IRINA. Yes, how petty our Andrey has grown, how dull and old he has become beside that woman! At one time he was working to get a professorship and yesterday he was boasting of having succeeded at last in becoming a member of the District Council. He's a member, and Protopopov is chairman. . . . The whole town is laughing and talking of it and he's the only one who sees and knows nothing. . . . And here everyone has been running to the fire while he sits still in his room and takes no notice. He does nothing but play his violin . . . [nervously]. Oh, it's awful, awful, awful! [Weeps] I can't bear it any more, I can't! I can't, I can't! [sobs loudly]. Throw me out, throw me out, I can't bear it any more!I have edited this scene down to a couple of long speeches because they illustrate an idea about fiction that I've been mulling over for the last I-don't-know-how-long. A couple of weeks, at least. In Chekhov's play "Three Sisters," from which I've snipped the above, the machine that is the plot and the machines that are the characters grind away at each other from beginning to end of the piece, slowly but inexorably, and the texture of the play, the tapestry of dialogue and situation, becomes increasingly thicker and more emotional. Chekhov constantly stirs more elements into the pot, adds more wood to the fire, etc write your own metaphor. In each scene, it seems that these characters have all reached the breaking point, beyond which it is impossible to go, and yet Chekhov pushes them on, down, forward as things keep grinding away. At the point I've jumped into the action above (the end of Act III), Chekhov has achieved an effect I think of as "taking all the air out of the room." Elizabeth Strout does much the same thing in the majority of her stories in Olive Kitteridge, her 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection.
OLGA [alarmed]. What is it? What is it, darling?
IRINA [sobbing]. Where? Where has it all gone? Where is it? Oh, my God, my God! I've forgotten everything, everything . . . everything is in a tangle in my mind. . . I don't remember the Italian for window or ceiling . . . I'm forgetting everything; every day I forget something more and life is slipping away and will never come back, we'll never, never go to Moscow. . . . I see that we won't go. . . [restraining herself]. Oh, I'm miserable. . . . I can't work, I'm not going to work. I've had enough of it, enough of it! I've been a telegraph clerk and now I have a job in the town council and I hate and despise every bit of the work they give me. . . . I'm already twenty-three, I've been working for years, my brains are drying up, I'm getting thin and old and ugly and there's nothing, nothing, not the slightest satisfaction, and time is passing and you feel that you are moving away from a real, a beautiful life, moving farther and farther away and being drawn into the depths. I'm in despair and I don't know how it is I'm alive and haven't killed myself yet. . . I kept expecting we should move to Moscow and there I should meet my true love. I've been dreaming of him, loving him. . . . But it seems that was all nonsense, nonsense. . . .
ANDREY. Where's Olga? [OLGA comes from behind the screen.] I've come to ask you for the key of the cupboard, I have lost mine. You've got one, it's a little key.
[OLGA gives him the key in silence; IRINA goes behind her screen; a pause.]
ANDREY. What a tremendous fire! Now it's begun to die down. Damn it all, that Ferapont made me so cross I said something silly to him. Your honour . . . [a pause]. Why don't you speak, Olya? [a pause] It's time to drop this foolishness and sulking all about . . . . You're here, Masha, and you too, Irina -- very well, then, let us have things out thoroughly, once and for all. What have you got against me? What is it? [greatly confused]. Don't excite yourself. I ask you quite calmly, what have you against me? Tell me straight out. I'll say what I have to say and then go. Directly. . . . First, you have something against Natasha, my wife, and I've noticed that from the very day of my marriage. Natasha is a splendid woman, conscientious, straightforward and honourable -- that's my opinion! I love and respect my wife, do you understand? I respect her, and I insist on other people respecting her too. I repeat, she is a conscientious, honourable woman, and all your disagreements are simply caprice. . . [a pause]. Secondly, you seem to be cross with me for not being a professor, not working at something scholarly. But I'm in the service of the Zemstvo, I'm a member of the District Council, and I consider this service just as sacred and elevated as the service of learning. I'm a member of the District Council and I'm proud of it, if you care to know . . . [a pause]. Thirdly . . . there's something else I have to say. . . . I've mortgaged the house without asking your permission. . . . For that I am to blame, yes, and I ask your pardon for it. I was driven to it by my debts . . . thirty-five thousand. . . . I'm not gambling now -- I gave up cards long ago; but the chief thing I can say in self-defence is that you girls -- you get a pension . . . while I don't get . . . my wages, so to speak . . . [a pause]. They won't listen. Natasha is an excellent, conscientious woman [paces up and down the stage in silence, then stops]. When I married her, I thought we should be happy . . . happy, all of us. . . . But, my God! [Weeps] Dear sisters, darling sisters, you must not believe what I say, you mustn't believe it . . . [goes out].
Who cares? Why am I writing this? I am working on a theory. Not a theory really about fiction or art, but more a theory about exhaustion and what sort of fiction I personally like, and maybe the sort I write. I have read books (and stories and plays) where the writer stops being interesting (I actually use the term impressive rather than interesting when I think about it) midway through the book and things dissolve, rather, and reading the piece becomes a pointless exercise in completion. Some writers get interesting ideas for premises or characters, but don't actually have anything to do with those premises or characters. For example, I was given Gene Wolfe's four-book series Claw of the Conciliator for Christmas. I don't read much in the way of science fiction, but I have to admit that the writing in the first fifty or so pages is pretty darned interesting, and I was drawn into the book. Eventually, however, it all became flat and stale and pointless, and when I reached the last page of the first book in this four-book set, I found that I had no interest in reading the remaining 750 pages of the saga. Wolfe packed his story with world-building extravagances, mysteries, violence, romance, language-play, weirdness, and still nothing was moving, Wolfe had stopped impressing me. I was unmoved and counting the pages remaining to be got through.
I seem to be evading my point, which I think is that I like a story where a writer keeps working as he goes along, rather than sets up a game board and then simply unspools the plot. This is why I don't care much for detective fiction, unless the detective character is a hoot or the writer digresses into interesting subjects (which explains my addiction to Christie's Poirot books). Gene Wolfe pushes things in the first fifty pages, and then he stops pushing. Chekhov, in his plays and his best stories, never stops pushing, never stops impressing with where he can go with his fictional elements. The sudden speech from Andrey where he declares the shallow and deceitful Natasha to be a loving wife, when everyone knows she is having an affair with Andrey's employer Protopopov, is a surprise that seems inevitable (or perhaps unavoidable is a better word), and it is deeply moving. Irina's disillusionment about work and adult life is no surprise, but it's fuel on the fire of the story, and grinds against her expectations and her desire to engage with the world (and to move to Moscow).
Who else? I have been meaning to write more about Marly Youmans' latest novel Glimmerglass, the second half of which features an adventure that is part fever dream, part mystical experience, and part thrilling escape. The protagonist of the tale encounters characters from scripture, myth, from literary history, and from her own subconscious. There is an admirable angel character who may or may not be Satan; it works either way, which is some trick. Some day soon, hopefully, I'll write about Glimmerglass, but for now I want to say that this is a book where the writer continues to push things, to work with her materials and find something new all along the course of the narrative. Yes, that's what I want to say, and that's what I want to find in a story. I get bored otherwise. I'm easily bored. Look: I've managed finally to condense this whole post into three little words.