Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Novels Are Not Non-Linear Enough

(This rumination was inspired by an essay by Jim Murdoch on how long it should take to write a novel.)

I love reading novels, although I think the ideal length for a novel is the novella, and most of what we get these days is pretty bloated. I read and re-read certain authors on a regular basis, and many of these are authors of novels. I'm pretty much always reading at least one or two novels at any given time. I read faster than most people, I have discovered, so I can read a lot more than many people do. I read broadly, with no loyalty to any genre of novel-length fiction except that which excites, illuminates, stimulates, and surprises.

I'm drawn to Virginia Woolf's least "narrative" novels, such as "The Waves," but also to "To the Lighthouse," one of the greatest novels ever written about the tension between the artist's temperament and the non-artist's inability to comprehend that temperament. I've read all of James Joyce, and most of Samuel Beckett. I've read all of E.M. Forster multiple times. I watch Doctor Who. I read theoretical physics, for fun, and because I'm interested in it and can understand the concepts if not all of the math. Richard Feynman is not over my head, but that's mostly because he was such a gifted teacher and thinker. I've read many of Michael Moorcock's books, including his literary criticism essays. I've read pretty much all of Nikos Kazantzakis, fiction and non-fiction alike, drawn to it because of his courageous encounters with the unknown mysteries that some call mysticism and others call existentialism. I read Peter Matthiessen's novels as well as his creative nonfiction, since he is a master of both. I read all of Jim Harrison's books, finding a voice therein that I feel kinship to out of similar experience and background, who is also different enough that I am stimulated with new ideas and directions of thought.

I read a lot of novels. Yet I don't read many bestsellers, as I find them very predictable. I don't many thrillers, which is what we call adrenaline-inducing suspense fiction written in the very plain "no-style style" of naturalistic narrative nowadays. And I don't read much "literary fiction," the genre of "naturalistic" fiction set in the present day, usually set in The Big City, that defines itself as being the only genre of narrative fiction that is not in fact a "genre" (as opposed to those categories booksellers use to help you find the books easier on their shelves: mystery; science fiction; self-help; etc.). In most thrillers and many mystery novels I usually figure out Whodunit well before it's revealed to the reader; the only time I don't know in advance of the reveal is when the perpetrator is deliberately concealed behind a screen of distractions, as I find most Agatha Christie type of mystery novels to do. I find John D. McDonald's and Raymond Chandler's mystery novels to be far more compelling, because they are character-driven rather than puzzle-driven, wherein sometimes their plots aren't very linear, their heroes and villains neither one-dimensional nor easily predictable. In most mainstream literary fiction, I am drawn to the outliers (Matthiessen, Kazantzakis, etc.) almost because they are considered outliers, a little bit odd, not quite in the mainstream. I was originally drawn to the Beats for the combined reasons that they were literary outlaws, and because several of them were openly practicing homosexuals. We find our (literary) role models where we can.

I do like to read stylistically experimental fiction (William S. Burroughs, Samuel R. Delany, Richard Brautigan, etc.), and metafiction (Jorge Luis Borges, etc.), but not because it's obscure and difficult—indeed, if I find it to be obscure mostly for the sake of being obscure, a kind of stylistc mannerism rather than form dictated by content, I throw it away—but because experimental fiction uses language poetically, in ways that shapeshift your mind into different ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. (Which is something that science fiction written from an alien species' viewpoint does too, at its best.) I like to experience thinking from inside the alien mind, even if that alien is a human from a different culture, or from a radically different psychology. I like to be surprised, and to experience new ways of thinking, of being.

So I read a lot of speculative fiction—which is usually called science fiction, or fantasy—because it puts your inside a completely different way of thinking about life better than any other literary genre. Speculative fiction is by definition a literature of ideas. Speculative fiction at its best gets my emotions engaged, because it is still telling a human story, even those told at a distance of centuries in the future, which actually is no more alien a territory than the profoundly human stories given us by Shakespeare centuries in the past. I've heard some critics argue convincingly that some of Shakespeare actually could be called science fiction, for the same reasons that Mary Shellley's "Frankenstein" is considered by many to be the first modern science fiction novel: fabulist tales told of incredible and amazing adventures in places not quite real, either in time or space, in which human beings act out the archetypes of story which such gripping writing that we are captivated and find ourselves mirrored in those distant and strange lives. Speculative fiction engages my intellect and sense of wonder, as well, because it is the literature of ideas. Sometimes it can be literally "wow!" mind-blowing, and you finish a novel that makes you think about things in ways you never had before. It can literally "change your mind," if you're receptive and open to that.

