A lifetime condensed in a novel?

WearenotourselvesI recently read the ambitious debut novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ by Matthew Thomas. Ostensibly the story of a marriage and how it changes when the husband starts suffering from dementia, it is in fact nothing less than a portrayal of the American Dream after World War Two. So it’s the story of second-generation immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century in the United States, but also a family story, seen largely through the eyes of Eileen Tumulty, who marries scientist Ed Leary. But it’s about the whole context as well: the need to believe in the perfect family and home, the birth of consumer society and economic prosperity, the wish to rise above one’s station. It’s also about mortality, frailty, parents and children, dreams and how we don’t quite make them work for us, about everything under the sun. So, while I admire the author’s ambition, this is perhaps the flaw of the novel: it tries to tell too much, but is nevertheless beautifully written and with some truly touching moments.

I’m not normally a fan of sweeping family sagas, but this one is so tightly bound to a single point of view (Eileen’s), that there is no sense here of too many characters insufficiently connected, some of which you couldn’t care less about. The second point of view, that of Connell their son, comes to the forefront only in the last quarter or so of the book. There is a lot of summarising and skipping of years, a lot of trivia and minutiae, which were fine until I realised that after reading pretty solidly for several days, I had only reached the 30% or so mark of the book. It is a long book, and could perhaps have benefitted from some editing –  it does drag on a bit. There are perhaps a few too many instances and examples, and they get more and more gruelling as the husband’s condition deteriorates. But there are also moments of such insight and beauty, such sharp observation, where the characters really come alive with all their pain and hopes and disappointments laid bare. It’s worth wading through all the rest for these moments (and they are by no means rare). It doesn’t surprise me to discover that the author spent ten years writing, rewriting, refining this novel, and it is remarkably mature for a debut novel.

PrivatelifeIt got me wondering, however, what other books are of similar epic proportion, and have the ambition of ‘telling the story of a nation or a generation via the story of an individual’. And what came to mind was ‘Private Life’ by Jane Smiley. Margaret Mayfield is practically an old maid at the age of 27 in the last decade of the 19th century, so she considers herself lucky to make the ‘catch’ of Captain Andrew Early, naval officer and astronomer, the most famous man in their small Missouri town. They marry and she follows him to his observatory on the naval base just outside San Francisco. But her life turns out to be one long disappointment.

Interestingly enough, this book is not just about the ‘private’ life: it refers consistently to external events – the great earthquake in San Francisco, the First World War, Pearl Harbour, internment of Japanese Americans in camps during the Second World War etc. It also talks about a scientist husband with very strong opinions and a lack of empathy. However, the resilience of the couple in ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ stems from love and respect (however different it may be from the ideal of romantic love), while in ‘Private Life’ it seems to be more about a sense of duty and having no other choices. Of course, it’s a different time period: Margaret could be Eileen’s grandmother. Divorce initiated by women was highly unusual in those days (and we have the cautionary tale of a member of their knitting circle who does get a divorce and ‘disappears from view’).

From archives.gov.on.ca
From archives.gov.on.ca

What struck me in both books is just how tedious the minutiae of daily life is to all but those living it. I don’t think I have a particularly short attention span, and sure enough there are moments of universality (perhaps the contrast is all the sharper because of the endless piling on of small details), but is it really necessary? Could we have some judicious editing, please? Strangely enough, I love reading diaries (Pepys, Evelyn, Virginia Woolf), but diaries are not novels. Any pattern or shape emerges accidentally in diaries, but I like my novels to have form and coherence. I don’t want them to depict the trivia of everyday life, but rise above that.

 

 

 

Editing Poetry: Some Examples

Each poem is only as good as its last (or should that be ‘latest’?) incarnation. Elizabeth Bishop would spend years polishing her poems, making them briefer in the process, packing them with hidden meaning and memorable imagery.

But do we sometimes over-edit things? To test out this hypothesis, I’ll share some of the transformations one of my poems has undergone. I’m still not quite happy with it, but really do want to/need to  write it.

