A little-known, twice-divorced lawyer who works out of his car defends a real-estate agent accused of murder and learns life lessons in L.A. in Michael Connelly's "legal thriller" The Lincoln Lawyer.
Who's Afraid of Punctuation?
From the little I've read, contemporary novels seem to work with a limited punctual pallette. It's mostly commas and periods, with quotation marks for marking off speech, to which all question marks are confined, and the occasional apostrophe-in-contraction. Colons, semi-colons, dashes, and parentheses are slowly dying off. In fashion, however, are periods that appear to want to take the rightful place of every dot, tick, and line they can lay their little one-dimensional hands on, as well as all the resulting sentence fragments.
Take this punctuation and fragment phenomenon into account, as well as an increasing reliance on short, simple words and sentences, and novels threaten to become screenplays. They are something more of elaborate plans than pieces of writing meant to be consumed for pleasure's or art's sake. Even the most hardened screenwriters will often distinguish between the art of writing and the craft of screenwriting. But, with less and less money in writing and more and more money in screenwriting, perhaps polymedia writers like Michael Crichton, Michael Connelly and Dan Brown are simply adapting to a more important market; instead of writing a novel and then slaving to adapt it into a screenplay, they're giving everyone a break and simply adapting non-existent screenplays into novels.
“Thanks, Danny boy!” Akiva Goldsman.
The Lincoln Lawyer is a great example of this type of screenplay-novel. It comes equipped with a standard plot that has all the right twists and turns, and at the right times, a manageable set of core characters, and some easily-spotted themes that will be fun to agree on for the ride home. As a piece of writing, it is an extreme version of anti-punctuation and — though I very much hope not — a sign of books to come.
I ♥ Semicolons
The semicolon is my favourite piece of punctuation; I tend to mis-use and abuse it. In Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer, the semicolon appears an anemic three times. The novel is 528 pages long; this review is — up to these dashes — about a page long. There are now as many semicolons in this review as there are in Connelly's novel.
Let's read some books and do some math. Here's a list of words per semicolon in a selection of well-known novels:
- 42333 – The Lincoln Lawyer (Connelly)
- 4900 – Fight Club (Palahniuk)
- 3711 – The Da Vinci Code (Brown)
- 2534 – Requiem for a Dream (Selby)
- 1881 – Illium (Simmons)
- 1224 – The Godfather (Puzo)
- 1109 – Childhood's End (Clarke)
- 1060 – Chronicles of Pern (McCaffrey)
- 1054 – For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)
- 748 – Snow Crash (Stephenson)
- 747 – Neuromancer (Gibson)
- 686 – The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
- 638 – Carrie (King)
- 554 – Contact (Sagan)
- 539 – Animal Farm (Orwell)
- 515 – Middlesex (Eugenides)
- 426 – To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
- 323 – White Teeth (Smith)
- 233 – Sons and Lovers (Lawrence)
- 214 – The Adventures of Augie March (Bellow)
- 184 – The Fountainhead (Rand)
- 182 – A Scanner Darkly (Dick)
- 166 – Absalom, Absalom! (Faulkner)
- 142 – Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)
- 135 – On the Road (Kerouac)
- 71 – Huckleberry Finn (Twain)
- 69 – Orlando (Woolf)
- 63 – Midnight's Children (Rushdie)
Please jump to your own conclusions. My conclusions: The Lincoln Lawyer has a severe semicolon deficiency, even when compared with other popular novels like The Da Vinci Code and Fight Club; generally, newer and genre novels use fewer semicolons than older ones; the average semicolon is used every 892 words, which, strangely, fits right into the big gap between Hemingway and Stephenson; Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, and Salman Rushdie like semicolons even more than I do.
Perhaps this sums it up best: the first page of John Fowles' The Magus contains as many semicolons as all the pages of The Lincoln Lawyer.
Perhaps this sums it up even better: the sentence “Levin nodded.” appears six times in Connelly's novel, and the sentence “I shook my head.” sixteen times.
I Semi-♥ Colons
If you're keeping track, you've read four colons up to now. In other words, you're halfway through The Lincoln Lawyer. And while eight is almost three times better than three, it's still fanatically low (Snow Crash, a novel with a middling number of semicolons, has 269 colons, for example, and even The Da Vinci Code has more than 60).
