Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Writer's Internal Baueux Tapestry

A novel, in particular the types of novels you enjoy reading and writing, is an extended adventure in which aspects of yourself who don't get much time out in public are allowed to take over the conversation, suggest the movie we'll watch, the meal we'll order, and even the restaurant where we'll eat it.

No, the we is neither metaphor nor narrative device; the we is you, the component parts of you, in some cases parts adopted to fill some emotional or narrative gap, then adopted, take in as family.

The more you are able to move beyond the more familiar aspects of you, the better the chances for the outcome of the novel, which is to say the greater your chances of being able to maintain conversation with it after it is returned to you with editorial notes.

Most of the novels you enjoy reading, as well as those you have in mind now to write, are satires.  By this you mean a subjecting of institutions and or characters to a deliberate scrutiny by which the outer layers of some trait are peeled away, revealed to be untenable.  That is the fun part of satire.  To complete the satiric equation, you need to essay or at the least suggest a viable alternative to the thing you were making fun of, by which you mean you were undermining.

A number of novels you have read to date are not satires.  Moby-Dick is not a satire, nor is The Grapes of Wrath (although you see some satirical motifs in it).  Neither is My Antonia.  Formula things such as Tom Sawyer or The Bobsey Twins novels are not satire, although each comes close in places to unintentional self-satire, but in both cases, these contain enough sincere, kind observations of human behavior to get them past the border guards.

On the other hand, no point listing all the novels of satire you've encountered, taking you back in time to the likes of The Satyricon, The Golden Ass, Don Quixote, Peregrine Pickle, The Adventures of Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, and the like.  These caused you some years ago to give yourself over to an acceptance of such traits as irony, pomposity, misdirected sincerity, and humorlessness as much a part of the human genome as story, suspense, tension, and reversal are to the dramatic genome.

This pathway, a satiric freeway, as it were, has led you in more recent years, for certain all the years of this century, to consider all novels as satire, whether intentional in their goal or not.  You by no means like all novels, even many of those which set themselves to be satires (which had become the approach you've begun to take with a novel given you as a Christmas present, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, the farther you progress into its clotted depths).  

This strategy allows you the luxury of thinking novels you don't engage with as unintentional satires.  Not so crass as it seems; the joke can be on you.  You can not like something because of your inability to understand it or some form of bigotry or snobbery (or both) that prevents you from engaging it.

A short story is another matter.  By its nature, the short story does not have the room for the kind of closure novels require (although Alice Munro seems to have found ways to give satisfying clues and directions to her intricate tales to the point where, well after completing a reading, you find yourself processing things, relationships, tendencies, all of which make you want to go back for another visit to see what you've missed).

That is the answer for you; a short story takes you right up to the edge of an emotional Grand Canyon, then tells you, Careful, if you look down, you might become dizzy.

Some short stories drip satire.  Ring Lardner comes to mind.  Tom Boyle.  John O'Hara.  Deborah Eisenberg.  Katherine Mansfield.  Anne Proulx.  Even so, you have to look.

This is written with you in the midst of looking at a forthcoming collection of your own, causing you to feel something like a street paver, covering speed bumps, pot holes, and other distractions.

The same rag-tag principal of characters beyond your customary selves applies to short story appearances.  Dealing with so many, all at once, you can see a larger tapestry of event and relationship, an individualized Bayeux Tapestry of your own, with events representative of the invasion of middle age and its subsequent antagonists rather than the Normans, setting forth to restructure England.

You had not reckoned with this at the time you began with formula short stories, then moved beyond formula to your own sense of what they ought to do.  And when you spent countless hours, studying the embroidery and details of the Bayeux Tapestry, there was no sense of any connection other than a generalized sense of history.  But something happened one day when you found yourself memorizing the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales.  And subsequent things happened when you found yourself considering drawings from Native Americans on animal hides or on the walls of shaman's caves.

Short stories are adventures for you, men and women setting forth on raids, hunting expeditions, explorations.  You have no idea if the family of characters dwelling in your psyche will live happily ever after or even get along.  You have picked them up at the beginning of a journey, then brought them to a temporary truck stop or cheap motel or three-bedroom home along Alameda Padre Serra, here in Santa Barbara, and you have brought them to a point where they are at a party or gathering and it is time to go home, but something unknown is preventing them from leaving just yet. 

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