As our government process gets messier and looser and more unpredictable, I’ve been considering the messiness of fiction. Poetry, back in the ages, had the rhythm of oral declamation, almost like singing. Each line or “period” was shaped by the rise and fall of voice, the need for mneumonic devices to help the speaker remember oral links. Later, tighter forms came into being: consider the sonnet. What could be more precise? Fourteen lines, either divided into eight and six, or three quatrains and a couplet? With linked rhyme schemes.
But fiction, especially the long ruminative 19th century novel–think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina–and its 20th century counterparts–think Faulkner’s The Hamlet–all meander, lose characters for a time, only to pick them up later, insert set-pieces that are later anthologized as marvels of prose, when in fact the real shape of the novel is like a grab bag. It’s hard to tell from one chapter to the next whom we’ll be visiting next or what twist of plot the characters will endure.
Almost all literary efforts play with form–tighter, looser, wider, shorter, etc. I’m not fond of long poems except Dante’s The Divine Comedy and those wonders of voice and action attributed to Homer–The Iliad and The Odyssey. Otherwise, if a writer is going to ask me to sign on for a long voyage, let it be in prose, let it be fiction.
As I say this, Dickens’ Oliver Twist rises into memory. I’m with the boy as he stumbles awake after being beaten and left for dead. He approaches a door where he’s terrified of being once again attacked…
Or the opening of last year’s Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, where in the opening chapter, a boy in the era of Henry VIII is being beaten and thrown about a sodden, stinking yard by his drunken father.
Or back to Anna Karenina, which opens with a dandified husband/father waking to remember that his long-suffering wife has forbidden him their bedchamber. She’s finally acknowledged what’s been under her nose for months–he’s having an affair with the governess.
In the case of young Twist, as Dickens is fond of referring to Oliver, or of the errant husband in Tolstoy’s saga, the trials mentioned above will each lead to new and crucial characters. In Oliver’s case his saviors; in Tolstoy’s novel, the arrival of Anna herself as a looked-for savior of this marriage. Later, she herself will torture the institution of marriage until it writhes in the dust.
What is so wonderful about all the examples mentioned above is a combination of credibility, sympathy, and the power of language to evoke scene, yes background, to suggest a whole world. Suddenly we’re plunged with all the senses quivering into a time and place we couldn’t have imagined, stroked out of the air by language that does not insist on itself–that would be poetry. But instead is the vehicle for evoking inner and outer life, the presence of subsidiary characters (think trees, a lane, a particular type of window or door, a bedchamber, a morning routine), and finally the forward or backward movement of event, the thrilling unfolding.
It’s trickier than it looks. Hilary Mantel’s truly magisterial evocation of Henry VIII’s court stumbles with this first scene because it’s too crowded, too abrupt, too shifting in perspective, and finally (this is magic) because it seems even at this outset contrived simply to shock. Looking back from the midsection of the book, when Thomas Cromwell has been established as an adult, as the king’s sympathetic controller of mind, purse, and wooing, I find it hard to see what the book gained by showing us Tom like a yelping pup being kicked around in the dust. We don’t really know him except as a punching bag. Nor does the novel pay close attention to what brought him to his adult sanity and worthiness. In other words, the violent opening seems tacked on, to shock and (this is the intention, I imagine) to grip us with the need to read on. For me, it had the opposite effect. If I hadn’t been at leisure in a wonderful B&B in Port Townsend, Washington, I probably would have put the book aside and not picked it up again.
That’s one of the sorrows and joys of writing and reading fiction: it’s possible, even necessary to pause. The form is too long for one sitting. It’s possible to walk away from the characters and never come back. This is not so likely with a poem of fourteen lines. We read it, we approve, we even memorize. Fiction must draw us back again and again. It’s that tantalizing promise of finding out what will happen next. What twists of character or plot the author has up her sleeve. The chance to inhabit an alternative life that pretends to be as long and engrossing as our own.