In his various books on writing, Orson Scott Card says the core of a story is usually one of four things: Character, Question, Setting or Plot. Both CRAZY RICH ASIANS and AIRPORT, which I read earlier this month, strike me as examples of books where the setting is the essence of the story.
In a setting story, we start with our entry into the world — the milieu of the super-rich of Singapore in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, a bustling international U.S. airport in Arthur Hailey’s Airport. We end when we leave. The story doesn’t focus so much on the character arcs or the plot as telling us about the setting: how things work, why things happen the way they do, what’s going on behind the scenes. Both books are info-dumpy; both books wander away from the main characters and the main plot to show us the setting. That would be flaws if the plot or the protagonists’ character arcs were the center of the story, but they aren’t.
In Crazy Rich Asians, the nominal plot is a traditional romance one: can a poor-but-honest girl (Rachel, an economics professor) convince her boyfriend’s (Nick) fabulously wealth family that she’s not a gold-digger? Can she cope when jealous exes start sharpening their knives and setting out to humiliate her? The book starts when the relationship intersects Nick’s world: some of his Singapore friends spot the couple together, snap some photos and the gossip mill soon gets word to his mother, Eleanor. She despises American born Chinese, and would much sooner Nick marry a girl from a good, Singapore family.
The heart of the book, though, is the setting. Kwan introduces us to Singapore culture: slang, food, neighborhoods, customs and schools, which I found interesting (it’s not a place I know much about). And we get the time-honored fictional fixation of OMG, Look How Rich These People Are (you can find the same thing in The Count of Monte Cristo). Characters constantly drop designer names. We get detailed descriptions of their trips to Paris, or rides on jets bigger than Air Force One, spectacular jewelry massive yachts, insanely over-the-top bachelor/bachelorette events, huge mansions, someone bringing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to sing at their wedding … This is the kind of thing that normally bores me to tears, but the Singapore setting helped keep it interesting for 200-300 pages. Unfortunately the novel is 500 pages and it wound up being a slog.
The book ends when Rachel and Nick make it through the family gauntlet and leave Singapore. It’s also another info-dump as we learn a shit-ton about Rachel’s paternal family in mainland China (setting up Book Two, China Rich Girlfriend).
Airport starts with Lincoln Airport struggling to cope with a massive snowfall. Planes are delayed, passengers are pissy, everyone’s under stress. We soon meet Mel, the chief of operations, who alongside his right hand, Tanya, is struggling to deal with closed runways, a plane that’s frozen in place, and angry complaints from a nearby neighborhood about planes overhead (airspace is to crowded to stay away). Mel’s personal arc — his marriage is collapsing, he and Tanya are contemplating an affair — plays a role in the book, as does his brother Kevin (an air-traffic controller contemplating suicide due to stress) and Mel’s brother-in-law Vern (having an affair with a stewardess). But these are just the spine on which Hailey hangs the meat of the book, how airports and airlines work.
We get details of staff burnout, stewardesses slipping miniature drink bottles into their purse to stock their bars at home, how airlines handle pregnant stewardesses (back in the 1960s when this came out, they’d pay for the maternity care, then arrange an adoption), how you clear a snowy runway, conflicts between homeowners and nearby airports, the financial struggle to keep the airport equal to the boom in air travel, a discussion of airports of the future (that part didn’t age well), how stowaways sneak on board. Even the characters come with info-dump backstories that tell us more than we need to know — it’s like they’re another piece of equipment at the airport. The ending is Mel and Tanya leaving for dinner at her apartment while the snow finally eases up.
This worked better for me than Crazy Rich Asians because while the details did get to be more than I wanted to know, the various subplots do keep things moving a little faster. And it is an interesting time capsule back to the days when cockpits and business meetings were full of tobacco smoke, airlines serve high-quality delicious meals to passengers, abortion is talked about in whispers and someone can walk right onto a plane to give a passenger an item they forgot when they packed (there’s also a discussion about whether it’s time to tell passengers not to bring guns on board).
#SFWApro. Covers by Joan Wong (top) and Mimi Bark (bottom), all rights remain with current holders.