Thursday, July 8, 2010

Foursquare

For quite a while, and beginning fairly early I remember, I had it in mind to invent a new type of literature. Well, naturally, who wouldn't? I think it was a childhood dinner table conversation that set me off, although it sounds obnoxious to claim so. One night, someone at the table said there are only three basic plots in either books or movies: man against nature, man against man, and man against himself. (Make no mistake, our dinner conversations were rarely so exalted; possibly on this afternoon we had company, and somebody made a real effort to be bright.) I was startled and outraged by this pronouncement. Do you mean there is no new story to be told? But alas, probably, yes. Try thinking of any story that does not fit those three parameters. Man against space alien doesn't count -- that's just man against man, again.

But if there are only three basic plots, surely they have all been done to death, I reasoned. Of course my ten- or eleven-year-old self did not quite reason it out immediately that night. Later I did. And I stored up resentment, as I thought hard. It might help to know that my absolute favorite pleasure reading during these middle school years was Louise Fitzhugh's great diptych Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. In one of the books, when Harriet and her preteen friends are confronted with an adult question about how they plan to solve the world's problems, Harriet, the writer, barks: " 'Well, we'll FIX it.' " I loved Harriet.

Eventually I fixed upon the mental image of literature as a sort of box drawn on paper, divided into four squares. Three of the squares are labeled. One is Prose, one is Poetry, one is Drama. (The dinner table conversation seems to have convinced me to dismiss all idea of coping with the established-plot problem. I went straight on to what seemed the real fundamentals now, the much huger genres of composition.) In that drawing, the fourth square gapes tantalizingly empty. Can it be filled with something new?

I thought perhaps a new language would do. Well, certainly, why not? Time was passing, I was reading other things besides Harriet the Spy -- though not much with as much pleasure -- I had met teachers and professors who remarked in passing how difficult it is to rhyme in English, but how lilting and fine old Chaucerian English used to be. "Whanne Aprille with his shour-ese swe-te," and so on. A new idea. Not a Romance language, modern English lacks the abundance of soft vowel endings gracing Italian or Spanish words, so I thought, why not tack some back on, Chaucer-like? Fill in the fourth square with a new and lovely sound, that will transform all the styles of composition and even the exhausted plot lines.

But "rhoses-e are red-e, violets-e are blue-e" is laughable. Besides, the point of language is to be understood.

I tried writing poetry, never a strength anyway, while actually listening to classical music, to see if I could at the least write in a rhythm that people would recognize as "why of course, that's the Fifth Symphony," or "it sounds just like she was listening to the Nutcracker Suite." The exercise failed.

Then a community college English literature class laid an anthology of experimental fiction in my lap. I pored over it, loved it and hated it, above all resented the evidence that other people besides me had thought recently of trying something new. And had already gotten published. None of the pieces in the book were enjoyable, and all have fled my memory now, except for one superlong paragraph by a 1960s icon (Joan Didion?) in which a girl chronicles a stay in a mental hospital, and a "story" that was only a list of the billboards the author had seen on a drive across America. The professor who assigned the book said he felt sure a new type of fiction was on the point of being invented, and that it likely would involve computers. He wanted to try writing stories in which the reader, with the push of a button on a computer console, chose plot twists and helped determine endings. I snorted inwardly: that couldn't be it.

My little project stayed alive enough in my thoughts for little things to keep sticking to it, just as you might add to an odd little snowman on a dull winter day, not by getting down on your knees and packing up and rolling snow in the usual way, but by throwing snow randomly at a sort of lumpy white goal in the middle of your yard. And letting other people do so, too. I collected helpful quotes. Some famed writer said, that if he could have mastered an economy of words as he wanted to, he would have become a poet; if he could at least have mastered brevity enough to become a short story writer, he would have done that; but since his talents were poor, he became a novelist. It may have been Faulkner.

