Monday, November 25, 2013

there are pictures of cats and goats

This is one of those posts that reinforces my reputation for being a dull man who talks primarily about himself as a novelist. I write it only to help myself think through a couple of things. You are encouraged to stop reading now and find something more interesting on the internet. I hear there are pictures of cats and goats to be seen.

I find myself working on a number of projects right now, which would normally be disorienting because I enjoy focused activities rather than what is termed “multi-tasking” (an ugly, hateful word). Yet here I am, with multiple projects underway. Possibly I’m able to divide my attention because I don’t so much write with the goal of publication anymore, so it doesn’t matter if I spend the rest of my life poking about with a bunch of unfinished novels. Perhaps that will become my art form. There is a grand tradition of that sort of writing already.

The item at the top of my imaginary “to do as a novelist” list is finishing the first of who-knows-how-many revisions of my newest novel, The Hanging Man (once upon a time called Circus in the Dust). I’m about 25% of the way through that. It seems to be a good book. We’ll see. There is a lot of cigarette smoking in it. Some days the novel strikes me as annoyingly artificial in the way that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is annoyingly artificial, where every event and character is a stand in for some thematic idea, and everything is tightly controlled and aimed in the same direction. That control, that aiming of things, was once my idea of a proper way to write a novel, but lately I have my doubts. Why should there be a certain expected form for a novel? Why isn’t this applied to the other arts? I know that it is, that there are people who reject all painting that isn’t representational, for instance, but most art lovers don’t take those people seriously. Yet people can make claims that a novel must have a particular sort of integration of elements in order to be well-formed, must accomplish certain specific goals to label itself “a story,” and that sort of thing, and people say this all with straight faces as if it’s axiomatic. Which it is not. Anyway, I am pushing and pulling at my most recent manuscript and wondering if it’s too much the sort of novel in which I am rapidly losing faith as a writer. We’ll see how that goes.

Waiting in the wings is another new manuscript, a long novella called Mona in the Desert, which right now is in pretty much rough first-draft shape. It will require some considerable work to turn into something I will consider readable. I have been struggling for six months or so to come up with a plan for the revisions to that book. I don’t actually know what to do with it. It pleases me a great deal, and it displeases me a great deal. I’m not sure how to rid it of the displeasures it provides, to replace them with more pleasures. It’s quite vexing I assure you. I have a long list of ideas that I’m sure will not work. Possibly I’ll begin work on revisions to Mona in January or February.

I’m actually, I realize, writing something new during all of this. I wrote the opening couple of chapters of something, some long piece of fiction that might be a lengthy story or a novella or even a novel—no idea which yet—during the first days of the trip Mighty Reader and I took to Prague and Vienna in October. I have plenty of probably good ideas for what to do with that fiction, and I think I’ll keep poking away at it while I work on everything else I’m working on. You can see the bits of this new thing that I’ve so far typed up if you click on the tab marked “Melville Price’s Atlas Of” at the top of the page. There’s plenty more I haven’t typed up. I am not aware that I have an overall structure planned for this piece. It seems pretty clear, however, how it should be written out, so I’m just writing it as I go along. I don’t see any problems with that plan. Or non-plan, I guess.

Surprisingly, I also find myself reading a bunch of nonfiction in order to research the “Manhattan” section of the long-awaited (by one person only, but hey, that’s something) novel Nowhere But North. I’m reading about Greenwich Village in 1910 or so. Henry James might get a cameo appearance in this book, if I’m feeling particularly wicked. You never know. Nowhere But North has a complex, carefully-mapped-out structure which, I realized, will make it easier rather than harder to draft. It’s actually four separate sections that overlap but can be written as four separate sections so it won’t require the sort of sustained concentration my previous first drafts have taken. I can work on it in 10,000-word chunks, which for me is a pretty leisurely pace. There are ten 10,000-word chunks to this narrative. 10,000 words is like two chapters for me. So piece of cake. I don’t know if I’ll actually begin to write prose for Nowhere But North while I’m poking about with Melville Price’s Atlas Of. I don’t see why I can’t.


