Brian Kiteley >

Fiction as Mixed Media

 

These three brief sections of The River Gods, a novel I've been working on for eight years, are representative of a certain style of composition. The book is a history of Northampton, Massachusetts, told backwards, from the 1990s to well before its settlement by Europeans. I grew up in Northampton, but I haven't lived there for almost 20 years, so I've been recollecting the town at a great distance, both temporal and physical. The book has caused me to create new sections, stories, and parts in a variety of ways, but the method I used in these pieces (they vary, but they follow a common path) is my favorite. I heard Harry Mathews read a story at the University of Denver five years ago. The story, "Dear Mother," recently collected in the volume The Human Country, begins with a few lines from a prose poem by the great American surrealist James Tate. It ends with some lines from a letter the nineteenth century poet William Cullen Bryant wrote to his mother. The first part of the story concerns a businessman spying-somewhat perversely-on a deaf girl in a field. He has to lie down in the tall grass to escape notice (or he thinks he will escape notice). The last sentences are common, though moving, sentiments a literate man of that era would send to his mother. One cannot imagine how Mathews thought he could bridge these two fragments of prose, but he does, with great glee and grace. The prose between the two sections of alien prose is transformed by what precedes and follows it. There is no way Harry Mathews cannot have been affected by the high-wire act of making these two distinct sensibilities fit together, and the prose between the other writers' words shows the thrill and joy of this sort of composition.

I attempt something similar in these three pieces. They are not strictly speaking "bridge" exercises, which is what I call Harry Mathew's story. I wrote this first piece as a postcard story. I write a good deal of my fiction on those stamped post-office postcards that are blank on one side. I can fit a lot onto that space, usually about 300 words. The first two sentences at the beginning of the story are from a book, The Tales of Horror, by a good friend of mine, Laura Mullen. I also sent this postcard story to Laura, with no explanation other than the story itself. She recognized the language from her own work, applied to a very different set of problems than she was working with in The Tales of Horror. I am usually acutely aware of whom I'm addressing a postcard story to (I like to let the addressee affect the subject matter-for example, I send a story to a friend who has great expertise in one area, mimicking that expertise myself, to see if I'm capable of doing it), but I don't know that I've ever used the published words of an addressee. The effect of this language on me, along with the idea of addressing Laura, combined to create a ghostly echo in the story. I did not expect a Calvin Coolidge story to work that way, while composing it. Coolidge was mayor of Northampton in the early 1900s. He was, up to that point in the novel, largely a comic figure. This story, with the pressure of Laura's ghost story language, changed him subtly for me into a somewhat more sympathetic figure, about to be struck down by a stroke.

For the second piece, I copied an essay of Henry David Thoreau off the Project Gutenberg website, which has hundreds of public-domain works of great and not-so-great literature and philosophy. I am not sure what I had in mind with this essay of Thoreau's on the natural history of New England. I think I wanted to tinker with his prose, to see what would happen if I took some of the writing of this well-known nineteenth century stylist and twisted it slightly, adding my own sentences here and there. I did, though the project languished for some time in a backwater file, never making into the larger file on my computer, "Rivgods.doc." I would open the file (which I called "Thoreauvian.doc") every once in a while, play around with it, adding a new sentence here and there, but it never satisfied me. At one point, I decided I did not need to treat Thoreau's prose with kid gloves, and I began editing it, as well as adding my own alien sentences, more or less between every one of Thoreau's sentences. I liked the interplay between Thoreau and the character I was creating who spoke with some of his lofty, florid sensibilities. It is peculiar and a little transgressive to take almost holy prose, like Thoreau's, and play with it, but I wanted this book to be more than just historical recreation, more than an accurate retelling of the past.

The last story works much as the first one did, but with a much more biographically accurate piece of prose as its anchor. I was reading an essay in a book of essays on the 300th anniversary of Northampton, published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1954. The prose in these essays was uniformly good, but this one paragraph on Jonathan Edwards' work habits just stunned me. I wrote down the few lines that open the story on a postcard, then wrote my own reaction to these fascinating details about the great minister and theologian whose church I went to as a child. I sent the story to my friend, the writer Rikki Ducornet. Rikki has no trouble calling me on weak or unsubtle prose. She did just that, complaining about the DAR prose, not my prose. I was relieved she found the other, alien prose awkward, but I was also defensive on its behalf. I resisted doing anything to improve the language, but eventually I did, without losing Edwards' eerie intensity.

These three pieces of prose are historical, part of a novel that tries to capture something of the essence of a town over time that has been settled since 1654, and which Native Americans also called home for several hundred years before that. The fact that I am writing historical fiction has always intimidated me. I decided early on to give in and use some of the history itself either as direct inspiration or as a shadow thrown against the prose I am trying to compose. My colleague at the University of Denver, Jan Gorak, has wondered if I've stumbled onto a crisis between history as research or lumber and history as meaning or novel. He thinks writers of historical fiction are now between times rather than above time. I like this concept. I believe in using the words of the past and inserting fictions—or like-minded prose—between them to create another version of both past and present, not necessarily interpretation of past, but illumination of the passage of time with language as its fuel.