It’s been a week since I worked on the novel. This is dangerous territory. You can’t get away with this too often. It’s not like I haven’t had good excuses. I’ve been helping my girlfriend move a new roommate in, then packing and preparing to drive across the country, then the driving, then the visiting, then the catching up with family. After which came tech support Aaron, trying to figure out why Firefox on Windows XP won’t let my brother-in-law play Scrabble on Facebook anymore (help help help), and now as the new WEB MASTER (echo echo echo) of the indubitable Front Porch Journal I’m getting requests already from my editor to do things I don’t really know how to do yet. So there’s a learning curve in play, which means: more time.
And so the novel is suffering from my inattention and I’m actually afraid to go back and start it up again. A lot of the motivation for getting this all going was Infinite Jest, which I have now finished and apparently the energy of which I cannot channel quite as easily if it is not haunting me to get to the end. My opening was such a sprawling, free-wheeling sort of prewriting that eschewed paragraph breaks whenever possible, which was a Wallace thing, totally. Now I’m reading The Corrections, by the birdwatcher, which by contrast is so ordered and under control that whenever a character does something crazy and it’s not reported in such a crazy, reality-loosely-held sort of way, it feels disingenuous and conspicuous, like Look how crazy this guy is, right? right? And I’m just not buying it. I’m hearing nothing but the writing, and the story isn’t resonating. Paragraph breaks every three lines like clockwork. One single idea contained in one single paragraph. Proper transitions from paragraph to paragraph. It feels like an essay about a dysfunctional family.
But it’s not like I didn’t see the writer’s tricks or decisions regarding when to plot and when to let the audience in on something, with Wallace. When it finally clicked that one character was actually another previously introduced character in drag, I totally felt that author’s decision to reveal that fact and that specific moment, and suspected there were clues earlier that I didn’t understand, and then watched as that suspicion was all but confirmed by the further allusions to both characters that made it more and more obvious for the reader, for all readers, I watched his technique to connect with different levels of understanding, with all the motley, mushy brains that might pick up this book, every step of the way.
Franzen doesn’t have the energy, though. He’s watching these people like birds. Wallace, anything could happen, and all of it would be believable because only the loosest logic dictated the possibility of events, like gravity was relatively certain for instance. But if someone had a mop handle shoved down his throat and through his stomach and out his rectum by a team of wheelchair assassins, you had to keep reading to find out if he died from such a procedure, because you just couldn’t take anything for granted. A + B did not necessarily always equal C, even in the cases where there was a created hunger for that C that explained it all, by the last hundred pages of the book you began to realize that you’d never get there and Wallace couldn’t take you there and that this impossibility to make sense of everything was exactly the point.
Birdwatching is about establishing patterns of behavior and (in a yellow-paper notebook, probably,) creating that predictability, taking it down as a history as best we can, noticing the details that not only predict but define what this bird is, how it is different from other birds. The Corrections sounds like it aims to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that every person is his own unique – but recognizable – subclass of homo sapien. I get it, though, I mean I definitely have in my brain the certain section that derives pleasure from creating order. But Wallace’s way is more fun, and more unifying. And more inspirational. No decision a character makes feels inevitable, or predictable, which means that people can try things, they can make out-of-character decisions, there is room for whimsy and experimentation. They can make bad decisions without being bad people, and the bad people can refrain from being bad sometimes, and it all works. So far all of Franzen’s characters are slaves to their own rap sheet. If they ever do anything “surprising,” I expect, it’ll be because there was preprogrammed a little space in their character that would allow such a surprise. Even the rare and unusual behavior will have precedent. Oh, the guy who was so reliable and good cheated on his wife with the maid in a moment of passion? Well clearly that’s understandable since, if you recall, he did steal a flower for his parents’ maid when he was five from his neighbor’s prize-winning garden even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to. See? Poof. Everything makes sense.
I don’t want to be a bird-watching writer. Bird by bird, I hate birds actually, nasty little vermin, disease-carrying filthy little wind rats.