The same, only different. That’s what the people want, so they say. But how same and how different? That no one can tell you.
I’m working on the manuscript of Novel #2. Presently, there is much good in it, and much that is not so good in it. The way the book is presently constructed, it has a frame story that takes place in the present, and a mystery of sorts leads one of the characters back in time to previous events. So a substantial amount of the book takes place in the past. And as I was going through the manuscript this time through, it became very clear to me: the parts that were not so good were mostly in the frame-story portion, the portion of the novel set in the present.
I tried to understand why this was so. It seemed to me that the characters in the frame story had less dimension, spoke more stiltedly, and seemed overall less real to me. When I first had the impetus to write this book, the incidents in the past are what propelled me to start writing. I grafted on the frame story, because I thought I could make a clever plot connection between the events in the present and the events in the past. And that is where I made my mistake. Because clever is very different from true. And what I’m learning now, for my taste at least, is that truth beats clever every time.
Not that there is no place for cleverness in a novel. But it can’t be the sole reason for its existence, unless it’s a genre-specific item, like a sci-fi story or a mystery. As an extreme example of this, I recently read a mystery called The Tokyo Murder Mysteries, recommended on one of the magic forums. It’s an extraordinarily clever locked-room style multiple murder mystery whose answer is literally the same as the method to a very clever close-up magic trick involving dollar bills. Now I enjoy this kind of book, it has a great power to amuse and entertain me, but on the other hand it has little power to move me. And if a piece of literary fiction doesn’t move the reader in one way or another, then for me, it hasn’t done its job.
So what then should literary fiction do, at a minimum? The formulation I came up for myself was that the kind of book I’m interested in reading and writing must speak a recognizable unspoken truth about the human condition. However, that stipulation is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t keep saying the same thing in the same way as other books. So I amend it to, “To speak a recognizable unspoken truth—in a novel way.”
In a novel way. Oh my goodness, I never—stupid me—never made the connection between the two meanings of the word. A novel is something that talks about life in a novel way. There must be surprise and unpredictability. The same, only different. How much same and how much different? In a genre novel, very likely much of it is the same as others in its genre; if any of the rigid conventions of the genre are broken, it’s quite possible that the reader will feel badly disappointed. On the other hand, the need for surprise somewhere in the book is even greater, because of the necessity of distinguishing itself from the rest of its similar genre-soaked companions. So a genre book depends heavily on one twist, usually at the end, that does all the heavy lifting. If that twist doesn’t work, then the book has little value. To take the murder mystery example above, if the reader doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity of the solution to the multiple murder mystery, then as far as the reader is concerned, the time spent reading has been wasted.
But in literary fiction, the balance is different, there’s much more unpredictability. As a writer I am most happy when I surprise myself as I go along, because I know that if I am happily surprised as I am writing, then perhaps the reader will be pleasantly surprised as well. A tale full of sound and fury that’s been told before in the same way? Well, that signifies nothing.
The balance of those two imperatives—truth and novelty—is something that I must continually weigh as I continue to revise my manuscript. I can’t allow myself to be seduced by one side to the exclusion of the other. There must be both throughout the manuscript.
A novel should speak the recognizable unspoken truth in a novel way.
Crowds and Party by Jodi Dean is a fascinating must read for anyone interested in how political change happens, and what the left must do now. In this book, Professor Dean talks about those “beautiful moments” that have happened throughout history—think The Paris Commune and Occupy Wall Street—where The Crowd has created a disruption in the usual fabric of capitalist society. But those “beautiful moments” are short-lived, ephemeral, and seem to disappear into forgotten hope. How can a movement hold onto and build on these precious historical moments? Jodi Dean tackles crowd theory and the concept of a working people’s political party, reviews the relevant literature, and presents her analysis in her new book, Crowds and Party.
The book is not always easy reading, so I was happy to have the opportunity to engage in a spirited conversation with Professor Dean, broadcast on WBAI 99.5 FM NY radio yesterday on the Arts Express program. Dean was so interesting that we decided to do two parts to the interview, broadcast one week after the other.
You can listen to Part One by clicking on the grey triangle above.
