Mechanics of design

The trouble with all stories is really just the trouble with me. Once the vividness and singularity of the invented world gives way to the mechanics of design, the imperatives of resolutions, conclusions, and crowning themes, something in me dies. In popular comedy films — starring, say, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase — this sudden deathly pallor tends to hit at the 45-minute mark or at the car chase, whichever comes first.

All at once, the film stops speaking in its own invented tongue and falls back on convention, chunks of narrative code drawn from the common plot Wiki with only a cosmetic overlay of customization. Vitality bleeds out of the language. Basic mythotypes, like crude cogs in an industrial plot machine, infiltrate the performances. It’s all stock from here, and it is not unreasonable to think that different writers – finishers — have taken over at that point, or at least different interests within the company of creators.

You ride it out. It will be over soon, and even you are not entirely above the gratifications of revenge, vindication, consummation.


In good novels, it can be a terribly subtle transformation. On the surface, things seen unchanged, but there’s this feeling: the creator is no longer surprised by the creation and the life of its own. Authorial intention gradually drives out authorial discovery. The good writers kick hard against it, but the story has hit the downhill stretch, and they know what to do. That’s the problem. It’s all business now, the business of delivering the goods, the emotional satisfactions, the forced unity, the lines that complete a circuit that may or may not light a little bulb.

Inside every professional writer is a dreaming kid who writes the first 150 blooming pages, but it is the professional writer who takes it home from there.

About 170 pages into Richard Powers’ manifestly brilliant novel The Overstory, which all the better people are reading, I have reached the first red flag. To this point, the novel has proceeded in nine discrete character pieces, luminous life capsules in almost unbearably opulent and original prose, connected only by the novel’s obsession with trees. Now it seems the nine characters are going to hook up and, I dunno, save the world?

I’ll let you know. If I finish it.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.