Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The Quiet American," not "The Great Gatsby"

Most writers know that in addition to writing every day one needs also to continue reading regularly, including the best of the classics and also critically acclaimed contemporary work.  But where to find all the necessary hours in a day?  One strategy might be to better leverage the extra-curricula output of a growing number of colleges across the country that have added creative writing programs to their curriculum.  Instructors working in these programs, often published writers motivated by a love of the writing craft, and perhaps also challenged to share their teaching skills with a larger student body than they might have in a classroom, have made available some excellent learning materials on the Internet and in periodicals published especially for writers.  Much of the Internet material is free, accessible on the authors' blogs and home pages, and an access to author interviews and topical essays in periodicals is usually at only nominal cost.  I've used both resources, and my favorite among the periodicals is The Writer's Chronicle,' published by a professional association of those nationwide writing programs.

The great thing about most of the topical essays one finds in the periodicals is the critical spotlighting of material taken from the literature to illustrate the topic of an essay.  You might want to read such an essay, let's say, "On the Use of Epiphanies in Fiction," because you've been interested in examples of how this has been done successfully.  If it's a good essay, you're going to learn a few things about epiphanies, plus you may become interested in a new author, or a book you haven't had a chance to read yet, and which is listed in the references given by the writer for his essay.  Now you've added to a focused reading list for material that meets your current interests and needs.

Pursuing this sort of directed reading search, I came across an essay discussion using examples from "The Quiet American," by Graham Greene.  I'd read other books by Greene and was reminded of things I liked about him from the examples the essay writer had chosen.  Greene's fiction often has an engaging mix of political, spiritual, philosophical, and even comic elements.  "The Quiet American" has all but the comical.  Greene uses a direct, linear style of storytelling, and doesn't load an otherwise complex story with any more exposition than is necessary up to each stage of events.

The story is set against a backdrop of the twilight of French colonial rule in Vietnam, and the struggles of a communist-dominated Vietminh insurgency to overthrow the French.  The United States, critical of French imperialism but fearful of a communist victory in southeast Asia, seeks to undermine communist power in the insurgency by supporting rival warlord factions.

The core tension of the story is about the efforts of an aging, British journalist, Thomas Fowler, to hold on to his relationship with a young, Vietnamese girl he loves, Phuong, after a young, American diplomat, Alden Pyle, meets and falls in love with her, and asks to marry her.  Pyle can promise Phuong a security she'd love to have.  Fowler, however, is dogged by a handicap: he already has a wife in Britain who won't give him a divorce, so he can't marry Phuong.  He's fearful of losing her to Pyle, and of dying alone and pitiful.

Here are some random passages that are revealing of Greene's writing style:

(Priest)..."It's strange what fear does to a man."
(Fowler)..."It would never do that to me.  If I believed in any God at all, I should still hate the idea of confession.  Kneeling in one of your boxes.  Exposing myself to another man.  You must excuse me Father, but to me it seems, morbid--unmanly even."

(Fowler, on learning his newspaper wants him to return to Britain)...I had experience to match his (Pyle's) virginity, age was as good a card to play in the sexual game as youth, but now I hadn't even the limited future of twelve more months to offer, and a future was trumps.

(Fowler)..."What are you afraid of?" Phuong asked, and I thought, "I'm afraid of the loneliness, of the Press Club and the bed-sitting room, I'm afraid of Pyle."

In some ways the story structure put me in mind of Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."  We learn most of what we know about the protagonist of each story through its narrator: Nick Carraway in Gatsby, and Thomas Fowler in Quiet Man.  Interesting twists between the stories lie in the characters of the narrators: Carraway is a well educated, quite moral man, while Fowler is a hard-bitten journalist, rather immoral and  solipsistic, and smokes opium.  Also, the characters of the protagonists are opposites: Pyle is of a moneyed family and a moral, if naive, man, while Gatsby has humble origins and got his fortune as a bootlegger.
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