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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Henry James' "The Ambassadors" Plot Thickens

"I've come, you know, to make you break with everything, neither more nor less, and take you straight home; so you'll be so good as immediately and favourably to consider it!"—Strether, face to face with Chad after the play, had sounded these words almost breathlessly, and with an effect at first positively disconcerting to himself alone.

Strether had the next minute proceeded as roundly as if with an advantage to follow up. "Of course I'm a busybody, if you want to fight the case to the death; but after all mainly in the sense of having known you and having given you such attention as you kindly permitted when you were in jackets and knickerbockers. Yes—it was knickerbockers, I'm busybody enough to remember that; and that you had, for your age—I speak of the first far-away time—tremendously stout legs. Well, we want you to break. Your mother's heart's passionately set upon it, but she has above and beyond that excellent arguments and reasons. I've not put them into her head—I needn't remind you how little she's a person who needs that. But they exist—you must take it from me as a friend both of hers and yours—for myself as well. I didn't invent them, I didn't originally work them out; but I understand them, I think I can explain them—by which I mean make you actively do them justice; and that's why you see me here. You had better know the worst at once. It's a question of an immediate rupture and an immediate return. I've been conceited enough to dream I can sugar that pill. I take at any rate the greatest interest in the question. I took it already before I left home, and I don't mind telling you that, altered as you are, I take it still more now that I've seen you. You're older and—I don't know what to call it!—more of a handful; but you're by so much the more, I seem to make out, to our purpose."

"Your engagement to my mother has become then what they call here a fait accompli?"
"Yes," he said brightly, "it was on the happy settlement of the question that I started. You see therefore to what tune I'm in your family. Moreover," he added, "I've been supposing you'd suppose it."

"Oh I've been supposing it for a long time, and what you tell me helps me to understand that you should want to do something. To do something, I mean," said Chad, "to commemorate an event so—what do they call it?—so auspicious. I see you make out, and not unnaturally," he continued, "that bringing me home in triumph as a sort of wedding-present to Mother would commemorate it better than anything else. You want to make a bonfire in fact," he laughed, "and you pitch me on. Thank you, thank you!" he laughed again.

And so, finally, after about 100 pages (in the Dover edition I'm reading) Henry James comes straight out and tells the reader exactly what Lewis Strether is doing in Paris, chasing after Chad Newsome. Chad's mother, the Widow Newsome, has been earlier introduced as Stether's patron and employer, more-or-less, but it has been subtly revealed that Stether and Mrs Newsome are in fact engaged. Oh, Strether, you just don't see anything beyond your uptight rural Massachusetts morality, do you? Well, Stether is having his horizons broadened in Paris, let me tell you. One gets the sense that Mrs Newsome is not going to be pleased at all by the outcome of her fiance's experiences in the City of Lights. "Oh, America," the cosmopolitan James says. "You are missing so much of life! You went all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to make money and to forget how to have fun."

It took 100 pages for Strether to find Chad. And frankly, Stether wasn't really looking so much as he was wandering around, enjoying Paris (and, one suspects, enjoying the physical distance from Mrs Newsome though Strether also seems to--if not enjoy, exactly--relax into the familiar yoke of bondage when reading Mrs Newsome's long and frequent letters) and telling himself that he'd begin the search in earnest...tomorrow. It was up to Chad to locate Strether, at the theater. Strether makes himself out in this passage to be a dedicated and energetic agent, but honestly he drifts more than he steers a course. This is also a good passage to demonstrate Stether-in-flux, with his aggressive yet servile posture toward the son of his patroness/fiancee ("I am here on business! We have demands!" and "I've known you since you were a young whippersnapper and I will be your father-in-law soon enough, therefore I have behind me the iron will of your terrifying mother so please, I beg of you, don't make a fuss!").

(Note: I have edited the above-quoted passage down, cutting a lot of exposition that won't make sense without the previous three books.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

About Philosophical Detective Work

From the novel in progress:

“I remind you of the four categories of understanding: we have first the a priori judgments, in analytic and synthetic form. We also have the a posteriori judgments, equally in analytic and synthetic forms. No other category of knowledge is possible, yes?”

“I don’t quite—”

“No, no, Monsieur. A moment, please. Of these four categories of understanding, the analytic a posteriori judgment is of course impossible, as you cannot be both experienced and ignorant relative to a phenomenon. That is childishly apparent, is it not? The synthetic a posteriori judgment is, as I have said, merely the useless impressions of the senses, and it also has no place in the establishment of a criminal’s identity.”


