Minimisation

Today I hit the magic number on the word count for Winter Fugue. The number is 80,000. That’s how many words I’ve got. They’re clean and serviceable, so I’m pleased to have them on the page, although they’re not yet in their best possible shape. They’ll need further revision, further tightening, especially with an eye towards their holistic function, their service to the work as a whole. Nevertheless, in their current state, they do what they need to do. They convey, without any lack, the events, the emotions, the rhythm, the tone, and the senses Winter Fugue wants to convey. More than that, by reaching the magic number, they give the novel its optimum length. Pretty much any how-to guide for aspiring novelists will tell you that 80,000 is the target to aim for. According to the conventions of the mainstream publishing industry, that’s roughly how long a proper novel is.

Except Winter Fugue isn’t quite halfway complete. Lately, as I pace out each new chapter relative to the ones before it, I’ve been figuring that the manuscript will finish up somewhere in the vicinity of 180,000 words. Way too long, but there it is. Not much I can do about it. That’s the way this book wants to be. For that reason, on top of just bringing the book into existence — on top of summoning the intellectual, emotional, and physical stamina necessary to sustain the pace of my output until the book tells me it’s done — one of the fresh challenges I’m starting to face up to is the task of condensing it all into a summary form. Winter Fugue is at a point in its development where I have a clearer sense of its trajectory and its overall shape than I did when I began. This means it’s at a point where I’m thinking more carefully about where it might go when it’s no longer in my hands, about how to place it in the hands of initial readers, potential publishers, and so on. How can a piece of prose so much longer than the ideal novel be shortened, compressed into a synopsis, in a way that doesn’t imperil what its length achieves?

I’m not reflexively resistant to summarisation; I’m struggling with it now because so much of the struggle of writing this particular novel involves intense deliberation over diction and syntax, and that’s exactly what gets cast aside in the process of summarisation. I’m reminded of a few choice words by Dana Philips, in an essay on Blood Meridian, noting the distortion that is done to a novel when the particularities of diction and syntax are “translated into some supposedly more essential language”: the result is an abbreviated thing that begs the question of why the novel would really need to have length at all. I’m reminded, too, of Mark de Silva’s more recent remarks on “putdownable prose,” especially his characterisation of Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow as a work that is “essentially written” — composed of sentences that “wind their way, clause to clause, through what can feel like an endless series of semantic refinements, their sense honed down to a cutting edge by the time they reach a full stop” — so that, ultimately, “there is really no satisfying paraphrase of it worth the candle.”

I wouldn’t say that Winter Fugue evokes Your Face Tomorrow at all, except insofar as it is also quite consciously a novel that is “essentially written.” It, too, takes the form of a written document, and its effects are similarly borne by the alchemy of words interacting on the page — by the fine-grained implications of their selection and placement — as much as by the events those words depict. And what they depict, on the whole, is the aftermath of a profound and devastating loss, the loss of something with a powerful physical presence, which impels the narrator to search out some feeble means of restitution — to piece together an object that has a palpability of its own, a heft, a density of matter, a physical presence to countervail the absence of the other. That scenario, that starting point for the writing, is baked into every word, and that’s part of the reason why the novel needs the length it’s reaching for. Its length isn’t happenstance or a product of carelessness; it is demanded by both the narrative premise and the implications of the prose. To dismiss or downplay it for the sake of a summary is a necessary part of the process, of course, even though it risks minimising the very thing that a summary is supposed to convey: the spark of the novel, the propulsive force behind the telling and shaping of its story. Is there a way out of this double bind?

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