I’ve read a fair amount of Henry James in my life: The American, Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady,and a few of the novellas. But I’ve always bounced off of his later books–Wings of the Dove; The Ambassador; and The Golden Bowl–because the writing is so dense and so involved that I lose track of sentences before I get to the end. Take, for instance, the first setence of Wings of the Dove:
“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.”
Within that one sentence, there’s both description, movement, and (both figurative and literal) self-reflection. That’s a lot to parse!
Recently, though, I’ve discovered that it’s much easier to read densely-written prose if I just switch the line-spacing on my Kindle to double-spaced. The difference is, honestly, pretty immense. It’s almost to the point where it feels like I’ve gained a superpower–within the course of a few days, I’ve suddenly become able to comprehend and enjoy much more difficult texts. I have no idea whether this would work for everyone, or if it’s just a function of my brain and my eyesight. There’s also the possibility that it’s a short-term thing: maybe the unfamiliar view causes my eyes to slow down and pay more attention, but eventually I’ll get used to it and the improvement will go away (similar to how car crashes in Finland–or was it Norway?–went down in the months after they switched from driving on the left to driving on the right, but eventually went up again after people got used to the change and started driving carelessly again.
So, long story short, I’m reading Wings of the Dove. I like it a lot! What I’d never realized about James (until recently) was that he has MUCH more psychological insight than most authors. For instance, in the very first scene of the book, a young woman, Kate Croy, goes to her dissipate father and offers to take care of him. She doesn’t like or respect him, but she’s looking for an excuse to abandon the aunt who wants to take her in and marry her to a wealthy, eligible man. It’s a very subtle action. You can see, from the way she talks and thinks, that she’s not capable of just abandoning her aunt. She needs, in some way, to be able to martyr herself. And even though she dislikes her father, she needs to be able to use him as a pretext.
The book isn’t exactly slow going (in fact I’m racing through it), but it can be awfully distant at times. It’s very different both from modern novels, which are so embedded in the voice of the protagonist, and from Victorian novels, where you can always hear the warm voice of the narrator. In this book, the narrative voice is very cold and very distant. Anyway, more on this later!
I am on fire island. It is great here. The funny thing, though, is that the weather isn’t actually much better than it would’ve been in Berkeley. And the mosquito situation is far worse. But the physical environment is interesting. There are no roads. It’s all narrow boardwalks between rows of houses.
There are five or six communities along the island, and each one has a town center with a dock and a grocery store and a few nightclubs. But the communities aren’t really connected by Boardwalk. The only real way to get from one to the other is by walking on the beach. And, of course, it’s still at least 80% gay men. Really, it’s quite a place. I wonder how it all got started.
Now that I’ve gone through Edith Wharton and Henry James, I decided to venture into the Continent, so I started reading this Balzac short story collection. What I appreciate about Balzac is that he’s one of the first authors to really pay attention to the specifics of things. For instance, in the very first short story, the narrator gets invited to the wedding of the cousin of the woman who cleans his apartment, and he notes that the wedding was on the second floor of a wine distributor’s warehouse, and that it consisted of about 80 people, and then he noted the decorations and the entertainment. That is really interesting stuff, but most authors of that period wouldn’t tell you about it. They’d just be like…it was a wedding.
Balzac, famously, though it was his mission to capture the entirety of contemporary society, so there are entire stories here whose purpose is just to capture some sort of phenomena. For instance, the second story is just an account of an evening at a Paris salon during the Restoration era. One attendee tells a story about how he became disillusioned when his first love cheated on him. Another goes into an extended inquisition on the nature of modern womanhood. A third riffs about the character of Napoleon. And a fourth tells a dark, Gothic tale. And I loved it! For the first time I felt like I really understood what the appeal of a salon was. It was to be daring, and to shock your contemporaries, but not by arguing with them–the point is to be both elevated and light at the same time.
And I was impressed. There was story, of course. And there was theme and character. But more than anything there was atmosphere and detail. And I feel like that by itself is a pretty worthwhile reason to write a story.
This book is absolutely brutal! It’s a mid-period Henry James novel about a six year old girl whose parents divorce–they get a joint custody, and she’s supposed to spend six months with the father and then six months with the mother. The novel is told in Henry James’ complex, oblique style, but it’s also very close to the girl’s understanding–there’s no special commentary on the events, and you’re mostly only allowed to see and understand the same things that she sees and understands.
It’s just a crazy, devastating novel. No one overtly mistreats the girl, but she’s so clearly an afterthought in her parents’ lives. And you can see the ways in which she is unsettled and left adrift by what’s happening. Both of her parents are adventurers–rootless people who plow through lovers and live without visible means of support–and the care for Maisie quickly devolves onto a bunch of random people who drift through her parents’ lives.
And it’s no even that no one loves the girl. People do (although not her parents). It’s that no one is willing to really be responsible for her. No one is willing to stand up and say, this is a child. This is a person I should protect.
Instead, everyone plays games with her affections, because it’s in some way gratifying for them to have and to hold the adoration of a young girl. And it’s heartbreaking to see the way that she responds to any little bit of love that anyone offers her. For instance, at one point she spends a few minutes talking to a lover of her mother–a man known only as the Captain–who impresses Maisie so much with his kindness (he’s the first person she’s ever met who actually seems to like her mother), that Maisie never forgets about him, even though he literally never reappears in the book again.
