Sunday, July 31, 2005

Reality Literature

Toby Litt, Finding Myself (Penguin, 2003)

This is a novel about a novel with a reality TV premise. Victoria About is a thirty-something author of five novels that she describes as falling “at the very upper end of what has sometimes recently been called ‘chick fic’.” (18) But she has something very different planned for her next book. It’s to be “a novelization of something that really happened. Not something that has already happened, but something that will -- because I make it.” (3) She proposes to rent a large house by the sea then invite several of her friends to stay there for a month with the proviso that they must agree to let her write up a fictionalised account afterwards of the events that occur there.

The book is comprised of a series of documents: Victoria’s initial proposal to her editor Simona, Simona’s enthusiastic response (she asks to come along as one of the “characters”), Victoria’s preliminary notes as she plans who else to invite, her synopsis of what she expects to happen, then her first draft of the book (composed on the spot as events unfolded) complete with the subsequent crossings-out and hand-written margin notes of her editor, and finally a one page response to the draft from each of the inmates of the house.

The greatest flaw of Litt’s novel (and, by extension, of Victoria’s as well) is the illogic of the premise. Why insist on real people and real events if it’s to be fictionalised later? Surely a novelist would dispense with “reality” and just fictionalise from the start? But then, Victoria is not a very logical person so perhaps it works after all. And in setting up this tension between “reality” and “fiction,” Litt provides us with a dual subtext: a subtle critique of the documentary alongside a meditation on the novel.

On the surface, Finding Myself is a fabulous romp. The inmates of the house are an odd, interesting, and incompatible lot and much drama ensues. Not precisely the drama that Victoria was expecting as, of course, her efforts to stage-manage the whole thing go awry. There are several unexpected twists and turns before we arrive breathless at the conclusion. But even as the story carries us along, we get a very thought-provoking behind-the-scenes look at the construction of a novel.

In her preliminary notes, Victoria muses: “Singing to myself yesterday in the shower, I had a fantastic revelation. Because I’ve gone non-fictional, I no longer have to hide behind some semi-inarticulate narratress; no more must I deny myself a word merely because it wouldn’t be in her vocabulary or would but wouldn’t be used by her in that exact context ... It’s the literary equivalent of being let loose on Manhattan with someone else’s credit card.” (16-17) Alas it’s not so. When we get to Victoria’s draft, we find her highest-flown flights of fancy crossed out by her editor with the annotation: “pretentious beyond belief.” Even as her own narrator, Victoria’s wings are clipped.

Throughout the month in the house, we see Victoria’s frustration and anxiety mount as her “characters” refuse to behave as she wishes them to. This may simply demonstrate the folly of her attempt to manipulate real people into playing preordained roles. But most writers will tell you that even purely fictional characters can prove intransigent when one tries to shoehorn them into a predetermined place in the plot. So, all along we’re getting a peek into the creative process.

Some of the most entertaining bits are to be found in editor Simona’s margin notes: for example, “Lovely parody. No use whatsoever” next to several paragraphs she’s crossed out (247). We see the editor’s role in shaping the novel, and, because she’s also a participant, in shaping the way her own “character” is portrayed. The Simona that comes through in the hand-written notes is very different from the version that Victoria paints. This disjunction prompts questions about Victoria’s portrayals of all the characters. Does she have them wrong as well? How much is her vision of “reality” hampered by her expectations?

And the ending, well, I’d like to say something about the ending, but I don’t want to spoil any surprises for those who haven’t yet read the book. I can say, without spoiling anything, that the biggest surprise for me was how much I was rooting for Victoria by the end given how unlikeable she’d been throughout. But was she? After all, her original plan was to make herself the villain of the piece and to thereby generate conflict. Perhaps the “real” Victoria is not unlikeable. Perhaps an embattled Victoria who could ultimately be redeemed is a subtext she’s carefully planted…

So much to think about. So much fun on so many levels.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Reading about Writing 1

Over the last couple of months, I read several books about writing. I realize now that this was a new mode of procrastination. Reading about writing was a fine way to feel as if I was completely focussed on writing even when I was avoiding writing. Nevertheless, along the way, I came across some great books. In a series of intermittent posts, I’m going to do a bit of a round-up of some worthy recent titles on writing and the literary life.

John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003).

I’m going to start with Dufresne’s book although it's the one that I can't seem to finish. You might think that this would count against the book; in fact, it serves as an endorsement. You see, the reason I’m making my way through it so slowly is that I can barely read a paragraph of it before putting the book down and taking up a pen. It’s not the exercises that conclude each chapter that have me scribbling away. (Though they do seem like excellent triggers of ideas and when I’m in need of inspiration I’ll go back to them.) It’s the way Dufresne so expertly sees through my subterfuges and skewers my excuses that sends me back to my desk again and again.

Here are a couple of excerpts, both from the chapter "Writing Around the Block."

On finishing what you start: “There is one perilous and seductive response to feeling mired that you want to avoid. You’re stuck, you think, and you suddenly get an idea for a better story, and this inspiration gives you permission to abandon the present one. You drop the old story onto the pile in the drawer, and you begin writing again with gusto. But soon you hit the wall and stumble, and then you’re rescued by a scintillating idea for yet another story. Resist the temptation to move on. Remember that ideas for stories are not stories. Stories are the shaping of experience, and they have beginnings, middles, and ends. So take notes about your brilliant new idea, but don’t go to it yet” (23).

On putting the time in: “You already know that everything in your life is calling you away from the writing desk. And always will. Get used to it. No one except you thinks that your writing is important. And remember that watching TV is not writer’s block. Going to a party is not writer’s block. You can kill time or use time. We’re all writing against the clock” (24).

