Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Narrative and detail

With a little more space in my life, because of being retired, I'm reading more fiction. I'd got to the point where non-fiction seemed to be all I picked up at the library. Anyway, on the last couple of trips to the library I've wound up coming home with a bunch of novels.

I want just to focus on three here, because of their similar approach to fiction writing.

First is V S Naipaul's A Bend in the River, a book I'd never heard of, and had just grabbed off the display stand at the library on spec. The second is Andrea Levy's Small Island, a book I began in a Wellington bookstore earlier in the year, and thought would be worth carrying on with. And while we were travelling to Roxburgh and back again last weekend, we listened to a book whose title has escaped me and whose author I don't know. It's on my wife's iPhone, and I'll catch up with the details alter.

All three are what you'd call narrative fiction, I guess, in the sense that there doesn't seem to be any particular 'plot' or even story in the sense that we start at A and finish at Z.

The iPhone one I only heard the later part of, because my wife had already listened to a good deal of the earlier section. I said to her, after a while, that there seemed to be no 'story' as such; it was all detail. And she agreed. It was a kind of fictional biography about a woman in Texas who survives a number of incidents that I missed hearing plus the ones I did hear: the arrival of an oil-well on their property, a terrific dust storm, a drought, betting wisely or unwisely on an inexperienced racehorse, and the advances of a widower whom she does eventually marry.

It shouldn't have been interesting, because the characters were rather loosely drawn, and not given much individuality. What made it interesting was the detail: at first it seemed as though the book was nothing but detail, but the vividness of that detail was what drew you in. I now have a much better idea of what it's like to wait for oil to gush from the earth, how it feels when it does, how scary that is, what a disaster it might be as it blows out the pipes and drill in its rush to reach the surface. I know much more what it's like to sit in an abandoned train passenger car while it shakes and shudders in a dust storm that seems to suck the very air out of your body, and what it's like to go looking for water after the storm has passed. Later the rains come, and one little example of the sort of interesting detail from that was the people standing out in the rain without umbrellas (to listen to Roosevelt, who stood up to show solidarity, even though he was normally in a wheelchair) because the drought had been with them so long they'd forgotten where they stored their umbrellas.

I almost put Naipaul's book aside because there's virtually no story as such in it, and I wondered if it was ever going to go anywhere. It's more focused on characters, and certainly the ones in this book have more presence than those in the previous one, especially the narrator, who, in spite of being an almost non-starter in life, still comes across as interesting. But again above the characters is the detail. If you want to knowwhat it's like to have gone through life in a former French colony in Africa, through a small-scale revolution, through the long rebuilding afterwards, and to have the sense that the man in charge of everything is becoming increasingly godlike in his view of himself (the country is unnamed - it's not Uganda, as that gets mentioned as being somewhere else a number of times) then this book will give you that sense. I'm not enjoying it anywhere near as much as Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, which is a brilliant and beautiful book - this one has a dour tone that is almost offputting - but it still enriches the imagination.

Of the three novels, Small Island is the one that's most appealed to me. Again, there's little sense of story, though there's more suspense that in either of the other two: will Queenie's husband ever turn up again (when we finally meet him in the book, we think it might be better if he didn't); will Hortense and Gilbert actually consummate their marriage, or will their cross-purpose natures always push them apart; will we figure out where everything is going by the end of the book, or will Levy just keep on adding more and more to the detail. Small Island has the benefit of being wildly funny in places; it's the sort of book you can imagine Dickens might write if he'd lived in this century rather than the 19th. It's full of vivid major characters, and of dozens of sharply-drawn minor characters, some of whom get barely a sentence before they leave. Just one very small example from the beginning of the book, "Emily [who appears only in the introduction] had been our outside girl for two months. She had a kindly foster-mother, who lived in Kent and made pictures from spring flowers, and a father and two uncles in London, who drank so much that they had not been awake long enough to take part in the war." Five characters who get a brief moment in the sun and vanish again.

The story weaves back and forth in time: pre-war, during the war, after the war. The chronology is mixed-up but never confusing. Sections are often headed, 'Before', and they take us back to earlier days in the three main characters' lives. (Queenie's husband does turn up in due course - I haven't actually got to that section yet - and becomes a fourth main character.)

But apart from the characters, and the humour, this book stands out even beyond the other two for its emphasis on detail. No page goes past that without relevant detail building up the world in which these people live, and it's detail that is so well-written you want to keep noting down the sharpness of the similes, the aptness of the metaphors, the subtlety of the insights.

I'll write more about it when I've finished....
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