I read a lot of "regional" fiction, stories in specific times and places, stories written by writers strongly associated with particular places on the North American continent that happen to be neither New York City nor Los Angeles, the self-involved centrifugal linear accelerators of anointed Literary Establishment mainstream linear narrative novel writing. I like to read stories in places I know well, places I have lived in, places I love; places like San Francisco (which is always a character in any movie filmed there), Wyoming, New Mexico, Chicago, Ann Arbor, the Great Lakes region including Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin. Fiction set in places where you nod your head in recognition of both name-checked street names and locations, and the habits and customs of the local inhabitants. Of course, by this criterion New York City fiction is very much a regional fiction sub-genre (albeit often a very provincial one), and so is fiction set in Los Angeles. One of the things that draws me to "regional fiction" is, again, that it is marginal, not in the mainstream of the East Coast Literary Establishment. I have lived a significant portion of my life in the "flyover zone" between New York and Los Angeles, and I find that writers living and writing from within the heartlands of the continent often have much more to say to me than do writers of the New England or Southern California literary circles.

I also read a lot of shorter fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. I probably read (and write) more essay and poetry than anything else.

So I read a lot of novels.

But of all literary forms, the one I am least, LEAST interested in writing is a novel.

Some of that is because I'm not patient enough to want to write something that might years to complete. It's not that I don't work at making art, and work hard at it, and give my complete concentration and dedication to everything I write. It's that I like seeing a project completed, and another one begun. As a writer, the creative process is what engages me, more than does the artistic product.

And there is also the issue of my fundamental mindset: I simply don't think in terms of narrative. I am science-trained and can think very logically and sequentially, but perhaps that's the problem: a carefully constructed linear plot doesn't engage me very deeply because it's too easy to skip ahead logically and figure it out in advance. I don't even think in terms of linear time (between theoretical physics, a lot of reading in mysticism, and Doctor Who, my experience of time hasn't been linear in a very long time), so making a story conform to the norms of a linear narrative simply does not work for me. I liked how Richard Brautigan used to break up narrative into small vignettes, not always strung together in linear sequence. I like Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness in books such as "Big Sur" and "The Dharma Bums," which is more like Virginia Woolf than anything on the New York Times bestseller lists. As a writer, I have no natural "feel" for plot, narrative, or even linear time.

I am not really a storyteller. Well, I am, because every teller of stories is a storyteller, but I'm not a "storyteller" in any conventional meaning of the term. Thomas Merton was a storyteller, so was Kazantzakis, but their stories were told in ways that no one invested in linear narrative fiction would ever really like. The kinds of stories I most like to tell, or to hear, loop around and around themselves, explore ideas from multiple directions, and step "outside" the linear narrative to look at it from a different angle. (Samuel R. Delany's "Empire Star" is a science fiction space opera that does this unlike almost any other, expanding the narrative viewpoint from straightforward linear narration to multiply-layered causal time-loops that drive the original story by making it happen after it had happened.) So when I act as a storyteller, I almost always get bad feedback from people who want easy, linear, narrative stories—I suspect because on one level they're comforting and affirming, a hedge against the chaos of life that gives comfort by giving chaos structure and order and narrative.

Yet Virginia Woolf said, and experience has brought me to emphatically agree: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." E.M. Forster in most of his fiction has some sense of unexplainable mystery, a break in the ordinary plot of everyday life, which often cannot be explained but which always has a profound effect on the people involved, from his "The Story of a Panic" culminating in "A Passage to India." Beckett, well, Beckett is actually very funny, people miss that about his writing; but it's gallows humor, hospital humor, the humor of those who have survived the unthinkable void at the center of destroyed lives and need to laugh because it's better than crying. Joyce experimented with stream of consciousness, but in a different direction than Woolf; some say he went too far into the terrain of the unreadable, and some have tried to come up with pat explanations for why he might ventured off the edge as they perceive it.

I am having some short stories published early nest year in a literary journal. But really they're prose-poems, and pretty nonlinear. That's how I think, that's how I write. Not in any normative traditional linear narrative style.

But I'm an artist. I'm heavily trained in science, and I know how to think like a scientist, and think logically and sequentially, but I am an artist.

Art is not engineering.

Engineering can be creative. My favorite uncle was an engineer, an inventor, a builder; I helped him build a deck on his house one summer, which he designed himself, and the deck is still there forty years later. He had a very creative attitude towards all aspects of life, which manifested as a problem-solving approach to many things, and which worked.

I see a problem when artists start to think that what they are doing is problem-solving first and foremost. (I see this a LOT among designers and graphic artists, who are also very creative people but whose work tends to consist of more problem-solving than inspiration.)

