Sunday, November 25, 2007

Black Dogs and Red Wine

One evening in the late fall of 1967, my father took me to dinner at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. We discussed wine, among other things, and I remember asking him how he could tell the difference, not between jug wine and a good Pinot Noir, but between that Pinot and something really great. How could a bottle of wine be worth 300 dollars? Was it really ten times better than the thirty dollar bottle we were drinking with our meal? Could you taste that? Or was it just a racket? He responded in typical style, grandiose, generous, and didactic.

He ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild ’57.

The Sommelier was a little shocked, but recovered quickly. He bought the bottle and uncorked it. We let it breathe for a few minutes before the taste test. God knows what it cost my Dad; but if his purpose was to educate me about the finer things in life, the money was well spent. The two bottles had nothing in common but their name, the color of the liquid inside and the fruit from which they both (presumably) derived. The Pinot had sharp edges, and sour note somewhere inside it. Compared to the Mouton Rothschild it was harsh and raw. The other wine was deep and mellow, resonant and smooth, no edges anywhere. It was deep, cavernous; it seemed to echo off your taste buds. And it was sweet, but not in flavor exactly: it contained the sweetness of spring air after a hard winter; or a the caress of a warm hand on lonely skin, those moments of extremity where a fingertip circling your knuckle breaks a dam of ecstatic emotion, more intense than the sexual encounter that eventually follows.

In human terms, comparing those two wines would be like setting a teenaged football thug at a Manchester United soccer match next to the Dalai Lama: hardly members of the same species, proof that evolution continues but is not evenly distributed.

My Dad was watching my face as I sipped the nectar. He was amused, pleased. “Now you understand,” he said.
All I could do was nod.

That moment came back to me this morning, taking a break from my reading of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children to pick up a copy of Black Dogs, By Ian McEwan. The former might be considered ‘popular literature’ , even ‘literary fiction’, far more serious and significant than the romances and thrillers that populate the sprawling floor of the local Borders store. Whether Claire Messud is really a better writer than the best of those genre writers is another question. What sets her apart from Ian McEwan interests me rather more this morning. Because she is not even close, no more than that well-made California table wine approached the authentic article in the cobwebbed bottle from the Plaza’s cellar.
But what is it? How do we measure this gulf?

Maybe it’s just sheer pleasure, the quiet ecstatic recognition of a unique sensibility, a mind that refreshes your own by simple contact, that enlarges your sense of the world and startles you into strings of tiny delighted revelations, popping like strings of forbidden Fourth of July firecrackers. Maybe it’s the sure-fingered dexterity of an original mind making the unexpected shape of each sentence. See for yourself.
Compare these paragraphs.

The first, from Messud:

What then were Julius’ accomplishments, those of which his father was so proud? The anxiety, surely, was that they were few, and fading. Known in college for his vicious wit, Julius had sashayed into New York – or, more precisely, into the offices of The Village Voice – with youthful certainty that attitude could carry him. And for a long time, it had: everyone in the downtown literary set knew who Julius was, and pointed him out to newcomers at parties. His devastating but elegant book reviews were often cited; his less devastating but no less elegant film and television reviews rather less so; but still: throughout his twenties, he lived a life of Wildean excess and insouciance that seemed an accomplishment in itself, the con temporary example of the enfant terrible. The insouciance, of course, masked endless and worrisome neuroses, to which Marina and Danielle were privy. He was a failure at intimacy, if not at sex (he had no shortage of partners; but they were shortly upon the scene). He was always broke (hence the threadbare cashmere), but it was vital, or so he maintained, that the secret of his penury not get about. “This is New York, guys. And people without money aren’t noble, they’re beggars.” He apparently did not suspect that everyone already knew. He was awar that at thirty he had stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade,wisplike, away; from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, to short, steps.

There is nothing desperately wrong with this passage. One could take exception to the flurry of sophisticated semi-clichés – ‘enfant terrible’,‘charming wastrel’ (which occurs twice, alas); “Wildean excess”. His wit and elegant book reviews are mentioned but the only actual quote from the man himself is a pedestrian one. His problem, skating on his poses with no actual posture to support the show, has a familiar ring to it: shades of Jay McInerney Brett Easton Ellis, to name only the generals in that particular army of disaffection.
Still, nice phrases and well-chosen details redeem the paragraph sporadically – “Actual sustained endeavor,” “threadbare cashmere” . But for every grace note there’s a clumsy misstep: “fade, wisplike, away”, “they were shortly upon the scene”. That last would normally be taken to mean “about to arrive” not “quickly departing.”
It adds up to ordinary, Nothing there quickens the blood.

Compare that to McEwan:

While I unwrapped the fruit and washed it at the handbasin and put it with the chocolate in the fridge and found a place, the place for the coffee, I conveyed messages from Jenny, love from the children. She asked after Bernard, but I had not seen him since my last visit. She arranged her hair with her fingers and settled the pillows around her. When I returned to the chair by the bed I found myself looking once more at the photograph on the locker. I too could have fallen in love with that round-faced beauty with the over-trained hair, the delighted, jaunty smile grazing the biceps of her loved one. It was the innocence that was so appealing, not only of the girl, or of the couple, but of the time itself; even the blurred shoulder and head of a suited passerby had a naïve, unknowing quality, as did a frog-eyed saloon car parked in a street of pre-modern emptiness. The innocent time! Tens of millions dead, Europe in ruins, the extermination camps still a news story, not yet our universal reference point of human depravity. It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence. It’s ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turned out after all – who they married, the date of their death – with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.

This seems to me to be everything Claire Messud’s paragraph is not. Dense with detail, engaged, alive and specific while Messud remains detached and abstract. While ordinary language clutters her prose, McEwan’s matter-of-fact eloquence binds the moment to the reflections it inspires: the smile that ‘grazed the bicep’ of the loved one, the ‘over-trained hair’, the ‘ironies of frozen narrative’.

But perhaps the real difference here is not so much what the writers accomplish but what they attempt. Messud wants to portray the looming career crisis of her unexceptional character. McEwan wants to get at something much bigger, the nature of loss and mortality and the strange allure of photography. When Messud succeeds, we have an incrementally sharper view of a one banal individual. McEwan manages something else, something thrilling, one of the crucial functions of narrative prose: with ruthless clarity of thought he expresses a thought every reader has felt looming at the edges of his mind in some inchoate form, but has never been able to formulate with any precision. He returns to us our own ideas and emotions, fully articulated.

This is fine wine compared to the Pinot Noir of ‘mainstream fiction’ ; but fortunately it costs no more to enjoy it. Books aren’t priced like wine: Jack Kerouac and Jackie Suzanne, James Patterson and Marcel Proust, Faulkner and Follett, all cost the same in the used paperback pile at the flea market. And that’s a lucky break for all of us.

Because once you’ve had a bottle of the good stuff, it’s hard to go back.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Confessions of a Polygamous Reader

My relationship to books has always been carnal. It’s a safe, secret promiscuity that allows me to live through a virtually unlimited array of relationships, impossible in real life. I’m not talking about the plots and characters in the various novels I’ve coupled with. I mean my turbulent and sometimes heartbreaking affairs with the books themselves: perhaps some essence of the author that transcends the story.
I remember my first childhood crushes, the puppy-love infatuation with the Hardy Boys books and the James Bond novels. I went steady with Albert Payson Terhune’s dog books for a while in grade school.
I suppose I lost my virginity to The Catcher in the Rye : that was the first authentic love affair. I’ve had many sordid little one-night stands since then – books by writers as diverse as Robert James Waller and Lee Child. For years every new Stephen King novel was a hotel room-thrashing drunken orgy, with the usual regrets the following morning.
I’ve betrayed books, dropping them for no reason (Sorry, Last Temptation of Christ. I guess I should have left a note), or falling for their more sensual and approachable younger sisters (I dumped Ulysses for Dubliners over the course of one messy weekend). Some books became obsessions, like Atonement; others, The Emperor’s Children comes to mind, barely kept my interest -- like a dull girl with great legs.
Then there are the books like Don Quixote, that I’ve pursued for years, fascinated but unrequited, always hoping for a new maturity (or a new translation) to give me another chance. I avoid the glamorous supermodels whose appeal just seems overrated – Cormac McCarthy, say or Toni Morrison; and I’ve never been on more than one date with the prim and prissy wasps like Updike and Cheever.
I’ve done serial monogamy, though, with writers as different as Mark Helprin, Jane Austen and William Faulkner. Those affairs ended. Jane was a little too into money and I’m never going to have the requisite ‘two thousand a year’ whatever that means in today’s money. Quite a lot; Darcy seems to live quite well. As for Bill, too many suspiring defunctive dawns and weirdo ‘but-constructions’ (“The house not paintless but despising paint and repudiating it.”); too much wisteria. And Mark … well, I dutifully bought his most recent book (Kind of like having a drink for old times’ sake) but I haven’t even opened it yet.
I’ve been married many times. Some are bad marriages, dysfunctional and co-dependent relationships with books I despise now, books I’m embarrassed to be seen in public with, but can’t seem escape. Books like Atlas Shrugged. But there are good marriages too, life-long unions with no possibility of divorce. I share with these books a deep intricate history of affection that only my death will ever untangle. We may not be lovers anymore, but a rich, knowing friendship as replaced and indeed transcended the heat of our first encounters. The Sun Also Rises is a book like this; as are The Great Gatsby and 1984.
So is The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the book I want to focus on here.
Examining the books that gave me the most pleasure, I realize that one crucial source of their allure is the use of point of view and the sleek, graceful movement (the sidelong glance, the fingertip caressing the throat), that leads from the outer world into the inner one.
John Fowles does a particularly audacious conjuring trick in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, writing a classic Victorian romance with the utter omniscience of a God-like Thomas Hardy, and undercutting it at the same time with a thoroughly modern sensibility, a product of Roland Bathes and Allain Robbe Grillet, which debunks the idea of an all-knowing author. Fowles closes chapter twelve of the novel with a question about his heroine, perfectly fitted to the tone of his pastiche: “Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?” Famously, he opens chapter thirteen with the bald-faced admission: “I don’t know. This story I’m telling is all imagination.” He proceeds to break the Victorian illusion totally, and then invites the reader back into the tale with this more complex view of both the book and books in general:

But this is preposterous? A character is either “real” or “imaginary”? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur. I cn only smile. You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it … fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on shelf -- your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from the real reality. That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens
So if you think this unlucky (but it is Chapter Thirteen) digression has nothing to do with your Time, Progress, Society, Evolution and all those other capitalized ghosts in the night that are rattling their chains behind the scenes of this book … I will not argue. But I will suspect you.
I report then, only the outward facts …

