Sunday, August 19, 2012

After Thoughts

In some sense it is not technically true that Bluebird is my first novel. Back when I was 19-20 I wrote two novels, which mercifully no longer exist. Both novels were set in a fictional Florida beach town and revolved around a cast of high school students (the second novel being a sequel to the first). I wrote them in notebooks, so I don't know the word count, but the first took up about 200 handwritten pages (I write pretty small) and the sequel took up about 300 pages. They were written within the span of one year. About two years after finishing the sequel, I destroyed both novels, together with a large number of my other writings, because I already felt that they had become embarrassing.

Nevertheless, I am very glad that I wrote them. They were certainly good writing exercises and invaluable practice in the art of writing not only novels but also realistic fiction. I don't think they were all bad; in fact, I think there was much good in them. But they're all gone now. Only a handful of family and friends ever read them. Someday I may write up synopses or summaries of the stories, in case future scholars might ever be interested (hey, you never know). I can still remember much about them, and I don't mind if people know about them and have some idea of what they were like.

My 2008 blog fiction The Librarian's Apprentice was not meant to be a novel. When published in book form it came to 117 pages, which would qualify it as an accidental novella. Prior to this my longest surviving work was the novella The Holocaust of the Children (1999), which is about 42 pages or so. (Incidentally, I also wrote a novella, in notebook form, when I was 18-19. It came to just over 50 pages, and, like my early novels, is no longer extant.)

In any case, The Bluebird of Happiness is what I regard as my first "real" novel. My early novels I consider now to be juvenilia. The one I have just completed is a mature work. I never really feel perfectly comfortable talking about my own work, but allow me for a moment to reflect on what is undoubtedly my greatest literary accomplishment so far.

It is hard to express the excitement I feel about it without coming across as sounding like I am praising my own work. But I wish to express my great delight at discovering what I was capable of writing. I always hoped that I had it in me to write a great novel; and, without actually claiming that I have in fact written a great novel, I will say that I feel much more confident in my abilities and talents than I did only several weeks ago. This novel is truly a breakthrough for me as a writer.

I feel fairly confident in saying that the story is of epic proportions. I'm not talking about the book's historical or cultural importance necessarily, I just mean the story itself. A hundred thousand words is actually fairly average for a "literary" novel, but because of my concise writing style, its scale and scope are greater than the thickness of the volume might suggest. It is meant to be an epic and even a sort of (post)modern myth. The protagonist, Thomas, is deliberately cast as a mythic figure, and the story, though centered in more or less the present day, looks across his entire life, encompassing scenes from near infancy to just after his death (as an old man, decades in the future). I consider it to be my own personal Citizen Kane, and purposely took that film as one of my main inspirations.

I feel confident, too, in saying that the story is packed full. Not just in terms of the narrative, which is dense and ranges widely not just across Thomas's life but also into his dreams (i.e., his night dreams), his writings (he is an author too), and his innermost thoughts and feelings. It is also packed full in terms of symbolism and intricate interconnections among various parts and elements of the story, and in references to other artistic works, including especially works of music, film, and poetry. I have no doubt that it is the kind of work that readers and critics can spend a long time unpacking. There is much that is mysterious, even to me as the author, and open to a range of interpretations. I can't wait to hear what some of those interpretations might be. I will surely learn some things about the story that even I don't know. I especially look forward to readers making connections or gleaning understandings that I had no idea were there. So if you read it and you make a connection, please feel free to share. Don't assume that it was intentional. Probably most of them are intentional, but there is surely much waiting to be discovered.

The ending of the story, now that I have written it, is particularly striking to me, in a way that I had not intended or foreseen. Even though I conceived of the final scene the day before I started writing (this scene was the final spark that set fire to the actual writing), it surprised me when I actually wrote it on Friday. Its effect is somewhat different than what I had anticipated, but, like so much else about this story, I think it is even better than what I had planned to do. Even in the final moments, as my fingers typed the last sentences, I did not realize the exact form the ending would take, nor the precise effect it would have. I think part of the reason I was breathless immediately upon finishing was because the ending knocked the wind out of me. It is, as I had imagined, very quiet and subtle and understated, and I think that makes its effect all the more powerful. I felt as though I had just been hit by something enormous, but I didn't actually feel it hit me. I only felt the dazed aftereffects. I think it was the full immense weight of the entire epic and tragic story, let down at the end by the fall of a feather.

I couldn't be more pleased with the way the ending actually came out--as I said, it is better than what I had planned. The ending, even to me, is very mysterious. I actually do not fully understand its meaning on a rational and intellectual level. I have been trying to interpret it and understand it myself. But I know the meaning is definitely there. I felt it viscerally as soon as I had typed the last word, and every time I re-read it or even think about it, it still hits me. I don't even know why exactly. I just know there is something very enormous and profound suggested by that closing scene, something far too deep for words.

I say all this not to proclaim my own abilities as a writer, because as I keep saying this was not something I even intended. The ending made me feel, more than any other aspect of this incredible writing experience, that some larger forces were at work. Call it God, the Muses, whatever you will. This story was given to me so that I may give it to you. To me, the entire purpose of art is to help us connect with the ultimate meaning and mystery of life. True art is spiritual, not commercial. I will consider this work a success if it acts as a vehicle for grace in the lives of those who read it.

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