Sitting at his desk, pen in hand, this writer often imagines he has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. If only, he jokes, he could tell the two apart. On his right shoulder (he’s right-handed) is his first self-chosen muse, and sometime devil, J.D. Salinger. Occasionally he looks more like Raymond Carver, or Dostoevsky, or any number of hardboiled detective writers, but usually he is simply J.D. Salinger. Perched on the writer’s shoulder, Salinger whispers that he should write in an engaging first-person voice; create an erudite narrator who leavens a basic plot with humorous digressions. Sometimes, when the writer anguishes over the details of a description or a kink in the plotline, Salinger grumbles, “Never mind the goddamned plot, it’s the narrator that keeps people interested.”
On this writer’s left shoulder, bespectacled and sporting a van dyke beard, is a much later muse, one he learned to love: Anton Chekhov. Now and then, this is Chekhov the playwright (and doctor) urging the writer to consider the point of view of a character he is unthinkingly trying to neglect. Mostly, though, this is Chekhov the writer of short stories. He speaks mildly from his place on the writer’s shoulder, sounding at times like Austen, or Proust, or even the old haiku poets Basho and Issa. In his doctorly voice he reminds the writer that, in many ways, characters are like patients – they all matter and they all need something from the people around them. “Remember that characters talk to each other, not the reader, and they talk mostly of minutiae. Think of them as patients who love talking of their diseases, although those diseases are the least interesting things in their lives. Do not put words in a character’s mouth. Your language should not distract the reader from your characters,” he intones, reminding the writer (and Salinger) of the old Japanese proverb that an haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon—if the finger is bejeweled it draws attention away from the moon.
Salinger nods with a smile at the digression into Eastern philosophy but bristles at the distinction between character and language. “You learn as much about people—perhaps more about people—from how they tell you their story as you do from their interactions with other characters. Say what you will about psychoanalysis, but there is no question that it has shown us the importance of what people say and how they say it.” Chekhov nods politely, thinking of those stories in which he used excerpts from the diaries and letters of his characters to capture their inner lives. “Of course, you are right that we learn a great deal about a person in psychoanalysis from the choices they make in how they tell their story. But we learn almost nothing about the psychoanalyst.”
The two of them can go on like that for hours, though they always agree on at least one point: that a judicious use of humor in an otherwise sad story only serves to make it more true.
Yet there is another figure, neither angel nor devil, looming large behind the writer and Salinger and Chekhov and the host of smaller angel-devils; a figure so large, with a presence so pervasive, that he often goes unnoticed. Like the Titans or the pre-Christian deities of the pagan world, this Old God holds dark, mysterious powers. He is at the heart of this writer’s mythology and also outside of it. This is James Joyce or, more precisely, a version of Joyce concentrated through the idolatry of the writer’s father. While distinct from the figures of Chekhov or Salinger, this Joyce is also the template, the space within which the entire constellation of angels and devils exists. It is Joyce that creates this writer’s urgent need to weigh and consider each word, to tinker with each sentence in hope that it will ring with layered tones of meaning and shimmer with verse-like beauty.
“Beauty,” Joyce says a bit sternly “is not simply truth, but also the perfect union of form and meaning. A sentence should not only tell the reader something, it should also be constructed in such a way that the reader experiences what you are trying to describe. It is not enough to describe the ringing of bells. Your description should also capture the cadence of those bells. If a character is tired, the writing should contain the lumbering rhythms of fatigue.”
“But these are poetic devices.” Chekhov breaks in. “Of course, if they are married to character they can be useful, but they should not distract you from those characters.” Joyce is booming now, more Milton the blind absolutist than the mild-mannered Jesuit who wept because on certain days his failing eyes prevented him from writing. “Language is a character, perhaps the greatest character.” Chekhov looks smaller, retracted as though seen through the wrong end of a telescope, but he holds his ground. “Language is many things to a character: voice, mood, impression . . . it is perhaps everything but character. Characters are people.” This is an argument whose quiet logic and truth neither Joyce nor the writer’s father can fully deny. The contradiction between Joyce the lover of language and technique and Joyce the writer who sought to create a complete human being is too great and, at least for now, he is shattered into shards of truth as he hears the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry and a screaming comes across the sky: “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawn-toohoohoordenenthurnuk!”
The heavens burst open in a mutiny of voices as this writer is deafened by a lifetime’s worth of family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, books, newspapers, events, films, songs, places, feelings, truths, lies, silences, experiences, sensations, thoughts