Thursday, January 17, 2013

lightbulbs



Sometimes in a long book I forget who's who and then one note in the juxtaposition chorus goes dung in a baffled space, the present is supposed to echo deeply off the past but it does not; there is a deadness in some aspect of the character's behaviour when they appear after a long time away and speak again, when I can tell (by the way the author has made a phrase) that their conversation is supposed to have extra meaning due to who they are, whatever the hell that is.

And sometimes I only realise that I could tell in retrospect when the clues mount up, memory hits me, and I think, Wait, this is so and so. Then I see that there have been clues for pages and that I was disturbed by them without knowing what I was disturbed by: it was disquiet, it was a stranger coming up to you fervently and calling you by your name and Hey, yes, hi, hello! you say, while you wonder, Who are you?

That happened last year when I was reading Pynchon's V. and there was a character who was supposed to have resonance when she turned up again, but I thought she was new, and didn't realise that she had been there in the beginning, chapter one or two, then gone underground, the buzz of juxtaposition not there, the character dead, or not dead but subdued. Here was a woman who had been brought in, I thought, to fall in love with one of the male leads, a fresh existence in the book, but then I realised after she said a few words about gear sticks that she had to be the one who had appeared at the beginning, and then she was also that woman; they were not separate, and this new doubled-person had a different point of view on everything; she was more tomboyish than she had been a moment earlier (though her behaviour on the page had not changed) and in an instant this behaviour made no sense, ladies and gentlemen, or else seemed too convenient (for the plot) and too warped from what she should be (in my mind: suddenly she was out of character), and not even aging a few years and shifting to another part of the country (as she'd done) accounted for it I thought, this abrupt girlfriendishness in which she had become engaged, and which I had been following tamely and which I imagined she had been introduced to conduct (so she had, but earlier than I had imagined).

And she was left there by her creator, who had to finish the book somehow, sending off his characters or abandoning them when they were still in the middle of an action. Some books will kill their characters, some will chase them away (Christina Stead does one or both), some will summarise their fates (Dickens), some will philosophise (Middlemarch), some will present themselves with a problem, as does Yambo Ouologuem when he spends the book, Bound to Violence, describing massacres, armies, wild huge actions, then finishes the manuscript with two people sitting alone and holding an unrushed discussion; some will fade their people out gently, like John Crowley in Little, Big, when everybody is at a table among trees and the book looks over the weather that attacks their house, the lightbulbs going out (darkness setting in as the story prepares to vanish); then there is Titus Groan and everyone in a procession, going inside the castle -- the book ends -- they go in and the book ends at the same time; they have walked themselves out of the book. Inside the castle and outside the book they are still walking; they continue on, they are going past the spine, they are off the edge of the table, they are out of the room, they have found their way into the kitchen and they are heading past the cockroach traps into the area under the fridge with the crumbs and shadows and those hard objects like springs and boxes that hide under there, the workings of the machine.


7 comments:

  1. This same phenomenon happened to me just last night when I arrived at the last pages of a novel and was dismayed that I could not recall a character who suddenly (re)appeared, sending me flipping through the whole first half of the book to find where he'd appeared the first time.

    In any case, as a discussion of character in literature, this post deserves to be included in the kinds of anthologies that feature E.M. Forster's "flat and round" essay and other classics. The "buzz of juxtaposition" is a term I'll not forget.

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  2. Thank you for making me think about my favourite novel endings. I don't mean looking at their machinery, as you do - although obviously every ending must be a sleight of hand tying up of knots (and of course all fiction is crafted and engineered) - but simply at which ones I find most memorable, something I'd never thought about before. The ones that spring to mind include: The Sound and the Fury and a last glimpse of Benjy, "... his eyes ... empty and blue and serene again, as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place,'; Tender is the Night, with Dick Diver 'in one town or other'; Portrait of a Lady and the moment that Caspar Goodwood receives 'the key to patience'; and The Towers of Trebizond, and 'the eternal dilemma'. Clearly, poignance is my favourite tone, combined with no hint from the author that the lives I've read about end once the book is closed.

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    1. Poignance! That's a word I hadn't thought of. Poignance is good. I could have used it in there somewhere. And I could have pointed out that the narrator in Trebizond has yet another method of easing herself away from the book: she foresees her own death, "that taking off into so blank an unknown," which in this case acts as a sort of I'm-heading-for-the-exit-now move. Grab your handbags and jackets ladies and gentlemen, we're about to leave the theatre.

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    2. We used to carry a travel guide around Yugoslavia with us. The author was English and so every landscape was 'Warwickshire, with a touch of Hampshire' or 'a mix of Norfolk flint and Cumbrian green, with Wiltshire low hedgerows' et cetera. His only other descriptive element was the word 'poignant'. Almost everything, for him, was soaked in poignance, particularly the summer palace of the King of Montenegro and, of course, Kosovo Field (site of all Serbian pride but, by the time we got there, a rubbish strewn patch of dog defiled grass, beside a vandalised bus shelter)

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    3. That does sound sort of poignant but poignant in the way that refrigerators in the Arizona desert are poignant. Once upon a time people were living on this patch of ground, working hard at their arrowheads (you find arrowheads), and now it's a tip.

      I had one of those travel guides once. I don't remember where in the world it was describing but half of it resembled Sussex.

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  3. It's uncanny, isn't it? When I finally figured out who that woman was in V. I had the weird impression that she had been retrospectively haunting me for about ten pages like an eldritch shadow hanging in the corner of the room.

    " ... a character who suddenly (re)appeared ..."

    I've been reading The Tale of the Heike with its many many warriors, commanders, lovers, lords, ladies, emperors, monks, children, etc etc, huge cast spread out over hundreds of pages, and I've had that experience more than once: encountering a person and flipping back, either physically or mentally, thinking, "Where did I meet you? Were you the yokel or was that someone else with a name that started with K, like yours?"

    (On those "flat and round" comments that Forster made about Dickens: I think his word "vibrate" is a good summary of the way Dickens' characters seem to move around without having a complexity of moving parts.)

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    1. (That was a reply to seraillon, by the way.)

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