From a Letter to a Reader

A reader wrote asking about the unusual style of my last book, She and I: A Fugue.

From my somewhat-spoilery answer, lightly edited:

The style of She and I was the greatest surprise of all the writing I ever did. I edited the book for two years, and as I went on I looked at the regular prose I’d used on the web and I could not bear having it so lengthy. Something emerged in me that wanted it more telegraphic, sharp, brief, elliptical. So I went with it, and found it opened up expressive possibilities I had not glimpsed.

One of the big challenge in She and I was what I called the challenge of normalization: for the story to mean anything, the reader had to feel that there was something meaningful between Mira and the narrator. But most of it played out in the chats early on – where Mira is quite a bit more exuberant than she would be in person. (The issue of self-representation and talking-oneself-into arises. Cult of self-woowoo.) So there had to be some way of normalizing the diverse modes the relationship played out in – in chats, emails, phone calls early on, then in person, then afterward back to chats/emails/phone calls. Also I did not want it to date too much, so that’s why Mira and I always send “notes” – not ICQs, AIMs, or even emails – until the end. I wanted something more timeless.

The system of contractions emerged from the desire to shorten and sharpen. “I would have” is a lot longer than “I’d’ve” – and the latter is more striking. I wanted to make every word in the book some art-gesture, lest it turn out to be a set of trivialities. After all, as you know, it ends with no explosive passion or even epiphany. It’s the story of “coming to be and passing away” – the part V title is nod/tribute to Aristotle’s essay on generation and corruption, as well as the American euphemism for death. I liked the contractions as a bridge between formal and informal – another timely thing, as the old formalities were falling (see the discussion of Chasing Amy when it comes). Lastly, it lends a telegraphic quality at times, and that’s a sort of premonitor of brief Facebook entries and Twitter tweets – the compression of communication still ongoing.

What I liked best about the contractions was that in times of lyrical emotion I could stop using them entirely. That opened up another stylistic register than one usually has access to. I probably open up that register most fully in my descriptions of the dreams – the one of Beth in the lodge/Vegas is something I take special pleasure in – and in the sex scene with Mira, the meeting Catherine, and the final three days. I use quite a bit fewer contractions in the beginning, deliberately, so the effect is entering and exiting a state of mind/perceiving.

The editing took two years, probably to an obsessive degree, but that was what made the finer-grained things come. I did a lot of the later editing using my typesetting program, because by the end – once the text was largely set and even the style – I was looking for a specific appearance on the page. There was a click when it happened, and I see and feel it now. So there’s a bridging of prose and poetry too. The book occupies a very strange, sui generis space.

I wanted at the beginning to tell the complete story of a relationship down to its roots back in time and deep down in origin, including the origin of every turn.

I pick the book up sometimes, look at it, and think “I did it.”

That is all I sought.


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