If you’re an aspiring writer you know all about plot and subplot. Plot gives us the spine of the story, and subplots add depth, but where do plot and subplot take root? In theme. What is theme? Theme is what a story has to say about the timeless truths and facets of the human condition. With literary fiction, themes and their associated subplots tend to weave through the story like threads—sometimes visible, at other times invisible—often diffuse and elusive, crisscrossing like a spider’s web. Tweak one thread and reverberations travel down the others. At the end of the story, some of these threads will come together and “add up,” while others may remain loose, raising questions, and leaving behind ambiguity.
In his novel Disgrace, Nobel Prize-winning author, J.M. Coetzee, sends his protagonist, David Lurie, to Hell and back in a mere 220 pages. Lurie confronts issues as disparate as race relations in post-apartheid South Africa, embracing one’s nature, standing up for one’s principles at the risk of falling from grace, the entitlement of a long-suppressed people, rape and its motives, paying for the sins of the fathers, and others. Lurie triumphs in the end, but his triumph is partial and his happiness tentative, much like life in the real world.
In genre fiction, theme is often more broad and familiar—war is hell, crime doesn’t pay, love will find a way. Genre fiction with depth, however, will deliver story and theme that transcends genre. The themes of Mystic River are as varied, diffuse and integrated as those found in many literary novels. Karma—what goes around comes around—is the most obvious. Jimmy Marcus kills a man. (Spoiler Alert) Years later, the man’s son kills Jimmy’s daughter in a random act of violence. The three main characters—Jimmy, Dave Boyle, Sean Divine—are trying to run from who they are only to realize they can’t outrun the past. The elephant in the room that everyone sees and no one wants to acknowledge applies to Dave Boyle who, after his abduction and sexual assault as a child, is thought of as “damaged.” Gentrification—out with the old, in with the new—refers to East Buckingham but also serves as a metaphor for Boyle.
Scott Turow’s legal thriller Presumed Innocent is another example of genre fiction that presents multiple layers of theme and story, and therefore transcends genre. Themes that weave their way through Turow’s novel include betrayal, deceit, punishment, redemption; power and corruption; the elusive nature of the truth; the inadequacies of the law; and the capacity for evil that lurks in all of us.
In Presumed Innocent, temptation emerges as one of the prominent themes. Indeed, one could argue that temptation is the original character flaw and the oldest of the timeless truths. In the story, temptation takes many forms: a middle-aged man’s desire for a beautiful woman, a judge’s acceptance of bribes, an attorney’s willingness to manipulate the system for personal gain.
During his first year in law school, Turow came to believe that “under the right circumstances, everyone has the capacity for evil. Everyone is corruptible; power and hierarchy condition everyone’s behavior to one extent or another” (Lundy, Derek. Scott Turow: Meeting the Enemy. Toronto: ECW Press, 1995: 68). As a U.S. attorney he concluded that “there are no heroes or villains; everyone has a nasty side” (68). His experience as a prosecutor taught him that “the law can only go so far in resolving our conflicts and regulating what we can do. The criminal justice system is supposed to be a truth-finding device, but it is an awkward one at best” (68). Indeed, in his novel nearly everyone is guilty of something, and the system does an inadequate job of bringing the truth to light.
Turow’s insight into the law, and his views on the human condition are the themes of Presumed Innocent, and they are as diffuse, integrated and elusive as those that weave their way through Disgrace or Mystic River. Through his story, Turow has revealed his knowledge and opinions to us and has invited us to share in that knowledge and form opinions of our own. This gives the story depth and meaning, which urges us to think about it, discuss it with others and, perhaps, reread it. In short, the story continues to resonate after the book is completed, and isn’t that the ultimate goal of any author? And as readers, aren’t these the kinds of books we want on our shelves?