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Monday, 23 January 2017

The Problem of the Picaresque

The picaresque novel, and its derivatives both foreign and domestic such as the Phantom Thief and Superhero genres, are an incredible source for stories and characters, more so as they're often added to and expanded through the contributions of multiple authors across many decades. But there's a core problem with this genre that I've come across when trying to write in it, and it's a problem best portrayed in two phrase that's are both quotes from other works, and terms used in fields as varied as science and tech to scholarly literature and nature: constants and variables, momentum and stasis.

First, what is picaresque fiction, and why does it sit in the same boat as things like the Superhero genre. Well, the basic form of the picaresque novel is, according to scholars, a first-person memoir-like narrative where the mainly static main cast go on a long series of separate yet interconnected adventures without a central plot and - in many cases - get into trouble with the local authorities or some other powerful figure. Examples of the picaresque extend as far back as the anonymously authored Lazarillo de Tormes, considered by many to be the genesis of the genre, and continue through Voltaire's Candide and Fielding's The History of Tome Jones. Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en also falls into this genre. The picaresque can also be seen in the works of Marvel and DC Comics among others, with dozens if not hundreds of adventures revolving around generally unchanging characters: examples from both major companies range from Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to Batman and Justice League. In Manga, where its equivalent is the "Phantom Thief" story, you have too many to count, from Sailor Moon to Ghost Hunt and beyond. Versions in television range from the standard sitcom (Friends, The Last of the Summer Wine) to more serious fair (Firefly, Doctor Who). In video games, things are either too short for or move away from such styles in favour of telling a single quest-like narrative; the most prominent incarnations in gaming I've seen are Final Fantasy X-2, Persona 5, the Sly Cooper series, and the Gravity Rush duology. Apart from Sly Cooper, none of these strictly follow the pure picaresque format but instead borrow extensively from it.

A theme astute readers will notice about many the above written works is that they're critical works that caused minor or major controversy when they were published as they took shots at aspects of the establishment both religious and secular, along with other aspects of humanity such as its morality and the concept of blind faith. I've tried writing within this genre a few times now, and all but once I've been faced with a difficult problem, which as I said above can best be described by the phrases "constants and variables, momentum and stasis". The thing about a lot of picaresque work, from the classics to more modern examples, are that they lack the push for a central narrative and strong characters that have taken their rightful place on the peak of the literary mound. This is a style that I also choose to use as I greatly enjoy focusing on characters. The picaresque work takes the emphasis of character and narrative in favour of its shifting setting and subsequent deconstruction of the aspects of life and society.

And now for the very issue that I've described above. As to "constants and variables", it's the fact that while the same cast of characters remain, the settings change to an often drastic degree. While settings shift in stories, the picaresque format calls for this more than most, and leaves limited room for the great ensemble casts that many authors revel in. The second issue, which I defined as "momentum and stasis", is that while the story is about movement, nothing seems to change. The character development is often cut out or at least greatly reduced, either through the use of the first-person narrative or through the very nature of the story's fast pace and focus on events over character.

I've tried twice to create something around what I thought was the picaresque format, using one woman outlaw's adventures to tell a story, with a man in the law as her on-off nemesis and her going on daring heists and other jobs in her own quest for answers. It was part Phantom Thief/picaresque, part action hero, part sci-fi; I called it Calabaja, a simplified and slightly altered romanization of the Hindi word "Chaalabaaj" or "Trickster". But both times I tried, it fell flat. The first time, it was a combination of being too busy, a lack of skill at that point, and the fact that what I wanted to do ended up conflating with the Superhero genre, which I personally dislike as a genre - the stories are often overly simple, the morality overly straightforward, the drama overly forced, the exposition generally boring, and the way the major publishers treat their characters as commodities mean their development (if any) if often uneven and unfair to them. When I wrote something vaguely picaresque, I didn't even realise I was doing it and I wasn't following most of its conventions. However, in succeeding with that project, I also caused my next attempt at Calabaja to fail as I realised I was just trying to do the same kind of thing over again. As this is something I endeavour not to do, I shelved it. Who knows, I may never finish it.

Of course, there are many works falling within the picaresque genre that don't conform to all its tropes. Voltaire's Candide is actually one of these, as it sees the characters grow and change to a degree, and it acts as a deconstruction of the genre along with being a part of it. Kim, the seminal novel by Rudyard Kipling, uses elements from the genre as a backdrop for a story of espionage within the workings of the Great Game. There are also those who use the picaresque format and give it a new spin whether playful or dark, such as the Russian-authored novellas featuring the character Ostap Bender, Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat, and Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. American author Gene Wolf has made his career out of genre bending, with picaresque being among many he has experimented with.

The picaresque is a strange beast indeed. One the one hand, you're tempted and charmed along the route of the errant vigilante. On the other, you're dragged into a mire of tropes and complications that transform a narrative into something that can't work. Either way, it's a genre many enjoy around the world in many forms both old and new. And it maybe a genre I myself will tackle, when I'm certain enough in my skills and broad enough in my knowledge of the world to make such a story work. Until then, I read, and enjoy...

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