The first version of ‘Who Am I? (Third Culture Kid)‘ appeared quite early on in the life of this blog. I was initially quite proud of it, felt it was honest and heartfelt, and it got some positive comments. Then I took it to a poetry workshop and received lots of comments and suggestions, which made me realise it was not as clear or as precise as it might be. I felt it needed more ‘explanation’, so instead of cutting, I added to it. Here is the second version:

Moving on, I think –
what a blessing!
Head down, prepare
for exit, re-entry, again and again,
glad to stay moss-free,
rolling past the moved-upon
with a wave, a whoopee!

But ultimately revenge is theirs:
for they sprout roots, link up, form tissue
richly alive with shared hours and tales.
Shortcuts roll glib off their tongues,
always creating and leading their own trend,
while the mover is running to catch up,
to fuddle in the language of past generations,
never quite getting the nuance or slang.
I fear we are a shade disappointing:
we stammer, we marvel at the wrong thing.
Our plumage exotic, not enough erotic,
our glamour too alien when you want to preen.
Askew, inefficient, never quite sufficient,
alignment and meekness passed us by.
So easy to shoot at, never enough time
to grieve. Nor find reason or season to rhyme.

So I’ve learnt to hide my real thoughts
my own thoughts
my solitude

Who am I?
I am all that is half-forgotten,
all the places in which I’ve left my heart,
all that is preserved in the mud.
I’m done with digging!
I dare not show you all my layers
for fear the rubble may bury you.

See that flying line of geese? There’s one just off,
destroying the symmetry…

But it too has learnt.
Above all, this:
a short answer to the question:
‘Where are you from?’
just enough humour to colour it harmless.

Unsurprisingly, this was too verbose, too prosy, forcing things down the reader’s throat rather than startling them with an unexpected insight. I tried to experiment a bit with lines and punctuation, in a vain attempt to ‘spice it up’. I suppose I was also aiming for a contrast between cultures – the more oral, ‘hip-hop’ verses alternating with calmer, almost erudite verses. Here’s that opening stanza again in this version:

Moving on                                          what a blessing!

Head down/ prepare

for exit, re-entry                              again and again

glad to stay moss-free//

rolling past the moved-upon

with a wave                                        a whoopee!

Thanks to my poetry tutor, I began to understand some of the poetic bad habits I had picked up along the way. It wasn’t the layout on the page that was the problem, nor the topic itself. There was a kernel of truth there that people could connect with, but I needed to find a way to ‘tell it slant’.

My current attempt has reduced the poem to just the following lines:

Who am I?
I am all that is half-forgotten,
half-mourned, misunderstood.
I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart.
All buried deep inside,
calling halt to excavation.
I am all I dare not show you
for fear you will drown
in my impure
clinging mud.

Not sure that this is going to be the final version, though… 

Everything But the Run

Running ShoesI used to be a runner. I started running 6 years ago and was soon training 3-4 times a week. I even took part in marathons (once!), half-marathons and 10k races. I collected medals, and lost weight and moodiness in one fell swoop.

Of course, there were many days when I didn’t feel like going out for a run. Anyone who knows what England is like in November can confirm that there are many November days throughout the year.  But I survived the rain, the snow, the few days of summer heat, a wasp sting, getting lost in a field full of rampant bulls.

Then I sprained my ankle quite badly, and was laid up for a few weeks.  When I recovered, I injured my toe.  A few months later, something else happened. And so injury followed bed rest followed pain… until I was completely out of shape.  The longer I stayed away from running, the harder it got to get back into it.

Here in France the weather is not November all year round, but did that rid me of excuses? No, on the contrary, it provided me with more of them.

‘Today is too hot’ or ‘I can’t run in the snow’ alternated with ‘I’m too busy travelling’ or ‘I’ve got to prepare for this important business thing.’  And of course, the children – handy, trusty old excuses – they always figured in there somehow, in my list of excuses.   My ever-expanding list, to match my ever-expanding waistline.

This month all my prevarications and procrastinations were laid bare.  My children were shipped off to the grandparents.  There was no work to be done over the summer.  All I had to do was get into shape, with my running and my writing.

