Monday, December 9, 2013

Of Sequels and Prequels

Most authors go to the well once too often in their careers. In recent times, I’ve had occasion to read the latest novels in series featuring the same characters and on three separate occasions, I’ve been disappointed.

From the author’s point-of-view, of course, the temptation is great. If plopping a character into a story has worked once, or twice, why not three or four times, or, for that matter, 15 or 20 times?

Well, one reason is reader fatigue. Even John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom became wearisome (and had the good grace to die) by the fourth book. The master of the genre, John D. McDonald, had to rely on increasingly intricate--and unsatisfying--plot twists to keep things interesting by the time his 21st Travis McGee novel was published.

McDonald’s heir to the throne is most probably John Sanford, author of the Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport, a hard-bitten multi-millionaire cop working out of Minneapolis. There are currently 23 Davenport books, and the last one, Silken Prey, deals with the political and criminal events surrounding a Congressional election in Minnesota. It’s a tough read that only the most ardent Davenport fans will find satisfying. Lucas is now married, a father of three and wealthy beyond the imagination of most cops. He wears British suits, French shirts, and handmade shoes, and none of this frippery serves to make a dull plot even remotely interesting.  It’s the first Sanford novel I’ve struggled through and was relieved to finish.

I’m still working the third installment of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Rebecca Wells’ first two books (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere) about the adventures of a group of  irrepressible women friends in Louisiana won acclaim for her freshness of prose and  wonderfully drawn characters. Her third in the series, Ya-Yas in Bloom, is an unfortunate prequel to the other two books. Unfortunate because it is little more than a collection of so-so short stories, and because authors in general are well-advised to stay away from prequels.

Prequels are what authors write for themselves to establish the life paths of their characters. More often than not, prequels are folders--paper or digital--with notes, notions, and the character traits, both mental and physical, of the personalities involved in the fiction. They are development tools, not so much the brick and mortar of a literary creation, as the hammer and trowel that help build what will become a book. Sadly, they’re rarely good enough to be books by themselves.  Such is the fate of Ya-Yas in Bloom. The manuscript--notes and random tales, actually--should have been allowed to stay in a desk drawer or the inner recesses of a laptop computer. It’s a frustrating book full of spoiled children, drunk and irresponsible parents, and not-really-that-funny situations. I’m not that sure I’ll be willing to spend the time to finish this one.

I had the same feelings reading the last Bridget Jones novel, Mad about the Boy.

Helen Fielding, a British writer, began in 1995 to chronicle the life of Bridget, a fictional 30-something single Londoner looking for love. The layout was original. Jones lists pounds gained or lost, phone calls made and received, glasses of alcohol and wine imbibed, pills taken and--in time--intimacies (shagging, actually) accomplished. When Bridget Jones’s Diary appeared, it was a novelization of Fielding’s weekly columns in a Brit newspaper. The book was a huge success. There was, of course, a sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason where our heroine meets the man she will marry. The second book is as charming at the first, and Fielding should have left well enough alone.

Mad about the Boy finds Bridget widowed. She is a hapless, confused mother whose life seems to revolve around generally distasteful if not frankly idiotic online relationships. The edge of her desperation is sharp enough to cut, and the zaniness found in the first two books is now labored and witless. Bridget sole bridge to reality is her cell phone, and there’s only so much humor one can generate with Twitter and text messaging. In the end, the book is depressing and quotidian and will do nothing to further Fielding as a chronicler of her times.

And so a request to three massively successful authors, John Sanford, Helen Fielding and Rebecca Wells:  Folks, stop coasting. It’s time for new material.

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