Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Shape of Things

I like structure. At least I like it as it relates to fiction. I like playing with it,  mucking around with it, seeing how the shape of a work can inform its meaning, or add another layer to it. (Structure, in the general, life-sense, seems to elude me, however.  Perhaps I like fiddling with in in my fiction because it's the one and only place I seem to be able to control it.). Much of the fiction I read--or, more accurately, enjoy reading--uses structure to add texture or meaning or tension. This is not a gimmick, at least not in the stuff I prefer. The twisting or confounding of structure in the fiction I most enjoy is not a contrivance, or doesn't feel that way. And I spend a great deal of time trying to take apart those kinds of stories to see why and how they work. Stories that I'm sure I've mentioned previously--Hemon's The Question of Bruno, Anton Shammas' Arabesques, Joanna Scott's Arrogance to name a few. And now I have another novel to add to my growing list: Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red.  (If you've never read it, do yourself a favor, drop everything and go purchase a copy. You won't regret it. Come to think of it, that directive applies to all the writers I named above. Seriously.)  I'm not deeply into it, but already I'm hooked. The story--a combination murder mystery/love story/treatise on art--takes place in 16th century Istanbul and centers around the murder of an illustrator (a miniaturist who was working on a secret, and possibly blasphemous book, for the sultan).  I believe the story takes place over nine days--beginning with the murdered man narrating from the well in which he was dumped.  Each subsequent chapter is told by a different narrator and the narrators can range from the aforementioned corpse, to the man trying to unravel the mystery of the artist's disappearance, to a mongrel dog, to an illustration of a tree. It's a sprawling, complex work of art and I'm falling deeply in love with it. It's not an easy read, but then I'm drawn to work that takes effort to unpack. (While reading Arabesques, I had to create a kind of family tree to keep track of all the intertwining stories and relations. I loved it. I think I still have the charts). It also may very well have won Pamuk the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. At least it didn't hurt.

I love the story for another reason--it's a wonderful little template for me.  I read it and it gets me wondering what I can take from his technique and use in my own writing. By the way, I've discovered I do this a great deal--I read, not for the story, not for the pleasure of reading, but for what kinds of things I can glean from a work and use. Is that bad? I mean, I read for pleasure, of course. For the pure joy of the words on the page. But I do find that I end up reading with a particular goal in mind--i.e. figure out how this writer did this or that because whatever s/he did is exactly what I am trying to do.  I think I've mentioned this previously, but I'm all but certain that ever since I read Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, every single thing I've ever written has been my attempt at re-creating that story. I think that's why I tend to gravitate toward those novels and short stories that use structure as part of the storytelling experience.

But I digress. Back to My Name is Red (I keep typing "Read" instead of "Red". Oh homophones, you tricky little devils) and its structure. Or rather, how it's structure can help me figure out what the heck I'm doing.  I think I've talked a bit about this novel that I'm working on. It too is a bit on the sprawling side (or will be) and has a sh*t ton of different narrators. But I'm getting overwhelmed working with all of them. I'm having difficulty keeping it all moving forward in one piece. Sometimes it feels like I'm trying to float it on a cork raft and bits of it keep floating away and the cork breaks off and disintegrates. I can't seem to gather all the pieces that want to drift off. And I'm worried that it's too much. That a reader won't be interested in trying to keep track of so many people, so many voices.

And yet here's this gem. Countless people have thought it worth digging into (of course a kick-ass story helps keep them interested. And an even kick-assier talent for writing doesn't hurt, either. Whatevs.). And that gives me a bit of hope. I can do that. I can figure out what makes that work, what holds all those little bits together for him. And if I can do that, then maybe the success of my own writing won't be so damned elusive. Maybe if I can harness whatever it is that he has, figure out why what he's doing works so well and somehow make it all fit into what I want, the story I need to tell, I can finally tell it.

Sigh. Maybe.

At any rate, I am sure you'll be hearing more about this book as I work my way through it (Thanks to Betsy for the loan of it, by the way).  It's absurdly well-written and I'm eager to dive in.


  1. i've never read this book, or anything by pamuk, but i totally understand where you're coming from in re: reading stuff for pleasure and for technical reasons. when i'm working on a particular thing, i have to read things that "go along" with it. like when i'm working on those aldinger stories, i can't get enough of salinger and hemingway. i've sort of drifted away back to this sea shanty story now (even though i haven't posted anything for a while) and i'm reading all this non-fiction about 16th century exploration and watching treasure island and listening to jimi hendrix and a sh*t ton of blues because they give me inspiration for coming up with my own original sea shanties for these drunken sailors to sing at the bar.

    but, enough about me. your bit about pamuk is tied to your gabe/maggie story, isn't it? any more progress or are you still mapping it out on your living room floor?
    : )

  2. I am intimidated, but I will check these out! :)