One of the reasons I don't read many mainstream literary fiction novels is that I find them depressingly predictable, especially the ones oriented more towards plot than character. I find many substitute style for actually having something worth saying. I've read Don DeLillo, I've read John Updike, Saul Bellow, and many other darlings of the East Coast (meaning New York) Literary Establishment.

So I'll probably never write a novel. It's just not a form that works for me as a writer.

Well, actually, I might. I have it in me to write a science fiction novel, maybe two. I've had the basic idea and plot in my head for years, and someday I might write it. I've started writing it two or three times over the years, only to leave it unfinished due to other things becoming more urgent and important.

Novels are generally not non-linear enough for me. The novelistic fiction that I am most drawn to breaks those "rules" of "naturalistic" narrative rather than affirms them. Like certain theoretical physicists and mystics, I view that entire form of linear progressive narrative to itself be a fiction. Or as Doctor Who once said: "People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but ACTUALLY from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey . . . stuff." Yeah. Exactly.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I am also not a storyteller. I have written five novels and a novella and all tell stories but that was never the point and the stories they tell are thin. Very little happens in any of my books. They’re set in living rooms and shops and most of my third novel takes place in a park. The novella—which was inspired by reading two novels-in-dialogue (one by Cormac McCarthy, the other by Nicholson Baker)—is just a conversation between two men sitting in an office. It was so refreshing just to get on with the story and not get bogged down with descriptions of scenery or worry about what everyone was thinking. I had intended for my last novel to be non-linear but could never quite get my act together but I still think the idea is a sound one: a man takes one last wander around his home town—in that respect the book would be linear—but everywhere he goes sparks memories from different eras of his life and so his memories jump back and forth as he walks gradually building up a picture of the man. About the only thing I’m sure of is that the book would begin and end at the train station after one circuit of the town. I decided on that structure because I have trouble with my memory these days and I simply couldn’t hold a whole book in my head like I used to. The novella was a Q+A and so I only had to worry about answering one question at a time and so built up the book in modules. The novel would work the same way.

I’m not a fast reader (and I’m really jealous that you are). I see people on Goodreads saying they read a book in two hours that it’s taken me three days to get through. I get bored easily. I’m reading a book at the moment set in India. It’s supposed to be mainly about a boarding school but I’m almost a hundred pages into the book (it’s only 250 pages long) and the boy’s not even got to the school. Now I’m not saying all the lush descriptions of Calcutta in the forties are not interesting and, yes, we’re building up a picture of what the boy was like before he went so we appreciate the changes in him but, seriously, does it need a hundred pages to get that across? I’ve been working my way through some of Roth’s novellas too. Quite impressed. They make their points and yet you don’t feel cheated once you get to the end. You feel like you’ve read a good book that had the decency not to waste your time.

As for science fiction, I watch everything and anything and it has to be pretty bad for me to turn something off. I’m watching the first season of The Outer Limits at the moment—one a week while Carrie does her chat—and they’re both wonderful and awful at the same time. I haven’t read that much. The length of many of them put me off. Most of the writers I’ve read are now dead or dying: Dick, Silverberg, Bester, Bradbury, Asimov, Aldiss. I’ve half a shelf full of books from the SF Masterworks series. So I read probably what you’d call ‘classic’ science fiction. I’d love to write some but any idea I’ve ever come up with has been done before and better so I don’t bother. Maybe one day. Probably not.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

With science fiction, it's true that a lot of the classic themes have been brilliantly many times. Time travel, first contact with another sentient species, space exploration, and so on. But science fiction is a literature of ideas, so when someone has a new idea bout a classic theme, or a new take on it, that too can lead to a good new story. Some great classic SF stories have been "responses" to a previous generation. There is a revival going on right now of space opera, led by two or three great British writers, who are using the latest discoveries in astrophysics to spin stories on a galactic epic scale that are fresh and original and absolutely amazing. There is a renewed sense of wonder. Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, to name only two.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I have no use for Philip Roth, but then I've never felt any connection to his writing, or sympathy for his characters. New England big city urban angst-ridden post-Freudian navel-gazing. It just doesn't register with me. I've gotten into online fights with some Roth advocates who likewise are completely unable to connect with any writers who aren't New England big city writers: the classic parochial "New York City is the center of the universe" attitude, so why would anyone want to write about anything else? As if the rest of the country, much less the world, didn't exist. I find Roth and many of his biggest fans to be very much like that. J.D. Salinger was a much more universal writer of the human experience. Heck, I would nominate Stan Lee, with all his character-driven New York City superhero tales, to be more universal of a writer of the human experience. But that's just me.

11:22 AM  

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