And this he proceeds to do, effortlessly moving the reader from the abstract to the concrete, from the post modern heights of deconstructed narrative into the muddy particulars of the actual story he has just broken apart. It virtually flies back together. Only the way we read it has changed.
He performs this same magic with the point of view of the individual characters. He has such forces at his disposal that the ordinary ‘close third person’ author must surely cry that Fowles is cheating. But the Victorians wrote this way for a reason, and with the added fire-power of his twentieth-century perspective, Fowles can do almost anything … including offering two different endings and presenting himself (some version of himself) as another character, deciding the fates of his puppets with a coin toss.
He can ask, as he does on page 158 “But what of Sarah’s motives?” and then simply tell us. Sarah’s point of view is reported, never fully embraced: “She knew, or at least suspected, that there was a physical pleasure in love. Yet she was, I think, as innocent as makes no matter.” The author always hovers slightly above and to the left, giving us the guided tour of her emotions.
But perhaps there is some ghost of the ‘close third’ technique in the novel, after all, because Fowles comes much closer to Charles Smithson, his hero, than he ever does to the purposefully mysterious Sarah Woodruff. And it is in these descriptions of Charles’ state of mind, fired and sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty and savagery of the natural world that swarms around him, that Fowles fuses his technical skills with those profound emotions whose expression is their purpose and meaning.
I would urge any student of writing or life to simply read the transcendant chapter 29 of this extraordinary book. The set up is simple: Charles is hiking through the overgrown wilderness of the ‘undercliff’ towards a clandestine meeting with Sarah Woodruff, riddled with doubt and determination. Fowles has mastered his craft not merely to say these things, but to make us live them and feel them along with Charles, as he climbs through the forest toward his fate.
The chapter begins in an impeccably external mode, describing the weather and the town itself (More crowded early in the morning in those days) as Charles sets out from his hotel. We dip into Charles’ mind only briefly here, to highlight his gloomy state of mind. Then with this superb description of the woods at dawn, we can feel Fowles inching his way into the deepest recesses of his character’s spirit, penetrating it along with the ‘flood of warmth’ from the sun. By the time Charles is noting the religious presence of the trees we are all the way inside his point of view and even Fowles’ ubiquitous cultural references( Pisanello and Linnaeus in this case) no longer distance us, but rather mark the trail into dense grove of Charles’ ultimate revelation:

…It seemed strangely distinct, this undefiled dawn sun. It almost a smell, as of warm stone, a sharp dust of photons streaming down through space, Each grass blade was pearled with vapor. On the slopes above his path the trunks of the ashes and sycamores, a honey gold in the oblique sunlight, erected their dewy green vaults of young leaves; there was something mysteriously religious about them, but a religion before religion, a druid balm, a green sweetness over all … A fox crossed his path and strangely for a moment stared, as if Charles was the intruder; and then a little later, with an uncanny similarity, with the same divine assumption of possession, a roe deer looked up from its browsing; and stared in its small majesty before quietly turning tail and slipping away into the thickets. There is a painting by Pisanello in the National Gallery that catches exactly such a moment: St. Hubert inn an early Renaissance forest, confronted by birds and beasts. The saint is shocked, almost as if the victim of a practical joke, all his arrogance dowsed by a sudden drench of Natured profoundestsecret: the universal parity of existence.
It was not only these two animals that seemed fraught with significance. The trees were dense with singing birds – blackcaps, whitethroats, thrushes, blackbirds, the cooing of wood-pigeons, filling that windless dawn with the serenity of evening; yet without any of its sadness, its elegiac quality. Charles felt himself walking through the pages of a bestiary, and one of such beauty, such minute distinctness, that every leaf in it, each small bird, each song it uttered, came from a perfect world. He stopped for a moment, so struck was he by this sense of an exquisitely particular universe, in which each was appointed, each unique. A tiny wren perched on a bramble not ten feet from him and trilled its violent song. He saw its glittering black eyes, the red and yellow of its song-gaped throat – a midget ball of feathers that yet managed to make itself the Announcing Angel of evolution: I am what I am and thou shalt not pass my being now. He stood as Pisanello’s saint stood, astonished perhaps more at his own astonishment at this world’s existing so close so within reach of all that suffocating banality of ordinary day. In those few moments of defiant song, any ordinary hour or place – and therefore the vast infinity of all Charles’ previous hours and places – seemed vulgarized, coarsened, made garish. The appalling ennui of human reality lay cleft to the core; and the heart of all life pulsed there in the wren’s triumphant throat.

To present such a passage with a new and hard-won understanding of its mechanics, what is really happening inside the text, is like attending your tenth high school reunion and falling in love all over again with the brilliant girl who dumped you after the senior prom. Feeling those words under my fingers evokes slipping away for a stolen night at the local hotel, finally understanding what she was saying all those years ago, finally knowing what she wants. Do you wake up the next morning and propose? It’s not as foolish or hasty as it may seem.
Those are the kind of moments a great marriage is built on.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Inside Out

In Writing A Novel, his 1974 handbook for aspiring authors, John Braine dispenses a great deal of no-nonsense, working-class advice for carpentering a first book together. Unlike writers as otherwise diverse as E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway, he makes no claim (implicit or explicit) that his notions are universally applicable.

“The rules I lay down for the writing of a novel are the ones that suit me,” he says early on. “I don’t assert that my way of writing a novel is the best or only way; only that it works.” It’s hard to argue with that. He recommends writing a brief synopsis and then charging forward with the goal of a finished draft, however messy. Then you write another outline and start patching holes and making sense of the narrative. A novel should cover no more than a year. 100,000 words is the maximum length. And no digressions:

"A straightforward passage in time with no flashbacks is best. It is absolutely legitimate for your characters to remember what happened in the past; they’d be very odd if they didn’t. But they should talk about it or think about it; it mustn’t be presented in the same way as the main action of your novel. And it should be kept brief; go into the past for much over 500 words and the story comes to a dead stop."

Later in the book, he gives some typically blunt and practical advice on narrative viewpoint:

"I strongly recommend that your first novel should be in the first person. While you must never avoid what is difficult out of laziness, it doesn’t make sense not to take the easiest way if, provably, it works. And first person narrative works. It’s entirely natural to buttonhole the audience and tell them all the things that happened to you personally. The use of first person gives your tale veracity. You know all the details because you were there; you tell the story because it happened to you … another advantage of the first person: you depict the main character’s thoughts absolutely naturally. When someone is telling you a story in real life, you take it for granted he’ll tell you his thoughts."

It also allows you to shed, naturally and effortlessly, many of the encumbering complications and needless details that an omniscient narration is prey to, unless kept under rigorous control. For me, struggling with a new book, it was like solving the problem of an elaborately dressed character who mires the story in tedious costume descriptions by setting the tale in a nudist colony. Everything extraneous falls away by definition. You don’t have to ‘cut’ anything. It just isn’t there.

Of course this approach has limitations, especially in regard to story points and basic information that the reader needs to know, but which the narrator isn’t privy to. The form of a mystery is itself one solution to this structural difficulty, because the story is essentially about the hero finding out what both he and the reader want to discover. At its best the use of first person can both push the story forward and deepen it. Because of the continuous, unrestricted and completely organic access it gives us to a character’s mind, the writer is granted a sort of home-field advantage. We all live in our heads; setting a book there feels natural. And since literature is more concerned with character, with thought and feeling, than with straight action, first person provides an opportunity to strive for something beyond the basics of incident and anecdote.

A taciturn narrator can exclude the reader from much of his inner world and still provide a dark, vivid story. Writers as different as Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammet and Charles Willeford accomplish this delicate balancing act with great skill. But for me there’s something missing, something withheld ( and perhaps insufficiently valued) in their work. I want a character to come clean, as Nick Carraway and Holden Caulfield do; ultimately, as Benjy and Quentin Compson do, hapless and unaware of our prying clairvoyance, as we eavesdrop on the unedited rush of their thoughts and feelings.

Such intimacy can create authentic literature, in any form or genre. But how? For a closer look at the formulas and measurements of this alchemy, I want to discuss briefly Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

I found the book in a customer’s house recently and read with it a kind of academic innocence: a carnal, avid delight void of analysis or deconstruction. For the purposes of this post, I had to go back and read it again, with a very different purpose. The extraordinary thing, this time through, was how transparent the workings of the book were, like the “Visible Man” model kit I put together in fifth grade, whose clear plastic skin allowed you to see all the bones, muscles and organs of a functioning human anatomy.

It starts with the first sentence: “It was seven minutes after midnight.”

Immediately we sense the presence of what we might charitably call an overly-precise intelligence. It belongs to one John Francis Boone, a fifteen year old English schoolboy with Asperger’s Syndrome. He has just found a dead dog in his neighbor’s yard, with a garden fork stabbed through its neck. He determines to find out who killed it.

"So I am writing a murder mystery novel.
In a murder mystery novel, someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them. It is a puzzle. If it is a good puzzle, you can sometimes work out the answer before the end of the book.
"Siobhan said that the book should begin with something to grab people’s attention. That is why I started with the dog. I also started with the dog because it happened to me and I find it hard to imagine things which did not happen to me.

This paragraph effortlessly integrates the basic requirements of the mystery genre with the bizarre and exotic aspects of this boy’s illness, which shapes his thinking; and his heartbreaking struggle against that determinism. He goes to a school for ‘special’ kids, and the staff naturally assume that their charges will lead bleak, restricted lives without adventure or independence. John Boone proves them wrong. And literally sentence by sentence Haddon draws us from the outside world of events and actions into John’s inner world, through the smooth conduit of the boy’s hyper-active consciousness and his struggle to understand the people and emotions swirling around him. These three sentences, for instance:

“Then the police arrived. I like the police. They have uniforms and numbers and you know what they are meant to be doing.”

The police talk to him, and the external dialogue leads inside with the same verbal sleight-of-hand. Haddon is like a magician at a birthday party, keeping the kids gaping as he pushes a quarter through a table top.

“Why were you holding the dog?” he asked again
“I like dogs,” I said.
“Did you kill the dog?” he asked.
I said, “I did not kill the dog.”
“Is this your fork?” he asked.
I said, “No.”
“You seem very upset about this.”
He was asking too many questions and he was asking them too quickly. They were stacking up in my head like loaves in the factory where Uncle Terry works. The factory is a bakery and he operates the slicing machines. And sometimes a slicer is not working fast enough but the bread keeps coming and there is a blockage. I sometimes think of my mind as a machine, but not always a bread slicing machine. It makes it easier to explain to other people what is going on inside it.

