Tom Sutcliffe: The matter of facts in fiction

The Week In Culture

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To the countless dualities with which we attempt to shape the chaos of the world into a more manageable form I would like to add another. You can divide readers into people who love the whaling bits in Moby Dick and people who find them a tedious ordeal. Like all the other dualities that already exist I'm not sure that this one would withstand much hostile pressure, but there's a crude truth to it nonetheless. For some people, extensive technical detail in a novel is a trial to be surmounted – evidence that the novelist has got carried away with his or her research. For others, the facts of the case, arrayed before you in a depth of detail you might not have expected, are a burnish on a novel's implicit promise to reflect a real world. The former mutter discontentedly that they're really not interested in what you do to the ambergris once you've dug it out of a sperm whale's intestines. The latter don't make any noise at all because they're completely engrossed. I count myself among the latter group. I'm not going to skip the pages and pages of description you get of flensing and the trying-works, because one of the things I value about a novel is the sense that it knows a lot more than I do about a particular section of the world. There's a kinship with the pleasure you get from those gigapixel photographs, in which you can magnify the image again and again without seeming to reach the limits of its focus. It's not that you want to inspect the world at this level of detail all the time – the bigger picture counts, too – but that there's something reassuring about knowing that the panorama won't blur into an impressionistic fudge the moment you lean in to inspect it.

Which isn't to say that the term "trying-works" doesn't sometimes acquire a grumpy ambiguity. Jonathan Littell's huge novel about the Einsatzgruppen and the Holocaust, The Kindly Ones – a work which rather pointedly namechecks Moby Dick at one point – includes some prodigious feats of regurgitated research, the most impressive (or unbearable, depending on your point of view) being a three-page disquisition on issues in Caucasian philology, which rounds out the depiction of a minor character. Even my appetite for arcana briefly faltered in the face of this onslaught, but I don't think it was mere authorial showing-off or indiscipline. It was necessary to convey what a scholarly enterprise extermination became in some of its fields of operation – that all forms of knowledge, however drily library-bound they might be, could find themselves out in the field enlisted in murder.

I did wonder too how some of the passages in Monica Ali's new novel, In The Kitchen, which describes a period of crisis in the life of Gabe, a London chef, will go down with readers. In the book, the chef's father has worked all his life in a Northern weaving mill, acquiring a comprehensive knowledge of looms and techniques, much of which gets passed on directly to the reader. Indeed, there are moments when it occurs to you that Ali could probably set up in business making cloth if sales of the book don't go well, after you've read about the 260-pick-per-minute speed of the Northrop loom and the winding head of the Unifil, terms gleaned – one learns in the acknowledgements – from Textile Terms and Definitions by J E McIntyre and P N Daniels. But here, too, the boredom has a point. For the young Gabe, instruction about the mill shifts from an enchantment to an imposition – and we, I suspect, are intended to share some of his irritation and frustration as his father bangs on and on about the machines he adores. For me, more than happy to learn how a dobby loom works and what the pirns do, the problem was slightly different. There just wasn't enough detail to convince me that if we zoomed one level closer the picture would still be in focus. Then again, I suspect this is a duality in which one side is a lot bigger than the other.

Greed is still good

The news that Oliver Stone has signed a deal with Fox to film a sequel to his 1987 film 'Wall Street', complete with Michael Douglas in the role of Gordon Gekko, is intriguing, to say the least. Apparently, Shia LaBeouf is to take on the Charlie Sheen role of the naïve newcomer, to be tutored (along with the rest of us) in the brutal realities of American high finance. That role can virtually be photocopied from the original script – but how will Gordon Gekko have been changed by 20 years of hard battle and an economic meltdown? We can hardly say we weren't warned: "I create nothing," Gekko boasts at one point in the original. "I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paperclip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it." Now he'll presumably have to acknowledge in some way that there's nothing left in the hat but rabbit droppings. The original was supposed to be an attack on the corporate raiders and succeeded only in making a hero out of one of them. This time round, I think Gekko may need to be a bit more literal to get Stone's message across: "Lunch isn't for wimps," he'll say. "It's important for nutrition and the work-life balance... and I'm not quite as confident about greed as I once was."

* Film-makers usually try to make their model shots look as much like the real world as possible. Keith Loutit, an Australian photographer and video artist does the opposite, using something called a tilt/shift lens to make his images of Sydney look like an animated model village. His stop-motion videos are particularly engaging. In 'Bathtub IV' even an air-sea rescue turns into a 'Trumpton' episode with a neat toy helicopter plucking a toy fisherman from the water, and toy destroyers bobbing across the background. I'm not at all sure whether the feeling you get as you watch them isn't faintly distasteful – a wish to repudiate the real world in favour of a cute little triumph of miniaturisation – but they're oddly compelling anyway.

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