Friday, January 18, 2013

Regarding the Black Hole Principle

Once, when I was in high school, I was talking over books with my boyfriend at the time, and he introduced an idea that I've found useful ever since. His name, like my husband's, is Matt, which is a whole other story, but his nickname is/was Westy. One of my favorite books during my teenage years was Brave New World (which, by the way, is a whole different book if you're a teenager than if you're an adult). When I brought it up, Westy said oh, yeah, that one has a really fast black hole.

What? I asked.

The black hole is the page when you don't want to stop reading, he explained. Not the page where you get interested, or the page where you decide to read the whole book. The page where the book becomes the main thing you're thinking about when you're doing other stuff and want to be reading instead. The point where the book sucks you in.

Some books never have a black hole page at all, and for some books, the black hole is on page one. It's a super-subjective thing, because one person's hook is another person's sharp shiny death. But all of the spine-prickling terrific books I've read have had this quality, a point where I'm like, okay, you got me, I'll follow you anywhere.

I'm reminded of this concept all the damn time. In part because I read a lot, and I know a black hole when I see one, and in part because I'm a writer and want to know how to be sure I've written a black hole myself. I think about it a lot. I wonder how it applies to short stories. I wonder how some books (not many, thank goodness) manage to reverse polarity and make you drift right back out after the black hole snagged you a couple hundred pages earlier.

Usually when I start reading something, my brain's clicking away with half a dozen other functions, keeping track of time and blood sugar level and surroundings, interpreting what the writer's up to both in front of and behind the curtain, wondering how long it took the writer to write this and get published, how many trunk manuscripts he'd gathered before he wrote this, etc etc. Sometimes, though, those things drop away in whispers, one by one, and I'm totally absorbed in nothing else but what's on the page. This is a magic moment, getting lost in a book, and I mourn for people who "don't like to read", because nothing compares to it. Nothing.

Recently I started reading Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, and I had one of the clearest black-hole moments I've had in years. The prologue (? first chapter? it's numbered zero) is so beautifully written, such a perfect, perfect hook, that I want to photocopy it and send it to half the people I know with "ISN'T THIS AWESOME???" written in the margin. It was an absorbing few pages, and when I was finished I wanted to e-mail the writer all the clapping gifs I knew of.

Well done, sir. 

Citizen Cane Clapping GIF
As good as an opera with Susan Alexander. 

Toy Story 3 Ken Doll Clapping GIF
My kicky scarf grudgingly accepts that you write well. 

Another one I remember from recent years is the first chapter of The Passage, by Justin Cronin. I haven't read the entirety of that book, just the first couple of chapters and then skimmed some of the rest. I believe it might be one of those sad reversed-polarity books, because although the first chapter hooked me like a trout, the rest of it seemed too Crichton-y in structure for my taste. Good in its individual scenes, but then you have to reboot everything to switch back to the other cast of characters.

And then there was Pastoralia, the only book I've ever loved so much I was reading it at stoplights.

Anybody want to share their favorite black holes with the class?


Chad said...

Gotta do this quick because I have to be somewhere in 15m! :D

Christopher Moore's _A Dirty Job_ has a very quick one.

Joe Abercrombie's _Best Served Cold_ also does. I think both of these books have the black hole come in at the end of the first chapter.

Lev Grossman's _The Magicians_ took a long time to get to the black hole, but it was really strong once you got there.

_Ready Player One_ has been on my "to-read" list for at least a year, now I'll bump it up to the top on your recommendation!

Bad Pants said...

I know it wasn't your favorite, but "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" has about the best black hole I've seen on page 107 (paperback edition), followed by a follow up black hole that about wrecked two days of productivity for me in the last section (I want to say last chapter, but might have been slightly before that).

"American Gods" by Neil Gaiman has a string of baby black holes in the first third of the book. I describe a baby black hole as one of those moments where you actually go back and read a passage over again because you just want to feel the experience of reading it one-more-time before you go on.

What's funny is that a lot of my favorite books/series don't have individual black holes (love that analogy by the way), they just cause dimension shifting. I start the book in my universe, but by the end I'm completely enthralled inside another. Like I've been stolen off to a different dimension.

Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" and Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun" and Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" are examples. Nothing specific, no moment of enthrallment, just...transformation by the end.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Enthrallment, to me, is a different animal than the black hole. Heck, Georgette Heyer is enthralling, but there's no one moment in one of her books where I'm like "I want to spend all day doing this", it's just a gradual pleasure. I tend to occasionally identify something as not-quite a black hole, but almost, and then I'll read something else where I'm like "NO, there's nothing like this, it's an individual phenomenon with no not-quite about it."

By the way, after your feedback on Facebook, I went back and looked at HTLSIASFU, and page 107 was where I got exasperated for the last time and stopped reading the book. More proof that the black hole is way subjective.