Plundering the Past for the Future, Composing, 18/01/2014

Some pleasant news on the fiction front is that Under the Trees, Eaten has a more solid release date for this March. My editor at Blank Space and I worked out some of the details over Xmas. In addition to the performances I’d like to do, we’ll have some online promotions that will be both fictional and metafictional. But I don’t really want to talk about that today, but about ideas I’ve had lately for a new project.

I’ve written about my ideas for my android character Alice before, particularly the hard sell my initial short story featuring her received. Given some feedback I’ve gotten from the editors of literary journals to whom I’ve submitted the story over the past couple of years, I’m reasonably sure that my morally repulsive first-person narrator is interpreted as an authorial surrogate. I wonder if anyone reads Vladimir Nabokov anymore.

Many protagonists in Philip Roth stories are
also morally reprehensible people, but only
bad readers think his terrible characters are
simple author surrogates. I think our culture
might be too accustomed to interpreting
literature as a twisted self-psychoanalysis
for the author.
I think another difficult element of selling the story is the weird morality of Alice as a person. Underlying her character is a point that I derived from Friedrich Nietzsche: that moral progress means overcoming resentment. Because I conceived of the androids as ethically and intellectually superior beings, they would have a morality without resentment. So Alice has no impulse toward revenge or retribution, and finds such feelings in others disgusting. For her, the only legitimate form of justice is reparative and restorative. 

I don’t think people can understand this fully from the brief moments of her speech in the original story, “Perfect.” She was created as a slave, but wishes no harm or punishment to the slavemasters. At worst, she pities them as pathetic, self-absorbed creatures. She considers gaining enjoyment from the pain of others more like a mental illness than a sin. Such a person is not evil (she doesn’t believe in evil, and I’m not sure I do either), but a broken person whose deranged machinery makes them do terrible things. 

But I was thinking of a new way to approach the character, especially after some discussions with friends about future fiction projects. If the biggest problem with selling the story is its narrator and Alice’s strange morality, then the answer is to uncover them slowly, give the reader time to think of them. So my new idea for an Alice story is a mystery, where the mystery is who Alice is and how she thinks. Her owner-turned-husband Herman is no longer the narrator, but a supporting character.

The protagonist for this new story is another character I’m plundering from a past work that can’t seem to get published. Over 2007-9, I wrote a novel called A Small Man’s Town, about life in St. John’s, Newfoundland in the 2000s from the perspective of a group of young people going to university and trying to find a decent career. This one also has a protagonist that could easily be mistaken for me, but he’s much more passive, to the point of changing his beliefs to fit his romantic partners. I know exactly why I can’t sell this book: it’s 135,000 words long, much too long for the first novel of an untested fiction writer.

But I’m taking a supporting character from A Small Man’s Town to be protagonist of the new Alice project. Elias Farkas is a horn dog professor in A Small Man’s Town who thinks he’s smarter than he really is, and who in the original novel only appears in two scenes: a lecture where he’s intentionally condescending to students, and a party where he talks a 20 year old undergraduate into a threesome with himself and his (younger, second) wife in an upstairs spare bedroom.

This is essentially the same character, but now working in the same UK university as Herman Chesterton. The storyline for this novella-length project is about Farkas suspecting the long-asexual Chesterton of having beaten him at his own misogynistic game. Farkas is dealing with his own problems at the time: his divorce from his second wife, the social awkwardness of convincing the 23 year old former student he’s dating of the lie that he’s interested in her for reasons other than raw lust. I don’t think I’ll narrate the novella from a first-person Farkas perspective, because that would just repeat the problems of the original story. 

So in the midst of his own personal problems, Farkas sees Chesterton with this vivacious, intelligent, beautiful younger wife who appears out of nowhere and seems devoted to him. He doesn’t notice Chesterton’s own devotion to Alice, because he doesn’t really conceive of men’s ability to make themselves emotionally vulnerable. Herman and Alice both keep their mouth shut, so the story revolves around Farkas snooping into their lives, trying to discover their secret in that hopes that he can bring his own self-destructive personal life under control. I don’t imagine it will work out well for him.

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