26 September 2011

The subconscious in fiction


The promenade at Selsey

In several posts on this blog I have referred to my belief that an author’s subconscious does most of the heavy lifting. His or her conscious mind is just a willing amanuensis who puts the boss’s ideas into motion.

The subconscious is the big-bellied, smoke-blackened cooking pot where experience gets rendered down, a process that most of us, quite rightly, take for granted. If we didn’t, life would be unlivable. For the artists among us, however, things are a little different. By creating an artefact, the artist (author, painter, sculptor, whatever) is left with something tangible to ponder. A conscious mind is able to survey a product of its subconscious and can try to understand some of its complexities.

My last book, The Drowning, came together almost magically. I had the feeling that it was writing itself. The choice of start-date for the main narrative, July 1965, was arrived at pretty much by chance, but yielded a rich field of circumstance (e.g. the timing of the civil war in Nigeria) which in turn suggested the mechanics of the story. This was the first time I had attempted a full-length novel without a synopsis, and I was pleased by the integrity of the structure that finally emerged.

At this remove, six months after finishing the first draft, I am no longer wholly sure what the book is about. It explores Buddhist ideas about the quest for release from suffering, and compares Buddhist and Christian notions of morality. But under the surface (quite literally, in some respects) more is going on. The opening scene describes a man’s escape from a ruined submarine. In a closely following chapter the agnostic protagonist is sitting in a cathedral; rather against his will, he overhears a reading from the Book of Jonah. My choice of this text did not arise from an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Old Testament: instead I opened a Bible at random and, having turned a few pages, lighted on the opening of that book. Something told me to use it. I was unaware, then, of the congruence between an escape from a submarine and being disgorged by a big fish.

The Book of Jonah is about anger and redemption. An evil deed arising from the escape of the submariner blights the lives of several of the principal characters, especially the heroine’s mother and in consequence the heroine, Elspeth, herself. Elspeth is a Buddhist. Through a selfless adherence to Buddhist morality, she quashes the repercussions of that evil deed and prevents them from doing further damage. It is hinted that, like the proverbial dewdrop slipping into the shining sea, she thereby clears the final hurdle and achieves nirvana.

An influential scene comes early in the book. Elspeth, her sister and younger brother, together with the protagonist (her brother’s tutor) visit the seaside for a day’s bathing. The metaphors there are obvious; what is not so obvious is the choice of Selsey for their picnic.

Selsey is a resort in West Sussex that I know well. However, it is an improbably long way from Winchester, which, somewhat remodelled, and renamed “Alincester”, is the city where Elspeth’s family live. A more obvious choice would have been a resort further west, such as Southbourne. Crucially, though, Selsey has a lifeboat station.

Only when partway through writing the Selsey sequence did I remember that fact. A visit to the lifeboat station fitted in beautifully with the theme of shipwreck and suggested in turn a further tightening of the plot, yet my choice of Selsey as the picnic venue had been directed merely by a vague feeling that it would be right.

Ablution, especially in the form of showers, features unusually often in the story. I only realized this once I had finished, but these are of course a metaphor for baptism, absolution, submersion, and all the rest of it. I describe a shower taken by Elspeth’s bridegroom, shortly before the newlyweds move to Nigeria. While showering he is thinking about his coming job in Lagos. Oil has recently been discovered in the Niger Delta.

Even without the oil, it would have instructive to be on hand to follow Nigeria’s political development. With it, conditions had become as explosive as the methane now flaring in the skies above the mangrove swamps.

Charles turned off the shower valve and stepped from the enclosure.

Thus the oil – its potential for igniting a civil war – is drawn into the general theme. Fire is the opposite of water. Moreover, turning the valve temporarily cuts the flow, raising the pressure in the pipes: Charles has been having misgivings about his bride. Elspeth in turn feels, at heart, that her wedding was a mistake.

When she arrives in Lagos she has a horrible time. Before she rises above it, she also takes a shower.

The club was air-conditioned, the bungalow also, but the car-ride back made her crave another shower. While standing under the lukewarm sprinkles, she noticed that the bottom of the plastic curtain, where it rested against the tub, had started to go mouldy. The curtain had been new only a fortnight ago.

For “curtain” in the last sentence, read “marriage”. In the last few months I have uncovered more of such stuff, but the foregoing gives you the general idea.

Readers are turned off by symbolism. Allegory has long since gone out of fashion. Yet in constructing a plot, especially a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants plot like this one, the author cannot help subconsciously building it in. He defers to his judgement, or taste, or whatever you want to call it, and lets it ensure all the arrows are pointing in the right direction.

I submit that the reader’s subconscious picks up these signals. Unless the reader is a student of literature given the job of analysing a piece of prose, the signals usually escape the conscious mind, but they play an indispensable part in making a story satisfying.

Yet it is fatal to the author, while writing, to be too aware of them himself. If that happens the work becomes portentous, its vitality snuffed out at the very start. What the writer needs to produce is an apparently realistic and unpretentious narrative. The conscious mind of the reader enjoys it because what happens is interesting, amusing, or identifiable.

One need not understand why this book or that is satisfying or otherwise: the benefit from a well-made novel is derived silently, internally, moulds itself to the sensibility, and becomes thereby a part of one’s outlook on life – and that, I suggest, is the underlying purpose and value of fiction.

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