I learned what the word “palimpsest” means because I worked in a video store in the eighties and watched a lot of movies and paid a lot of attention to the opening credits… like a lot a lot. I consider this time spent at a video store in the pre-Internet era as my introduction to what librarians do. I used my brain for stuff that people with phones and access to IMDb can do with much less energy today. I know that sounds like a bizarre reason to know what palimpsest means. So let me explain: If you don’t know, a palimpsest is “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing, but of which traces remain.” The film The Name of the Rose starring Christian Slater and Sean Connery contains in its opening the following credit: “a palimpsest of the novel by Umberto Eco.” …and this was my first introduction to the idea that plots and what a book is “about” are sometimes very different things… because the way this credit was written distances the movie from the work on which it is based. The movie is just the plot of the book, while the book itself is a “novel of ideas” and contains all sorts of thematic content that simply wouldn’t have translated to a movie. So they left that stuff out, but they also didn’t fully capture the book. The word “palimpsest” was not in my teenage vocabulary when I first saw The Name of the Rose, but I saw that credit, used a dictionary (it was the late eighties, that’s how we rolled back then) and made up my mind to read the book, because, TBH the movie was kind of “meh.” …to be super honest, I was probably watching for the Christian Slater-based content (I LOVED Heathers and was probably going back to watch all his movies when I saw this one).
Recently I read a book that also illustrates this point.
Imagine a book. Two ex-cons, who, personality-wise, are polar opposites, find themselves in a situation where they need to band together to track down a bad guy. So they do. Violence and mayhem ensue. Ultimately, they solve their problem with heavy reliance on gun play, explosions, and witty banter. Simple, straightforward, action-packed. Absolutely guaranteed to make an amazing film.
Now imagine a book. Two fathers of sons who have recently been murdered. The sons were married to each other. One white, one black. The fathers skew towards machismo and did not have great relationships with their sons while they were alive because, homophobia. Also, it’s the same book as the one described in the last paragraph. The development of the characters through the arc of the narrative comes from the journey they are on to be better dads to their sons than they were in life.
And the reason I think about these two stories together is Razorblade Tears (which is the name of this book) by SA Crosby is already in development at Paramount for movie adaptation… and how much of the ABOUTNESS of the book will translate? Will it capture the nuanced subtext that interrogates toxic masculinity, homophobia, and structural racism, or will it just be violence and mayhem… because in order to fully capture the novel it has to do BOTH of those things.
How I describe this book to people depends on the the kind of reader they are. With Razorblade Tears in particular, I know readers who would ONLY pick it up if I explained the action-driven plot. I also know readers who actually can be a bit a bit dismissive of highly plot-driven books, but who would definitely enjoy it if I explained the thematic content. Both types of readers will enjoy this book. It’s a matter of what you “come for” and what you “stay for,” because regardless of why one picks up Razorblade Tears, there is no question it’s very entertaining.
When I started thinking about these two books, I realized that there are a lot of books that work on multiple layers… and I have a post brewing about Nancy Pearl’s Four Doorways into Reading (but more about that later). For now, there are lots of novels that can be read on multiple levels and I built a list of books that can be read for plot OR for ideas OR for both. Check one out today here!