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HENCHMEN: Antecedents

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Nothing gets written in a void, there’s always something that sparks something.  We write from life, but also from the stuff we’ve read and seen.  And the ideas we come up with are usually derived from other people’s ideas.  Even Ulysses was based on, well, an earlier version of Ulysses.  In a way, literature, as well as being a lens on the real of the world, is also a conversation with itself.

So, my Henchman idea, “A whole James-Bond-world-at-stake kind of story but told from the POV of a couple of henchman” has enough antecedents to choke a horse.  There is of course the Fleming Bond novels which I love and which I collected in these cool old paperback editions that got all yellowed and mite ridden.  But there are other works that influence the whole way I’m going to tell the story.

The most obvious is “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, Tom Stoppard’s brilliant take on Hamlet.  Instead of showing the play from the POV of Hamlet or Claudius or even the vile Polonius, he takes two rather insignificant characters, frenemies of Hamlet who end up dying well off stage, and tells the story through their doomed eyes.  Yeah, I know, just like.  So much for originality.

But then there are levels of this originality thing.  “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” came out at a Scottish fringe festival in 1966, six years after the first production of Pinter’s "The Dumb Waiter", which is another obvious antecedent.  In “The Dumb Waiter”, two gunmen are holed up in a basement waiting for their orders.  They get strange commands through a dumb waiter sent down from an upper floor.  They bitch and moan about life and then, from the dumb waiter, one gets the order to kill the other.  Bam.

The funny thing, of course, is I don’t’ know if “Rosencrantz” gets written if “The Dumb Waiter” hadn’t been written first, and “The Dumb Waiter” has been copied over and again, most recently in a pretty decent movie called “In Bruges” that came out just a couple years ago and was thought of as quite original.   Hmmm. 

And of course, “The Dumb Waiter” doesn’t get written without the real antecedent of all these stories, “Waiting for Godot”, by one of my true literary heroes, Samuel Beckett.  “Godot” was completed in 1949 and premiered in English in London in 1955, two years before Pinter wrote “The Dumb Waiter.”  And Beckett’s great hero was Joyce, and round and round we go.  (One weird story, which I hope is true, is that Beckett was so enamored of Joyce that he even wore little black shoes just like Joyce, even though his feet were much bigger.  The tight shoes ended up hurting his feet so much, that almost all his protagonists complain constantly about their aching feet.)  And truth is, “Godot” is pretty much a redo of an earlier novel that Beckett had written called Mercier and Camier.  In that novel, his characters have this great discussion at the end:

Looking back on it, said Camier, we heard ourselves speaking of everything but ourselves.
We didn't bring it off, said Mercier, I grant you that.

Well, he brought it off in “Godot.”

It’s nice to think that it all began with Beckett, but really now, he loved Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy and there is more than a little Don Quixote, the very first novel, in his work.  And there is the famous story that is probably not true either but that I like, where Edward Albee went to Beckett and confessed to stealing a lot of his stuff from Beckett and Beckett told him not to worry about it because he stole all his own stuff from Dante.  So there you go.

Even before “Godot”, Beckett wrote his great trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, which pretty much brought the whole idea of the novel to a brilliant dead end.  After that, there was really nothing else to do with the damn thing, which was why, I believe, Beckett started writing plays.  I made it through that trilogy once -- I won’t make it through a second time, every man has his limits -- but at the end you sort of agree with him, the novel is dead and what’s the point, the last bastions had been breached, the final truths had been exposed.  It’s enough to turn a writer to urology.  Except Beckett is such a gentle force (some would say ferocious but I think not) and he gives us that famous last line of The Unnamable:
I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

And that seems to be the answer right there.  So no, Henchmen is not the most original idea -- there really aren’t too many anymore -- and yes it’s been done in many different ways -- there’s more than a little of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in it, too --  and there really might be nothing I could add.  And truth is I can’t even begin to try to write bad Beckett or bad Stoppard, I have enough trouble writing bad Lashner.  But the idea speaks to me.  And I wonder what the hell I can do with it.  And maybe I can make it my own for just a couple hundred pages.  And the hell with it, even knowing in the face of all its antecedents it will be nothing but a pathetic failure, I’ll take my cue from Mr. Beckett and just go on going on and give it a try.

And for that I might need your help.

