Saturday, August 6, 2011

Final report on Invisible Man. Plus: Several books at once!

Ellison's Invisible Man is of that breed of novel that, driven by uncontained impulses, so surges and rages that, at its end, both narrative and reader continue to roil and be unsettled. To me, it brought to mind Moby Dick and Brothers Karamazov—though the Dostoevsky novel it almost certainly aims to recollect is Notes from Underground. Likely someone has assayed and essayed this topic already, but is the narrator who insists, at the outset, that he has no name and sets forth his travails in combating a white world meant to nod to Melville's Ishmael, who names himself from the first and then regales us with the story of a man, not himself, who combats a white whale? There's somebody's Ph.D. thesis . . .

The epilogue, written very much in Notes from Underground mode, disappointed me. It was the one part of the book where I felt Ellison flailing about in search of a rhetorical moment that, to my ears, didn't quite arrive. Otherwise, what a wildly inventive, and just plain wild, book, oddly paced (dwelling for a long time on events in close sequence, then jumping ahead, like a film moving between set pieces), inconsistent in tone, and providing a character whose speechifying voice bore no resemblance to his narrative voice (nor even, in some cases, his ideas, as the narrator's speeches always seemed to get away from him). Wonderfully enjoyable.

A Bradbury story
I reread, after a gap of probably 30 years, Ray Bradbury's "Jack-in-the-Box," from the October Country collection. The story came to mind because I'll be teaching Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle which, though possessed of an utterly different plot, also relies on a tight, insular point of view that locks the reader into a naïve perspective on events. (A little boy has been raised to believe that his father, also sometimes called God, who built a huge, elaborate house, has contained the world in this house and that, as his mother tells him, nothing lies beyond the surrounding trees but the terrible beasts who murdered God.) I didn't recall that Bradbury lets you in on the secret so early, but the story is still a bold little devil, great fun, and solidly written.

Reading now
I'm having a good time reading Beowulf (the Heaney translation), which I'll be teaching this year. Heaney's introduction has helped me think about poems to read (Heaney himself; Hopkins) to demonstrate how something of the Old English sound and poetic structure endured.

I'm also reading Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, the story of how using statistics to ask the right questions reshaped the drafting process for the Oakland A's. Lewis's writing is funny, sharp, and visual, giving us both images of and insights into the characters he presents. He also lets us read some of Bill James's writing. James, who instigated, even if he didn't found, the modern science of analyzing baseball statistics to discover truths (rather than support illusions), is an astoundingly good writer, so good that most writers would be wary of letting James eat up space in their own books, but Lewis humbly steps aside frequently so we hear James's oracular words.

I didn't intend to be reading three things at once, but Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, clutched at my collar from the first page. I read about Malcolm in . . . well, in something last week. Hm. Maybe an online article? Something about the problem of biography. This is what I get for not taking notes. In any case, I love the writing and I'm fascinated by the subject (both the human beings and the ethical issues involved in writing biography). Malcolm, too, is generous enough (and confident enough in her own strengths as a writer) to stand aside and let other smart writers speak in her book, notably Anne Stevenson, author of the controversial Plath biography Bitter Fame.

I did some writing yesterday. During a long drive today, I think I finally heard the narrator's voice. Once that's pinned down, the story will take off. (Wow, that line's a metaphorical mess.)


Calvin said...

Google Scholar indeed shows articles and even a book tracing the influence of Moby-Dick on Ellison. Now I'll have to finally get around to reading Invisible Man.

I read a lot of Plath biographies, say twenty years ago, and even tried writing an SF story with her. The result was terrible.

Looking forward to your next story coming out. Just got my galleys for my story coming out in Asimov's January issue, so I'm psyched.

My problem in stories isn't so much the voice, but much more fundamental: getting a plot that works...

William Preston said...

Glad to know I was on-base with that Moby Dick notion! I'll have to read more about that.

A Sylvia Plath SF story. Really, you've got to tell me more.

They electronically sent the galleys, right?

Plots. I'm doing much better with those. But finding how the story has to sound is something that I always revisit. A story I just submitted to a contest has a black male narrator; I was glad when a friend who read it told me that, though the narrator still sounded like me, he did, in the final version, also sound black. In "Unearthed," I'm trying to sound less like me, trying to avoid my usual stylistic devices, trying to really hear this speaker.

Calvin said...

Of course, I once wrote an short essay interpreting Moby-Dick in terms of spontaneous symmetry breaking and critical behavior in physics. I meant it as a joke, but the postmodernist English professor loved it.

I dimly recall that in my story, the young man enters a virtual reality to try to keep Plath from killing herself, but she does anyway. Yeah, I know. Though I am working on a project where Plath and other poets may make a brief cameo appearance.

Yes, I got the galleys electronically. Very convenient, that. Now I have to write something else to sell them.

Plots are my kryptonite. I think I have stronger narrative voices than more hard SF authors, but they aren't so strong that they can carry the story alone. I tend to be in the unsweet spot that my story has too much voice, not enough plot for Analog, but not enough voice for many other venues. It's easier to do plot for longer pieces, but long pieces are harder to sell, especially at the beginning of one's career. Even if that "beginning" last twenty years, as it has for me...

William Preston said...

I can't remember if I ended up printing out the galleys anyway so that I could read them carefully. Maybe I just made 'em nice and big on the screen.

This Plath book is excellent; it's not really about Plath, but the problem of writing about Plath (or anyone).