April 23, 2012

Defending the Indefensible

William Landay's Defending Jacob is a very odd book. Narrated in the first person, it tells the story of an Assistant District Attorney whose son, Jacob, is accused of murdering a fellow pupil at school. The form of the book is that the narrator, Andy Barber, is providing some kind of deposition before a Grand Jury. The narration moves from him answering questions in making the deposition, to a straightforward first-person voice.

This sets up an odd situation for the reader - there are stretches of prose where this first-person voice is telling us the story ... and this is suddenly interrupted as we're whisked back into the courtroom:
The cop hesitated, appealing to Duffy with his eyes. Why waste time?
"We do it again,” Duffy repeated. “Like the man says.”
Mr. Logiudice: They never got the chance, did they? The detectives never got back into the interrogation room with Leonard Patz that day.
Witness: No, they did not. Not that day or any other day.
Mr. Logiudice: How did you feel about that?
Witness: I thought it was a mistake...

What's more, there are difficulties in maintaining the suspension of disbelief when Barber tells us, for example, what he finds when he looks on his son's Facebook account. Landay reproduces in the text what comments on the Facebook page look like:
Dylan Feldman (McCormick Middle School) wrote at 9:07pm on April 15th, 2007                Jacob STFU. if you dont want to read it, go someplace else. you of all people. f*ck off. he considered you a friend. dickhead

How is this supposed to be working when Barber is reciting this evidence in court?

I know this is nit-picking because writers use all kinds of devices to tell their stories. But usually I'm not aware of the kind of 'impossibilities' that this story throws up. It becomes even more obvious towards the end of the novel when the status of the investigator who's asking the questions for the Grand Jury becomes confused - at least in this reader's eyes. Because the investigator appears to have disappeared from the main narrative - finding a new job - as a result of what happens at the end of Jacob's trial ... but here he is, still questioning Barber two years after that trial. Why is he still prosecuting?

Unfortunately, the book is disappointing on other levels too. Landay's style is very flat - it's serviceable and moves the story along, but uses little imagery, metaphor or simile:
Modern, enlightened parents, we had not wanted to be Jake’s adversaries, quizzing him about every move, hectoring him. It was a philosophy shared by most of the McCormick parents. What choice did we have? No parent can monitor his kid’s every moment, online or off. In the end, every child leads his own life, largely out of his parents’ sight. Still, when I saw the words Go die, I realized how naive and stupid we had been. Jacob did not need our trust or our respect as much as he needed our protection, and that we had not given him.
This passage tells us in quite bald language how Barber and his wife treat Jacob. It lays out in simple declarative sentences what they do and what they should have done ... but there's no poetry, no deeper insight. Landay spends a lot of the book describing how Barber and his family react to the pressures on them, and how his wife in particular fails to cope adequately. But there's no real insight or expression beyond description of her appearance and what this might be saying about her state of mind. In the passage above, for instance, there are opportunities to develop some imagery:
Still, when I saw the words Go die, I realized how naive and stupid we had been, like children playing on the edge of a precipice.
This may not be a particularly good example, but Landay consistently fails to take opportunities to broaden the scope of his language. Compare this from Peter Temple's The Broken Shore:
     Cashin walked with the little weapon broken over his arm, looking at the trees, dark inside, waiting for the dogs to reach them and send the birds up like tracer fire.
     The dogs did a last bound and they were in the trees, triggering the bird-blast, black shrapnel screeching into the sky.
     He walked over the hill and down the slope, the dogs ahead, dead black and light-absorbing, heads down, quick legs, coursing, disturbing the leaf mulch. On the levelling ground, on the fringe of the clearing, a hare took off. He watched the three cross the open space, black dogs and hare, the hare pacing itself perfectly, jinking when it felt the dogs near. It seemed to be pulling the dogs on a string. They vanished into the trees above the creek.
Of course this is a different type of passage to the one quoted from Landay - this is descriptive whereas the previous quote was one of reflection. But Temple uses language to create images, not just to transfer information: the 'bird-blast, black shrapnel screeching into the sky'; the dogs 'dead-black and light-absorbing'; the hare seeming 'to be pulling the dogs on a string'. As far as I remember, there's nothing like this in Landay's book, which seems by contrast almost journalistic in its style.

Which leads me to the other point to make about Landay's style - in the end, the reader feels she or he has been told the story, not shown it. Barber is indeed telling us the story a few years after the event, and what's more is telling it to the Grand Jury. Now of course that's typical and natural in books that use the simple past tense to describe what's happened. And it would be unfair to say that Defending Jacob doesn't have incident or some drama.

But that's not what stays with you (if anything does). What you become aware of is that Barber is indeed just telling us what happened - to his son, to his friend, to his wife, to his job, to his family ... in fact during the last 50 pages I did something that I never do with a crime novel - I started to skip-read pages. More description of what happened after the trial - but not truly dramatised in expository scenes, just narrated to us in reported speech or simple description: this happened, then that happened. There is a big surprise in the last ten pages or so, but by then you're worn out listening to Barber's narrative voice and, quite frankly, past caring what it was exactly that happened. Enough already.

No comments:

Post a Comment