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Writing Frank Bascombe for 30 years was never what I intended. There was never a grand plan. Sometimes a writer’s ambition just sneaks up on him.
Back in the 1980s, when Bascombe began, I was a writer who thought, “You write one book, exhaust it, then choose a different subject and exhaust that.” The first Bascombe novel, The Sportswriter (1986), was written that way – with no onward lines leading to another book. The second, Independence Day (1995), came along a few years later when I set out to write a completely unrelated novel about a man who takes his estranged son on a restorative trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame over the Fourth of July, a thing fathers do in the US. To my surprise, however, all my preliminary notes for this book “sounded” like the narrator from the earlier book. Frank. Or, “Frank”. These notes had his sense of humour, his preoccupations, his flaws. This was interesting, but it was also disconcerting, since I didn’t believe I was the calibre of writer who could write connected novels. I wasn’t ambitious or skilful enough. I was the one-book-at-a-time guy. If I wrote a second novel narrated by Frank Bascombe, I’d just end up (I thought) writing the first book over again, subconsciously wanting to make it better. Reviewers would hoot at me.
I brooded over this for several months. Then one day it dawned on me that Frank’s “voice” (specifically, his syntax, his word choices, his amusing ironies, his sense of right and wrong – the rudiments of his fictive self) wasn’t really a burden or a threat. It was a gift. Henry James’s word is actually “donnée”. To begin a novel already equipped with a narrative voice that cannot only enact all one’s best abilities but also a voice that thousands of readers already know and credit, is to have at one’s disposal a formal feature most novelists work like dogs to dream up and mostly fail at: ie, a character a reader will listen to. I wasn’t any more confident about my ambitions or abilities; but to write what became Independence Day in Frank Bascombe’s voice and persona was too good an offer to pass up. I could fail at it and become a figure of fun. But I could also write a book with some other voice, and fall on my face a lot worse. Writing a connected novel actually seemed easier.
With the third Bascombe book, The Lay of the Land (2006), I realised my intention right away. You can’t stay totally ignorant of what you’re doing unless you’re an elected politician. I understood I was that ambitious, if no more skilful. I was writing another connected novel. After which Bascombe’s ever more baleful, mirthful, more brimming voice found another embodiment.
And with that, my not entirely envisioned “trilogy” came about. And, I felt, came about in reasonably good order, using the personal-subjective standards I typically employ: I’d frequently made myself laugh sitting at my desk; I’d occasionally written things in Frank’s persona that seemed true; and readers (not all) had told me these three books had been useful to them, and had now and then achieved the level of literature.
I’d also, unfortunately, made myself physically ill and badly stressed getting each book all the way finished. I’ll spare you my medical details. But each novel had grown longer than the last, with more and more and more and more details to keep up with and supervise. Characters returned in later books and therefore oughtn’t to have died earlier. Other characters had to have been born at precise times so they could be the age I needed them to be further on. Street names had to match up, hair colour, historical events had to happen on cue; memories needed to be intact and available. In other words, all this connected stuff had to seem as if it had really happened. Only it hadn’t happened – except on the page. I was making it up. And while I could fairly well bring this all off (with my wife’s, my editor’s and my assistant’s help), it had gotten more and more nerve-racking and had ended up almost driving me crazy – like Mickey Mouse when he was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
The Lay of the Land had become 200,000 words long! All those words had to end up in the precise right place. Authorship, after all, means you authorise everything. It was just too much. I ended up in the Mayo Clinic, just like Frank.
Now I realise that writing novels is dark and lonely work, and no one has to do it; and that writing connected novels comes with rigorous requirements. Plus, no one has a right to complain about something he or she chooses to do. Let’s, then, just leave it that this experience of physical and psychic infirmity which recurred worse each time through the completion of three long novels over three long decades became my “signal” that I was finished with Frank. Forever. I could write different books. I already had.
And yet. Having Bascombe as my familiar all those years was nothing but unfathomably great luck and mostly a pleasure in ways anyone would understand, though also in ways that are complicated and have no obvious corollaries in other people’s lives, except maybe writers who do the same things. A writer’s “relationship” to his characters isn’t much like a relationship one has with a real person. For instance, Frank’s not my “child”. (I’m not fond of children.) Nor is he my alter ego (I’m not sure what an alter ego even is); he’s not my buddy; he’s not me in disguise. He doesn’t speak for me (indeed, I routinely make him say things I don’t believe and know are ludicrous and rude). He may be my secret friend; but only in ways that children have secret friends – ways that reveal what they care about and fear, but not necessarily what they think and believe.
Fictional characters aren’t people – except sometimes to readers who want them to be. And they’re especially not people to those of us who make them up. Instead, characters are imminently mutable, cobbled-together bits of language reflecting the this’s and that’s of a writer’s life – memory, fantasy, fears, desires, suppressed experience, shards of speech, half-noticed newspaper squibs, over-hearings, mishearings – all of it subjected to the writer’s often whimsical will, then put on to the page for others. Ruskin wrote that composition is the arrangement of unequal things. Characters are that. Bascombe is nothing else.
