I actually learned nothing from assembling my list of all of the novels that I really love

Anyone who hasn’t read this ought to read it. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I have no idea why it’s fallen out of fashion.

I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.

I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.

Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village  oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.

And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!

But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.

Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.

That’s the kind of book that I want to write.

Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.

In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.

But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.

Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.

I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).

So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.

I’ve become obsessed with German fiction

There are hundreds of books that I don’t read even though I know I’d enjoy them. I have a copy of Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? on my e-reader, and I’ve browsed through the first few pages on a number of occasions. And each time, I’ve thought, “This looks really good.”

And I’ve still held off on reading it.

Because I don’t want to just have really good reading experiences; I want to have great reading experiences. And in order to have a great reading experience you need the right book at the right time in your life. You can’t plan these things, and you especially can’t force them. You can’t say, “This month will be my Tolstoy month” because you just don’t know. It might turn out to be your young adult novel month.

It requires boldness and curiosity in order to figure out what book is the right one for you. You need to consider many different books and make an honest try at reading them and be willing to abandon them in an instant, without prejudice, if they don’t appeal to you.

Strange as it may sound, I read Ulysses because when I opened the file, the book felt different from all the other times I’d opened the file. It spoke to me, whereas previously it’d been silent. However, I sometimes wonder if maybe it wasn’t the right summer for it after all. Reading the novel took 45 days and was frequently somewhat tedious. I breezed through the last half of it, though, so perhaps it is just one of those books that teaches you how to read itself*.

But when I read Buddenbrooks, the time was definitely right! Not only did I love it, I became so excited by it that I decided to make a survey of German language fiction! I don’t know why that is where my mind leapt. I’d kind of felt like maybe I’d spend the rest of the year finishing up the modernist classes, but somehow wading into a new and strange national literature felt more exciting than reading whatever Woolf and Faulkner and Hemingway novels I haven’t already consumed.

After finishing Buddenbrooks, I read Joseph Roth’s Radetzky’s March, which is a novel–written by an Austrian Jew–about the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Apparently, it is a very famous, very classic novel for German-speaking people. I’d never heard of it. But it was awesome! Embedded in here is also a very touching father and son story. There’s a sternness in their relationship that never wavers, but you can see how they love each other. It’s amazing. Very emotional. Also pretty short, for this kind of family epic (it goes through four generation of this family in pretty short order).

Then I read Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, which was fun to read and all, but…a guy can get tired of reading another tale of doomed homosexual love. At least in Giovanni’s Room, they actually had sex. It wasn’t all just staring at a kid on the beach.

And now I’m reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which is really good! It’s about a somewhat morbid old artistic / philosophical type who suddenly comes alive. It’s hard to describe, though: it’s not like some horrible Jim Carrey movie about a businessman who starts to loosen up. The execution is much more interesting than you’d think.

Anyway, I have a copy of Mann’s Doctor Faustus on hold at the JHop library, and I hope to start on that when I get back. But we’ll see. Maybe my enthusiasm for the germans will fade as rapidly as it came.


In other news, I should be in DC by tonight and Baltimore by tomorrow. It’s been a good car trip. I felt a lot of fatigue, so I took it pretty slow. However, I’ve just been really happy over most of it. And if I’m happy despite the dislocation and sleep debt, then I know my real mood must be really high. I can’t tell if I’m happy because there is nothing in my life that is worrying me or if I’m so happy that I can’t be worried about things.

Like, I’ll start to worry about something and then I’ll realize, “Ehh, that’s not a real problem.” And then I’ll look for something else to worry about it and just won’t be there.

Usually if there’s nothing else to worry about, I’ll worry about the story I’m working on. But that hasn’t caused me much angst. It’s a crazy story, and its form means that I’m lucky if half an hour of work on it yields a few hundred works. But I think it’s coming together. Yeah…hold on…let me try to worry about it not coming together…nope…the worry is not arising. Not sure if that means the story is going well or if I am just that worry-proof right now.

The literature of exhaustion, and the impoverishment of the imagination

A view of every town and city in America.
A view of every town and city in America.

The thing that struck me about John Barth’s collection Lost In The Funhouse was that it was as much a literary essay as a collection of stories. Its theme was that our literature was in an age of exhaustion: there’s a sense that all the salient point have been raised; the only thing left is to pick everything apart with self-reference and metatextuality–to exhaust all possible shades of meaning from this large, but still limited, set of tropes that our forebears have given us.

I have to say, I think there’s something to this. I often feel an impoverishment of my own imagination, particularly when it comes to science fiction. Has any recent author really come up with a science-fictional element that’s as powerful as the wormhole or the generation ship or the robot? In my opinion, not really. The internet did come along and provide a boost to SF writers, but the internet is also a bit hard to dramatize. The best one can do is turn cyberspace into a real physical place and after that it’s really no longer the internet. For fifty years or so, SF writers have been reconfiguring old elements and joining them to techniques they’ve scavenged from modernist and postmodern literature and trying to make the whole thing limp along. And, well, it still sort of works.

