Essay 16: The room with no doors
I cannot write fiction. I haven’t managed it yet. I am fine at establishing a mood, and I can write satisfactory descriptions of a room or a dress or a car journey. I am all right with dialogue, although only for short stretches. I am not as good at swearing as I think I am. I am best at first person, obviously, and can do whole long bits of narrative in the voice of a person who turns out to sound exactly like myself. I am better at women than men. I am bad at children and nature and the death of love. If you pay me a million rand to describe a landscape, I will be forced to return the cheque. I am good at dogs and disinterested in cats. I can do a horse or a chicken, but not a pig or a cow. Sex, I cannot do. I try, but I can’t get it right at all. Drugs, same.
These flaws are not fatal. Hardly anyone can write about sex properly. Drugs, same. Most of the stuff that gets written about drugs is so intractably lame, so obviously written by the worst person at the party, that it’s better not to even associate yourself with it. And lots of very good writers can’t do landscape or children at all, or dialogue. And we all forgive them, because they can do everything else. It’s nice to be good at swearing and horses and men, but it’s not essential. The real problem comes in when you cannot do plot.
People disagree about this, of course. They are wrong. People who say that a novel is brilliant despite not having a plot are lying to you and to themselves. They don’t want to read a novel, they want to read a philosophical tract. What they want is an idea that has been dressed up to resemble a work of fiction. You don’t need a plot for that. We are not talking about Nausea, here, or The Stranger. We are talking about when a clever nerd in the Humanities starts to feel their boots getting all pinchy.
Let’s say that you have read a lot of Derrida, a lot of Lacan, and perhaps you have been in the university for TOO LONG. You came of age, intellectually, in the great post-structuralist shift, and nothing has been quite the same since. There is this one bit of Julia Kristeva that really has you worked up, all these years later. You are scared of becoming a cloistered academic, and you are perhaps over-dedicated to insisting on the relevance of theory in the practice of everyday life. You think I should write a novel. It will be a novel designed with the express purpose of being read and studied by academics just like you. It will be prescribed for the next ten years in third year seminars, and people who know better will somehow be coerced into writing a thesis on it. They will know in their hearts that it sucks. It’s not a good book. It is the idea of an even cleverer nerd, and you just had the sass to put some little clothes on it, and call it a novel.
I don’t have this problem, because I am impervious to theory. It finds no purchase in the barren desert of my mind. Even if I wanted to, I am incapable of writing a novel about an idea. My problem is plot. Another way of putting this is that I have a problem with the future. I like to get all my characters into a room and gleefully outline their backstories. I like to have them talk to each other so you see who is the good one and who is the secret Hound. My problem is then what? What are you supposed to do with them then? Last year, the demented writer Rachel Cusk said that she felt fiction was “fake and embarrassing… the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” I don’t think it seems ridiculous – I think it seems great. I just can’t do it. I cannot contrive a single fictional situation. Iris Murdoch said that “A novel must be a house fit for free characters to live in.” My characters can’t even turn on the taps. There are no beds, and just a little hamster where the kitchen should be. My characters are at a party that they are not allowed to leave.
In order to write fiction, you need to have a sense of what is coming up ahead. Is this the same thing as having an imagination? You need that as well, and I have none. The future is entirely murky to me, both my own, and the future of anyone I might like to invent. I am so bad at planning I have tried to make a virtue out of it – planning is suburban, planning is people who go to Mauritius on holiday, planning is a grown man sitting in a Jacuzzi that he had installed at great expense. It’s fine (it’s not fine) to be contemptuous of planning in one’s life, but I have found that it doesn’t work for fiction. You need a vision, and goals, and a sense of the terrain. You need a kitchen where the kitchen is supposed to be.
I started to write a story the other day with two girls in a car, driving a powerful and brittle old woman to her speaking engagement at a book festival. Strong gay undertones. A good bit where the lady is resting her elegant claw on a pile of old recycling. The part where you realise who is the good one and who is the secret Hound. And then I stopped. Poor them: stuck in the car forever with the Diet Coke cans rattling around on the floor.
I should offer my services. I’ll get the characters all together, and point out their important features. This one has a mother who is significantly more attractive than she is; this one has a little sister with problems. I’ll have them all mill around for a while, get them warmed up, and then you come in and tell us all what to do. Show us how to turn on the taps. Show us the door opening onto the street.