Ballantine, 1997, 368 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-42251-1
What is a “structural problem” in the context of a book review? What is “structure”, anyway? Is it easily identifiable? Are you even interested? And why am I asking these questions at the beginning of my review of Lorenzo Carvaterra’s Apaches?
Definitions first: I’d argue that “structure” is the way the story is put together. It’s neither the premise nor the writing. It’s akin to plotting, but not quite, as you can tell a same story in many ways. Structure is how the author makes a transition from the overall story he’s trying to tell to the mechanics of how to tell it. For instance, the premise might be “farmboy takes over as king”, structure might be “farmboy learns about the world, makes friends, raises an army, attacks the castle and kills the king” while plotting might be the various general events that fill in the structure: “he makes friends by paying them beers and triumphing at a snooker contest”.
Structural problems arise when, for a reason or another, something prevents the story from being told in a satisfying fashion. This, obviously, is all in the reviewer’s mind. But consider: the movie PEARL HARBOUR puts its most impressive sequence -the attack on Pearl Harbour- right in the middle of the film, padding it on each side by an hour of miscellaneous stuff. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to put it at the very end of the film, during which all the conflicts are resolved at the highest moment of dramatic tension? Or, more interestingly, begin the film with the attack and end it after the battle of Midway, when Americans win a sizeable victory over Japanese forces? That is a structural problem.
On a straight paragraph-to-paragraph level, Lorenzo Carvaterra’s Apaches is a pretty good read. Heck, even in chapter-to-chapter, it’s sufficiently interesting. He writes clear prose, adequate characters and isn’t afraid to be truly nasty when depicting evil characters. (Two stomach-turning words will suffice: Dead babies) In fact, rip out the first half of Apaches, and you have a fair thriller.
The structural problem comes up when you consider the first half of the book. Not the first chapter, mind you, an effectively heart-wrenching depiction of a kidnapping. But right after, as “Book one” of Apaches (chapter 1-6, P.7-132) introduces, chapter after chapter, the six main protagonists of the novel. While the chapter-stories are interesting, they’re either too long or to concentrated at the start of the novel at a point where the reader is justifiably asking himself why he should read on.
There are ways of handling the same material more carefully. In Icon, Frederick Forsyth introduces his main protagonist in the story only midway through. However, the first half of the book interleaves the main plot and the protagonist’s personal history in such a fashion that the protagonist’s backstory is completed just as he enters the stage. That’s good structure and that’s what should have been done here, introducing one character at a time along with their backstories.
Okay, I’ll admit it; it’s not such a big problem. You can get past it and enjoy Apaches as what it is, a story of hurt ex-cops banding together to rid the world of an evil criminal, shoot’em-up style.
A word of caution, though: Apaches is one mean book. Each of the protagonists has a violent tale to tell. The villains are truly completely evil. Even our heroes, once they get their mandate to get rid of the scums, are uncomfortably closer to vigilante justice than to law and order. Apaches does some mileage out of an examination of the line between good and bad, righteousness and revenge. Almost by definition it can’t be a pleasant tale. The high body count doesn’t really help.
But in the end, chances are that you won’t be able to shake off the feeling that somehow, this could have been an easier, a more powerful tale. That’s when abstract notions such as “structural problems” suddenly become compelling.