Friday, May 21, 2010

Borrowed Fire: On going for it, really going for it, in your novel

As I contemplate the distinct possibility that, like Louise, or Thelma, I have now stomped on the accelerator of my novel, and it is now zooming toward the cliff of Not Fixable and into the abyss of I Wasted Six Years on This...I pause again to admire Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov. Today I will admire just the sheer goddamn authorial commitment here. I mean, apart from this being a really long, intricate beast with dozens of characters and profound philosophical and religious implications. That would be plenty for anyone to pull off.

But the home stretch of the book is Dmitri's trial. And here, Dostoevsky pretty much retells the whole story, twice, first from the point of view of the prosecutor, then from that of the defense. This is extremely daring. OK, I will say this: the rehash made me a tad impatient; I may have skimmed a bit. And I am not through the defense part yet. But the point is, Dostoevsky lets the prosecutor go on at great length to poke holes in the novel itself. The prosecutor points out really strange, illogical aspects of Dmitri's character, which Dostoevsky himself has previously--I think--asked us to accept. He dwells on the preposterousness of Dmitri's supposedly exculpating claim that he kept a small bag of money around his neck, telling no one about it--a weird impulse in the first place, for which Dmitri can offer no evidence. This is risky because having a character announce that something in the story doesn't make sense invites the reader to agree. In lesser hands, this could be an attempt to cover the author's failure to make the story plausible, by acknowledging the failure and trying to make it a plot point. Such an attempt is obviously destined to fail. So Dostoevsky's going all in here. He has given himself some leeway by portraying Dmitri all along as a man of vast contradictions. But the prosecutor addresses those contradictions--in fact he describes Dmitri exactly as Dostoevsky himself has--and still says the bag of money is absurd.

It's been a long time since I first read this book, but the previous chapters made it pretty clear that Smerdyakov murdered Fyodor. In fact, I was thinking Dostoevsky had been a little heavy handed about Smerdyakov's villainy; the mystery was not as murky as I had remembered. The prosecutor's speech, though, made me doubt that belief, and my own memory. It's really only because Alyosha and Ivan believe that Smerdyakov did it that I mostly retain my original conviction. I am relying on characters I have come to trust to tell me the truth--which is a pretty amazing feat on Dostoevsky's part. He certainly makes it clear why a reasonable person would see Dmitri as a murderer.

After the prosecutor's speech, Dostoevsky ups the ante even further. He gives us an extended discussion among various anonymous members of the audience as to how well the prosecutor's arguments hold up, in their opinions. So not only does Dostoevsky invite us to comment on the construction of the novel via the prosecutor, we now get to rethink that commentary as well. And we still have not gotten to the defense's argument yet.

So what I'm seeing here in the trial, above all, is Dostoevsky's total commitment to the story. He does not try to gloss over problems the reader might have with the plot and the characters. Instead, he retells the story, again and again, putting its apparent contradictions on display for all to see. He has that much confidence in it--or to say it in terms more like his, he's put his faith in it. As a writer he's decided he'll live or die by this story. I suppose that's what we all have to do, every time.

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