My wife and I watched the first half of a movie the other night: Small Crimes, which is streaming on Netflix. It's based on a book by Dave Zeltserman which gets mostly rave reviews on Goodreads. (Usually with Goodreads, I find, you have to ignore half the positive reviews in order to get a real balance of views on a book, but that's by the by.)
So it sounds like the book is worth reading, if you're into noir, and unreliable narrators, and subtle characterisation. The movie has a reasonable amount of noir, but beyond that - and you have to bear in mind I only watched half of it - it treats its viewer very badly. How so? By giving him or her so few clues as to what's going on that the viewer can barely keep up.
An ex-cop, Joe Denton, who's just leaving gaol at the start, seems a bit hard done by. In the opening scene a prison chaplain empathises with him, and you think: Okay, let's hope it goes well out there for him. But then there's a scene with a detective who abuses him verbally, before some other guy (a D.A, we eventually figure out) walks in and seems to be on Joe's side. Except that in the next scene it's the cop who's on his side - though with some provisos - and in a later scene the DA not only turns out to be one of his victims from the past, but is definitely not on his side.
And then there's a scene where the main character goes to visit an old Mafia guy who's on his deathbed. After some pleasantries, Joe tries to suffocate him - as you do - until interrupted by the old man's nurse. And then not long after he's chatting with the nurse in a coffee bar - until some stranger comes along and spits in his food. No explanations are given for any of this, or why he gets beaten up outside the old man's house, or why a young girl picks him up and traps him into yet another beating.
What's this got to do with an author losing his reader? I'm guessing that Zeltserman made a better fist of explaining things in his book. I hope so. Although many authors currently take the line that not introducing anyone in a story is a great idea (movies do it too), and that the reader should expect the book to be like a cryptic crossword, where nothing makes sense until twenty pages in. If you're lucky.
I enjoy cryptic crosswords, frustrating as they can be. I don't mind books where I have to figure some things out. But I do get a bit peeved when the author is so concerned to hide information that you have to read and read...and read...before you understand who's doing what, when and why.
Last year I read I'm Thinking of Ending Things. By the time I had finished it (which was an achievement in itself), I was wishing the author had thought of ending the book long before he published it. I wrote on Goodreads at the time:
I thought at first maybe
I'd been a bit dense about the thriller aspect of this book, until I had a look
at the reviews on Goodreads to see what other people thought. The majority
thought it was rubbish...not even well-written rubbish. The story has long sagging
bits where nothing is really happening. It attempts to make us feel scared and
creeped out but pretty much fails because what the main character does is so
stupid you can't believe she'd do it. The other character isn't any better.
There are odd bit-players floating in and out giving strange warnings, and
probably if I went back and re-read it some of these might make sense. Worse,
by 3/4 of the way through you've guessed what's going on, pretty much (at least
as far as it's possible to tell what the heck is going on), and from then on
it's a matter of the author trying to maintain a scary story that hasn't really
ever been scary in the first place.
It was fine that the author in this case hid a major plot point from us; that was meant to be the surprise. But pages with someone else's voice on them tossed in at random and chapters in which the woman narrator rambles on about stuff we're not even sure happened or is happening just makes the reader tired. Especially when you have to keep asking Why, Why, Why?
I understand perfectly that an author has to reveal the secrets behind the story bit by bit, and that this gives the readers surprises and a reason for wanting to read on. This is a major part of structuring a story. But making everything incomprehensible is testing your reader's endurance and patience to no good end, as far as I can see.
I review quite a few books in a year, and increasingly I'm refusing to read past a certain point in the book if I have no idea what's going on and if the author doesn't seem to want to tell me. I don't mean after a chapter, but after fifty or a hundred pages. Basically by that time he or she has had their chance. If they want to keep making it difficult for me, it's very probable I won't be reading any more of their books. Which could be a pity.
So, in summary: if you want to grip your reader's attention - and keep on gripping it - let them have enough information early on to know who's who, and where and when things are set and something of what this story is going to be about. This doesn't mean going back to the old approach of laying everything out as though the reader was some dolt - exposition is best scattered throughout the story - but it does mean offering your reader a chance to get involved, because they have some idea of what's at stake in the story.