A novel in progress is a box of holes. As you go along you keep trying to fill them, until you run out of stomach, patience, or box. You never run out of holes.
When I was writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the biggest hole, unfilled for the longest time, was the super-powered costumed hero dreamed up by my eponymous protagonists. Every gambit had already been played, often several times: all the animals, all the colors, all the power sources, all the gems and legends and meteorological phenomena, all the synonyms for “amazing” and “fast.” Furthermore, I needed the hero invented by my heroes to reflect, embody or at least offer ironic commentary on their struggles, their conflicts, maybe even on the themes of the novel itself. For years I plugged that particular hole with a crude stopper - a wielder of light-blasts with the lame moniker of Captain Sunbeam.
Then, one random day fairly late in the game, the muse tossed me a life buoy, a little magazine for obsessives, called Comic Book Marketplace. The first issue to cross my path contained an article about genius comic-book illustrator Jim Steranko’s early career as an escape artist in the sideshows and fairs of central Pennsylvania. An escape artist! In all the history of superheroes, there had been only one super-powered escape artist, Mister Miracle, and he, too, had reputedly been based on Jim Steranko. I knew the moment I read the article that I had found my hero: Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay called him the Escapist.
CAPTAIN SUNBEAM. Imagine.
Do you ever do that thing where you get so into a book that what’s happening to the characters or in the story starts to feel like it’s happening to you? Like, it’s been raining for the last 20 pages and you look up to see the sun and the sky and for a moment, you don’t know what’s going on?
I was reading Telegraph Avenue on my break today and when I closed the book to go inside, the miasmic sense of worry and doom was so palpable I had to stop and breathe and say to myself, “You are not Archy Stallings. You are not slowly dismantling your life through indecision and fear. I mean, you could, that’s definitely your M.O., but you are not currently doing that calm down.”
In 1845, a critic for the patrician North British Review decried [the work of Charles Dickens] as an unhealthy alternative to conversation or to games like cricket or backgammon. Anticipating Huxley and Bradbury by a century, he railed against the multiplying effects of serialization on the already hallucinatory powers of the novel:
The form of publication of Mr. Dickens’s works must be attended with bad consequences. The reading of a novel is not now the undertaking it once was, a thing to be done occasionally on holiday and almost by stealth … It throws us into a state of unreal excitement, a trance, a dream, which we should be allowed to dream out, and then be sent back to the atmosphere of reality again, cured by our brief surfeit of the desire to indulge again soon in the same delirium of feverish interest. But now our dreams are mingled with our daily business.
Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion (via thenotes)
Q: I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.
A: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
(Claire Messud gave Publishers Weekly the answer it deserved last week. She’s on the show tomorrow. Tune in to see what answers she gives Terry!)