Jigsaw Novels  

The American author John Dos Passos, who is sometimes described being as an author of jigsaw novels, said something with which I very much agree. ‘If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works’. And so, on this occasion, I take a glimpse into Hell – even a dip of the toe into the flames.

I slightly resist the term ‘Jigsaw Novel’ when applied to own recent books, since, like all such labels, it is essentially reductive of what is in fact a fairly simple approach to storytelling. A jigsaw is as two-dimensional as any dime-store novel or pot-boiler, and a jigsaw, if we want to analyze it in narrative terms (which of course we often don’t, for why would we bother?) tells far more lies than truths. It says the image can be bordered, in an entirely closed system, where nothing outside of the frame has even the slightest relevance -- except of course the usually pretty picture on the front of the box, which the puzzler knows he must build steadily and patiently towards. The pieces do not fit together in any way but one. That is the whole point of the endeavour. So we already know the journey before we even set out. We know the beginning, the ending, and how we are going to connect them. The only jouissance, to use a Lacanian term, is in arrival at that moment of relieved self-congratulation when we finish the ultimately meaningless picture. But then what do we do? Break it up again? Start another jigsaw? Smoke the equivalent of what used to be the post-coital cigarette? And feel the sadness of inevitable completions? Any novel that attempted to function on such a basis of narrative would not attract too many readers.

The jigsaw is two dimensional -- literally ‘a cardboard cut-out,’ to employ a term that would be insulting when applied to any fictional character -- and so are its themes and preoccupations. Nobody has ever seen a jigsaw of somebody dying, of a couple making love, of a woman giving birth, of a murder being committed, of Heathcliff in the storm, of a man eating a madeleine and remembering his times lost. The jigsaw’s range of subjects is the almost entirely photogenic, the reassuring, the safe, the stable, the serene, in a way that the novel’s has never been. In fact, the jigsaw could be completely blank and it would still function perfectly – the picture is only there as an aid. There will never be a jigsaw about Auschwitz -- we would find such a thing horrifyingly inappropriate. But if there were no novels about evil we would think there was something wrong. The form and the content must fit.

The territory of the novel, from the form’s first appearance, has been vast, capacious and daring. The shipwreck, the riot, the revolution, the storm, the knights charging windmills, the madwoman in the attic, the children of the ghetto, the pickpockets of London, the explorer who finds himself in a land of little people, the Wuthering Heights, the depths. Through these territories, and many others, has gone wandering the novelist, with only his words as lamp. He has seen the hunchback in the cathedral, and Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield and Emma Bovary, Count Dracula, Leopold Bloom. What a pantheon, what a party, what a multitude of selves. The novel has the capacity to face drama, even horror, as no other art form can do. The original Virtual Reality, it downloads more quickly than broadband, and its effects, as we know, are more widespread.

So the jigsaw is the slightly wrong metaphor, in my view, but I know what it means when it is employed. And I think of my own books – certainly my last two novels, Star of the Sea, and Redemption Falls – as perhaps more explicable in structural terms if I say they are very simple books. I have tried to set up narratives that see things in the round, as though the audience for the play were sitting in a circle and not obediently in front of the proscenium. But this has been done, in no sense whatsoever, to attempt experimentation for its own sweet sake. I think of myself as a very conservative writer in that sense: I dislike experimentation in fiction and especially dislike novels where the writer is telling me I have to work. I don’t want to work when I am reading a novel. (Often, I don’t want to work at all.) It is only that writing a novel requires a very great deal of work if you would like to attract any readers, which I would. What I have tried to do is to learn from the storytelling giants of the past and the present - to tell a story that keeps faith with life’s modes. Ezra Pound said ‘fundamental accuracy of description is the ONE sole morality of writing.’ And Marvin Gaye sang ‘Tell it Like it Is.’ This, I believe, is the task of the writer. To describe the world to itself in a way that is truthful. To tell it like it is. That’s all.

The traditional 19th century novel employs chronology ruthlessly. Not for nothing is Dickens’s masterpiece Oliver Twist subtitled ‘A parish boy’s progress’; for often built into chronology is a deeply ideological assumption that order exists in some ineluctable sense, that it cannot be escaped from except fleetingly, dishonestly, and that we need only find our track towards it and everything will be fine, and there will probably be a marriage on the last page. The boy gets the girl. The bad get punished. The good die young, or very old. The word ‘Progress,’ in English, is both noun and verb, and of course it is the totem of every political party in the world, whether of the left, the right, or the centre. It was also the guiding goddess of most English language novels before Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Thus we find ourselves in a fictive world that is ineffably strange, where everything is centrifugally swept into the unforgiving forwardness of narrative. But life is not like this, as we know.

