In the past few summer months, I have been struggling with my novel. Largely due to my inability to focus—a curse bestowed upon me by the cruel mistress of insomnia—and partially due to my intellectual stagnation that came about from idling in my room doing nothing but mindlessly consuming intellectually vacuous movies and television shows of no cultural or creative value, my move to a new academic environment has sparked my intellectual and creative motor and kickstarted me into a state in which I can proceed with my writing.
My novel, as I have oft repeated to anybody who has an ear turned even halfway towards me, is something I have come to call an “examination of the curious condition of urban loneliness.” My novel is a portrait of one of the loneliest people you could ever come across, someone who experiences social alienation at every turn, with every step he takes on the bustling pedestrian-filled sidewalks of New York City.
And as such, the question I consistently ask myself, each day that I go out and walk on the bustling pedestrian-filled sidewalks of New York City, is this: What is loneliness?
Loneliness, I find, is largely defined by a lack. Loneliness is a deficit. The condition of loneliness is a void. It is nothingness. It is a condition defined by absence. When one is lonely, one has no friends. One has no social contact. One has nobody to talk with, nobody to confide in. One faces his or her thoughts alone. And, like Harold Krick, a person of loneliness wakes up alone, eats alone, goes to work alone, and sleeps alone. There are lots of people who feel the very real pain of solitude and loneliness. There are also lots of LiveJournals and other personal blogs that express this pain by bringing light to such symptoms. These are, as clinicians might put it, positive symptoms. That is, there is a presence of symptoms. There is a presence of pain, of desperation, of disparateness and disconnectedness. Yet, from an artistic standpoint, I find that the mere fact of discussing loneliness in such a way as I have just done so above is too obvious and too simple. My novel is about loneliness. Loneliness is nothingness. And thus, my novel is about nothingness.
And therein lies the conundrum: how can one artistically express a void? In a visual medium like film, a man’s solitude can be constructed and portrayed quite simply. If one were so inclined, one could create an “art film” of sorts that displays, for an arbitrary length of time, a man in a sparsely decorated room, sitting alone in the center of it. And, given enough time watching this film, one may begin to get a sense of loneliness, isolation, and solitude.
Images, moving or not, have the luxury of being active without action. A painting can be dynamic even as it stands there for all eternity, for it is the viewer’s mind that creates meaning through continuous viewing. However, a novel has no such luxury.
For a novel to exist, there absolutely must be something that happens. Whether it is a thought or an action, a story, as said by Professor Hilbert in Stranger Than Fiction, can only be moved forward by action. A novel cannot exist in a single moment of time the same way an image can. A novel’s progress is entirely dependent on something—anything—happening to someone—anyone. It would not be much of a novel if I wrote, “The man sat there, breathing, sitting in the chair with four walls surrounding him, sandwiched in between a ceiling and a floor. The end.”
And thus, I find it aesthetically necessary, in the pursuit of discussing a void, to never speak of any of these so-called positive symptoms. The moment that you begin to describe the feelings of loneliness, you are no longer portraying loneliness, for loneliness exists in a vacuum and is a void that causes these other symptoms. But loneliness itself is a condition and not an emotion. And thus, to describe how it feels to be lonely is an aesthetic error if one is to realistically portray loneliness as purely as possible.
I believe that I have embarked on the right path in my writing for I have, from the very beginning, avoided describing the emotional states of loneliness. In the portrayal of a void, of an absence, I chose to pursue the use of contrast and reflectors. To me, this is the only artistically proper way to express loneliness. If I choose to bring to light the dull ache of extensive solitude, I violate the void that loneliness creates, for even that ache is more than what loneliness offers (or rather, what loneliness threatens to take away: emotions). Loneliness is defined by absences and deficits, and absences and deficits are hard to notice to the layperson. Take, for example, the absent father in Spielberg’s E.T. The deficit of a father is not explicitly pointed out. Yet, upon closer examination, the absent father forms an important undercurrent to the film as it does in many of his films. Absences and deficits are, therefore, just as impactful as the presence of things; they are merely harder to detect.
Loneliness, in and of itself, is akin to a black hole: it consumes everything that comes near it and turns it into nothingness. A black hole is a void, and in the absence of other entities that may come across it, is impossible to detect. And such is the nature of loneliness: it can only be properly viewed when entities around it become distorted; that is, one can only observe true loneliness—true nothingness—by seeing what happens around it.
There is still much work to be done for my novel. I find that the journey to finish it is largely a question of answers. That is, in the end, a novel is the product of many answered questions, questions like Should my character do this? Should I write my novel in this particular style? What do I make happen in this chapter? I suppose that, in the end, whether a novel is successful—that is, whether it holds any artistic value and whether it maintains artistic integrity—depends largely on whether the author answered correctly the thousands of questions that arise in the process of writing. And that’s the scary part: are you even asking all the right questions?