And while creating characters using only words is typically a squeamish, bullish, sceptical, half-persuaded gambit, whereby my verbal arrangement – Frank – might conceivably get across to a reader as being reminiscent of a human being, it’s not all that hard to do, in spite of my complaints. In fact, holding in my mind that some character I put forward (1) contains much that I consider important, and yet (2) may never work at all – involves a state of aesthetic ionisation that’s rare and treasurable.
And beyond all this, the sense of what fictional characters are, and how they’re made, turns out to be very instructive about how real humans are comprised. In my view, we’re all but bits and pieces forged together by some furious will, seeking plausibility. In this way, novels act as moral instruments.
Artifice is what we’re talking about here. Fictional characters are artifice – as in artificial people. I’ve spent 30 years of my precious adult life thinking about, scribbling down notes for, making then changing the “essential nature” of an artificial language vessel called Frank Bascombe. Readers sometimes sweetly want to know what Frank’s “doing” when I’m not around. He’s not doing anything, I have to tell them. I have to be there for him to be at all.
Over these years of transacting the artifice that is Frank, I’ve had the privilege to coax myself, using the crucible of my ordinary imagination, into writing much smarter things, and to using more of my self to profit than I ever could’ve done in civilian life. I’ve been able to make something whereas before there was nothing, and to give that thing to the world, and have the world once in a while find it valuable.
I’ve also been able to secure semi-honest employment at which I could try my very best, and to resurrect a semblance of accomplishment from the rubble of various honourable but dismal early failures. These are the rewards writers receive from their work if they’re lucky – and I have been. Much is possible, working with a simple piece of artifice.
The book in question, Let Me Be Frank With You, is not a Frank Bascombe novel, but four, longish Frank Bascombe stories, set in the fictive aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the terrible storm that wrecked so much of life on the mid-Atlantic seaboard in the United States, in early autumn, 2012. Why I went back to Frank after I swore I wouldn’t has largely to do with circumstance, desuetude (mine) and forgetfulness – the reasons many of us do many important things.
The book’s provenance was certainly the storm, which my wife and I experienced in Harlem, New York City. Normally I don’t write fiction about current events. For me, large historical, political or other monumental public occurrences must work themselves free of the mass media’s incessantly reductive authority before fiction – frail, precarious acts of imagination – can find purchase enough to become necessary in the reader’s mind. This working free can take years.
Why writing these Bascombe stories happened so quickly in response to Hurricane Sandy, I can only guess. Kristina and I had lived in New Orleans in the vivid aftermath of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Some silent hurricane storage might’ve been taking place in my brain during the intervening years. As with Sandy, I didn’t experience the earlier storm directly. Thus, the poet Randall Jarrell’s injunction that a writer is not the person who has the experience as much as the one who needs to have it, may have played a part.
Though there’s also the prepossessing force of magnitude to consider, a force which Aristotle says tragedy must possess. In personal writerly terms, magnitude implies not only that my stories should possess it, but also that it’s ever my job to pay attention to large events – not avert my eyes, even if normally one would.
Hurricane Sandy definitely possessed magnitude. When, days after the storm, I visited the savaged landscape of the New Jersey Shore – setting of many Bascombe adventures – I drove back to New York that autumn afternoon with my head full not only of crushed houses and lives strewn higgledy-piggle over the deathly shingle, but also full of silent conversation (what writers do instead of thinking) in Frank Bascombe’s voice – again; his word choices, his rhythms, his humours, his sense of right and wrong. These were events, I realised, Frank could tell.
Which, alone, does not a story make.
What does – for me – make a story begin is first a felt sensation, sponsored by an event I experience or hear about or just imagine – a hurricane, a forest fire, a child’s abandonment by his errant parents – coupled to the instinct that the event has consequence which hasn’t yet been expressed or imagined, and that I can write that consequence and make it clear and important to a reader. This silent sensation is what Pablo Neruda called something kicking in the soul.
When I saw all those lives and holdings battered by Hurricane Sandy, I felt such a kicking. How I identified this inner commotion was to say to myself that there must be unobvious-but-crucial human results of the hurricane’s destruction – matters the media would never come to – and that I could write about them using Frank Bascombe as my instrument, since New Jersey is Frank’s turf and, as I’d written him before, he possessed a supple enough moral vocabulary and a sufficiently saving sense of humour that he could perform this telling creditably. Having him do so could possibly satisfy James’s directive in his preface to What Maisie Knew, that “No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connexion of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt”.
The rest was just luck, as much of creativity always is. I had years of events, issues, jokes, crimes, nightmares, heartaches and ill-expressed loves long squirrelled away in notebooks, waiting for some use. These I would arrange in words to be components of the storm’s consequence, even if they weren’t at first. So much of what we admire about good literature comes precisely from such new arrangements, freshly imagined intelligence and language about what causes what in the world.
And why long stories instead of another long novel? I could grandly say it was because, for these particular events, the “story form”, with its crisp economies, its native incisiveness, its “focus”, was obviously the only way to write them. But the truth is, I did it this way for more or less the same reason I tumbled to Frank’s amiable voice when I wrote Independence Day 20-plus years ago: writing that book in that way seemed easier, less of the old seven-and-six as my grandmother used to say. Some things you just do because it feels right. Everything doesn’t have to be hard to be good. Does it?
‘Let Me Be Frank With You’ is published in the US on November 4 (Ecco) and in the UK on November 6 (Bloomsbury)
Photographs: Greta Rybus