Total Oblivion

"A fast-paced, suspenseful dystopian picaresque, part Huck Finn and part bizarro-world Swiss Family Robinson..."



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Skinny Dipping

Long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Crawford Award. Title short story listed for the 2000 O. Henry award.

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What Is a Novel?

This is a question that doesn’t get asked often enough, I think, particularly in an era of the unending “death of the novel” — which of course is just a fantasy; we are flooded with novels, and people one month out of the year strive to write one in that time span as a ledger of…what, exactly? Some dim cultural memory of the 19th century, when the novel’s quintessence was considerably less questioned. Far more pressing is the digitization of text underway, as the physical components, such as linear sequencing, become much more ethereal. (Is the novel a book? Perhaps not as much anymore.) But people far smarter than me have spent large percentage of their lives grappling with these questions.

What is a novel? What matters for me with this question-now, when I am in the middle of one-is the fact that I haven’t asked this question enough of myself.

The novel’s origins, although relatively modern, are murky and chaotic, its DNA spliced with adventure tales, courtly romances, the roman a clef, the epistolary story, the “philosophical novel” and the popular history (along with many other strands) from the late 17th and early 18th century, during which many of these different modes were competing for attention in Europe. And this is to say nothing of non-Western forms.

This history matters because we are at a point now where we can’t assume the novel as a given. It is prose. I’ll give you that. It is posited and situated in time and space (and yet even here, someone like Woolf pushes against this). It has a narrator, either imagined, “real” or both. And it has an inner voice, which mediates between the writer and the narrator, but which never shows its face. This could be called the novel’s “style”. Or perhaps its unconscious.

The term that fits most with how I write is a bit of a mouthful, but I think it’s more accurate than “science fiction”, “fantasy”, or even “speculative fiction”: the metahistorical romance, coined by Amy J. Elias. I don’t use this in day to day conversation really-it doesn’t lend itself well to shorthand, but there you have it.

What is the metahistorical romance?:

Elias argues that the postmodern imagination confronts the historical sublime rather than represses it; confronts it as repetition and deferral; seeks sublime History but simultaneously has lost faith in the storytelling needed to do so; and consequently has ties to, but reverses the dominant of, the traditional Anglo-American historical novel.

Particularly in the genre, this is why I think our lexicon to explain the novels of the field can be relatively impoverished. Leaving aside certain books and writers (such as Jeanette Winterson) left out of the canon of speculative literature for, well, no real good reason at all, you have to go back beyond Gernsback, beyond Mary Shelley, even, and really dig into the heart of the romance/novel divide to find the strands that play out even today. To put it more simply, the novel is a catch-all for several different types of prose narratives that have nothing to do with genre divides (to say nothing of publishing divides). Not to mention the fact that the very length of the novel makes these typologies inherently problematic.

We can expect the novel to make us feel better about what we know about science or a TV show, or to lead a revolution, or to carefully construct a plausible future. And novels may be these things. But largely unanswered is: what is the historiography of the novel? That is to say, how does a novel construct its past, present and future? That is where the groundswell of a novel takes place. The rest are the desires we have for the novel, both as readers and writers. But they are not the reality of the novel, which takes place in that “inner voice” mentioned above-that is to say, the mediation between the writer and the narrator.

Moreover, these struggles of what the novel “is” has always been there, often in contradictory terms, since the genesis of the art form:

THE Romances in France have for a long Time been the Diversion and Amusement of the whole World; the People both in the City and at Court have given themselves over to this Vice, and all Sorts of People have read these Works with a most surprizing Greediness; but that Fury is very much abated, and they are all fallen off from this Distraction: The Little Histories of this Kind have taken Place of Romances, whose Prodigious Number of Volumes* were sufficient to tire and|<1:[iv]> satiate such whose Heads were most fill’d with those Notions.

