tori amos and inherent vice

Tori Amos performed solo on her early tours, just her and her piano, with occasional assistance from Steve Caton on guitar. I never saw her during those years, but I have watched the Live from New York video many times.

She is, of course, an incredible stage performer, but there are moments in that concert where she becomes, shall we say, a tiny bit self-indulgent. You can see her think, "Oooh, this is an interesting note. Maybe I should see how long I can hold it... and I bet I could get a real cool screechy effect right here, too."

I first saw her on the next tour, the first one with a full band, and there was none of that. You have a band, you have restrictions. You can't just decide to pause all of a sudden because it seems like a groovy idea (especially when you have a rhythm section like hers, which is not exactly nimble).

The interesting part is that I saw her quite a few times after that, mostly solo (I was always inclined more toward the solo tours, since you may have been able to discern my opinion of her rhythm section), and she never went back to the self-indulgent stuff that annoyed me before. Leading a band gave her discipline, and she's kept that discipline ever since.

I'm re-reading Vineland, the Thomas Pynchon novel that Inherent Vice is most often compared to. It's surprising what a mess it is. The things I disliked about it are pretty much as I remember them (I'll write more about this when I'm done), and there are some wonderful things that I'd forgotten. But it's very loose. You start out thinking it's going to be about Zoyd Wheeler, but then we wander off (as if the author starts to find Zoyd about as annoying as this reader did) following other characters, each one of whom gets a long backstory. I'm about two-thirds of the way through, and basically nothing has happened since the first chapter, just lots of history filled in.

Which is different from the Hitchcock example I mention in this post. In Family Plot, the story continues to move, just in a different direction than you expected. In Vineland, it pretty much stops.

Inherent Vice, on the other hand, is quite tight. There are flashbacks and backstory, but they're limited and focused; and the book generally moves forward, with things continuing to happen. Because for writers, genre restrictions are pretty much like getting a rhythm section. As Paul Anderson said in his commentary track for Resident Evil Extinction, "In a zombie picture, you can have a little romance, but then you have to get back to killing zombies." With a mystery, you have to line up your questions and start to answer them.

Which is what I've found, I guess. My first novel, A Sane Woman, is a mystery, and it's really short (it wasn't until I started laying it out in print that I realized how short it is – barely a novel at all by some measures).

U-town is not a mystery (though it contains one), and it is (shall we say) somewhat longer, and it does meander around quite a bit. Ditto the third novel, and an argument could be made that they are really just two halves of one novel (which would then be over 800 pages if printed).

But now I'm writing mysteries, and suddenly it's easy to be much more concise. Having a genre structure keeps things focused (assuming you're taking the genre seriously), and it also solves the problem that Robert Altman identified about "endings" (I quoted him here).

Where is the end of the story? How can you tell when it's over? Well, with a mystery, the story is over when the mystery is solved. That way, you don't end up like Michael Douglas's character in Wonder Boys, whose unfinished novel ends up well over 1,000 pages because he can't stop writing it.

I'm not saying, by the way, that all mysteries need to be solved. David Lynch, for example, frequently uses the form of a mystery, but he usually doesn't provide any answers. This often works really well (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, the first season of Twin Peaks). But he's just using the form, he's not really writing mysteries. Inherent Vice is the real thing (though it's obviously a lot more as well).

(On, and a couple of days ago I did an entry about Christy. You can scroll down to read it, or click on the link over to the right.)

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