I’ve spent the spring adapting stories I began writing almost a decade ago into a novel. The stories all had to do somehow with a character I called Julia Davenport. It’s been quite an interesting task converting short stories into long prose. Six tales were completed by 2005, and another four or five fitful starts came after that. I figured I could finish these starts over the spring and then turn it all into a book that would effectively amount to a series of vignettes about life here in the early part of this new century.
Julia was the connecting piece through all of the stories I wrote. However, each piece was composed in a different voice with a somewhat unique narrator and a weird perspective on life and love. In many ways, although I wasn’t overtly aware of it at the time, this approach to creating fiction is now a common methodology for contemporary storytellers.
Point of view is a key element in all storytelling. The standard way of doing things is to focus on one perspective and then to carry that perspective all the way through a novel or a short story. One of the more enticing aspects of some of the greatest literature we all know is the voice of that singular perspective. Recall Nick Carraway telling us the story of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan; Ralph Ellison’s invisible man with the electric voice in otherwise dark places; Humbert Humbert’s twisted desire for a “nymphet” Lolita named Delores Haze; or the beguiling song of six-year old Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
In some ways storytelling is quite effective when the reader is provided one single perspective from beginning to end. The effect is essentially one in which the reader slowly becomes the narrator, seeing the world depicted by the author as if they were a character in a play or movie. The better the writing, the more profound this effect.
Perhaps the most astounding impact of this approach can be found in the novel Islandia written by Austin Tappan Wright in the early part of the 20th century and published 11 years after the author’s death in 1942. Islandia is a fictitious utopian country visited by one John Lang, the protagonist. The reader learns the etiquette and culture of this unbelievably beautiful world along with Lang in his travels. Every person I know who has ever read this book is heart-broken when the story ends, and saddened to have to confront the truth that Islandia, in fact, is nothing but the best fairytale ever written. The power of this fiction comes from its singular, hypnotic, but simple narrative perspective, describing what it’s like to be a stranger traveling through a utopian world filled with magic, wonder, and phenomenally great citizens.
There is the other approach to point of view in fiction, of course. A very interesting essay called “A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel,” written by Michael David Lukas, points out that many of the books we’re paying attention to these days use multiple points of view and multiple voices to tell stories. Lukas discusses everything from Ian McEwan’s Atonement to Zadie Smith’s NW and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Lukas writes:
“Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices.”
This is really important when you think about it. While it may seem simple or at least elemental that one single perspective would be the easiest way to tell a story, every writer of fiction knows how insanely difficult it is to grapple with problems of truth, objectivity, accuracy, and plot continuity when only able to inhabit one voice and one head. If the story is told from the main character’s point of view, these issues become literally impossible to manage without feeling as the author that you are somehow unable to depict that character in their full splendor.
The onslaught of social networking teaches us that the idea of “reality” and “truth” can never be capitalized again. The only real in life, the only indisputable truth, is that human stories are a sticky, messy web of different perspectives and different minds all moving forward together and separately simultaneously. If fiction’s role is to amplify human reality so that we can attain a better awareness of the mysteries and profundities of existing so boldly and surprisingly inside a universe that science tells us is infinite (and multi-dimensional), then it is only natural that writers try their hands at multi-voiced fables.
Playing with point of view is a method of abstraction for writers that is kind of like impressionist painting or bebop jazz. The approach has been around in a very definitive way at least since Dostoevsky’s classic, The Brothers Karamazov. James Joyce’s Ulysses really put things over the top. And the great American tomes of the 20th century — Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Recognitions — all scramble the reader’s sense of reality using varying points of view, different voicing, and altered states of time and space.
My original sense of what to do with my Julia Davenport stories came after reading Elizabeth Strout’s collection, Olive Kitteridge, a deceptively simple group of thirteen stories connected by reference to Olive herself as well as the Kitteridge family. Somehow Strout’s work becomes a very powerful use of polyphony connecting dozens of characters into a singular communal-type experience of life on the coast of Maine.
