Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Agon My Face

The Greeks, who seem to have an exciting word for as many things as American English does, have a simple, four-letter word for a contest or squabble, which may be internal or external, or both.  the word is agon, which you first learned as an English major, at about the time you were having many inner and outer squabbles with yourself.

Many of the books presented to you, often from the eighteenth century, but some from times before what is now called CE, Common Era, when September had thirty days; so did April, June, and November, were of a rambling nature, called picaresque.  

To remind you of some of these, let's look at the mischievous and bawdy ramble, The Golden Ass,  composed by one Lucius Appuleus, who lived more or less from 123 until 170.  But let us not forget Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Tobias Smollet's Humphrey Clinker, and Peregrine Pickle.  Nor should you fail to mention Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, among the unforgettable genera.

All of these were episodic romps, some, such as Humphrey Clinker, built around a journey ( who could forget that most epic journey from the Tabard Inn, located in beautiful downtown London,to the Canterbury Cathedral?), others elopements or a series of episodes, many of which, on consideration, could have been cut from the narrative without material damage to it.  

Although you'd been raised on more plot-driven stories, these picaresque novels captured your undying admiration, causing you at the same time to wish to emulate them with your own more modernized versions of adventures, some built on nothing more dramatic than a group of individuals standing in a long line to purchase tickets to some performance.  

From about age sixteen until your mid-twenties, your typical manuscript was a thirty-to-forty-page outing, introducing characters who sometimes were more distinguished by their desire to get off their pages and back to some activity that defined them.

The agon began when you also began another life-long fondness for the type of plot-driven story you found in what were called pulp magazines.  The key to such stories was determinism, a philosophical or logic-based position in which every event is the inevitable outcome of previous conditions which could cause no other result.  Variations caused different outcomes and, in consequence, different stories.

Your agon was the inner contest whereby you could produce a story that seemed picaresque, yet was stitched together in a way reminiscent of some of the Maine shoe and boot makers of today, still producing hand-sewn shoes.  The result you had in mind was obviously hand crafted and would seem so to anyone who read it.  

You rejoiced at the number of critics you read who assured anyone who would accept their view that any perfection to be found in a given novel would have to be found in one or more of its basic elements, such as characters, or the way characters speak to one another, which is dialogue.  Perhaps there was perfection to be found in pacing or setting. 

Two Saul Bellow novels, The Adventures of Augie March,  in particular because of its voice, and Humboldt's Gift, because of the way it played the characters of Charlie Citrine and Humboldt as a kind of Martin and Lewis comedic ballet with more tragic undercurrents, dazzled you with hope that you'd be able to bring your vision to a focus.

For the longest time, you'd come to believe that John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men, was the closest thing you'd found to bring these elements of character, goal, dialogue, pacing, and suspense together.  At length you found others, interestingly enough coming from writers who produce shorter works, say Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, and any of a number of shorter ventures by Louise Erdrich and Jim Harrison.

 From time to time, when you found such novels and longish short stories ("The Rich Boy" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Guided Tours of Hell by Francine Prose)  you read them again and again, in search of clues for insights that might guide you to producing some of your own works to your own satisfaction.

Now, more than ever before, you understand the challenge before you, the one that caused so many crumpled pages, torn from a succession of typewriters, so many delete buttons pushed on so many computers, so many notebooks, scanned for clues of insights and visions, 

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