Thursday, December 25, 2014

Books, Families, and Seating Plans

 Whenever you encounter the necessity to make a list, the phenomenon of overload comes stepping  into place, wanting  not only the last word but several last words thereafter.  This overload atmosphere makes you think of invitation lists for gatherings, ceremonies, and celebrations, where the presence of the attendees trumps the reason for the gathering, the ceremonies, and the celebrations.

Indeed, the thing to be celebrates is often forgotten in the clamor of attendees, avid of a seat at the central table.  This cynical awareness reminds you of a political science course you once finessed your way into by changing your academic minor from anthropology to political science.  

The midterm examination consisted of one question.  You were given a list of individuals who would attend a dinner where you were the host.  Part one of the test was a seating chart, where you were to assign the seating.  Part two of the examination was your rationale for assigning a specific seat to each of the guests.

For all the year that have passed since you were an English major, political science minor, you still remember that examination and the sense of urgency that went into engaging the implications of the problem it illustrated.  Rank, protocol, tradition influence the way individuals within a culture behave toward one another.  

The influences spill over into the exchanges between cultures.  Since this awareness was simultaneous with you reading A Passage to India in another class, you began your slow, awkward march toward those aspects of Marxist philosophy where you became aware of the need to observe these dynamics if you were ever to create memorable characters.

No stretch of metaphor or hyperbole to say you often think of that midterm political science examination when listening to friends talk about wedding banquets, memorials, and the like, or when you find yourself making a list with finite numbers:  "The Ten Most Underrated Novels," "The Seven Deadly Sins of Story Telling," "One Hundred Novels That Most Influenced You."

There, you have it.  No sooner than you completed your list of a hundred novels that floored you emotionally, knocked you on your ass, but as well left you with a misty sense of some technique or effect you'd not thought about before, clamoring for inclusion in your tool kit.  

Every craftsperson you knew of had a tool kit.  A bass player you knew had several packets of strings, a huge block of resin, a spare bow, and a large, chamois polishing cloth.  Artists had cigar boxes filled with charcoal or pastel sticks.  A calligrapher had a stone for grinding and mixing ink, to say little of brushes, pens, and nibs.  Why shouldn't a writer have a tool kit?

Wait; there's more.  Why, for instance, didn't you include A Passage to India in your list?  There are noteworthy reasons for doing so, not the least of which is the clash of cultures and the gut-wrenching payoff in which an Indian tells a Brit--well, what he tells the Brit is worth writing about.

And what about the note you left for yourself on the kitchen dining table, where you would be sure to notice it, sooner than later?  A simple title of another novel, one that had thumped you with great éclat, Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  Thus, within two titles coming to mind, the phenomenon of overload is transformed into a super ego.

After completing your list of a hundred novels that floored you, preparatory to deciding if such a list could drive a book length tool for other writers than yourself, who would be asked to pick their own hundred novels, you notice how in many ways everything boils down to the difference between an a and a the.  A hundred novels--  The hundred novels--

There is some freedom in "a," that is not present in "the."    You are in the early part of the game, which reminds you of your stern decision to keep the ceremony of your wedding to Anne down to a tidy number, and your mother's stern decision that her cousins, Jean, Phil, and Max, be present.  "They're family,"  she insisted.  "I'll cook a little more."

"That Max,"  your father observed.  "Big appetite."

"So I'll cook a lot more."

And so the deal was settled.

For now, your plan is to write down the extras, as they come, asking to be invited to a project you don't even know will fly yet.  Such is the nature of family.  Such is the nature of a book.

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