  1. Sounds like about the balance of pleasure and discontent...

    I have been traveling too much and need to clean my wayward house (ugh!) and then focus on the many projects I have in the State of Almost. So I shall be working on this and that as well.

    Luck to us--

  2. "about the right balance," it should say!

  3. Tom, The Hanging Man was planned carefully, along Flaubertian lines, all charted and outlined neatly and as completely as possible for me. I have a diagram that breaks the narrative into acts, which are the big structural units that are further broken down into chapters. For each chapter I have an internal three-act structure and my diagram shows the plot points, the characters and the results of the plot points. Alongside these chapter descriptions I have a column listing the thematic content of the chapters, and you can see the development and knitting-together of the themes and symbols across the course of the narrative. Et cetera. It's all worked out in advance. Ma femme and I watched a recent French film adaptation of Madame Bovary this weekend, and as we talked about the characters I began to feel that Flaubert had over-determined things, had removed too much real life and had produced something that was too much a waxwork diorama, maybe. I haven't quite worked out what I think yet. But I am now not at all convinced that what Flaubert came up with was anything like a universal solution to the problem of the novel. It introduces its own particular set of problems while solving others. Oh, wait: I'm inventing Modernism. Always late to the party.

  4. See, there's the problem, talking about the characters. Flaubert would have removed every trace of real life if he could have figured out how to do it. He would have written an abstract novel if there were such a thing. I should read The Temptation of Saint Anthony, where I suspect he got pretty close.

    Flaubert did not come up with a universal solution, no; rather a particularly difficult, virtuosic solution.

    His one direct disciple, Maupassant, published perfect imitations of Flaubert until one minute after Flaubert dropped dead, when he started publishing Maupassant stories.

  5. Scott, you've got a lot of stove burners going! I loved Madame Bovary when I read it for the first time. It inspired the first piece of my own writing that I actually liked. I think the restrictions that Flaubert had in place served to help me tap into more creative material because I didn't have to worry about structure. But then recently when I tried to reread Bovary I wasn't interested in it at all.

    I'm excited to read "Melville Price's Atlas Of." My home does not have internet presently, and that is making it hard for me to read things on the internet except while I'm at work, and then I'm usually trying to work. Usually.

  6. You can replace "characters" in my above comment with "costumes" or any other narrative element. The problem, not just with Flaubert but with all novelists, is that in order to write a piece of fiction you have to have some organizational principle for your material. You have to choose particular elements and structures, which essentially means you have to limit what you can use and how you can use it. So every novel is an abstract novel, because every novel is composed purely of abstractions. Bovary only looks like realism until you close the book and look at the world. I donno. I'm constantly fighting against the systems of representation; they are all false in differing ways. On some level, every novel I read these days smacks too much of artifice and disappoints me. This all might be residual hangover from Finnegans Wake. And, you and I may not be having the same conversation. At least I'm not sure what I'm trying to say except that I have doubts, man. Strong doubts.

  7. Davin, I was fully and properly impressed when I first read Madame Bovary, but as time passes I am less pleased with the results of Flaubert's method of total control. Perhaps it's the elements he chooses to control; Nabokov's books are just as tightly-knit, just as completely determined, but they seem open-ended and mysterious. There is no mystery in Bovary. There is very little life, either. Maybe that's redundant.

  8. I take back what I said about Nabokov. I believe that there are forces beyond VN's control at work in his novels, there there is a certain emotional messiness that erupts through the armature when VN's attention is elsewhere.

  9. Marly, may we each find time to clean our houses! And then to work on this and that. I'll be looking forward to seeing what it is that you make.

  10. This excites me to read because it makes me wonder if 2014 is going to be like this for me ... lots and lots of projects I'm trying to juggle and keep in the air and motivated about all at the same time. I already have my doubts about each one I've planned, but I'll try anyway! Nowhere but North ... you can add interested readers up to 2 now. :)