That’s one thing I’ve been struggling with, recently. The more I think about things, the more everything starts to seem like everything else. People are very different in the ways that they act and perceive the world…but they all seem to want more or less the same thing. And they have thousands upon thousands of different occupations, but at least half of those occupations come down (from the dramatic point of view) to sitting in front of a computer screen and typing. Nor does driving across America help the situation. At least from the side of the highway, every town and city looks the same. Even geographically speaking, all of America west of the Mississippi looks like more or less the same temperate deciduous forest (with some mountains thrown in here and there).

And, of course, I know that the world isn’t the same. Part of the fun of fiction (and poetry) and the leg up it has over philosophy is that it delights in the essence of things: the vocal tics, the clothes, routines, the foods, the games, the possessions, the mannerisms. Fiction is as concerned with surfaces as it is with essences. And in my fiction, I am trying to find my way back to those surfaces. But it’s difficult. The tendency is to intellectualize everything, and reduce it all to the same thin gruel.

Buddenbrooks continues to be awesome! I’m sorry that in my last post, I described the plot as predictable. It’s not! What I didn’t realize was that the plotting is very canny. The tension in the novel is unbearable. You see the characters struggle with these awful decisions, and then they make them…and no disaster happens. The novel isn’t about disasters befalling people…it’s about a slow decay that happens between the chapters. There’s a scene where I am right now where the patriarch of the family (the third patriarch to emerge thus far) is struggling with this ineffable loss of vitality; he’s doing the same things, living in the same way…but the magic has gone out of him. It spoke to me.

(Although I am a long way from losing the magic =)

Thomas Mann’s _Buddenbrooks_ is the last sprawling 19th century family epic


Isn't this cover so ugly?
Isn’t this cover so ugly?

I have rarely loved a book as much as I am loving _Buddenbrooks._ I meant to read it years ago, but I always kept getting derailed by thinking, “Hmm, if I’m going to read Mann, I should really read The Magic Mountain.”

Well that was silly. Buddenbrooks is its own thing: a novel about the slow decline of a German mercantile family. It doesn’t follow the standard naturalist model, where they struggle and struggle and almost succeed and then descend into madness and depravity. Nope. It’s pretty much a straight descent all the way through (though I think it picks up pace later…I’m only 1/3rd of the way through).

You know exactly what’s going to happen. Even in its specifics, the plot has no surprises. You know the daughter is going to fall in love with someone unsuitable. You know that the husband she’s forced to marry is going to turn out to be very unsuitable. You know exactly when the patriarch will die. It’s interesting…even though the plot is very standard-issue, I don’t think the book would work without it. The plot imparts a level of acceleration that the reader requires.

But on a page by page level, Buddenbrooks is effortless. I love the very particular brand of rectitude that Mann has given this family. They’re so calculating, so concerned with the family’s fortunes and its history. When the daughter even takes pride in writing her horrible marriage down in their family bible; she’s happy because the marriage was so distasteful, and yet she was willing to do it anyway.

And the moral decay within the family is a subtly drawn thing. It’s not like the kids are wastrels and gamblers. They just have a little more pride and a little less drive than their forefathers. But even then, there’s a feeling like maybe it wouldn’t matter…maybe families just decline for no reason…or because of bad luck. It’s said that Thomas Mann based this account on the history of his own family, and I can believe it. There’s a kindness here that novelists don’t usually extend to members of the bourgeoisie.

Reading a novel like this makes me realize how baggy English-language (and particularly British) novels tend to be. They’re always full of comic asides and ludicrous plot twists and tortured structures (the cousins in Jane Eyre; Lydia’s marriage in Pride and Prejudice; every Dickens character; the entrance of John Raffles in Middlemarch; etc, etc)

Personally, I blame Shakespeare. The man was obv a genius, but a) even his tragic plays were full of comic characters (i.e. the opening of Romeo and Juliet); and b) his plots made no sense (oh my god, need I even mention the boxes in Merchant of Venice?)

Because of him, most English novels tend to have a humorous element and a merry unconcern for logic. And that’s awesome! It’s what I most enjoy about British novels. French, on the other hand, is so infused with deadly seriousness that you can’t even tell when a novelist is trying to be funny (like, come on, I still have no idea whether the nuns in Les Miserables are a joke or not).

But this does mean that there are certain effects–subtle movements in psychology or sociology–that are absent from most English novels. Basically, if Buddenbrooks was an English novel, one of these kids would definitely be an alcoholic. And a gambler.

(Of course, maybe I just haven’t gotten to the alcohol / gambling part yet =)

And that’s why we read novels from other countries.