Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Digression About Digressions

When I was writing the very first words of my philosophical detective story, I knew that I wanted the narrative to be more than a murder mystery. I knew that I wanted the detective story to act as a loose frame, an open-weave basket to hold a load of digressions. These digressions come in the form of episodes focused on the individual characters found in my story; they are half character sketch and half short story that examine, from the point of view of a single person, one or more of the ideas about the world I want to talk about. For example, there’s an elderly man named Mr Taylor. After the murder is committed (it’s a murder mystery after all, so there must be a crime, a victim and a murderer), Mr Taylor sits alone in the formal garden of the hotel where the story takes place. Mr Taylor is unaware that there’s been a murder. He’s sitting under an apple tree with a book on philosophy, thinking about his sick wife. This little interlude of Taylor alone examines one possible way that couples are when they grow toward the end of life, the end of the relationship which happens against their will. Stages and ways of relationships is one of the themes running through the novel. What I’m doing is writing a bunch of these interludes and examining courtship, romance, love, marriage, happiness and unhappiness through an armload of couples instead of through the life story of a single couple. Because I’m not so much interested in the long-range actions of particular relationships (that is, I don’t want to write just now about the history of Mr and Mrs Taylor, for example) so much as I’m interested in the way there exists concurrently a large range of feeling about relationships and how those feelings are informed by the age of the participants and the current length of the relationship. Possibly all of this is tiresome cliché. Possibly all of this has been written before, by more insightful writers. It seems fresh and alive to me, so I keep at it. What I don’t know is how the balance is, between the detective story (my detective, at least, steals every scene; she’s a real hoot-and-a-half) and the digressive interludes about the characters.

I might be worried that, as I go forward into the narrative, these digressions seem to be getting longer. The ones that appear early in the narrative are a couple of paragraphs long. The one I’m working on in chapter 8 is over 1,000 words and I’m nowhere near finished with it. I don’t want to rush, but I also don’t want to write a lot of pointless filler or meandering exposition. None of it feels like exposition, though. It feels like story, and that’s good. It all moves. All of it pleases me. I just hope that when I’m done my hybrid of detective story and stream-of-consciousness domestic novel hangs together and feels like an organic whole. I think it does, but I haven’t read it yet so who knows?

How much digression is too much? There's no answer to that. It all depends on the entirety of the narrative (and, to a lesser extent, on the reader). I'm trying something new here, new for me if not for a long list of Modernists, and I'm interested to see how it turns out. Sometimes it's almost as if I'm not writing a novel and instead I'm watching a guy named Bailey write a novel and I worry he doesn't really know what he's doing. But it's exciting.

I’ve said all of this before. What I haven’t said is that reading Henry James makes one think one should write in as oblique, as indirect a manner as one can. I manfully resist and some of the newest bits are writ in such simple, pure language and have an emotional directness that I want to read them to everyone I know but I will not. You’ll have to wait.

Also, I was in a bookstore yesterday afternoon and I happened across a display of William S. Burroughs' novels. I picked up a copy of The Place of Dead Roads and opened it to the middle and read a page. You know what? The guy could write. I read half a dozen or so of his books in the 1990s and haven't looked at him since then, but I think maybe it's time to find my copies of Nova Express and Naked Lunch.

9 comments:

  1. Your concept for the novel sounds intriguing. You certainly have a challenge on your hands. My advice is go for it (because I have confidence that you can somehow pull it off), but when you get into the revision process, don't be afraid to kill your darlings is some of the digressions have a negative effect on the flow of the narrative. It's bound to happen in a place or two.

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  2. ...if some of the digressions...

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  3. I think your book sounds good.

    I like stories about relationships that are heavy with detail or digression or what have you. I like to sit back and soak in the details.

    I say go for it.

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  4. Rick, my idea for the flow of the narrative involves backwaters and pools of stillness this time. So revisions will be very interesting. I think as long as I find the narrative interesting, that's all that matters for this book. The through-action of the plot is just an excuse for the digressions, so it doesn't get to be the bully.

    Cynthia, I'm not sure if what I'm writing is quite what you mean, but then I'm not sure quite what I'm writing!

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  5. I'm eager to read it. Hurry up.

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  6. Back off, Daley. I'm only 58.33% done with it now. The detective is just about to publically accuse someone of murder! During lunch, while everyone's drinking champagne.

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  7. I'll back off when you're finished. Don't reply, you have a cool scene to finish...

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  8. I'm excited about your book and what you describe does sound like story. It's making me wonder if patterns in books, any sort of ordered structure contributes to making something feel like a story. Maybe our brains just try and put it all together.

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  9. I still need to get a hold of Naked Lunch. :)

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