The chapters are numbered by the ascending order of prime numbers. In alternate chapters he talks about on-going events and his inner life. Even this simple organizational system reveals something about him and his need for order and partition. And startlingly, even a discussion of prime numbers can veer inward and ambush the reader with moving glimpse of John’s world:

"Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers a are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them."

John solves the crime, halfway through the book, and it leads to other mysteries. It turns out his deceased mother isn’t really dead. She just moved out and John’s father told him that story to ‘spare him’. John finds out her address in London and travels from the suburbs into the city to find her. This odyssey takes up most of the last part of the novel and by the time it begins we are so deeply embedded in John’s perspective that a simple subway ride seems as thrilling as Odysseus’ navigation of the straits between Scylla and Charybdis.

My Dad divides writers by the chunks of prose they care about. Updike writes word-by-word; John Fowles writes sentence-by-sentence. Irwin Shaw writes paragraph by paragraph. And someone like Robert Ludlum or James Patterson writes chapter-by-chapter.
The lesson of Haddon’s book is that only a rigorous word-by-word attention to the fragile integument between a character’s mind and the world that impinges on it can evoke a fully realized world and turn a simple who-killed-the- poodle mystery story into a work of genuine literature.

And to me that means … I have my marching orders.

Difficult orders to follow, yes. But when I get discouraged, I think of e.e. cummings’ image of himself, perched on three chairs on a tightrope in heaven, looking down, thinking, “This man, this artist, this failure MUST PROCEED.”

And so I do.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Moody and Me

I’m trying to figure out exactly why I love Californication so much, and why the final episode of the season was so difficult to watch and so moving. I guess it comes down to David Duchovny’s character, Hank Moody. He’s not me, obviously, but I’ve rarely seen a character on television who so perfectly corresponds to the person I wanted to be, the person I thought I was once, the person I still want to be. Hank is a writer. He published a piece of literary fiction that crossed the border of popular taste and became a huge hit. My piece of literary fiction that might make the same journey has never been published. I couldn’t even get my own agent to read it (During the brief period when I had one); no other agent has even requested a partial, and if they even guessed the word count – a quarter of a million words or so – they’d chuck it into the trash, sight unseen.

Hank is still madly in love with his ex, Karen. She's not his ex-wife – they never got married, though they have a daughter together. I was madly in love with my ex for years … but she never ran out of a wedding, jumped in my car with my daughter and let me drive her away into the giddy prospect of a new future together. That’s fine – I’ve recovered from my post-marital infatuation and we remain good friends. Still, for years that was what I wanted most and I can't help the resonance Hank’s improbable victory sets up inside me. An hour after the show ended, I’m still swinging on my strings like a gong, hit with a big fuzzy mallet.

Hank is a father; he loves his daughter in much the same way that I love mine – absolute but casual, limitless but leisurely, dazzled but dogged, improvisational but improving. There is no treacle, no false sentiment in their relationship. She sees him whole and loves him anyway. But here I have Hank beaten. I have a son, too. And he has my sense of humor and my love of books, and the same heedless, passionate, faithful response to the opposite sex, the same willingness to be leveled by love.

That’s the only score on my side of the board. Hank does all the things I want to do: he takes on the jerk talking on the cell phone in the movie, hits on the homely counter girl in the all-night supermarket because he actually does love all women; he buys his daughter a 13,000 dollar guitar with his bonus money. Hank wrote the script for his book and when it was turned into a giant hit movie and a piece of crap, he got into a fist fight with the director. He squared things with his difficult father before the old man died.

I think we can call that one a draw.

When he slept with Mia, a sixteen year old sociopath who happened to be the daughter of the man Karen was about to marry; when he wrote a book about it and Mia stole it, he took it all like a man. He didn’t know a thing about her when she seduced him in that bookstore – including her age -- but he knows that’s no excuse, and his refusal to let the crazy affair go any further has fuelled all her schemes of adolescent revenge. Hank’s fucked up, but he has a good heart. He makes the people in his life laugh, and that includes me.

Things seem to be working out for Hank now, and though the next season will surely complicate his life, I can’t help rooting for my fictional alter-ego. He’d probably never watch a show about my life, the nightmare alternate universe where the book didn’t sell and love faded and cell phone shouters have their way. A different turn of the dice Hank, and you could have been the one painting houses, still waiting for that first big break as retirement age closes in.

But it didn’t work out that way.
You broke the bank, Hank, and I’m glad. It’s good to be able to celebrate someone else’s success, to live it vicariously without shame, because that’s the whole point. I’d probably envy and despise a real Hank Moody.But the fictional one is my brother.

And tonight I’m happy for both of us.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Playing in the Sandbox

Bookstores are ghettoized into genre sections for profit and convenience. People who read one police procedural or romance novel are likely to be interested in another; making it easier to find more books to buy makes sense for everyone. Meanwhile, the austere wall of novels labeled simply “Fiction” wraps around the perimeter of the store, surrounding and somehow looking down upon the separate shtetls of lesser work.

Newspaper book review sections are similarly divided. Science Fiction and Crime novels get their own page of capsule reviews in the New York Times on alternate Sundays. Other genres are beneath the paper-of-record’s notice. Literature gets the front page essays and the respect. The rare items of literature that cross over into general popularity – Cold Mountain or The Lovely Bones – stand as the Holy Grail of publishing. The rules are clear: literature is character driven, infused with original language, concerned with significant personal, cultural and political themes. Genre fiction is plot- driven, utilitarian in its prose, and concerned with little beyond what happens next.

Are these distinctions absolute? Or is there some space between the categories where a lively weed of narrative art might push its way into the light? Because the difficulty persists: much literary fiction is insufferably tedious, while genre fiction is actually fun to read. And that is the key word, the culprit, the dangerous, derided syllable at the heart of the conflict: fun.

Centuries of academic tradition have taught us that serious works of fiction are meant to be difficult. They refuse to pander. They don’t traffic in the vulgarities of mere entertainment. If a book fails to inflict a soul-sapping struggle, there’s something wrong with it. Up to a point, it’s true: some books reward the exhausting effort you put into them: Don Quixote, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses. Much genre writing is bad, the cheapest kind of tooth-rotting candy for the mind. But even a cursory stroll through a used bookshop reveals hundreds of novels published as short a time ago as the nineteen forties and fifties, praised as great art (if the pull-quotes on their dust-jackets can be trusted), now unread, unknown, lost to an merciless oblivion among the cobwebs and dust bunnies. The tinny praise of another era haunts any writer with the immanence of his own demise: “The Black Antipodes surpasses even North to Tarbunda to stand as Edith Platt McCucheon’s masterpiece,” raves the Washington Post Book World from the balmy post-war summer of 1947. And you stand daunted, holding Edith Platt McCutcheon’s book in your hand, pondering extinction. For Ms. McCutcheon’s work is indeed extinct, vanished from the earth as absolutely the dwarf hippopotamus or the Irish Elk.

Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury was also published in 1947.

No one called it a masterpiece; but it’s still in print.
The trick for me is finding the middle ground. Literature can be entertaining – the books themselves have been proving that from Persuasion and Anna Karenina to Atonement and The Corrections -- and those books are my Holy Grail: great literature that’s fun to read. But approaching the question from the other side is more difficult. Can genre fiction aspire to literature? Can a police procedural be written so well that becomes a work of art? The issue is central to me, because that’s what I’m striving for in my own writing. Mickey Spillane is no help to me in this quest: his books are hard-boiled unredeemed trash and that was just the way he liked it. “No one ever read a mystery to get to the middle,” he remarked once, in his usual blunt manner. He thought of his readers as customers and he gave them the product they wanted. Where I’m going I’ll have to leave him behind, along with his modern counterparts like James Patterson and John Grisham. They’re not trying to expand their genre, let alone escape it. I need more ambitious guides.

I chose two for this post: Michael Connelly and Michael Chabon.

Chabon, an unapologetic lover of pulp fiction and comic books (He dedicated The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay to Jack Kirby), has been poking and elbowing the boundary lines for years. His new book crosses over triumphantly and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is the paradigm for everything I want to accomplish with my own work. Such a transcendent leap requires three qualities from the writer: intention, commitment and talent.

Michael Connelly lacks the first two, and talent alone isn’t enough. In fact it’s moot. So he falls just short of the requirements, like a rocket that cannot quite achieve escape velocity. He inevitably plunges back to earth, but the taste of that gloriously thin air and the brief satellite view of our science-class globe, blue and green, alive and spinning in its own miasma of carbon and cloud, is worth the fatal parabola of the doomed attempt.

So, how does Connelly fail exactly?
And what does he achieve along the way?

We should start with the achievements Over fourteen novels he has developed and explored the character of LAPD homicide detective Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch to an extraordinary level of depth and refinement. Harry is as real, as troubled, as respectable and reckless as any character in literature. He can stand proud beside Konstantin Levin, Jay Gatsby and Alden Pyle. To my mind he dwarfs many of his detective colleagues. in complexity, torment and simple humanity. Porfiry Petrovitch, Sherlock Holmes and even Philip Marlowe all pale beside Bosch’s, tormented humanity. Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Dostoevsky were obviously far greater writers, with scope, passion and vision far beyond Connelly’s; Graham Greene brought a much finer sensibility, an acid cynicism tempered by religious faith, that Connelly can’t touch. As for Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler – they defined the two extremes of the crime fiction genre, one with the most memorable and often-copied sleuth in modern literature and the other with a moral vision and uniquely vivid prose style (“He was about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel food”) that remain fresh and striking sixty years later.

But the fact remains: judging these characters apart from their authors’ reputations and even the books that contain them, seeing them on their own as troubling and confounding individuals, matching them up one on one, Bosch is the best in his class. And he makes a shockingly strong showing among the higher class of characters who would never expect to mingle with a hard-boiled hero. (Though I’m certain Levin would like him; and Gatsby would be shrewd enough to be nervous).

Bosch is an orphan, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam, an “institutional man”, the product of foster homes, the military and the police He’s a loner still in love with his ex-wife, a jazz buff who has Hopper’s Nighthawks hanging on his wall, a cop who treats his mission with an almost religious intensity. His motto: “Everyone matters or no one matters.” He speaks for the dead. He also takes no crap from anyone, which at the beginning of The Last Coyote, has gotten him into some serious trouble.

He’s under suspension for throwing his commanding officer through a plate glass window. Without badge or gun, trying to prove his sanity and stability to a police psychiatrist, Bosch starts to investigate the ‘cold case’ of his mother’s murder, thirty years before.
As it turns out, most of the major players in that long elapsed drama are still alive and Bosch’s investigation takes him into the middle of a current scandal involving the same people. The plot is inventive, twisting, unpredictable … and central, both to Connelly and Bosch. This is both the book’s strength -- and its weakness, at least when viewed as literature.

