Friday, November 13, 2015

How to Get a Character in Trouble on Page 1

To the extent that you know yourself, you know there are certain books, once you hear of them, you will have to read.  Such a title came to your attention in the form of John Clinch's recent (2007) novel, Finn.  


There is only one Finn for you, and since you have lazed hours away wondering what a meeting between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn would have been like as each turned from his third decade into his fourth, how could you avoid such a novel as Clinch's, which gets us into Huck's relationship with his father ?

The question, How could you not? is a quality you are at pains to build into a character who must bear the narrative weight of agenda in fictional projects you undertake.  The more hard wired the character's goal or quest, the greater the probability you will find early on the depth of commitment you seek, both for you as composer and the character as a dramatic entity.

You had the same braided sense of awe and inevitability when you learned of Senta Jeter Nasland, a writer previously unknown to you, and how she had found one memorable sentence in Herman Melville's sprawling epic, Moby-Dick, in which lay embedded what is arguably her most memorable novel, Ahab's Wife.  She'd found the one sentence in which the text revealed Capt. Ahab having a wife back home, on land.  

Among the many challenges such a work implied, you were immediately aware of the most lofty of all, the first sentence.  In order to write a book about Ahab's wife, you have to taunt the reader, who'll have already read Moby-Dick, and it's straightforward, "Call me Ishmael."  Nasaland was up to the task.  "Ahab," she wrote, "was not my first husband, nor my last."

You still sympathize with the hours she spent in pursuit of that line.  You also came to understand, early in your reading of Ahab's Wife, the imperative for the line, "Call me Ishmael" to be included, somewhere within the text.  The structure of past things often contains coded directions for present-day things.

Your own evolution for decoding such connections had not come into place when you were assigned the reading of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, but mere chance placed a used copy of The Viking Portable Chaucer in your hands, whereupon you discovered how Troilus and Cressyde was the forerunner, how Chaucer in some probable scenario, "got" the idea for The Canterbury Tales while on a trip to Italy, and how that trip could be made to provide the background for a historical mystery or espionage novel.

Before Chaucer's time and well into the present, two parallel lines of literary discourse were developing.  One of these was a process known as quiting or responding.  Our most likely awareness of the word and concept is in unrequited or unanswered love.  Through the millennia, writers have quited or answered one another.  The observant reader and the English major catch the nods, the insides of their literary furnaces lit up with discoveries and of topical similarities such as the parallel paths taken by The Odyssey and The Aeneid.

The other parallel line is a concept with the Greek name ekphrasis, or writing about an imaginary work of art within a narrative poem or story.  You were more than ready for ekphrasis when you saw it in "The Spouter Inn" chapter, where Ishmael sees a painting whose subject is not clear in the dim light, and which then, through his point of view, takes on a shape suggestive of many things to him until it becomes clear to him that the painting is of a huge whale.  

At about the time you were being pointed at Moby-Dick, you also came upon a novel in The Age of Victoria where Oscar Wilde put ekphrasis to work in The Picture of Dorian Gray.  These lines of building on a previous work, quiting, and ekphrasis come close to touching within your imagination, but you can see how you are less interested in connecting strands of logic.  Your interest lies in situations where characters find themselves in circumstances where they are not only taking on surface goals or desires, they are slogging through the mud of cultural conditions and morel quagmires.

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