In fact, periodically throughout the rest of the book, Maisie will be like, what about the Captain? Is my mom with the Captain? And then Maisie’s caretakers will be like, what? The captain? Your mom left that guy ages ago.
Sigh. I recommend the book. The level of psychological insight (and raw emotion) was just incredible.
After finishing that Edith Wharton collection, I’ve finally grown to appreciate the touch of melodrama in her work
Finished reading that Edith Wharton collection, NEW YORK STORIES, last night. Excellent choice. One of the best collections I’ve ever read. The stories had her typical psychological intuition, but they also stood out for their shocking setpiece. There’s a streak of melodrama that runs through Edith Wharton that this collection taught me how to appreciate. I know that for the first few stories I was up in the air about it, but by the middle of the collection, you can see her plotting come further under her control, and I grew to love and appreciate the melodrama.
For instance, one of my favorite stories in the collection features a man who pretends to be his wife and engages in a long correspondence with an opera singer (essentially catfishing him) because the man gains a very understandable psychological satisfaction from being the subject of such warm admiration from such an eminent figure.
I’ve written a lot of novels. Some of those novels have even been good. Many of them, though, have not been good. They’ve been weak and flabby and soulless. Somewhere deep down in their core, there was something not quite right.
I’ve begun lots of novels. I’ve finished far fewer novels. Somewhere within the novel, something goes wrong. Right about the time when stuff is supposed to start happening, I often have trouble making anything happen. I am not sure what is the matter here.
I think there are many problems–many things I’ve slowly been working on–but right now the thing I am trying to figure out is plot.
Plot is, in some ways, the easiest part of writing a book. Plot can be absurdly mechanical. Many (if not most) books are held together by plots that are so by-the-numbers that they’re almost painful. Every romance novel or romantic film, for instance, has a plot that’s driven by some huge obstacle that’s looming between the couple–an obstacle so large that, even when things are going well, the audience always knows that shit is about to go down.
Plot can be extremely simple. Plot can be nothing more than a bomb ticking in the background. I remember, once, I was playing a story-telling game with some friends, and one of the challenges was to tell a story that had an element of suspense, and I joked that any story could have suspense, even something as simple as “I went to the store and bought some milk and the milk was two dollars more than I thought it would be and it made me unhappy…” if you just begin the story with “I lit a stick of dynamite…”
(i.e. “I lit a stick of dynamite, and then I went to the store and bought…”)
Many plots are exactly that simple. He is a senator, and he’s fallen in love with this woman, but he doesn’t know she’s a maid. That’s the stick of dynamite.
But I don’t know. I can understand these lessons, and yet I have a hard time applying them. Because novels are so big and so complicated, that its often very difficult to answer simple questions like, “What is happening?” and “What is this story about?”
More specifically, I feel like I always have trouble with the conflict on a scene level. How can I create scenes that contain conflict? How can I dramatize the themes of the story? It’s not easy. Usually I do it on pure instinct, but I’d like to take instinct out of the equation, and start to do it in a more controlled fashion.
Anyway, that’s what I’m working on now. I’m sure it’ll all come together at some point!
Just problems. Problems all over the place. Trouble with my car. Trouble with my tax returns. Worrying about marketing my book. All pretty small things. I’ll resolve them eventually. But I just hate the way they niggle away at me and leave me unable to concentrate on other stuff.
Just writing stuff. You know how it is. What’s my next project going to be? Also been anxious about my debut. I’m trying to market myself, but I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of options, and I have no concrete plan. It’s not at all fun. I guess that there is, on some level, a limit to what you can actually do, but I feel like I have not yet reached that limit.
Just got word that my story “Corridors” has been accepted by Nature. This one is an example of some major-league scavenging. Basically, an anthology had solicited a story from me, and I played around with a bunch of different approaches before finally finding one. But even after I’d written my story, I was still haunted by one story beginning that I’d written. It just had a really interesting use of language, and a lot of energy and verve, but it hadn’t really gone anywhere as a story: it just petered out after 700 words. So I was looking at it and then I was like, “Huh! This could just be the story!” So I brushed off those 700 words and expanded them a tiny bit and that was that.
It was kind of an inspiration to me. This is the very first time I’ve ever been able to make anything out of an early draft of a story. However, since then I’ve spent some time looking at some other things I’ve written–early drafts, discarded drafts, false starts–and I feel like some stories can be made out of those too, so who knows?
I just got the page proofs of my book. They’re absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like them. Huge kudos to the book designer on this one! The handling of text messages is like nothing else I’ve ever seen: they actually look like text conversations (with little bubbles that are on either the left or right) and reading them is very intuitive. I’ve seen what will, most likely, be the final cover, too, and it’s also wonderful. And did I mention the flap copy and dust jacket copy are also extremely compelling? I’m obviously biased, since it’s my book, but, actually, you know what? I’m not biased: authors are often very dissatisfied with what their cover designers and book designers and copy writers are up to–I think there’s an inherent dissatisfaction that often comes with handling over control of the look and feel of the book to people for whom this is just one of many projects. I, on the other hand, could not be happier.