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.


Osman said...

First person makes sense for a first novel. Yes, very natural.

p.s. You continue to have a nice gift for dialogue Steve.


Great work.