Tuesday, December 13, 2016

in a single room, in three acts without denouement

I have noticed lately that the novels I write generally involve travel, and a great deal of it. I seem to somehow have gotten stuck in the habit of writing literal journeys:
  • The Jack of Hearts Remembers Me is a classic American road trip taken by a pair of evangelists (one of whom is mad, and the other might be imaginary).
  • The Astrologer is a voyage-within-a-voyage, as plucky Soren Andersmann sails off to the island of Hven during a royal trip to Kronberg castle in Elsinore.
  • Cocke & Bull's protagonists flee from Joppa, Maryland to the Great Dismal Swamp in the Carolinas, trekking through the Cumberland along the way. And then back to Joppa.
  • The Transcendental Detective is an episode during Patience Quince's peregrinations in America while avoiding her lover, whom Patience has left behind in Algiers.
  • Go Home, Miss America involves travel from Seattle, Washington to the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is also a lot of movement within Seattle, much wandering around the city.
  • The Hanging Man is yet another episode of Patience Quince in America, this time a side quest while her train is delayed by dust storms in Kansas. There's some good stuff about trains, and a lot of walking around. Also someone is pursued by a bear, as the bear is itself pursued.
  • Mona in the Desert tells of two parallel pilgrimages to Albuquerque, New Mexico: one in 1950, the other sometime vaguely in the 1990s.
  • Antosha! drags its characters all over Mother Russia and then to Italy, Switzerland, Bohemia, and America.
  • Nowhere But North is a long voyage from Manhattan to the South Pole. A wide variety of vehicles are involved.
I'm not sure what this says about me, but one thing I do not do is write stories of people sitting quietly while they muse about life or whatever. I seem to create odysseys, or at least the sort of noisy ramshackle flying about that one finds in Dostoyevsky.

Certainly the voyage, the hero's journey thing, is a useful framework (thematically/metaphorically and narrative-structure-wise) for a large scale work of fiction, and certainly the idea of motion is natural enough to this writer, who has had uncountable addresses over the decades. Still, I find it curious and possibly alarming (and no doubt very telling to someone--not me--with the appropriate amount of critical distance) that there is so much moving around in everything I write. I just thought of the two most recent short stories I wrote, and both of them involve a character walking along a city street having strange encounters.

Perhaps this is all because I have a fantasy of home being a place where nothing happens, where there are no adventures, where all is stable and at peace. My characters are none of them at home because they are none of them at peace, so I cannot allow them to remain at rest. Home is not an option for my poor protagonists, or at best it is very remote. Perhaps I have a secret wish to be one of the stodgier residents of Hobbiton.

I've just remembered that this is the sort of cursory analysis of my writing that I do when I'm wrapping up a first draft. I am, you see, close to the end of the first draft of my Antarctica novel, and as usual I'm wondering what I think I'm doing, writing all of these novels, wondering again if I keep writing the same story again and again, dressing up the same small set of characters in different costumes and sending them off on the same journey but having repainted the canvas backdrops and shuffled the props. Maybe. I don't know. I would like my next novel, should there be one, to be the tale of someone or someones who manifestly refuse to leave home. Like a Beckett story, maybe, all taking place in a single room.

15 comments:

  1. Have you given any thought to how your on-the-road themes stack up against the here-at-home themes so common in one of your favorite writer's work: Anton Chekhov. But I might be wrong about Chekhov. What do you think?

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  2. A lot of Chekhov's characters are in motion: taking a trip somewhere, visiting relatives, etc. There is also a theme of displacement: criminals in exile, failures returned from the city to a village, or villages sent to the city for work, etc. People climb in and out of carriages, ferries, railway coaches and that sort of thing all the time in Chekhov. I think his reputation as a writer of drawing room stories is based almost entirely on the handful of plays he wrote, which are all set in rural homes. The vast bulk of his work is much more kinetic. The story that made his initial reputation is The Steppe, a long impressionistic tale about a trip across the steppe in southern Russia. The Lady with the Little Dog is about people on vacation in Yalta. There are certainly plenty of stories about people where they are, but there are plenty of stories about people not staying put.

    One interesting (to me, anyway) thing about Chekhov's stories is that almost every one of them is built around a character attempting to perform some definite act in the physical world: buy a farm, visit an aunt, make it to a restaurant, etc. There's a task at the heart of the plot, some business to be done.

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  3. Unless you want to write a certain kind of Modernist-influenced novel, it's awfully hard to stay put. Besides, even if stuck in a town or trapped in a house, characters tend to wander. Where there is plot, causality tends to make people move. In novel terms, a short distance (even a very short one) can seem like a voyage.

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    1. I sometimes worry that I merely repeat myself. But everything of yours that I've read has a fascinating journey and I never say, "Oh, that Marly, sending her characters wandering off again." Motion is natural, action is story, etc. And really, my favorite stories are all quests. The book I consider writing next, if I write it, is a long trek across Europe, with flashbacks. Travel through time and space: that's what I do. A trip to the underworld, etc. I blame the Greeks.

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    2. "Even if stuck in a town or trapped in a house ..." - this is making me think of Xavier de Maistre.

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    3. Or Proust in his bedroom. The sending of notes to Maman as a form of travel. Have you read the de Maistre? I haven't.

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    4. Proust experiencing the mutation of his hotel furniture across the weeks in Balbec, until, by going to the same room many times, he has moved into a different room. I was lucky enough to find a copy of the de Maistre in a local library. I don't remember if it was before or after I read the book that I heard he was influenced by Sterne, but it has that Sternean Sentimental Journey self-permitting playfulness.

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    5. Yes, that's a much better example for Proust.

      We could all use a little Sterne influence these days.

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    6. The lightness we could; though I can think of at least one author who uses his Sterne influence as a kind of wacky potion. They'd have to be unconscious of it somehow.

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  4. Yes, good, like my idea of the genre of the domestic picaresque (Cranford, The Country of the Pointed Firs), where the characters stay in town but are constantly in motion visiting each other. In both of the parenthetical examples, the narrator is actually an outsider in the town. She has to make a trip just to be allowed to sit still.

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    1. In Cranford they're building a New Important Road, aren't they, complete with demolition work? And Firs is really all about boats, land being a temporary stop between voyages.

      Someday I'll read Firs again and carefully compare it to Utopia. There's an essay to be written (by someone, not me) about the literature of islands.

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    2. 1. Cranford - I don't think so! Some other book?
      2. Pointed Firs - more about pies than boats. About half of the visiting is on the mainland. The big family reunion episode, for example, is boat-free. Anyway, I don't remember it as being much about boats.

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    3. 1. My mistake! It's a railway line, and it's My Lady Ludlow.
      2. I was joking about the boat thing. I am possibly more serious about the literature of islands study. Though England is of course an island, so I'd need to be careful about my criteria.

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    4. Carlo Ginzburg titled a book of essays on English literature No Island Is an Island. The first essay is about, that's right, Utopia.

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    5. I am always the last one on the bandwagon.

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