Friday, November 19, 2021

La cathédrale engloutie

It's taken me nearly three months, but I have finally written a synopsis for my novel Mona in the Desert, a novel I finished a few years ago and am still occasionally submitting to publishers on the off chance they might want to put it out into the world. I've written synopses for two other novels and I hated not only the process, but also the results. I am however pleased with what I've written for Mona, and I really enjoyed the work this time. Instead of a summary, I've written a retelling of the novel, letting myself have as much fun in the telling as I could, which turned out to be plenty. So even if the publisher decides to give my novel a miss, I have learned how to pull a synopsis out of a whole novel and have a good time in the process, and that is a valuable acquisition for an amateur novelist's toolkit. I assure you, as Dante would say. No, not that Dante.

Whenever I submit a novel to a publisher or a literary agent, I always spend some time looking over the text of the novel. Because I manage to turn out a finished novel every couple of years, and because my only published novel was finished in 2011, I have got a pile of novels to shill. My opinion of these novels shifts around as the years pass. Sometimes I feel as though these books are Want and Ignorance, clinging to me beneath my robe, the the world and I would be better off without them. Jon Evison literally buried his first six unpublished novels in a hole he dug in his back yard, ceremonially killing them off. I keep dragging mine around. That can hardly be healthy, I guess. And yet. I always feel that I haven't done enough for them, like I'm Schindler and the world of publishing is the SS. Which comparison is hardly apt, I assure you, as Nietzsche said. Yes, that Nietzsche. 

But what was I saying? Oh, yes, I like to look over the novels again, some of which I haven't laid eyes on in years, before packing them a lunch and sending them out into the world to take their chances. Usually I find myself thinking, Well, you're a pretty good book. I'm so glad I wrote you. Look both ways before you cross the street. Once in a while I read a paragraph and think, Eh, that's a bit clumsy, stand still while I comb your hair and fix your shirt collar. What I thought when I was reading Mona again was that it's a pretty good book, and also odder than I remember, in terms of structure. I remember that I was trying something new with this one, having in mind the image of the narrative shaped like a cloud of autumn leaves blown off a tree, swirling around the reader's head, full of motion, one color swiftly replaced by another. A plainer way of saying this is that the narrative loops around on itself, the chronology out of order, events interrupting one another as a way of showing contrast and similarity, etc. It's one way to create dramatic irony as well as a way to introduce patterns (which are basically repetitions with or without variation, see Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition for details). It is not a technique I invented, by any means. I saw it in Rushdie, in Faulkner, in Joyce, in Woolf, and who knows who else. Sterne, obviously. Mona in the Desert is certainly a descendant, at least spiritually, of Tristram Shandy. A narrator allegedly talks about himself while discussing his family instead, or vice versa. And vice versa. But without all the bawdiness.

The oddness of my narrative caused me, I think, to read Agustin Fernandez Mallo's Nocilla Trilogy in a way I might not have ordinarily. It's an experimental novel, by which I mean it's not a straightforward "realist" narrative in the vein of Tolstoy or Flaubert. It's also not highly original in that Mallo hasn't invented any of his many technical innovations; the books are more like a catalog of modernism and postmodernism (if, yes, you ignore the fact that postmodernism begins with Cervantes, or maybe Apuleius, and like the poor has always been with us, usually in the shadows of the best sellers or whatever). The first book in Mallo's trilogy is made up of interleaved fragments of multiple stories that are connected by coincidence, location, or theme. The second book is more of the same, but with the stories more closely connected, and with more emphasis on literary criticism and metafiction. The final book goes in a different set of directions, the first third being one long unbroken paragraph that leans heavily on Joycean stream of consciousness and Steinesque repetition, telling a single story (that loops around on itself in time as the narrator digresses and then catches himself digressing, and thanks to a recent post on Emma's blog I am able to say that yes, this reminds me of Bernhard's writing in Concrete). This story continues into the second section of the book, but is now in chronological order, but broken up into numbered sections, interrupted at one point by captioned photographs a la Sebald. Then comes a short graphic novel, after a collection of what appear to be "found" fragments written when a writer named Agustin Fernandez Mallo meets someone with the same name and they both lose their identities in radically different manners. That section is pretty entertaining in a Charles Kinbote sort of way. The trilogy is, as far as I understand, supposed to be a demonstration of what Mallo thinks is possible (or even necessary?) in contemporary fiction. A working out of some ideas he has about post-poetry, whatever that is. A textbook, almost.

The books are worth reading, certainly, and I liked each one more than the previous. As he moves from book to book, Mallo seems to gain control or understanding or both over his themes and his materials. This trilogy is a work about art and memory and the transitory nature of love, which is to say that it's a normal sort of novel in its way, a version of Remembrance of Things Past if you like, and it also put into my head the idea that it really doesn't matter if a writer innovates. The claim that one needs to find or create new forms in order to express new ideas is simply not true. Mallo has written one novel while employing a dozen writerly devices, and as far as I can tell, the content of each section could be swapped with the contents of any other section, or rather the literary devices could all be swapped around randomly, and Mallo would've been able to tell his tale just as effectively. Innovation is not necessary. It's fun for the writer and the reader, but my long-held suspicion that novels--fiction in general, or maybe art itself--is built primarily out of ideas rather than technique, seems to have been once again confirmed. I'm using a lot of undefined terms here, I know. Anyway, the ideas that Mallo illustrates with his experiments, or his catalog of forms, are good ideas that I am in sympathy with, which is what makes me say it's a good novel. He also handles his materials and tools well most of the time, so the novel succeeds on that front as well, but the tools and materials are really beside the point. A workmanlike writer can create a great novel if he has good ideas. A fantastic technician cannot create a great novel, no matter his skill, if he lacks good ideas. Good ideas about the world, about humanity, I mean. Do I believe any of this?