We carry the past and the future as we go. We drag anchors that are attached to us – indeed we sometimes cling to them. And we follow the light at the end of the tunnel, even when it turns out to be an oncoming train. The very essence of the human is to experience time in this way. Eliot observed, in a deeply truthful line, that time past and time future are perhaps contained in time present. This is a line that would be recognised by Joyce and Beckett, by Proust or Toni Morrison, by Muddy Waters, by Swift, by many other geniuses whose stories have been treasured, and by anyone who ever felt the pull of memory. We also carry the pasts of those people around us, and frequently, also, their futures, which we embody, because we ourselves are part of that future, and will be part of our loved ones’ pasts. So the notion that any real story starts at A and moves uncomplicatedly to Z is really a profound untruth. Even the alphabet itself does not always work in this way, as a glance at any computer keyboard will reveal.

Sometimes novels that make at attempt to structure themselves around more self-evident realities are seen as experimental or even subversive of the form. But in fact it is the traditional novel which is most literally subversive, for it denies the basic textures of everyday existence with such subtlety and cleverness and often delicious craft that we do not even realise what it is doing. With what artifice and skill the traditional novelist works to construct his radical trickeries.

Multiplicity of narrative form may seem relatively new in the novel, although, in fact, it is no such thing. It has existed in the novel from at least the time of my countryman, Laurence Sterne, whose masterpiece Tristram Shandy might be regarded as the first jigsaw novel, among the many other wonderful things it is. But it has existed for centuries in the Irish, English and Scottish ballad tradition too, and in the immigrant songs of Appalachia, and in American gospel singing, which are often, of course, all related. Take the Scottish song Anachie Gordon, for example. With multiple narrators, including possibly a ghost, and a hero who never appears until the final verse, and many points of view, and even different tenses, the text, although so ancient that we cannot know its age, radically destabilizes the assumptions of narrative itself. And one suspects that it does this not to inflame undergraduate curiosities, but to say something in form about content. Reality is change. Stories are change. The ground is shifting beneath our feet. These truths are the real subject of Anachie Gordon; its plot, if it has one, is not.

And again, when we look at the some of the oldest stories out culture possesses, we see the modes of fragmentation everywhere. The Greek myths, as we know, were originally spoken, not written – indeed, they may be the reason why written poetry came to exist. But the text, in this worldview, as regarded as essentially only a kind of reusable pattern for the teller, who may break it, bend it, twist it out of shape or stretch it to whatever purpose is apposite. And what is the Bible, that stupendous work of Magic-Realist literature, if not a kind of jigsaw novel? Four separate accounts of the life of its hero, containing reports (often contradictory) of the utterly impossible and supremely outlandish, and spectacular events we might encounter in Marquez or Vargas Llosa, but here described as literal truth. Angels! Talking serpents! Dead men walking! In the beginning was the Word, the scripture tells us. But perhaps, in the beginning, was the Mystery.

And consider those fantastic words at the end of the gospel of John. ‘And there are many more wonders that Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I think the whole of the world could not contain the books that should be written.’ How I love the childishness and innocence of that beautiful line.

The world is stranger than we can hope to understand – to picture it, to imagine it, is immediately to make a puzzle. Because that is what the subject of the picture is. Thus, the writer using radical modes is actually the figurative, and a Henry James, a Charlotte Bronte, is the absolute revolutionary, since James and Charlotte Bronte believe the demonstrably impossible is true -- that the history, the touch, the DNA of an entire society, its emotional fingerprints, its falsehoods, its dreams, can be told in a linear description of one of that society’s persons, in a language, that because of conventional Anglo-Saxon anxieties, can not even mention sex. Remarkable! Incredible! Such suspension of disbelief! And oh, the brave technique used by every novelist who ever wrote ‘He thought [such a such]’ or ‘She felt [this and that]’, when if we could summarize all our feelings into one punchy adjective, we would have no need of psychiatrists (or novelists).

Human existence is ludic, a Rubik cube we can’t solve, no matter how many times we turn the squares. And history is not like the novel, at least not the traditional novel, with its neatly cut paragraphs and surveying past tense – as though lives may be observed from some high hill of morality where everything has been stabilized by time. The writer of historical novels needs always to remember these most essential facts; otherwise what he is doing is not literature at all, it is playing with themes instead of people.

I like a novel that feels as though you can walk into it, look around, touch the walls, the way we walk into a piece of great music, like Handel’s Messiah or Philip Glass’s Satjagraha. These are structures we want to experience again: one visit is not enough. I want the potholes of a novel, the bumps, the flaws, the cracks in the ceiling, the draughts. I don’t want it to be smooth; I want to see the textures. I want fiction with friction, jaggedness, juice. I want the words to rub together so the sparks fly in my face. I am tired of the domestic interior, the suburban adultery, the jealousies of campuses, the cerebral solipsism. Great, great novels have been made of these themes but also many bad ones, too many. And I can say with Anatole Broyard, ‘the more I like a book, the more slowly I read it.’ This spontaneous talking-back to a book is one of the things that makes reading so valuable. We are jigsaws to one another in the end.

