Saturday, August 04, 2007

On Smaller and Smaller Circles

What intrigued me about Banzai Cat's recent post is his comment of negative reviews on Smaller and Smaller Circles, a novel by F.H. Batacan. I remember writing a review of the book last year and I did a quick search in my archives--couldn't find a book review. And then an hour later, I remember why. I was writing the book reviews for Pulp back then and Smaller and Smaller Circles was one of the books I reviewed favorably. And in retrospect, my opinions of the book have probably changed by now.

Now I liked reading the said novel. It's not by any means perfect or the best book I've ever read but it's quite competent to say the least. Personally, I enjoyed it (not a 10 out of 10 but certainly above average). That for me is the biggest question that should be answered in a book review followed by the reasons why you liked (or didn't like) it.

Now I was reading the links to the unfavorable reviews on Banzai Cat's blog. Personally, I find it great that people are disagreeing with what the norm should be. I mean the book is getting all these praises and instantly a classic that screams out you-must-read-this-and-appreciate-it. If you don't like it, that's fine. It shows you have your own opinions and aren't limited by what you're supposed to like. Of course to those who haven't read the book, go to the bookstore (or the library as the case may be), buy the book, read it, and form your own opinions. Having said that, there's some complaints in the aforementioned reviews I'd like to tackle:

Characterization: Of the three negative reviews, they're all complaining about characterization. One, the protagonist is too "perfect"--good looking, smart, wealthy, etc. Personally, the good looking part didn't bother me. I don't care if women are supposed to swoon at him. For me, that's a good tension there--that he's bachelor material yet he has vows of celibacy. As much as we want to pin a love interest to the protagonist, unless he leaves his order, that's simply not going to happen. And when writing about characters, I think you have to make one of three choices: either you make them boy scouts, make them a good but flawed individual, or make them the reluctant or anti-hero. Personally, I find the the novel's protagonist to be somewhere in the middle of the first two and I don't hold it against the writer if my preference for example is the last. The question I'm asking is whether that kind of characterization is suited for the novel and in my opinion, it is. It's not a dark, noir story after all but in general a more optimistic tone, the one in which justice is finally served. The reviewers complaints can be extended to classic mystery characters like Sherlock Holmes or Arsene Lupin, yet no one is complaining the the former is super smart and that the latter is dashing. And I'd like to add that for the main protagonist at least, there's enough conflict that comes with his blessings--he comes from a wealthy family but he similarly has vows of poverty that prevent him from living a luxurious life for example. You might say that this could have been played out more but then again, I think the focus of the story is in dealing with the serial murders. The priest/investigator angle is a nice sub-plot but hardly one that needed to be resolved.

Politics: Some of the said reviewers bring in politics when it comes to reviewing the book. Not that they shouldn't, mind you, but there's an appropriate time and place to mention it. For example, one simply boils it down to a rich vs poor story, a Ateneo vs U.P. conflict. Sure, you can apply those theories to the story but the question I think is whether such comparisons are appropriate. I mean for example, if we reverse the situation, if the protagonist was a a U.P. student and the antagonist an Atenean, would the story have been better for it? Or if we made the antagonist female, wouldn't the feminists be crying out it's another male vs female text? At that point, as a writer, I just have to tell the writer to write however she wants to write the novel. The characters, their backgrounds, will be dictated by the characters themselves and by the story itself. You don't have to be rich to be the protagonist or poor to be the antagonist, an Atenean to be the hero and a U.P. student to be the villain. But someone has to be the villain in the story and they need backgrounds--they didn't just pop out of nowhere. And to Batacan's credit, she plays up the theme that the villain isn't one that suddenly appeared--they have their own motivations for acting the way they are. The question that should be asked in such a story is whether their motivations and characterizations are believable or fit the context of the story, not whether the author is attacking your alma matter or your social class or whatever.

The Jesuit Angle: Having studied under the Jesuits for the past seventeen years, I think they're a good choice not because they're priests but because they're the most inquisitive (but not bordering on heretical) of the various orders that came to the country during the colonial era (and you know, Protestants who arrived during the American colonization wouldn't make great detectives in line of the "we don't believe in evolution" belief). I mean the Jesuits are the most open when it comes to scientific discoveries and procedures and that was Batacan's choice instead of using the cliche detective or police to solve the crime. Could there have been other choices? Perhaps. But that's what she chose and we stick with it as long as she makes them credible and for me. The fact that they have an institution backing them up fits their forensic equipment (because who else would have these kinds of tools short of working for a hospital or the actual forensics team of the NBI?).

Length: The novel has been repeatedly described as short. Hell, I probably described it as short in my original review. But then again, most Filipino novels tend to be short (I'm not expecting them to be a thousand page epic). But I don't think that's the question we should ask. We should ask whether the length fits the story. If a novel is short, yet fulfills every criteria, that's not a bad thing. That means there's no padding. And length was never associated with quality. Or else people would drop The Little Prince in an instant since that's a short book. So, was the length appropriate for the novel? I think so.

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