Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Difference between a Novel and a Love Affair

As Casey Stengel said in another context, “You could look it up.”

You could consult your most recent book, which seems as though it might be an ideal source to consult for your question at hand.  What is a novel?  You have read enough of them and written enough of them to cause you to think you might know the answer.  You would also think that because of your current involvement with two of them, you might have some clues, something to get you through two, count ‘em, two dark nights of the soul attendant on the venture you know relates to that particular longform narrative known as a novel.

A novel is in its special way embarking on a love affair, where you are simultaneously imprinting and being imprinted upon.  You have learned to live with your quirks and visions, having reached a true with them and they with you.  But now you are sharing these with another individual, which is part of the plan all right, but you are used to them and she will see them.  If you are fortunate, these will touch her as endearing.  At any rate, they will not prevent the back and forth that is needed in love and in a novel.  Well, you have settled some of the definition.  A novel is your quirks and visions, not to forget your fantasies.  It is the creation of individuals who must not be you, who would cause the atmosphere to clog and back up if the characters were all like you. Maybe one.  But no more.  This is the thing the beginner, the narcissist beginner does not understand.  You have to see differences as endearing as opposed to things resembling you.  In a sense, just as you set forth to forge a persona with a lover, you have to effect a livable relationship with your characters.  In love, one plus one equals three, perhaps even four.  There are the two of you and the two selves you become because of the relationship.

A novel is among other things ways of having characters do naturally things you might not be able to do at all.  A novel is producing characters who have expectations you might find attractive but might just as easily find repugnant or unthinkable.  A novel is, on both sides of the equation, the unthinkable come to pass, the good unthinkable and the not so good.  Even that observation opens the door for novels to come.  Imagine a love relationship so open to understanding that it surpasses expectations and creates unanticipated awareness and altruism.  Suppose it is so fulfilling that it wipes out the old individuality of the partners, replacing their separate selves with something completely unforeseen. What are the remarkable potentials there?  “You didn’t tell me we were going to progress this way?”  “That’s nothing, you didn’t tell me you’d inspire me to things I never dreamed of doing.  You’re scaring the self out of me.”

Not all novels, but surely some do just that.  Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, or A Return to Earth to name just a few.  Or The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich’s emotional taffy pull, gets at both sides of the unthinkable.
Okay then, a novel is a vehicle being driven over unfamiliar streets, steered by drivers who think they know the right route, only to discover that they are indeed in the wrong city.

A novel better not be like anything you’ve written before, lest you realize you are being derivative of who you were earlier.  Embarking on a love affair better not be derivative, either; both of you will recognize it all too soon.

A novel and a love affair are ventures into the unknown in a sincere attempt to discover a new reality, where there is some justice, some rule of law, some sense of adventure for the inevitable discovery.

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