Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The story so far

I've been reading. I've been lost in my reading — in good ways and in bad.

It started with The Savage Detectives. I started it over the Christmas break, and it was my little oasis of poetry, to shut the world off — the family, the noise — for a few minutes a day and immerse myself in a book.

So I loved the start of it, wanted to know more of the visceral realist movement in Mexico. Then it got weird. The second section of the book, called "The Savage Detectives," consists of the journal entries of a varied cross-section of people, recalling certain events, or nonevents, in which the new visceral realists we'd come to know in the first section played peripheral roles. Then I felt lost. I was somewhat startled to find myself dislocated in space and time, over and over again. (Who are the detectives here anyway? And what's so savage about them?) Then I gave myself over to it.

But the whole time I'm thinking: How did someone manage to craft a novel out of all this? Is it really a novel? And do I really like it?

These tiny windows onto these poets who passed through random people's lives. This interests me, as a technique, as well as in life, because, well, how much do we know anyone really? The size of the window varies, but even to live with someone for years, sharing nights and days, whole and endless, is there ever complete entry into their inner life?

This, then, is how one writes? Find a window, open it wider, wider. And when it doesn't open any further, find another window?

"One day I drank five Coca-Colas and suddenly I felt sick, as if the sun had filtered down into my Cokes and I'd drunk it without realizing." This is a magical sentence. I've read it over countless times. I still don't get it. Sick — like the sun would poison your drink; drinking the sun would poison you. And that doesn't seem quite right, it's not the glass of Florida sunshine we down at breakfast. But then it's not the Florida sun, is it? And I remember seeing the desert shimmer in the south of Tunisia, the sad little zoo with the trick camel that drank water from a Coke bottle; I remember The Sheltering Sky and I remember Under the Volcano, and pretty much the only thing I remember about the both of them is the feeling of heat, the exhaustion of it, like drinking a poison sun. It's a plain little sentence, but I love it.

Stars like holographic projections
Two islands

Then I started the seahorse book (so called by Helena for the illustration on its cover): Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson. I started by loving it. So much the opposite of Bolaño, so spare; poetic with a delicate poignancy of observation. Not Bolaño's rapturous flood of images and emotions.

Bolaño is the poetry of excess. Winterson is a negative; it's what's left after all excess is removed. I don't know how to substantiate this. It's a feeling. Visceral. There is a time for Winterson's stillness. And I needed to be stilled, a little, in my reading. But I get a rush from the bombardment Bolaño levels at me. Makes me feel alive. Winterson leaves me feeling longing, empty. Bolaño may tear out my innards, but at least I see the innards, know what and where they are, as I gather it all up into myself again. It's something visceral.

Lighthousekeeping starts in a fairytale haze, through which eternal truths seem to shine. How does she write this thing? Few words, but all, I'm sure, carefully chosen.

Darkness was a presence. I learned to see in it, I learned to see through it, and I learned to see the darkness of my own.

Pew did not speak. I didn't know if he was kind or unkind, or what he intended to do with me. He had lived alone all his life.

That first night, Pew cooked the sausage in darkness. No, Pew cooked the sausage with darkness. It was the kind of dark you can taste. That's what we ate: sausages and darkness.

And there was talk of story, without all that much story actually being divulged. Wherever a story starts, one could always go back a little further, to an earlier beginning, just as stories always go on well after the ending. How can you tell a story these days without acknowledging this? And it all made a calm and rational sense to me.

Then it got weird. Suddenly the fairy tale was gone and we were in modern times trying to make it sound like a fairy tale, all cryptic proclamations of love, all airy-fairy. And she lost me.

But all the same, I wonder. How did she write this, these disparate tableaux laid on top of each other to make something called a novel?

I noted an obvious debt to Doris Lessing:

The doctor leaned back in his chair. "Do you keep a diary?"

"I have a collection of silver notebooks."

"Are they consistent?"

"Yes. I buy them from the same department store."

"I mean, do you keep on record or your life, or several? Do you feel you have more than one life perhaps?"

"Of course I do. It would be impossible to tell one single story."

"Perhaps you should try."

"A beginning, a middle, and an end?"

"Something like that — yes."

Then something more visceral (though, somehow, fairly emotionlessly told):

My heart is a muscle with four valves. It beats 101,000 times a day, it pumps eight pints of blood around my body. Science can bypass it, but I can't. I say I give it to you, but I never do.

...reminding me of "How I Finally Lost My Heart."

Then I read more Doris Lessing: On Cats. It's light, and deft, and it's about cats, wonderful cats! This is not a fluffy, sentimental book. This is about weird creatures with secret lives. And I wonder how she does it, there's no particular way about her, or her words; it's all done without pretension, straight up. She just has the most interesting things to say.

Now, at the end of January, in the deep of winter, I am reading The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, and I wish I could stay in bed all day reading. I've been suspicious of this book; overhyped, I thought. But on impulse I dragged it out of the bargain bin the other day, and I haven't been able to put it down since. It feels old-fashioned (and I don't know what that means); traditional: extolling the beginning-middle-end that Winterson denies. It is comfortable, if slightly (deliciously) eery, and makes me want to stay still and lost and blanketed till it's done.

And this is how I'm learning to write. Reading has always been a window onto another world, but now I'm seeing that writing is too. I see so many windows these days — in the metro, in my coworkers' phone conversations, in other internet lives. Some days there is even time enough to peer through them. It's not a matter of escape, but simply of seeing something else, something outside myself. (If I've learned anything this last year it's to allow myself to be lifted out of myself, to be lifted, to lift myself.) To shape a novel is to find where the views through various windows intersect.

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