is pure coincidence, and nothing has “established” that her tears will heal his eyes; but no one complains about it, unless maybe they’ve been reading a bit too much discussion of plotting.
All that said, there’s certainly something incredibly satisfying about a good plot, a perfectly constructed machine that fits together just right.* That’s what I love about this book, Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar. If there ever was a story which fit the high school English class description of a Greek tragedy, it’s this one: all the action and trouble flows directly and logically out of the hubris of the main character, who comes to a recognition of herself after an apocalyptic downfall which brings great catharsis to me at least. And it’s a silly, funny kids’ book about dueling secret clubs in grade school.
If it is a Greek tragedy then it’s a lighthearted one, with no sadness to be found; none of the melancholy that Sachar put in Holes, another perfectly-plotted book. As far as the “dignity and importance” part of the definition, there isn’t much to be found. But everything runs like clockwork in such a way that you say, “of course, of course it happened that way.” I especially like how certain things become important simply through the silly non-sequiturs of kids under stress–like one character says “bacon and eggs” instead of “bacon and ham” when prank-calling, and for the rest of the book, eggs are a major part of the war between the clubs, because obviously they couldn’t admit to blowing their lines! Sachar really gets how kids’ minds work–or at least, I recognize myself and my friends, at that age, in the way that the kids in his books think.
If the idea of Sixth Grade Secrets as tragedy seems strange, well, there is another form of play, which requires perfect plotting, and is about as applicable: farce. In a farce there is a single crucial misunderstanding or misrepresentation which leads to all the ridiculous situations that follow. Just like in a 19th Century play, the plot of Sixth Grade Secrets depends on a letter gone wrong, and if the characters would just sit down and talk openly and honestly to each other for a moment, they wouldn’t end up covered in mustard, forced to eat a raw egg, humiliated in front of the entire school, or any of it. But of course that would be no fun. And tragedy or not, fun is what this book is all about.
*Probably my favorite movie moment of the past couple years was the literal deus ex machina towards the end of Toy Story 3: it so perfectly brought together things set up in all three movies, while being a joke on the term itself, while also being a perfectly timed and edited moment which, both times I saw it, caused the entire theater to burst into applause.