Thursday, November 20, 2014

David Ryan and the Crowded Room

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, David Ryan, author of Animals in Motion (Roundabout Press), discusses the inspiration he has drawn from the work of other writers.

A long time ago I discovered a handful, and soon a crowded roomful, of writers whose work baffled and compelled me beyond the ideas of craft I’d been trying to sort out. These writers seemed to focus less on the typical notions of craft—setting and event and character—choosing instead to enlarge something I couldn’t yet identify. Or rather, they did it all so well—these typical crafty things—but so strangely and transparently, with a special sort of undertow. These were writers doing something simultaneously deeper and more diffuse than what I was used to, and I wanted to know how.

Collectively they didn’t fit into any particular school—some seemed to live on the outskirts of the literary establishment, while others should have fallen into the mainstream pretty easily. But they were each in their own way estranged from what I’d read and been taught up to then. And the more I read, the more badly I wanted to crack their strange codes. Some of them: Emily Holmes Coleman, John Hawkes, Grace Paley, Isaac Babel, Alexander Kluge, William Gass, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Lydia Davis, William Gaddis, Peter Mathiessen, Walter Abish, Claude Simon, Elfriede Jelinek, Henry Green, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Paula Fox . . . the list could continue—and does. Some threw out conventional notions of story entirely—for instance, the early novels of John Hawkes. But others, say, Paula Fox, or Isaac Babel, managed to tell stories that follow familiar conventions, yet always generate a complex, diffuse heat. If they used the codes of realism, these codes bubbled up from an extraordinarily erratic and, as I saw it, peculiarly human impulse.

So, if the books I’d read and been taught in my formal education had been the nucleus of an apprenticeship, I’d suddenly landed on a bunch of electrons that materialized and swarmed around anything I’d known before. Often the power of these writers’ work seemed impossible to grab hold of, and this alone drew me in—the difficulty in understanding how they did what they did. Even the simple stories didn’t feel simple. Their surfaces felt sticky, deceptive, even as they pulled me into them.

The earliest clue I could find, and what became the primary draw, was the language itself. Language was the spark, the essential magic. These writers’ extraordinarily precise language pushed into and through the center of their subject, drove it into unfamiliar territory. Language was the deranged genie, the genius—this monstrous undertow that rose up to the surface and dredged the depths, brought with it certain appealing murk. Language had the power to conjure a beautiful and glimmering pollution from a reader’s inferential capacity.

Perhaps this can’t really be called a craft issue, and yet I have learned so much about my writing through it: how gorgeous is the fuzzy light we generate through a reader's own associations with our words—if they’re chosen carefully. How powerful that we can tell one story on a surface, while lodging several others deeper, purely through our understanding of the inferential force of words, how the combustible qualities of one idea can sit beside another and ignite “a gathering web of associations,” as the British novelist Henry Green once suggested fiction should be.

I'd like each story I write to feel as if it were just barely concealing its own unconscious. That something anarchic and unruly was generating the words above. That at any moment something could snap free of the page and fly away. Because this seems to me to be how we as human beings draw our lives up. The world threads itself through us, and we respond—our irrational ways of taking and making meaning from the randomness of our day, the unpredictable gusts of life thrown at us, the insane bluster of our responses. We do the best we can, we give each day a form and then we go to sleep. Life is our monster and we are its shaping, its containment, its formal arrangement. This is the ultimate creativity, these occasionally extraordinary moments we shape around chaos. I want my fiction to live in that kind of skin as it responds to the world flying through each moment—I want it to reflect all that we don't notice about ourselves, even as it says everything about who we are.