While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Mute That Wasn't

I am still feeling my way into ‘Novel B’ -- the one about alternate realities without being the least bit science fiction.

Today I want to open a window into the process of writing a novel -- this particular window being one week since I started writing sentences as a narrator rather than a guy with an idea (or a conglomeration of ideas).

However, I feel conflicted about putting too much of this project out there before its written. I remember reading a book by the New Zealand playwright Roger Hall about, funnily enough, writing plays. Hall advises all writers not give the slightest mention to anyone of what your are currently writing until you finish it. I have never followed this rule -- it would be impossible to write a novel in a workshop situation that way -- though every time I “speak too soon”, I think of Roger Hall waggling his finger.

So, forgive me if this is terribly vague, but I’m trying to satisfy both parts of me, the documentarian and the superstitious writer.

I have been referring to one of the main characters in ‘Novel B’ as “The Mute” throughout my notes, for want of a better word. He is, in fact, more than mute. All his senses appear unresponsive to the normal stimuli of our world. He is a kind of a local celebrity-cum-oddity (like Wellington’s Blanket Man) and it is the locals who, until today, have been misleadingly referring to this man as “The Mute”.

However, in the course of a labyrinthine Wikipedia session, I began stumbling across multiple “mute” characters in fiction, particularly New Zealand fiction. The biggest, I guess, is Simon in the bone people. I remember getting this out of the library for Marisa when we lived in Wellington and I think she read the whole thing. I picked it up once, skimmed a little, but it was not this kind of book you can read if someone else is reading it.

So I haven’t read the bone people, one of the best known New Zealand novels OAT (soon I will post about acronomics, which I use with tongue firmly in cheek, but for now: OAT = Of All Time, but you say “oat”).

Then, I guess the other well known mute in a New Zealand setting is Holly Hunter’s character in Jane Campion’s film, The Piano. Again, I have seen bits of this film, but have not watched the whole thing.

(I don’t think this is a cultural cringe thing – these works just fall outside the sphere of my usual tastes.)

Anyway, I know enough about these two examples to predict that if I wrote a novel set in New Zealand with a character called “The Mute” – and it got published (!?!) – there would be reviews which drew parallels between this and other mute-d works.

So, first question: Is this a problem?

Well, NZ is a small country. Successes like the bone people and The Piano are rare. I’d rather not appear to tread any ground already trodden. Especially when I haven’t read/seen them fully and came up with all these ideas completely without their influence.

Perhaps I should mention/admit/confess that the idea for the “Mute” character came, in part, from the character of Enrico Fermi (based on the real physicist) in Lydia Millet’s Oh, Pure and Radiant Heart, which I read about this time last year and really enjoyed. Millet’s Fermi was not mute, but he certainly was taciturn. The writer in me swelled with admiration for the way Millet crafted Fermi from so little, and this withdrawn, quiet man became the emotional heart of the novel (no pun intended) for me. It got me thinking about what it takes to make a character sympathetic, and how the less there is of them, the easier it is for other characters and the readers themselves to write over this quiet character.

I filed this thought away, and undercover of darkness this thought started associating with other filed thoughts. The result: well, it could have been yoghurt, but it was actually this character referred to (until today) as “The Mute.”

As I said at the top, my “mute” isn’t just a mute, he’s completely untethered from reality. A better comparison might be the Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (which I have seen – i.e. the film – though I haven’t read Kensey’s book), except he’s not faking it (I think).

This whole comparison thing is a mine field, I tell you.

And it happens with any piece of writing. You name a character Colby, then you discover Donald Barthelme’s story ‘Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby’. (This happened to me; I’d named my character after the cheese). Or you write a novel-length manuscript about a rock band involving misappropriated lyrics and then Johnathan Lethem releases a novel about a rock band and misappropriated lyrics. (Yup, me again).

The irony with this last one is Lethem’s essay in Harper last year, ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’, which is composed almost entirely of other people’s words, often unattributed. The essay was one of the best things I read in 2007, fiction, poetry and greeting cards included.

Despite Lethem’s argument, I do not want to pick up and run with someone else’s ball.

So at this early, early stage, I am taking extra care to finesse out elements which others may misconstrue as derivative or cliché or au fait. In this instance, it’s as simple as coming up with another name the local’s give the character formerly known as The Mute. Perhaps he should be known by a symbol a la TAFKAP? Suggestions welcome.

Looking over what I’ve written, I see the added benefit that if people do start berating me for writing about another mute, I can try and win them over with my (by then, historical) honesty.

Take that, Roger Hall!

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