This post should probably wait until after I finish Wonder Boys, but I've been thinking about what gives stories momentum. I'm learning that with this novel. By page 275 or so, where I currently am, only about 35 hours have taken place in the story...granted the protagonist slept for less than four hours the first night, which bought him some time. What's interesting to me about the book so far is that it doesn't feel memorable beyond the immediate experience. I don't seem to be stamping characters forever in my brain or exploring any important themes or learning valuable lessons. It is just a compelling read so far. How does Chabon accomplish that?
For one, his language is beautiful. I find myself liking all of his characters as well. But, beyond that, there's something about how he has loaded so much conflict up front that I find myself anxiously reading to find out how everything will turn out. It's like watching dominoes fall, which I imagine required a lot of intelligent set up on Chabon's part
In terms of driving forces, I'd say this story is working by having a collection of things happen simultaneously that clash with one another. The "main event" that puts the story into motion, a writer's conference, really has nothing to do with what makes it exciting other than serving to bring the right people together at an explosive time. Everything becomes spring loaded. A reader just lets go and watches to see what happens.
I'd argue that this strategy is different from what I experience with books like Plainsong or Mrs. Bridge or The Buddha In The Attic. I barely recall the openings of these books at all. With these I feel more of a sense of following the natural progression rather than chasing a speeding train. The energetics are more subtle, more naturally flowing, less calculated, perhaps.
Then there's my own strategy which, I realize these days, usually tries to diffuse the linear momentum in an attempt to create these books that can be opened up at any point and read in a piecemeal fashion. Instead of a river I get preoccupied with the idea of a lake with little areas to explore.
I have a lot of explanations for this.
One is that I tend to hate how most stories end. (Or, if I love the story, I don't want them to end.) I often hit a point where I feel like the author is trying to get rid of me, like a person who wants to break up but doesn't actually come out and say so. But I think it's also because I start more books than I finish, and when I love a book I tend to open it up randomly just to get back into the world of the story. This has become a bad habit, perhaps, and I'm trying to create the same experience in my work, for better or for worse. I think part of my motivation is also greed. In most of my novel attempts, I try to get multiple stories in, creating compilations instead of single stories. The overall plot ends up functioning simply like a spine that just barely holds everything else together. This also allows me to think less deeply about any one particular story, perhaps.
At the moment I'm questioning the effectiveness of this. Is it actually a preference or is it my own lacking? When I started Cyberlama, I remember telling myself that I wanted it to jump around in time, I wanted it to twist over itself, so that there was a constant level of discovery rather than a payoff at the end. Is this just a way to create boring writing? I wonder.