Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I’ve abandoned quotation marks

What I’m working on just now is a revision to the novel I’m calling Go Home, Miss America. So far I’ve made it through about one and a half chapters of the MS. The odd numbered chapters tell the story of David Molloy, middle-aged director of a visiting scholars program at a university in Seattle. The even numbered chapters tell the story of Catherine Lark, a twentysomething who has gone to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of her church’s relief mission. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, the two storylines intersect.

Each of these stories is written in a different prose style. The David Molloy narrative is brisk and a bit frenetic, with a maybe Nabokovian comic tone. I read Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim not long ago, and that novel might be a reasonable comparison, a work similar to what I’m going after, though Amis’ protagonist did not use as much profanity as my protagonist does. “Fuckmotherfuck,” David Molloy says. Often. The Catherine Lark narrative is more languid, more open and—I hope—beautiful. I’m not sure what sort of literary touchstone I’m using for that narrative. Possibly English lyric poetry more than any prose I can think of. Wordsworth and Longfellow, I’d venture. I strive for expansive and breathtaking writing and though I’m sure I fail, it ain’t bad at all.

So here I am, revising two alternating narratives, working on voice and tone and the poetry of the prose, and also of course working on character and theme and story and all those essential elements of a novel. I sort of forget to talk about those elements, because no matter what part of a story you’re working on, you have only a single tool: language. You can be sorting out how to write about the relationship between a husband and his wife, you can be strengthening the value of a recurrent symbol, you can be expanding the size of the fictional stage, and you still only have words, mere words, with which to do it. The entire thing is made up of words, and so I think about prose style a lot when I’m revising, or I tell myself I’m thinking about words even when I’m thinking about other story elements.

These are all more or less prefatory remarks to build a backdrop for the appearance of James Joyce on the scene. While I’m working on my two conjoined narratives and thinking about Nabokov and Amis and Fitzgerald and Woolf and Wordsworth, I happen to be reading Finnegans Wake. One certain fact about Finnegans Wake is that what Joyce does with language in that book is never predictable. Finnegans Wake is an immense linguistic world, with a surprising and active and constantly shifting narrative language. Say what you will about Joyce, he was not lazy when it came to his prose. For better or worse, reading FW forces me to ask myself, when I look at my own writing, if I am working hard enough. Am I allowing my vocabulary to contract, am I looking for interesting ways to describe action, am I painting a vivid portrait or am I merely suggesting, those sorts of questions. Joyce was pushing against the framework of art, seeing what he could do, seeing what he could make his one and only tool—language—do that might open doors into new territories. I don’t think all of Finnegans Wake necessarily “works” as an experiment in prose, but Joyce was clearly trying as hard as he could, and the passages that do work—impenetrable as they might be—are breathtaking. So I am trying to work as hard as I can with Go Home, Miss America. Maybe all of it won’t “work,” but I think enough of it does to make the experiment worthwhile. I also know that because I’m more or less a realist, most readers won’t even see the ways I’m abusing my mother tongue. They’ll just notice that I’ve abandoned quotation marks. That’s like the first warning sign of experimental writing, isn’t it?

11 comments:

  1. If I tried to do half of what you're doing, my brain might melt ... but at least I get to read your stuff and reap the benefits of your awesome hard work, right?

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  2. So the abandoning of quotation marks is like the gateway drug? I like the idea of pushing oneself harder. I think that's why I am focusing on a short story at the moment. I feel like I can push myself harder, but for a shorter amount of time. I want to pay more attention to all the elements of the story.

    Hey Mr. B, I got something in the mail yesterday! It had a matte cover, and it still smelled of marker from the lovely little message handwritten inside. Yay!

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  3. I was really surprised it got here so quickly. I was expecting reordered checks. The package was a lot more exciting than reordered checks. :)

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  4. Michelle, you are too kind.

    My father got his signed copy yesteday. I have no idea why there isn't one in UT right now. I sent two to CA. I hope the other got where it's supposed to go.

    Yes, Davin, once you start playing around with punctuation, you are on the road to ruin!

    It's funny, but right now I'm in a strange transitional phase with my writing, and keeping track of everything that goes on in a scene (let alone a novel) seems impossible. Possibly it's just that the first drafts of my last two books have been very, very rough, and revisions take a lot more work than they used to. I don't know. It makes me tired.

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  5. Stuff takes forever to get here, so it's not a surprise. I'm about to go check the mail though, so here's to hoping!!

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  6. I just tagged you on FB, Scott. Put up a pick of You Know What with a Certain Animal Head.

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  7. I love your title. Cormac McCarthy was the first I read who had abandoned quotation marks. At first I found it confusing and contrived but then I forgot about it, and it didn't matter anymore.

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  8. Yvonne, exactly. After a page or two, you don't even miss them. And if you tell a story or read a story to someone, there are no quotation marks. The whole audiobooks industry proves that we don't need them.

    I read a Jose Saramago novel where he doesn't even set the dialogue apart with paragraph breaks. It was still clear when someone was speaking, and who the characters were.

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