Plot seems to mark a novel, in the class structure of literature, like the wrong accent at an English race-track. But many great novels have plots, so it’s obviously not that simple. I think the real issue is where the plot stands in the axis of author, reader and character. If it weighs too heavily on all of those points, we can’t take the book seriously as literature. In Connelly’s case the plot is all-important to Bosch. But it’s equally vital to Connelly. It’s the pulse of his story. The reader, exposed to this, contagion gets swept along to the shocking finale … not the middle, as Spillane points out. Bosch as a character, fascinating and richly conceived, is incidental to this overwhelming momentum … except for those parts of him, his relentless curiosity and sense of outrage, which keep the pistons of the plot pumping. So the force of sheer narrative takes over and the other aspects of literature -- the interior life of the characters, the unique sensibility expressed in descriptions of the outside world, the vital connection to large social and political realities -- fall away. For example, the interior life (As Bosch contemplates actually opening the investigation into his mother’s death):

What had happened to his mother helped define everything he did after. And it was always there in the dark recesses of his mind. A promise to find out. A promise to avenge. It was never anything that had been spoken aloud or even thought about with much focus. For to do that was to plan and this was no part of a grand agenda. Still, he was crowded with the feeling that what he was doing was inevitable, something scheduled by an unseen hand long ago.

Or the exterior world, as he crashes party:

Bosch fastened his top button and pulled his tie back in place as he walked up the driveway. He passed a small army of men in red vests, and as he came all the way up past the limousines, a startling view of the lighted city came into view. He stopped and just looked for a moment. He could see from the moonlit Pacific in one direction to the towers of downtown in the other. The view alone was worth the price of the house, no matter how many millions that was.

This is perfectly good writing, sturdy and serviceable, doing its job under the the whip hand of a taskmaster plot. But it doesn’t soar. Bosch’s obsession and the view of Los Angeles are deployed, not enjoyed for their own sake. Bosch’s tormented connection to his mother’s death is a motivation; L.A. at night glimpsed from above is a setting, nothing more. And the world beyond Bosch’s purview – apart from being corrupt and treacherous – Connelly scarcely mentions.

When you compare The Last Coyote to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union these weaknesses stand out like the stress lines on a building’s foundation after an earthquake. Chabon shakes things up. His novel conforms to the conventions of the genre, but plot is central neither to him nor to Myer Landsman, his hero …. And thus, not to the reader either. Landsman is investigating the death of his neighbor in the flophouse where he’s living after his divorce. The story takes place in Sitka Alaska, in an alternative universe where Roosevelt set up a Jewish homeland in the far reaches of North America. It was a temporary arrangement, and its 60-year expiration date is fast approaching. The book unfolds in the shadow of the Reversion. This imaginary district is so vivid that, as Terrence Rafferty memorably pointed out in his New York Times review, “You need a down parka and a prayer shawl just to turn the page.” The bum next door turns out to be the proto-messiah. Powerful people in government and the rabbinate, in Sitka and Washington D.C. have been trying to use the hapless young man for devious and diabolical ends, plots which result, among other things, in the death of Landsman beloved sister and the destruction of the Mosque standing on the original site of the Temple of Jerusalem. It’s quite a tangle, but Chabon unties it with breezy aplomb, like a stoned boy scout showing off his merit badges.

The key to this effervescent disregard for the primary structural support of his mystery novel lies in an essay he wrote, introducing McSweeny’s “Astonishing Stories” issue:

Many of the finest “genre writers” working today derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion and replenishment. When it comes to conventions, their central impulse is not to flout or follow them, but flouting or following, to play.

In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, this playfulness extends beyond the rules of story telling into every aspect of Chabon’s writing. Each moment, setting, thought and action are celebrated and presented as delightful little gems, quite apart from their utility to the larger narrative. It’s like Christmas morning: every sentence is like unwrapping another present.

Compare this aerial description (Landsman is approaching by plane) of a gracious rehab center in the wilds of southern Alaska to Connelly’s pragmatic glimpse of L.A. at night:

A badge of grass, a green brooch pinned at the collarbone of a mountain to a vast black cloak of trees. At the center of the clearing, a handful of buildings clad in brown shakes radiate from a circular fountain, linked by paths and separated by quilted patches of lawn and gravel. A pitch at the far end, chalked for soccer, ringed by an oval track. The place has the feel of a boarding school, a backwoods academy for wayward young wealth. Half a dozen men circle the track in shorts and hooded sweatshirts. Others sit or lie prone in the center of the field, stretching before exercise, leg and arms, angles on the ground. An alphabet of men scattered on a green page.

This beautiful prose seems to flood out of him like bird-song He can’t help it. Fat “applauds” in the fryolator; a woodpecker “rattles its cup of dice”.

And then this writing expands into the shimmering paragraphs that have always marked Chabon’s work as extraordinary This moment, for instance, as Landsman crashes a funeral. The northern Hasids are mourning the death of their Tzaddik Ha-Dor – the man who might have been the Messiah for their generation:

They smell of lamentation, these yids, long underwear, tobacco smoke on wet overcoats, mud. They’re praying like they’re going to faint, fainting like it’s a kind of observance. Weeping women cling to each other and break open their throats. They aren’t mourning Mendel Shpilman, they can’t be. It’s something else they feel has gone out of the world, the shadow of a shadow, the hope of a hope. This half-island they have come to love as home is being taken from them. They are like goldfish in a bag, about to be dumped back into the big black lake of Diaspora. But that’s too much to think about. So instead, they lament the loss of a lucky break they never got, a chance that was no chance at all, a king who was never going to come in the first place, even without a jacketed slug in the brainpan. Landsman puts his shoulder to them and mutters “Pardon me”

The urge to make this a 409 page post and just quote everything, rises up in me with a mad cackle. But I will control it. If I had to pick one passage( and I clearly do), this funeral description is a nicely representative choice: it shows Landsman’s mind working, the details of daily life in this mundane and inconceivable place … and then makes that effortless leap to the Diaspora which is (and always has been) Chabon’s central theme.

In fairness, let me say, Connelly is not even interested in such acrobatics, and should not be blamed for failing to do what he never attempted. But Connelly, much as I love his work, much as I have learned from it in frequent re-readings, is the straw man in this post, let’s face it. I set him up to knock him down, but I think I played fair because he is so good, and his work comes so close to being good enough.

But these posts are finally about me, my work, my craft, my goals and aspirations. Simply put, I want to do what Chabon does. I have the intention and the commitment. Whether I have the talent or not remains to be seen.

It’s a tough little sandbox up there in Sitka; only the best and smartest kids get to play.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Pink Crocs

I wear pink crocs.
My son got them originally, as part of a publicity give-away at party early June three years ago. They were too big for him. He didn’t like the color. I tried them on, just for fun -- and scarcely wore any other shoes until the next winter. The crocs were supernaturally comfortable, easy to slip on and off (excellent for those early morning dog walks); best of all, they were free.
But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It turns out that a man wearing pink crocs transforms himself into a kind of cultural touchstone, a walking sociological laboratory for the study of gender politics and iconography. No one was neutral about my footwear that summer. Everyone weighed in: women for the most part thought they were sexy. I was ‘secure enough in my sexuality” to flaunt such a provocative wardrobe item. I had clearly “embraced” my “feminine side” and showed a refreshing indifference to ridicule. In fact, there was quite a bit of ridicule. Friends remarked lightly “You know how gay you look, right?” ; troglodytes jeered “Faggot!” at me as I walked past.
This instinctive twitch of homophobia, this tourrettes syndrome shout-out of socially approved bigotry reared up everywhere, like ant hills on a suburban lawn. A tenured professor at a major University accosted me one morning and said “Cute crocs,” in a cringe-worthy “gay” voice. “Oh yeah,” I said, deflecting the obvious intent of the remark, “They’re chick magnets. Women love them.”
“Boys, too, I bet,” he said with a little smirk.
I guess he’d figured out my dirty little secret. Good thing I’m not his teaching assistant.
The whole business is especially strange because I live on Nantucket where localized fashion embraces wearing pink pants – or ‘Nantucket Reds,” as they’re called. The pants, dyed red at the factory, soon fade to a color not unlike the tint of my crocs. This coincidence counts for nothing. Pink means gay. The blush brands anyone who wears it, and the disruptive controversy follows you like a poodle on a leash. I suppose if you actually were gay it would be a convenient marker, like the little pink triangles some lesbians sport on their pick-up trucks. So maybe people are just annoyed when you send out a confusing signal. And I soon realized that there’s no social stigma about gay-bashing; it’s a safe way to vent hostility and feel superior. A broad spectrum of society, from academics to day laborers, from Ecuadorian immigrants to New England matrons, from every race and religion, from every region and upbringing seem take gays as a suitable target. It’s politically correct; it’s Biblically approved. It’s fun for the whole family. Canny political operatives can leverage the specter of gay marriage to defeat an otherwise unassailable opponent. I knew intellectually that this prejudice was ubiquitous.
But I never felt it, until I wore the pink crocs. No gay man had ever said to me, “Walk a mile in my pink crocs … ” I did it, though, however inadvertently.
But now my situation is changing.
The first pair of crocs are wearing out. I’m going to have to buy new ones soon. Do I buy pink crocs and confirm my political position? Or do I buy ordinary grey ones and bow out? I decided to buy more pink crocs because I realized that I actually enjoy these new encounters. I relish the instant snap-shot I get when people respond in this visceral, unguarded way to the color of my sandals. It tells me more about them than they’d probably like me to know.
A tough-as-nails New York business woman can be startled into a moment of flirtation (“Now that’s a real man.”); the Professor with the AIDS ribbon on his car can turn out to be a creep.
And the tattooed carpenter in NY Giants sweatshirt can glance down with an admiring grin and say “Bold move, dude.”
The world is full of surprises when you wear pink crocs.
And that’s the best reason I can think of to keep wearing them.

Friday, March 09, 2007

X Marks the Spot: Hooks, Tags and Sinkers

When asked how her writing day had gone, Virginia Woolf once famously replied, “It went wonderfully. I got my characters off the couch, through the French doors and onto the veranda.”
The problems of narrative transition that Woolf grappled with – physical, mental and emotional – remain intransigent more than sixty years after her death. They’re relentless. Describing the intricate mental process by which a character figures out something important, changes his mind, or makes a decision is the most technically demanding task a writer is ever faced with. If you stumble or miscalculate, the reader becomes aware of you and your clumsy efforts, and the whole intricately coordinated performance falls apart. In fact, writing a book is just one transition after another, making things flow visually and physically, balancing action and thought and description in every paragraph.

