Yesterday marked two years since I began writing a novel called Rainbow. I estimate that I am currently about one-fifth of the way (if even that far) along the arc of this story, so unless my rate of progress increases significantly, it will still be many years before I reach this Rainbow's end.
This is clearly a long-term project, and it is nothing if not an ambitious one. The novel may extend to 500 or 600 pages, perhaps even longer. What makes the writing even more challenging is the fact that the story is not told in strict chronological order, and even though I have an outline for it, that outline serves as a rough guide rather than being carved in stone, and I still have to make many decisions about what scene, exactly, to write next. In addition, the story is a constantly growing and developing organism and I am constantly thinking up new scenes. Therefore any outline I create is, of necessity, provisional.
Now two years into this major project, the biggest of my literary career thus far (and, no matter what else I may write in the future, what will surely remain one of my largest achievements in a lifetime of writing), I am put in the mood to step back and reflect a bit on the meaning and significance, to me personally, of this story.
The development of Rainbow has been particularly fascinating to me ever since the initial spark of an idea first popped into my head in response to a line from the film version of Hello, Dolly!—a rather unlikely origin for a novel, yet strangely fitting in this case—and all the more so as I have watched that small seed of an idea grow into the tremendous tree of a novel it has become.
What is even more wondrous to me about the origin of Rainbow is the way in which, in the first days after that spark appeared in my mind, the story seemed to present itself to my imagination in a way that was as vague as it was suggestive. As I described it at the time, it was as though I had suddenly become aware of a great and terrible storm looming on the horizon, my ears now beginning to attune themselves to the low rumblings of its distant thunder, my flesh sensitized by a strange electricity that intimated some vast and as yet unseen power waiting to be unleashed upon the world, calling me to become the channel of its appearing.
Over the next few months, the seed began attracting to itself, as though by its own irresistible gravity, a myriad of other ideas and experiences from throughout my life, and all of these multitudinous ingredients began to accrete into the grand formation that Rainbow has become and is continuing to become. Despite occasional lulls in inspiration, Rainbow has always had a vigorous life of its own, continually growing and developing into an ever more vast and intricate story.
And then there is that title. Why Rainbow? That wasn't meant to be the title at first; I began by referring to the new story concept as "Rainbow" (in quotation marks) because it was only intended as a working title, a way to refer to it until I came up with its actual title. I chose "Rainbow" by way of reference to The Wizard of Oz, and the way in which the coming storm seemed to promise some wondrous new land to which it would carry me.
So why did I eventually decide to make Rainbow the actual title of the novel? At one level, it sounds silly, perhaps even gauche, as the title of what is intended to be a serious literary novel. It sounds as though it should be embossed in large, glittery letters on the cover, in colors to match its denotation. The word connotes unicorns and the cuteness of cultural objects marketed to and very often enjoyed by little girls. How could this ever be the title of a serious work of High Literature?
Well, as it turns out, there are many reasons (besides simple bravado, which may be part of it too) why I have come to feel that Rainbow is in fact the perfect title for what I intend to be a grand literary novel. One reason is its very simplicity, which lends the title a wide range of possible meanings, connotations, and interpretations. That is entirely appropriate to the nature of the story and of its main character, Mr. Martin Lane. Martin himself may appear at first to be rather nondescript, not the most interesting or exciting person in the crowd. But in the course of the novel he will be revealed to be much more than meets the eye. I hope in these hundreds of pages to acquaint the reader with Martin enough to see, despite first impressions, just how colorful and complex a personality he really is; and yet I also intend to leave him, at the end, a puzzle tantalizingly unsolved, a man who remains forever mysterious.
If my stories are about nothing else, they are about longing, and in particular the longing to know (someone or something). Whereas my first novel largely revolves around Thomas Fairchild's painfully unfulfilled desire to know Alexandra Grey, Rainbow is largely concerned with Martin's desire to know himself (as well as his desire to know other people and their desire to know him). The opening sentence and central question of the novel is "Who is Martin Lane?" By the end, readers will no doubt feel that they have come to know Martin rather well, and yet find themselves unable to really answer that question. As Martin himself says, "How do you define a person anyway?"
I have been aware from the beginning that, even though Martin Lane is not meant to be an autobiographical character, nor Rainbow an autobiographical novel, one of the primary reasons that the story is so powerful and relevant to me is that it is, in part, in addition to many other things, an exploration of who I myself am. That certainly does not mean that Martin is me, and I would never wish my readers to mistake my fictional characters for their author. But there is a very real sense in which imagining Martin and his story is helping me to process and perhaps begin to resolve my own internally felt contradictions, and to help me understand how many seemingly disparate qualities can peacefully coexist in the same person. If my story helps other people do the same, to feel that it is not just okay but actually rather kind of beautiful and amazing to be the crazily complicated person that you are, all the better.
In any case, aesthete that I am, I do not write my stories or my poems in order to achieve any sort of useful purpose, either in society or in the individual reader. I write primarily just because it is enjoyable, a form of play, and I hope in the process to provide my readers, whoever they may be, with some of the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic treasures of literature. My faith in the aesthetic approach to literature is that such pleasures as novels and poetry have to offer do not only constitute an inherent good, but will by their very nature lead on to other benefits without the author having to try too hard to teach a valuable life lesson or make some important political statement. I believe in the intrinsic worth of beauty, its vital relation to truth and to the good, and indeed its necessity to a fully lived human existence. I resist the puritanical impulse to employ my art in the service of moral or political propaganda (or, to put it a little less bluntly, "messaging").
The upshot, with respect to Rainbow, is that the ultimate worth of this story, to which I have already devoted two years of my life and to which I may end up devoting many more, is not something reducible to a message or a formula. It is not something I can say in another (nonfictional) form, such as the currently trendy memoir. I cannot condense its meaning down to a few bullet points. As I have said before, I can only express what it is I want to say, I can only communicate the vision I am seeing, in the exact form that Rainbow finally takes. Otherwise there would be no need to spend years working on a novel of epic proportions that most likely will never pay off in monetary terms.
Art seems to have had its origins in celebration—in particular, the celebration of religious rituals, the symbolic expression of humanity's relationship to the world in which we live and to ultimate reality, however we may conceptualize it (just as our conception of the observable world can only occur via the symbolism of thought and language, all the more so any conception of the ultimate nature of reality). My aim for my own art is to celebrate in this ancient and timeless sense.
Rainbow is not a self-help book; it is not a political treatise; nor is it a light, entertaining, and ultimately forgettable beach read. It is meant to be something far more profound than any of those things: it is meant to be play. The kind of serious and sacred play that celebrates the mystery of existence, that joins the significance of the lowest and humblest things to the highest and the greatest.
Rainbow—a childish title, really. And that is what makes it perfect.