Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Them Bones

Today I’m reviewing Seth Greenland’s The Bones by way of a literary technique.

In grad school a professor of mine was big on what he called a plot shift for any work over 20 pages. Basically, it’s a technique to shake things up a bit plot-wise, some kind of incident to throw your characters off balance and bring in more conflict when things are running just a little too smoothly. It can be a big thing like a car crash that hospitalizes one of the characters, or perhaps something they were expecting yet counting on, like a job promtion, doesn't come through.

My professor described it in a pretty clear way. If a plot is like a small stream, a plot shift is like a large rock that you toss right in its way. Some smaller rocks will briefly divert the stream, but it will eventually work its way back to its original course. A larger, more dramatic rock can completely divert the flow and take that stream places no one could have predicted.

How does this relate to The Bones exactly? Well, Greenland does an extraordinarily good job with a big honker of a plot shift. You might say he tossed a mountain in the way of his plot-stream. But I need to tell you about the story a bit so you know what the hell I’m talking about.

The Bones is primarily a novel about Frank Bones, bad boy comedian extraordinaire. His smart, in your face and downright insulting style of stand-up comedy has given him a relatively successful career on the comedy club circuit. But whether due to his severe bad-boy image or just a case of bad luck the Bones has never managed to make that career shift into mainstream entertainment through a popular sitcom or movie. As if by a miracle, he's offered his own sitcom at a new television network that can grant him this elusive shot at the big time. The catch is that they want Frank to play an Eskimo, an Eskimo sent on wild, cartoony adventures riding a giant walrus across the frozen tundra. It's obvious Greenland knows the world of television and comedy well, and he takes every opportunity to satirize the glitz and glam of Hollywood. From empty-headed pretty boys to social climbing wives, he populates this world with over the top characters that make you both laugh and think. Even the Bones, womanizing, drug using jerk that he is, comes off surprisingly likable through the quick wit and patter he brings to every scene.

In a last ditched effort Bones calls Lloyd Melnick, an old acquaintance who just came off a very successful run as a writer on the massive hit The Fleishman Show. Bones pitches Melnick the idea of a show based on himself, using his own wild and crazy life as a backdrop for a cutting-edge sitcom. If Lloyd joins in with Bones, the show would get a free pass and lead Bones to every dream of success he's ever had. But Lloyd is burned out on the industry and holds secret desires to finally write that novel he's put off for so long. He turns the Bones down.

Melnick's refusal sends Bones spiraling out of control. After crashing his yellow Hummer into Melnick's house, Bones's anger pushes him ever more deeply into the opiates of narcotics and the Home Shopping Channel. After a few months time, Bones pulls himself out of this morass of self pity and takes his act on the road again, this time to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Here comes the mountain.

After his act at the Tulsa club, Bones has a very vocal and public argument over money with the club’s owner. Bones takes himself back to his hotel and drinks himself to sleep. The city’s Sheriff, fingering him as the prime suspect in the club owner’s murder wakes him up in the morning.

The whole scene turns into a media-blitz. Entertainment and regular news sources fill up the city, hoping to catch an interview of this bad boy comic who may have just killed someone. Bones suddenly finds himself on the cover of Rolling Stones, his albums start sell like hotcakes and offers start poring in for film and television adaptations for his story. Melnick catches word of the story and jets out to Tulsa, hoping to make use of the Bones’s story for a novel or long work of non-fiction. The tale spins out even further, involving corrupt cops, running the border into Mexico, and yes, even a love story.

Now about that mountain.

Up to the point of sending Bones to Tulsa and involving him in this murder the plot moves on a pretty straight line. Although a fun satire, there are no real surprises and no unusual pressures on the characters to make them change. But this mountain, this plot shift, pushes both Melnick and Bones to learn at least a little something about themselves. What starts out as a simply funny and exciting story about dreams and desires transforms into a very moving story about two men finally growing up.


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