“No, no, Monsieur. I see your objection but you are mistaken. It is of course in the a priori judgment that understanding takes place. Attend: the analytic a priori judgments are true statements about theoreticals made without experience of the theoretical objects. Wondrous, is it not, that such knowledge exists! These judgments are what most people believe philosophy to be, but you and I, Monsieur, are aware that this is a terrific misunderstanding of philosophy, of course.”

“Of course.”

Patience was speaking in a rapid flow of words, her face and hands moving animatedly. She threw drops of water and flakes of cigarette ash here and there and her accent had thickened to the point where James was unsure if he heard everything correctly. Some of Patience’s words—a lot of them, James thought—meant nothing to him in any language.

“It is that final category of understanding,” Patience said, “that of the synthetic a priori judgment, which concerns us. The empiricists claim that such knowledge is impossible: true statements about objects within the living world made with no direct experience of the things themselves. This is metaphysics, Monsieur, and also religion if you allow the physical reality of the supernatural. It is as well, I need not tell you, the realm of the transcendental detective.”

Patience looked at James, her eyes bright with a triumph that was quite beyond him. Had she been talking about police work or not?

“Wait,” he said after a moment. “You’re saying that—I think—experiments and research don’t lead to knowing things. You’re throwing away science, then?”

“Oh, science.” Patience pronounced the word as a long, sibilant slur, as if it was an evil thing on her tongue. “Kant demonstrated most cleverly that what we experience empirically is never the thing itself, but is instead merely the sense impression—the passing mental representation—of the thing. We have awareness of what our poor senses report, but never of actual reality. Though we receive the reports from our fingertips when we touch our lover’s hand, we do not ever know our lover’s real hand. We know only what our fingertips whisper to our brains.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

Monday, June 27, 2011

Neil Gaiman Reads Aloud

Last night Mighty Reader and I (along with 800 or so other Seattle folks) went to Town Hall where Neil Gaiman read from and was interviewed about his latest release, the 10th Anniversary edition of American Gods. It's the "author's preferred text," which means that Mr Gaiman's publisher gave him the opportunity to add in all the stuff his original editor made him cut a decade ago, plus make whatever other changes he wanted to. The current edition, if I understand Mr Gaiman correctly, now clocks in at better than 200,000 words.

I'll come clean right up front and say that I am not a huge fan of Mr Gaiman's writing, though I enjoyed Neverwhere and I've read all the Sandman comics and I follow Mr Gaiman's blog. He's very charming and funny and he seems like a Really Nice Guy and I wanted to go last night because a) Mighty Reader is a NG fan and she bought the tickets, and b) Mr Gaiman has attained nearly legendary status as a fabulous reader and I wanted to see what that was all about. Plus, you know, he's funny.

It was well worth attending, and my advice to you is that if you ever get the chance to see Mr Gaiman in person, go see him. He reads aloud, frankly, beautifully. The biggest lesson to learn from Mr Gaiman's reading? Read Slowly And Distinctly. When he began I thought, "Gosh, he's moving at a snail's pace" but after a minute you fall into his rhythm and maybe it's his dreamy English accent or the dreamlike mood of the piece he read, but time really did stand still. The second bit he read was more dialogue-heavy and he did American accents for the characters and he also read slowly to great effect. I should note that these were pretty long excerpts he read, too. He could have skipped the interview and the questions from the audience and just read all night and that would've been fine with Mighty Reader and me.

Except, of course, Mr Gaiman's reading all night would've deprived us of his "advice to a novice fantasy writer." That was good stuff, and I'll paraphrase for you. First, his general advice to writers: "Write. Finish what you write." More specifically, his advice to genre writers: "Write. Stop reading your genre; read everything else and become influenced by the whole world of fiction. If you are interested in a specific mythology/religion/time period/alternate reality, then read primary sources, not other genre fiction about it. Read the Book of Kells or the Vedas or Homer or Dante or the stuff that Bram Stoker read when he was researching Dracula. Don't be one of those people who fall in love with Lord of the Rings and then decide to write Lord of the Rings, because Lord of the Rings has already been written, a lot better than you could ever write it. Tell the stories only you can tell." There was more, and it was all funnier than I relate it, but in sum Mr Gaiman gives good advice. Write a lot. Finish what you write. Read widely. Rinse and repeat.

