Where The Voice Begins
The novel I wrote last year was over 2400 pages long, and I called it A Man Without Love. I borrowed this title from an Engelbert Humperdinck song and album called A Man Without Love, in part because I thought it fit well with the text, and in part because I had named the text’s first person narrator Engelbert, and he had indicated, in the text, for reasons elaborated by the text, that he was named after Engelbert Humperdinck.
I am reluctant regarding my use of the word novel, not because the book isn’t a novel, necessarily, but more because the word “novel” has too much historical and socio-economic connotation. It suggests too much: the great American novel, or, a question that haunts me and, every time I am asked it, threatens to snuff out the artist inside of me: are you working on a novel? I feel like the word “novel” is too often accompanied by a possessive pronoun: when you are in master of fine arts graduate writing programs, as I have been, people who are writing novels always call them my novel. But what a ridiculous notion! Pascal says: “Certain authors, talking about their works, say, ‘My book, my commentary, my history, etc.’ This smacks of the bourgeois who has a town house, and always in his mouth the words ‘My place.’” So perhaps that’s the problem: because it is so often, especially by writers who have not yet published or are not yet known, preceded by the possessive pronoun, the word “novel” feels far too bourgeois for me to feel comfortable using it. And the unpublished novel, the novel perhaps most often referred to as “my novel,” is subjected to an endless, ceaseless process of revision: the person who says “my novel” most often also believes that achieving a state of publication for her unpublished novel is simply a matter of improving it interminably until it is in such a state that it warrants publication, and this way of thinking is itself bourgeois.
My father was the first person to read A Man Without Love and it was meaningful for me that he did because during the six or seven months that he was reading it, he did not bother me at all about the fact that I do not make enough money to sustain myself economically, nor suggest to me that I pursue full-time and higher-paying teaching work, nor ask me what I was going to do about the credit card debts that I cannot pay off; which is to say that the book was meaningful enough to him that, while he was reading it, he forgot for six or seven months about this idea he has that I should ever do anything other than work on books.
He also suggests that I write books that are shorter and more manageable, along those same lines, in the hopes that if I write a book that is shorter and more manageable it will be published and those economic concerns will be allayed as a result (I am almost afraid to tell him that I know plenty of people who are publishing books and those who are not nearly bankrupt are making most of their money in other places, teaching or lecturing or ghost-writing); but while he was reading the more than 2400 pages of A Man Without Love, he did not suggest to me that I write shorter books, or anything other than that which I was compelled to write, because this, last year, was what I was compelled to write, and while he was reading it he believed in it.
So I suppose I tend to use the word book in relation to the “novels” that I spend most of my time writing, because the word book is neutral and clean. Nor do I ever use the word “my” in relation to what I am writing, or what I have written, unless by accident or slip of the tongue. Pascal says: “They would do better to say, ‘Our book, our commentary, our history, etc.,’ because normally there is more in it which belongs to other people than to them.” He is probably correct, but the reason that I avoid use of the possessive pronoun in relation to work I am doing or have done is not so much because it belongs to other people as because it belongs to itself. And it does belong to itself. If you are really writing, and not just “writing,” that the text belongs to itself should be perfectly clear. Perhaps you belong to it, as well, but in any event it never belongs to you. I do say “my work,” because although the texts do not belong to me, the work of writing them, that labor, very much does.
The second person who read A Man Without Love was my mother. She read it during the winter months in Wisconsin, and I watched her reading it while I was home for two weeks in December and January. My parents keep their copy of that manuscript in two boxes, each containing a few more than 1200 pages and so this is how my mother was reading the book when I saw her: sitting in a chair in the dining room with her feet up on a space heater and box one — because at the time she was still on box one — sitting on the floor next to her feet. In general, while I was home, she would sit in this fashion, her feet and ankles actually on top of the space heater, and read until she fell asleep, her head flopped back and to one side and her mouth half-open, a manuscript page loose on her lap. I wonder if she really wanted to spend eight months — for in the end it took her eight months — reading that book, or if she did it simply to deny my father the pleasure or privilege of being the only parent who was continuing to read all of my work despite the fact that my work has entered into the kind of abstract space within which a book can become 2400 pages long. In either case, she was a less ideal audience for the book than my father, in part because my father was the one who taught me to write and so understands my writing instinctively, I think, and in part because unlike my father, who is able to read my books as books, my mother cannot help but perceive them as possible entrance points into the secrets of my life. She believes my life has secrets, because I do not always give her the information about my life that she seeks when we talk to each other on the phone, me in California and her in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the truth is that I don’t really have any secrets; rather, I have this hang up when it comes to giving people details which I do not believe will be of any use to them. When, for example, my mother asks me where I am going out to dinner, I often can’t bring myself to tell her because I know that she will not know where that restaurant in Los Angeles is, or what it’s like, or even what going there signifies within my cultural milieu: what will she be able to do with that detail?
I refused to answer any questions about A Man Without Love while my mother was reading it because too many of her questions had to do with whether some particular episode or exchange from the book “actually happened” in my own life. However, I convinced myself that if she saw the book through, if she read it in its entirety, eventually she would find that it was a world unto itself and lose her sense of its connection to the non-existent secrets of my life, and so I promised her that I would answer any questions she had after she had finished, believing that she will not have any.
