A Serial Killer Explains The Distinctions Between Literary Terms.
Bildungsroman vs. Coming-of-Age Novel
I think the main difference has to do with federal sentencing guidelines. If the courts could try your protagonist as an adult for the actions he or she takes in the book, it’s a bildungsroman. Otherwise, it’s coming-of-age. The coming-of-age novel is vanishing as a genre, as sentencing laws make younger and younger protagonists eligible for federal prison time. These days, Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield would be sharing a cell with Popeye, the corncob rapist from Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Also, the main character of a coming-of-age narrative might go on a killing spree as a means of testing the limits of authority. The bildungsroman’s hero, by contrast, will carve up half a dozen bank tellers as a way of forming a new identity as an adult. It’s totally different.
In Medias Res vs. Nonlinear Narrative
OK, I’m going to tell you a secret. Ready? I was the Bolton Pitchforker. That was me, and the bastards never caught me. I took a couple years off between that and the more elegant forays into mutilation for which I became famous. It used to bother me that nobody understood my artistic development. And when people did talk about the pitchfork thing, they missed the significance of me twisting the pitchfork from left to right, versus from right to left, depending on the victim. I had a whole complicated taxonomy that I’ve totally forgotten now. But anyway, everybody who writes about my crimes wants to start out talking about the gymnast mutilations, because they were kicky and glamorous. So after you talk about the mutilations, do you jump back to talk about the human hay bales, or do you just drop in that information here and there? It’s like the difference between a crime spree and a crime smattering. Just bear in mind how many people died to create a satisfying narrative arc, OK? OK.
Synecdoche vs. Metonymy
OK, so you’re collecting body parts from your victims. The question is, why are you collecting them? Say you had a piano teacher who terrorized you as a child. Maybe she locked you inside the piano for hours, until you were deaf in one ear from the horrible clanging of the little felt-covered hammers. So you decide to kill women piano teachers, and to keep a little lacquer box full of their index fingers. Is that synecdoche, because the index finger stands for the whole piano teacher? Or is it metonymy, because you’re keeping the fingers of women who remind you of your old teacher? I dunno. OK, look at it this way. If you’re gathering body parts because of their external symbolism—like the famous Memphis Ear-Snatcher, who only killed people whose left ears reminded him of the snails he loved with a doomed passion—then that’s definitely metonymy. But if you take a piece of every fashion designer, because Project Runway traumatized you, then that’s synecdoche. I think. The main thing is, don’t collect body parts for no good reason, because that’s just dumb. I have to confess something. During my mutilation phase, I had to have a toe from everyone I killed. Why? I don’t know. I figured I would know what to do with them when I had enough of them. It’s actually kind of embarrassing, but one day I just sat down with this pile of toes and suddenly felt like the world’s biggest asshole. I mean, what are you going to do with a dozen toes? Make a toe menorah or something? I don’t know. They weren’t even the same kind of toe, or one of each. I was keeping them frozen, so they had a dusting of freezer burn on them, and they looked sort of like off-season strawberries. I realized there was no great art project waiting to come out of these toes. It was just the wrong medium or something. I ended up having to go out to the backyard and bury them all, and then of course my dog dug them all up a week later. I felt like such a dork reburying all those toes.
Stream of Consciousness vs. Unreliable Narrator
The star witness at my second trial had no credibility whatsoever. For one thing, he was addicted to speedballs—which, admittedly, I’d gotten him hooked on during the three months I kept him chained in my basement. And there was the sensory deprivation, interspersed with whispering snatches of Flaubert in his ear, or the faked sounds of a tea party or a rescue. The truth is, you can turn almost anyone into an unreliable narrator. It just takes a certain persistence. It’s much, much harder to make someone stream of consciousness. I think most people think progressively, rather than in a stream. I know that when I’m thinking something, part of me is already thinking of the next thing I’m going to think, and maybe what I’m going to think after that. I did experiment with tape-recording one or two of my victims. I put a microphone near them and got them to say whatever came into their head. The results were really disappointing, and I have to say it’s not true that pain breaks down inhibitions, or makes it any easier for people to free-associate. Even with some encouragement on my part, all I had on tape was an hour of “Please stop, it hurts.” What kind of monologue is that? Talk about stating the obvious. I would have thought you’d want your last words to be something challenging or thought-provoking. But no.
Anticlimax vs. Denouement
Think of your story as a congealing pile of nun meat. Things don’t always have tidy endings, unless there’s a really large incinerator nearby. Just accept that things will drag on and on after you thought they should be over. I think it was John Cougar Mellencamp who had that lyric about how life goes on long after the feeling has left your extremities. The best you can hope for is some kind of narrative explosion before things peter out. Put down some tarps first, is all I’m saying.
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