No matter how long you work at a craft, you can always learn something new. Today’s lesson is: Even if the protagonist has a compelling voice and a strong personality, she should not necessarily be the narrator.
I got stuck about 85 pages into In the Red. I decided to print out the whole manuscript and read it over, having found that oftentimes when you get stuck, your text itself will cue you as to what is supposed to come next. I read along marking it up, realizing for instance that some of the material around page 60 or so should be right in the front of the story. I felt a sense of cautious hope. And then I got to the last dozen pages or so and the whole thing just completely destroyed itself. I’d never seen it happen so fast; it just telescoped like a collapsing building.
It’s wasn’t so much that the plot broke apart (the thing with plot is that you can pretty much pull anything off as long as you do it with enough panache), it was just that the voice totally died. It was unreadable. I was breathless with pain. It sucked more than I thought suck could suck. I had started the book with a voice hoping that eventually a structure would accrete, but instead the lack of structure just completely imploded the voice. What went down?
A partial answer came to me when I read a quote from Joyce’s “The Dead” that a friend had posted on her facebook:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I was quite moved by the beauty of that sentence. Then for some reason, I changed the sentence to first person. Go ahead and try it. Doesn’t it completely suck that way? (The reason being that this sort of intense shameless lyricism just can’t work in first person.)
It dropped like an anvil: I should have never tried to write this book in the first person. It is a third person book. I am a dumbass.
The reason why, I think, is because the novel is so much about erasure, about how much of the protagonist is erased. If the protagonist is the narrator, then you simply know too much, you know where the holes are. Part of the interest of the story is that you’re not supposed to know where the holes are; Irina should be mysterious. That was why she was such a recalcitrant narrator–because she’s not supposed to even be the narrator. She is the object, not the subject. God, I am such a dumbass.
Eventually I will go back to see what can be salvaged from all the rubble. But not yet. I need to take some time away and maybe work on some short stories, smaller structures with lower stakes. When those fall down, the devastation is not quite so complete.