In James Joyce’s great Ulysses there is almost no story at all. If that greatest of novels is, in any sense, a jigsaw, it is a puzzle that can never be completed. The pieces do not fit. That is the whole point. Rummaged from different boxes, thrown into the air, then placed in close proximity while not actually inter-clicking, they nevertheless can be arranged into deeply beautiful shapes that stir our profoundest recognitions. And every time we read it, we rearrange it differently. Thus it bursts into life again. There is no order, Joyce is saying. There is no destiny waiting. It is only that those whom we love become our destiny. Another way of saying the same thing, or a similar thing, was found by the Irish poet Louis McNiece, who suggested that the proper matter of the poet was always to remember ‘the drunkenness of things being various.’

The diverse is beautiful. And perhaps the diverse is itself beauty. It seems to me essential that we have people in the world who want to experience or even to dare to try and make beauty, with such abilities as they have, when ugliness is so widespread and profitable and apparently catching on that if one could buy stocks in it one would be a billionaire. There is a property crisis, we are told, but not an ugliness crisis. Invasions are justified on the basis of non-existent weapons, torture is called liberation, the hangman a hero, and everything Orwell told us has turned out to be true. Only his date of 1984 was wrong. Big Brother is a reality, or certainly reality TV. Language is debased on an everyday basis, often by being made too smooth. The best readers, once remarked Philip Roth, ‘come to fiction to be free of everything that is not fiction.’ But that beautiful remark is not quite true. The best readers come to fiction because of the paradox it offers. To know, briefly, what it is to transcend the self and to imagine, briefly, what it is to be someone else, is to come to know more profoundly what it is to be oneself.

Anyway, I am rambling. I am getting off the point. You are always tempted in situations like the composition of these remarks to construct programmes, manifestoes, slogans, rallying cries, positions, stances -- those haiku of the definitive -- to wave flags, nail down carpets, divide the tenors from the sopranos, plant banners into the surface of one’s moon. I think every writer is haunted by the nagging possibility that nobody, anywhere, is listening to a single word he says. So that when the opportunity of an audience ever comes along, the writer tends to seize it and press it to his breast for reasons essentially more psychotherapeutic than artistic. But every good writer believes dogmas are really absurdities, which is itself a very dogmatic thing to say, I know, but I throw myself upon the mercy of the jury. A writer works with the organic, the ruminative, the strange, the contradictory, the misunderstood – I suppose the word is ‘the mysterious’ -- far more with the absences of a story than with whatever presences it incarnates, knowing everything about a story is in what you leave out, and knowing so very little else that he must write in order to grope a way towards anything. But if we are in the business of establishing credos, let me join in the game. Chronology wants to persuade us of absolute truth, and music wants to persuade us that all things are relative, and the approaches to the kind of fiction that is sometimes called ‘jigsaw’ are often trying to work in the borderland.

I conclude this brief (and strangely enjoyable) visit to Hell by raising my eyes towards the heavens. There I see the ten commandments of the jigsaw novel on burning tablets, and if I can decipher them, I will end by sharing them. Being jigsaw, they are not necessarily in the right order just yet – the reader will have to shape them as best she can.

I: A story should never answer all the questions it poses. Nor should it pose questions that can only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

II: A novel is always its style and almost never its ideas.

III: A novel’s style is its idea. And its idea is its style.

IV: A novel, even when pessimistic, should always be on the side of life.

V: Most novelists have nothing ‘to say’ in the form of the novel.

VI: Novels are not slogans, although they can work as those – but usually the good ones do not. Novels are about people, the business of being human, and those who want to write them need to love the main implication of that fact, which is that the novel will mean many things to many readers. If I wanted to say just one thing, I would hire a hoarding over a motorway, or plant it in flowers on a lawn. If I wanted to say just one thing to one person, I would write a letter and seal it. Novels are something else. In a way, they are almost nothing to do with writing. Certainly, what every novelist needs first is a way of seeing. The rest is only a matter of learning styles.

VII: Kafka said that the novel is an axe to the frozen sea around us – but an axe needs jagged edges or it cannot do its job.

VIII: The writer is doing something much less creative than the reader does. It is the reader, in fact, who constructs the story. The writer is merely providing the materials – important work, but only half the process. The reader, in the end, is singing the song. The writer only provides the sheet music.

IX: Every writer is first a reader, and must always be a reader.

X: Samuel Beckett, in his eightieth year, was asked by an interviewer if he wrote ‘experimental fiction’. This is what he said: ‘I write about myself with the pencil and in the same exercise book as about ‘him’. It is no longer ‘I’, but another whose life is just beginning.’ They are words I revere. I think they were hard-won. If I had a gospel, a religion, a faith, an adherence, those lines would be its final Credo. To understand the deep truth embodied in those two sentences is a good reason for wanting to write fiction.



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