It’s my first time as a novelist. I imagine my blues must be of the same hue as anyone’s: the same old story of mental blocks, fatigue, unravelling ego and wanton despair. My grand wheeling arcs of narrative seem to be stuck in very prosaic potholes and ruts, and any sense of consistency-in-voice I thought I had developed seems to be hi-jacked at regular intervals by a carnival of bedlamites. Why (my partner asks me) would a character for whom you have been at pains to demonstrate refinement and sophistication, to whom you have been carefully trying to add depth and pathos, turn round to someone and suddenly say: “Go fuck yourself on a fencepost”?
But this is what happens every day in the unreal world of unreal people where the novelist lives. Because the rules are made up as one goes along, plot and character and even theme are subservient to instants of mood. The only constant is neurosis.
Not a moment goes by when I do not desire to go down and potter at the bottom of my fantasy garden, attending and preening my expensive follies, my ice sculptures and marionettes that vogue and prattle in sugar palaces, by turns granting them everlasting bliss or distraction or adventure or pain or death, before they melt or spin off out of my control. If only this task carried the same prelapsarian joy as writing stories at infant school. But the first-time novelist hold himself to account, must constantly ask himself: What, what, what am I doing this for? What have I altered, twisted, rationalised, calibrated, elucidated, placed into perspective, conjured, harnessed, metamorphosed today? Who in their right mind would buy this?
Ah, the dark guilt of the art of writing, the craft, or trade, or whatever it is. I should have gone to law school. Instead, I have become a footsoldier against the cliche: my hatred must be focused and burning against this most elusive of enemies. It’s a dirty war. Most often the victims are innocent and the bullets are blunted. I have set out perfectly good sentences like babies on a hillside; only the fittest, leanest and most muscular survive.
I have become over-familiar with the concept of creative destruction to the extent that I now believe I am Shiva the destroyer. In two years I have already overwritten the ur-novel a hundred times. That means I’ve written a hundred books which didn’t go anywhere. One day I will revisit this invisible republic of dead-end roads, of discarded robes. Somewhere there is a temple full of my burnt thoughts. Perhaps the true novel is there; maybe I have already sent the best idea down the memory hole. It’s depressingly possible.
I am left with clipped, writerly description and hard-lipped, unrevealing dialogue. Everything becomes subservient to the plot. Every novel, in the end, is a pot-boiler, a self-aware compendium of reversals and circles, thresholds and guardians, fog and suspense. No matter the setting, it’s always a quest for a rhinestone; someone will always leap across a crevice to save a sick infant, the wrong person will find a dead body under the plum-tree.
“Characters” become nothing more than a contrived contradiction. Mr X: Materially rich but morally wretched. Miss Y: Gullible but humane. Mrs Z: Hot-blooded but fickle. Sometimes, especially when writing dialogue, I feel my characters are little more than performing seals, passing a luminous, attention-grabbing ball to one another as the pages turn. Isn’t it me that I am really writing about? All these people, surely, are facets of me. How can I know what anyone would say in that situation except me? So is this not a huge exercise in vanity? That’s it. I am writing this so people will buy me, will find me interesting, judge me on the content of my mind’s characters.
“Themes”. That’s a funny one. I always have an imaginary Section 3 of the York Notes running a commentary at the back of my consciousness. How does Hudson convey an atmosphere of moral ambiguity? Is Hudson a feminist? The checklist of things you want to take on becomes interminable, your novelistic shorthand for dealing with them ever more predictable. Man versus nature, the clock and the seasons. Man versus man, the body and the ladder. Man versus woman, the sun and the bull, the moon and the cow. Life into Straw and Art into Gold. Shit, you’ve got to get a labyrinth in there somewhere as well.
Then I hear on the radio that successful novels always evoke sensations memorably. Honey, then, must smell like the quintessential honey, that soft sweet richness perfectly recreated in words. Bonfires must roar and wheeze like angry old lions. The sound of the ocean breakers must fill your eardrum with salt-spray and kelp. Or else, why bother? We’re not in Kansas anymore. There’s so much to do: make the stone stony, pull, tease, contort, trap, fool the assumptions, shift the timeframe, set the commas, upset the old order, define the next, pay the tribute at the tollbooth of beauty. The mirror on the highway demands motion, always; the glass has to show light, dark, all that’s in between. And they told me it was just a matter of sitting down at a desk at eight every morning.
How can creating a novel be like parenthood? You are never sure about your own motives, constantly think of giving up. No, creating a novel is more like playing chess with yourself for months. We are left with three questions: Why did I start this? Where will it take me? When will it end? And that must make me sound totally sad. But I don’t care. I’ll carry on regardless. Go fuck yourself on a fencepost.