Excerpt from a reading journal, 2006
Late Thursday 9 March – Early Friday 10 March
Didn’t do a lot of writing today, but it was productive. It was one of those days where everything I wrote came out boring and it led me to a re-evaluation of the order of things. It links in with what Damien told both streams yesterday: an author needn’t know the entire fore- and aft-story of a character – just what’s happening in the novel, and just enough to make them a believable character. They don’t have to be real people.
I found that, in my many months of brainstorming this book, I’ve become very attached to the backstories – and was trying to tell this all in big chunks.
But it can’t happen like that. Part of the glory of the structure is the drip feeding of backstory – everything on a need-to-know basis.
I managed to write about a page of useable stuff – the scene where Juke meets Vincent de Paul (only occurred to me yesterday that his name comes from St. Vincent de Paul’s Charity Stores . . . I originally wanted to have someone with the same initials as Van Dyke Parkes, and thought Vincent was a good name – a malleable one, Vin, Vinny, Vince, Vincent, they all conjure different characters – mine is a Vincent, and a sometimes-Vince). Not sure if the Tropicana theme will stay, just a seat-of-the-pants move, but I think I like Vincent the best of all my characters so far. For all Juke’s struggles with writing, Vincent’s reasonable and unassertive approach to art and life is a more accurate Craig-surrogate.
Today’s limited writing time did afford me plenty of time to read. From the Palmerston North Library I managed to get a copy of Paul Auster’s City of Glass and a graphic novel adaptation of the book (adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli). At the time I thought I’d read the novel then see how the graphic novel worked. Today I changed my mind and went with the adaptation first. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the thinness of the second book – its readability.
There is something alluring about a book that can be read in one sitting. I went through (rare) fits of reading in high school – when I’d read a novel a day (Murakami, Coupland, Palahniuk). I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt almost more than I remember the books themselves.
I’ve also accidentally read entire books in one go. I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick one evening when I couldn’t sleep, and finishing the book seemed to unlock whatever was making me anxious, and I went straight to sleep.
After finishing the graphic novel adaptation, I flicked through the bare-words version of City of Glass, just to see how things worked, but I’ll try and keep my comments tonight confined to the graphic version (sounds like something X-rated). First off, I could tell this was a novel being made into a comic: the predominance of narration in the opening frames, the long speech of Peter Stillman Jnr near the beginning. Karasik and Mazzucchelli find some interesting ways to combine these words with the requisite images. Such as during Peter’s speech, the origin of the speech bubble (his mouth) is zoomed in on, then, when we zoom out, it’s something else – a sink becomes a gramophone. I especially like the series of frames early on (page four) where the view from Daniel Quinn’s window (brick frontages of two apartment buildings opposite) becomes a labyrinth with the removal of some lines, which is then zoomed out from further to reveal (a couple of iterations later): a finger print.
While these visual riffs seem a little disconnected at the time, the book moves so swiftly that you quickly grasp the sense of these images in the context of the flailing detective work of Quinn.
I like the idea of pace excusing opacity. The idea that you can do the artful stuff so long as you get to the rosetta stone (be it a scene, a conversation, another image) quick enough that you don’t lose the reader.
This is easier said than done.
I also like the idea behind City of Glass. And not just the metafictional conceit (Paul Auster makes himself a character, another character impersonates Auster). I like the way detective fiction is rendered ultimately unsolvable in Auster’s world. Daniel Quinn (the Auster-imposter) must go mad and disappear, just like the Stillmans, and others must be left to tell the story. (I remember years ago noting down a morsel from Kierkegaard about a writer who begins a book about a madman in the third person but ends the book in the first person and thus the writer is lost). The ending is just the frame narrator stepping forward and pretty much saying: the world is untidy because I found it this way. The unsolvability of the mystery seems like something significant to say with a book. To say about crime fiction as a genre. But the question really is: do I like the ending where there is no resolution (however justifiable) or would I prefer a climax and a neat dénouement?
It has been my intention to use both Myf and Subroto’s storylines to explore the crime fiction genre in my book. For Subroto, we follow a journalist (not a detective) who is trying to uncover who has killed Robert Zimmerman. For Myf, we follow her and a suitor as they try to recover another suitor from an entanglement with organized crime. Ultimately, I envision both plots to be connected . . .
(Explicit discussion of ‘connections’ omitted for reasons of titillation and brevity.)
. . . This final dénouement will have a satirical edge – it’s not something Marlowe would uncover at the heart of Raymond Chandler’s New York, and it’s certainly not what Daniel Quinn or Paul Auster or the frame narrator discover at the heart of their mystery/their city. In a way, the ‘solution’ to the strands of crime fiction in my book telescopes both ways. We go out and see the characters have been involved in a scheme on a larger, civic level. We also zoom in and see that all these schemes and intrigues are just petty machinations – just spin. The conspiracy-theory-come-true is no longer a cult interest: it is rendered quaint. The cynical becomes the naïve.
When I started writing this, I wasn’t sure how firm my thoughts were on such an approach, but I seem to have convinced myself that this is something I want to say. That for all the intrigue, there is an overarching solution that doesn’t rely on happenstance or sleeved cards. BUT: this solution is only true in the imagined world of the novel.
