Monday, June 20, 2016

What I Want

            I checked out ten books from my university library, and two weeks later I returned them all, unread. They were supposedly notable works (or were acclaimed to be by a source whose tastes, it turned out, were not akin to mine). I liked the fact that they were off the beaten path — no current literary vogues. I’ve learned to stay off paths trampled down by modern-day enthusiasts.
            The farthest I got into any book was page twenty-two, at which point I was certain the author had nothing to offer me. That was often apparent much earlier. I suppose I wasn’t in a patient mood; I wasn’t willing to wait for those things that make me continue reading to emerge.
            What is it that I want? In the first six pages I want to know who the characters are, what their situation is, and how they feel about it. Not in depth — of course not! But I want my feet to be on solid ground. And a component of solid ground is that I believe in those three elements.
            In some of the ten unread novels the authors were using words to transmit not much more than disconnected impressions. I was getting convolutions, elaborations, verbal ingenuity. Confusion is not a pleasant feeling. The authors were showing off their creativity, but they were showing no concern for me. In the novels in which I progressed into the double digits there were discernible characters and situations, but I found myself in worlds I wasn’t interested in, mainly because the characters seemed bogus and their situations pointless.
            I’ll use the word “world” a lot in this essay. Because that’s what authors do: they create a world that we can choose or decline to enter.
            As for discernible characters . . . I’ve read about people who are entirely foreign to me, yet I could relate to them because human understanding can take in that which is human. What do I have in common with an African native priest? Yet, reading Chinua Achebe’s The Arrow of God, I understood Ezeulu and his efforts to hold onto the authority of the old beliefs. I can understand that which is authentic; I reject contrivances — and, yes, you can spot a character that is contrived rather than realized.
            The same could be said for situations. Irene Nemirovsky experienced firsthand the 1940 German invasion and occupation of France. She was Jewish, so the shadow of the Final Solution was hanging over her head; she saw her situation in the bleakest of terms. Ultimately she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she was put to death. The novel which she was writing during this period almost went unpublished. Her daughters, ages four and twelve when their mother died, made it through the war (their father didn’t). They had in their possession the manuscript, written in pencil, the words tiny to conserve paper. When they were adults their attempts to read it failed; it rekindled too many painful memories. But, as old age approached, they knew they must take on the project. So, sixty-four years after Irene Nemirovsky wrote the words that make up Suite Francaise, the world and the people she created came to life.
            The point being: Irene Nemirovsky wrote about what she experienced. She had every right to do so. But what qualifications does someone born thirty years after the invasion, someone who probably was never under the threat of imminent death, have to tell that story? A lot of research? A trip to France? Genius? Please, authors, use the world around you as your subject; you live in this world, it’s what you know. Anthony Trollope wrote abut the world he knew in The Way We Live Now. Is the way we live now devoid of interest to you?
            Not that I close the door entirely on historical fiction (I leave it open a crack). Robert Graves could write authoritatively about the Roman Empire because, for his entire adult life, he had immersed himself in that subject. But in I, Claudius his scholarship is imperceptible. In an enticingly conversational voice the emperor draws us into an opulent, decadent, and intrigue-ridden world.
            Science fiction is a form of historical fiction, though rather than going back in time it goes forward (into a world not yet created). I avoid it because I can’t buy into the farfetched premises. What lured me to read The Man Who Fell to Earth was the opening paragraph’s simple and direct prose (I was also saved by not having seen the movie perversion). Walter Tevis’s achievement was to write an utterly realistic novel about an alien. The plot is ruled by logic (and, to me, it’s logical that an alien could make his way to earth). I felt closer to Newton than I have to many of the fabrications currently roaming our fictional landscape.
            I hold clarity and simplicity in high esteem. It takes courage for an author not to hide behind obscurity — to lay his cards on the table. Yet there are a good number of novels in my library (in which I keep only those books which mean something to me) that could rightly be described as difficult. Some of them are from my youth. If a book impressed me at age fifteen, I do not reread and reevaluate it. It meant something at a period in my life, so it has value forever. Those critics who look back on The Catcher in the Rye and find it woefully lacking are, in a way, betraying the feelings of their thirteen year old selves. And why don’t they expend their energy examining the defects in today’s fiction?
