The View From Thirty Thousand Feet

Take a breath, then exhale. Relax. Recline. Head back, eyes closed. Feel the world fall away as you rise. It’s lift-off.

That’s how these last few days have felt to me. Earlier this week, I handed over to my editor the next-to-final draft of At the Edge of the Solid World. The book has a beautiful, haunting cover, and an online presence. It’s due to be published in July. It’s out for proofreading now and should come back to me in a few weeks, hopefully with all errors caught, and with comments on infelicities that have so far escaped the eyes of its early readers. This part of the process leaves me feeling as if I’m entering a little limbo, breaking through the fog of close proximity to the manuscript. Lift-off. As I glance back at the trajectory that has brought me to this point, I think I can begin to see what the novel looks like from a remove.

Here’s the summary view. At the Edge of the Solid World tells the story of a couple whose marriage breaks down following the death of a newborn child. At the core of the breakdown is a profound disagreement over what to do with the ashes. The woman suggests cremation. Her husband concedes, reflexively. As time passes, though, he grows to regret the decision and begins to experience ghostly visions of their child when he is left alone with the ashes. These visions leave him unwilling to scatter the ashes, even after the cremation has occurred, so that he becomes increasingly possessive of them, and begins to mount obstructions to thwart his wife’s hopes of easing her grief. Gradually he sees the loss of the child and the loss of the ashes as tantamount to the loss of a shared future with his wife, and, in recognising his ill treatment of her, he releases his hold on their life together.

But where’s the novelty in this novel? That’s an unavoidable question. Stories like this one have been told before. I put the summary here, up-front, as a concession to the way we tend to talk about literature in a post-literary culture. The first question most people ask of a novel is, by default, “What is it about?” as distinct from “What does it do?” Novels are generally thought of as containers for narratives — or, if more than that, as the dramatisation of a commentary on a theme — rather than, say, tiny machines that use words to generate abstract experiences, intricate mechanisms that enact obscure designs on their readers. But the asking of this default question almost always causes new novels, including At the Edge of the Solid World, to blend into a gathering of their peers. Brute fact: we don’t need any more novels in the world — there are already far too many to occupy an entire lifetime of reading — and as soon as you know what any new novel is “about,” you’ll find your view of it crowded out by novels that are about much the same thing.

To return to the question: where’s the novelty in this novel? Watch the very prospect of novelty disappear. You can read about recriminations between an acrimonious husband and wife in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Tim Winton’s The Riders. You can feel the ennui of a partnership unreconciled to trauma in Ian McEwan’s The Child In Time and Raymond Carver’s ‘A Small, Good Thing.’ You’ll find marriages riven by the death of a child in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, and you’ll find others that rearrange around an abiding grief in Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection and David Lindsay-Abare’s Rabbit Hole. Each of these works of literature — five novels, a play, a story, and a story collection — is a clear antecedent to At the Edge of the Solid World. Not an inspiration as such, but an exploration of the same territory. Why add another book to their number? Why go about writing a version of a story that doesn’t need a new telling?

I can only address questions like these in a roundabout way. As a reader, when I invest my time in a novel, I don’t do it because I care deeply about the experiences of its characters. That’s not to say that characters play no part in holding my attention, only that their stories aren’t the primary forces that drive me to turn the pages. As a writer, then, although I hope that my readers will indeed care about my characters, I don’t expect anyone to read and continue reading because their care for the characters compels them. There has to be something more to it than dramatic conflict, narrative arc, rising stakes, and resolution.

At the Edge of the Solid World came into being, in part, because I had a hunger for a book that would not only offer the rewards of its antecedents but also open itself to the provocations they shy away from. I say “in part” because of course the book came from a more experiential, more emotional, more ineffable state of mind. It emerged in response to a sensation I can’t name, not an urge to perform an intellectual exercise. But the labour of writing it — of sitting down for hours at a time, on a regular basis over several years, to fill hundreds of pages with words — needed more robust motivation. And to make it worthwhile investing my time in this labour, I needed my book to do something more than the books with which writers before me seemed to have answered the impulse I felt.