Mr Gaiman, Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley are apparently going to be together in Seattle, back at Town Hall, on 11/11/11 for a Big Event of some kind. Mr Gaiman and his wife, pop chanteuse Amanda Palmer (ex-Dresden Dolls) are maybe going to do some kind of tag-team tour up the west coast between Halloween and November 11th, so for those of you who live along the Pacific Ocean, there'll likely be another chance to hear Neil Gaiman read aloud. You should go.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Halfway Point

This is one of those very lame "writing progress" posts that I put up primarily as a form of diary entry as I assume it will be of interest to nobody but me. Whatevs and apologies, kids.

Yesterday, at about 5:45 PM PST, I arrived at the halfway point in the first draft, the end of Chapter 6 (of 12 chapters, natch). My transcendental philosophical detective announces, "I know who the murderer is!" It's all very exciting. It's a big turning point in the story because there's just been a major reveal, not to mention a discussion of Kantian metaphysics. "I am a transcendental detective, Monsieur." Good stuff.

Word count? About 40K I think. It's hard to say because I haven't typed chapter 6 into the Word doc yet and I've also written out a couple of additional scenes for chapters 1 and 2 that add up to around 3,000 words or so. But I'll call it about 40K, so I seem to be on track for a novel-length work of fiction and that's always good news.

This book is going to have chapter titles, I think, but I'm not really paying attention to them during the drafting phase. There appears to be a tendency for my first drafts to be a bit looser these days, with the understanding that a lot can change during revisions and so my real job is to just get the biggest chunks of story onto the page. I continue to amass side notes on index cards, things I want to possibly add in during rewrites. Stuff to expand or think about. There are a couple of themes having to do with the approach of WWII that I haven't even begun to deal with, and there are themes about otherness and trust and all sorts of things. And, you know, I have to make sure that the mechanics of the mystery work out. So this draft is pretty rough overall but I think the shape of the landscape is all going to be there, the emotions and moods and the characters.

Anyway, halfway done and possibly a full draft will exist in a couple of months and that'll be nice for me.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Philosophical Detective Novel Excerpt

I shared this excerpt in the comments to a post over here, so I figured I might as well put it up on my own blog. So I have. Posted it. Here. On my blog.

In the garden, sitting on one of several wooden folding chairs beneath an apple tree, Mr Taylor smoked a pipe and worried. On his knee a small book was balanced. Taylor had allegedly come down to read and to let his wife lie quietly in the dark of their room. He probably should’ve been with her in case it was more than an ordinary headache but Taylor was afraid of that possibility even if he didn’t quite know it. Leonora was having a nap and he was sitting in the shade with a book, that was all.

The book was a publication of the University of Chicago Press and had been written by a colleague of Taylor’s eldest son. Taylor’s son had given it to him so that Taylor would have “something interesting to read on vacation,” according to the inscription on the title page. Taylor’s eldest son liked to read on his vacations rather than to relax and admire the local sights and color. Sometimes Taylor thought his eldest son was a bit too stiff for his own good. He also wasn’t entirely sure that the book wasn’t a joke. It was called
Kierkegaard at Large, and was a hundred and ten pages of dense, mostly incomprehensible philosophy printed in very small, dark type. Taylor could make nothing of it except that the author possibly was claiming that God was a bit of a scamp, getting up to all sorts of harebrained naughtiness that mankind mistook for either plagues or miracles, depending on the outcome. What any of it had to do with the Danish philosopher of the book’s title was well beyond Taylor. It gave him a headache, put him in a foul mood and failed to help Taylor take his mind off his wife.

He thought about going inside the hotel and inquiring after a glass of lemonade, but when he’d come down from his room Taylor had found the staff in a tizzy, running from room to room with grim expressions and babbling inarticulate nonsense at him. Apparently there had been some sort of fracas in the garage. One of the other guests, he took it, had been injured. Taylor would keep that news from his wife. They had so little time left, he and Leonora, and he’d spoil as few moments of it as he could with bad news. There was already bad news enough for the rest of her days.

