This next one is a trip. Mr Bell asks us to pick a novel that didn’t work for us. Reread it. And as you do play the role of an editor, based on what you read in this chapter (about middles). Write a long letter to the author suggesting what you would like to see before resubmitting the novel for publication.
Boy oh boy. Off the tippy top of my head, I did not enjoy how Zama ended. That was the philosophically told, beautifully written story of a loser bureaucrat in 17th century Paraguay. The story kicks ass in the beginning and middle. Lust intrigues, constant failure and yearning. It’s powerful. But the end hits you too raw, and feels unfulfilling. Like, nothing good happens, while also nothing bad happens related to the beginning and middle. So it’s a door left ajar, a lock that doesn’t click.
Right now I am reading a novel by a Romanian author, which is called Life Begins on Friday. It’s only page 35 and so far I’ve seen 35 typos. Disjointed paragraphs. Yes a little bit of interest with the setting (1890s Bucharest) and wacky characters, but you don’t know who is talking to who, and this isn’t a style choice either, I’m afraid. It’s poor translation over weak writing . . . so far. I’m going to read to the middle, because I like to give books at least to their turning point before putting them down.
Given that the exercise asks us to write to an author regarding their middle act, I’m going to write to Nabokov, since the last book I put down in the middle was his, and is called Pale Fire.
. . .
Dear Professor V Nabokov,
Synonymous with style, you have and always will be an inspiration to me. In particular, I’m want to honor your lectures, your letters, your poems, and your novel Lolita. They alone are enough for me to preach your name for as long as I can speak mine aloud.
That said, I have a serious grievance with you, which I hope this letter inspires you to redress. It regards Pale Fire, which is the last (also one of the few) books which I had to put down, unfinished. Yourself as a reader should empathize this with, given that a books duty is to glue itself to one’s hands. While, arguably, yourself as an author might say that a complete stranger putting down your oeuvre doesn’t hurt you at all. Especially, considering you’re dead. But I assure you, Professor, it hurts me — and what writer wants his readers hurt?
Firstly, I purchased a hardcover copy of it, when I could have just as easily pirated it. Secondly, I packed it into a small nylon suitcase which I took with me to Eastern Europe, when I moved here. There was an unfortunate episode at the airport where a nasty airport check-in desk clerk with a mole on her face rudely asked me to throw away many valuable trinkets from said suitcase, because a digital monitor implied that my suitcase weighed too much. Thirdly, I have kept my mouth shut about this book in real life, like holding it in like a huge vitamin B pill in my cheek unswallowed, for fear of tainting your good name.
I shall not be one of those resentful authors who bashes the giants on whose shoulders he stands. I know you had no qualms with bashing the giants on whose shoulders you stood upon, so it isn’t that you deserve my mouth shut. Alas, you cause me pain with your book, like a burden.
Pale Fire acts as a poem with extensive annotation. The poem tells the life of a fictional character, who becomes the obsession of the annotation’s narrator. This narrator, who is annotating, tells three stories in the margins of the long poem. The first about how he was buddies with the poet. The second about how there was a once beloved king soon exiled from his land. And the third about an assassin sent to murder the king, but ends up murdering the poet. The poet was in fact murdered, which is how the narrator came in possession of the poem. While the beloved king and the assassin stories seem invented. If we look at the book in just this way, at a helicopter view, the poem is rather ingenious.
Alas, here we have an example of a story from a great idea that doesn’t hold itself up. Sometimes just a powerful idea can hold up a whole novel, like Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. A book that I didn’t like, though nevertheless kept me reading just because of a powerful idea. Now, here, in Pale Fire, with a great idea, no.
Probably, which is to say most likely, which is a form of maybe, I would like this poem-story in the future. But until I reread it, let me list some suggestions from one unhumble reader to an unhumble author:
- There is no urgency in the narrator, no need to annotate, no loss if he fails to narrated. I often wondered, couldn’t he put down the pen and live about his life? Apparently he used to obsess over the dead poet, who he tried so hard to become friends with. But after the murder, there is no risk of this obsession hurting the poet, nor any risk of hurting the narrator. My suggestion is that the police think the narrator killed the poet, keeping the assassin as a possibly made up character.
- Or maybe the assassin is at large and is after the narrator too.
- Or if not that, at least clarify how the narrator commits suicide at the end. According to Wiki, because I didn’t finish the book, remember, you stated in an interview that the narrator stuffs himself. Why not make that explicit from in the beginning? Saying something like “after this annotation, I will be gone.” Meaning, the narrator wants to end his life but he absolutely must finish annotating this great work because he himself never accomplished anything in his life? Just an idea. It would keep me reading.
- More middle act ideas: maybe the widowed wife of the poet is bringing charges against the narrator for having stalked them this whole time, or for having the only copy of the manuscript/poem. That would increase the urgency of the narrator, who must work round the clock to finish this annotation before the forces of good triumph over his evil scheme. If not this, then there most be a cost to him for stealing the manuscript in the first place! The wife never liked the narrator, so there could come to bear on the plot.
- Other middle act ideas, you already write in slow paced, detail rich passages, but how does any of this action in the past prevent the narrator from completing his objective? As he narrators I feel this is all in the past and that it doesn’t prevent or progress the narrator at all. Objective: write the annotations. Confrontation with obstacles? None. The obstacles set in the past do not effect the meta story. The narrator is safe in his bedroom the whole book, typing away annotations and recounting the past. My suggestion then is to find a way to make the story of the exiled king and the assassin related the the objective of finishing the book.
- Maybe telling the story of the king will reveal that the narrator is the king, but explicitly. It’s already assumed they are the same.
- Or maybe . . . I don’t know.
Look, Professor, you are a genius. Surely you had your reasons for doing it your way. And I confess I read your book on the subway and on the sidewalk and on the plane and in a new country. Maybe I should have read it with “a pencil and a dictionary,” as you advised once in a lecture. Surely, you will reply to my suggestions with your suggestions for being a better reader.
Now that would be something — not a resubmitted version of Pale Fire, which continues to appear in the top 100 best books lists — but you helping me to become a better reader, a better person. That I would appreciate very much.
Why do you think I read your books in the first place?
All the best, and sincerely,