What left me most discomfited by those books was the extent to which they’re not only concerned with domestic events, but are themselves domesticated. At some stage in the writing process, I was able to clarify my dissatisfaction with help from an unlikely place: Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own.’ Following the familiar twists and turns of Woolf’s essay, from the insistence on a private space to the speculative travails of Shakespeare’s sister, I was struck afresh by her plea for an equal valuation of “masculine” and “feminine” novels. “[M]asculine values prevail,” Woolf complains: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”

The real distinction here, I think, isn’t between the twin stereotypes of masculine aggression and feminine sentimentality. It’s between novels about public affairs conducted in public spaces and novels about private emotions contained in private spaces. Greater cultural esteem usually accrues to the former, because novels about public affairs allow critics and other readers to discuss them in liberated, extra-literary ways. These novels are “about” issues far beyond themselves, so that one is not obliged to take up the difficult task of appreciating them as novels; they can be valued, culturally, for qualities not bound to their being objects of art. In this view of things, this value system, the alternative type of novel is made hermetic by its concern with issues of “domesticity.” In cultural conversation, domestic novels have nothing to say of the world beyond their pages or affairs beyond their characters, and because critical esteem is tethered to a novel’s ability to grease the wheels of conversation, a novel of private emotions in private spaces forfeits favourable appraisals.

But it’s possible to mix and match the distinctions between public affairs and private emotions, and public and private spaces, in a variety of ways. One could explore the totalitarian autocrat’s private anxieties in the dark of night, for instance, or the sudden splintering of a marriage in a town square thronged with a crowd. And yet, in retrospect, it seems to me that the antecedents to At the Edge of the Solid World are mostly written in Woolf’s “feminine” mode, even when they are the work of men. Revolutionary Road, The Springs of Affection, and Rabbit, Run: these books focus solely on the riled emotions of a couple in turmoil, and rarely leave the privacy of the troubled couple’s domestic spaces. The Sportswriter, The Riders, and The Child In Time: these books have their characters venture more into the public arena, but only to throw new light on their private conduct, not to give consideration to public affairs. It’s as if the characters in these books aren’t meaningfully affected by events outside their own private sorrows, as if everything that plagues their marriages is to be found within the dynamics of the marriage itself. In short: their narratives unfold against the backdrop of a world, but their lives don’t extend into that world. Not only that: the characters’ withdrawal from the world is a consequence of their author’s decision to foreground emotion rather than action, to write in Woolf’s “feminine” mode.

In literary terms, this means that the works named above belong to a certain subgenre of literary fiction — the depiction of a marriage under impossible duress — and their events don’t spill over into other subgenres. They have no truck with the concerns of war literature, to use Woolf’s example, nor post-war literature, or historical, political, or fantastical fiction, or polemical and theoretical writing, or state-of-the-nation narratives, or the emerging subgenres of the neuro-novel and the novel of digital culture. At best they dip their toes into the literatures of psychology and romance, and perhaps Romanticism, but that’s about the extent of it. Everything that determines or rationalises the interactions between husband and wife is intrinsic to their relationship and their domestic context. They argue, or they ignore each other, because of something in the conditions of their union, something amiss in the life they share at home — something concealed or intolerable — or else in one partner’s psychological or emotional wellbeing. There’s a lot of circumscription in these works, in that the essence of what is wrong with a relationship and the essence of what might be able to repair it are to be found right there, in the shared space of husband and wife. The narrative need not venture outside their four walls, and often doesn’t.

That’s what I mean when I say that they’re not only concerned with domestic events, but are themselves domesticated. And that’s what I found, and continue to find, most discomfiting about them. To my mind, their domestication doesn’t allow them to adequately or even plausibly represent an experience of the world as I live in it. When I’m involved in social interactions in private, I’m always aware — always conscious of the fact — that my conduct is guided by influences outside my environment, sometimes very far outside. My temperament in social exchanges, my presence and my behaviour, my reasons for responding to someone else’s offerings in a particular way, are all mediated by moment-to-moment fluctuations in mood, objectives, obligations, hopes, competing desires, impatience, spontaneous goodwill, and so on. These fluctuations are in turn mediated by my involvement in affairs entirely disconnected from my face-to-face exchanges: my having read a certain news story earlier in the day, my subconscious consideration of an historical incident, my efforts to sympathise with a person I’m aware of only through hearsay, my grudging involvement in the administrative burdens of daily life. In a sense, I see both myself and others as something like walking seismographs, registering the aftershocks of events quite distant from ourselves in time and space — sometimes consciously, sometimes not. In this view, each person’s bearing towards others shifts in accord with their stance towards those external events, and these shifts have the power to colour unrelated interactions in private, depending on how things play out in the heat of the moment.

