Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Faulkner

The tendency blanket

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This Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote, “Man is excellently made and eagerly lives the kind of life that is being lived.” I love the idea that there’s this thing we might call human tendency, and it’s like a big blanket that gets draped over whatever conditions a given time period has produced. So you know, the Spanish Inquisition comes along, and human tendency gets draped over that historical reality, and “being human” lays out in a certain way. Or it’s 1840, and you’re living in Iceland, and human tendency drapes itself over whatever is going on there and—“being human” looks another way. Same blanket, different manifestation. The Internet shows up, and social media and so on, and the blanket of our human tendency gets draped over all of that, and “being human” looks yet another way.

Likewise, if we drape that tendency blanket over some imagined future time where everybody’s eighty percent prosthetic, it’s still the same blanket. So the writer’s ultimate concentration should be on the blanket, not on what’s underneath it. What writing can do uniquely, I think, is show us fundamental human tendencies, and the ways these tendencies lead to suffering—Faulkner’s good old “human heart in conflict with itself” idea. That’s what we’re really interested in, I think, and why we turn to literature.

George Saunders, in the New York Times

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September 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

“She had been presented with one setback after another…”

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"She had been presented with one setback after another..."

Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 30. You can read the previous installments here.

Aside from a handful of striking exceptions, a novel is a linear form of storytelling, designed to be read in sequence from first page to last. Yet writers are irresistibly drawn to metaphors from the visual arts to describe what they do, in part because they naturally think in terms of the shape of the work as a whole. As readers, when we refer to a novel as a tapestry or a mosaic, it’s less about our experience of it in the moment than the impression it creates over time. This shape is impossible to describe, but when we’re finished with the story, we can sort of hold it in our heads, at least temporarily. It reminds me a little of Borges’s definition of the divine mind:

The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The divine mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.

One of the pleasures of a perfectly constructed work of fiction is that it allows us to feel, however briefly, what it might be like to see life as a whole. And although the picture grows dim once we’ve put down the book and picked up another, we’re often left with a sense of the book as a complex shape that somehow exists all at once.

It’s tempting to divide books into groups based on the visual metaphors that come most readily to mind. There are stories that feel like a seamless piece of fabric, which may be the oldest analogy for fiction that we have: the words text and textile emerge from the same root. Other stories gain most of their power from the juxtaposition of individual pieces. They remind us of a mosaic, or, in modern terms, a movie assembled from many distinct pieces of film, so that the combination of two shots creates information that neither one had in isolation. The choice between one strategy or another is often a function of length or point of view. A short novel told with a single strong voice will often feel like a continuous whole, as The Great Gatsby does, while a story that shifts between perspectives and styles, like one of Faulkner’s novels, seems more like a collection of pieces. And it’s especially interesting when one mode blurs into the other. Ian McEwan’s Atonement begins as a model of seamless storytelling, with a diverse cast of characters united by a smooth narrative voice, but it abruptly switches to the juxtaposition strategy halfway through. And sometimes a mosaic can be rendered so finely that it comes back around to fabric again. In his review of Catch-22, which is essentially a series of comic juxtapositions, Norman Mailer observed: “It reminds one of a Jackson Pollock painting eight feet high, twenty feet long. Like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere.”

"Wolfe spoke up at last..."

My own work can be neatly categorized by length: my short stories do their best to unfold as a continuous stream of action, while my novels proceed by the method of juxtaposition, intercutting between three or more stories. I’ve spoken before of how deeply influenced I’ve been by the book and movie of L.A. Confidential, which cut so beautifully between multiple protagonists, and I’ve followed that model almost to a fault. From a writer’s point of view, this approach offers clear advantages, as well as equally obvious pitfalls. Each subplot should be compelling in itself, but they all gain an additional level of interest by being set against the others, and the ability to cut between stories allows you to achieve effects of rhythm or contrast that would be hard to achieve with a single narrative thread. At the same time, there’s a danger that the structure of the overall story—with its logic of intercutting—will produce scenes that don’t justify their existence on their own. You can see both extremes on television shows with big ensemble casts. Mad Men handled those changes beautifully: within each episode’s overarching plot, there were numerous self-contained scenes that could have been presented in any order, and much of their fun and power emerged from Matthew Weiner’s arrangement of those vignettes. Conversely, on Game of Thrones, there are countless scenes that seem to be there solely to remind us that a certain character exists. The show grasps the grammar of intercutting, but not the language, and it’s no accident that many of its best episodes were the ones that focused exclusively on one location.

