Thursday, May 14, 2009

Occasional Notes on Fictional Prose

With verse, there's no problem: the line is the fundamental unit of meaning and of rhythm. With the prose poem, I focus on the sentence and the relation between sentences. Critical writing takes its rhythm from the argument, and at least in part from the work I'm writing about. But one of the difficulties of prose fiction is the freedom it offers: its fundamental unit can be the word, the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, or even potentially the entire book (the map is the territory).

By "fiction" I am trying not to mean narrative or storytelling, but fiction as the most open category of prose: that which can include any kind of writing, because it is by definition not held to the standards of non-fiction. The prose is the fiction in its capaciousness, its generosity of relation. (I would say "novel" because that gets closer to the heteroglossic territory proper to what I'm attempting, but for now I shy away from the word and its grandiosity.)

"Narrative" seems at this point nearly synonymous with hypotaxis. I find for the most part that the units or chapters of my project are hypotactic on a sentence level (generally not my strategy with poetry) but the arrangement of the units themselves is paratactic: I hop from one scene to the next, one character to the next, without apparent causal links. But many if not most of the chapters have a conventionally realistic hypotactic coherence. Next time I'd like to try the opposite trick: paratactic sentences within chapters, but the chapters themselves following a linear, if not strictly causal, arrangement.

The chief stylistic tic of the fiction thus far is the sentence extended by numerous independent clauses set off by commas--a fugitive parataxis that interrupts the narrative, representing either the flight into a character's inwardness or an outward bound flight into the self-consciousness of the narrative itself.

Dialogue. In some chapters it takes conventional form, with quotation marks and little gestures and actions by the speaking characters that establish their spatial and emotional relations. In other chapters there are no marks, blurring the line between dialogue and indirect discourse. I don't know if ultimately one form must end up replacing the other. I was always a sucker for Joycean dialogue, in which dashes provide enough of a visual cue to the reader so that she knows who is speaking, but as the paragraph proceeds the line between dialogue and action becomes more wavery and indistinct. Conventional punctuation of dialogue produces a ventilating effect, a kind of breezy relief from the large blocks of prose I tend to produce--but I'm suspicious of this breeziness, the desire it seems to serve for writing qua writing to disappear and be replaced by a convincing illusion of speech.

The fiction I've loved most has been the fiction that conjures worlds: Middle Earth, Napoleon's Europe, Bloom's Dublin, Gatsby's Long Island, Sutpen's Hundred, Mrs. Dalloway's party. This requires a powerful imaginative effort utterly distinct from what I want to call imaginative verbal flow--one word, line, phrase, sentence following another, creating and compelling its own logic. I do not as yet have a strategy for managing these seemingly competing impulses, but the model that seems to offer the most hope and promise for what I want to do is Woolf. In To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and most of all The Waves she evolves a fictional method in which the logic of verbal flow miraculously and as it were interstitially conjures a living world of people and places in dynamic relation (though notoriously without "action," without anything much happening except, devastatingly, between the lines). Joyce, as brilliant as he is, can seem like a clever schoolboy by comparison.

The anecdote is something I resist in poetry. In prose fiction it interests me, less for its content (action) than for the situation of its speaker: who is telling this anecdote and to whom and with what motives. One valuable inspiration I take from Bolaño is his method of putting anecdotes into the mouths of minor characters which the major characters collect and arrange, or fail to arrange.

Write what you know. If a major public event is part of my fiction, how does this not simply become the more-or-less exciting backdrop for the private events that the realist novel tends to focus on? If I give in to this tendency I reproduce my own American middle-class experience as someone for whom the Events of his time--the fall of the Wall, 9/11, Iraq, Obama's election--were in fact mostly backdrop, experienced indirectly and less pressingly than the events of his private life. This is a damning fact of my life that I can't just run away from; it must therefore be my subject.

Length is a problem. Not the page count, which I still fetishize to a degree: it's all too easy to pile up pages if you show up every day, even if only for half-an-hour. But as the form of the thing emerges I'll have to decide how to bring that form out through significant cutting and rearranging. Right now I must simply go forward: if I write a bad chapter (and I've written many) I can only flag it and go back to it later, if there is a later. But what seems bad now may suit the form that I can't yet see, that I haven't yet determined or that has yet to determine me.

Take a lesson from my daughter, whose experience (walking, talking) is utterly new to her and utterly expected--the form she'll take is utterly determined (she will grow, she will speak in whole sentences, go to school, become ever more distant and independent) and utterly unpredictable. Utter in the sense of ultimate, utter in the sense of speech. I am amazed by the sheer beautiful ordinariness of her life. Let it be so with what I'm writing, too.

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