Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why the Great American Novel Won't Get Written

Recently, I watched a DVD of La mariée était en noir [The Bride Wore Black]. The film, adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich (writing under the pseudonym “William Irish”), was directed by François Truffaut and starred Jeanne Moreau as the title character. Wed and widowed within a few minutes, Julie Kohler seeks revenge against the five men who were responsible for the murder of her newly-minted husband as he and Julie posed on the church steps for a formal wedding photograph. To accomplish her mission, Julie, adopting various personae, travels across France (for the men have scattered after the fatal moment and never maintained contact with each other) to hunt them down and do them in, crossing off one by one each name on the list in her little black book when she has succeeded.

Though the movie lives up to its reputation as a classic and I enjoyed it immensely, I nevertheless could not get one big question about the plot out of my mind: how did Julie know who the responsible parties were (and, concomitantly, how did she know where to find them)? The police have no idea that the murders are linked or that any of the victims were involved in the unsolved murder of Julie’s husband. Only a second sighting of Julie by a character who was friends with both victims one and four leads to her connection to the revenge murders—but not their connection to the original murder of her husband.
It took me several years of procrastination after my retirement before I was ready to sit myself down before my computer keyboard to write the Great American Novel (Mystery Division). I had had several plot ideas in my head for a while, and I plucked the “stolen identity” one from the gray matter, fired up the machine, and started to write. I knocked out the first (admittedly short) scene fairly quickly, saved it on a floppy disk, and spent the rest of the day feeling rather Hemingwayish and Fitzgeraldian.

And so to bed—where I lay awake all night, trying to weave together the strands of the plot (how did A get to location Z?; when did B find out about Y?; and on and on through the night). I tossed, I turned, and, when the little voice in the back of my mind whispered, “Gotthelf hath murdered sleep,” I realized that if I continued my project, I would never sleep again until I, unlike Truffaut, left no questions to be answered.

That opening scene remains on that floppy, on some shelf or in some drawer—perhaps to be found in some heap of rubble many centuries from now by a future generation able to apply its superior knowledge to crack the Rosetta Stone floppy and to discover the mysteries of our culture—then again, maybe not.

But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

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