And I haven’t been immune to the hazards of multiple plots, or the way they can impose themselves on the logic of the story. When I read Chapter 30 of Eternal Empire, for instance, I have trouble remembering why it seemed necessary. Nothing much happens here: Wolfe interrogates a suspect, but gets no useful information, and you could lift out the entire chapter without affecting the rest of the plot whatsoever. It’s been a long time since I wrote it, but I have the uneasy feeling that I inserted a chapter here solely for structural reasons—I needed a pause in Maddy and Ilya’s stories, and Wolfe hadn’t had a scene for a while, so I had to give her something to do without advancing the story past the point where the other subplots had to be. (I can almost see myself with a stack of notecards, shuffling and rearranging them only to realize that I needed a chapter here to avoid upsetting the structure elsewhere.) I did my best to inject the scene with whatever interest I could, mostly by making the interrogation scene as amusing as possible, but frankly, it doesn’t work. In the end, the best thing I can say about this chapter is that it’s short, and if I had the chance to write this novel all over again, I’d either find a way to cut it or, more likely, revise it to advance the story in a more meaningful way. There’s nothing wrong with having a chapter serve as a pause in the action, and if nothing else, the next stretch of chapters is pretty strong. But as it stands, this is less a real chapter than a blank space created by the places where the other parts meet. And I wish I’d come up with a slightly better piece…

The great unread

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William Faulkner

When you love books, and especially if you like to think of yourself as a voracious reader, there’s always the temptation to pretend to be familiar with authors you haven’t read. We’ve all experienced that moment at a cocktail party, during an otherwise harmless conversation, when someone mentions a writer—George Saunders, say, or Alice Munro—whose work you’ve been meaning to check out for a long time, but who still remains untouched on your bookshelf, or in a blur of good intentions. If you’re anything like me, you always pause for a fraction of a second, wondering how to play it. Do you confess and say that you’ve only skimmed the latest Saunders story in The New Yorker on the way to the cartoons? Do you try to get away with repeating something clever you vaguely remember about Munro from the writeup you saw in the Times? Maybe it’s best just to smile and nod, hoping that the problem will go away. Or, if you’re particularly shameless, you can just fake it and agree that Saunders is great. (I admit to doing this on more than one occasion, although it usually involves feigning familiarity with movies I haven’t seen.)

Yet unless you’re Harold Bloom or James Wood or Michiko Kakutani, you’re always going to have blind spots in your literary education. In my case, these authors fall into three categories: those I haven’t read at all, those I’ve attempted and abandoned, and those I’ve read to various degrees, but who leave me with a nagging sense that I haven’t read enough. The writers in the first category include—deep breath now—William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, William S. Burroughs, Theodore Dreiser, Ralph Ellison, E.M. Forster, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Edith Wharton, and a library’s worth of others. Authors I’ve tried but never managed to finish include Victor Hugo, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, Gabriel García Márquez, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and a lot, lot more. And in the last, most insidious category are writers I know fairly well but not well enough: I may never get past the sense that I need to read more Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Austen, Chekhov, Vonnegut, or Roth.

Tennessee Williams

And this rankles me, because I love reading, and I don’t have much of an excuse. There are times when I feel like a birder grimly trying to check off all the sightings in a big year, and I’m always looking for loopholes. White Noise is a lot shorter than Underworld, so maybe I’ll make that my DeLillo, and maybe seeing Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire counts as reading Tennessee Williams. Part of me worries that by approaching it as if I were crossing items off a list, I’m losing touch with the whole purpose of reading: you should pick up a book because it calls to you, not because it allows you to feel smart in some hypothetical conversation, and it certainly shouldn’t feel like homework. Yet I also feel strongly that canons matter as a guide to books that otherwise wouldn’t leap off the shelves, and I know from my own experience that many novels I approached with a sense of dutifulness—The Magic Mountain comes to mind—became treasured companions. After a certain point, you find that moving randomly from one book to the next only leads you in circles, and you need a nudge from outside to push you in directions that so far have only been trodden by others.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that the list of unread books doesn’t diminish over time. If anything, it expands, and whenever you tackle a new author, the list seems to double in size. Every great writer points to others, or forces you to revisit books you thought you knew, and the more you read, the more deeply you understand how much remains unexplored. The goal of a lifetime’s reading isn’t to be smugly reassured that you’ve traversed the Great Books of the Western World, but to gain perspective on the tracts of territory that you still haven’t experienced. And there’s something oddly comforting in the thought that so many great works of art are patiently waiting their turn. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson, who has probably seen more movies than anyone else alive, writes of the Japanese director Mikio Naruse:

Naruse sounds wonderful…I will see [his work] one day. But like all lifelong filmgoers, I know the allure of films unseen…There is nothing like knowing that one has still to see a body of great work. And no gamble as interesting as pushing the desire to its limit.

