Saturday, April 08, 2006

Paul Thomas: Reality is wackier than the best pulp fiction

From time to time the book world debates whether genre fiction - crime, romance, sci-fi and so on - can achieve the status of literature. Essentially this is the old art versus entertainment argument. The traditional view is that never the twain shall meet because one tries merely to make us laugh or intrigue us momentarily or spill meaningless tears while the other seeks to reveal truths while engaging our intellect and emotions at a deep and meaningful level.

This distinction bugs some genre writers enormously. They argue that they do character, atmosphere, setting and psychological insight as well if not better than many supposedly literary writers and, what's more, they tell proper stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Why, should their work be treated as something separate from and inferior to literature?

Much of this debate swirls around labels that are either meaningless or irrelevant to the general reader.

Some of it is driven by intellectual snobbery and envy reflecting that both sides have what the other would rather like: writers of entertainment fiction have a potentially huge market so dizzying commercial success is always a possibility. Literary writers often have to measure their success in critical pats on the back.

Most of us aren't averse to being lavishly rewarded for our endeavours or to having those endeavours taken seriously. In the writing game, however, not many get to have it both ways.

The main reason genre fiction isn't taken seriously is that it focuses on such a marginal area of human experience - so marginal, in fact, that most humans never experience it.

For instance, most contemporary crime novels have an activist hero or heroine, are located in or on the fringes of the criminal milieu, portray graphic violence including multiple killings, and contain little in the way of everyday domestic life.

When you season these ingredients with plot contrivances such as coincidence, selective disclosure of information and calculated use of suspense, the result is a fictional world almost as removed from our experience as Middle Earth or Gotham City. That's not to say it's unreal. For most of us, though, it's a sort of hypothetical reality: it could happen; it probably does happen now and again; but hopefully it'll never happen in our kempt and quiet little corner of suburbia.

But whenever we are tempted to dismiss the excesses of pulp fiction as make believe, something comes along to shore up this hypothetical reality and remind us that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

If any crime writer had dared to invent the Peter Plumley Walker saga, they would have been accused of over-taxing the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. It had a protagonist who seemed to have wandered off the set of a Carry On film - a masochistic ex-RAF man turned cricket umpire with an extravagantly silly moustache and a name to match, a teenage dominatrix, bondage and discipline sessions, and a one-way trip over the Huka Falls. (It also gave rise to one of the great quotes of our time. When it emerged that Plumley Walker had pegged out during a gruelling session with the dominatrix and then been trussed like a turkey and sent belatedly on the ride of his life, a spokesman for the Auckland Cricket Umpires' Association wailed, "We can't go on losing umpires like this".)

In a similar vein were Brisbane's teenage lesbian vampire killers, a couple of kids who murdered a tramp to drink his blood.

And now from the quiet seaside town of Fish Hoek, not far from the Cape of Good Hope, comes the tale of the Grandmother, the Hitman, the Bridge Teacher and his Wife.

Two years ago, a great white shark helped himself to a pensioner having her morning swim but apart from that, tranquillity reigned until 73-year-old granny Sophia de Villiers decided to get homicidal.

The Times says she stands accused of paying an unemployed man about $550 to kill the wife of her bridge teacher. Police say Mrs de Villiers, a mother of six, drove the man to the scene of the crime, hung around while he stabbed Nicky Wilson, 57, repeatedly but not fatally, then drove him away.

While the facts are lurid, it's the details that have you wondering whether you're reading a news report or a far-fetched yarn cranked out by a hack whose imagination stretches to believe-it-or-not scenarios but not the characters who people them.

Thus we learn that the Wilsons had a "turbulent" marriage and that Mrs Wilson was a "difficult" woman. Her Brian O'Driscollesque description of her ordeal - "I could have died" - suggests she still hasn't got the point. Mrs de Villiers was a timid soul, scared of her own shadow.

The moral of the story? Well, according a member of the bridge club, "You just don't know the human mind, do you?"

And there is a twist in the tail. Mrs de Villiers is now in a private hospital where she's understood to be having treatment for Alzheimer's disease.


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