Saturday, October 15, 2011

International Dorothy Dunnett Day

Today is the first International Dorothy Dunnett Day, meant to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, The Game of Kings.  At 1:00 p.m. local time all fans are to gather and toast the author.  If there is a gathering here in St. Louis, I don’t know about it so I will be toasting her by myself.

I was standing in line at the grocery store a few weeks ago, gazing without seeing at the magazines in the rack, when the latest Time Magazine came into focus.  On the front was an article called “Why Mom Liked You Best” and a picture of three little kids with plates in front of them holding slices of cake.  One of them had a much bigger slice of cake.

I thumbed through the magazine and realized that the theme really tied in with some thinking I had been doing lately about Dunnett’s epic series of novels, The Lymond Chronicles .  In the article it said that in any given family most children are perfectly knowledgeable about which child is the favorite, even if the parents try their hardest not to play favorites.  I had been recently thinking about how Dunnett had used that very fact to lay a foundation for a surprising twist in her story.  A twist that might have worked better if it had been able to be structured a little differently.

I had been thinking about Dunnett in connection with last season’s Doctor Who, which I thought was too rushed from an emotional point of view.  To set up a really satisfying ending you have to set up the characters emotionally and you have to give the reader enough facts along the way that the ending doesn’t require too much exposition of new facts.  I applaud Moffatt for trying what he tried this season but I didn’t think it quite worked.  But creative people have to try things and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t.  And I was thinking that even Dorothy Dunnett, who was brilliant in bringing her plots together, sometimes had to rush things a bit.

There are many reasons why I like the writing of Dorothy Dunnett, but one of them is that I love how she structures her stories over many thousands of pages to bring the reader to moments that are both surprising and satisfying not only intellectually but emotionally.

It isn’t solely that she peppers her story with facts that are necessary for the final twist to make sense, it is that she lays the emotional foundations that are necessary for a reader to be fully invested in the the answer to the question she is raising and that makes the reader really appreciate the surprising twists in the story rather than feeling cheated by them. 

Dunnett was a master at setting up endings. But even she wasn’t perfect. She had one plot line which didn’t quite come together as well as it might have and, in my opinion, felt too rushed at the end.

At the end of her six novels called The Lymond Chronicles Dunnett resolves a number of plot lines that she has been working on for thousands of pages.  The most obvious resolution is to the question of whether Lymond is going to live or whether she will kill him off.  The ending  works because it has been firmly established through six long novels that she is ruthless in pursuit of her tale and never hesitates to kill off a character if the tale requires the death to occur.  And, it turns out, that over six long novels she has laid every factual and emotional foundation necessary for her to structure the resolution to that question without having to introduce any extraneous explanations after the fact, so that the story can unfold before us and the emotions can wash over us. 

spoilers ahead (although only limited spoilers)

The other big question to be resolved by the end of the tale is the question of Sybilla Crawford’s past life – what she did and why she did it and why she worked so hard to keep it a secret. This resolution does not work quite as well, at least not for me.  It seems a little rushed and it needs a significant amount of exposition right at the end to get the reader to what should be the emotional “aaah” moment.    

The problem is that Dunnett has laid the emotional foundations for the resolution brilliantly but for very practical structural reasons she can’t lay the entire factual foundation in advance.  So there comes a moment at the end of the novel when Sybilla must simply tell her story.  The reader is given a whole lot of important facts to digest about Sybilla’s past life and long dead people.  A whole lot of complicated important facts to digest, and they all must be digested at a time when the reader is emotionally drained by what came before. 

The thing that we the reader have known and understood from the very beginning of the tale is that Sybilla has two sons, Richard and Francis, and she loves both of them but she loves the younger son, Francis, more.  Dunnett doesn’t try to turn that concept on its head at the end.  There is no doubt that the bond between Sybilla and Francis is key to understanding most of the story. 

But it is so easy, throughout the story, to sympathize with Richard’s frustration over this.  Most of the time Richard simply accepts the situation.  He knows his mother loves him.  He tries not to hold it against his brother that she loves Francis more. But occasionally Richard’s frustrations get the best of him, especially when it seems that Francis is just not worthy of that extra love.  Especially when Richard has been the reliable, dutiful son who has been there for his mother while Francis is gallivanting all over the world. 

There is no doubt in Richard’s mind or in the mind of the readers that, for Sybilla, Francis and his welfare would always come first.  Francis himself perhaps even assumes this for a very long time.  After all, as the Time Magazine article suggested, siblings are well aware of their own hierarchy.

So what a nice little “ahh” moment it is when we discover that the big secret that Sybilla has been keeping for so long, at such great emotional cost to herself and to her favorite son Francis, is a secret that she is keeping for Richard’s sake.  In this matter, Richard came first for her.

And the beauty of Dunnett’s plotting is that Richard will never, ever know this and will go on thinking, for the remainder of his life, that he always comes second.

It is such a nice little moment and it is unfortunate that it is almost buried at the end of the novel.  

I’ve always felt that Dunnett was brilliant in laying the factual and emotional foundation for the hugely emotional penultimate chapter of The Lymond Chronicles.  By that moment in the novels she has set up the story of Francis Crawford of Lymond in such a way that she has three very real choices:  she can kill him; she can let him live with an unsatisfying life laying ahead of him or she can let him live with a happy ending.  And it is a tribute to her that letting him live with a happy ending, while desirable, is incredibly unlikely because of the almost insolvable problems that she has set up in the psyche of her characters.

At the moment in which we find out whether he lives or dies, we are in the midst of a Shakespearean tragedy where death is the result of hubris.  Lymond himself has driven Austin Gray to the point of insanity  and we, the readers, have a complete understanding of why Austin feels driven to take the actions he takes.  We, the readers, have been led to this emotional point very carefully through more than 5,000 pages and all of the factual points necessary to make the situation work have all been clearly established earlier in the novels. It all comes together in one moment of brilliant plotting.

Because of the huge emotional drain of that penultimate chapter I’ve always read the ultimate chapter as if it was an epilogue. It has the rushed feeling of an epilogue.  And although Dunnett has laid the emotional foundation for the final reveal about Richard and Sybilla, the factual foundation is not complete.  There are too many important facts that need to be introduced and the only way for her to do that quickly is through exposition.  Thus, the emotionally drained reader is still trying to take in the import of exactly what happened to Sybilla when the reader should be reacting to the disclosure that Richard, who has always come second in the minds of everyone, was first in the mind of Sybilla in this one very important situation.  And he will never know it.

But since these are the types of novels that one thinks about long after one has finished reading, eventually we can bring our focus on that moment and realize how Dunnett and Sybilla fooled us for all those pages into thinking that Sybilla would never put Richard first.  And realizing what a brilliant plot resolution that is.

It has occurred to me that Dunnett perhaps knew that this moment got lost at the end of The Lymond Chronicles and wanted to further explore this idea.  When she moved on to her series of novels that became The House of Niccolo she intentionally made her main character someone whose youth was significantly flawed as the result of a situation similar to the situation Richard might have found himself in at the age of ten.  The facts are very different, but the end result might have been the same if Sybilla hadn’t decided to keep her secret for Richard’s sake.

In the end, this rushed ending doesn’t result in a significant flaw in the novels.  They are still brilliantly realized and she manages to tie up all the big threads and leave enough little threads hanging that readers are still discussing them.  But a part of me always wishes there had been a little more time to lead us to that ultimate ending rather than tacking it into an epilogue-like chapter.

But certainly all of you should read the novels yourself and judge for yourself.

So on this, the first International Dorothy Dunnett Day, I raise a toast to Dorothy Dunnett.  Writers like her don’t come along very often.