I’m sitting in the back garden, at about 5:30 in the morning. It’s dark, but pleasantly cool, and I can hear the rustling in the vines along the fence-line; I’ve been keeping the back light on all night, so that when I wake up at 4, which I inevitably do, I can look out the back window and see if the rat is digging in my garden, which he sometimes is. He vanishes when I go outside, so quickly and so pre-emptively that it makes it all the more remarkable I was able to see him from my window in the first place. Pequod was keeping me company for a while, sitting and watching the edge of the light pensively; he is gone now, back to bed, and Pepita is scouring the yard for grass to eat, to help her purge, which she does.
The rat’s name is “the night-time intruder.” One presumes there is more than one of him, and on the strength of that presumption, I’ve looking for ways to make our back yard an unwelcoming place for him.
Though I am not doing this now—because I am instead writing the words you’re reading—I’ve been working on writing a novel in which all the writing is apparently written by the characters in the novel, in journals that they keep. This, I hope, makes the novel feel more real, more like a real document that has fallen into your possession. Sometimes they read each other’s journals; I presume at some point I’ll include letters or other documents, though I haven’t yet figured out how to do that. In pretending to be a found document, it resembles some of the earliest novels of the 18th century, or the 17th century, when long prose fictional narratives were still novel in the more literal sense of the word, new, and when the real author would introduce their made-up story with the conceit that the person who really wrote it had entrusted them with the narrative’s care. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are both presented as autobiographies, and his Journal of a Plague Year, for example, may even have been based on a real journal—perhaps a relative’s—but he wrote it half a century after the plague of 1665, and kept his name off of it; according to the 1722 title page, it was “written by a citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before.”
In posing as a found document, such novels were concerned with how they had been produced, in other words. This is something, it now occurs to me to wonder, that “modern novels” might manage to become “modern” by eliding and erasing.
(Pretending that work doesn’t exist does seem like exactly the sort of thing modernity would get up to.)
In any case, writing my novel the way I set out to has been a much more difficult balancing act than I had realized it would be. The problem is that a character who is writing in a journal cannot, by virtue of that fact, be doing anything other than writing. I want them to be doing things, but when you read those words, they are instead always in the act of putting their thoughts into words. In this way, writing precludes action, or distances the reader from everything the characters might be writing about having done or be planning to. It constrains the novel to being about a very particular kind of action: the act of writing.
Is a novel about the act of writing worth reading? My snap answer to that is no, but this reflex is probably a function of having read so many novels that were really about writing, written by so many novelists that instead of writing about the world, found themselves narcissistically fascinated with the thing they were doing.
Ironically, I have several times gotten up from typing this, when I hear a rustle in the vines to encourage, with my noisy presence, the rats to absent themselves. Since I have no other light, I’ve literally waved my laptop in their general direction to see what I can see. The illuminating irony of this has not escaped me: see how now, when I write those words, I am not actually in the act of waving my laptop at rats; that’s something I had to have done a moment ago, or a moment from now.
I’ve been reading Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn!, a novel that begins when the protagonist reads her old journals, from the year 2000—in a novel set roughly in 2013—and she is horrified by the discovery of the shallow, narrow, uninteresting existence she had led. This discovery spurs her onto some form of journey; the title is a Kierkegaard reference, and there’s a broader set of questions about existence that the novel is concerned with, I take it, though I haven’t finished the book yet. But when a novel in first person explicitly references that protagonist’s diary, a diary that was written at a specific time and place in the character’s life, you realize that what you are reading—though it uses the word “I”—was written at no particular time and place in the character’s life. It was written in Vigdis Hjorth’s life, and because it was, you can’t find the author in the protagonist. If her thoughts in the diary are consumed with forgotten romantic possibilities and forgotten shopping—to her disgust—the novel, by being about much more, can reach towards some form of higher existence, higher awareness, as she herself seems to be.
Yet it occurs to me that, in doing so, a novel like this one—and most are like this one—erases the moment of its creation, the labor of writing. The “now” of the text is never when it was written, exactly; it’s when the events being described occurred, apparently and presumably recollected in a later tranquility. Narrative is always retrospective: if Vigdis Hjorth’s novel is aboutEllinore’s experience, the words you are reading could only have been written after the fact, after the experience of the experience has transformed the writer into the new person she becomes.
This is not how you’re supposed to read the novel, of course. You’re supposed to suspend your disbelief, overlook the fact that the words you’re reading could not have been written at the time the experience they describe was occurring. But this is how, for example, people learned to read Dante’s Commedia, whichhas two Dantes: Dante-pilgrim, who is experiencing the events of the poem, and Dante-poet, who—in the conceit of the work—has passed from hell to heaven, and is now struggling to put to paper his recollections of what occurred to him.)
The sun is coming up, and there’s a sudden light breeze, like someone opened a door to a warmer room. At 7, the dogs get their breakfast, though they won’t know it it’s 7 until I feed them, but the fact that they both suddenly appeared tells me they know, more or less, what time it is. It’s 6:49, though it really was 5:30 when I started writing this. And it’s now 6:53, as I revise this sentence. Time to stop. But before I do, it occurs to me that while I have been writing, I have, in fact, been doing something else: I have been encouraging the rats, by my presence, to fuck off.