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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, November 23, 2007

meaning in the ashes

The day before yesterday I finished reading Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, a powerful and moving memoir of his childhood in Limerick. I know I'm late to the party with this book, which was a bestseller in the 1990s and has been made into a movie. But since it's not (or anyway was not) research reading, it would have been in the category of "pleasure reading" (that is, books I read only for pleasure, since I take pleasure in all my reading), of which I have at most one book going at any one time--and usually not even that.

In this case, I chose to read it for genre research, as part of an effort to help my mother write her own memoir. She's a passionate fan of Frank McCourt and this book, and sees some strong parallels in it with her own early life. Will her own work be of the same genre? I don't know yet. Memoir itself is not a genre, since a memoir can be any kind of a story, depending on the life being told.

Genre is an elusive concept, neither well defined nor well studied. Robert McKee, in his screenwriting text Story, gives a list of genres with some quick definitions and examples, but it's an omnium-gatherum, a jumble of apples and oranges, with a few mangoes and persimmons thrown in. There's not a single scheme of categorization.

From his list, probably the best fit for for Angela's Ashes would be in the social drama genre, under the subcategory of domestic drama ("problems within the family"). Angela's Ashes is a family story--and they have problems aplenty, stemming mainly from grinding poverty.

But the story is told from the viewpoint of young Frank, and could be categorized under the heading of maturation plot or coming-of-age story.

Yet the circumstances are so very harsh, with the family often struggling to find its next meal, that the story has a lot of the emotional energy of a survival story, which McKee lists as a subcategory of the action/adventure genre. I felt the same kind of anxiety for the McCourts' survival as I do for the characters in movies such as The Poseidon Adventure, for example. Will they make it? (And indeed, just as with other survival stories, some of them don't.)

Of course, if the concept of genre is to have any use, it can't be merely a superficial or arbitrary designation. It might be OK for a bookstore to shelve a book under one heading or another, without really caring which; but a writer can't be so cavalier. You need to know what species of animal your story is, and write accordingly.

I remember talking years ago with Phil Savath, a fellow TV writer who went on to become a writer-producer of Beverly Hills 90210 and other shows. He was saying that the basic structural elements of, say, TV sitcoms were the same, regardless of where the show might be set.

"You know," he said, "you could take The Mary Tyler Moore Show and set it in a monastery. There's Lou, the grumpy old abbot, and Ted, the dumb prima donna, and so on."

As I recall, he was criticizing networks' fixation on superficialities and their lack of attention to the parts of shows that audiences connect with: character relationships. The basic point is that there are structural aspects of stories that are deeper than their setting or even their apparent outward concerns.

As I read Angela's Ashes, I looked at my emotions: what are my aspirations for these characters? What would I like to see happen? To me, these are clues as to what a story is really about, how I, the reader, relate to it at a gut level. I realized that I was coming to see Frank's father, Malachy McCourt, who drank the family's few pitiful coins of grocery money at every opportunity, as the antagonist--a kind of likable ogre, willing to starve his own children to death in order to slake his thirst for booze. His wife, Angela, and their children, of whom Frank is the eldest, are powerless to stop him. They're just little children. I realized that my aspiration in the story--what I hoped might happen--was for Frank to survive and become strong enough to overthrow his father, or break his grip on the family.

There is a deep mythical dimension here, for the story of the devouring father, who must be confronted and defeated by his children if they are to survive, is an ancient one. It shows up in two generations of ancient Greek myths, for example: when Kronos overthrows Uranus, and then again when Zeus overthrows his father Kronos, each son saving himself from being devoured. This archetypal setup probably lies near the heart of the true meaning of genre--what is the core myth of a story? From what primal arrangement of people and things does it derive its basic emotional power? The other factors of genre are more like clothing and window-dressing over this beating heart.

Anyway, whatever its true genre, Angela's Ashes is an excellent piece of work. Frank McCourt deserves all the praise and honors that have come his way.

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