It’s been a while since I last reflected on my progress with the novel, so I thought I’d check in. It’s a very different process, novel writing, from even writing long sequential poems with an implied narrative, which I’ve done before. That’s what I’ve concluded, but maybe it shouldn’t be. What makes the writing of fiction tedious for me (and what makes even reading fiction tedious for me) are those parts of narrative which are merely functional, that is, the parts which link, say, one scene to another, or carry a character from one place to another. This is where there is the highest degrees of artificiality, and I find myself rolling my eyes when I read it but more especially when I write it. And yet I appreciate, too, the reader’ predicament, when she is forced to stop and ask, “Wait? Where are we now?”
It’s for this reason that I find a novel like As I Lay Dying so wonderful, and I’ve always been partial to Pessoa’s Book of Disquietude. Even Knausgaard, who in many ways, especially compared to the two writers just mentioned, is a writer of traditional narrative, avoids its effects. Mostly, he does this by inviting us to focus on personality rather than story. But story can be intoxicating. The Road and Disgrace, for instance, are examples of novels whose narratives are very traditional but also compelling. These are the kinds of books which, when you read them, you don’t want to put them down, and not because they are curiosities, but because they are, well, good tales. We root for the characters. We feel for them. The risk, then, of experimentation is, if it’s not done well, this doesn’t happen. Our intellects may be engaged, but what about our hearts?
Voice, and therefore personality–because what is voice but a personality made manifest in language, that is, diction and syntax, but also intention, attitude–can engage our hearts, but how far is the question. Berryman’s Dream Songs, which I’ve always read as a long dramatic poem, rather than a narrative one, fails to engage most of it’s readers beyond the effects of voice. But what an interesting array of dictions and syntaxes! Still, the poem tries us, and this leads people to call it a failure. (I’m thinking particularly of one young person at AWP a few years back who announced to the audience during the Q&A that Dreams Songs was a failure. It was this that led me to propose a panel the next year on the long poem.) Obviously, Berryman’s masterpiece is a poem, a long poem, but it’s important to remember that his best work was influenced by Bellow’s The Adventure’s of Augie March. What attracted Berryman to the novel was, among other things, personality, not story.
So what is story? I keep thinking about this. When I teach intro classes in literature, we talk about the elements of fiction, plot, image, character, setting, etc. These, we say, are what make the story. Plot alone, I have to point out more often than not, isn’t story. What happens is not as important as to whom it all happens. But is this true? Can you divorce plot from it’s other elements and still make a compelling novel. I mention As I Lay Dying above as an example of a novel which avoids the pitfalls of traditional narrative, but how can we separate what happens, that is, plot, from the book’s overall effect? It can’t be done. The narrative eye must focus on these people during this specific time, doing these precise things. The plot runs through the spine of the tale, holding all these voices together, changing them even. Cash is made different from what happens, even if what happens happened off stage. So too with the other characters. So too with all characters.
I’m writing all this because I’m at the point in the writing of the novel, where I have to begin to be concerned with some of these questions. I’ve been writing the scenes out of order, attacking whichever parts interests me at the time, and finding my way to the story that way. In some ways, I’ve done this because my aim is to make it possible for readers to open the book at any page and read without feeling like they’ve missed too much. I want the book to be a personality. When we meet a person, we don’t have the luxury to know everything about her beginning to end, and I don’t think we’d want to. Even our children live a mysterious life floating in the womb wondered by who knows which dreams, and our very DNA composes so much of who we are that starting from the beginning, as a strategy, can only highlight how artificial such a strategy is. No. All stories must, of necessity, start in the middle of things. We are always in the middle of things.