Sunday, May 9, 2010

Not So Random Strangers

Day 89 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. A not-so-random stranger--that is, a young man who is familiar to me, because he comes in the store often--is reading some Daniel Quinn. I'm pretty sure the book he chose this time was The Story of B, sort of a sequel to Ishmael, because I remember the snail cover and the subtitle, An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, but I might be mistaken, as I have been looking at the Daniel Quinn page at Amazon, and now all the covers are vaguely familiar.

Like all the people in my town! It's nice to live in a place long enough that all the people look familiar and not like strangers. Oddly, this happens when I return to Chicago for a visit, too. Everybody looks familiar, as do the houses, neighborhoods, and flowers in the median strips, and it's like I never left. Then, say, at the zoo, I will see somebody who looks super familiar, and it will turn out to be somebody from the small town I live in now.

I have not yet read Ishmael, borrowed from my dad because he is modeling a novel structure on it--that is, the kind of novel that is a way to present the author's philosophical ideas. I think it is OK to say that, as I think that is exactly what the both of them are doing, or want to do, and I think my dad is up front about that.

Me, I am 1) not a novelist, though 2) I have the usual novel-in-progress that many writers keep in a drawer/computer file, and 3) every time I look it over, I think, "Hey, I want to know what happens next!" which is 4) probably a good thing, and might mean I actually finish it someday, but 5) probably not, because 6) I no longer believe in linear time, and most people do, and 7) poetry uses a different part of the brain. 7 seems a good place to stop this paragraph.

But I have been musing on that novel as thinly-disguised-autobiography thing again. I hate that! I mean, it's OK, and I am always interested to learn the "where I got that novel" story behind a novel, from the novelist, but thinly disguising one's autobiography, especially when used to snipe at people, just annoys me and seems to lack imagination. Plus, it confuses people, especially aspiring writers, who then think that "Write what you know" just means write a story or novel that is thinly-disguised autobiography. It also confuses readers, some of whom think that every single novel ever written is actually real life with the names changed.

Tony keeps calling In Cold Blood a novel, and Truman Capote is surely a self-absorbed author who did that sniping kind of thing, but he openly sniped, in other works, and In Cold Blood is "a non-fiction novel," a new thing in journalism at the time, about things that really happened, in places and with names that are not fictionalized.

That this kind of thing exists, a hybrid form, surely led the way to the recent confusions involving "fictionalized memoirs," or whatever we should call them--fictions presented in the form of memoirs, because the sensationalism of real life...sells. Sigh.

That said, I notice that Salinger has a persistent dead brother in the background in his fictions, and John Irving, likewise, has motifs of loss and wrestling, and plot patterns, etc. that probably relate in some way 1) to his real life and 2) to bestseller status (repeat what sells), and both of them had to find a way to 1) make a living and 2) live with themselves (or not) while doing it.

I was even reminded at the recent discussion of The Scarlet Letter in Chicago that Nathaniel Hawthorne may have had a dalliance with a woman stikingly like Hester Prynne...which makes him, what, as measly and weak and eloquent and angelic and hypocritical as the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale? But I can prefer to think that while feminist Margaret Fuller may indeed have been a model for Hester's character, there didn't have to be a dalliance for that to be so.

I can also prefer to believe, about "The Custom-House," the essay that precedes The Scarlet Letter, that Hawthorne really did find a folded-up fabric letter "A," and that this really was the inspiration for the novel! I can prefer to believe almost anything.

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