So in effect, I’m saying crime fiction can end neatly – thank you very much, Mr Auster – readers can get answers, but only within a work of fiction. Crime fiction works because it is fiction. The great metafictional stroke of my book will not be to have the telephone ring for me (the author) in the middle of the night, but rather to have characters which seem real but can’t exist outside the bubble I blow.
But is this metafiction or bad writing? Pulp fiction methods excused by an English Lit student?
Enough. I shall write and see what makes me excited. I will not stand to be let down.
Monday 22 May 2006 (in the post-grad computer suite)
I have just been to the session with Hari Kunzru. I’ve read half of The Impressionist (up to where the protagonist – who goes by many names, which rings a few bells for the band in my novel – goes to England). The book ambled where it should have been brisker, and the plot shifted without side-stepping (i.e. I was never surprised). Kunzru (or more correctly, the jacket blurb) set up the fact that Pran Nath would constantly change his identity and as a result you never feel like you need to care just yet. These other characters will soon be left behind so you can skip over their backstories.
It was good to hear Kunzru talk about how he would like The Impressionist to be a lot sleeker (he referred to it as a ‘baggy’ book). It’s like he read my mind (or more likely, internalised a reviewer’s comments). It’s funny because a comment like that makes me want to read the second half of the book even less, but it makes me like him more as a writer (and to pretend I like him as a person, despite not knowing him personally). I guess it’s easy to like people when they affirm your own opinions.
I’ve also flicked through his second book, Transmission (during several long periods in Whitcoulls), and thought it was also a bit baggy, but was more my kind of fiction.
Hari (I call him Hari now) also spoke about the UK publishing scene, and the whole book promotion racket. He mentioned that a lot of being a big-name writer is to do with being a good speaker, which is a bit spurious because writers should be primarily judged by what they write alone in their rooms. Still, I’m glad I did all those years of debating and public speaking!
When he was talking about the downsides to big advances and book tours, I could see some of the aspiring fiction writers thinking if only it were me. It’s funny because I fetishise the trappings of being a published novelist like there’s no tomorrow – mostly personal things like giving readings and discussing my work with people who have actually read it of their own free will – but there are certainly moments when I think it would be nice to actually receive some money for all this work I’m doing.
In the mould of my favourite non-fiction writer d’jour (Chuck Klosterman) I will now be even more brutally honest about my thoughts as a young manqué novelist, to prove my own flawed humanity (whilst retaining that Dave Eggers flippant post-modernism aspect). These are the things which I think would make me a saleable fiction writer if I were to hand someone a copy of The City We Forgot To Name and say make me a (literary) superstar:
have a good twenty years on some classmates. I am aware of the perversity of the
inverse relationship between life experience and marketability, but suspect things
won’t right themselves before I’m thirty).
–I’m a decent speaker, and I think I might be able to make semi–intelligent
conversation with interviewers.
–I can be claimed by both Australia and New Zealand, yet my book is set such that
it should be comprehensible to most readers (especially in the bigger markets).
–I’m not horribly disfigured (important for jacket photograph and promotional material).
–My book is kinda interesting.
It is a bit of a shame that the actual writing only comes into the last bullet-point, and a little in the third. But Hari Kunzru made a good point: all this industry and media stuff comes with this big sense of importance, but in the end it comes down to individual readers (this is heavily paraphrased from H.K.). If your book does well with real people, then that’s the real victory, and that should be your real aim. Phew!
Secretly (the deployment of this word is another nod to Klosterman), this only affirms my previous motivations (I really did like that Kunzru fellow). I’m not writing a book about an indie rock band because there’s a gap in the market or because it would fit with my (possible) hip young writer image; I’m writing this book because it interests me and I’m able to be funny and finger-point at the same time. If this book ends up in a shoebox with Scaling Fish Island (my first stab at writing a novel) so be it. I’d much rather have written what I think should be a bestseller than what other people think would be a bestseller.
Afterword: I would list my attendance at the IIML course as a negative and would not make a big deal of it with many publications (maybe Salient would be the exception to this). If the Listener, say, asked me why I did the course, I would say: to have a year to write my book whilst receiving student allowance payments. In a way, things transpired to make that one of the biggest factors, but it is not the real reason(s) (and anybody reading this can wave this paragraph in my face and call me a hypocrite when the time comes – but you must also concede I’m a hypocrite with foresight).
I apologise for all of this futurethink mumbo-jambalaya. I’m trying to pump myself up because I may very well have given up writing my book this morning when my computer malfunctioned again.
Backstory: after being told my laptop was unfixable, I took it to a second repair place and they fixed it in half an hour. They said the AC adaptor had a loose wire and all my laptop needed was a good charge. It’s true, there was a loose wire and they got it working, but I was still worried that the real problem (why it wouldn’t start up when fully charged after I got back from Brisbane) had not been fixed . . . and on start–up on Saturday I got the same blue screen that I received on that fateful morn three and a half weeks before. If I hadn’t learnt how-not-to-cry under the most cry-worthy of circumstances, I may well have burst into tears then. I left that blue screen up for an hour, before I worked up the courage to restart my computer and hear that dreadful fifteen seconds of startup melt away into nothingness. But for some reason, it restarted fully and I had access to all my old writing, porn and games (one wonders if this list is a faux-Klosterman admission, but I did get this laptop when I was still a teenager).
