My Greatest Orphan, Composing, 25/01/2014

I think I may have written a 135,000 word error.

Let me explain. My first novel, thankfully, does not exist. I wrote it in high school, and it was not very good: an attempt to create a microcosm of the Second World War in the form of a Hitler Youth holiday camp that involved a ridiculously drawn out sequence of comically stupid arguments among the principals about what to do with the corpse of a deer killed with a handgun. There’s an epilogue where the central character among the boys has grown up and runs an informal brothel at an unnamed concentration camp. Let me rephrase my initial assessment: it was terrible and I’m glad almost every copy was destroyed in a house fire.*

* Well, almost every copy. I think somewhere in the house of the parents of a girl that I briefly dated when I was 17, there is a paper copy of this monstrosity. I very much hope it’s been thrown in the trash and that seagulls have eaten it by now.

The first novel I wrote that I’d actually like people to read (and those who have read it have told me it was good) is called A Small Man’s Town. This is a very different style of book: it’s basically realist, and depicts the political and social tensions of Williams era Newfoundland (and some of the ways Bush era America affected it) through the lives of a small group of friends in their 20s during the 2000s. 

Former St. John's city councillor and mayoral candidate
Sheilagh O'Leary. The problem with writing parodies of
Newfoundland politicians is that they more often parody
themselves in their own lives. And with this suit, O'Leary is
just ripping off a 20 year old Mary Walsh gag anyway.
The story is told in two parts, and each part unfolds by jumping around in time, something like how we recall distant times in our memories, cutting from one event to another, sometimes months or years in the past or future. Part one takes place during the protagonist Joseph’s university years, 2001-5, describing his multicultural friendships rooted in campus life. Joseph’s roommate is of Indian descent, his girlfriend’s best friend is a Palestinian lesbian, two other friends in their circle are Korean and Jewish, and there’s an awkward encounter with a Hungarian-descended professor, Elias Farkas. Revolving around Joseph’s girlfriend Laurie, they all are involved to various degrees in left-wing political activity. One early scene is a protest against the 2003 Iraq invasion on campus that comically fails when Laurie and the other organizers panic after a parody of real-life St. John’s politician Sheilagh O’Leary openly supports al-Qaeda in their fight against American imperialism.** 

** Of course, I don’t actually believe the real O’Leary would ever support such a view, but the scene exists to make fun of the contemporary left’s over-the-top anti-Americanism.

Joseph himself is from Holyrood, a small community within commuting distance of St. John’s. There are a few other characters from rural Newfoundland in the first half of the novel, but rural culture doesn’t emerge until part two. The second half takes place from 2006-9, long after Laurie has disappeared from Joseph’s life. He becomes romantically involved with a fictional backbencher in the Danny Williams government. Lucy is from Stephenville, and succeeded through personal charisma and her domineering personality to become the youngest politician in the provincial Conservative caucus. Joseph supports Lucy in her political ambitions, which includes adapting day-long populist rallies around Newfoundland to build support for the nationalist agenda of the Williams government, becoming the one eastern province with the clout and the money to tell the federal government what to do. 

Some characters from part one return. A central storyline in part two involves the failing career and personal life of Joseph’s Korean-Canadian friend from university, and his Indian ex-roommate returns from Toronto to marry his longtime (and pregnant) girlfriend, a Marystown native who he met in part one. 

I think it sounds like an interesting story already, and I haven’t even gotten to the real meat of any of the plots yet. You see, I conceived of this novel as an idea first, in 2005. I wondered about a character who made a radical switch in his political beliefs without really thinking about it, and could justify that with a morally admirable reason. So I crafted Joseph as a character without any particularly strong beliefs, but who so devoted himself to the two women he loved that he embraced their politics without question. 

The problem is that Joseph doesn’t really have any beliefs of his own. He’s a cipher, an observer of all the more interesting stories around him. All the drama and comedy of A Small Man’s Town is driven by other people. He’s the calm centre around which everything exciting revolves, but as a character, he turned out to be pretty empty. I think this is why I’ve had trouble selling the book to publishers.

Well, that and it’s 135,000 words long, an epic length for a first novel, especially when the standard practice in the industry now is to test authors’ quality by publishing short stories and novellas before embarking on a larger project.

But there’s another reason why I don’t think A Small Man’s Town is the artistic success I wanted it to be when I finished writing the manuscript in 2009. More on that tomorrow.

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