The Novelist’s Sleight of Hand

John Irving conceived the idea of his tenth novel one night after watching the news at bedtime. A brief account and sketchily reported story about the nation’s first hand transplant grabbed his attention and tickled his narrative bone. How did the recipient lose his hand in the first place? Who was the donor? Was he a family member, a friend, a stranger to the patient?

His wife, Janet, then asked the offbeat question that inspired the master satirist to dig in his heels: “What if the donor’s widow demands visitation rights with the hand?”

And so, under these not-so-unusual circumstances, the novel, The Fourth Hand, was born, undoubtedly out of wedlock via a bicoastal, interracial relationship with the aid of a fertility drug and midwife, but carried to term and delivered nonetheless.

I don’t go out of my way to find or invent things that are bizarre. It just seems to me that I notice more and more how commonplace the bizarre is. – Novelist John Irving

While reading The Fourth Hand, I recall holding the book with two determined hands and questioning in certain early passages whether Irving had taken a fatal misstep as a novelist. Perhaps he had made the rookie mistake of going too far with a novelty. I wondered whether he had created a fresh, unconventional sexual farce that quickly turned tired by a too conveniently clever device—a sleight of hand, if you will—a one trick-riddled premise derailed by the hobbled gait of a three-hoof pony.

Then I kept reading and wondered if the reason I kept reading could be attributed solely to Irving’s talent as a master stylist and word acrobat. And I kept reading because with a story magician like Irving, when the circus comes to town, you’re never quite sure whether the bearded lady is going home with the strongman, or the door in the lion’s cage is about to suddenly swing ajar and leave the one-handed ringmaster twirling a prodigal child in the other. Besides, it’s always too much of a downer to leave the funhouse in the presence of a great carnival barker before the mirrors close in and distort your self-perception, not to mention your worldview.

The purpose of literature is to entertain and to instruct. – Isaac B. Singer

Satirist savants aside, not all ideas make for wisely conceived novels. Some may lack depth and distance; they’re short on stamina and a supportive ecosystem; there’s just not enough oxygen to go around to feed the whole village; these ideas fail to grow the lungs necessary to produce gale winds that last longer than a flash flood. They may be good for 40-yard sprints and one-night stands, but they lack the muscle tone and conditioning—along with the proper hygiene and career prospects—to qualify as marathon-running marriage material.

Ideas of the half-baked variety, those concocted late at night well past the sensible breeding hour, they barely warrant the effort to pull out the good china and prepare a warm, homemade breakfast the next morning, no less a Thanksgiving meal and warm introduction to the prospective in-laws.

And then there are the wayward, bastard ideas—the obsessive love—that just won’t quit. We perceive these ideas as unhealthy and ill-suited for mindful, purposeful writing; we think they are dangerous to useful, marketable production. These bizarre ideas require a commitment that defies all reason. They are not employable and yet they stalk us in alleyways and clutter our practical minds with mounds of homeless debris. No matter how we try, we can’t seem to find a trash bin large enough to accommodate their seemingly worthless bulk. These hoarding, harmful ideas weigh us down as writers; they create obstacles and detours because we’re not sure what to make of them.

Stick with ’em, I say. Stick with those crazy blokes. Put pen to paper and let them flow. No artist should be able to neatly, thoroughly describe his work at first blush. No rich, multi-layered characters begin life with a perfect anatomy.

The wildness of your original premise does not mean the work-in-progress needs to be a complex, rebellious, unpredictable sort. Nor does it mean that it will sustain life for longer than the span of a runaway teenage bride. Some ideas will live long, fruitful lives and others will perish at birth, stillborn.

This matters none.

The liveliness of each idea is worth pursuing, if just for that instant creative burst, jotting down the fibers mid-dream. As with all creation, narratives begin in fetal form and many are born without an integral body part, such as a hand or foot. But as long as the vital organs are present, as long as the Achilles tendon is not severed beyond repair, they are worth birthing, prodding, and letting loose. Even just to see how they look in the end. Even just to see how they fly in the face of convention. With or without the reflection of a funhouse mirror.

I’m in dangerously presumptuous territory here because one furious and fast rule of writing should be to never write about writing.

Kevin Moffett, in his delightful story, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” (McSweeney’s, 2009), riffs on the “laws of story writing” quite admirably and in the process tells a gem of a tale about a father publishing in the same literary magazines as his son. The father, who’s taken up story writing late in life, remarks that stories are like dreams, while the son likens stories to jars full of bees.

John Irving famously has said that a story chooses the writer even when the writer doesn’t necessarily like or know the subject.

Even when the writer needs a hand or a handy prosthetic to get started.

Photo Source: TowleRoad

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