High School as Narrative Structure (Including Digressions on Mysteries and Romances)

I'm a huge Agatha Christie fan. But I have to admit, I rarely try to figure out her mysteries. I'm too invested in the idea of human uncertainty and randomness. Since a large number of Christie's mysteries rely on split-section timing (during which every single person on the entire planet sticks to a carefully laid out time table), I never see the plan coming.

Take Death on the Nile--nobody saw the murderers running all over the boat? Really? Nobody stepped into the lounge at the wrong moment? Or Evil Under the Sun--nobody else is wandering around on the beach? The "right" person just happens to stay with the body?

Agatha Christie was well-aware that a well-planned murder can be instantly toppled by human vagaries, and she uses this truth to her advantage--often, the second murder victim in one of her books is the unintentional witness: that poor slob who just happened to be wandering around in the wrong place at the wrong time. She also has Miss Marple point out that the best "unprovable" murder is the "accident" (though don't get me started on how easily Christie characters die from eating a few leaves of foxglove or falling down a few steps) rather than the carefully planned murder.

Yet despite their illusory nature, Christie's carefully planned murders work as stories. The murder plan is the structure upon which each narrative is organized. That structure keeps the narrative from running off into digressive pointlessness; it gives the narrative a sense of "reality" even when it isn't much. Narratives without structure are not only boring and difficult to read but oddly enough, often fail to deliver that sense of "this really happened to someone."

How does the need for structure relate to high school?

A good cozy mystery, like a good fantasy or a good romance, has an underlying structure which delivers the product (the narrative). For example, Regency romances use a society containing specific rules and requirements, making it possible to deliver a narrative in which the hero and heroine are kept apart by social pressure, an occurrence that would provoke a "huh?" response if it showed up in a modern setting (it can be done in a modern setting; it is just more difficult).

Likewise, the high school provides a structure that explains, among other things, why certain people keep hanging out together. It also creates specific restrictions and expectations upon which a narrative can lie.

In Buffy, for instance, high school explains why the scooby gang gets together and, also, why they see each other so often. It explains why Buffy wants to be "normal" and also why she needs to be "good." It restricts her movements--she can't be out fighting monsters all day everyday. It poses challenges and growth moments.

The show faltered once the gang graduated. Nobody left town. Nobody got new friends. Nobody, until Xander, took a step into the whole job/bills/apartment stage of life. The suspension of disbelief became harder to maintain.

High school creates an assumption of settlement and order that doesn't have to be explained. This is both its use and its weakness. I imagine one reason Meyer (Twilight) put her vampires in a high school in a small town was to create structure, but the utter silliness of 20-year-olds "hiding" this way pushed my particular suspension-of-disbelief thermometer (which goes fairly high!) into too-hot-to-handle territory. It is much easier to "hide in plain sight" in even a community college than the average high school.

On the other hand, Rowlings' school years inevitably meander on too long, but at least there is a school year--a reason for Harry to stay in one place for so long--that doesn't have to be explained.

I would argue that any fiction book or series that has to sell a long-term idea needs an underlying culture/structure of rules and assumptions. Although any underlying culture/structure will bring along some narrative holes (wouldn't she have been kicked out of school by now?), the benefits outweigh the flaws.

Just look how long Star Trek (U.S.S. Enterprise as Regency culture/murder plan/high school) has lasted!

Of course, the real trick is to create the best culture/structure--one with lots of potential and few long-term problems. And if I could do that, I'd be writing these posts as a wealthy dilettante rather than in my spare time!

1 comment:

Mike Cherniske said...

I think the main reason that high school is such a successful setting is it's ability to be understood by just about any reader or viewer.