How ironic it is, Taylor thought. All your life you tell yourself that you’ve got plenty of time and when you approach the end you see that no matter how plentiful your time was, it was never enough. Likely that’s all been observed before, Taylor thought. Poets and writers, he was sure, had been repeating that bit of wisdom for centuries. Poetry had never been one of Taylor’s comforts and so these revelations were all new and startling. He didn’t much enjoy it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

More From James' "The Ambassadors"

There were marks the friends made on things to talk about, and on things not to, and one of the latter in particular fell like the tap of chalk on the blackboard. Married at thirty, Waymarsh had not lived with his wife for fifteen years, and it came up vividly between them in the glare of the gas that Strether wasn't to ask about her. He knew they were still separate and that she lived at hotels, travelled in Europe, painted her face and wrote her husband abusive letters, of not one of which, to a certainty, that sufferer spared himself the perusal; but he respected without difficulty the cold twilight that had settled on this side of his companion's life. It was a province in which mystery reigned and as to which Waymarsh had never spoken the informing word. Strether, who wanted to do him the highest justice wherever he could do it, singularly admired him for the dignity of this reserve, and even counted it as one of the grounds--grounds all handled and numbered--for ranking him, in the range of their acquaintance, as a success. He was a success, Waymarsh, in spite of overwork, or prostration, of sensible shrinkage, of his wife's letters and of his not liking Europe. Strether would have reckoned his own career less futile had he been able to put into it anything so handsome as so much fine silence.

Delicious! "She lived at hotels, travelled in Europe, painted her face and wrote her husband abusive letters." I guess we see what sort of man our protagonist is, making these judgments about a woman he's never met. Lived in hotels! Painted her face! For shame! And what of Waymarsh, about whom Stether works so hard to find something admirable to believe? Oh, subtle irony. Oh, Henry James.

More Historical Research

A rat put secretly into a woman's cell may exhaust her nervous system and her inner strength till she is unable to stick to her story.


An educated young man of eighteen lived in the house of an uncle. The old gentleman went to consult a nerve specialist in regard to some slight nervous trouble of the younger friend. On that occasion he confided his recent suspicion that the young man might be a thief. Money had repeatedly been taken from a drawer and from a trunk; until lately he had had suspicions only of the servants; he had notified the police, and detectives had watched them. He was most anxious to find out whether his new suspicion was true, as he wanted, in that case, to keep the matter out of court, in the interest of the family. The physician, Dr. Jung, in Zurich, arranged that the young man come for an examination of his nerves.

--Hugo Munsterberg, "Essays on Psychology & Crime," 1922

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Henry James on Crafting a Novel

I'm reading Henry James' The Ambassadors right now. I'm a long-time fan of old Hank, and this novel has been on my to-be-read shelf for some time. It was published in 1903 with a preface by the author, and I am a sucker for front matter so naturally I read James' prefatory remarks before diving in to Chapter One. I'm glad I did, too. The preface is nothing short of a crash course in how to build a novel from the ground up, starting with the initial spark of an idea and taking that to a completed narrative. Henry hides nothing and admits, for example, that he invented a couple of foil characters for the protagonist because he discovered that in rejecting the first-person point of view he lost the easiest way of getting to the protagonist's thoughts so it was necessary to invent friends so that the narrator could talk about himself. I like that admission; it's honest and helpful. I also admire the straightforward way James tells us how the idea came to him and how he made it into a better idea for a novel by putting an unexpected twist on the meaning of that original idea, which was, he admits at some length, more than a little cliche. Henry James would've been fun to drink with, I think.

I don't have a real point here, aside from exhorting you to find and read the preface to The Ambassadors so you can see how one master worked. If you think that what James had to say is outdated and useless, I tell you that you are wrong. He was dealing with the same problems in 1903 that we deal with in 2011. Here, for example, is James drolly talking about how you can't dump in big blocks of exposition any more(the despised "info dump"):

...wave away with energy the custom of the seated mass of explanation after the fact, the inserted block of merely referential narrative, which flourishes so, to the shame of the modern impatience, on the serried page of Balzac, but which seems simply to appal our actual, our general weaker, digestion. "Harking back to make up" took at any rate more doing, as the phrase is, not only than the reader of to-day demands, but than he will tolerate at any price any call upon him either to understand or remotely to measure; and for the beauty of the thing when done the current editorial mind in particular appears wholly without sense.

Neither "the reader of today" nor "the current editorial mind" like your clumsy blocks of exposition, Mr Modern Writer. Readers and editors have weaker stomachs and shorter attention spans than they used to do. It's been that way for over a century.