These little Pieces which have banish’d Romances are much more agreeable to the Brisk and Impetuous Humour of the English,* who have naturally no Taste for long-winded Performances, for they have no sooner begun a Book but they desire to see the End of it: The Prodigious Length of the Ancient Romances, the Mixture of so many Extraordinary Adventures, and the great Number of Actors that appear on the Stage, and the Likeness* which is so little managed, all which has given a Distaste to Persons of good Sense, and has made Romances so much cry’d down, as we find ’em at present. (preface to the Secret History of Queen Zarah, published 1705

In other words (and this is where it sloooowly comes to my own practices), to make the novel “fit” into the strictures we, in the 21st century, have seemed to have decided for the novel does not really appear to have its roots in the early formation of the novel, which was, to say the least, rather contentious. Dig deeper into that history and you will begin to question just what is “traditional” and what is “experimental” in a novel. This isn’t to say that a novel’s future has to be necessarily tied to its past, but is helpful to even realize just what the novel has lived through, and what has come before.

As a writer you need all the help you can get. At least, I do.

(And this has nothing to do with content. “Content” is a deracinated word much like “security” or “Facebook friend.”)

With the novel that I am now in the middle of, set in the late 17th century, I have come through my own period of messy genesis. And now, perhaps exodus. I admit that I was wanting to write a “clever” novel, a fast novel, one that could turn the pages, provide just enough weirdness and unsettledness but…really. Nothing that would draw the ire or (worse) the disinterest of those whose business it is to decide what goes to market and what doesn’t at the major houses.

This is in itself setting myself up for failure, in that I wasn’t true to what the novel needed to be, and having another inner voice quite different from the one that mediates the experience of the novel: the voice of doubt, first of all; and the voice that desired to have every historic detail completely “liveable”, even though it is largely an illusion, a magic lantern trick of lights and shadows along the wall. Some writers are very skilled at it. I can fake it, for a little bit. But it was largely disinterest on my part. I saw my disinterest in capturing a “realism” in the inaccessible past to be a failure on my part. Artistic and perhaps moral (in terms of whether this project I had spent years on already was a “success” or not).

This isn’t to say that the past isn’t important to me in a historical or metahistorical novel-far from it. But what we consider “the past” (or for that matter, the present or the future) is highly problematic; moreover, it ought to be problematized. Memoirs of a Geisha was ripe with historical detail but it was largely a Westernized Austen-esque romance rather blithely superimposed onto a milieu very far from pastoral-industrial 19th century England. Most of the early history of science fiction was replete with crypto-settings of American triumphalism and projects of extermination. Of course every era is going to have its blind spots-I’m sure I have plenty of mine. And in some ways (as long as they are not culturally appropriative or noxious) they are necessary-part of that interplay between a contemporary readership and “source materials” (of whatever sort) which are for sure alien. The late 17th century is a strange and distant time-and in the grand scheme of things it was not that long ago. Consciousness was different. So if we rivet our own assumptions (our own “specs” into a novel based on what we like to bring forward for a modern reader, we must rivet them with care. For me, and this novel, it is largely a story about the birth of modern capitalism and pivoting the words right on the edge of a great change. Perhaps even an apocalyptic change with the Spice Trade. And from that, how people live through the change.

I assure myself this is of interest to modern readers. I have to; otherwise, why would I spend 3+ years of my life on one project? But to make that pivoting of words work…how much is historical mimesis important? Particularly for a genre so obsessed with getting details “right”, certain developments in historiography over the last 50 years (from Hayden White and the Annales school, among many others) seems not to be of great concern, for they question the entire historiographical project of the West. History (and I would posit future history as well) is not inherently a narrative; it must be shaped as a narrative.

For a long time I was afraid of my own procatalepsis-that the whole of my aesthetic decisions to not hew to total historical reality would be seen as a massive diversion. The only thing I can rely on now is my intractability and stubbornness towards an end that I can’t even see yet. I can play by “the rules.” I really can; it takes extra work but it is possible. But in order to write the novel that I want to write, set in a time when the novel was just coming into being, I have to blow up the rules that I have tried to live by and rewrite them, sentence by sentence, day by day.

Mon, December 17 2012 » Fiction

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