In a later edition, Thomson confesses that he’s finally seen Naruse, whom he finds “ineffable.” So I may as well admit that I’ve also picked up my copy of The Portable Faulkner. There’s a world full of books that I still need to read, and there’s no better time to start than today.

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November 12, 2013 at 9:00 am

Hemingway in Faulkner country

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On this occasion Hemingway told me of a recent trip through the South that he had made in a car with his young son. He had at one point suddenly become aware that he had entered the state of Mississippi: “I realized that we were in the Faulkner country.” At the country hotel where they spent the night, he had the boy go to bed, then had sat up all night himself, with his “gun” on the table in front of him. Two ideas, I believe, were revealed by this story, which he told me with the utmost seriousness: the assumption that Mississippi was inhabited by Faulkner characters and the assumption that Faulkner was a dangerous rival, who would take the same view of Hemingway that Hemingway did of him and, now that he had invaded Faulkner’s territory, might well send some of those characters to do him violence. I thought this was rather queer, but no queerer, perhaps, than some other things that came out in drinking conversations.

Edmund Wilson, “That Summer in Paris”

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January 21, 2012 at 10:00 am

Quote of the Day

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But I would say to never force yourself to write anything. Once you do that you begin to think, “Well, I might as well force myself to write something and make a little money out of it.” And then you are sunk—you are gone, you have stopped being a writer. You must be an amateur writer always.

William Faulkner, in Faulkner at West Point

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April 21, 2011 at 7:33 am

The lure of trashy fiction

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Yesterday’s posting on the lure of bad movies, like Birdemic, raises the obvious question of whether the same allure clings to certain trashy books. At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, at least not the same way: while a bad movie can be polished off in ninety minutes, even the junkiest novel usually requires a somewhat greater commitment, which raises the question of whether this is really the best use of one’s time. Life, it seems, is too short to knowingly waste on bad books, especially when so much good stuff remains unread. (Whenever I read a bad book, I feel as if I need to apologize personally to William Faulkner.) And yet I’ve learned a lot from bad fiction as well. As a writer, it’s useful to know something about every kind of literature, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in a genre that has generated its share of junk. And if you don’t read some trash, as well as better books, you’ll have no way of knowing if you can tell the difference.

The trouble, of course, is that one man’s trashy novel is another man’s masterpiece. The early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance, are hugely important to me, but diminishing returns set in about halfway through Hannibal, and by Hannibal Rising, there’s barely a single interesting page. But this, of course, is a judgment call, and some might draw the line much earlier or later. The same is true of Frederick Forsyth, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or any other prolific popular novelist. Discriminating between the good (The Day of the Jackal) and the bad (The Negotiator) in a single writer’s body of work is an important part of developing one’s own taste. And sometimes a novelist will surprise you. I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to get into Tom ClancyThe Cardinal of the Kremlin nearly put me to sleep on a recent long bus trip—but I was delighted to discover that Without Remorse is a real novel, vicious, compelling, and with bravura set pieces that recall Forsyth, or even James Ellroy.

And sometimes even literary fiction can benefit from a touch of trash. I love John Updike, and believe that the Rabbit novels are among the essential cultural documents of the last century, but if I could own only one Updike novel, it would be Couples, which even his greatest fans seem to think he wrote at least partly for the money. And yet there’s something weirdly exhilarating about seeing Updike’s extraordinary prose and observational skills applied to blatantly commercial material. Updike can’t help being an artist, even when he’s writing a big sexy novel, and I’d argue that Couples, which isn’t that far removed from Peyton Place, was the novel he was born to write. (His later attempt at a “thriller,” in the form of Terrorist, is much less satisfying, and only comes to life whenever Updike revisits his old adulterous territory.)

But have I ever deliberately set out to read a novel that I knew was bad? Sure. While I haven’t managed to make it through Still Missing, for one, I love reading the bestsellers of yesteryear, embodied in the rows of yellowing paperbacks that line the shelves of thrift stores. The 1970s was a particularly rich era for trash. During my move from New York last year, the only book I kept in my empty apartment was a battered copy of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, especially when I mentally recast all the characters with actors from Mad Men. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how quickly I plowed through Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club—a terrible book, and much less interesting than Wallace himself, but remarkably evocative of its era in popular fiction. Such books may not be great, but they’re an undeniable part of a writer’s education. (As long as they aren’t all you read.)

Faulkner on experience, observation, and imagination

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Interviewer: How much of your writing is based on personal experience?

Faulkner: I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not important. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.

William Faulkner, to The Paris Review

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March 27, 2011 at 8:42 am

Posted in Writing

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