… said Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor about his bloody deeds. Well my deeds are not bloody, but after more than three years of battle with my novel, The New World, and 15 drafts, I have finally said, “enough.” This is it: best I can tell, it’s done. Yes, I could keep tinkering, but I no longer know whether the tinkering is doing any good. It’s time to get on to the next phase.
The manuscript is sitting there in a pile next to me.
Now, to get this published. I think it’s very good. I still enjoy reading it, even after reading it through for the 100th time. So that’s one person who likes it. I still love my characters, and I still want to keep my promises to them.
I could self-publish, and maybe that’s how this will end up, but I suspect that would seem like a disappointment to me. So the next step—and God knows I’ve only been approaching this one step at a time, but at least that’s got me this far, to a point I would never have thought myself capable of—the next step is to get myself an agent. And in order to do that, I have to put together a query letter and synopsis to send out to prospective agents.
After writing a 90,000 word novel, you’d think it would be a breeze to write a one page query letter and a two page novel synopsis, but it seems intimidating to me, and here I find myself without much of a compass. I’ve read a bunch of books on the subject, and the query letter is supposed to tell all the reasons that you think this particular book would be the right book for this particular agent, the subtext always being, “Here’s the reason why my novel is going to make you money.” To that end, you lay out what genre your novel is, and how it is just like popular books X, Y, and Z, and here’s the plot, where a, b, and c happen,” and maybe you’re subtly highlighting why this would make terrific movie material, and so on.
I’m not sure that my novel necessarily falls into any of these categories. It’s not particularly plot-driven, and I’m not sure it can fit into any well-defined category. I suppose one could say it’s what the agents call Literary Fiction, but even that designation doesn’t tell you too much. Is it a Domestic Drama? Maybe, but I’d like to think there’s too much humor in it to be considered strictly a drama. Maybe the kind of thing Anne Tyler writes. I recently read her A Spool of Blue Thread which I greatly admired, and thought, “Damn, that’s the novel that I’ve been trying to write!” Well, I’ve got to accept my limitations and understand that I’m no Anne Tyler, but at least I feel some kind of kinship with her book, so maybe the people who like Anne Tyler’s books will like mine.
Anyway, best I can tell, my work is now just beginning, and I’m about to plunge into a whole new world of learning about publishing. I never expected to get anywhere close to where I am now in terms of my writing, so anything else is gravy. I’ll just take the next step and tell myself: screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail. (Hmmm, note to self: maybe I want to rethink quoting Lady M as my inspirational source.)
This edition of Book Nook is going to be of interest primarily to magic geeks, so if that’s not your thing you can scroll on to another post. None of these books is particularly new, but they’re what I’ve been reading lately, and some of them may have escaped your attention.
Further Impuzzibilities by Jim Steinmeyer is another in Steinmeyer’s series of little pamphlets that describe mostly new takes on self-working tricks. Most of these tricks I treat as “cute” throwaways, but this time there is one very good three-phase blackjack deal that is easy to learn and very effective. It uses just ten cards, and it would be quite easy afterwards to switch out three cards either covertly or openly, and go into a Ten Card Poker Deal. You may also enjoy “The Great Silverware Scam,” which is the venerable Piano Card Trick as applied to knives and forks.
Naked Mentalism by John Thompson is a bold attempt to make psychological forcing more scientific. Every mentalist has his or her pet psychological force, but what Thompson does here is to back up his choices with statistical data. So there are tables and tables of data listing the responses of thousands of people to “favorite” this or “favorite” that, and combinations thereof. In the latter half of the book, he extends his ideas into the concept of a perfect booktest. It’s not foolproof, and your results may vary, but if you are able to take on all the memorization work involved, you have a pretty good shot at succeeding at a gaffless, sleightless, anytime, anywhere booktest, where a spectator can choose any word.
Caution: Practical Joker Ahead by Bruce Walstad is a compendium of 76 practical jokes that Walstad played on his fellow police officers with suggestions for the reader to follow. These are fairly simple, innocuous pranks. One of my favorites ideas was to put an inch-and-a-half-high stack of pennies under each leg of a colleague’s desk; then when someone accidentally bumps into the desk a bit, the whole desk comes clattering down in a lopsided manner. You can see one of the pranks outlined here in a video I created and posted a few days ago.