That’s when the similarities hit me!  I was putting off running, pretending to limber up through all sorts of other exercises (Pilates DVDs, swimming, cycling).  Then I try a few abortive little run-walks, which remind me just how out of shape I am. So then I avoided running even more.  But I know that the only way to get my form back is to break through that pain barrier, to stick with it for long enough.

EditsSame with my novel.  I’ve been putting off editing it by writing blog posts, poems, the odd little bit of prose here and there, book reviews – anything but the novel, in short!  So meanwhile, my mental form is corroding.  Yes, sure, any kind of writing is better than no writing at all, just like any kind of exercise is better than none at all.  But this dilution of effort and focus does not bring me a single step closer to what I want to achieve.

You only become a runner by running.  You only become a novelist by writing a novel.

Have I learnt my lesson? Well, for the past two days I’ve started editing. And you know what?  It’s not as bad as I thought.  It’s hard work, it’s rewriting more than editing, but it’s fun.  In a masochistic kind of way.

I think I may even go for a run soon!

Most Overrated Books (in My World)

The Lovely BonesWhen there is too much of a buzz around a book, I tend to wait for a few years before reading it (I will probably read 50 Shades of Grey when I am a grandmother, at this rate).  I did that with Harry Potter, ‘Life of Pi’ and I am still waiting to read Hilary Mantel’s latest two.  Because, with all due respect to reviewers, online chat forums and book clubs, no one can read a book for you.  Tastes are so different, that only you can make up your own mind! (Thank goodness.)

I finally read Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ yesterday and was intrigued for the first 50 pages or so, then a bit bored, then finally frustrated.  It’s an interesting premise (the omniscient narrator from heaven) and the adolescent voice is charming, but after a while the archness and sentimentality begin to jar.  It just goes on for too long: a novella-length of about 20,000 would have been more than enough.

So that got me musing about other books that I have found highly overrated.  Please bear in mind this is always a very personal exercise, so don’t be offended if I have included any of your favourites!  However, I would love to hear you defend any of my choices (because I am not Miss Know-It-All), or let me know if there are any others I ought to include.

1) Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code

And pretty much everything else he has written.  When I first read this, I thought it was a parody of a certain type of thriller.  But alas, no, it’s deadly earnest!

2) Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat Pray Love

Don’t get me wrong: I think she is very brave to share with readers her early-midlife-crisis and search for fulfilment.  I just find the journey a selfish and not that well-written pursuit of personal happiness, with very little attempt to understand or interact deeply with the cultures she encounters.  Some funny observations, but overall too much bellybuttonism for my taste.

3) Stieg Larsson

Yes, I ‘m sorry, the whole Girl with Dragon Tattos and other tormented characteristics left me cold!  It’s not the violence or misogyny that I complain about (the first is widespread in crime fiction, the second is debatable anyway).  No, it’s the fact that it bores me.  Everyone talks about its relentless pace and it being a page-turner, but I have to admit I skipped entire repetitive passages. It feels completely unedited, a real jumble: just spewing out of odd bits of information, plotlines and shifts in narrative voice.

4) Hemingway’s novels

His short stories are brilliant.  I just find his terseness and übermasculinity grates over the length of a novel.  And sometimes I am not sure he is as profound as his critics make him out to be.

5) Paul Coelho: The Alchemist

Possibly because all the people I despised in high school loved it so much.  Or because fable-type narratives always hit my cynical vein, from which then gushes forth pretentious twaddle.  Sometimes beautiful words are poetry that makes us gasp in wonder… and sometimes it’s a rich cake, giving me indigestion.  (On the other hand, I do like some of his other books, for instance ‘Veronika Decides to Die’.)

As I said, don’t take my word for it!  If you haven’t read these, then you may want to ignore my opinion and make up your own mind. Now I would like to know which books you love to hate!  Although I may shoot you if you dare to say ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Jane Austen…

Let the Battle Commence!

Enough marinading – time to start grilling!

