This is about “The Runaway Soul”, a novel that was almost universally slammed on publication and has now disappeared into almost total oblivion. Critics felt it was unreadable and/or too self-obsessed for its own good. Only John Fowles, Salman Rushdie and I ever read it and liked it. Rushdie’s view is that you’ve got to read every single sentence (no mean feat) to appreciate it.
What I like about it is that it conveys precisely what it’s like to be alive. I was mesmerised by the brilliant use of language as Brodkey describes living in the moment (the “clattering now”) and have kept that sense of being caught up in time’s flow ever since. Few books have changed my life but this one certainly did. Some of the characters are really well drawn, from a WASP patrician who embodies imperial America to a little girl who probably killed her brother.
I’ve never understood the reception this book received other than a kind of inverted snobbery and a reluctance to engage with anything that might be challenging. It’s brilliant. Read it.
I’ve started the novel. I don’t normally think about prose because I don’t normally read fiction (except for Roth, DeLillo and Bolano) and poetry has always seemed more satisfying. I’ve started the novel against my better judgement because the idea has stayed with me for some years and I can’t get rid of it. I can’t honestly say that it’s a bad idea and walk away so I’m stuck on the third(ish) attempt to do something with it.
I’m very conscious that the first chapter is about dragging the reader in, about persuading him that it’s going to be worthwhile to read the rest so I do partial disclosure, I hint at problems to come, at something nasty lurking in the cupboard. I also try to keep myself interested on the grounds that if I’m bored then everyone else will be too.
So far I’m not bored but the language could use a little polish and this is my current task. I’m not the greatest prose stylist but I know how to make good use of the occasional image without killing the piece. I also need to get better with dialogue. Much information is shared in the first chapter and I need to be able to use different speech patterns to reflect the different characters as they let some of the cat out of the bag.
It’s this re-working that I don’t enjoy, it feels cynical and manipulative but I’m trying to look at it as a necessary evil. I keep telling myself that the idea is strong and valid but already I can feel the glum self-doubt sttling in.
The point of this is to declare my unequivocal admiration for those writers of fiction who need to tell a story and are prepared to go through all kinds of hell to simply get it told. Even bad fiction writers still have the guts and bloody mindedness to see the thing through. Poets simply don’t have that kind of pressure.