ParaLies by Joshua Quinn is a book filled with a wealth of clever mentalism ideas and techniques. Highlights include a detailed section on equivoking a single card from a full deck, and then a very clever way to reveal it, as well as a section on using ambigrams for magical effect. The bulk of the book, however, covers the same territory as the Thompson book mentioned above, more or less, but with a different approach, one which I prefer. With Quinn’s technique, a performer can not only do a sleightless, gaffless booktest, but using his “chunnelling” technique, the performer can have a spectator choose any word mentally, have the spectator change the word several times in a genuinely free but limited way, and yet still the performer can reveal the resulting word accurately. Highly recommended.
In my early twenties, I read The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, and now decades later, I’ve come back to it. I finished reading it again, and I have to say, I’ve spent the last two weeks hypnotized by it. But aside from the luxurious language, and the sensuous world created, the larger conception of the four volumes is audaciously ambitious and deals with themes that have haunted me for most of my life.
Durrell says the structure of The Quartet was based on Einsteinian principles: the three dimensions of space and one of time. Not in any literal sense, but rather metaphorically: the first three books describe a tale from three different points of view, and the fourth picks up the story later in time. In describing The Quartet, I’m about to give a kind of spoiler, but I think it’s necessary, because without a full description of the plan of The Quartet, you might be tempted to bail after the first volume. That would be a mistake. So…
The novels are set in Egypt, between the two world wars. The first volume, Justine, is told in first person by a somewhat struggling British school teacher and writer named Darley, whose circle of friends includes civil servants in the Alexandria Foreign Office. Durrell’s Alexandria is a city of intoxication and deception: it’s a major character in the love story of Darley with the mysterious Justine, a Jewish woman married to a rich Arab banker. The story is told in exquisite language, and Durrell has an almost Dickensian ability to sketch characters who are distinctly humorous and memorable set within the city brought to life in all its frenetic, teeming activity.
But it’s not until the second volume that the larger plan of The Quartet begins to unfold: in volume two, Balthazar, the same story is re-told, but this time from the point of view of a friend of Darley’s, Balthazar. Balthazar sends a letter to Darley which completely upends Darley’s view of what had happened during his affair.
Volume three, Mountolive is told in third person; it too recounts the events of the first two novels, this time largely from the point of view of the chief British ambassador to Alexandria, Mountolive. Not only are the first two versions of the story completely upended, but the misunderstandings are now played out on the macro level, a result of world power politics of which the narrators in the first two books had no understanding. By the end of this volume, the true nature of The Quartet becomes clear. We are actors in a world of incomplete information and so, necessarily, the lives we live are fictional creations of our own construction.
The fourth volume, Clea, moves on in time. It is about six years later after the events of the first three volumes, and Darley, eventually learns most—but not all—of what really happened (even the reader does not get to know the complete story). But again he is forced to reassess the events again, and especially his own feelings towards Justine and the others. He returns to Alexandria, trying to pick up the threads of his life, and here the novel becomes a meditation on the confrontation of the past with the present, and coming to terms with what has changed and what has remained the same. This volume is slower, told more leisurely, with more asides. I think this makes very good sense. The ending is very satisfying as the hypnotic spell is gently broken. I felt as if I had been in the meditation flotation tank; the music is slowly coming back on, gently waking me back to the present reality.
I don’t really know what the present reputation of The Quartet is among serious writers and critics of modern literature. Perhaps there is something old hat about it now. I don’t know. There is, definitely, a certain amount of casual racism, Orientalism, and British colonial attitude through much of it. But I know also that for two weeks I lived in a dream, not able to let it go, mesmerized by the intoxicating tale(s) of Lawrence Durrell.
Yesterday, radio station WBAI’s Arts Express program played my interview with Karl Marx. Well, not Karl Marx exactly, but with actor Jerry Levy who plays Marx in a new one-man play that Levy wrote called The Third Coming.
Click on the grey triangle above to hear Levy talk about Marx, anarchism, Howard Zinn, and how he prepared to act the role of a lifetime.