There are many ways to organize this set of problems. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to divide transitions into two types: intra- and inter-textual. The former, which occur inside the ongoing action of a chapter, represent the biggest and most daunting set of challenges. The writer here is like a card sharp in a high stakes poker game, executing a sleight of hand whose central purpose is to go unnoticed. He doesn’t want to dazzle you with his prestidigitations. He doesn’t want your admiration or respect; he just wants to take your money as unobtrusively as possible.

In the case of the inter-textual transitions, which are my primary focus in this essay, the writer is more like an old fashioned stage magician, fanning the cards, inviting you to take one, pulling aces from behind your ear, building momentum on the bewildered curiosity of the crowd. These transitions end chapters or begin them – I call them hooks and tags. Mickey Spillane once remarked “The purpose of my first sentence is to get you to read the book. The purpose of my last sentence is to get you to read the next book.”

The purpose of a hook is to get you to read the current chapter; the purpose of a tag is to get you to read the next chapter. To a large extent, the type of hook and tag a writer uses determines the time signature of the story. The temptation to keep the tempo strictly allegro is powerful and insidious. And yet sometimes it’s actually more effective to slow things down. Umberto Eco endorses the value of ‘lingering’ in the third of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, collected under the title Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.

"If, as we have noted, a text is a lazy machine that peals to the reader to do some of its work, why might a text linger, slow down, take its time? A fictional work, you would suppose, describes people performing actions, and the reader wants to know how these actions turn out. They tell me that in Hollywood, when a producer is listening to the story or plot of a film that is being proposed and finds there is too much detail, he calls out “Cut to the chase!” And this means: don’t waste time, drop the psychological subtleties, get to the climax… On the other hand … if something important is going to take place, we have to cultivate the art of lingering … Lingering doesn’t mean wasting time: frequently one stops to ponder before making a decision. One of the of slowing down techniques that n author can employ is one that allows the reader to take “inferential walks” … In any work of fiction the text emits signals of suspense, almost s if the discourse had slowed down or come to a halt, and as if the writer were suggesting, “Now you try carrying on…” When I spoke of “inferential walks” I meant, in the terms of our woodsy metaphor, imaginary walks outside the wood: readers, in order to predict how the story is going to go, turn to their own experience of life or their own knowledge of other stories… We mustn’t, however, make the mistake of thinking that signals of suspense are typical only of dime novels or of commercial films. The readerly process of making predictions constitutes a necessary aspect of reading …"

Hooks and tags encourage this process. They generally invoke the future, the direction or even the destination of the story, known to the writer but hidden from the reader. The intensity of these proleptic messages sets the narrative tone. The choice of that tone is one of the most critical and perplexing one that a writer faces. I find myself torn between the need for propulsive story telling and the desire to linger in Eco’s woods and attempt something like literature.

The recent revision of a chapter of my own book Owners is a good example. My intention was to introduce my character from the inside out, exploring his point of view, his past and his emotional state before starting the action. I was especially pleased that all the events of his apparently routine evening prefigured and even inventoried the plot developments to come. I privately thought of the chapter as the overture, in which all the major themes and motifs would be introduced. The reader would only grasp this later, when the story had been fully revealed. My conceit was that a second reading of the section would strike the reader a series of narrative blows: forehead slapping, oh-my-God-it-was-all-right-there-in-front-of me moments. The problem with this grand plan is that readers need some motivation to get through the book once, before they can revel in an encore.

The chapter struck most readers as exposition heavy and downright tedious. The first actual event, it was pointed out to me, was a fight in the Chicken Box bar, five or six pages into the story. Until then it was more or less of a snooze. I revised the chapter, cut much of the exposition, placing the fraction of it which I chose to preserve much later in the text, and decided to lay my cards on the table with a self-conscious and shameless hook:

"There was nothing special about the fourth of December: just another early winter night on Nantucket, or so it seemed. Much later it would occur to Police Chief Henry Kennis that it had been like the overture to a musical; a medley of tunes you scarcely noticed until you bought the cast album and really listened. Then you heard every theme and motif, every song played in advance. All the secrets and revelations, all the players and their plans were in the air that night, if he had known enough to listen. But of course he didn’t. Only weeks later, after the last chord was played, would he realize how pointed and prophetic the events of that night had been.
It began with a fight at the chicken box."

Now the primary action begins in the second paragraph and the reader is challenged to find the clues and talismans of the plot in the ordinary events of Henry’s night patrol. The reader is drawn in (I hope), but at some cost: I’ve set a stringent tempo. More importantly, my attempt to linger in Umberto Eco’s wood was a dispiriting failure.

It may be that each tale sets its own pace, that stories, like people, have their own natural rhythm and struggling against it causes the problem. Anyone who manages people for a living knows this. A landscaper wouldn’t let the hyper-active, impatient speed-freak weed the rose garden; and he’d keep the tortoise-like painstaking perfectionist away from the lawn mower; it’s just common sense. The detective story isn’t best served by a stream of consciousness narration; just as an IRA attack in Dublin would have done little to improve Ulysses.
I thought it might be interesting to look at group of writers along the spectrum of ambition and accomplishment to see how they deal with this issue. Marcel Proust, with his blithe certainty that we cannot wait to see what intrigues will unfold at the Guermantes’ soiree, and the his contract with the reader that agrees to put his thoughts and feelings about any incident far above the actual incident itself, chooses to end the first section of the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time in this way:

"At all events, on that particular day, before my visit to the Duchesse, I was not thinking so far ahead and was distressed at having, by attending to the Jupien-Charlus conjunction, perhaps missed the fertilization of the flower by the bumble-bee."

Proust feels a haughty disdain for the rhetoric of enticement. He invites us to share it with him. And we do (Though perhaps we have a Dick Francis novel handy on the bed-side for our weaker moments).

A little further down the literary food chain, things aren’t quite so clear-cut.
In Scott Spencer’s Waking the Dead a mainstream literary novel from the mid eighties, aspiring politician Fielding Pierce becomes obsessed with his dead girlfriend, a political activist killed in a car bombing. He is more and more certain she is alive, a delusion that threatens to wreck his life, until it turns out to be the truth. Sarah faked her own death, and emerges from the political underground for one devastating encounter. She tells him that she tore her life in half; he says it’s okay, they can put it back together again. His endearing optimism means nothing to her. “I threw the other half away,” she tells him.

With an urgent warning to stop asking about her and drawing attention to her disappearance, she makes love with him once, kisses him goodbye and disappears again into something very much like death, at least from Fielding’s point of view: a severance just as permanent. It’s a sad book but a brilliant one. Any novel with lines like “Ambition is the ice on the lake of emotion” and “Like progressive parents slowly, gently taking a meat cleaver away from a wild child, Danny and Sarah gradually moved the conversation out of my reach.” deserves its claim to literature.

Spencer uses tags overtly, like this one at the end of chapter five, when Fielding is certain that Sarah has been watching him from the street, certain that it was her voice on the telephone that afternoon, refusing to talk to his girlfriend Juliet, who has figured him out and is in the process of storming out of the house in the middle of the night to get away from him:

"The light from the hall raced across the bedroom floor as Juliet opened the door and then with a slam I was in darkness again. I was in darkness and I was in pain and despite all I believed and could not believe, despite having no more expectations of the miraculous than any other ordinary modern soul, despite all the arguments of common sense and all the cautions of fear, I was waiting."

Moving into the realm of genre fiction, and starting at the top, I read P.D. James’s Innocent Blood. She is a fine and elegant writer who chooses to concern herself with crime and its ramifications. Murder is her subject rather as espionage is John LeCarre’s. Both transcend and elevate the narrow category in which they write, and add some class to their ghettoized sections of Borders or Barnes & Noble.

In this book, the father of a murdered child plots his revenge as the murderess is released from prison into the custody of her own daughter. The child had been adopted by well-to-do parents, but has become increasingly obsessed with knowing her mother and understanding her mother’s grim story. The two obsessions converge with devastating effect, and James pushes us along the road to that confrontation with bold strokes. These lines begin Book Three, An Act of Violence:

"And now he moved with a mounting sense of excitement away from his settled routine at Pimlico and into a new world, their world. And the act itself was no longer hidden in an unknown future; the time had come to prepare himself physically and mentally for the deed."

It’s subtle but effective. By this time James has only to hint at the future to fill us with anxiety; it’s like touching a bruise.

Moving further down the line, dangerously close to my own neighborhood, here is a good example of what I call a ‘sinker’ – a tag so overwrought that the writer just seems desperate and the essential sense of confidence these devices are designed to impart just sinks, like a leaky rowboat. This is from The Watchman, by Robert Crais, the first novel featuring his perennial side-kick tough guy Joe Pike – the end of chapter one:

"The first patrol car arrived in seven minutes; the paramedics three minutes later. Larkin thought it would end that night when the policemen finished their questions, but her nightmare had only begun.
In forty eight hours she would meet with agents from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s. In six days, the first attempt would be made on her life. In eleven days she would meet a man named Joe Pike.
Everything in her world was about to change. And it began that night."

Here the future is used as a blunt instrument and I feel pummeled by the clamoring dread and expectation. “seven minutes,” “three minutes later,” “had only begun”, “In forty eight hours”, “In six days”, “In eleven days” “Everything was about to change”,” it began that night”: bang, bang, bang: eight time references in seven sentences and they hit you like a wrecking ball. Can Crais really have this little faith in the interest and attention span of his readers? It’s like the local news: “Something you’re doing RIGHT NOW may be KILLING YOU! Details at eleven.”
It’s a long slide down from Proust’s bumble-bee.

It’s hard to know, or perhaps to admit, where one fits on this scale. But in fact I’m writing a mystery and the pace is built in to the form. Eco talks about a “model reader”, whom the text invites but also creates. The book informs its audience how they should read it, and what they should expect to feel. Some books are a walk in Eco’s forest, some are a meditation or a discourse.

My book is a treasure hunt. And I’m the guide. These people are following me for two connected reasons: they want the treasure and I know how to find it. Pointing out the lovely views or the unusual fauna en route is fine, up to a very limited point. They’re not following me because I have the guidebook.

They’re following me because I have the map.

They need constant reassurance. They’re greedy and impatient. That’s why the hooks and tags have to be there. They are the clearest way of saying: I know where I’m going and you don’t. Follow me or get lost. I have to constantly re-assert the tyranny of superior knowledge. Readers want to be docile and follow. But they have to trust the guy with the map.

