Friday, July 3, 2015

Future Tensed

There is a point in each project, whether a seven hundred fifty word book review, a short story, or, as in the current case, a book of a projected sixty thousand words, when a problem, not seen before, edges its way out of the shadows, waves its arms at you, and brings you screeching to a halt.

This moment often happens for you not long after you've found the shape the work will take and the effect you hope it will leave with most of the individuals, in particular editors, but readers as well.  At this stage, you've only one major thing to work out, the sound of the narrative voice.  

You already know you don't want it to have the detachment of the scholarly or the theorizing of the academic.  Instead, you want the equivalent of a two-beer conversational, with a slight hint of towel-snapping-in-the-locker-room challenge.  You want a definite edge of enthusiasm.

With that in mind and you about to immerse yourself in the first two or three of what will be one hundred mini-essays of about five hundred words each, the arm-waving problem turns out to be something you now wonder how you missed..

You came upon these hand-picked hundred novels from about the age of ten to more or less the present, which is to say the most recent novel within the hundred to deliver some one-two combination to your midsection was 2012, with a number of titles falling right on the cusp of the new century.

This means you've got some voice and retrospect problems.  You have a clear enough memory of what was going on when you heard one of the titles read aloud on a soggy, rainy afternoon when you were in the fourth grade.  The teacher most likely had to settle for reading to a class that under more ordinary circumstances would be running off the effects of lunch and sitting still.  She may well have kept this particular book in her desk as an emergency measure.

You recall how, after she told you she was going to read, then began, you did something you wouldn't have dared do under most circumstances.  You stood to get her attention, then apologized for the interruption, then asked her to please reread that opening line.

The teacher spoke in the nasal, don't-give-a-damn about the final consonants on words so common to Middlesex County, New Jersey.  "You don't know about me," she reread, "without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."

To that point in your life, you'd read a number of books, most of them because you were bored still with the restrictions and rules of being your age.  Many of the books you read were impressive with their immediate ability to transport you to that place of adventure and  and transportation you sought..  But you'd never heard a line or a voice like that.  Not even Robert Louis Stevenson, whom you admired.  Nothing approximated that.  

You knew you were going to have to get your own copy of Huck Finn because, as the teacher continued reading, the words kept taking you farther along into Huck Finn's story and your future.

Your problem is to capture that defining moment and the pull it had on you, causing you to reread that novel any number of times until you forgot how many, your mounting curiosity to see if you could understand how a man nearly fifty could capture the voice and presence of that boy who for some years had become your role model.

You get a few sentences to that, then you have to show how you came back to the book in your early twenties and late twenties, struggling to learn from that boy you reckoned to be about thirteen.  Then, you get co come back later still, noticing the equivalent of what Mr. Twain learned when he set out to become a steamboat pilot on that most majestic of rivers.

The problem before you is a high-class problem, but still--

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