Over coffee on a weekend in the Catskills late last summer, I was reading what was then the latest draft of my friend Alex Chee’s (wonderful) forthcoming novel, The Queen of the Night, and we were talking about structure in fiction. It was a glorious August morning — dew still on the ground, foliage rustling, the firs and spruce stretching high above us and seeming more and more, as the fog burned away, to cast that beautiful, bluish, slightly restrained northeastern green over the rest of the world. The early hours gave way to a day of writing and reading and the meandering conversations, half practical and half philosophical, about writing that I love most.
At some point I mentioned that when over the years I’ve started to feel lost in my draft, to lose track of where I’m going and what my characters are doing, I’ve often re-read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Sometimes I open it planning only to look at the prologue. But just about every time I start, I’m drawn back into the narrator’s undergraduate angst, his overclose web of friendships, his need to belong no matter the cost, and I can’t stop until I’m done. The book is long and lush and at first seems to sprawl, but it’s ultimately very cohesive. Like the Victorians’, Tartt’s stray ends, her riffs and digressions, get crocheted into the afghan.
I love Alex for many reasons, and one of the most selfish of those is that he tends to work for a long time on his novels. I say selfish because knowing that someone so talented and so accomplished has also agonized for years makes me feel less frustrated with myself for taking so long to finish my (first) book. Sometimes I worry that I our long conversations about literature and writing are painfully one-sided, that he’s willing to make the sacrifice because he respects, cares about, and believes in me, but that he doesn’t take much from them. I worry in effect that our friendship forces him to do his day job for free. So I was surprised and more than a little relieved when he wrote earlier this month to say that he was reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and thinking of me while doing the last round of edits on his novel.
“The structure of The Secret History is really quite beautiful to think about,” he said. “It begins with a prologue that sets up the murder — and how it dominates the narrator’s life now — moves on to introduce him and how he found his way to college there, how he became, essentially, the perfect person for Henry, the murderer in chief, to use for his purposes. He is inducted, he feels special, chosen — and then discovers he can only go forward with the plan Henry has for them, including the murder, and part of it is the idea that this murder will free them. The first half then makes its way to the murder — the second, away from it, to the end.” He went on, and his observations about the book, though different from mine, helped me understand my obsession with it.
By coincidence, Tartt is also a writer whose books tend to take a long time. In 2002, she told Katharine Viner that when The Secret History came out, “I was very confused because I was thrown into a world that I knew nothing about. I just kind of lived like a student, worked like a student. And then all of a sudden – well, the metaphor that comes to mind is a shark tank. It wasn’t quite that bad. But it was a shock. It was a bucket of cold water. People you’d meet and talk to and journalists would say, ‘Oh, what are you going to do to top this one? If your name’s not out there in two years, people will forget all about you.’ I mean, jeez, what are they talking about? William Styron said, when he was about my age, that he realised he had about five books in him, and that was OK. I think I have about the same number. Five.”
Other than the slow pace, I’m not drawing comparisons between my writing and Tartt’s or Chee’s — certainly not in ultimate outcome. Nor do I believe that writers who work more quickly are necessarily any less brilliant or less deep than those two are. (Try listing, just for example, the works of Muriel Spark or Graham Greene on a single page.) But writing a novel is an inherently strange exercise. It’s surreal to work for years and years on a project very few people have seen. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the grips of an incredibly intricate and time-consuming delusion. So it’s comforting to know that some of the novelists who inspire me also, of necessity, take their time.