I always wanted to be a novelist. It remains, to me, the supreme art. "Novel" as in unusual, however far from that ideal so many generic books have become. "You can lose yourself in a novel" the cliche goes and it's true: though what does that really mean? Are we lost in the labyrinth? Rather, the phrase means, lost to the novel, in the same way that you can be lost to a piece of music, or to a lover - you are no longer yourself, the novel has changed you.
In reality, of course, this muse, this unknowable paper-being is a tease to us because it can't be paraphrased. You have to read the damn thing, all those pages. "Infinite Jest" or "Ulysses" are swamps in which you can get stuck, genuinely stuck, without a compass, having to read on to see a parting in the trees and a glimpse of a star which can guide you out of the word thicket. Even a short novel, a "Gatsby", a "Breakfast at Tiffany" needs this engagement, and being short, you might just be tempted to start again, knowing the end, in order to concentrate on the words and how they make you feel.
Yet how do you write one of these things if that's what you aspire to? So many words. I can pretty much say that my whole writing life has been a bit of a quest to find out what kind of writer I am. A long time ago now, starting an M.A. in novel writing, I had my doubts, but I also felt that it was long form fiction that was where I wanted to be. It's now a dozen years or more since I finished a novel, but I'll come back to that later; whereas you can be a poet based on a smattering of poetry each year, can you be a novelist when you haven't written a novel? A few "Best British novelists" - Helen Simpson for instance - haven't yet published a novel for instance; yet the term "prose writer" or "short story writer" sounds an awkward one. If I respond to the name "poet" its because its easier, yet its no more accurate than "novelist" even though I've not had a novel published.
For novels are places where even the writer of them can get lost. Sometimes abandoning the book that you started with such hope. It's a marathon not a sprint (hence this blog title, cribbed from Alan Sillitoe's long story...novella....novel). I look back with amusement on my novel writing plans - there were so many ideas, some didn't get much further than a title and a paragraph. There was "The Westerlys" which began, "like their name they blew in from the coast, and during their short time in our community they changed it." I still want to read that "novel" that never progressed beyond a first paragraph. Then there was "Sleeping Next to God", a turn of the millennium noir about a man who had desperate dreams that meant that whoever he slept with ended up dead. I finished the first part, but it got derailed about 1997, and the millennium has come and gone. Back around the time I did my M.A. it was which of these novels I would continue, which I would write. The one I eventually wrote, a contemporary story set in London beginning on the night that Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, took its setting from my previous year when I'd briefly lived in the capital. It talked about YBAs (before they were famous) and dot com companies (that were yet to form.) The writer of contemporary fiction comes with a sell-by date.
The novel is a lot of words, and it takes a lot of time. I benefitted from having a peer group and I'm benefiting now from being part of a small writing group, three of the five of us having already published novels. So its less lonely than it was, yet as the "work in progress" grew from a long story to a novella, to a full length novel with a title, a structure, a format, I realise that the peer group is there for some kind of validation, for the novel progresses in fits and starts. Whereas one friend will reorder her work several times from the version we've seen, I know my structure once it's in place will stay as it is, but the bits that need colouring in - or pulling out - are complicated and intricate. There's some strange magic takes place where the various pieces fall together, and not being one to do more than a rudimentary timeline or plot summary I realise that what I'm now struggling with is not the mechanical aspects of the novel, but the visionary ones.
One of those other novels I wrote, over a dozen years ago, took place in a single day, and I wanted it to have some of the mysterious nature of Saramago's "Blindness" or Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled", yet I realised as I wrote the more action-based finale that I'd somehow lost this to the prosaic nature of plot and denouement. I could unpick story, but I realised I couldn't unpick the language and tone of the novel. That one was written quickly - in 3 months - but this one I'm working on now is 2+ years and counting. I can see the end, but I haven't yet written the end and though I know the scenes I've been struggling to fit them together like I've sentences without conjunctions. Really, I know that I've been slowing down as I try and recall the essence of this book, its particular flavour, and that's something - like a complex soup or curry - where though you can follow the recipe, and use your experience, you can only really taste in the making of it.
So I think that's what is so ineffable about writing a novel, or the kind of novel I'm now trying to write. I'd love to say I'll just write the story, but stories can be inert if they don't have some animating fire underneath them all. I need my automatons to have the simulation of life, even if like the replicants in "Blade Runner" they have a cut off point, a manufactured end date. How to describe the unknown to someone? A singer can demo a song and work with the band and producer to bring it alive, yet even if I had an agent or publisher I think their role would be merely technical. The strangeness of the novel - the thing I'm trying to do with it - is as hard to articulate as speaking about a particular artistic effect. Magnus Mills tells of how he'd not got the ending for "The Restraint of Beasts" and then it came to him all at once. There's alchemy in novel writing - in a way that I'm not so sure is quite there in short story writing, where the craft aspect is about honing something small which can be visioned, which can be encapsulated.
And this book, which I began because I wanted to write a longer work, and one that I felt I could get to the end of, and which - at the time - I thought was fluid enough to enable it to keep my interest; grew about 15,000 words in into something else, and I knew it was a novel. In some ways its not the "story I absolutely have to tell" but I do think its the book I have to write. I'm not in it, for a start, no "I am" narrator, and none of the characters who resembles me beyond the basics of gender and age. So I'm getting to know these characters even at the same time as I'm bringing them to life. I'd forgotten what a fascinating process that could be. In a story the characters seem fully formed somehow, because they only exist within that story's smaller temporal space, but in the novel, I need to know more... I need to project back on their lives, and root them in back story.
More than that if there is magic in the novel - in this novel - it is a magic that dare not speak its name. I've always been a writer willing to explain what I'm doing, but perhaps the years of writing poetry and shorter fiction has made me more reluctant to look into the eye of the storm. I think the book works - or has to work - on its own terms, and here I'm returning to the forgotten selfishness that you need as a writer, that desire to please not a crowd, not even yourself, but the monster you are bringing forth from the clay. No wonder "Frankenstein" is such an archetype for writers, given its mysterious bringing to life, for that's what we always do whether its Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, or Dickie Greenleaf.
I'm writing this when I should be going back to the novel - I can hear it's breath, I can see it's form, but still it is not quite alive, it still needs the unplugging from its life support to be able to live by itself that only comes when I type the words "THE END".
I never wanted to be a novelist. I don't like the thought of putting all my eggs in one basket. As you say, authors can get lost in them (I read somewhere that novelists have more mental problems than poets do - perhaps because of the long periods of isolation and living in another world). And yes, there are sell-by dates. A writer at my local group has been re-writing 2 novels for 25 years. In that time she's been given lots of advice - add magic realism, remove magic realism and add zombies, remove zombies and lengthen it, etc.
Of course, you can have your cake and eat it, publishing chapters as stories - Jennifer Egan, but also the "Short FICTION 2010" prize-winner, Jill Widner, who won with a chapter. 3 other excerpts had already won prizes (published in the North American Review, etc), and 4 others had been published (in Asia Literary Review, etc).
All good points
All good points
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