The Genealogy Of A Novel: A Ten-Year Retrospective

One morning, I was eating a well-buttered English muffin topped with apple butter and sipping a very milky mug of Irish tea. I hate eating without having anything to do; I have to be doing something, be it reading a magazine or a a website or watching a television show. I decided to search for one of my old online handles, and it eventually led me to a memory of Livejournal, which led me to search for the PDF archive of my journal. Luckily, I knew exactly where it was: safe and secure in my Dropbox.

I spent most of the morning reading through the journal. Starting in late 2001, I got as far as 2003 before I was finished my mug of tea. I was grateful for LJBook’s service that gave me a fully searchable and indexed PDF file of my whole journal. Because of them, I was able to look back in time—ten years back, in fact—and see the genealogy of my novel.

Nine years ago, I had written a journal entry describing my loneliness. “Old times….they were good,” I had expressed at the ripe young age of seventeen. “Things were so much more simple, life in general was more simple, back then when I was young…I just wish things didn’t turn out the way they did.”

Those words strike me as oddly familiar, as would anyone who keeps up with my writings. They are the same lamentations that I made four years ago, at the age of 22. Unlike Frank Sinatra, when I was seventeen, it was not a very good year. Whereas Sinatra sang wistfully about bedding women in successively higher social classes, when I was seventeen, I had written that “I’m looking for a girl that doesn’t exist.” I was seventeen, talking about the good old times and not finding the right romance.

The consistent theme that I discovered in my journal is nostalgia. I have come to understand that nostalgia is borne from dissatisfaction. It manifests itself in the form of whatever deficiencies one finds in one’s life. People become nostalgic for things in times of need, and they invent a fantasy, a history in which things were better, a time when things made more sense. Nostalgia is the opiate of those who cannot or refuse to deal with changes in life.

This nostalgia signaled to me that I was lonely when I was seventeen as well. In that journal entry, I went on to describe the five close friends of mine who fell to the wayside. At the time, I had recently lost the friendship of someone I valued very much—Gary, the infrequent but regular commenter here—and my only other friend was away at military school. Compounding the problem, my family life was full of strife as well. The deficiency was quite evident: I lacked any social connections. Thus, I fell victim to nostalgia and came to invent a history of a simpler time.

I was lonely when I was seventeen, and it was five years later that I would find some new friends. I enjoyed their company for a year or so before I watched them get married. And then they left my life, leaving me with no social network again. And again I was lonely, at twenty-three.

Yet, here I am, having made another friend at the waning age of 26. If I remember correctly, screenwriter of Taxi Driver Paul Schrader said that loneliness is a cycle. I took this to heart because I felt that it was true. I even structured my novel to reflect this. And after reading my journal, it appears to me that loneliness does indeed happen in cycles. At least, it does for me and presumably some others out there.

These memories remind me that life is only real and rich when people are in it. Without lively friendships, life is dull, empty, without texture. That is what makes it particularly difficult to write a compelling novel about loneliness: how do you make emptiness and solitude interesting?

Beyond loneliness, I came to develop a theme surrounding the death of innocence. But in recent times, after some random thoughts during some random moments of quietude, I realized that the novel had a parallel undercurrent: the death of idealism.

Henry Anatole Grunwald writes in Salinger that “the refusal to accept the status quo in the universe marks not only adolescents; it also marks the saints…The young have the clarity and newness of vision…and the almost unbearable sensitivity that often characterize the saintly and the insane…[he is] unable or unwilling to cover his soul with the calluses necessary for the ordinary life…[he wages] war with the-way-things-are; they are martyrs to the commonplace (xvi).”

If I have lost any of my idealism, it is because it is wearisome to maintain that youthful sensitivity to the harsh realities of the world. But, as I have written, I struggle to retain that idealism in me because I need it so much for my writing. A decade has taken its toll on my bright-eyed ferocity and conviction of how things ought to be, and I had to develop those callouses in order to function as an adult. I do suppose that I held on to that idealism longer than most though, and the price I paid for that was heavy.

In any case, the two elements of innocence and idealism are, to me, closely intertwined. I have already woven the discordant nostalgia of a young man together with his quiet and private lamentations of the death of innocence. Now, I must carefully weave the thread of idealism through out the story.

How to achieve this, I only have a slight inkling of an idea. It should not be too difficult, considering the environment I have put Mark into. He is an outside salesman who relies on his social grace and wit to make a living. Though Mark tries to retain integrity in his work, for most of the story he is a vague and elusive character to the reader because he becomes whoever he needs to be in order to survive. If his prospect is a sports fan, he is one too. If his prospect dislikes rap, he hates it just as much.

But he must also exist in a world in which ugliness and a lack of love is highlighted, though subtly so. It must be a world of superficialities, and a lack of humanity. His innate idealism and capacity for love must be subdued and suppressed. His true identity must be hidden, and what piece of identity he does express must be persecuted to some degree.

There is much work ahead of me. It will be hard work, to be sure. But it is also work that I much enjoy. While the idealistic part of me wishes to have already finished the novel, the older and world-weary part of me understands that this process will take as long as it needs to and doesn’t worry that I am not a Truman Capote-like writer who reached literary stardom before he hit 25. I still have much to learn and little to learn from, but the more I read about what others have to say about Salinger’s work, the more I become confident that my path is the right one. As with any serious pursuit, faith is the necessary condition that sustains a writer and imbues his or her work with the conviction that is paramount to any creatively successful work ¶

Special thanks to my brother, who bought me the aforementioned book.