I Wrote a Huge Novel With a Great Story Buried Deep Inside It, Composing, 26/01/2014

You see, I think A Small Man’s Town rests on a fundamental error of composition. I developed the novel to work through my central idea of a character who would have a morally admirable reason to make a total reversal of his political beliefs. I’ve known people who have reversed their political beliefs and non-admirable reasons: personal career advancement, growing contempt for the poor, an unthinking embrace of dogmatic extreme libertarianism in response to their previous unthinking embrace of dogmatic extreme Marxism. 

But this novel’s protagonist, Joseph, cares deeply for the passions of the woman he loves; when his partner is a left-wing anti-poverty activist he supports her, and when that relationship ends and he later falls in love with a conservative Newfoundland nationalist he supports her in equal measure. The problem with creating a man without qualities, as it were, is that everything around him is more interesting than he is. 

Slacker and A Scanner Darkly are pretty much the only
Richard Linklater movies that I even enjoy.
I conceived of the novel’s structure as operating something like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, except its free-associative movement would be more temporal than spatial, like memory. A given chapter will include three years worth of events, but move among them non-chronologically, revealing information in an order best suited to provoking the emotions I want in the reader. Common knowledge among the characters early in a chapter is only revealed to the reader in the middle or the end. The problem with Joseph in this setup is that he’s less a character in this movement, and more the camera, so responsive to what’s around him that he doesn’t have many beliefs of his own. Like most pure observers, he’s actually kind of a jerk, the titular small man.

The narrative of A Small Man’s Town consists of Joseph’s perspective. The reader only discovers critical information for the storylines and characters in a-chronological order, but because Joseph is the central observer of events, when he discovers critical information is another dynamic that shapes the plot. So the novel has prominent plots where Joseph is directly involved (Laurie and Lucy’s political ambitions, Laurie’s friend Nadia being emotionally manipulated by a callous ex-girlfriend, the downward spiral of his friend Bernard’s career and personal life from social awkwardness), but there’s also a hidden plot that Joseph only discovers near the end.

I realized only recently that this hidden plot was actually the most interesting in the whole story. Here’s how it rolls in the current manuscript. In part one, there’s a minor character, Albert, who’s just a sarcastic friend of the main principals. He doesn’t really do anything except smoke, read, study biology, and make snide remarks. But he also has a passion for literature, even though he doesn’t want to make a career or a university degree out of it. This leads to some good conversations between him and Jennifer, a young sessional English professor. 

Joseph barely notices this because he’s occupied with the major plots. One scene in particular finds him in an awkward moment at a party: he must walk from the upstairs bathroom past a bedroom with a wide-open door, where a vigorous threesome is happening between Elias Farkas, Mrs Farkas, and Nadia’s ex-girlfriend. Albert and Jennifer have also appeared at this party, appearing like a tactfully hands-off couple. This only becomes important in part two. 

Years later, Joseph works as an acquisitions editor at a publishing company that’s essentially the plaything of the younger gay partner of one of Newfoundland’s richest businessmen. It’s a money pit company made to hide corporate losses in the conglomerate and feed the sentimental dreams of its editor-in-chief, a Peterman-esque incompetent, the 45 year old life partner of a 60 year old mogul. But a manuscript by Jennifer, that English department sessional, crosses his desk.

You see, the boundary between parts one and two is Albert’s funeral. He was killed in a car accident shortly after graduation. Jennifer’s book is an immaculately self-absorbed, pretentiously meta-fictional account of her soul-consuming love affair with Albert and her personal crisis after his death. At that very party where Joseph saw that threesome, Albert and Jennifer were making love in another upstairs bedroom off that hallway; they just had the good sense to make sure the door was closed. Joseph, with Lucy’s encouragement, rejects the book. On top of the manuscript not being very good, he’s too disturbed by Jennifer’s obsessive attitudes regarding his dead college friend. A couple of years later, he finds a much-improved version in a mainstream bookstore, where the prose is less indulgent, the bizarre pretensions (the ghosts of Jennifer’s favourite authors act as her imaginary friends) have disappeared, and her voice is less deranged and more tragic.

But this story, until its final reveal late in the manuscript, barely appears. There’s a brief scene where Albert first impresses Jennifer in class with his immense literary knowledge  for an 18 year old, a conversation Joseph overhears a year later but of which he thinks nothing, and their multiple encounters at that awkward party. Those are the only clues to the hidden story that’s only revealed in the latter half of part two.

And it’s such a better story than the main plots of anti-war politics, Newfoundland nationalism, and a lovesick lesbian. Albert and Jennifer would make such better protagonists than my human camera Joseph. They have such a better concept than a conceptually empty man whose love justifies his radical political shifts. Albert and Jennifer’s story is about a love that could ruin an academic career before it begins, a secret relationship cut tragically short by an accident, revitalized and reconciled through literary creation itself. 

Yet I was so impressed for so long with my ability to hide a story in the witless ignorance of my self-absorbed protagonist that I didn’t understand that this was the real best story of A Small Man’s Town. I even recognized that this would have made the more dramatic, gripping story at the time. But I think I was reading so much modernist literature while I was writing the manuscript that I let myself get carried away with the meta-fictional cheek of hiding such a melodramatic story in the incidental details of a comedy of self-absorption. I can’t look at this manuscript anymore without seeing a mess I made and a pile more work to be done that I don’t know if I’ll ever do.

St. John's is a small town, which I think my last trip back there this Xmas demonstrated very well.
But there are a lot of good stories there if you know where to look.

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