I also like this an extraordinary amount:

One would like, at such an hour as this, for critical licence, to go into the matter of the noted inevitable deviation (from too fond an original vision) that the exquisite treachery even of the straightest execution may ever be trusted to inflict even on the most mature plan.

Yes, by God, he's right. The actual writing of the book is an "exquisite treachery" perpetrated against the outline of the novel you've lovingly created. Henry goes on to say that when he looks over his finished narrative, he sees the seams and patches created by trying to adjust his narrative and outline to each other during the writing process. He knows the book has its flaws, but he thinks that the compromises necessitated by the "treachery" of penning the narrative are acceptable, and he tells us with some humility that The Ambassadors is some of his finest work ever. Me, I'd agree.

Also, in Chapter One, there's this:

"I like," she observed, "your name."

"Oh," he answered, "you won't have heard of it!" Yet he had his reasons for not being sure but that she perhaps might.

Ah it was but too visible! She read it over again as one who had never seen it. "'Mr. Lewis Lambert Strether'"--she sounded it almost as freely as for any stranger. She repeated however that she liked it--"particularly the Lewis Lambert. It's the name of a novel of Balzac's."

"Oh I know that!" said Strether.

"But the novel's an awfully bad one."

"I know that too," Strether smiled.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Johannes and Me

This weekend I took pity on my poor, neglected violin. We haven't seen each other in at least a month and I've been promising (whispers through the lid of the closed case) to give the instrument a little bit of attention. The thing about musical instruments is that, when you don't play them for a while, you lose your chops. And you are aware that as time passes you are losing your chops, and you know that the next time you pick up your axe you won't be as good as the last time you played and that acts as a disincentive which only serves to make you leave the instrument in the case for another day. And so on.

Anyway, despite my trepidation I took my 97 year-old violin (doesn't look a day over 60) out of its case and played some 3-octave scales and arpeggios and an etude from Wohlfahrt and a bit of Sevcik (oh, Ottokar, how I've missed you) and then it was Brahms' Allegro risoluto from the Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G Major, Op. 100. Yes, a little rough, especially where the key changes to the flat side, but really not so awful. After that I played a bit of Bach and some other easier stuff and then I listened to Vivaldi and made soup. Which was all quite fine and hopefully it won't be another month before I play violin again.

In dull writing news, I am about 45% through my first draft. On Friday I wrote a detailed outline for the next three chapters in the draft but yesterday evening I found the outline for this section of the novel that I'd written two months or so ago, and the first outline is much much better so I'm pitching the new outline and using the old one. As I wrote to my fabulous agent this morning, my conception of what's possible in a novel keeps evolving, and I think this is going to be something really special when it's written. Possibly I'll be done with the draft by the end of August, and then I might be finished with rewrites by early next year. I don't know. I find that I'm not in a huge rush with this piece, which is likely going to be some sort of transitional work that will hopefully usher in a Golden Age of Bailey Novels. We'll see. Maybe I'm just taking my time because I'm old and tired and distracted by the flowers in the garden and the songbirds outside and the electric guitar and violin and other people's books.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Just Passing Through (thoughts on research)

The thing about writing fiction that's set in an historical past is that, once I start to research that past, I find the most amazingly weird ideas floating around. Naturally, I feel compelled to put those ideas into the narrative because Sharing Is Caring and I am nothing if not a caring author. I'm in that stage of research where history itself opens up before me like a vast playground and I can pick and choose from among the bizarreness that is human culture, finding actual events that demonstrate whatever themes I'm working with in my fiction. It's fun, kids! I invite you all to try it.

The other thing I enjoy, aside from the general and surprising weirdness that is the history of civilization, is how one idea will lead me to another and the narrative will grow in directions I never could have planned. As Antonia Byatt says in her swell little book On Histories and Stories, I let the reading take me where it will. Ideas form odd chains and now my narrative contains the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, the curious writings of Hugo Munsterberg, a discussion of a priori assumptions a la Immanuel Kant, a cameo appearance by Howard Hughes and God knows what else.

I realize that this is just a sort of dilettantism and shows little respect for the works of actual historians, and that the connections I make between events in my novel may not be the actual connections these events had in real life. But them's the breaks when you work in interpretive fiction. It's art or something like it, and nothing more.