I don’t really know where I’m going, of course; most writers don’t. That’s the real secret at the heart of the story. And the mysterious process by which we somehow find our destination anyway?

That’s the real treasure.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Animal Kingdom, conclusion

Most of the preparations for her departure were already complete by the time she returned. Her room was devoid of carpets and furnishings, her clothes were folded into big trunks, all except for the ceremonial gown required for the night’s dinner. She dressed with the help of two maids, and gave one of them her mother’s earrings to deliver to the King’s chambers. The dowry had to be complete when it was presented.
She was beside Torvald when the King arrived at his place at the table. She spoke brightly with Torvald and with his mother, seated to her left. She was charming but modest; even when helping Torvald choose the proper fork for the salad course. Everyone noticed the change in her. The King was beaming – his instincts had been correct, after all. The married state was all she needed, along with one night in the marriage bed. Women only wanted to seem complicated. They liked to keep an air of mystery about themselves, but they were as coarse and predictable as any man. He could imagine making such a comment to his late wife. She wouldn’t argue with him, she never argued with him, but she had a way of cocking one eyebrow in sardonic inquiry that made him feel like a garrulous clown. Well, yes –- she was an exception to the rule, and no, he had never fully grasped her spirit, never really understood her. But Katerina was simpler. The last few days had proved that.
At the end of the meal, he presented Torvald with the chest of jewels. There was a lot of talk of “plighting her troth” and the binding together of the two families “in peace and war” – a telling phrase, Katerina thought. Her father had always deployed his resources – up to and including his daughter’s future – to maximize military security. The thought would have made her angry and bitter a few days before. Now she found she had a detached admiration for his long range tactical thinking. Only by such ruthless calculation could a King secure the safety of his kingdom. It made perfect sense, now that it was his kingdom and not hers. He really wasn’t such a bad man, when you weren’t at his mercy.
Torvald took the key on its chain and slipped it around his own neck. The chest was handed to him, the ceremonial bows and cheek kisses were exchanged … and it was done. Torvald took her to the specially prepared wedding suite, at the other end of the castle from her old chambers.
Torvald undressed them both and began his efforts anew. This time Katerina cooperated. She had nothing to lose anyway. Both her virginity and her innocence were already gone. And she had everything to gain: Torvald’s trust, which would let him sleep the sleep of the satiated and the self-righteous … and thus, her own freedom.
Freedom, the one thing her father had said she would never have.
Because she would never be willing to pay the price, that was the unstated message. He hadn’t been able to imagine any one wanting anything but this, and so he hadn’t been able to imagine how impossibly cheap that price would be for her in the end -- less than a few coins thrown at a beggar in the street.
It was nearly midnight before Torvald was sleeping deeply enough, and snoring loudly enough. Katerina dressed quickly in her travelling clothes and delicately removed the key on its chain from around her husband’s neck. He stirred slightly when her hands were under his head and she had to wait a full minute before she finished. She took the chest, and a small travelling bag of essential items.
She paused at the door, looking down at Torvald’s sleep-slack face.
For the last time, she thought with a small smile as she chewed at gryphillaria leaf. She had no regrets, no sense of loss, no last minute confusion of purpose. If anything she was surprised by how easy this all was. She had been in a cage for years and had never bothered to see if it was locked. They had told her it was locked and she had believed them. What a fool she had been! All she’d ever had to do was swing the door open and walk away.
So she did. She slipped out of the room and closed the door softly behind her. Wilf joined her in the yard. He watched as she got Lochinvar ready and arranged the saddlebags. Then they rode to the gate together. The guard was surprised but he had no orders to keep her inside –- no one expected her to be leaving.
She was crossing the fields beyond the town when she heard the pounding of hooves behind her. Someone was riding hard and fast, following her track. She thought of trying to out-run them, but for some reason she didn’t like that idea. Better to stand her ground. She fingered the knife in her travelling bag. She would use it if she had to.
The rider pulled up to her a few moments later and she saw that it was Anders.
“Good morning, Princess,” he bowed.
“What are you –- ?”
“You’re running away, aren’t you? Hoping to take on a new identity and disappear."
She looked up at him. “How did you know that?”
“Because I pay attention.”
She smiled. “I’m not used to that.”
“You should be. You’re worth noticing.”
“So … you came to say goodbye?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“Then why?”
He was nervous and the words came out in a jumble. “It occurred to me, Princess, that it might be easier, safer, for you to conceal yourself if you were not travelling alone. They’ll be looking for a woman travelling alone. But a couple, an itinerant herbalist and his wife … they might pass unnoticed.”
“You want to come with me?”
“I want to marry you.”
“I am already married.”
“I don’t care. You are a new woman now. She is free to marry whom she pleases.”
“You’re very bold.”
“You make me so.”
She smiled. “So it’s all my fault.”
“I’m afraid so, Princess.”
“I’m not a Princess any more.”
They stared at each other. Lochinvar edged closer to Anders’ horse. He reached his hand out and she took it. They held hands for a long time and the emotion filled her as dark wine fills a bottle. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not very good at this. I’ve been wanted and needed all my life. But I’ve never been loved before.” She looked into Lochinvar’s mane. “It takes a little getting used to.”
“We have time.”
“I’m not sure what do next.”
“There are a few things. The first is … kiss me.”
Lochinvar moved a few more steps and Anders was able to lean over and kiss her on the mouth. It was a gentle kiss, at first, just lips brushing lips. Then she slipped her hand behind his head and pulled him toward her. Her mouth opened under his. The kiss was long and deep. To Anders it was like drinking from a stream. But his thirst was far from quenched when she pulled away. She was smiling.
“What next?,” she said.
“The next isn’t quite so easy. But I don’t think we should live on your dowry. I can support us. If you are going to leave your old life behind, than I think you should leave all of it.”
“But – ”
“The boy, Tomas, who helped Wilf. His family is very poor. That dowry could change their lives.”
Anders saw the little dog staring up at him, tail beating the ground. It was as if he understood. Katerina looked down at Wilf, and she saw something in those deep brown eyes. She glanced back at Anders. “All right.”
“You’ll have to write a possessory draft and put the royal seal on it. That way no one can dispute his claim to the treasure or try to steal it.”
“Even Torvald?”
“The law is clear – even Torvald. He is made caretaker of the dowry, but it still belongs to you. Otherwise your family would have no hold on him.”
“You’re really thought this through.”
“I’ve thought about little else since I heard the wedding plans … Katerina.”
“I like the sound of that. I like it when you speak my name.”
He kissed her again and then they led Wilf lead them to Tomas’ house. They woke his father and mother and after a short ritual signed the dowry over to the Gunderson family. Groggy and only half-awake, Tomas’ parents had trouble understanding what was going on. Katerina told them the story as Wilf had told it to her. Their son was a hero and this was his reward. Wilf himself curled up beside Tomas as Katerina spoke
Tomas’ mother kissed him. “You’re the Good Samaritan.”
Tomas was embarrassed. “I just like dogs,” he said shyly.
They set the chest on the Gunderson’s dining room table. Anders took the key and opened it. He could see flowers of awareness blooming behind their eyes. The content of this box would secure not just them and their son, but his sons and their sons, for generations.
It was a miracle.
Anders raised his hand. “There is just one thing we need.”
He rummaged inside for a few seconds, then he pulled out the pair of emerald earrings. “They have … personal value. Is it all right if we take them with us?”
“Of – of course,” Mr. Gunderson managed.
“Thank you.”
He put them on Katerina very carefully and stepped back to admire his work.
“Beautiful,” he said. And then, turning to the Gunderson’s for the last time, “Goodbye.”
Katerina hugged Tom quickly, then followed Anders out the door, with Wilf just behind her.
First light was only a few minutes away when they left the Gunderson’s house. They stood beside the horses.
“Which way?” Katerina asked.
“West, to France. And south to the Pyrenees. I miss France.”
“I’ve never been to France. I’ve never been anywhere. And I want to go everywhere.”
“Then we will.”
Lochinvar rubbed her head with his. They could no longer speak but she knew what he was saying.
“I am,” she answered him. “I really am.”
They mounted the horses then, and rode away together in the rising light of dawn.

Bowen's Scarf & Other Mysteries

Near the beginning of Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence presents this extraordinary incident:
“The Fool,” cried Ursula loudly, “Why doesn’t he ride away until it’s gone by?”

Gudrun was looking at him with black-dilated, spellbound eyes. But he sat glistening and obstinate, forcing the wheeling mare, which spun and swerved like a wind, and yet could not get out of the grasp of his will, nor escape from the mad clamour of terror that resounded through her as the truck thumped slowly, heavily, horrifying, one after the other, one pursuing the other, over the rails of the crossing.

The locomotive, as if wanting to see what could be done, put on the brakes, and back came the trucks, rebounding on the iron buffers, striking like horrible cymbals, clashing nearer and nearer in frightful strident concussions. The mare opened her mouth and rose slowly, as if lifted up on a wind of terror. Then suddenly her forefeet struck out, as she convulsed herself utterly away from the horror. Back she went, and the two girls clung to each other, feeling she must fall backwards on top of him. But he leaned forward, his face shining with fixed amusement, and at last he brought her down, sank her down, and was bearing her back to the mark. But as strong as the pressure of his compulsion was the repulsion of her utter terror, throwing her back away from the railway, so that she spun round and round on two legs, as if she were in the centre of some whirlwind. It made Gudrun faint with poignant dizziness, which seemed to penetrate her heart.

The rider is Gerald Crich, owner of the local coal mine and thoroughly modern early-twentieth-century captain of industry, who as I’m sure you know, comes to a chilly and tragic end. The passage is richly symbolic and in the context of the book it evokes and crystallizes one of the novel’s primary themes: the natural world assaulted by the lifeless mechanisms of greed. But like all good symbolic iconography, this image is flexible: it applies as easily to politics (I think of students in Tiananmen Square) or the arts (Remember when Dylan went electric?).
For me, it embodies the ongoing polarity of organic living narrative and the smoke-belching machinery of plot. This schism between natural behavior and authorial will haunts any writer of “carefully structured” stories. That sounds like a euphemism, and it is. Even the word ‘plot’ has become stigmatized in literary circles: literature as puppet show, with characters on strings.
So is there a place for plot in literature – as opposed to mere storytelling? To address this question I read Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. This vibrant, funny and readable book takes a thorough and entertaining look at the genre, starting with the history of the novel, describing the twelve types of story the novel tells and finally analyzing a hundred different examples from The Tale of Genji to Atonement.

