March 31, 2012

Harlan Coben - Up close and personal

Stay Close is Coben's 22nd novel and is one of his standalone books rather than being part of the Myron Bolitar series.

In the standalone books, Coben's particular tactic is to use the 'close' third-person technique. This means that when describing a character's inner life, he moves very quickly from observing the character from the outside to giving us direct access to the character's thoughts:

Ray had gone back to that damn park and snapped pictures. Dumb, but he did it every year. He couldn’t say why. Or maybe he could and that just made it worse. The camera lens gave him distance, gave him perspective, made him feel somehow safe. Maybe that was what it was. Maybe, somehow, seeing that horrible place through that oddly comforting angle would somehow change what could, of course, never be changed.
This paragraph starts as a description of Ray's actions - 'Ray had gone back to that damn park and snapped pictures.' But even in this sentence we're given an indication of Ray's feelings about it: 'that damn park'. He could have written 'back to the park' - but this is a neutral description that puts no emotional weight in to the park.

The next sentence begins, 'Dumb, but he did it every year.' Here, the author is not calling his own character dumb - he's placing us inside Ray's head as he has the thought, describing himself. Later in the paragraph he repeats a phrase: 'Maybe that was what it was. Maybe, somehow, seeing that horrible place ... ' The 'maybes' suggest that Ray is querying his own reasons for going back to the park. If Coben had written, 'Ray wondered why he went back to the park,' it places us outside of the thought process, less involved, less emotionally bound-up in the return to the park.

Coben buys permission from the reader to do this, to move in and out of his characters' heads, by using a voice that is beyond conversational - it almost buttonholes us and drags us into the text:

Today was the anniversary of the day it all ended, when any hope of happy-ever-after died like… Well, the obvious metaphor here would involve the visions in his head, wouldn’t it?
There was an eighteen-piece band plus a “facilitator” who was supposed to encourage guest frolicking of all sorts. Think bad TV-game-show host. Think Muppets’ Guy Smiley. 
That fa├žade she had created all those years ago had become over the years more her than, uh, her. But that didn’t mean Dave would understand.
'Wouldn't it?', 'Think ... ', 'uh', - his prose constantly addresses the reader, stepping out of the objective third-person and allowing that the reader might in fact be a real person who would recognize the thoughts, emotions or situations that he's describing. This also allows him to be very funny, often at the expense of his own characters, though they're in on the act too because in some way he's representing their thoughts about themselves:

At least he hoped that they were Vicodin. He’d bought them off the black market from a guy who claimed to smuggle them in from Canada. For all Ray knew, they were Flintstone vitamins.
This technique also enables Coben to present a wide emotional range from all of his main characters, and some of the subsidiary ones, too. Rather than having to find actions that demonstrate a character's thoughts, or present them in conflict with one another so they can voice their feelings in the heat of the moment, the close third-person allows him to state the feelings as they occur to the character:

Now, standing in this remodeled kitchen with Dave, Kaylie, and Jordan, she couldn’t believe how close she had come to destroying everything. Dave would never be able to comprehend the truth. How could he? And why should she tell anyway? What was the point in that? It would only hurt him. The crisis had passed. Yes, he would eventually want an explanation for where she had been, and so she’d offer up something vague. But the sort of revelation and catharsis that had seemed so logical last night now seemed pretty close to suicidal insanity.
Here we're in our heroine's head as she realizes the danger to which she's exposed her marriage, and the language Coben uses emphasizes the extremity of her feelings: 'destroying everything', 'comprehend the truth', 'the crisis', 'revelation and catharsis', 'suicidal insanity'. This isn't a cool appraisal of what she'd done the night before, it's a gut-level fear of what might have happened had things gone differently. It's not Coben's appraisal, it's hers. Throughout the novel Coben's characters question themselves and their own motives in this way, feeling fear, despair, guilt, revenge. Because we're inside their heads, all of these feelings make sense and enable us to go up and down with the characters in the moment. This is one reason why Coben is both entertaining and compelling - we live, briefly, a series of vicarious lives, but know that because it's only fiction, it will all turn out all right in the end.

In terms of structure, Coben follows the usual thriller rules - create a mystery, throw in some red herrings, set up some bad guys to threaten our protagonists, produce a villain who we least expect ... but he does it very smoothly so that the revelation of the murderer is indeed a surprise. There's rather too much explanation in the last chapter for my liking and one or two things are left unresolved within the body of the book itself - but on the whole it's satisfying because the ordinary world is returned to its stable condition once more.

As always, Coben introduces characters from other books - the investigator Loren Muse, the lawyers Hester Crimstein and Flair Hickory - but according to Coben's postscript there's another intriguing element to the naming of his characters: he thanks a number of people who have the same names as characters we've just read about in the novel. It seems that these real people have paid money into charity in return for Coben using their names fictionally in his book. I don't know whether that's clever and honourable or just plain weird.



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