Can a good novel be a bad influence?
I often emulate whatever I am reading (I am always reading something, fiction or non-fiction), sometimes incorporating their features into my own writing.
For instance, several years ago Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage came along at a time when I was learning how to write proper dialogue. It was full of marvelous, skillfully constructed dialogue. Soon after finishing it I embarked upon my first successful, primarily dialogue driven story, Testicle Talk.
More recently, last December I began Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, currently a PBS Masterpiece Theater serial, a novel of historical fiction dealing with England in the era of Henry VIII. Despite finding the novel unbearable and abandoning it in midstream, I was much taken by its use of the present tense to describe events that took place centuries ago. It led me to write Circus Plasticus, an autobiographical story about startlingly shocking events that occurred in a plastic surgery service at the University of Chicago in the 1980’s, recounted in the first person by a character named Jarvis, all in the present tense. I loved the immediacy present tense offered, finishing the 9000 word story in about ten days, a record pace. I enjoyed writing this so much that I soon began a sequel, also in the present tense and through the mouth of Jarvis, a 10,000 word story that I finished fast.
But now a novel came along that did just the opposite. It stifled me.
All The Light We Cannot See is a super best-seller by Anthony Doerr that I acquired as a book on tape from Audible.com and downloaded onto my iPod, a common way for me to follow books. At some seventeen hours it was longer than average books-on-tape. As soon as I started it I discovered I could no longer write. Not only could I not continue my Belgian chocolatier story, – I abandoned it at the first scene -, but I could not even write my two weekly blogs.
The novel told a strangely disparate World War II story, all in the present tense, of two teenagers, one a blind French girl Marie-Laure, the other a German science prodigy Werner, particularly adept at fixing radios. It also featured an unusual third main character, a diamond named “Sea of Flames”, that bore both a benefit and a curse. Each had their own set of accessory characters and back stories that took a while for the novel to introduce in a seemingly muddled early phase. But once it got going, it was indeed a gripping story, Werner a Nazi trainee deep in Germany, Mary-Laure escaping the invasion of Paris with her father into the seaside fortress town of St Malo in Brittany.
I recognized the complex narrative structure of the novel. Its main story that began with the Allied fire bombing of St Malo was told linearly but in parsimonious fragments, leading toward a climax where the two characters finally joined five days later. In between, the complex back story with all its accessory characters, backgrounds and lead-ins, along with the adventures of the two teens as they converged upon the climax, was interspersed in countless broken-up, non-chronological fragments. I too had used the same device in my Appassionata story at a much smaller scale.
What I found unusual about this novel was its style. The story was told in ultra short chapters, over 180 of them. The author used a halting, jerky rhythm, long sentences filled with multiple dissimilar but related clauses followed by trails of very brief, one or two word sentences. His adjectives and adverbs added fresh but unexpected coloratura to its scenes and characters, unique to the author. Rather than creating a sense of intimacy, its present tense made the tale disturbingly frenetic. It was a style that I could in no way emulate and yet was taken by. After spending all its story time in the Nazi era, some eight years or so, and climaxing in August 1944, the novel featured a very long denouement, unexpectedly taking the story decades ahead into the 1970’s and then to 2014.
The novel united two very different protagonists Werner and Marie-Laure in a way that was believable. When I began All The Light We Cannot See I was grappling with the same problem, trying to unite a middle-aged German artisan chocolatier who made chocolate out of real female breasts and a younger conservative Muslim Turkish woman who would eventually bare herself to him. But how? Why?
Instead of showing me the way, the novel stopped me dead on my tracks.
I soon realized that I was being muted by this novel as days passed and I could not write even a sentence. After a fallow week, I decided to finish the novel quickly and spent this past weekend bikeriding with my iPod in my ears. Afterwards there were still six hours left in the novel. So yesterday I dropped everything and listened to the remainder, not because it was a page turner – in a way it was – but I needed to rid myself of this novel. I did.
I went to bed last night with disturbing images of scenes from the novel and awoke at 3 a.m. thinking about my own projects, half finished stories that needed to be re-structured and my German chocolatier. I decided to take on a repair project, re-imagining the settings and characters of a failed story that I need to rescue, in the present tense perhaps. I decided to let my chocolatier emerge in Germany, a country I am scheduled to visit this coming week.
Unable to sleep any longer I got out of bed and wrote this essay, my first since beginning All The Light We Cannot See. What a relief!