Comments like “In a novel length is always a promise, never a threat” assured me that we shared a common sensibility. Her first discussion of plot concerns The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle:

Each time I reread the novel, knowing the tricks and deceptions of the plot, I learned how the tricks and deceptions worked together logically. The novel had two stories – the story as it unfolded on the surface, and story of what had happened. The two stories had to mesh perfectly for Holmes’s recapitulation to be convincing, but the surface story had to hide the real story for the recapitulation to be interesting. Both stories had to bolster Holmes’s claim to special intellectual status … Watson could make claims for Holmes, but Conan Doyle had to depict Holmes in a way that made good on the claims, at least in the eyes of a twelve-year-old.

There is a ray of hope in that passage: plot can be used to delineate character, through action. Later on, in her discussion of Robinson Crusoe, Smiley delineates a revolutionary innovation that Daniel Defoe introduced in the book many consider to be the first real novel: the continuous, effortless shift between the events of the story and the characters’ reactions. This access to the inner life of characters brings the schematic outline to life.

Out of necessity, Crusoe approaches his world with investigative openness, and as a result of his investigations, his island become real, not at all phantasmagorical. In addition, “how to” in a novel always yields “who” – the manner in which a character goes about his task reveals his uniqueness. This is the most essential mark of narrative, for a very simple reason: the story must progress. Each idiosyncratic action progresses the story but at the same time distinguishes the protagonist not only from those around him (or her) but also from the reader and other individuals the reader knows or has read about. A novel cannot tarry too long with the meaning of events, because meaning is usually experienced as either revelation or instruction. Revelation is by nature momentary, and instruction is by nature not very entertaining. Beads of meaning, therefore, tend to be strung along a wire of actions. Thus individuality, meaning and action (which may coalesce more formally into plot) are inextricably mixed in the form of the novel and dissolved in the further idiosyncrasy of the narrative voice

I had a glimmer of this tonic synergy recently in rewriting my novel Owners. The plot had taken over – insidiously, as it always does. A central character’s role obscured his actual responses to the human truth of what was happening to him. It’s a kind of check-the-box thought process. The character has to find this out, and then he has to do such and such … but the real effect of the news gets lost in the mechanical details.

In the first draft of Owners, when housepainter Mike Henderson finds out that homeowner Preston Lomax’s plan will render him destitute, he more or less goes on about his plot-appointed business. But a brush with financial melt-down in my own life taught me the folly of this narrative choice: Mike would have done one thing and one thing only at that point: shamelessly and utterly freaked out. As I did, as anyone would. The interesting thing is that when I went back and incorporated this bit of human truth into the story, it supported and enriched the plot, bound the characters to their actions with a sturdier twine of authentic motivation and heart. I think Jane Smiley would have approved.

Elizabeth Bowen discusses the tension between character and plot in her essay On Writing a Novel, included in The Mulberry Tree, Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, edited by Hermione Lee.

Plot … cannot claim a single poetic licence. It must be reasoned – only from the moment its none-otherness, its only-possibleness has become apparent. Novelist must always have one foot, sheer circumstantiality, to stand on, whatever the other foot may be doing.(N.B. – Much to be learned from story telling to children. Much to be learned from the detective story – especially non-irrelevance ...
Interest of watching a dress that has been well packed unpacked from a dress box. Interest of watching a silk handkerchief drawn from a conjuror’s watch…
What about the statement, (in relation to PLOT) that ‘each character is created in order and only in order that he or she may supply the required action’? To begin with, strike out ‘created’. Better, the character is recognized (by the novelist) by the signs he or she gives of unique capacity to act in a certain way, which ‘certain way’ fulfills the needs of the plot.

This sounds practical and astute. Perhaps the two sides of this dichotomy can be resolved; perhaps that’s the point of writing the book in the first place.

Bowen makes a brief cameo appearance in the text of Ian McEwan’s sublime masterpiece Atonement; at least, she is referred to in a letter of rejection from Cyril Connolly (editor of the literary magazine Horizon) to the book’s protagonist, Briony Tallis:

In other words, rather than dwell for quite so long on the perceptions of each of these three figures , would it not be possible to set them before us with greater economy, still keeping some of the vivid writing about light and stone and water which you do so well – but then move on to create some tension, some light and shade within the narrative itself. Your most sophisticated readers might be well up on the latest Bergsonian theories of consciousness, but I’m sure they retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens …
Simply put, you need the backbone of a story. It may interest you to know that one of your avid readers was Mrs. Elizabeth Bowen. She picked up the bundle of typescript in an idle moment when passing through the office on her way to luncheon, asked to take it home to read and finished it that afternoon. Initially, she thought the prose “tool full, too cloying” but with ‘redeeming shades of Dusty Answer (which I wouldn’t have thought of at all). Then she was “hooked for a while” and finally gave us some notes which are, as it were, mulched into the above.

Of course McEwan idolizes Bowen and in both style and theme his book is a tribute to her. He may have the final word, at least for this essay, on the matter of character versus contraption. Briony Tallis spreads a senseless lie that ruins the lives of her sister Cecilia and her lover, Robbie Turner. Cecilia repudiates her family, Robbie goes to jail for ‘raping’ Briony; Briony becomes a writer. Her first attempt to describe these events is reviewed by the Cyril Connelly in passage above.

At the outbreak of World War II, Robbie is set free to join the army and winds up at Dunkirk. Briony becomes a nurse, tending to the war wounded. When she finds out that Cecilia and Robbie are living together, and that he is on leave, she seeks them out and makes her apology. This comes as a huge relief to the reader – a massive burden of guilt and sorrow shifted a little if not wholly removed.

But there are wrong notes in the text. There are errors of both fact and perception in the section that describes Robbie’s war-time experiences; precisely, one realizes later, as if they were being written by a young woman with no direct experience of battle. Then at the end of the healing reunion with her sister and brother-in-law, we find another ominous note sounded: this entire section is signed: “BT. London 1999.” This is baffling at first, particularly since it reflects a truth we are loathe to accept. But when Briony goes to a family reunion and neither Cecilia (who had apparently reconciled with the family) nor Robbie is there, the truth starts to reveal itself.
There was no reunion. There was no reconciliation.We have been reading Briony’s novel, rewritten into a masterpiece since the chastisements of Connelly and Bowen years before.
Let Briony explain it:

It is only in this last version that my lovers end well, standing stand by side on a south London pavement as I walk away. All the preceding drafts were pitiless. But now I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on one June 1940, or that Cecelia was killed in September of that same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham underground station. That I never saw them in that year. That my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital unable to confront her recently bereaved sister. That the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum. How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from that account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn’t do it to them. I’m too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. When I am dead, when the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. Briony will be as much of a fantasy as the lovers who shared a bed in Balham and enraged their landlady. No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.

I must confess that these lines always bring me to tears, even now, as I laboriously copy them for this essay. Perhaps it’s because McEwan so passionately and precisely sums up the reasons why we read novels at all; and write them. To inhabit other lives, which seem as real (or more real) than our own; to redeem the world, to correct its cruelty, to atone for our sins.

Because in fact the lovers do flourish. All of this is made up, not by Briony but by McEwan and we can choose any conclusion we like from the narrative bouquet that the author offers us.
So then, here is an exquisite example of plot and character unified into a single onrushing narrative force and a ‘twist’ ending that recapitulates the very essence of the character we have come to love, the nature of her sins and the quality of her salvation.

So it can be done! I ought to feel a rush of hope and energy, but instead I feel strangely daunted. Of course it can be done – by Bowen, by McEwan.

Whether or not I will be able to manage this magic act, pull this scarf from the watch, keep the terrified mare on her feet as the trucks of causality and consequence rumble past … that remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Animal Kingdom, Part Six

The guests had started arriving for Princess Katerina’s wedding at dusk the day before. Some had to travel more than two hundred miles, including the two dozen members of Torvald’s family and their entourage. Katerina had to greet them all with the proper formalities. Everyone agreed she looked very beautiful though very pale. The headstrong and arrogant girl they were expecting was nowhere in evidence. Just the opposite. This girl was demure and quiet. Everyone was much impressed.
Only the King had any inkling of the utter misery and despair which had quelled her tongue.
She dreamed that night that she was rescued, that she simply disappeared, that everyone went home, baffled, muttering about murdering, witchcraft and miracles. But in the event there was no murder and no witchcraft.
Most of all, there were no miracles.
Katerina walked up the aisle of the chapel as if in a dream, wearing a newly made wedding dress and the emerald earrings her mother had worn on this day twenty-six years before. Somehow Queen Adriana had managed, and with such grace and dignity. But she had loved her husband. And her mind was clear. She didn’t live in the shadows, she was a happy person.
Sometimes this killing sadness seemed to Katerina like wearing heavy winter coats and long underwear in the summer. But she couldn’t take them off. They were another skin, they were part of her. She was meant to sweat and suffocate while everyone else ran through the dappled tree shadows in light cotton and silk, the mild wind kissing their skin. Odd she should think of tree shadows. Even they scared her now, as if they were deep crevasses … or tentacles. She shuddered.
The sound of birds beyond the stained glass was driving her mad, pricking her brain like little needles. The red of the stained glass itself was like blood, the glass was bleeding, she could almost smell the coppery stench of it in her nostrils. She was sure she was going to faint. But someone was talking to her.
It was the priest.
“Do you take this man…”
It was really happening, she was about to say, “I do.” She was about to lay her life down before this brutish oaf from the mountains. And she had no strength to stop it. The Priest was asking if there was anyone who knew some reason why these two could not be wed. Would Anders speak up? That was madness, of course he wouldn’t. They would execute him on the spot. And her father had already made his own position clear.
There was no one else to speak for her; not in this kingdom, at least. She thought of Lochinvar in his stall and Wilf … she had no idea where. She closed her eyes. How strange -- she was more alone than she had ever been at this precise moment, as she performed the sacred ceremony by which she was joining her life forever with another’s.
The bitter irony actually made her smile, and everyone who saw that smile thought she was happy. That was the moment where the old ladies who cried at weddings started crying. Torvald smiled back at her, showing his mouth full of horribly decayed teeth.
Then the droning voice was saying “You may kiss the bride,” and he was kissing her and the horror was complete.
But it wasn’t over; in fact it was just beginning. After the reception, where Torvald got violently drunk and threw her about the dance floor, his hands groping her where she had never been touched before, he took her upstairs and the abomination of her wedding night began. It was far worse than rape since she could not even claim to be the victim. And Torvald was no crude pillaging soldier. He had studied the ways of the bedroom and he took her in every way and in every position he had learned in a decade of debauchery. He forced her to perform acts she had only heard of in the foul whispers of servants gossiping at a turn in the stairs. He forced her to perform acts she had never heard of anywhere, until she was slimy with his sweat, saturated and soiled with the feel and taste and smell of him, until he was under her skin and in her blood and in her brain and she was utterly possessed by him and poisoned by his touch. She had breathed him in like smoke and the thick, stinging vapor was killing her.
In the morning the bed was stained red. The sheets were her favorites, combed cotton she had slept on for years. They would have to be thrown away, now. Trying to clean them was pointless. The amount of bleach it would take to remove her blood would destroy the sheets themselves.
They were ruined, just as she was.
But there was a solution. She saw it clearly. She had always been able to think best early in the morning, before the day settled on her and the accumulating hours weighed her down. It was so simple she couldn’t believe it had never occurred to her before. The bedroom window was forty feet above the flagstones. All she would have to do was open it and jump. In a few seconds this whole harrowing ordeal would be over. Supposedly, committing suicide would condemn her to Hell. She wasn’t sure she believed God could be that cruel. Besides, it was hard to imagine Hell could be much worse than this life she was living. At least it would be a change.
And there was one more fact to consider: nobody, not even the priests, could be absolutely sure about the after life. But Katerina was certain about this life: it was nothing but relentless degradation, and it was only going to get worse. Tomorrow she would be leaving here and she’d never see her home again.
At least with suicide, there was some possibility of improving things.
It seemed the only practical solution.
For Princess Katerina, decision and action were one and the same. Even as she was choosing death she was pulling the covers back and tip-toeing towards the window. Torvald, sated on food and liquor and physical pleasure, was still asleep and snoring. It was difficult to unlatch the window and it creaked on its hinges when she pushed it open. She looked back at Torvald. He hadn’t moved. She leaned over and looked down to the courtyard below. It was a good drop; it would do the job. Using a stone ridge above the top of the window she climbed onto the sill. She had to duck down a little to get her head outside, but soon she was leaning out over the gulf of air. She could feel it pulling at her. She lingered a moment, looking beyond the castle walls to the cluttered roofs of the town and the fields and forest beyond. A thin ground mist was starting to burn off in the first light of dawn. It was beautiful. It was the last thing she was ever going to see and she wanted to memorize the pastel colors and the rainy sunlight so she could take the image with her wherever she was going.
That was her mistake. In the few seconds as she paused, Torvald came awake, saw her at the window and lunged out of bed. She had already let go when he reached the window and he wound up catching her under her arms. His knees were locked against the wall beneath the sill and his feet started to skid backward with the sudden jolt of her weight. For a teetering breathless slice of time he thought he would be pulled out of the window with her. But he got his feet under him again and yanked her back inside. He held her at arm’s length.
”Katerina!,” he shouted.
She didn’t answer. She was dazed. He slapped her hard.
“What are you doing!” he said. She just stared at him. He slapped her again, backhanding her cheek this time, drawing blood from her lip. “Answer me.”
“I want to die,” she said.
And then she fainted.

