Sophie needs less world and more story

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Almost two years ago, I saw Jostein Gaarder give a talk in Beijing.  His general theme was the human propensity for stories: we learn information when it is situated in the context of a story.  Gaarder plainly assimilated the principle without mastering its application.  Sophie's World, which I've just read for the first time, isn't an example of a well-crafted story: it's more of a series of lecture notes for a high school philosophy class strung together with a "frame" that falls apart into an unsatisfying heap by book's end.  

Nonetheless, Sophie's World delighted me in places.  In particular, I was amused because I recalled Gaarder saying that he started out writing Sophie's World without knowing what would happen, and that he spent a lot of time taking long walks around Oslo, trying to figure out how to end the story he'd started.  His resolution actually comes in the middle, not at the end, of the book -- SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to reveal the plot twist -- Gaarder makes Sophie and her philosophy teacher, Alberto, realize that they are nothing more than characters in a book that another man, Albert, is writing as a birthday present for his daughter, Hilde.  The book's plot, such as it is, consists of a not-at-all convincing rebellion of characters against their author.

That said, I love the construct, and I wish Gaarder would've followed it through brilliantly.  His basic insight -- that characters, no matter fictional, seem to have an existence apart from their creator -- immediately resonated with me.  When I'm writing, I often feel like an archeologist, excavating a character that exists independently of me, and that my job is to extract him or her as completely and sensistively as I can.  (In fact, Gaarder uses archeology as a metaphor to describe a process not dissimilar to novel writing -- psychotherapy, which he terms an "archeology of the soul." p. 426.) 

But from what material am I excavating my characters?  Reality?  My imagination?  Another dimension?  I don't know -- probably all three -- but I do occasionally feel that my characters "keep me honest": I can't just make them do whatever I feel like having them do; they have individual integrity, and the range of plot possibilities available to them is determined by their personalities.  I can't make Chastity in Portnoy's Daughter keep her adultery a secret; and I can't force Pip in The Swing of Beijing to call Tyler a loser when he ejaculates prematurely; and even I can't save Dean from his own rotten judgment in Waiting for Love Child (although I probably punish him too harshly).

I am startled every time I feel "push back" from my characters, but I respect "their" resistance because it's guidance on plot development.  The feedback I get from my characters, however imagined (or nonsensical or irrational) that dialectic may be, steers the story on an organic (as opposed to formulaic or externally-determined) course that's consistent with the voice and feel of the created space my characters inhabit. 

Like Gaarder, I don't know what's going to happen when I start writing.  My literary mentor, D.M. Thomas, once wrote to me, "You don't have to know what the end of the journey is.  As Pushkin writes in 'Autumn' -- 'We sail.  Where shall we sail?...'  You are Columbus."  (That's why he's my literary  mentor; the man knows what he's talking about!)  In Portnoy's Daughter, the final chapter, the apotheosis of the story, didn't exist -- even in my most transitory thinking -- until D.M. Thomas told me to write it.  In Waiting for Love Child, my notes for the plot said, "Reveal secret why Lan's parents don't talk to one another."  What that secret was I didn't know until I wrote the chapter.  In both these examples, what I eventually wrote turned out to be "clincher" passages for the plot and meaning of the book.  And those passages function the way they do because I was guided by the characters, not vice versa; or, at least, I wasn't consciously, rationally or cerebrally guiding the story development.

Ultimately, that's my guess about where Gaarder went wrong: he experienced the phenomenon I've described, but he couldn't resist getting cerebral about it, and consequently the life he'd sparked on the page withered.  (He's aware that interference by the cerebellum in reflexive, irrational, creative processes -- like dancing -- is fatal; see the tortoise and centipede story on page 437.)  I can't blame Gaarder; philosophy is cerebral, overly so.  Philosophy is no more conducive to good story telling than physics

I'm not saying that a well-told novel about the history of philosophy is splitting the atom; but it's probably close.      

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on May 28, 2009 7:39 AM.

The politically incorrect imagination was the previous entry in this blog.

Philosophy's new clothes is the next entry in this blog.



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