Almost a month ago exactly, I wrote ‘The End’ on the first draft of my novel.   I printed it out and set it aside – yes, literally in a drawer – to marinade in its juices until I felt ready to tackle it again.   Meanwhile, the end of school revelries, birthdays, professional obligations, family demands swept over me, pulling me under, all but drowning me in waves of joy and salt, of midsummer madness and unknowable sadness.

But now it’s just me and those 150+ pages of single-spaced writing eyeballing each other.  I already know I have to take out some scenes, add others, move things around.  I know I will wince when I see redundant adjectives and adverbs, will frown at repetitions, will fiercely attack typos and careless grammar.  I am sure so much will escape me still…

And in the meantime, I continue to read and review crime fiction.  Many writers say that they stop reading in their genre when they are writing a book, but I’ve been writing this book for 12 years now!  Still, the reason for avoidance – to steer clear of contagion and envy – is becoming obvious.  Gone are the days when I could read a thriller purely for fun.  Now, if it’s a bestseller, like Simon Kernick or JoNesbø, I wish I could have that pace in plotting (even if they are light years removed from my own style).  If it’s the wit and prose that win me over, like Stav Sherez or Patricia Highsmith, I flame up in desire to achieve that standard.  And if it’s poorly written, I wallow in pools of self-pity: that I am unlikely to get published, when there is so much crime fiction already out there.

Yet none of these writers, admired or envied, are there with me.  None of my friends, online or off, can be there with me.  I step into the ring of fire, all alone.  I know nothing about grilling except for the eating. I probably have the wrong weapons with me: my glasses, my pens and my notebooks.  This time, it’s a battle to the death – and only one of us can emerge victorious.

Bon appétit!

 

Lucky 7 Random Editing

So much has happened during my absence from the Web: novels have been finished and/or edited, gorgeous new poems have appeared on some of my favourite blogs and, best of all, I have been remembered even though I have been away, which I find very touching!  So thank you, Joanne Phillips, who has tagged me for the Lucky 7 random sharing of novel excerpts, to give each other a bit of a boost and an opportunity to reflect on our own work.  The rules are simple:

1. Go to page 77 of your current MS/WIP (if you start a new Word file for each chapter, have a pocket calculator handy to add up the total number of pages).
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next 7 lines, sentences, or paragraphs, and post them as they’re written.
4. Tag 7 writers and let them know.

There’s no pressure, no obligation to continue the chain, but if, like me (and a few others who have participated in this chain, see an excellent post about it by Audrey Kalman), you are deeply embarassed by just how pedestrian those 7 lines sound, it is perhaps time to go over your ‘masterpiece’ with fine-tooth comb and polish it up.  I have been completely wrapped up in plot and characterisation for the first draft, perhaps (no, make that ‘definitely’ instead of perhaps) at the expense of language and style.  And I would never have noticed that if I hadn’t been forced to take a small passage out of context.  Sure, I have excuses about why it is like it is, a wallpaper roll of them, but… the truth is, I needed this wake-up call!

So, without further ado, here is the dreaded passage:

Dinu sighed again.  ‘What do you mean?  We don’t “do” anything.  He’s gone.  It’ll be virtually impossible to trace him.  I’m not going to do a search of all airports, trains and so on.  That sort of thing only happens in TV shows, Liviu my boy!  Anyway, he could just have taken his car and driven off.’

‘Ah, that’s where I’m ahead of you and don’t you “my boy” me!  I checked on his registered vehicle and it’s parked safely outside his block of flats.’

‘Is that the vehicle he was driving when he witnessed my accident?’ Dinu suddenly thought to ask.

It was.   He felt sure that had to mean something, it all seemed too much of a coincidence.  Too convenient, somehow.  Still, he supposed it could all be some strange conglomeration of unrelated events.

And here are the seven writers I am passing it on to, in the hope that they are not too busy or negative about chain letters (as I have been since the age of about seven, when I realised that the curse would not kill me if I didn’t pass them on).  A few of them are poets rather than novelists, so it might be the 7th poem or something of that kind…

Ami de Reve

Quirina Rode-Gutzmer

Robert Crisp

Honoré Dupuis

Kyotzeta

Nicky Wells

Anna Fonte

Thanks for a kick up the backside and back to work on improving that novel!