Ah-hah, I thought. There's something in that. Stuff is too long. The original synopsis of Gone With the Wind, printed on the inside jacket flaps of the 1936 edition, is a superb condensation of the whole thing. The anonymous copywriter at MacMillan who wrote it had a talent as extraordinary, in its way, as Margaret Mitchell's, bless her. Why not let novels follow that genuinely new pattern? Later I thumbed through an obscure literary catalogue and saw a book for sale -- if memory serves -- titled something like On the Making of Books that are Too Long. The novel is finished, this author believed. Ah-hah, I thought. To be sure, this subset of the square labeled Prose in my diagram doesn't look like it's finished, not if you walk into a library or book store and see the fantastic wealth of product on the shelves, and all of it being of the proper, uniform, "serious" thickness. But is it possible that, when any product is so abundant, it is also inwardly empty of meaning? Can there be much too much of a good thing, long since?

Prose, poetry, drama. If you are confined by three basic human plots, if you can't create a new poetic language and novels are too long, what's the fourth square? I never did, incidentally, wrestle with drama, though I actually wrote one play and had fun doing it. (God knows if it would ever be considered produceable.) There seems not much to do to that Drama section of the foursquare. What the ancient Greeks established and Shakespeare perfected, is impervious to further fuss.

I still kept thinking. Once in a while, other things stuck to my little project, my interior literary snowman. The Harry Potter phenomenon descended on the world, and a local newspaper article quoted a local boy standing in line at a bookstore to buy his copy of The Sorcerer's Stone. "It's different from other books," he said. "In every other book, the kid has a problem, he solves the problem. But Harry is a wizard ...."

That's true. With the three basic plots inescapable for all mankind, the gatekeepers of literature, children's or adults, today seem to have given up, recognized this, and lowered their sights considerably. For them literature has whoomfed down in a corner like a dog who ignores three big identical roasts sitting on the kitchen table, and busies himself instead with a little random beef bone, the little insistence that the Protagonist shall Solve a Problem. Not that problem solving isn't a part of great literature and of the Plots, but as a mathematical formula it is now so overtaught in schools and so overdemanded in submission guidelines that it really has become dull and stifling. A starvation bone-diet for the little dog. The guidelines for a prestigious children's magazine used to insist not only that the kid solve a problem, but that it be a unisex problem -- one that either a boy or a girl could likely face -- not involving war, death, or illness. Even lacking such details, the simple rigidity of the Problem guideline insures that third-rate talents, whether editors or writers, clog the fountains of creativity with correctly assembled papers that seem to imitate art imitating life, but are instead just a correctly long traipse up and down what middle school teachers call Fiction Hill. Passionless; idea-less; and a lot of it.

I'm sure it wasn't always so. Try reading a few short stories from a different era and see how curiously older and fine writers, subservient as they were to mankind's plots, nevertheless did not just give their protagonists a problem. Somerset Maugham wrote a story about a woman at a dinner party shocked at the arrival of another woman wearing a fatally important pearl necklace. That's all. Rudyard Kipling, in Plain Tales from the Hills, wrote about the tragic, unseen life of a beautiful Indian girl whom an English sahib did not marry. She waited for him, he never returned, she married someone else, became a village crone, and died. That was all. I suppose in a way both protagonists -- let's call them heroines, that might help -- had problems, but they were not put through earnest paces as problem-solving professionals. They were observed as heroines. I wrote a little story, which I haven't looked at for a long time but which was a favorite, in which a male character -- a hero -- was also simply observed being what he was. An editor wrote on it, "Style in the piece needs development." I smiled, in not too superior a fashion I hope, and muttered at the rejection slip, "Very good! That was the point."

I submitted the thing because after some years puzzling over my foursquare pattern, I had what seemed a revelation, something to fill the empty space. I think it must have come after one last little fling of snow got added to my inner literary snowman. This one was the best: it's the scene in the old movie The Women, in which a very garrulous salon manicurist discusses good books with the patient and regal Mrs. Stephen Haines (Norma Shearer). Mrs. Haines is trying to read, as she soaks her fingertips in the bowl and then submits to the file. "Don't you just love to read?" the little manicurist gushes. "How do they ever think up those plots? Of course, I guess everyone's life would be a plot if it had an exciting finish."