However, the funnest bit about Connelly's writing is that he sometimes refrains from using a colon or semicolon or dash and just sticks periods into spots that periods shouldn't be in. I'm sure he means well — to make the writing choppier and more reminiscent of hard-boiled detective stories — but it's more annoying than endearing, and really doesn't make much sense in a novel that takes pains to hide its writing in favour of exposing its plot. A film analogy: a Classical Hollywood melodrama with swish pans and jump cuts.
Some fragmented examples:
I planned to tell him to continue to dig into Dwayne Jeffery Corliss. To hold nothing back.
There is no client as scary as an innocent man. And no client as scarring.
Very few had the number. No clients and no other lawyers except for one.
The caller was that one other lawyer with the number. Maggie McPherson.
The periods are used for dramatic effect — to stall the reader and hit him or her with some more stuff once he or she thinks the sentence is over — but I think these examples would be better suited for a dash, a semicolon, a colon, and a colon, respectively.
Minton had probably schooled her on the most important aspect of testifying: don't get trapped in a lie.
Look, ma, a real, live colon!
While reading The Lincoln Lawyer, I kept thinking about how much power editors have over works that are eventually released under the names of sole authors; the novel was so completely un-styled, liposuct'ed, template-plotted, and made-to-pander (stereotypes and counter-stereotypes give the book a universal political appeal) that I couldn't help wondering if the first draft looked anything remotely like the lifeless thing I held in my hands for several consecutive nights.
“What's a title, Mick?”
One of the first techniques I noticed was the way in which Connelly and his editors snuck explanations (of legal and medical jargon, as well as normal words) into the narrative.
For example, instead of using footnotes, like a Jules Verne novel, information in The Lincoln Lawyer is sometimes spliced into conversations via a third character, who asks questions the reader would like to ask, such as “what's a rape kit,” and which one of the other two characters then answers in a clear and concise way, such as: “It's a hospital procedure where bodily fluids, hair and fibers are collected from the body of a rape victim.”
Another common way of patronizing the reader is through in-text explanations. In this example, Connelly describes two wounds:
The description for wound number one read: Superficial puncture on the lower right neck with ante-mortem histamine levels, indicative of coercive wound.
The description for wound number two read: Superficial puncture on the lower left neck with ante-mortem histamine levels, indicative of coercive wound. This puncture measures 1 cm larger than wound No. 1.
And then, in the next paragraph, translates the big words into little ones, for us simple folk:
The descriptions meant the wounds had been inflicted while Martha Renteria was still alive. And that was likely why they had been the first wounds listed and described. The examiner had suggested it was likely that the wounds resulted from a knife being held to the victim's neck in a coercive manner. It was the killer's method of controlling her.
Of these four sentences, only the second actually introduces something new. The first sentence explains what ante-mortem means, the third tells us that a coercive wound is a coercive wound, and the last makes sure we dumb-dumbs know what coercion is. Seventy-five percent of the time, I don't think Connelly thinks too highly of his readers.
The Lincoln Lawyer is written in the first person. Everything the main character knows about the novel's murder case, the reader knows. With that, I'll let the last example mock itself:
"Might I suggest an agreement," he said calmly. "At the end of this trial I walk out of the courtroom a free man. I continue to maintain my freedom, and in exchange for this, the gun never falls into, shall we say, the wrong hands."
Meaning Lankford and Sobel.
This Space For Rent
Another neat aspect of The Lincoln Lawyer is its status as a commercial novel — in two ways: one that is meant to make bestseller lists, and a one that advertises other products. Some of the these advertisements are perhaps justified because words like “googled,” “PowerPoint,” and “iPod” have come to mean “searched for on the Internet,” “presentation,” and “MP3 player” in the same way that “Kleenex” and “Walkman” are now synonymous with “tissue” and “portable cassette player.” Other instances are, however, harder to excuse:
I loaded the CD into the Bose player on the night table and soon the rhythmic beat of "God Bless the Dead" started to play.
And soon I was riding in the back of a Grand Marquis, thinking that I had made the right choice when I had gone with the Lincoln.
On the floor between the pickup and a fully equipped tool bench was a large cardboard box that said SONY on it. It was long and thin. I looked closer and saw it was a box for a fifty-inch plasma TV.