Yes, I think I do. Not that, to get back finally to my original subject, I think that Mona in the Desert is a great novel, or that I think I am innovative or necessarily even expert with my materials and tools. Maybe all I wanted to say, something I really only wanted to say to myself so you'll have to forgive me the use of this post in my saying it, is that my novel is strangely-constructed, but the novel is not strange in that it's about art and experience and relationships, the common mud out of which all civilization is constructed, so maybe it's a pretty good book after all. I worry about sending it out into the world all alone, that's all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

To write is to attempt to know what we would write if we were to write.

Agustin Fernandez Mallo's Nocilla Dream, first book in his Nocilla trilogy, is apparently one of the most influential novels of the 21st century, if you're a Spanish writer. Until 2006, when Nocilla Dream was published in Barcelona, Spanish literature was conservative, old-fashioned, stodgy. At least that was the opinion of a lot of living Spanish novelists, and Fernandez Mallo's book, originally put out by a tiny independent press and now published by a bigger publisher and translated into many languages, sort of blew the doors off of Spanish fiction. 

Fernandez Mallo is a physicist and a prizewinning poet, working in a style/technique/whathaveyou he calls "post poetry," which might be the same thing as postmodernism, whatever that is. Nocilla Dream is not a poem. It is 113 short items (ranging from as brief as one paragraph to as long as five or six pages) that accumulate into a coherent narrative, sort of the way the contents of one's house might gather together into the story of the house's occupants. Some of the items are excerpts from non-fiction essays on a number of subjects, some are fictional excerpts from "non-fiction" works, but most are glimpses of the various narrative threads that wind around each other.

It's all pretty good, and somehow interesting and propulsive right from the first page, even if one has no idea what's going on. I just keep reading, from one item to the next, and maybe part of that forward drive is simply from wondering what I'll see next and how it'll either connect with what's already happened or point to further developments. Which is, now that I've written that all down, just how any "normal" story works. And I was just about to say that really, most of what Fernandez Mallo is doing in Nocilla Dream is not new outside of Spain. The book refers often to Borges, which I take as an acknowledgment that Fernandez Mallo is borrowing from modern Latin American fiction. Although in Iberia, Cortázar and Pessoa had already been working some of this territory, too (and Perez Galdos got a little wacky in 1882 with the metafictional framing device of Our Friend Manso). I won't pretend to any expertise on Spanish/Portuguese/Latin-or-South American literature. But I think Nocilla Dream has given modernism/post-modernism/post-post-modernism a real push into the mainstream in Spain. At least that's what the online essays I've read tell me. And I am not claiming any value in Originality, either. Everything new has already been done. "There's plenty of good music still to be written in C major," as Schoenberg once told his composition students.

Anyway, what's in the book, right? Lots of stuff. One set of narratives is based on a stretch of U.S. Route 50. Route 50 actually leads from California all the way across the continent to Maryland, but Nocilla Dream looks at the 409 miles of highway that crosses the middle of Nevada. Actually, the novel is concerned with a stretch of about 260 miles of Route 50, running through the desert between two small towns (Carson City and Ely), with nothing to see except a lone cottonwood tree, whose branches are adorned with hundreds of pairs of shoes, thrown into the tree by passing motorists. The tree is a sort of nexus for the novel, which also somehow includes characters in Denmark, Mexico, Salt Lake City, Poland, Chicago, and other locations. It's a short book of brief chapters, but it holds within itself the entire world. And the entire world, in this version, is lonely and empty. 

So, we're in agreement with the idea that Heine is an Austrian journalist, a correspondent for the Kurier in Vienna, and that he's lived in Peking for the last six years, married to Lee-Kung, a Chinese woman. Their block of flats looks made of concrete, but no. It's only a conglomerate of sand and iron shavings extracted from low-grade Turkish mines, later pressed and solidified with the use of a glue called SO(3). Inside this structure, the marriage collapsed long ago.

Lee-Kung is having an online relationship with an American rock climber named Billy, who we meet as he drives along Route 50 on a climbing expedition, his son (Billy the Kid) strapped happily into the bed of a pickup truck. Heine is sent to prison for pedophilia after being caught by a TV film crew while having sex with a teenage prostitute. The stories all sort of spiral outward and hook into each other. The narrator is matter-of-fact and possibly a little amused by it all, which is a thing these days in non-"realist" fiction. It's a comic and ironical eye.

A neutron monitor was first built in South Dakota, and then five years ago another was built on the outskirts of Beijing, both in the depths of mines so as to avoid contaminations by other sun-based particles. The monitor is a very large water pool, the size of a six-story building, in which the slightest impurity, animal, vegetable, or mineral, would render the project null and void, and as it has turned out it picks up one or two neutrinos a year. At a glance, it's blue, bluer than the waters off any beach. For a while now, inside this bunker of extremely pure water, Chii-Teen, the lead physicist, thinks he's been seeing clusters of algae, though they then disappear. But today he's already seen the tail of a mermaid.

This post's title is one of the novel's epigrams, from Marguerite Duras' essay collection Writing.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope

Doing our civic duty again.


We stopped at Paper Boat Booksellers to do some Halloweenish shopping. These books all looked suitable to the season, or suitable enough anyway.