One requirement for being a writer, you’d think, would be to love reading. And indeed for me that sometimes happens. Much more often, especially as I’ve been writing fiction, it becomes much more a learning experience. and I can’t say that’s always pleasant.
There are those writers who do something so superbly that I become painfully aware of my own deficiencies in that arena. A valuable learning experience, indeed, but more like the pangs of 5th period Trigonometry. At times, as with Dickens, I can suspend the critical faculty and just enjoy being a reader without analyzing the surgical technique. But it’s rare.
More often than I’d like, I find myself reading something (and actually finishing it) that’s sustained only by the “learning experience” paradigm. Immediate example: J.P. Donleavy’s 1955 novel THE GINGER MAN, a 300-page character sketch of a disgusting, predictable shit with a gift of gab—no plot except some insignificant affairs and perpetual scrounging for money and drink. With Holden Caulfield, you feel he might surmount his adolescence; with this guy, never. Someone prestigious called it one of the 100 best novels ever, so I endured it to the end.
What Donleavy does superbly—in company with Kerouac, Burroughs, or Celine, is to create a bizarre forward momentum—at its peak like a drunk reeling across the freeway or a teenager driving ahead of his headlights. I envy that. It’s more than avant-garde technique: it’s a muscularity in the telling, an immediacy in the voice’s presence, that makes many stream-of-consciousness attempts including—dare I say it?—Joyce’s seem self-consciously arty.
Technically, it’s mostly the choppiness: sentence fragments; jumps from first-person present to past to third-person past-present, sometimes within a single paragraph; flashes of brilliant metaphor side-by-side with doggy-doo. It carries a strong sense of intention while celebrating its own spontaneity. I wish I could do that.
But for me, while a play or a novel we’re writing always begins with the character, the ultimate goal is the story. Which means beginning-middle-end, imbalance or “the dramatic question” leading to resolution—blind Oedipus stumbling into exile; Odysseus coming home, leaving again; noble prince fomenting mass slaughter and foreign invasion; Sherlock cracking the case; Didi and Gogo arriving the second time back where they started. Need leads to action leading to what feels like an end.
I have only a vague impression of what’s happening today in the storytelling arts—I’m still mired in the 19th Century with some knowledge of the blurts of the 20th—but I’ve sensed a trend. More and more, in theatre and in fiction, I feel an urge toward static portraiture: the portrayal of a static condition, as opposed to an action that leads to a significant change. Not true in popular genres or in most film: the public still looks for a story with something at stake, and catching the crook or saving us from space aliens or reuniting the boy with his dog—those all qualify. But in “serious” work, not so much.
I hope I’m wrong, because to my mind it would suggest a gut disbelief in the possibility of action, a sense that whatever is, is, so let’s just immortalize the grieving Afghan or the bored Rhode Island professor in bravura prose and, like the Renaissance tableaux vivants, hope that somebody notices. I admit to having created a number of characters that you wouldn’t invite to dinner, and characters deeply conflicted in what the hell they’re trying to do. But I’ve always prodded them to do their best, and to do something. I’m stuck in the belief that storytelling has an ethical dimension, that it should be more than a trip to the monkey house.