All the fiction I’ve ever written has been genre fiction, pretty much — either fantasy (sometimes disguised as science fiction) or mysteries. In the project I’m developing right now, the plot has come to feel cumbrous, so I’m looking for ways to broaden my palette. Maybe it ought to be a story about the people, not about the plot. Maybe I ought to sidle a step or two in the direction of literature.
While managing the monthly used book sales a few years ago for the local Friends of the Library, I picked up a fair assortment of “good” novels. Let’s see what I have on the shelf that might be inspiring.
Here’s The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing. The prose is richly detailed — and after ten pages the story is so painfully depressing I’m about ready to commit suicide. A young woman named Martha is wandering around London without hope, without money, and without friends. It’s shortly after WWII, and bomb damage is still much in evidence. The weather is damp and dreary, and her coat doesn’t fit properly. She needs to make a phone call (for some unexplained reason) but is avoiding it (also for some unexplained reason).
No power on Earth would convince me to go on reading.
Maybe I ought to try Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley. In the opening scene, Walter Bidlake is dressing to go out for the evening. He lives with Marjorie Carling, but they’re not married. Marjorie’s husband won’t divorce her. (This is in the 1920s. The divorce laws were probably more stringent then.) Marjorie is pregnant. Walter no longer loves Marjorie; he’s in love with, or perhaps just obsessed by, some other woman. Marjorie won’t be going to the party for which Walter is dressing, because of course she can’t, because they’re not married. She begs Walter to stay home, and he makes excuses for why he has to go. Then he says all right, he’ll stay home, and she insists that he go. He goes. Before and after leaving, he ruminates in great detail about his emotional situation.
What dreary people! Walter an egotistical prig, Marjorie in tears and unable to cope — who would want to explore these people’s lives for 400-odd pages?
The opening scene in Napoleon Symphony by Anthony Burgess is not depressing, it’s just incomprehensible. We seem, by the names and the topics of conversation, to be in early 19th century France. The conversation wanders from renaming the months of the year to Biblical allusions. The characters in the scene include Tallien, Ventose, Calmelet, Barras, Madame, and the acting registrar, who has a wooden leg and is asleep by the fire. Or, no, Ventose seems to be the personified name of the wind or the season, not a character. None of the people are described. We don’t know why they’re there. And then someone arrives, an unnamed person. End of chapter.
Burgess seems to take endless delight in enigmas; the opening of M/F is even worse.
I have a volume of the short stories of John Cheever. In one, a family gathering on an island in Massachusetts is rather spoiled by the negative attitude of one of the (adult) brothers. At the end of the story another brother hits him on the head with a tree branch. This may perhaps be intended as a release — as an admirable act — if we’re to judge by the final paragraph, in which two women emerge, naked, from a swim in the ocean. But it’s the brother who did the hitting who seems obsessed with his brother’s rather restrained negativity. If it weren’t for that final image, the story would seem to be told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator who for some reason can’t restrain his dislike of his somewhat critical but otherwise inoffensive brother.
In another of Cheever’s stories, a middle-aged man who is desperately trying to recapture the vigor and glory of his youthful exploits as a track star is accidentally shot dead by his wife. And that’s the last line of the story. Everybody is getting drunk at parties, the poor guy is demonstrating his prowess at hurdle-jumping by rearranging the living room and jumping over furniture, and his wife shoots him with the revolver he has instructed her to use as the starter pistol. How does she feel about this? Cheever doesn’t think her feelings are important enough to warrant a moment of thought.
Cheever’s people, judging from these two stories, are not happy. Their lives are going nowhere. His prose is good and the stories are structured with care, but who wants to read about unhappy upper-middle-class people on the East Coast in the 1950s?
Maybe I should stick to fantasy.