I don't know if companies actually pay publishers to paste their names into novels — I doubt it — but here they are! Of course, none of these details make a difference in the novel. So, why are they included? I'm sure Lincoln's not complaining; every time I write "The Lincoln Lawyer," I advertise for them, too.
When, midway through the book, a character at a Dodgers game criticizes the baseball stadium for being too commercial (“One of the lawyers, Roger Mills, surveyed the surfaces of the stadium and remarked that the place was more crowded with corporate logos than a NASCAR race car”), I chuckled and tried to understand who or what Connelly was making fun of: other novels, me, himself?
Critics: what are they good for?
Maybe it's foolish to look too deep into a novel whose fluffy purpose is just to entertain. Maybe novels should be judged on how much of what they set out to achieve, they achieve. If so, then if a novel like The Lincoln Lawyer doesn't measure up to another, better novel, maybe comparing them is a fool's job. After all, a steamy romance can be “good” (as far as airport paperbacks go) and a book by Joseph Conrad can be “bad” (as far as Joseph Conrad novels go), but apples and oranges. Of course, when I read critics who raise my expectations and praise a “good” book for being good, I believe the bar has been taken away, and all's fair…
According to the popular website Metacritic, which tracks and averages established critics' ratings of — among other things — books, Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer has a rating of 86. This makes it the fourth-best reviewed novel published in 2005, and 14th best of the last three years. Assuming that Metacritic's system is not broken, the most prominent critics in North America believe that The Lincoln Lawyer is a better novel than William Vollman's Europe Central (85), Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore (79), and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (78). Maybe it's wiser to assume the system is broken.
In addition, Connelly's book doesn't have a single negative review! His other recent release, The Closers (81), has at least one dissenting voice: Entertainment Weekly. And, of the sixteen positive reviews for The Lincoln Lawyer, seven are in Metacritic's “Outstanding!” category.
Coincidentally, publications I no longer trust include: The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The L.A. Times, Publishers Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Globe and Mail, and USA Today.
There's nothing sillier than a book reviewer, and nothing as honest and irrefutable as a semicolon count. Next time, I'm leaving the surfboard at home and counting before I read.
Variations on a Theme
According to Vladimir Nabokov, there is a sentence in Lolita that took a month to write. This may seem crazy, but a sentence can be a complex collection and arrangement of words and punctuation. While there are many ways to transpose the same thought from one's head to one's paper, each way is always slightly different. Synonyms don't mean the exact same thing, rhythm changes, the order of words emphasizes some at the expense of others, and various dots in various places make varied stops and pauses. Here's an example of three sentences from The Lincoln Lawyer that could be tinkered with:
I got lucky there. It was not a stolen or unregistered gun. It belonged to Earl's father, so my ethical infraction was minor.
Let's use a semi-colon:
I got lucky there; it was not a stolen or unregistered gun. It belonged to Earl's father, so my ethical infraction was minor.
I got lucky there. It was not a stolen or unregistered gun; it belonged to Earl's father. So, my ethical infraction was minor.
Or a colon:
I got lucky there: it was not a stolen or unregistered gun. It belonged to Earl's father, so my ethical infraction was minor.
Or a colon and a semicolon:
I got lucky there: it was not a stolen or unregistered gun; it belonged to Earl's father. So, my ethical infraction was minor.
How about cutting four words, changing the order of two others, using a contraction, and squeezing out four sentences instead of three?
I got lucky. It wasn't unregistered or stolen. It belonged to Earl's father. My ethical infraction was minor.
Two sentences, a semicolon and a pair of dashes:
I got lucky; my ethical infraction was minor because the gun belonged to Earl's father — it wasn't unregistered or stolen.
Changing around the order of the information and using only one period:
The gun belonged to Earl's father — I got lucky there — so it wasn't stolen or unregistered; my ethical infraction was minor.
I got lucky because the gun belonged to Earl's father: it wasn't stolen or unregistered.
The construction of a paragraph is like the construction of a film: each sentence is a shot (length, type, angle); the order of words is mise-en-scene; and punctuation is editing. There is no right way to write a particular paragraph, but each variation in form changes the reader's perception of the the content.
There is ample evidence to convict, but the judge has thrown out the case; most of the evidence was gathered under false pretenses and the prosecution has repeatedly badgered the defendant.
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