And, indeed, some of the episodes or exchanges from that book did “actually happen,” and actually happened in my life, for example an incident when, in the eighth grade, I was pelted in the head with rocks by a group of laughing high school girls, but there is something that I tell the students in my multi-genre creative writing classes when we are making the transition from talking about fiction to talking about the essay: in fiction, I tell them, no matter how hard you try, if you are really writing fiction, and regardless of whether you are providing a blow-by-blow account of events in your own life in that fiction, no matter what, you are never writing about yourself, never, whereas in the essay, no matter how much you invent, no matter how many lies you tell, you are always writing about yourself.
As I said, I was thinking that, when she finished the book, she would not have any questions. How can you question something that is what it is, and I believe and hope that my books always are what they are, as I believe that every book should be what it is. How do you ask something that is what it is, why are you this way? It doesn’t make any sense. All you can say should be, there you are, haiku-style.
A Man Without Love was the longest book I had written and finished when, on April Fool’s Day of 2004, I actually finished it (and when I finished it, when I came to the last paragraph, the last sentence, I heaved and felt split inside, and trembled, and thought I would vomit from the grief or force of it, and then I saved the text and backed it up on a disk and put the disk in my car and drove to the gym), but I had written a couple of books longer than 2000 pages that I had never finished, and the book I had finished most recently was about 800 pages, which is not that long, but I wasn’t in a very good place when I was writing it and I think it was really just a 2000 page book that failed to completely become itself; and the book that I’m working on, now, and will not finish before I leave the country to teach for the summer, and thus will not finish until sometime next year, will also be quite long. Why do I write books that are so long?
I think there are a number of possible answers, and I’m sure that the truth is some combination of the possibilities:
- Because I have to, because that is the way the work comes to me, and since the work belongs not to me (I am not that bourgeois) but rather to itself, I must write it the way it comes.
- Because I don’t want it to end. I am in a state of constant terror of what comes after the end, the silence or the absence, and while some people begin their books and write them in order to get to the end, I sit down every day and write in order to stave off the end, to keep it away, and I do that for as long as I can and so every book, it seems, should get longer, because every time I write another book I’ve had more practice at staving off the end.
- Because at least this way, writing texts that are arguably impenetrable simply because of their size, I have a built-in excuse if I fail to make a bourgeois-style success of myself as a writer. If I never give readings in bourgeois bookstores and appear in photos on dustcovers, I can always say, well, the work I was doing was just too much. I’d like to think that I’m not like that, but I probably am; to some extent, we all are, that’s why we’re artist-types to begin with. If we weren’t like that we would have gone into business.
- Because I believe that the novel, which began with Don Quixote, or with Rabelais, is in its very nature endless, “a world that opens wide,” as Milan Kundera says.
My mom, of course, does have questions for me when she finishes reading A Man Without Love. Most of them are unremarkable, but one of them unsettles me: “Why,” she wants to know, “does everybody talk in the same voice?”
This is potentially problematic. My books are essentially conversation-driven. Ninety percent of the time, give or take, people are talking to each other. Conversation is more or less all there is, and if to the casual reader it appears that all of the characters speak in the same voice, then isn’t it also possible that the conversations aren’t really conversations?
And if the books tell themselves largely in conversation, isn’t it essential that we be able to distinguish, and know, our characters by way of the distinctive voices in which they speak?
So the answer I give my mom is: “Whoops.”
Then: “They’re not supposed to all talk in the same voice.”
And: “Maybe that’s why nobody is ever going to distribute these books.”
These seem like the most reasonable answers, in part because they are honest, and in part because the other answer, the more involved answer, might constitute one of those details with which my mom will not be able to do anything useful.
The more involved answer perhaps would go something like this: when I was coming to my first maturity as a writer — approaching the first moment, for instance, at which I would be able to suddenly write a “novel,” a single text of more than a couple of hundred pages (and writing a novel is entirely different than writing, for example, a short story: they are different animals altogether) — I was also reading Bakhtin and Tudorov on Bakhtin and even Barthes and Kristeva, and in them encountering this notion that the novel is not a place where a single voice, the voice of the author, creates a form for itself — a kind of long iteration on the same — but rather something more like a space where different voices, many voices, all of the voices that echo inside of the writer’s many voices, encounter one another; that there is no singular voice in a text: that the author’s voice isn’t singular, and the voice of the narrator is not singular, and the voices of the characters in a work of fiction are not singular, that a voice can never be constituted singularly, for in the absence of the other voices, or the infinity of other voices, it in fact cannot be constituted at all. Writing books in which people are constantly talking to one another may have been, after all, a fairly obvious and literal response to that intellectual coming to awareness, or it may have been an articulation of my need, as I was coming to that awareness, to destroy the illusion of singularity in my own work.
That explains that, perhaps, but why, then, if my texts are Bakhtinian in the sense that they constitute spaces in which multiple voices confront one another, would those voices be, according to my own mother, indistinguishable, and if they are doesn’t this represent a failure on the writer’s part, or demonstrate that even if I am trying to make my novels spaces where many different voices — the infinite chorus of voices — confront each other, they are in fact spaces, like many other bad novels, where only one voice exists? Perhaps, but then again isn’t it possible that the voice begins in difference and proceeds toward sameness? Isn’t it possible that when we talk to each other, the process is not running forwards — the single, unique, individual voice emerging from the chorus — but rather backwards, that the voice which begins in the illusion of singularity or individuality becoming indistinguishable from the voices it confronts while those voices become indistinguishable from it? That our very notions of backwards and forwards are mixed up?
I would like to think so, and I will. I will think of Blanchot, who says that to write (and to speak, therefore) is to cease to be, or that language gives voice not to a presence but to absence, for these answers are a good deal more satisfying to me than whoops.
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