Friday, August 8, 2014

Writing Redux IV: That would make a good novel...

Not necessarily                                                                         
                                      (He died with Billy Budd unpublished,  in a drawer.)

    Often journalists finding that an assignment has dropped out of the ether - they once dropped out of stamped envelopes - and that they themselves are about to be transported to a realm unknown, think, “This would make a good novel.” As if in the unrealized state a novel depends solely upon access to a world apart, and our own lovely sentience, and all we have to do is write it.
     Nice to think so, and almost impossible not to say those words aloud from time to time, but no, those experiences rarely make good novels. They don’t even make coherent ones.
     The reasons for this are almost as varied as life itself but basically boil down to the fact that good novels come out of loss - of love, fortune, ideals, experience, writing itself. Whatever emotions you were originally possessed of are transformed into something less than the experience itself, and the cherished illusion that worked so beautifully in the imagination is either reduced, or frittered away in the rendering.
     Most people are unable or unwilling to endure for long the second sort of loss, which involves attempting, over and over again, to get it right, followed by the spectacle of the thing itself evaporating into the slip-stream of constricting distance. This usually means, at least in my case, that the experience hasn’t been pushed through the filters enough, or it has been pushed through too often and all perspective lost, making of the original experience something else entirely. 
     Not the crystalline truth you were so sure of, but a candidate of last resort which is in fact what most novels, even good ones, turn out to be. I suspect that even the most celebrated examples of fiction are unacknowledged compromises. In Remembrance of Things Past , for instance, the subject was so masticated in the author’s mind over a long period of dissolution and decline that it sprang full-blown decades later from an almost sexual encounter with a cookie dipped in tea.
    There’s that most extraordinary American example, Moby Dick of the long-gestating novel and forceful emergence of an entire world out of the fecund rot of the re-imagined past. In it, an aging Melville sets sail again in a great sloshing, mnemonic vessel of obsession, transcendental belief and yeomanly know-how; what works its way up from the seemingly depthless springs of his brain is part of the culture now, an exuberantly alive story in language of the same ilk.
      How I would like to know what Melville thought as he struggled with that experience, seeing it evanesce beneath his pen into characters of another world as well as his own, all set on a narrative course to the literal end of things and infused with a vision most novelists yearn for but never glimpse.
      Melville’s loss must have been three-fold, including the first two I mentioned – diminishment of the experience by the very act of setting it down, and any author’s knowledge that the novel could have been just a bit better – and the fact that few appreciated Moby Dick when it was published. Melville then passed into obscurity, in his time, a kind of scribal Van Gogh sitting out the February of the soul somewhere in New England and gazing out onto sere, dry land lit by the descending sun.
      There are quicker and more satisfying ways than a novel to replicate and cherish a moment in life and impose a modicum of control you never really had. Doing this can preserve something of the moment’s essence, but in what form? Memoir may be the most obvious and approachable, redeploying the past as revelation for writer and reader, but memoir lacks the sheer exuberance of the imagination and, more importantly, can’t easily accommodate the unforeseen. And memoir’s really lost to the liberating, sometimes demonic possibility that is the novel’s glory, even though memoirs’ strengths and satisfactions are many.
      Non-fiction in general has the same limitations as memoir, only more so, enjoying the underpinning of constant factualness the novel lacks in all but the particulars but fatefully bound by the same thing. Fact sets nonfiction on its way and provides confabulatory tree blazes through lands both wooded and desolate, but it’s always “real” and the journey’s outcome usually known before boot meets ground.
      Which brings me to my own novel, Nose, set in a vernal, isolated valley in northern California, bound by the great prospects and occasionally great fortunes of wine. I'll get to that, but be prepared: the journey from imagining to actually holding a book in covers is harder than ever these days. So much has changed in the process that it’s almost unrecognizable to a writer remembering the hopeful, once quite wonderful not-so-long -ago.
(Writing Redux series starts with the July 29 post, Tempest in a Wine Glass, in the archive to the right.)
    My earlier novel about love, eating, crime, politics and revenge in southern Louisiana,
 is commented upon at:

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