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

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Word I’ve Known For Quite Some Time, But Am Yet To Hear Anyone Else Say

Bouleversement n.:
Complete overthrow; a reversal; a turning upside down.
(Literal French translation: ball rolling over)

How you might use this word in a sentence if you were F. Scott Fitzgerald:

For the second time in his life Amory had had a complete bouleversement and was hurrying into line with his generation. (This Side of Paradise)

Modern equivalent: backflip (I guess).

But backflip (the sound and the manoeuvre) is too angular for the process of gradual but significant overturning. Bouleversement (\bool-vair-suh-MAWN\) is more rounded; the image of a ball (or planet) rolling over more apt for what I touched on in last Sunday’s Status Report. My bouleversement on Novel A.

In that post I discussed my waning enthusiasm for Novel B and alluded to my preference for the kind of fiction Novel A aspires to, but I omitted one important, specific point.

Here’s that point:

The book I had been listening to on my iPod was Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), as read by Rupert Degas. In January/February this year I listened to Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1997), which I blogged about here.

From the first words of A Wild Sheep Chase the similarities to the later novel started to spring forth. Both novels have a male, late 20’s/early 30’s, passive, detatched (etc etc) first person narrator. The voice of narrator—his way with words, the way he manoeuvres through a story—was almost identical in these early passages. I thought perhaps this was due to the same person, Rupert Degas, reading both audiobooks. This may have alerted me to the similarities sooner, and underlined them, but it was not the ultimate source of the similarities. Perhaps, if it were just the voice of the narrator, I could also point a finger at the translator, Jay Rubin, but it was not just the voice of the narrator, it was his character. And the similarities between the books did not end with the narrator. Oh no. That was only the beginning.

Structure: Sheep Chase evolves into a quest for a) a strange looking sheep with a star on its backside, b) understanding what lies behind the quest itself and c) understanding what lies behind life itself. Wind-up Bird is a series of quests (finding a lost cat, discovering why his wife left him…), each one supplanting by something bigger, until the quest is, once again, to attain understanding.

Characters: the narrator’s unnamed girlfriend with the magic ears is split in two in Wind-up Bird to become Malta and Creta Kano; the boss with psychic/supernatural powers becomes the Okada’s brother-in-law Noboru Wataya.

Style: There are chapters in both books in the form of letters from other characters to the narrator (the Rat, Mei Kasahara); historical information/anecdote is crowbarred into both contemporary narratives (both books feature the Manchukuo episode in WWII).

Minutiae: in Sheep Chase the narrator describes a bird’s call as being like the winding of a watch spring, and darkness as like “the bottom of a well”.

It was sort of fun to find these parallels, but a ‘sort of fun’ game is not enough to usher me towards a bouleversement.

Wind-up Bird is more than twice as long as Sheep Chase, and is more than twice as good… No surprise given Murakami had fifteen or so years to think about the re-imagined passive divorcee on a reluctant quest story, and the lessons learnt writing four more novels before Wind-up Bird (one of which, Dance Dance Dance, was a non-contiguous sequel to Sheep Chase).

This was the important thing for me. That Murakami essentially rewrote a story because he knew it could be done better. No matter that the first book was already out there and people could accuse him over going over the same ground.

Perhaps it was all the similarities I was finding while listening to Sheep Chase, but it only seemed natural to look at what Murakami did and compare that with my situation. I had a manuscript which garnered me praise from agents and publishers like, “I really like Craig Cliff’s brain” and “terrific set pieces”, but these were the blow-softeners for the inevitable, “Who would buy this book?”, “I don’t know how to cope with this book”, “it never quite came to life for me as a novel.”

[These are all exact quotations. I’m not one to burn a rejection letter.]

When I tried rewriting in late 2007, I changed the setting and re-focused the narrative, but it there was still something off. I had that sinking feeling that I was throwing bad money after good (or should that be the other way around?): the changes I was making would not make it a sellable proposition.

So I stopped working on it.

The more time that passed, the better I was able to align the flaws I saw in the novel with the problems important publishing people had with it.

Then I had an idea for a story that bore some striking resemblances to my shelved, semi-butchered, manuscript. It was the same, but different. But I was afraid to go back there because I had roped that whole mental area off with Danger Keep Out tape.

Seeing Murakami write the same novel, but different, gave me the kick up the bum I needed to return to Novel A. I haven’t left it fifteen years and written four novels in between like Murakami, but I think I’m a smarter writer now than I was fifteen months ago.

And my other learnings from the last few months (my heart isn’t in cut-and-dry realism; I can write 3,000 words a day if the planets align) help set the ball rolling over.

So here I am. At the beginning of a new Novel A. I have the advantage that my Wild Sheep Chase was not published, so I can borrow liberally from it and no one (except my gran and my girlfriend) will call me out for being a dried up hack.

But I am changing most of the character’s names, if only to convince myself that they are different and this is a different story.

And I’m on the look out for a snazzy working title. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the book. Just something I can name the folder in which I save everything related to the novel.

I can’t believe I said “snazzy”. I sound like a drunk version of my mum. It must be time for bed.

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