Sunday, October 25, 2009

Novel Writing

"And now it’s time for novel writing, which today comes from the West Country, from Dorset."

Narrative is so fundamentally different from lyric. This is kind of obvious, but writing both of them, I'm amazed by the different muscles they employ, and the different satisfactions they produce.

The pleasures of poetry are the pleasures of simultaneity. I read a line of verse, and it's like a chain reaction of little detonations: the sound play, the layers of reference (in the line's structure, diction, proper names, etc.), the manifestation of images, and the instantaneous revisions of the preceding lines created by the double-jointed syntax made possible by line breaks. It's an intensely vertical experience, though this feels less the verticality of the words themselves (most poems, of course, are narrower than the page they're printed on, unless they're very long-lined) than the vertical layering of a palimpsest or of one of those old biology textbooks with overlays for the skin, musculature, circulatory system, and skeleton (often these depths are presented unequally and with simultaneity, so that even on the first page you can see the bones of the hand, the red fist of the heart, the striations of the quadriceps, etc.).

With narrative it truly is one damn thing after another. Words and details accumulate like grains of sand in an hourglass; though you'll never remember all of them, though many of these details are all but designed to be forgotten, they nevertheless heap up into the foundations of characters, places, plots, themes, weathers, worlds. Right now I'm working on a chapter (though I hesitate to call my units of composition chapters—they're more like sections, or threads) in which one of my narrators (I have several) is about to meet the woman who will change his life. That's the moment: if I were writing a poem, I might present it directly, or even more likely ellipsize it and present the aftermath through a few coordinated details.

But because it's a narrative I write toward this event, filling in the moments of my character's lonely life in an overheated studio apartment in Washington Heights in 1971, conscious of growing suspense as this woman's presence is intimated without her actually manifesting. Every night I sit down to write thinking Now, now she will appear, and yet she never quite appears. And yet none of what I'm writing is filler: the words are grains of salt or sand for the event to stand on, but also I hope savory in themselves, and they work to evoke what I find most attractive about novels (and rare in poems), the feeling of immersion in a world.

But I no longer seek complete immersion; the "vivid, continuous dream" that John Gardner said it was a novelist's duty to conjure. I don't want the words to disappear as easily as they once did. But neither do I want them, as I usually do with poems, to remain primarily words, striking upon the eardrum and memory, vivid morsels like Proust's madeleine, which must lose its present-tense existence in the moment of recollection. Instead I seek a kind of flicker effect, a sense of the grain of the form, as might a filmmaker who simulates scratches on the emulsion or chooses black-and-white so as to make the film's filmness part of its content. I want my readers sweltering in that room full of fug and flaking leaded paint, high above February streets dusted with the dry, fine snow that real cold can bring; but I also want them caught in the coils of my sentences (my narrator's sentences), feeling in their unfolding syntax his characteristic mix of melancholia, hopefulness, and delirium.

And so with any luck narrative ceases to be a single line and becomes dual, parallel, multiple, a train track the reader straddles or hops between on her ride toward some sort of resolution of the story and of the languages it gets told in.

Next time, I hope to think through the seductions of realism, and why it is that I've been unable to resist them, in spite of a healthy suspicion of the claims usually made on realism's behalf.

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