Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's a Mystery to Me

Writing a book or story more often than not forces you into a series of conversations.  Some of these conversants with whom you interact are you at various stages of your life.  These conversations may be broken down into the you who is at the captain's wheel now, strutting and fretting your moments with other aspects of yourself who've more or less given up in despair or gone off on vacation or, in the spirit of total self-acceptance, taken up some activity such as lawn bowling or--shudder--bingo.

The book you are giving the most focus at the moment gives you some daily reason to see how this conglomeration of conversations with the you of yore is as apt as if you were delving into a novel or short story, playing various aspects of yourself against one another, or, to extend the metaphor, plunking them into a cocktail shaker thereupon to give them a brisk shaking.

This book is the previously mentioned The One Hundred Novels You Need to Read Before Writing Your Own, a book that may well be reminding you about the novel you've been toying with for at ;east the past two years.  This book may well have come into being in order to get you to feel the strength of pull you recognize necessary for the novel and which, indeed, you've experienced with most of your recent fiction.

You can make a convincing argument that two of the more significant and memorable novels in your current work of nonfiction have a structure that plays a dangerous game with such a well-plotted book as Treasure Island or Ivanhoe.  Your "convincing" argument concludes with Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn fitting the description of the type of novel called picaresque.  Most persons who use this term mean an engaging character, say Tom Jones, setting off on a series of events of rather loose connectivity.

Early on in your reading life, you were aware of classmates and those younger than you rendering summaries of picaresque stories in a sing-song narrative of their own.  "There are these two, or three, or four guys, see, and they all end up in the Foreign Legion, see, and then they--and then they--and then they--"  You cringed when you heard such recitations for two reasons, one not of immediate meaning for you.  The narrative could make something as rousing and colorful as, say, Gunga Din, sound flat, boring.  The more sophisticated aspect was your growing realization that, much as you wanted to become a storyteller, you could not devise a plot with anything resembling ease.

"Suppose,"  you wondered out loud to your sister, "Beethoven realized he had a lousy sense of rhythm."

"You are aware,"  your sister replied, "that Beethoven had gone deaf before composing those last, wonderful string quartets?  Much use he had for hearing when he wrote those?"

Little brothers are more known for smarty-pants hypotheses than for snappy comeback.  You were aware; but at the time, you were open to anything resembling nuance.  And you can say now with some retrospective authority that nuance and its lack were major factors in your choices of things to read at early ages, meaning that rereading them in later years was the equivalent of seeing what you'd missed before.

Once, when you were about nineteen or twenty, already smoking English cigarettes and ordering sherry on fake ID, you told your sister that you could see yourself growing more urbane--you used that word--with each rereading of a book you thought you'd gotten the marrow from first time through.

"We'll see,:  your sister. who loved you, said.

While you were broadcasting your urbanity to your sister, you were not all that far from reading and loving Henry Fielding's novel, Tom Jones, which you grabbed onto because it was picaresque and because you were already demonstrating to yourself and a number of magazine editors that you and plotting were not going steady.  

At that stage of your development, urbanity meant your acceptance of the fact that any novel you wrote would be more picaresque than structured.  Of course, this was also your stage of development in which you declaimed to a leading Herman Melville specialist that Moby-Dick was at heart a picaresque novel.  You got the impression he was waiting for you to finish the sentence.  This was a difficult time for both of you.

During your senior year, a picaresque novel appeared that changed the way you looked at picaresque.  Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March not only changed the way you looked at picaresque, it became yet another experience where a book changed your life.  

You knew from reading Augie that you had at least another ten years of work ahead of you.  Even though you were publishing picaresque things within five or six years, you were standing on the verge of a time of depression; there was yet more to learn and absorb.  You now had three first-person novels of more or less picareqsue structure into which you could repair.  Huck, Expectations, and Augie.

An author of two novels in your hundred made another suggestion that took years off the mound of work ahead.  "Why,"  Dorothy B. Hughes asked you, "don't you try your hand at a mystery novel?  That will get you focused on story in ways no other genre can."


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