I’m working on my third novel these days, and since I’m still deep in the mudflats of the first draft, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about questions of structure. Specifically, how many complications of time and viewpoint a novel can stand and remain viable—and by “viable”, I think I mean both “elegant” and “not completely baffling.”
I find myself drawn equally to sheer unrelenting linear simplicity, wherein one thing follows another along a consistent timeline from the point of view of a single character (Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, for instance) and to virtuosic displays of shifting viewpoints and fractured time (Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin.) I think it’s fair to say that I adore a fairly wide range of styles and structural ideas, and yet one thing that I’m consistently troubled by is what I’ve come to think of as the Trojan Horse novel: the book that’s structured as a delivery system for something entirely unrelated to the plot.
I bought a book last week that I’d never heard of before: Ghosts, by César Aira. A slim novella with one of the most understatedly lovely covers I’ve ever seen—all staticky grey, slightly luminescent, with raised text in an unobtrusive font—and an equally wonderful premise. Ghosts takes place over the course of a single day in Buenos Aires, the final day of an unspecified year. It’s December 31st, and the family of Raúl Viñas is preparing for the New Years celebration. Raúl is a Chilean builder, and he’s been serving as the night watchman on a construction site for the past year; his family lives in a makeshift apartment on the roof of the structure, beside the still-empty rooftop swimming pool, while Raúl and his crew construct high-end residences on the seven floors below. The project is somewhat behind schedule, some of the exterior walls still absent, the apartments open to the searing air.
“The heat was supernatural,” Aira writes, and so too are most of the building’s inhabitants. The site is occupied by a drifting population of ghosts. Visible to Raúl and his family, a little eerie, but apparently harmless and no cause for real alarm. In fact, given that the rooftop apartment doesn’t have a fridge, the ghosts are occasionally useful for wine-cooling purposes:
Raúl Viñas was keeping fourteen bottles of red wine cool, using a system he had invented, or rather discovered, himself. It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold.
The ghosts are a transparent population of naked men, covered head-to-toe in construction dust, floating through walls and floors on their own mysterious errands. They’ve been around for as long as the family has lived on the construction site, but on this last day of the year, something seems different; more and more of them appear as the day goes on, and they seem possessed of a certain urgency.
As the day fades toward evening, with the party well underway, Elisa’s teenage daughter Patri slips away from the celebration. The ghosts on the lower floor of the construction site seem to be moving with unusual purpose, and so Patri asks one of them why he’s in such a hurry. The ghosts are throwing their own party at midnight, he tells her. Would she like to come?
Patri considers the question.
“Of course,” the ghost tells her, “you’ll have to be dead.”
Ghosts was a wonderful read. I’m glad that I found it. Aira’s work is beautiful, even profound—he elevates the mundane details of a day spent preparing for a party, the grocery shopping and the cleaning, the cooking and the household gossip, to something of a revelation. The characters are alive, except of course for the ones who aren’t, and the set-up is inspired. And yet this book, in my entirely subjective opinion, flirts with disaster: it veers off, halfway through, into a ten-page essay about architecture.
I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I like my fiction to keep moving, and ten pages is an awful lot of real estate in a 139-page novella. And the delivery, in this case, can’t quite be called seamless: a sophisticated ten-page musing on the similarities between architecture and literature, on the social structures of the Bushmen and Zulu as reflected in the respective arrangements of their villages, on the “mental city” (e.g., Joyce’s Dublin) is shoehorned into the siesta dream of an uneducated teenager who doesn’t read very much (“But in Patri’s dream the architectural analogy was developed a little further.”) My feeling on the matter is that if you want to write an essay about architecture, you should probably just write an essay about architecture and get it published somewhere, instead of using your novel as a kind of envelope.
This is one of the major criticisms I’ve read of Ayn Rand: that her novels weren’t novels at all, but thinly veiled presentations of her philosophy. Trojan horses, in other words. (My major criticism of Ayn Rand is that I find Objectivism sociopathic, but that’s beside the point.)
On the other hand, am I being unfair? Much of the ten-page interlude in Ghosts is fascinating, and as far off the rails as it pushes the book that carries it, I’m glad to have read it. I wonder if Trojan horses are ever justified—how much extra freight, aside from the weight of the plot itself, a novel can reasonably be expected to carry.
I lifted my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient down from the shelf just now. (It’s a shock, incidentally, to see that the pages are beginning to yellow; I think of this book as my contemporary, having requested it for Christmas when I was fourteen or so, and I remember when these pages were white.) There is no obvious narrative reason for Ondaatje to spend two pages naming various winds, and yet the opening sentence of that section is among my favorite of all the sentences I’ve read in my life:
There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arift, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.
There are other, less constant winds that change direction…
This goes on for a while. I’m certain that others will disagree with me—as the writer and critic Edmund Wilson wrote, no two people ever read the same book—but I find Ondaatje’s digression weightless. It’s partly a question of relativity: ten pages in a 139-page novella is very different from two pages in a 301-page novel.
But much more importantly, Ondaatje’s digression exists solidly within the world of his book. The difference lies partly in the presentation—Patri’s sophisticated dream isn’t believable, or it isn’t believable that Patri would dream it; but two pages of notes on desert winds aren’t out of place in the personal journal of Ondaatje’s highly intelligent and well-traveled burn patient.
It seems to me that a good novel, one that holds a reader’s attention for three hundred pages, requires a kind of sustained enchantment. Structurally, a good novel can survive almost anything—multiple first-person narrators, long digressions, wild shifts in time and space—but forcing an essay or a philosophy into the narrative breaks the spell, and breaking a novel’s spell is fatal.