Wednesday, October 24, 2007

keeping a bit of the loony in the story

Do those old classics need to be as long as they were when first published? Maybe not, if we agree with British publisher Orion and a new series of "compact editions" of some nineteenth century classics, including "Moby Dick," "Anna Karenina," "Vanity Fair," and "The Mill on the Floss." Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker (22Oct07) reports they were neatly cut in half, so that they can be taken in quickly and all the more admired. He notes wryly, however, that the names of the abridgers were curiously withheld; perhaps they were alarmed at the magnitude of what they had done. Gopnik says that "Melville's story is intact and immediate; it's just that the long bits about the technical details of whaling are gone, as are most of the mock-Shakespearean interludes, the philosophical meanderings, and the metaphysical huffing and puffing." Wasn't all that half the magic of "Moby Dick"?

Gopnik imagines the soothing letter that Melville might have received from his editor accompanying the suggested cuts, had he been alive to receive it. "Herman: Just a few small trims along the way; myself I find the whaling stuff fascinating, but I fear your reader wants to move along with the story—and frankly the tensile strength of the narrative is being undercut right now by a lot of stray material that takes us way off line."

The Orion publisher's editing job is perhaps what a modern critic or professional editor might say about the original book if it arrived over the transom today—"too much digression and sticky stuff and extraneous learning. If he'd cut that out, it would be a better story." A small shudder is in order. Gopnik reflects on how "masterpieces are inherently a little loony…" but how that often contributes to their originality. He reflects, "What makes writing matter is not a story, cleanly told, but a voice, however odd or ordinary, and a point of view, however strange or sentimental." Although we're often told in the revising process for our fiction, tighten, cut, cut, out with the darlings, kill the adverbs and adjectives, it might be well to remain aware not to lose all loony ambiance and originality.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

notes on tc boyle's process

T. C. Boyle has another of his vintage short stories in a recent New Yorker, entitled "Sin Dolor." It's a story of a young boy who was born with some sort of genetic mutation that causes him to feel no pain. The doctor who examines him for numerous burns and lacerations when he is a child at first suspects child abuse by the parents, though he's at a loss as to why the boy feels no pain. The doctor becomes interested in doing long-term medical observations and since the boy is from a poor family he is able to have the boy spend a great deal of time at his own house, eating, teaching the boy, and generally taking a paternal interest in him. However, after a long period of this, the father appears at the house one day, removes the boy, and leaves the village with him. After a long period the boy and his father return to the village and the doctor comes upon the spectacle of the boy performing on stage, putting red hot blades to his flesh, and piercing his cheeks, while the father is taking up donations. The father has made a sideshow of him to earn money. The doctor manages to speak with him, but the boy is resigned to his fate of earning money to support his family. He dies shortly after.

This is the sort of wrenching story I'd come across in the past from Boyle. Language, style, drama is always superb, but there seems always a hard psychological and visceral toll on me. I remember another of Boyle's stories that stayed with me a long time. A young couple in a new home in southern California, where the high crime rate is of concern, engages a home security firm. They provide the couple with a sign for their lawn warning that intruders will face armed response. This enrages one of the crazies who lives in the area (Boyle has already convincingly portrayed this crazy being interviewed by a woman real estate agent), and he invades the home of the young couple firing a gun and demanding an armed response. He locates the cowering couple and kills them.

I marvel at the power and craft of such writing but I get a sense of hopelessness from the theme and denouement. So, Boyle intrigues me and I couldn't help but go straight to an interview by Diana Bishop with Boyle in my latest Writer's Chronicle. In some selective excerpts, Boyle says he's "fascinated with these other guys to see how they've ruined their lives. Maybe writing about them provides a cautionary tale for me." He says "the theme of man as animal often plays a part" in his stories. "I don't want my readers to do anything. I'm not imposing anything on them. They come to me because they like to communicate…I am simply an artist. I'm disturbed by things, amused by things, love things, am horrified by things. I want to constantly address this mystery of the world and so that's why I'm creating art. If it communicates to people then I'm very gratified." All this fits my take on his stories.

Boyle is currently interested in identity theft—his recent novel, "Talk Talk," takes up this theme. "What is identity, who are you, how do you find out?" I'm not sure I'm ready to tackle a Boyle novel—the short stories affect my mood for long enough periods—but perhaps.

What about his drive, and process? "(F)or me the thrill of producing fiction, of pursuing and discovering something ineffable, is enough…because it's such a rush for me to explore something and see where it will go." As you might also infer from this, Boyle is someone who doesn't write to an outline. Bishop asks, "When you start to write a short story or novel do you know the ending or do you like the exploration?" Boyle says, "I know nothing at all. Nothing. The first line comes and I start…I begin by seeing something and then its translated into a voice talking to me and then I follow it and see where it will go." Bishop asks him how he revises? "Constantly, as I go along." Revisions after the first draft is completed? "It is, with minor exceptions, exactly as it evolved on the keyboard," and apparently doesn't need much more before going to the agent.

I like this one too. Bishop asks, "While you may begin writing short stories or novels with a question, you may not end up with the answer? "No." Also, when Bishop asks can art save the world, so to speak? "Well, the world is unsavable to begin with. Art illuminates you. It makes you feel that somebody else is feeling the same thing that you are so you're not alone. But it doesn't have a political agenda; it can't. Because an agenda destroys the aesthetic impulse of the discovery and the exploration of what you're doing. You're doing it because you have no answer. That's why you do it."

I admire a lot about Boyle.
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