Friday, June 28, 2013

FFB: Elmore Leonard week: DJIBOUTI

I hadn't read John McFetridge's 2010 review of Djibouti, or if I had I'd forgotten it (and as with many such blog reviews including this one, the comments and replies are as valuable as the original review), when I picked up my copy of the novel to read for this week's exercise, but it remains a salient defense of the book...which has struck me as Leonard's weakest I've read, since its metafictional technique, of a kind of narrative shift between the events occurring in standard linear flow and jumps back and forth in the hotel-room editing suite the protagonists use to shape the footage of the video documentary they are making, tends to sap the energy of the novel more than it brings anything compelling to it. Leonard, as a writer who has nothing to prove at this point, nonetheless is an artist who wants to explore new and different ways to tell the tale, and as McFetridge notes is as engaged as anyone before him with the means to control the story with shape of the language (and I would go on to note even more explicitly than John does, most importantly the dialogue) employed...whether Twain was a primary model for this, I'll have to read more Leonard on Leonard to see if he says yea or nay.  Also, one of the things that usually makes Leonard's work vital is a sense that the narratives take place in fully-inhabited world, or at least the world that is so deftly suggested the characters know theirs at least as well as we know our own...this novel has the hallmarks, to some extent, of the travel novel, where not only the protagonists but perhaps also the author had recently spent some time in foreign circumstances; getting around this attenuation of the fully-felt environment by having a fair amount of the narrative occur in hotel rooms and other temporary residences is both necessary with this kind of setting (unless one is going to go the extrapolated-fantasy route of something like Kafka's Amerika or other speculative fiction/exotica) and can play with how literally as well as figuratively boxed in the characters are, but it isn't as effective here as it is when Leonard characters are in a setting where they are better able to explore options and more confidently use the tools on the ground to cope with whatever the crisis is. (In this case, the crisis is in making a documentary about Somali pirates while negotiating the various interacting forces, represented by often superficially charming and dangerous men in patented Leonard style, and as dealt with by a duo of an elderly but vital man who's both the employee and mentor of a younger woman, apparently inspired in part by filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow; neither is quite a stand-in for Leonard directly, but both will remind you of other Leonard characters.)

I haven't finished Djibouti yet, and I think that's because it isn't as good as his novels I've read since La Brava and, finally getting back to his work a few years later, the then-newish Freaky Deaky (which latter, when I read it nearly a quarter-century ago, convinced me that I needed to keep up with Leonard, even if I've done so only spottily since...there are so many writers to keep up with!). But even as it strikes me now, the wit and ear and genial cynicism of Leonard are still clearly on display, as well as his fascination with film and the desire to see how to make a work of fiction more organically cinematic (something which has dogged, among other writers, Robert Coover, Harlan Ellison and Alfred Bester over the decades, as well). Even if my opinion of its merits doesn't improve by the end, my only sorrow in reading it will be that I'd hoped he'd pull it off rather better. Perhaps he will.

Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more of this week's books. I might well be compiling them for next Friday.


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I've not read this one Todd and it certainly sounds well out of his usual bailiwick - which might not be a bad thing per se since his standard plot of a bunch of guys getting in each other's way as they try to get their hands on a bag of loot, has been used a few too many times let's face it. Curious to know if your opinion changes at all by the time you reach its conclusion ...

Todd Mason said...

I'm a bit curious myself. And I've just added a moderately necessary paragraph. Algis Budrys, in the course of reviewing both Leonard and Donald Westlake, noted that he took Westlake to lean a bit more cartoonish...I'd suggest that even at the time Budrys was writing, that was actually turning around, and Leonard was getting to be ever more stylized, Westlake, however contrived the circumstances of the foiling of a Dortmunder plan (and they remained ingeniously contrived), was if anything getting to heart of human events ever more directly with his late work.