Yes. God, yes, brilliant. Everyone's life would be a plot if it had an exciting finish. But there often aren't any. I'll be brilliant now -- I shall invent the Half-story. Life is full of half-stories -- people you know for a time and then never see again, titillating rumors you never hear confirmed or denied, strange or even quite ordinary scenes which could mean nothing, but could be ripe with hidden secrets. The man answers the department store P.A. system at a certain woman's checkout station ... it is an isolated part of the store and he leans in closely to her after his phone call, hunching his shoulders and lowering his head to whisper something private near her bright blond curls. They both grin down at the countertop littered with wrapping paper and pens and scissors, friendly, at ease, a little excited but totally intimate. Both deep into middle age, he rough and pock marked, she drawn and thin and grey at the roots, but bright eyed. The young woman striding by glances and sees a world, a past, -- but not a plot. Write what you know, the literary rules say. But what can she know? She wonders, have they slept together? An employee Christmas party -- years ago -- too much to drink -- a mistake, yes, spouses told and not told, guilt, regrets maybe. Maybe not. No real harm done. And ever afterward, this little lightning leaping between them, this little fizz of excitement and pride and affection. The End.

For who on earth is really an omniscient narrator? and anyway, after every denouement, life goes on. Especially for us. We live in this big country where people, family, friends move away for good, or for forty years, which amounts to the same thing. In a light-hearted book called Entre Nous, all about the differences between American and French culture (especially for women), writer Debra Ollivier tossed off a seemingly offhand, even lazily phrased comment about American families. And yet it's also the most bitterly profound imagery in her book, which I'll bet is why her editors kept it despite the literal vagueness. She says: touch an American family, "and you touch the edge of a continent and faded memories."

That's all. We're also reputed to be not good at intense friendships. Perhaps we treasure our privacy; perhaps we hide because we know we'll all move, and we like to forestall the pain of everlasting goodbyes. We walk past the couple hunched over no connection stronger than a long past secret -- we know only illusions, half understood denouements, half stories. Our main entertainment lies in watching shifting pictures on a screen, shifting, literally flashing fast enough to create the illusion of movement and reality, purporting to tell stories and to show life. Watch an old movie, and see the sunlight of seventy years ago, individual pictures of it flashing, angling on the face of a starlet long dead. She acts out a story about something else; illusion upon illusion upon illusion. Shouldn't whatever is put in the foursquare of a new literature, shouldn't literature in general, reflect all this? Why the continuing mania for tight plotting and satisfying endings? That was all very well for our ancestors, who lived life fast and straight ahead and dealt every day with master and slave, work and rest, priest and saint, farm and famine, winter and summer, beginnings and endings. Death at thirty. Perhaps we're different, and need different stories. The strictures of the old ones seem so tired, and so false.

Oh, and by the way. I excuse historical fiction from my questions and my rigorous non-rules. I was only reminded of historical fiction because I see by Debra Ollivier's website that she is working on a historical novel. That's different. With history, you know what happened. A life there tends to have an exciting finish.

And so I have never yet been able to fill in that fourth square. I admit to being partly stymied, long since, by the discouraging information that the best people consider the search for newness in the arts to be the sign of an immature mind. My early master Louise Fitzhugh expressed that judgment herself, in a way. In The Long Secret, Harriet, the writer, nags her moony and artistic friend Beth Ellen into confessing the details of her first day with her long-lost and wildly glamorous mother, newly arrived from Biarritz. Beth Ellen shyly and resentfully answers questions but then clams up at what Harriet considers the high point of the day -- the top of Fiction Hill, as it were. " 'There's nothing more to tell,' " she says. Harriet gapes at her, inwardly fuming that "it's a good thing she doesn't want to be a writer. Her books would all get thrown across the room."

Indeed they would. Beth Ellen had all her facts and wasn't even paralyzed by the useless desire to create something new. She just couldn't bother finishing up a well-told tale. And everybody wants a well-told tale. Never mind complaining about mankind's basic plots and his inescapable genres -- never mind, perhaps, singling out those examples, like Maugham and Kipling, whose excursions into gentle plotlessness probably are the exceptions proving the rule that tighter stories will always naturally enter mankind's beloved canon, as Plain Tales from the Hills has not. We may as well quibble over there being only two sexes, or over the conventions of walking upright.

But I still like to think my foursquare gapes open, for a better mind to fill. Beth Ellen's halting answers, her trying to gauge information and relationships she half understands, and chronicle a day with people she hardly knows, accurately reflect what life is like even for the writer who then delves into the inventive joy of omniscient narration. Her books would be real, even if they were thrown across the room. Or vice versa.

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