I thought, well shoot, here I have all these different perspectives on love, romance, marriage, sex, parenting, family life, and Julia Davenport somehow is in the middle of it all. I ain’t writing about life in a small town on the Maine coast, but it would all ring true anyway. Life amidst malls, chain restaurants, suburban commutes, juggling kids and career, questioning one’s definition of love, stumbling into divorce along with everyone else…those are the centering mechanisms here. It would be easy to bind these 10 or so stories into a book and offer it to readers. Easy enough, anyway.
That’s not what I’ve ended up doing, though. Julia has appeared in this blog several times over the past few months, and I’ve written about the effect this woman – who is a weird kind of hero to me – has had on my psyche as I try to move forward with her story. Doing things the “easy” way is not for me.
It would have been relatively straightforward to edit these stories into their 10 odd little moments of poignancy and then send ’em out into the world. I dithered over that issue for much of last fall and winter, and then finally got down to it and began what became quite an odd little chore of adapting all of them into Julia’s point of view and Julia’s voice and Julia’s head alone.
What a crazy-making time it has been! This woman, this character, this proto-agonist, wanted to speak directly to the world. She had a bit of a chance in one story — “Swimming Beneath the Sparkles — but I think that just gave her an appetite for more.
Every other piece in the original work told of her impact on others from some completely non-Julia point of view. It wasn’t easy to re-write these, and at first I certainly didn’t understand why, but now I do. My original work just wasn’t close enough to her. She was more part of a fractured fable, an enigma, a mystery doll caught in the web of other people’s fantasies and desires. What needed to happen, what has happened, is that I let her tell her own story, painting the world the way it makes her feel. What she actually represents of my own psyche I still don’t know. But if I’ve done my job properly, that’s not for me to know, anyway. The sad thing about being a writer is that only the reader truly gets the valued understanding of the story. The writer is left out in the cold with far too much knowledge and intent and too little openness to surprise.
The ex-urban landscape has gone from being a kind of family pet in my stories to a full-fledged character as well. It is an odd wilderness.
You know this world. It is our world, after all. This man-made wilderness of Julia’s is so oddly chaotic and unruly, but it is also positively glistening with potential and power like I’ve never seen it before. Each of us is lit up in so many ways — partly because of all the media options we have to light ourselves up, but partly also because of the connectedness and interwoven aspects of life we are achieving. Sometimes it seems to me, even with all the divorces I see around me, and all the dismay and the disappointment that our economy and political system create, that we are discovering a society ready to bust open all the doors and smash all the closed windows of human history. We all sense our collective promise in the stores and roads and houses around us. We just need a bit more time…
All that’s needed is paying attention — paying attention and having the courage to create and express ourselves over and over again until we get it right. What always kills a life is sadness and terror — and giving up. But what saves lives is finding it in ourselves to face that sadness and that terror, to recognize and understand that we each make our own life and that we always have a choice when we wake up every morning. Every day is about trying again.
I say sometimes it seems this way, but, after all this time with Julia speaking through me and into me and beyond me, it’s not sometimes at all. It’s the way things are. There’s no going back. Nothing’s easy. Julia has maybe been made crazy. I imagine you have too, whether you want to admit it or not. But Julia is also someone who understands the idea of living life despite her weaknesses and confusion.
So, this is where my novel Ex:Urbia sits. I have completed drafts of twenty chapters. The book is about 90,000 words long (about 300 pages or so in paperback book form). There’s one chapter to go…the last chapter. I’m letting the whole draft sit for another week then printing it out and putting it on my desk. It will sit another week or so and then I will read through the full 90,000 words.
I have faith that the last chapter will come to me (us). I know what I think is going to happen, but that may change after my (our) first full reading of this thing. Once that last chapter is done, I will let the whole manuscript sit and cure another month before I start line edits. It should be ready for First Readers by early July. If you want to be on that list, please contact me here in the comments section or you can email me at: email@example.com.
In the mean time, I just ordered Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs. I read the first paragraph and knew that Messud was onto the same thing that Ex:Urbia is. How angry at the world can one be? How confused by oneself can one be? How much in love can one be? How tortured by obsession? Check out The Woman Upstairs here. I say it’s required reading if you intend to buy Ex:Urbia when it comes out.Note: Check out the Work-in-Progress page for snippets and samples of Ex:Urbia