Sunday, 18 January 2015

Three shifty novellas: David Vann, Denis Johnson, Joseph Conrad

Boats mean bad business in Conrad's Freya of the Seven Isles

I’ve read three novellas in the last few months. One was the result of a mis-hearing: a colleague recommended Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad against the background noise of a Christmas party, and when I googled what I thought I’d heard, I ended up buying Freya of the Seven Isles. The second, Legend of a Suicide, I bought after going to David Vann’s masterclass, choosing this over his other books because a fellow writer told me, eyes popping, about the incredible event that happens midway. Luckily I’d completely forgotten that conversation by the time the book arrived, so I got have my eyes popped too. (N.b. the link above is to an interview, not a review. Read the book first!)

The third, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, I've already mentioned on the blog here, but I went back to it because I was struck by a similarity between this and Vann's novella, in terms of their use of a structural surprise. Both shift the narrative halfway through, via an event unforeseen to both characters and reader. This piqued my interest because this is the sort of trick you tend to get warned against when writing a novel (as opposed to a novella). But then, novellas are closer to short stories that novels, I think, and while it’s a tighter form, you can get away with more strangeness – in structure, voice and content generally. Vann has described his novellas as being extended short stories, pointing out that they have one plot (no sub-plot), small casts of characters, and fairly restricted timescales.

The event (no spoilers here) in the middle of Vann’s Legend of a Suicide comes as a shock to the reader who thinks they know what this book is about. It forces a change in the way we conceive of the story, reminds us that there is a frame in which this particular tale is being told, and we can only make sense of it by remembering the frame. The structure of the book is one long story bookended by several shorter ones, but deep in the tense and pressurised central story, you tend to forget how the book began. Reaching the event, you stop, flip the book over to search the blurb for clues, return to the opening pages, and it clicks. This is such an unusual manoeuvre, and even more so in that it works. Usually anything that gets a bit ‘meta’ has me rolling my eyes – I don’t want to be thrown out of a story, made to reassess – but in this case, it only enhances the whump-to-the-chest that is the Legend of a Suicide reading experience.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams also delivers a whump, a midway shock which sets the story off on a different, more unhinged but beautiful path. However, it defies Vann’s rule about sticking to a short timescale. Train Dreams is a slim volume, yet covers an entire adult life, as we watch a man dealing with grief and aloneness in strange but somehow lovely ways. This is also in sharp contrast to Vann's story, where grief brings a sick feeling that never really goes away. In both novellas the characters are surrounded, indeed exposed to nature, but whereas this becomes unnerving and stressful in Vann's story, it is welcome in Johnson's. We find ourselves empathising with a man who takes succour from howling along with the wolves at night. While the crux of Johnson's tale is as sad as that in Legend of a Suicide, the abiding impression is one of warm humanity rather than horror. Having been shocked by the unforeseen event that changes the book, we semi-recover along with the protagonist. The reader is not so lucky with Vann; I felt made to suffer along with the character in the second half of his novella, yet I was gripped by every page of it. Neither book goes in for redemption, exactly, but it is fascinating to see how differently each carries the reader along after daring to switch tracks.

Johnson also does not do anything cunning with the framing of his story; Train Dreams is a bittersweet tale, told straight. Conrad’s Freya of the Seven Isles, however, takes the tricksy route. We are told this story of suitors vying to the point of disaster by a narrator who is relating to us the contents of a long letter he has received, from a friend who is also not a player in the plot. Why all these layers of voices, putting me at several removes, I wondered? Am I about to be treated to a complex web of unreliability, enjoying the foolish misinterpretations of characters as I piece together the ‘truth’? 

No, is my short answer. Freya of the Seven Isles is a pretty obscure work, but it is still by Joseph Conrad and my expectations were high! I enjoyed the story itself, and as with many such framing devices I forgot about the letter and just got on with watching some slightly silly and one-dimensional characters upset each other. The letter was finally mentioned again, in the closing pages. The fellow who’d received it and had been telling us all about it then got to have his say about what had really gone on, and to reveal a truth to one of its subjects in person, as it were. But after 95 pages of story in which this narrator had been forgotten entirely, it hardly seemed to matter what he thought. I felt he’d intruded suddenly into a world distant from both him and the reader, and wondered why I should trust him to be able to see more clearly than the characters he had read about.

Perhaps my problem with this use of a device is more down to taste and fashion in fiction. I’d have preferred Conrad to let me see the truth myself, even as the characters did not, and this is not a particularly new trick to play. Unlike Vann’s and Johnson’s novellas, I felt that Conrad’s really would have been better as a short story; I would have forgiven him a peculiar structure if it was a way to get me straight into the story.

Novellas are having a little revival at the moment, alongside the short story, and far from being an ‘inbetweeny’ form, there are clearly ways of making them absolutely great. Certainly the good ones could not be reduced to short short stories, but neither are they novels that ran out of plot too early. I’m looking forward to analysing some more novellas by Vann and others, to try to figure out what they are up to.