Tuesday, August 30

A first novel: Research

A bit more than a month ago I wrote about dividing the novel into chapters in the hope of making the process of revising easier on me, giving me discrete parts to work on and improve rather than nebulous bits with no definite end that only serve to burn me out before I'm through the first third of the work. I still have faith that this approach will work. Unfortunately, I have no proof of this. I have only spent one day since then working on the novel. This is due, in part, to returning to the United States, spending time with family, traveling between three states and moving into a new apartment and new city.

It is also due to an extended period of writer's block. I have struggled to convince myself that this novel is any good, that it's worth another minute of my time and effort. Updike found references to any number of writers who won or deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in Snow. What allusions does my novel contain? What references to the canon does it hold? Does it even point to anything beside itself?

To remedy this, I have decided to do some research to gain a better understanding of the foundations upon which this novel is set before I again begin to write. On the one hand, this means reading again Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy and the collected essays of Johann Baptist Metz and reading for the first time André Bazin's "The Ontology of the Photographic Image." On the other hand, there are a number of films I need to watch to better enter the mind of the narrator, and they are not directed by the likes of Kurosawa and Godard. You don't find those films on the streets of Nairobi. You find DVD collections starring Jean-Claude van Damme, Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren. Those are my narrator's formative films, and those are what I need to watch. I'll let you guess to which half of this research I'm more looking forward.

Saturday, August 13

Considering Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks"

No one writes like Thomas Mann anymore. The Pulitzer Prize this year went to a series of interconnected short stories. Modern mobile technology is waiting for the app that finally brings nano-fiction to the masses. Even those who are still writing elephantine tomes prefer the micro. Adam Levin's The Instructions spent one thousand pages on four days. I know no contemporary writer who still crafts decade-spanning literary epics.

On the one hand, I appreciate this. If this was the trend still, I would consider myself fortunate to finish a novel every month. On the other hand, I am glad that we have Mann. Buddenbrooks is thick and slow. Mann cannot help but to record everything that happens in the lives of the titular family. Nothing is too minor, too inconsequential in the family's descent from the heights of society to mention. Every character who appears for the briefest moment, the man who reads a poem at a family dinner, the teacher who says nothing while watching the high school students between classes, receives two pages worth of physical description and motivation.

The book is thick, the book is slow and the book is beautiful. Part of it is Buddenbrooks' sheer density. In short stories there is no time or space to lose yourself in the narrative. The techniques are clear. The mass of words in Buddenbrooks obscures the craft. The family's fate is foreshadowed in the first chapters, but it's lost amid all the rest. The final chapters include a page of reference to the trials of Job, and I almost lost the significance in the comparison to the Buddenbrooks' own fortunes. All the words make it seem natural and unforced.

The writing itself is great. Better still is Mann's treatment of his characters. The central triumvirate of Thomas, Christian and Antonie Buddenbrooks are no less ridiculous than any other character in the novel. They have their vanities and other flaws, same as Therese Weichbrodt or Alois Permaneder, but they have their pride, their honor, too. They have their sympathy. It's a remarkable treatment and portrait of these characters.

Just, wow, what a novel.