I would like to write a column for someone about the art of writing. Looking at what makes writing work, and what causes it not to.
On my mind of late has been the idea of innovation. The assumption with innovation--and this happens both in publishing and out in the world--is that it's overtly visual. What I mean by this is, one can look at a text, and simply by how it looks, there's a presumption of innovation. Not by how it reads. How it functions in how it is put together. It's almost an eyeball test that has little to do with what passes through the mind upon immersion in the work, and focus on it.
I will give some examples. If you look at James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, it obviously looks different than, say, "The Dead," which is also by Joyce. One is more likely to conclude that the Wake is innovative because, to put it in simple terms, that person thinks, "Wow, this looks crazy! What are these words! There's wild punctuation! No punctuation!" Whereas, "The Dead" looks like sentences as one expects to find sentences.
I have a book called Brackets coming out in January. It's a story collection, but it's also not a story collection as one thinks of a story collection. I don't much care for that term, "story collection." A collection is different than what I think of as a book, because the latter is an integrated whole that functions as the musical version of a piece that is through-composed.
A through-composed musical work does not have repeating sections, but it can have certain themes, motifs, ideas, that are evinced in different forms throughout the work. The components of the through-composed work can sometimes function on their own, apart from the whole.
This idea is carried out, of course, to its logical, further end, when I put stories that belong together in a book that then functions as a single unit. This is deeper and richer than the idea of the "linked stories" collection, a concept I'm not keen on. Someone might misapply the label to me, but that's their thing, not mine, and certainly not the work's.
But back to Brackets. The book starts with a story that takes the form of a grocery list. Which is also part to-do list. You know how you make notes on a piece of paper--it begins as one thing, maybe becomes another, or half the page is this list, and this half is this other list, and down in this corner is a further note that has nothing to do with either list.
Those are the lists of life. We don't think of them that way. We all make them. Maybe you make them on your phone now in the Notes section, but you get the idea.
In my book--in the first work of that book, no less, which is a pretty ballsy and bravura tour-de-force type of thing to do--one of these lists tells a whole story. The lists has various components to it. Words are underlined, there are symbols, words are struck through. There are notes-to-self. When your eyeballs land on this story, it looks different. If you couldn't read English and looked at it, you'd think it was different. It functions as a work of visual art, and a form of linguistic sculpture. In overt ways.
People are more likely to think that's "innovative" than something that is equally innovative I might write, that "just looks like sentences."
For instance, "Fitty," which I have mentioned often in these pages--in part because there's never been a better work of fiction, nor will there ever be, and an industry will not let you see it--is designed/oriented around stairs. Literal stairs.
But then within the topography of the sentences, everything is built on the vertical and vertical angles. Life is a series of stairs, in a way. Stairs of different lengths, gradations, slopes, but everything is some kind of a process of up and down.
The stairs become bodily, they morph into the somatic, in "Fitty," and this happens--because it's so innovative--with that meaning occurring in the subconscious of the reader. That's a process to move from the reader's conscious mind where they think certain overt things, to their subconscious mind, where they make and pool these associations on account of what was formerly overt and various progressions which are stairs themselves.
So, the story starts, and Carlene is talking to her therapist. She's talking to her about what we think is her house sitting job at the house where we think Fitty lived.
Fitty is a fourteen-year-old girl. Carlene was her English teacher. And Carlene thinks she hears this crying upstairs. But she rationally knows that no one is there. She wants to help, but she looks at the stairs in a way that were she to go up them, she'd forfeit a certain amount of time off of her life.
Ever do that thing in your head where you want something really badly? And you bargain with yourself. If you can just have it in that moment, you'd trade, I don't know, a year off of your life. Sometimes it's when you're really flustered. You have to get somewhere super important, and you can't find your keys. We all do that internal bartering. We don't mean it--but what if we did?
Carlene is talking about this to the therapist. This bargaining. She knows there is no child up that flight of stairs in the house. She won't find "Fitty." But she also wonders if she has the time anyway within this construction she's mentioned to the therapist. What if she doesn't have the year or whatever to give? You never know what will happen to you. Could get hit by a bus tomorrow.
The stairs are a very physical thing to start this story. Stars are also going to be a very physical thing at the school. These two people have a relationship outside of school. They are bonded to each other in a way that no other two characters are in the history of art. Or, I should say, anything else. The story is about that as much as it is about anything. The power of true connection.
Carlene is not where we think she is. Nor is Fitty. And we're going to see how that plays out--again, with stairs--in the school, after Carlene leaves her classroom to go downstairs and make some photocopies--you know, the business of teaching--and it is then that the shooter who is in the building begins his rampage. She hears the shots from downstairs. Fitty's father hears them from upstairs. Both take to stairs. From different directions.
The story is also about a decision Carlene will make when she realizes where she is, and where Fitty is. This gets us into a whole other kind of ballpark of stairs. So there are lots of physical stairs, and there are metaphysical stairs, and moral stairs, and stairs of humanness. But everything is designed upon the vertical. Fitty is short. When she hugs her father--with their fractured relationship, on his part--she hugs him leaning upwards at the angle of stairs. Everything functions on these kinds of planes within the story.
So that when we come to the end--and I will not reveal what occurs, because at some point you will see this story, and it will wreck you in the best way possible--on flat ground, there is this payoff that comes with the huge, huge, huge reveal and emotional reveal that can't even be quantified by degrees of the vertical and ascendancy.
We are talking other planes of existence and union at that point. And it is achieved in a simple gymnasium, years after the evens of a given day.
Now, this is what I mean. There is nothing more innovative than this work. But to look at it, it's sentences. You can read it, get it, and it's for the masses. But the degree of innovation and sophistication transcends the default setting of the eyeball test in these matters.
Don't make the mistake of thinking, "Oh, this is more innovative because it looks this certain way."
Innovation is in how something is built, what it does that other works do not, in part because of its design, and then the impact, the themes, the ideas, and then all of them stretching, together, beyond the bounds of what are more regular forms.