Some thoughts on the novel, a form of writing that somehow perplexes me. I have written (what I call) novels but haven’t really thought of the effort as novel-writing. That is, for me it does not detach itself from any other manner of writing that I do. I don’t wear novelist t-shirts.
Having finished Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, a novel that interests more for its subject matter than its story (tho the story’s good), I found myself sniffing Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet. (I almost said sniffing Justine—the first book in the Quartet—but I don’t know, it didn’t sound right).
I’ve read the Quartet twice, I think. The books tantalized me before I actually read them, and fascinated me once I did. Durrell commits himself to the Quartet both as a writer and as a participant in the stories. He’s clearly writing about specific people he knew, tho I don’t mean that the books document his life in any reliable way. Durrell supplies proof that the books are autobiographical by a prefatory note stating that they aren’t. Not that I care.
I like that Durrell offers back matter, trace glints of his characters. These include random quotes (bon mots) of the various characters, quick descriptions of people and places. Some of it is crap. The so-called character squeezes, short phrases that supposedly describe each character, just sound precious (“Clea Montis: still waters of pain.”). He has a nice, allusive language otherwise.
I get a sense with his characters similar to when a couple you know speaks of friends you don’t know. They speak of Kate and Larry spending a week in Truro and you think of these faceless people and the life they have with your friends. It’s almost a labour to think of Kate and Larry in Truro. They exist only on the basis of your friends’ reference, negatory without. That’s how I think of Durrell’s characters.
The plots of the novels, and the interaction of the characters are interesting enough that one wants to read on, but the characters aren’t especially likeable. Must we love them? Durrell loves them all. That gets in the way. No, we needn’t love the characters. I don’t and won’t.
I have been thinking this stuff because I think I’ve written an anti-novel. That’s no invention of mine. A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery and James Schuyler is an anti-novel by my reck. That book has much influenced me.
The characters in Ninnies aren’t especially likeable. They’re not especially anything. The authors remain so much detached from the characters as to be satisfied that the characters speak for themselves (argh, I mean the characters speak for themselves: curse you wobbly language!). Furthermore, there’s really no plot here, no satisfying Point A to Point B, for the characters to salute. They are just these human specks, not overly busy. I’ve written something similar.
I requested readers for my book and sent samples to a number of people. Just to be clear, I asked if anyone was interested and sent the ms to whoever said yes. Je n’impinge pas. I appreciate that interest, and haven’t a gripe. A few have noted the biting humour—as far as I’m concerned, there’s at least one laugh out loud on every page. Otherwise I have received little comment of any sort.
I demanded no comments from anyone. Obviously, the lack of comment is a comment. I surmise that the book did not meet expectations. Not so much expectations of me as a writer, but expectations of what a novel is. I did not satisfy those expectations.
I wasn’t trying to meet those expectations.
To undress my intentions a bit, I wrote the novel with no plot in mind. Seat of the pants, let’s see where these characters go. The genesis of the book was that all the characters were drawn from a J Crew catalogue. That is, those good-looking people in whatever tableau they are posed in, that’s how I saw the characters. In the book, they seem involved in some huge and painstaking mission, but the mission is never described. It sounds like James Bond, with hush hush and imminent danger, but the reader never gets specifics. Pretty much all that the characters do is run around from place to place, drinking cappuccino and hugging each other.
There’s some 30 characters in the book, all involved in the same mission. There is no antagonist, not one who actually appears in the book, tho one is implied. I wondered, as I wrote it, how long I could keep up this nonsense. Two hundred plus pages. It ends with a whimper, albeit an odd one.
Along the way, the overarching narrator—who I see as a character in the story—supplies acerbic, contradictory commentary, without appearing among the “crew”. As far as I’m concerned: genius!
I think what I have done displays a depth insofar as it’s a dance of meaning in a world where meaning becomes elabourate. but I think at the least the narrator’s wisecracks, underminings, and snide satire suffice as entertainment. I have written the book I wanted to write, or it wrote itself in the way it needed to be written. The question now is: what next? Is the book’s raison d’etre just not enough? Do you need a nice protagonist? You can tell me, I’ll be a good sport.