Monday, August 19, 2013

Una voce poco fa: Voices, voices everywhere

The rapid exchanges you hear that sounds as though it is from arguing neighbors is really the dialectic in your head, promised you by Rachel, your first mentor.  

At the time she told you this, you simply knew--in that instinctive sense of knowing--what to put down on paper.  You also knew that if you had nothing to put down, not to worry, sooner or later, something would come.  Thus hearing from Rachel that she heard voices was something of a relief, and you wondered if you'd ever be fortunate enough to hear voices of your own.

In other times, the voices sing a Siren's song, luring your own versions of Homer's Odysseus, having survived The Iliad, heading home to Ithaca with the amazing adventure-distractions of The Odyssey.  You hear those sirens, singing something that, in anomaly and cross-culture, come out as the plaintive Fado from Portugal.  You like the connection between the sirens of The Odyssey and some Greek mythology, as being sung by spirits of the sea, and of some of the sad Fado songs also having relation to the sea.  Sirens and Fados have agendas of their own, but their purpose is to provide, even provoke a distraction that is often fatal.

Siren's songs associate in your mind with all noir fiction.  Women singing songs or telling tales or following through agendas to settle old, off-stage scores.  They are thus captured by their own visions or senses of destiny as their male counterparts.  Sirens and noir women are sometimes--erroneously, you believe--referred to as femmes fatales.  They are in fact listening to their own, compelling inner voices.

Now, it is too late to ask her if her voices argued or, for that matter, any of the things you've wondered to ask her since she died.  You have her books, photocopies of her letters (the originals filed away with her manuscripts and papers in, of all places, Boston College), but what the hell, you've grown accustomed to your own voices, your own dialectic, and it pleases you to think of them as arguing neighbors because of the potential arguing neighbors have to escalate their differences of opinion into conflicts and confrontations of such rancor and spirited participation that police, responding to complaints about them, have occasion to fear for their own safety.

You've come to fear for your own safety in the sense of relating safety and its first cousin, comfort, to things put down on paper or on the hard drive of your computers as materials in woeful need of revision.  Thus one pair of actors in the dramatis personae of your dialectic, safety and risk.

The dialectic spoke to you in a different manner, back then.  You'd read a story or novel or poem that wrenched your senses so far out of line, you'd think you needed the equivalent of a sensory chiropractor.  And you'd wrench in the despair of knowing you could never hope to tell a story so well as this one you held before you in your hands and, now, in your gut.

Or you'd read a story in which you were yanked along, clunky paragraph or motive by clunky action, fascinated at what you considered its regal awfulness, thinking you would never allow yourself to sink this far.

For some long while, you were stuck on the fulcrum between those polar extremes, reaching for the unattainable in fear of producing examples of what you so feared and loathed.

In actuality, you produced more of the latter than you wished and, in what now seems irony, enough of the former to keep you imprisoned in the limbo of being a derivative copyist.

Along comes to mind now two books, one sent you for review, the other calling out to you from its place in your reference shelves, calling, "Remember what you said about me."

The newer of the two books is Aimee Bender's most recent collection of stories, The Color Master.  The older is John Gardner's estimable The Art of Fiction.

How could you not like Aimee Bender's work when, in the first story of the collection, second paragraph, there is a single sentence:  "It's unsettling to meet people who don't eat apples."? Forget that the first line of the story is: "I once knew a girl who wouldn't eat apples."  Of course, after reading the story, you can't forget that line or nearly any other.

As to the John Gardner book, The Art of Fiction, you were motivated after reading it to try all his novels.  You began with Grendel because of that character's association with Beowulf, and because having a novel told from the point of view of such a monster sent chills of admiration marching through you with the verve and persistence and madness of Tea Party politicians.  You loved Grendel but hated all his other fiction, the reading of which led you to observe how much better things would have gone if he'd have followed his own counsel in The Art of Fiction.

To avoid the siren call of convention or safety or, dare you say it, comfort, you need to hear that dialectic called counterpoint, in which your protagonists and antagonists hear the voice of your own vision, set against and over the safe and comfortable.  The risks are huge, and in them await the potential for something worth seeking.

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