Friday, July 31, 2015

The Surprise in the Bowl of Jell-o

Your early adventures with reading bore a great resemblance to your experiences with Jell-o.  The stories you gravitated toward tended to be told by an I narrator or in a format you would later learn was called omniscient.  

So far as Jell-o was concerned, there was the Jell-o of the cafeteria, near pellucid, certainly clear enough to allow sight of some stray canned pear or grape lurking about.  There was the Jell-o of your maternal grandmother, a murky Jell-o, mixed with a generous proportion of vanilla ice cream before being allowed to jell.  In those cloudy depths, you often encountered the occasional small marshmallow, a chunk of pineapple, fresh or canned cherries, even from time to time a slice of banana.

Your preferences were for the first-person narration, although you could not say why at the time. Later, as your interest in reading became more surgical, you began to see how a story, told by its main participant, could seem more authentic than those told by some authorial presence.

Somewhere along the way, which is to say your sophomore year at college, a writing instructor took note of the large Collected Stories of Ernest Hemingway you carried about.  "Before you get too caught up with him,"  he told you, "you ought to read some southern writers."  

You'd already run through Thomas Wolfe, who did not impress you as much as stories of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, impressed you, which you shared with the instructor.  "Well, then, "  he said.  "Write this down."  He gave you a title which you liked the sound of, straight off.  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.  That had a grab to it.  You remember looking at the teacher, the title half written in your notebook, thinking you would like to write a novel with a title like that.

You were big on titles, then, often filling pages of your notebooks with titles you'd like to write a novel about, when and if the lectures you were attending eluded your interest.  You were already alerted to the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, because he'd written the poem from which Steinbeck got his title, Of Mice and Men.  You were also, at the moment, taken with another Burns poem, in which he is speculating how nice it would be for us to see ourselves as others see us.  

In addition to Burns, you were going through Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, and The Jabberwocky, thinking of the possibilities of novels with such titles as For the Snark Was a Boojum, and Oh, My Beamish Nephew.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was another matter, altogether; it implied the delicious sense of a person surrounded by kind and supportive family, yet alone because of different interests, goals, and curiosity.  You found the book in the library, took it across the street to a campus restaurant called Dick and Phil's, where you ordered coffee and banana cream pie, then began to read.

You were immediately engrossed to the point where a waiter asked you if there were problems related to your coffee and pie because you had touched neither.  In addition, you'd read well beyond the time when you could be at your four o'clock class.

By this time in your life, you were aware of the narrative persons, first, second, third, multiple, and omniscient, if not to the muscle memory of multiplication tables or the valence of the then known elements, at least to the point where you could frame examples of books you'd read, written in each.

You had in fact read novels told in the multiple point of view, but it took Carson McCullers' novel to make the concept take on a wicked, splendid, unlimited potential.  She was not only advancing a story via multiple voices, each one was markedly different from the other, yet seeming to contest one another for use of language, implication of mood, and the conveyance of feelings you could feel without having them explained to you.  The events explained the feelings to you.

To add to the already simmering stew, there was a nudge toward Robert Burns in the character of  John Singer, the second of two mutes.  Singer had frequent cause to wonder why the other characters were coming to him to express their most intimate concerns, as though he had some ability to understand them better than anyone else could..

The instructor nodded when you reported your reaction to Carson McCullers' work, nor did you fail to mention that she'd been only three or four years older than you were when she wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.  

You set Hemingway aside, tried your hand at Faulkner, hit a road block there, but vowed to return.  The twists and turns of language were beckoning, calling, daring you, taunting you.  So was the growing notion that multiple point of view had some hidden treasures, and you had better start digging.

John comes forth with a goal and a plan to implement it.  Bill not only doesn't have much faith in it, the plan somehow threatens him.  Charlie thinks John and Bill are both crazy.  Mary has her own path to the goal, but no one will listen to her, because sharp visions are even more threatening.  Sally thinks Mary is being ignored because, well, because she's a woman.  There, you have a spectrum.  Now, go tell your story.

You would not have expected this to happen, but a friend turned you on to the Floridian mystery writer, John D. McDonald, whose multiple point of view novel, The Damned, convinced you to have another shot at The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.  Things were beginning to make sense,  Multiple points of view were entryways to making a simple story open its soul to you.  Now you could--and did--give Faulkner another try.

The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.  Back to back.  Oh, my.

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