A World of Speculation

Something remarkable about All the King’s Men (earlier post on the subject here).

Between the Call to Adventure in disk 4, maybe, of 18 (here‘s a brief overview of the Hero’s Journey and the stages; The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is Christopher Vogler’s indispensable handbook on using the monomyth in fiction and screenplay writing) and the Entry into the New World, which happens in disk 8 — that is, between Willie Stark’s demand that Jack Burden find something on the upright old judge and Jack Burden’s first attempt to do so — is roughly a quarter of the story.

That’s not a measure of the passage of the plot, because Jack says that he begins the assignment the very next day. In the interim, the author gives backstory on all the relevant characters. It’s the right place, because the reader has already been hooked into the story by the three disks on the drive to Willie’s home in rural Louisiana, 1936, and in fact, the backstory sets the hook deeper. We know now why it’s important to Willie (the Huey Long character) and Jack (the first-person protagonist) to destroy the judge. More, it reveals the stakes — what’s the worst that can happen if it all goes wrong? And Jack tells us just at the edge of the threshold, on disk 4, that it all does go wrong; almost everybody is dead by the time the narrator gets around to telling the tale.

But it’s hard, as anyone will know who’s ever tried to do it or has read with any sympathy an inexpert author’s attempt to carry it off, to lay in a quarter of a novel in backstory without losing the way back to the present time. The writer is playing huge risks with the reader’s sympathy (for the characters) and attention (many a book has been left on the table when the reader says, “Who? What? I give up”). It’s easy for a writer to fall into a kind of, “Sit down and listen up. It’s going to be good for you. This is what you need to know so you can get to the good part of the story.” And readers (of whom I am first) are inclined to refuse anything that’s good for us. If it doesn’t taste like chocolate (or at least avocado), I’m off to look for something tastier.

Warren pulls it off by putting it in scene and dialogue and characterization that never feels like “description.” I don’t think he could have pulled it off without Jack Burden being the narrator. Warren anchors the flashbacks and flashforwards several times by returning to that day in 1936. The day becomes a sort of direction pole set up in the story, so that when we circle back, we know where and when we are. But his technique has the words, “Professional writer at work. Do not try this at home,” written all over it.

On the other hand why not try it at home? A striving storyteller doesn’t crash a car. He just fills pages with fiction that’s too hard for him. But if you want to see an expert driver take a sport SUV through the slopes of the Andes, past volcanoes and roaring rivers and breath-stealing chasms, rent, buy, or check out this book.