Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Being Written

Willaim Conescu

The book takes the premise that one of its character is aware, or thinks he’s aware, of the novel being written around him. He hears the scratching of the author’s pencil as he encounters different people and events, and calculates that it’s because he’s a minor character in their book. Desperate to become more central, he works to insert himself into the stories of others, through the process of deception, manipulation, romance and eventually murder. It’s an intriguing premise for a novel in several ways, and lends itself to the kind of intensive meta-literature that I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past. I found this work rather weak and frequently infuriating, however, in no small part because of the way it engaged with its main premise. Fundamentally it doesn’t really do anything with the setup. It postulates a situation that’s either a metaphysical oddity to say the least or an indication of irregularly recurring schizophrenia and then just moves on to a shallow playing out of events, clearly so impressed with its own cleverness that it expects the readers to follow along merrily without question or further responsability for the author to do anything. The book doesn’t launch into a complex inquiry on the nature of writing or the relation of the author to the text. It doesn’t break down assumptions prevalent in the state of writing and the way the final text is considered. It doesn’t explore the process of forming a narrative in drafts or struggling with conflicting ambitions. All that the titular "being written" involves is one character in the story that thinks he hears pencil scratches, and changes his behavior because of this belief. That’s all there is to it, the author remains completely unknown and unknowable. The speculations involving what book it is or the wider relation of the awareness of the story element to the actual story remain arbitrary and unaddressed, plainly the book isn’t concerned with actually addressing that aspect of things.

Some of this element could be taken as a premise that just didn’t work for me, what makes it harder to bear is how plainly smug the book is into its ostensibly unique narrative pattern and underdeveloped premise that hangs the whole plot on. Further, there’s a problem in that the pattern of pencil scratching and belief in authorial modification doesn’t actually match how any novelist actually works. The premise is very hard to suspend disbelief on at several counts, but even more fatally it works itself into a fundamentally pointless situation. The very emphasis on second-guessing meaning and underlying purpose just point up on how arbitrary the whole venture is. Doubly so if one assumes the reality-bending content is just a mask, and it merely covers the protagonist’s insanity. At that point the framing becomes too obvious and too self-effacing, crashing down the whole clevereness of the account into a literal element that should not be believed. At most the story works as a dramatization of the notion of every villain being the hero of their own story. In itself that’s not a unique or powerful enough insight to base a story on, and in this context literalizing it kills the message, offering a type of narrative justification that rests on....narrative justification, circling round to an arbitrary and guesswork-driven process of assumed infallibility.

Another issue is the very quality of writing. My general stane of reading isn’t such as to demand a high quality of prose or perfect book construction for every work. Provided it has a reasonable pace and engaging story a number of faults can be overlooked. However, it struck me as an inherent problem with Conescu’s novel that it forced so much attention on the issue of writing and quality of story construction--and then ended up being itself rather badly written. To an extent that may have been intentional, an ironic statement involving an ever greater level of subjectivity and breakdown of expectation. Intentional or not it doesn’t work well, and makes for the book a fairly awkward experience. The biggest offender is the laziness of the way the whole ’search for the pencil sounds segments’ is conveyed, with a menail second person to push the reader into the situation of hearing the writing. It’s not clever, it’s not insightful and it’s not fun. More generally the simplistic elements in the novel undermine it repteatedly, from an overly on the money shift between perspectives linked on the closing lines to a weakness of description that make it difficult to truly believe in the related circumstances. More generally, the characters are two dimensional, and the plot is at once highly awkward and rather padded. For major stretches there are just things happening, with little in the way of inherent links of direct dramatic tension, making for a basically unengaging reading experience.

All of this stuff is rather awkward and comes across as pretentious rather than genuinely clever, but it’s harmless enough in the end. The point in the book where I moved from aesthetic dislike to moral disapproval involved the character Graham, the husband of the woman that’s romantically involved with the "protagonist". He starts off as a seemingly minor plot foil, but then develops his own perspective and arc that carries much of the length of the novel. Graham’s story involves putting out adds in local papers and being paid for sex with a variety of other men. This tendency is described as partly mercenary but mostly psychosexual gratification, a type of pleasure that comes specifically from the sordid and mercenary nature of the encounters, facilitated by Graham being the sexually dominant one within each encounter. It’s hard to know where to start in assessing this element; there’s the equation of homosexuality with inherence dominace or powerlessness, the reducing of the character to this single sexual quirk writ large, the failrue to depict the situation or character as holding any respect. Yes, the heterosexual characters in the book are shown as pretty petty, selfish and ethically hideous as well, and to an extent one could say that it’s not signaling anyone out, almost all of the cast are shown in an unfavourable light. However the heterosexual characters aren’t fetishized or shown to have their core problems be directly bound up in their sexuality the way Graham’s is. There are other homosexual characters, but they appear only as briefly seen As a result, I was deeply uncomfortable across wide sections of the novel, and have to regard it as reactionary in its take on depicting gay characters. I can believe that it’s not an intensional slur and proceeds from ignorance, but it’s also an ignorance that’s not really excusable in the twenty first century, and touches on an array of troubling heteronormative biases. And, frankly, if the intention wasn’t to make a point of homosexuality as being fairly sordid and tending to dysfunctional relationships with other people, I’m at a loss as to why these scenes featured in the novel, from a strict plot sense, insofar as there is a plot, they’re gratuitous.

As I mention below, and will plug for now, this book reminded me in many ways of Caitlin Kiernan’s 2009 novel the Red Tree. Intense meta-writing, using literature as commentary on literature, features a flawed, psychologically commentary homosexual character. However it works vastly bettter on multiple levels, to the extent that The Red Tree was one of my favorite books of the past year and Being Written....isn’t. Notably it features much more eloquent and better structured writing, does a lot more with the ambiguity on what is real and what is framed by a writer. Plus, it comes across as vastly more sophisticated in showing a problematic and messily complex gay character without making them less of a human being. There are basic differences in intent for the two books--most notably Conescu’s novel is mainstream while Kiernan’s works mostly in Lovecraftian horror--but fundementally my reading found Kiernan succeed in an ambitious project while Consescu fails at a far more modest and muddled one.

For virtues, it is quite short, moderately engaging on the surface level, has some clever moments and reads very smoothly. It’s not a book that troubles one for too long, even with all the issues I had with the book I finished it off in a couple of sittings. It’s not a bad book in the sense of beng boring or particularly grueling to get through. It is however a highly problematic work that is not effectively envisioned, plotted or written, and the homophobia prevalent in it gives more incentive to recommending against it.

Similar to and better than: Flesh and Fire by Laura Gilman
Similar to and worse than: The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan

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