Monday, August 6, 2012

Idiosyncrasy


Idiosyncrasy is a word missing from most serious conversations about storytelling.  More often than not, it is there, like the shy or wall-flower guest at a party who has been beaten to the hors d’oerves tray by the likes of Plot and Dialogue, or shoved to the side by that other bully, Point-of-View.

The simple truth is that you, as so many of your sisters and brothers of the rejection slip, have yourself bullied you way into publication on the basis of your acquaintance with Plot or, in your case, Dialogue.  Some of this level work is, now that you think about it, not bad, but by no means stand-alone.  You tell yourself that, with world enough and time, you might well get back to some of it, two in particular you think might make the grade as digital novels.

But maybe not.  The notion of idiosyncrasy is burning a literary hole in your literary pocket to the point where the two novels in particular you might wish to get back to will have to take their place in line.

Story is all-important; it is of particular importance when you, the writer, notice its absence.  When you notice its absence as an editor or as a teacher, your response is likely to be some show of bombast.  All of this is nothing compared to what happens if the editor notices it and if the reader notices it.  That said, you can stipulate the need for story in story—someone wanting something, looking for something, coping with some kind of deadline, or the even more nuanced approach of someone, in the process of looking for something, coming upon evidence of some fraught event or information that will have chilling effects.

Okay.  There’s story.  That is to say, there’s story on a flat, uninspired level, which needs some kind of additive to produce better results.  The additive is, of course, the author’s idiosyncratic view of the world.  Here are two stunning examples, generations apart.  Some critics have called Charles Dickens the most magisterial of all the English writers to the point of saying on his behalf, Screw Mrs. Woolf, Screw D.H. Lawrence, certainly, Screw Joseph Conrad and Henry James.  The beauty of Dickens, many of these critics say, is that his errors and sentimentality, taken in context with his stunning evocations of persons, places, and things, make for the kind of idiosyncrasy stew of which you speak.  Your own favorite of his works is the chilling opening of Great Expectations, which in your regard exceeds the way he gets you into place with the opening paragraphs of Bleak House.

The more modern example is James Lee Burke, whom you’d think would have begun to coast the way a somewhat rival, Michael Connelly, has long since begun to do, but from the moment Burke begins telling us about those clouds hanging over the bayou, you are transported to a place where story becomes outrageous, charged with an incendiary crackle, and undershot with more layers of intrigue than a lasagna at an Italian wedding.

You in fact are drawn to writers who have this quality in sublime abundance over mere story, so much so that your preferences were nearly your undoing.  You were so taken by the personalized worlds of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, John Steinbeck, John O’Hara, and James M. Cain that you forgot about story for the longest time and in your process, wrote landscape, terrain, attitude.  This is not to say these worthies were lacking in story; it is to say that you in effect read them and the likes of James Joyce and Lawrence Durrell for their music and attitude rather than their story.  Don’t have to tell you that you’d missed out.  You went back to discover what you’d missed out.

Is it accident or merely a final coming to terms whereby your favorite writers are women?  Seems to you Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx, Kate Atkinson, Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, and, of course, Jane Austen, had it all along, that splendid blend of idiosyncrasy and characters wanting things of such yearning intensity that you could not fail to grab on for the ride that was to come.

This is not an argument for anything more than a recognition for the need you have to assess what your own visions are and who the voices are that speak to you as you compose.  The more you are away from Los Angeles, the more you recognize an idiosyncrasy with it as the freeways were being constructed over the eminent domain places of your youth. 

There was a bridal trail running through Sunset Boulevard from Doheney to the PCH.  Men wore hats.  Not baseball caps, fucking hats. Fedoras.  There were drive-in restaurants selling hamburgers with peanut butter and bacon on them, and a number of truly idiosyncratic ice cream parlors, a group of restaurants in the shape of chili bowls, and a population who seemed certain their dreams would come true next week.

You’ve come to understand that you never wrote about Los Angeles the way the pseudonymous Paul Cain wrote about it in his quintessential L.A. noir thriller, Fast One, and certainly not Chandler.  You wanted to include their noirish elements, but you also wanted the different feel of the rival drugstore chains, Thrifty’s and Sontag’s, the enormous Mark C. Bloom gas station and tire emporium on La Brea near Second Street, and the fact that when you sold newspapers at the corner of Third and La Brea, you could eavesdrop on Anita O’Day, rehearsing for her evening gig at The Swanee, a small damp night club.  So very Los Angeles:  she told you one afternoon that O’Day was not here real name.  O-day.  Dough.  Money in pig Latin.

Madman Muntz, the used car dealer who began selling TV sets.  Earl Scheib.  Get your car painted for $19.95.  Deluxe job for $29.95.
The more of those details you remember, the more your landscape became idiosyncratic.  The more idiosyncratic things could and did happen.

You have been here in Santa Barbara since 1974.  Parts of this city have ceased being mere places for you, particularly the blocks on Victoria Street from Santa Barbara Street to State Street.  You have taken over entire buildings, transferred their ownership to fictional individuals of your own invention.

The idiosyncratic process has moved a hundred miles north and light years away.  The process works.  You may not understand story but you have had some success and a good deal of luck with your own process.

Last week, while you were standing at the deli counter of The Italian Grocery on De La Guerra nodded to me.  “You think I don’t know you.”  He has to take his sentences slowly.  The tube from the oxygen tank at his side runs directly to his nose.  “You were with me when the store was on Olive.  You had more hair then.  All these years.”

The process comes from what you see in the background, without thinking about it.  The process comes from the voices you hear and the way the places seem to you, the places you go back to in real time and in your memory.  When you set story against that scenery, you begin to get the picture.

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