So, as the antecedents to At the Edge of the Solid World seal themselves off from other literary subgenres, their narratives make no space for the signature concerns of those subgenres — and those concerns are, for me, as much a force of influence on private conduct as anything intrinsic to a relationship. In writing this novel, then, I wanted the animosity between husband and wife to be exacerbated by the ripple effects of events that have nothing to do with either of them, but still impress on one’s consciousness. It would be fair to say, I suppose, that I wanted the novel to rupture the practices of its antecedents.

As I put it to my editor, Alice, in our first exchange about the book, I sought to begin from “the starting point of the stereotypical prize-winning novel: white middle-class marital difficulties,” and then “to blow [this subgenre] to pieces.” In retrospect, I see now, what I really wanted to do was rather to blow the subgenre open: to blast holes in its borders so that the concerns of other subgenres might flood in, so that husband and wife would not be the sole determinants of their fates. I also should’ve added “male” to the list of qualities in parentheses, since most of this novel’s antecedents hew to the husband’s perspective, offering his impressions and his justifications for his actions without giving airtime to his wife. I hoped my novel would simultaneously exacerbate and upend that way of presenting marital discord, by having a solipsistic narrator repeatedly confronted by his misreadings of his wife’s behaviour and his misconstruals of her intentions. Then, too, I should have named its antecedents as works of literary realism: I’ve tried here to adopt that mode of writing as a Trojan horse, first embracing its norms to deck out At the Edge of the Solid World, and then overextending them, inflaming them to a degree that makes the narrative irreal.

Probably all of this makes the novel sound cold, calculated, like a purely technical construct. It really isn’t. I hope it radiates intense feeling, the same intense feeling that compelled me to give it shape. I hope it stimulates all manner of emotional and ethical responses in its readers, and throws them into conflict with one another. I hope it generates a field of energy, or an overwhelming atmosphere, for those who give themselves to its pages, so that the world beyond it takes on a different hue, a different balance, when readers close the covers. And, in the months ahead, I hope to turn my attention to these matters, to think back over the many, many considerations — the ethical reckonings — that occupied me during the many hours I spent writing the novel. I’d like to try to articulate them.

But I’m taking the dispassionate view of things now because, for the first time, I feel as if I’m able to look down at the novel from an unfamiliar altitude. I can survey the lay of the land and see the surrounding terrain. I can see At the Edge of the Solid World encompassed by horizons much broader than those that confined me, daily, during the cut and thrust of finding words and making sentences. I can see the full reach of the avenues and boulevards along which it traffics its energies; I can see their crossroads, their branches, and their extensions into the neighbouring suburbs of other novels, plays, stories. And I can see the distant localities of other literatures, other genres, not cut off from my novel but connected by new routes which, I hope, allow for new exchanges, new forms, and new effects: the very essence of novelty in the art of literature.

To See With New Eyes

Caleb Klaces’ Fatherhood is one of the most vibrant novels I’ve read all year. I reviewed it this week for Splice, in my final review of 2019:

Fatherhood isn’t about [the narrator’s] pursuit of [his life plans] plans in any conventional sense. It is, as above, about the ways in which the travails of raising a newborn child make a glorious, hilarious mockery of a parent’s pretensions to personal dignity. In practice, this means that Klaces surveys two parallel pathwayss and sets out to follow both of them, alternating from one to the other as the novel unfolds. The first path leads him closer to his wife, the second to his infant daughter, so Fatherhood preoccupies itself with both the comedy of post-parenthood intimacy and the profundity of watching an entirely new identity come into being.

Don’t “Show, Don’t Tell”

Earlier this week, on Twitter, I saw an interesting “demolition” of the conventional wisdom that informs no shortage of creative writing classes: “show, don’t tell.” And, being glad to see the conventional wisdom demolished, I thought I’d share the advice I prefer to give my students…

“Show, don’t tell” is, like most creative writing “rules,” bullshit — not to mention a vestige of Cold War-era propaganda and orthodoxies. But, crucially, rejecting it doesn’t mean you’ve got a license to do the opposite and just “tell.” These are the binary extremes of a whole array of choices you’ve got in front of you, and it’s your job, privilege, and responsibility to make your choices freely, knowing what you intend to achieve with them and knowing also what alternatives you’re forfeiting.

