Friday, September 23, 2011

What Good Fiction Does

I caught an interview with Ricky Gervais once where he said that he didn't "read fiction because he always knew how the story was going to turn out, and could usually write a better ending in his head." Perhaps he could, but this rather misses the point of what fiction does. It's not really about racing through the pages to get to the ending. A good novel, a really good novel, enriches your existence and takes you to another place, carrying you on an emotional journey that you just can't get in other media. And it certainly shouldn't all be about the story, I get excited by beautiful or witty prose and sometimes an individual scene is so perfect that you find yourself reading it two or three times to take maximum pleasure from it, the way we all watch and rewatch Roy Batty's "Tannhauser Gate" speech at the end of Blade Runner. 


I was thinking about this the other day as an entire scene from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell came suddenly back to my mind for no reason at all. 
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(The next few paragraphs contain major spoilers.)
The scene I'm thinking of is the Go game at the end of the novel between the evil abbot and the magistrate of Nagasaki. The chapter is a masterpiece of tension, excitement and cold blooded revenge. When I think of that scene I am there in Nagasaki as the magistrate gradually loses the game (as he always does) and prepares to commit seppuku to appease his failure after the English invasion. The magistrate knows that the abbot is a deeply evil man who has been murdering babies and young women for decades (possibly centuries) and has invited him here to play one last game of Go, to drink sake, and to ask the abbot to carry out the merciful coup de grace. But, slowly, as we are reading this depressing scene we learn to our amazement that the magistrate has a secret plan...
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As the magistrate and his chamberlain and then the evil abbot and his servant drink the abbot's sake we discover that the cups themselves have been lacquered with poison and that all four of them, not just the magistrate, are going to die. "Why are your hands and feet so cold on such a warm day?" the magistrate asks the abbot, who, in that moment realises that he has been outgeneralled. 
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There are other highlights of Jacob De Zoet - the doomed rescue mission, the attack on the fort etc. but the Go game and its aftermath is in a class by itself. I was on the edge of my seat excited, afraid, tense, and I contend that great literature can do this to you in a way that nothing - not even the movies - can equal.