A bit of tough love, but it’s working for me.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Postmodern Play and Emotional Truths

Ali Smith, The Whole Story and Other Stories (Random House, 2003).

I’m completely dazzled by this book. The first time through, I forced myself to ration it, reading a few stories each night over the course of a week rather than devouring it in a single gulp. I was glad I’d prolonged the pleasure, but in the end it’s the cumulative effect of the stories that make the book particularly noteworthy for me. I wouldn’t single out any one story and deem it the best I’ve ever read (if anybody’s wondering, for me that laurel goes to Delmore Schwarz's brilliant story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”). Indeed, a couple of Smith’s stories ultimately strike me as failed experiments. But it’s the formal risks that she takes, and the huge payoffs those risks often yield, that lift this book into the stratosphere.

The subject matter of some of the stories is bizarre: a narrator falls in love with a tree, a woman builds a boat out of second-hand paperback copies of The Great Gatsby, two women are haunted by a pipe band in full regalia. Other stories are built round the mundane details of day-to-day life: a cell phone conversation on a train, a taxi ride home from the airport, a day at work in a bookstore. But in Smith’s expert hands the bizarre is believable and the mundane is fascinating.

Whatever their subject matter, these stories are also about stories. What do we know? How can we know anything when we never have access to the whole story? There are only fragments, multiple and sometimes conflicting versions. Smith overtly signals the constructedness of stories again and again. For example, the first story begins: “There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no, okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard. Though to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words: There once was a woman who lived by a cemetery.” Another begins: “What do you need to know about me for this story? How old I am? how much I earn a year? what kind of car I drive? Look at me now, here I am at the beginning, the middle and the end all at once, in love with someone I can’t have.”

Smith also plays with point of view. In “the universal story,” the perspective shifts from that of a bookshop owner, to that of a fly that settles on one of the books, to that of the book, to that of the purchaser of the book, to that of the sister of the purchaser to whom he gives the book. In a series of stories about a pair of lovers (referred to simply as “I” and “you”), the point of view switches half way through so that the reader gets another side to the story. I saw an interview with Smith on Imprint in which she said that she had deliberately concealed the gender and sexual identity of the “I” and the “you” in these stories so as to leave it open to any reader to slot themselves in on either side. The interviewer owned up that she had initially assumed the “I” to be female and the “you” to be male, then, upon learning more about Smith (presumably the fact that she’s a lesbian), assumed both parties in the couple to be female. Smith resisted both configurations, saying that neither assumption is necessarily true. It could be a man and a woman, two women, or two men.

This mechanism should bring into sharper relief the idea of multiple, plausible stories. But here the experiment with undefined gender undermines the idea rather than enhancing it. I never got the sense of a switch in perspective because the voice doesn’t change. The “I” and the “you” are so carefully devoid of identifying details that there is nothing to distinguish them from one other. I don’t think that it’s necessary to convey the genders and sexual identities of characters to make them distinct, but here the effect of erasing gender and sexual identity is to simultaneously erase independent identity.

This is a rare failure though. For the most part, Smith is brilliant at creating fully formed characters, sometimes with only a few strokes of her pen. In “paradise” we meet three teenage sisters, the eldest just coming off a shift as night manager of a burger chain, the middle one working the concession stand of a tour boat on Loch Ness, and the youngest drunk in the graveyard in the middle of the night. These three voices are completely distinct from one another and each is pitch perfect. The rendition of the drunk twelve-year-old voice is particularly masterful.

I’ve been focussing primarily on Smith’s formal innovation. But Smith also has plenty to offer readers whose tastes in fiction are more conventional. She artfully plays with the idea of story but never deprives the reader of story. She produces strong voices, fully developed characters, and beautiful sentences. She also provides sharp insights into romantic and familial relationships. Beneath the postmodern play, there is a core of emotional truth. This may seem paradoxical, but this is Smith’s genius. She can do it all at once.

I nearly bought a copy of The Whole Story in an Edinburgh bookshop two years ago but, in a rare sensible moment, I realized that I’d already bought more books than I could transport home in my suitcase. Now, I’m wondering how different the stories I’ve written in the intervening period might have been had I read Smith’s book then. I don't feel compelled to try to write like Smith. But reading her stories makes me want to push my limits and undertake a few experiments of my own.

I’m dazzled and inspired.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Reviewing and Responsibility

Well, it worked. This blogging venture has definitely slowed down my reading. I planned to just whip off a few paragraphs about each of the five books I mentioned in my first post based on my memory of them and move on. Instead, I found myself rereading them, and sometimes dipping back into previous books by the authors for context as well.

I don't feel that I have the responsibilities of a conventional book reviewer. Certainly I don't feel compelled to provide a full account of each book as I would if I were writing for a newspaper or a magazine. My goal is simply to work out my own responses to these books and in so doing to figure out what I can take from them as a writer as well as a reader. Nevertheless, once I began, it didn’t feel right to publicly comment on a book without taking care to read it very carefully beforehand.

Not that it’s a sacrifice to reread any of these books. They’re among the best I’ve read so far this year and revisiting them (even so soon) is a happy thing. I still intend to make good on my promise to write about each of them here, but obviously on a more leisurely schedule than I originally laid out for myself. And I’ll intersperse these posts with others about books that I’m reading just now. For the most part, I’d like to be writing about current reads while they’re fresh in my mind rather than forever playing catch up.

But I’ll begin with Ali Smith’s The Whole Story and Other Stories which I’m now reading for the third time. Yes, it’s that good.