So, yes, you can absolutely show instead of telling: you can observe the materiality of an environment, construct characters with intelligible psychologies, set scenes, orchestrate action, depict events cinematically, etc., and thereby immerse your reader in a particular moment. Or you can tell instead of showing: summarise events, enumerate thoughts and feelings, explain motives and consequences, and generally move through time — or back and forth through time — at a faster clip than if you show the nitty-gritty of all this stuff. When you show, you risk losing pace, momentum, and to some extent the significance of details, in cases where significance might come from a freezing of time, or a telescoping of chronology, to dwell on them in-depth or to observe their ripple effects from afar. When you tell, which is to say summarise and/or explicate, you risk losing the immersive capabilities of full-scale depiction, and therefore some of the emotion that readers tend to invest in characters whose stories they experience up-close, in something approaching real time.

(Sidenote: “telling” can also be “showing”, because at least when a first-person narrator tells a story, you are showing them in the act of telling, which overlays a new temporality on the events they’re telling the reader about. And “showing” can also involve “telling”, because when you’ve got an externalised, third-person depiction of a scene in which a character tells a story, you can show others’ reactions both to the telling in the moment and the tale itself. Othello does this really well.)

Anyway, ultimately, it isn’t a binary choice, is it? Page by page, line by line, moment by moment, you’re going to make that choice over and over again, and every time you make it you’re going to fall somewhere on the spectrum between them. The artistry isn’t necessarily in showing or telling, but in oscillating between them — in the degree to which you do it, and the frequency with which you do it, and your strategies for modulating the oscillation, gently fading with a nice segue or giving your reader whiplash. And the artistry is also there in having a sense of the effects you can generate by choosing one instead of the other, as well as a sense of the effects you’re not generating — but could — if you went down a different route. So, in rejecting the binary choice, don’t reject it at the outset. You may well want to “show, not tell” at some stage, or “tell, not show.” It’s a choice to make continuously in every moment of the process, depending on what’s in front of you at any given instant.

Expanded Horizons

This week, I reviewed Linda Mannheim’s This Way to Departures for Splice:

Linda Mannheim’s second collection of stories, This Way to Departures, is appropriately titled. All the stories in Mannheim’s début, Above Sugar Hill (2014), were bound to a specific site: the ethnically mixed, economically deprived neighbourhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan, hemmed in by the Hudson River on one side and the Harlem River on the other. Set mostly between the 1970s and 1990s, Above Sugar Hill is an assured evocation of a very particular time and place — the streets of Mannheim’s youth, in an era of “squalor” and “brutality” — although it lacks the dexterity of style with which it might have offset the feeling that some of its stories are hobbled by the limited horizons of the locale. In This Way to Departures, however, Mannheim embraces a broader canvas and takes a bolder approach to the form of the short story. Although the new book still retains connections to Washington Heights, the action here extends across the United States, down into South America, and even briefly overseas to Europe, and there are comparatively more formal innovations and provocations. As a whole, the collection reads like the work of an increasingly ambitious and confident writer, striking off in a range of new directions.

Samizdat Goes Mainstream

In Time Lived, Without Its Flow, Denise Riley embarks on an exquisite, excoriating investigation of her own mourning in the wake of the sudden death of her son. The book was more or less self-published several years ago and passed around like samizdat from one small press aficionado to another. Now, though, it has been republished by Granta in a beautiful new hardback edition with an introduction by Max Porter, and I had the pleasure of reviewing it this week for Splice:

What is radicalism in literature, but a redrawing of the usual boundaries of the readable? Find the zone of moderation, which is to say convention, then strike off in one of two directions. Push the boundaries outwards, claim liberties beyond those taken by the average book, and churn out a thousand-page treatise on melancholy or a doorstopper that makes room for every known fact about cetaceans. Or make your space more cramped, more pinched, and draw the boundaries inward. Forgo certain allowances; let your possibilities atrophy. Write a book in chapters of exactly one hundred words each, or in sentences that all take the form of a question. Use only phrases culled from other books, or refuse to use words containing the letter e. And then, if you really want to indulge your radicalism, choose a subject whose emotional freight tilts it in one of these two directions — excessive or aloof — and force your style to take the alternative. Go maximalist, go gargantuan, with a story about office boredom. Or else go minimalist, be ascetic by an act of will, with a counter-intuitive approach to a harrowing situation like the one faced by the poet Denise Riley.