Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Hi-yo, Silver. Away! Or Maybe Not

 You've pretty well documented in these vagrant essays the forces and effects that got you into reading fiction as a young person. In large measure, you were driven to story by boredom and the sense of loneliness that comes from the sense of lack of adventure and excitement rather than any sense of being remote from people. 

To be sure, you had friends, but reflection on those friends from this remote vantage point has revealed to you that almost without exception, your dealing with these friends was to play out some archetypal game such as cowboys and Indians, or some specific novel where adventurous opponents clashed. If matters grew desperate, you'd discuss books or motion pictures made from books.

Reading was well established in your life from early on, closely followed by so-called program music,which is to say classical music written to suggest and illustrate stories and folk tales. Thus at age ten or so, while your musical tastes were expanding beyond program music, you were well aware of Till Eulenspiegel, Hary Janos, Der Rosenkavalier, Ein Heldenleben, and the like. 

This kind of music and this kind of reading met in mash-up when you were called to the radio by the opening bars of The Overture to William Tell, and the announcer's voice, informing all who would listen, "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty "Hi-Yo Silver"... The Lone Ranger! With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early Western United States. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof-beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!"

Into this equation that was becoming the major occupational focus of your life was the time spent haunting used bookstores in your teens and early twenties , building a librarty of sorts but also expressing with every visit to every new bookstore, including the aptly named Acres of Books in Long Beach, your equivalent of The Holy Grail, a book, the book that, by its text and voice, would cause you to see everything you needed in order to produce the books you dreamed of producing. In its way, this one book, having called it your Holy Grail, would be the remarkable mixed metaphor of the genie let out of the bottle imprisioning him.

Things change. Some years back, in another remarkable used bookstore, Bart's Books, in Ojai, California, you found a shelf on which resided six anthologies, containing a short story of yours about a robot that liked to eat first editions of books. You took a copy to the checkout stand along with a few other books you were curious to read, only to be gifted the anthology with your story in it. By no means because the bookseller recognized you, rather because, "Glad to get rid of at least one of those. Can't tell you how many I have back there."

Things change in many ways. By your current reckoning, you are fond of two distinct types of novels, each type transcending mere genre. You're fond of novels such as The Goldbug Variations or The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, or at least two by William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, in which there is some necessary struggle to sort out and arrange the narrative elements. You have to work at the reading, alert to potential red herrings and neatly camouflaged nuances. All the novels of Muriel Spark intrigue you in this manner; your attention is required. In particular, you admire The Only Problem, which required two readings before you began to speculate how this was a play on The Book of Job.

Novels such as these remind you not only of the work that goes into their writing, but of the focus and attention required of you if you are to absorb sufficient nourishment from them. After finishing such novels, you feel a certain pride in having chosen to attempt a similar profession yourself; they also remind you of the information you must have at hand if you are to have any success in introducing them to your students.

The other aspect of this binary is the novel that sends you to your computer or note pads, eager to write a similar novel of your own and, even more to the point, convinced you can write such a novel because such novels as Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass seem so accessable and intriguing that you are overcome with belief that you can in fact do so.

The only necessary response is, of course, to begin such a work, at which point you arrive quickly at the point where, once again, you understand how no novel is easy. Much of the work has been done for you, thanks to the artistry of the writer. 

When you first read Samuel Richardson's iconic epistolary novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, at age eighteen, you had a moment of envy at Richardson's good fortune at being born in a time where readers who saw such books believed they were actual accounts of actual individuals. Subsequent readings over the years have removed that conceit, leaving it with the awareness that above all, Richardson had an eye and feeling for character. His ability made the characters seem real.

Novels that cause you to think you can write one of similar nature are--here comes another metaphor--like the Sirens, tempting Odysseus' sailors with their songs. With good luck, you are well under way before, once again, the reality strikes. There is no such thing as easy. But by the time you realize that brutal fact, you are too far along to have any say in the matter.


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