Adventures in Cultural Consumption

Emile Zola, Germinal: The word to use to describe the book is 'cinematic,' though it is also highly inappropriate as a descriptor. It's cinematic in the sense that the book, unlike most of Zola's, consists of several large action-oriented set-pieces. Moreover, the action is written with particular attention to physical movement and the continual heightening of the emotional stakes. At every moment when there should be some kind of rest, the story picks up intensity. It spends several hundred pages right at the edge of naturalism and melodrama, in the way modern action movies do--if you are committed to the story, it can be gripping, but stand too far outside the emotion and it borders on camp. Even fishing the novel was something of an accident: I had approximately 80 pages left that was to be divided up between two days, but I couldn't leave in the middle of the action.

But the novel is anti-cinematic, as well, in a way that's illuminating of the problems with action-oriented movies. Germinal has constant action, but the action is slow. Movies tend to go quickly, the better to shock and astound and keep you watching. Novels plod along one word at a time. The effect is liberating: it's hard to watch Lord of the Rings or a comic book movie and not feel as though you're being assaulted in ever faster and harder waves. Germinal is constantly ratcheting the tension down: the mob scene includes a number of reflections on what the mob is doing that manage to capture its aimlessness as well as its violence. When three of the main characters are trapped underground, they repeatedly think that time is progressing more quickly than it actually is: they think it's been 18 hours when it's been three days, they think it's been not quite three days when it's been six, etc--action is being cut by boredom. Most unusual of all, the narrative occasionally abandons the main characters altogether, establishing instead the scene as a whole. The reader has to remember what is at stake, and the author is free to use those pauses to do other, more interesting work.

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