All that morning and afternoon the servants were dismantling her room and packing her things away for the journey. She couldn’t stand to watch them work and she had nothing else to do.
“I’m going to take a ride,” she told Torvald.
“Enjoy your horses of yours – you’ll never ride any of them again.”
“But – I thought – Father said …”
“Your father has nothing to say anymore. You’re my wife now. You’ll be living in my home and I have a full stable already.”
She turned away.
“Be back in time for dinner! It’s an important night for both of us. I want you by my side an on your best behavior when your father turns over the dowry.”
She paused, turned back to him and nodded. Then she continued out the door.
She walked to the stables and saddled Lochinvar with no help from the stable-hands. She scarcely spoke to Anders but he sensed that something was wrong.
“Princess?,” he said as she was leading Lochinvar out of the barn. “Where will you be riding today?,” He asked it more as an excuse to hear her voice and gauge her state of mind than out of any real curiosity. It was a foolish question anyway -- she rarely rode out with any set destination and he knew it.
“I have no idea. Do I need to supply an itinerary now?
He bowed. “Of course not, Princess. Please pardon my presumption.”
She swung up onto the saddle with her old effortless grace and trotted away. Anders watched her go and he felt ill inside. Something was horribly wrong. It was the way she looked him and spoke to him, the tense lift of her shoulders. The castle gate shut behind her. This was bad. He couldn’t explain the feeling but he didn’t need to – all he needed to do was trust it. He sprinted back into the barn, took the fastest stallion out of his stall and threw a saddle on his back. Young William, brightest of the stable boys, came in to ask what was going on.
“You’re in charge until I get back,” he said. “Make sure all the mucking out is done before lunch. And clean the drinking tubs. Daisy and Bartholomew need currying. Keep everyone busy. I’m relying on you.”
William grinned and bowed. “Yes, sir!”
Anders finished adjusting the bridle, lifted himself into the saddle and tightened the reins. The Princess had a good head-start but he had a very good guess about where she was going, and there were many short-cuts along the way. He lifted a hand to William and galloped off toward the castle gates.
He was right about the Princess. She was heading for the forest, for the section east of town where the plants that might be gryphillaria and might me pormelusia grew in such profusion.
He suspected that she didn’t much care any more which leaf she ate.
He rode hard for two hours, he used every trick he knew, and in the end he was just behind her. He had been right. She was on her knees amid the dense shrubs, tearing at the leaves with both hands. He brought the stallion to a jarring halt and leapt off his back. The Princess was gaping at him angrily.
“What are you doing here?”
“Princess – ”
“Leave me alone.”
“Do you remember, I told you – the death from the pormelusia is long and painful.”
“At least no one calls it living.”
“Don’t do this.”
“Give me one reason not to.”
He saw then that nothing he said could stop her. He had no arguments to marshal in favor of a life with the grotesque Torvald. And he could see no way out of it. Words failed, as they did so often. Action had always served him better. And in thinking that he was inspired. He dropped to his knees and tore out a handful of leaves.
The Princess was confused.
“What are you doing?”
“You know very well. If you eat them so will I.”
“You wouldn’t. You’re bluffing.”
“You know me better than that.”
“You would die if I died?”
“I would follow you anywhere.”
There was an electric pause – they could both feel the charge of it running down their spines and through their arms to their fingers. Neither of them noticed the soft, stalking crunch of an approaching animal’s steps in the bushes. Katerina put the leaves to her mouth and Anders did the same. He knew he was telling her the truth, he was drunk with it. He knew she could feel it.
“I forbid you to do this,” she told him.
He smiled. “Under threat of death?”
“Under threat of damnation.”
“I think I’m damned already, Princess.”
“Suicide is a mortal sin. You’ll go to Hell.”
“Then we’ll be there together.”
She was crying, he saw the tears bright in her eyes before they spilled down her cheek. “Please,” she begged him, “Please leave me alone, just go away and leave me here an d let me do this.”
He shook his head slowly, never taking his eyes from hers.
“I can’t.”
She saw that it was true and in the finality of her despair, which she knew no one, could ever fully understand, she dropped the leaves. She was defeated.
In two steps he was by her side. He held her but she tensed against him, her arms hanging straight down, palms at her sides.
It was at that moment that he finally noticed the animal footfalls behind him. He was unarmed and it was too late to turn and defend himself anyway. Katerina heard it too, but her eyes were closed and she saw nothing. Before she could react, the creature had come around beside her and pushed its cold nose into her hand, just as he had done a thousand times before.
The word came out as a sob.
“OhmyGod, Wilf, Wilf, where were you, you sweet boy, are you hurt?”
She sat down hard in the shrubbery and let Wilf bound onto her chest and knock her down, licking her face, his tail slashing the air. “Good boy, good boy,” she said, stroking the length of him, feeling his ribs.
“I can help, Princess. I can help, I can help.” The words stumbled out of him as he panted and licked.
She took his head in her hands. “How?”
“I know the difference between the leaves! I can smell it. Dogs have a good sense of smell.”
Lochinvar had walked over. He nuzzled Wilf too hard and the little dog rolled over. He bounded to his feet and took some time licking Lochinvar thoroughly. Anders stood back, stunned, just watching. For half an hour Wilf told his story about his mission and the bad man who had caught him and his escape. He told about the boy Tomas who had helped him and brought him to the healer woman, how the boy had hidden him from his parents and fed him in secret and changed his dressings as the woman instructed him to do. Finally, when he could put weight on the injured paw again, the boy gave him a haunch of mutton and sent him on his way. He had run non-stop and he had found the two of them here, just in time.
Then Wilf went to work, sniffing through the plants that carpeted the forest floor, quartering the area around the Princess, pulling up a stem and then another, depositing them in her lap.
“You were holding the poison, Princess,” he told her.
“What’s going on?,” Anders asked.
“Wilf can find the gryphillaria. Isn’t it wonderful? He knows the smell. He’s picking it for me now.”
“But – “ Anders stopped himself. Rational arguments were pointless here. Something more important was going on. A dog was picking herbs for a Princess. The proper thing to do was stand back, keep a respectful silence and watch.
When her lap was full of the red-speckled leaves, Wilf backed off a few steps and sat down to watch. Katerina patted him, and stroked Lochinvar’s muzzle. She held her hand out to Anders. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said. He squeezed his hand once and then put the first of the bitter medicine into her mouth. It was just as she remembered her cheeks and tongue contracting against the acrid juice. It seemed to dry out her sinuses. And just as before, within a few minutes, she could feel the shadows lifting, the world shrinking back to comfortable proportions. It was like a long awaited reunion with her twin sister, a sister who was really just herself. She laughed as the phrase occurred to her, and she said it out loud: “It’s good to have me back.”
No one had heard her laugh in many weeks. To Anders it was one of the great sounds of his life, like boots on new snow or the creak of a bridle, like pennywhistle music carried on the wind from a distant carnival, or rain on the barn roof. It left the past behind, like the ashes of a cook fire. It made the present an oasis and the future an adventure. It was the voice of every optimistic thought; it was the music of hope.
He helped her to her feet and hugged her.
She hugged him back, his arms so strong and gentle and impossible; holding Anders she thought of the rough, loveless embrace of Torvald. And she knew precisely what she had to do. Once her head was clear the thoughts came so easily. She couldn’t involve Anders, she couldn’t put him at risk. It would just be her and Wilf and Lochinvar. She knew instinctively that she couldn’t speak to them directly any more, but it was all right. She was part of the animal kingdom now, and no part of her own.
The group made their way back to the castle, keeping up a good pace. Wilf was sore and he rode on Lochinvar, behind the princess, his head resting on her shoulder. Katerina didn’t want to be late. Total compliance to the will of her husband was essential, at least for tonight.
Then it would be over.