The Book Meme: Day 9

Day 09 - Best scene ever

Before I reveal my choice, I'm gonna throw a bone to the Dan Simmons fans out there who are annoyed by my running down Darwin's Blade the other day. That bone comes from The Terror, a genuinely thrilling and horrifying historical novel with a nasty supernatural twist. In it there is a sequence where a man is pursued by a horrible thing all over the deck and rigging of a ship. (The ship, the titular Terror, is frozen in the polar ice, so drowning is at least removed from the list of awful things that could happen.) I read it in a state of nervous excitement, feverishly turning pages from the first moment of the pursuit to the last, and when I got to the end, I thought, "Damn! That's how you write a sustained action sequence!" Curious as to just how long Simmons had sustained it, I flipped back six pages, looking for the start. Then two more. Then two more...

Eventually I realized that what I thought had lasted six pages had lasted twenty-five.

That really is how you write a sustained action sequence.

I love the fight scene in Nine Princes in Amber where Zelazny sets Random and the amnesiac Corwin against the bad guys invading Flora's library, but not all the scenes I love are thrillers. The scene where Gatsby's final fate is revealed is a gorgeous and melancholy few pages, and the revelation of Snowden's secret in Catch-22 has haunted me for decades. And as a writer of nonfiction, I must acknowledge that nonfiction scenes can also be wonderful, whether they're gripping (Jon Krakauer's recounting of Joseph Smith's murder in Under the Banner of Heaven), inspiring (Frederick Douglass's knockdown battle with his overseer in the Narrative) or heartbreaking (David Quammen's account of the last dodo meeting extinction in The Song of the Dodo.)

One of my favorite contemporary novelists, James Hynes, includes not one but two fantastic scenes in his academic satire The Lecturer's Tale. In one, the candidate for a professorship is giving a lecture on Elvis, and the protagonist uses his magical power to control others, preventing the lecturer from leaving the podium for a bathroom break. The lecture turns increasingly to metaphors involving water, and the inevitable climax of the sequence is just as hilarious as you might expect. The second is a brilliantly conceived fight scene between a post-modernist professor and his rival, one where the fight actually spills over into the book's footnotes in a flurry of Joycean language. It's a book I highly recommend, and not just for those two scenes, but those two scenes are amazing.

For my all-time favorite scene, though, I have to go to one that grabbed me so thoroughly that I have on several occasions read it (or parts of it) aloud to my wife and friends: the opening section of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. In the opening chapters, we meet pizza delivery driver Hiro Protagonist, who is sent on a life-or-death delivery run. The life (or death) is his own, as the Mafia has taken over pizza delivery in Los Angeles, and when they say 30 minutes or less, they really mean it. Unfortunately, a technical error results in Hiro taking on a delivery for a pie made 20 minutes ago. Stephenson's account of Hiro's desperate crosstown dash is a terrific six-page sequence, combining long complex sentences and short explosive bursts of prose, and it succeeds in launching you into the book like a harpoon:

If there was trouble on this road, they'd be babbling about it in Taxilinga, give him some warning, let him take an alternate route so he wouldn't get
he grips the wheel
stuck in traffic
his eyes get big, he can feel the pressure driving
them back
into his skull
or caught behind a mobile home
his bladder is very full
and deliver the pizza
Oh, God oh, God
late
22:06 hangs on the windshield; all he can see, all he can think about is 30:01.

Like many of Stephenson's books, Snow Crash has an opening that's stronger than its conclusion, but no matter what I think of the rest of the book, I will point to this scene as pure brilliance. And let's face it, I look for every possible opportunity to say "life-or-death pizza delivery."

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 13, 2018 10:00 AM.

The Book Meme: Day 8 was the previous entry in this blog.

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