So: over the weekend I had my laptop back and it was bliss.
Last night I got chapter one (Juke’s chap) in a semi-chronological form – which I was not happy with but knew it was easier to understand than the version the class saw, and therefore, was probably a better way to kick off the bulk of the novel. I almost, almost emailed the file to myself, but the Warriors game came on Prime and by the time it finished I couldn’t be arsed and simply turned my computer off.
This morning, there was no blue screen – but there was a black screen with three lines of white text telling me a Windows file was ‘missing or corrupt’ and I should repair it.
OKay, I wrote down the filepath and restarted.
Same fucking fifteen seconds of chugging then silence.
It would be gauche of me to compare my trials to someone like Job, but at that moment it felt like the biggest mindfuck in my life. I have had family members die – but they only died once. My computer has managed to die twice. I half suspect it will work again after a couple of days, wherein it will fuckup again. I will scream, but the law of Diminishing Marginal Annoyance will kick in. I will learn to cope with an intermittent home computer. This is absolutely not what I want.
I want comfort.
I want routine.
I want certainty.
The life of the novelist must be in direct opposition to the life of the characters whilst the book is being written (a Cliffism, as yet uncollected). I can’t write about characters sleeping on couches and writing fragments of songs when I myself am writing snatches in different computer labs everyday. Unfortunately, my finances resemble those of a struggling rock band – so I can’t just buy a new laptop.
This is a thought that only occurred to me whilst writing the above few paragraphs, and is certainly not a READING journal entry, but is rather journal-ish. Perhaps I was so affected by my computer’s second death because . . . well let me foreground this. When my father died in 1999, I never saw the body. There was an accident in the early hours of the morning, then six days later I held one of the six handles of a coffin that definitely had a body inside, but whose? (Because of the accident, it was a closed casket.) It didn’t happen straight away – but it didn’t take that long to manifest either – but I started having dreams where my father resurfaced in my life. At first these dreams functioned like a bad made-for-TV movie: I would catch glimpses of him in the street, maybe on holiday somewhere, and I would track him down. He would be married to someone else, be part of another family, but in the last few moments before waking, I would have a conversation with him.
Slowly, these plots began to wear away – and all that was left was my father reappearing and apologising for faking his death. Then, the faking his death was cut away, and he would just return to the house we had lived in when he died, and there would be this unspoken apology. A sheepish look.
Having my dad back so quickly in these new, rationalised dreams, meant there was much more time for me to stew in my bedroom (in my dream, this is, so it’s my childhood bedroom, but I’m my current age) and dream about confronting my father and asking what the bloody hell he was up to in the (insert number of years since his death) since he left us?
I did fictionalise this experience in Scaling Fish Island, and it’s one of the more powerful things which I manipulated with a screwball plot to seem trivial. But at the time of writing the book, the dream was still recurring with iterations as described above.
I still dream about an ongoing life with my cowed father who disappeared but has now returned. And the effect of these dreams is not to wake up and feel nostalgic for when he was alive, or to miss him, or to even feel sad. When I wake up, the dread of these dreams stays with me. Dread because my dream-self knows that he will leave again.
I feel on the cusp of the dream’s evolution into a ‘leaving’ dream rather than a ‘returning’ one. And all that vitriol my dream-self formulates alone in his bedroom – composing the speech that asks his returned father to explain why he thought so little of his family to leave, and why he thinks so little of them to not explain anything upon his return – will be left unsaid as the father slips away in the early hours of the morning once more.
Now I admit that the power of the above sentiments may be undercut when I compare my dreams about my father to my fucking laptop, but it’s something I must do. The point is, it’s not about the laptop, just like it’s not about my father. I think humans (or at least exact replicates of me) can’t handle being tantalised. We want finality. If something’s dead, it’s dead. If something’s broken, it’s broken. If a book’s finished, it’s finished (be it in a shoebox or in a library).
But at the same time, humans can’t believe in the finality of things. They believe in afterlives, resurrections, reincarnation. They subscribe to the power of technology to fix things. To retrieve things. This is the stuff that fosters hope. But the part of me that wants finality can’t concede there’s hope.
There are only two ways to reconcile these two parts of my nature: memory and imagination. That is why I write. The only way to resolve the dreams about my father was to foist these dreams onto a character and have him struggle with them (Art fakes images of his dead mother to prove to himself that she is dead in order to stop the dreams – unfortunately his father does not comprehend this motivation and kicks him out). And right now (in the hour and a half it has taken to write the preceding 2173 words) I have been trying to write my way out of the hole that I fell in this morning.
I have been proving to myself I can write without my laptop. That it is trivial in the scheme of things.
I do feel like I’ve made a breakthrough of sorts, but I’ll still be trying to boot up my laptop when I get home.