Wednesday, August 15, 2012

notes on novel writing

Angelus Novus (inverted), oil transfer and watercolor on paper, 1920.  Paul Klee.  The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

... I have this theory of throwaway art, art that's done very casually and even randomly, with minimal effort, but only because it expresses a carefree genius of some kind, thus it's just an everyday affair, no big deal, without consequence, so it can be easily tossed out without any remorse or given away for free as it were.  But for these reasons, such art is the greatest achievement, naturally effervescent to an infinite degree.  Perhaps in some ideal society in some parallel universe, this will be the case.  Present society spends way too much time preserving too many things, and this propertizing logic being rather rigid can hinder much-worshipped "progress."  People do hold on to rather boring binarisms, and they can't see that the profound finds its best expression in the superficial.  Moreover, such logic is just plain paranoid of playfulness. 

Tragicomic tales are the best ones I think, have the most potential for all-around wisdom.  Straight dramatization of what happened is what's unconvincing, although it can be employed at certain times for irony and hilarity.  Most (meta)narratives employ omniscient commentary, usually to describe the mis-en-scène of the story and to describe the psychological actions of the characters.  Metacommentary comments on but also decenters the commentary, thus it can ironically and parodically remark on the self-certainty and conditionality of the commentary AND itself.  This doubtful or self-doubting "deconstruction" can be very funny but also be earnest if not be more true to the psychological and mental vicissitudes of the person, to a certain stream-of-consciousness, more "authentic" because in real life we do contradict ourselves and we do wander as well as wonder about all sorts of things in a more or less random fashion (a classic of this kind is Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman), and at the same time we do fixate on things too, which again can be playfully exposed in metacommentary.  Metacommentary can take the form of recursion, that is, the novel can be about the writing of the novel.  And the recursionist novel can perhaps take the form of an epistolary novel, that is, a novel in the form of letters or other kinds of correspondence (chats, emails, IMs, etc.).  Usually, this is done chronologically, but it's ok to jump forwards and backwards in time, which is much more like how memory works, or how it doesn't "work" and succumbs to fantasy and sometimes willful forgetting.  Metacommentary doesn't necessarily have to take these forms (as embryonically employed in Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles). The metacommentary can take the form of a very self-conscious albeit very subjectivistic mental "journal" or "memoir" (Edouard Levé notably does this neatly).  It can be written as if it were being thought or imagined extemporaneously at that very moment (I'm reminded of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Venedikt Erofeev's Moskow-Petushki).  Like cinéma vérité, it's littérature vérité.  It's also a kind of phenomenology, but one that's neither eidetic or apodictic, and rather given to solipsism and soliloquy.  Drawings, notes, photos, etc. can be included as well as random ephemera (e.g. Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School).   For me, the original inspiration for metacommentary is Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and Rousseau's autobiographical writings - but with the ludic qualities of something like Voltaire's Candide.  Novels usually have a linear narrative, but I wonder if there's some way to use hypertext, again to non-linearly and discursively play on the associations and disassociations of emotions, feelings, intuitions, perceptions, thoughts, memory, fantasy, dreams, the ineffable even.  Perhaps all this can only be effectively done in a first-person narrative, and a confused one at that.  

Regarding dialogue, whether from the vantage point of the first-person narrative or a more "objective" one, a more standard one, metacommentary might come in handy to provide a context of all the dialogic(al) happenings, external and internal.  In a way, it's the opposite of polyphony and all the other good stuff Mikhail Bakhtin theorized.  Metacommentary contextualizes the hubristic pretensions of representing dialogical truth in some way.  Rather than being toward the other, the self only recognizes itself as other.  Some people might call this good old-fashioned existentialism, but oh well, perhaps existentialism didn't recognize its own narcissism thus also awaken to what I'll call a voluptuous vulnerability, or ultimately, a primary innocence even.   

Regarding profanity in literature, I neither like nor dislike it.  Usually, profanity in particular, colloquial speech and patois in general, they're employed unconvincingly in books - that's my main gripe.  And usually, the profanity's for the purposes of "realism."  However, only a few writers manage to pull that off, such as Charles Bukowski.  Writers have enough problems getting so-called regular speech down convincingly.  I think profanity just like disturbing images can be used effectively to shock as it were.  Sometimes, profanity can be used in a "cartoony" way, to caricaturize people or situations (William S. Burroughs and Chester Himes do this well), and thus to ironize them.  The best policy perhaps is to try doing a certain caricaturized realism if you will, which most likely requires profanity if only for the reason that most people do use it at some point in everyday life, and those that don't are living in literature, and only literature of an aseptic kind.  But moreover, even in everyday life, when people use profanity, they're usually assuming some kind of role, even to themselves.  When used amongst each other thus showing mutual trust or comfortability or also hostility, they're for that time suspending their usual existence of more or less insignificance.  Even when using profanity privately, e.g. "Shit!" or whatnot after making a mistake, the person's assuming a role, dividing the self and suspending identity.  This is the interesting thing about profanity, that it produces significance while suspending identity.  Often, through profanity, a person isn't so much honestly expressing "personality" but rather impersonating a (socio-symbolic) persona, usually the persona of another person.  Profanity does create a fantasy space-time par excellence, conflating the Imaginary and the Symbolic, other and Other.  So, when people cuss, they aren't really "keepin' it real" as they used to say. They aren't expressing themselves genuinely so much as they're proffering an appeal of some kind.  Otherwise, why even couch the usually mute circulation of stable "knowledge" in terms of profanity?  Another example is when a person utters whether aloud or inwardly in a time of exasperation "Fuck me!" or "I'm fucked!" - it's an appeal distanced and distancing from what the self is in "reality."  To provoke is also to appeal.  Of course, this counter-intuitive knowledge is pointless for many people mired in a certain natural consciousness.  Perhaps profanity is unavoidable to convey a certain realism, justified by the story or characters.  Even when speech acts are rather pathetically pedestrian and uninspired, some of them can be utilized for funny or touching ends.  For some situations, I wonder if they occasion something akin to Derrida's Glas ... that is, two or multiple intertextual columns that play off each other. 

That said, I think that nothing beats a certain clean and crisp writing, unadorned writing.  Kenzaburō Ōe is a master of such writing.  Elfriede Jelinek's works are excellent, sometimes spare, and unsparing of human folly.  I like lovely writing as much as the next person (I wish I could write like Hermann Hesse), from classics to Magic Realism and beyond, but there's too much of it out there - and thus, too little of it really, too little that challenges certain sentimentalisms reacting to (post)modernist posthistoire.  Also, I admire avant-garde and experimental literature, from Comte de Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror to the various surrealisms notably and cut-up etc., but it's not the most accessible stuff.  I may abstain from pedantically demonstrating theory in literary works, but I'm not against certain theoretical strategies to build the literary architecture, as long as the process disappears in the resultant product.  It must appear to be a monad.  The work must appear to be effortless.  I'm not against "difficult" literature, but it's exemplified in deceptively simple works.  I think the challenge is to make something very readable, short and snappy ...