            But, as I was saying (for I’m talking to you), I read The Sound and the Fury when I was around fifteen. It’s in my library. I recall the struggle I had getting through it. I suspect that I may have been impressed with myself, and that was why I valued it. But my attitude toward Faulkner has changed; in my last attempt to read him (The Bear), I find I’m no longer willing to put up with his verbosity and obscurity. Life is too short to waste time on a self-indulgent author who had no regard for the reader.
            Despite that attitude, some books put up barricades to understanding and still succeed. In perusing the opening pages of Elias Canetti’s Auto-de-Fe and Jose Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of the Night I recognize what kept me going. There was an enigmatic voice that seemed to be whispering, Come in here, I have something to show you. Recently I had trouble getting in step with the cadence of Henry Green’s prose in Loving, but I was repaid in full for my persistence. But always to be denied me is the greatness of Tristram Shandy or Remembrance of Things Past or Ulysses. I’ve tried multiple times and have failed to penetrate them; I won’t try again.
            I asked for characters who are recognizable. I respect authors who build a novel around “ordinary” people (such as Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge or Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn). Yet in my library there are quite a few works populated by grotesques. An example is Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. But he writes about misfits existing on the fringes of Hollywood (a world West knew intimately) with such conviction that they come to garish life; also, they don’t do anything that isn’t plausible. It comes down to this: if you write about ordinary people, endow them with their innate uniqueness; if you write about grotesques, make them believable.
            In the past twenty years there’s been a proliferation of fiction with highly unlikely or downright freakish plots and characters. But I find that authors are using them as devises by which they can display their imaginative powers, and pretentiousness is always a poor substitute for conviction. As a result I’ve become wary. When I read a description of a novel — one that is supposedly realistic — in which a father builds a perfect scale replica of his Paris neighborhood so that his blind daughter can navigate the streets, I think: A perfect scale replica on a table in their apartment? Can that be done? How? And would studying this replica with her hands enable the girl to make her way around the city? Really? The author may skillfully contrive to make this convincing, but I’m not interested in contrivances.
            Looking through the novels in my library, the synopses of 90% would place them well within the bounds of a world I can recognize. Yet I’ll accept the fantastical if the author makes no claim of reality. In the first pages of Jose Saramago’s Blindness people inexplicably begin to go blind; but the author uses this odd premise to present a harrowing and deeply-felt vision of human nature at its worst and its best. I’ll even accept novels in which characters do not act in a comprehensible way. In Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood we cannot penetrate the workings of Hazel Motes’ mind. But from the first page O’Connor firmly places him (and his Church Without Christ) far outside any norm. Nor can we comprehend a child who has no compunction about killing. But we can understand a mother who comes to realize the evil in her own flesh and blood. It’s the emphasis on the mother that raises William March’s The Bad Seed far above the scads of cheap serial killer novels.
            This essay is full of conditionals: no, but, except. Talent always gets the exceptions. I began by stating what I, as a reader, want to know in the first half dozen pages: who the characters are, what their situation is, and how they feel about it. This edict (like others) has a degree of flexibility. In Ship of Fools Katherine Anne Porter spends the first five pages describing the people of Veracruz; the next four pages consist of an overview of the ship’s passengers; the first individual who plays a role in the novel appears on page nine. But the writing is engaging and a perspective is established: an omniscient narrator (Porter herself) will cast a jaundiced eye on human nature.
            I’ll close by discussing John Updike. I could give examples of novels by him that begin in a way I dislike. Rabbit Run is one. Some of his novels rank among the worst that a major author has written (I’m thinking of S). He often indulged in wordplay (showing off) and a convoluted approach. Yet he had another side, a feet-planted-firmly-on-the-ground side, that he sometimes used to great effect. I opened Rabbit Is Rich wondering which Updike I was going to get. The first five sentences deliver all I ask for in a novel: there’s a person, a situation and an attitude.
Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display window watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The fucking world is running out of gas. But they won’t catch him, not yet, because there isn’t a piece of junk on the road gets better mileage than his Toyotas, with lower service costs. Read Consumer Reports, April issue. That’s all he has to tell people when they come in. 

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