HENCHMEN: the root idea

Monday, April 25, 2011

I like to read other writers' compendiums of ideas.  I mean, Shakespeare stole all his stories, right?  I have a book of Fitzgerald’s notebooks and he had tons of good ideas, such as:

(1) “Story about a man trying to live down his crazy past and encountering it everywhere.”  -- Pretty much “Babylon Revisited,”   -- ; or

(2) “Boredom is not an end product, is comparatively rather an early stage in life and art.  You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom as through a filter before the clear product emerges.”  -- Strangely, a little bit like David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King.

These are not fully fleshed out things, but you can see enough of the bones to get an idea of what the thing would be.  I’m always jotting down ideas for stories, just enough so I can see the skeleton, and here is the idea I jotted down for Henchman, the incipient novel I’m discussing here (excuse the scattered nature of what follows but this is exactly how I wrote it down a couple years ago):


Told in the voice of the big one, who also, against all odds, is the smart one.  It’s the small one that has the moxie and guts and leads them into all kinds of crap.

His voice is sort of half Brit, not slow so much as considered.  And the way I see it is they end up getting hired by one of the guys trying to take over the world and there’s this secret agent, and the whole James Bond thing happens, but since we get if from their point of view it is all just boring day to day guard this guard that shoot this guy run after that guy sort of stuff.  The world hangs in the balance and they’re blathering on about this and that.

“People all the time are asking how do you get started as a henchman.  I understand, it looks so glamorous from the outside, the clothes, the cars, busting noses, packing heat.  But really, it’s mostly just waiting around.”

Underlying the whole thing is the job, you know, whenever there are partners, one of them is at some point going to get the job of killing the other one.  It’s inevitable and it is frequently discussed by our two henchmen.
Okay, there’s the idea, or the ghost of the idea.  A whole James-Bond-world-at-stake kind of story but told from the POV of a couple of henchman, you know they guys who James Bond kills in bunches.  I like the idea for a lot of reasons: because I think it could be funny, because I always wanted to tell a secret agent story and this seems to be the freshest way, because I like the idea of all this complicated plot machinery happening the background while our two henchmen grouse about the food and the weather.

But before I go on and figure out how to tell the thing, I need to work out whether its startling lack of originality on all levels is enough for me to bury it before it up and burps.

Introducing: HENCHMEN

Friday, April 22, 2011

Okay, in the past I’ve been giving little pieces of writing advice that are better left ignored, and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about how helpful they’ve been, but I’ve wanted to try something a little different here now.  I’ve finally gotten out from under something huge I was working on and am starting to think about something new, and this might be a good time to discuss it.

I’ve always thought it interesting how something goes from the flash of an idea into a complete novel, all the stages and all the problem solving that is required.  Generally it all disappears with the completion of the book, as it should.  The writing itself should stand alone.  One of the rules I strictly maintain when I teach, is that the author should keep his mouth shut when discussing a piece of work.  If the work speaks for itself, there is nothing the writer need add; if the work doesn’t speak for itself then nothing the writer says can possibly put it in there.  The little black marks on the page rule.

But it might be helpful for you, and for me, if I try to lay out all the stages that go into the development of a book and so that’s what I’ll do.  We’ll call this project Henchmen because that’s its tentative title, though we know it will probably change by the end of the process.  The idea is just a kernel of something but I’m hoping if I keep working it, it will grow into something towering.  Of course, all the corn I plant ends up stunted and forlorn, but that’s the way it is when you start with an idea, you never know if it can go all the way to completion.  A couple hundred pages in you might realize the thing is stillborn and go to something else.  Such is life, but even if the thing doesn’t get written, it might be an interesting object lesson.

Before I give you the idea in the next post, just a quick note on ideas.  There are an infinite number of ideas out there, just floating around, and yet we are all scared of having our great idea stolen.  And we’re all in great fear that just when our idea is ready to blossom, someone will put out something with the same idea and we’ll look like the worst kind of plagiarists.  When I came up with the idea of reversing “The Metamorphoses” in a novel I published called Kockroach, it seemed like such an obvious conceit that I was all the time worried that someone would do it before I did.  Of course no one else was crazy enough to do it, but even if someone else had, her version would have necessarily been different than my version.  I was all the time aware of the different roads my book could take: the cockroach turned into a man could become a suburban dad, a used car salesman, a Vegas crooner, and it all would have worked.  I made him a gangster and politician.  The key to the book, actually, was the factotum who followed him around, Mite, and I’m pretty sure no one else would have come up with him.  And even if the other book had come out at the same time, having the dueling version might actually have been good for sales.  The point is, the book you write will be yours, totally, and unlike anything written by anyone else, even if they start with the same core idea.  So we should be a little less scared of sharing and a little more helpful with each other.

Still, if anyone steals my Henchmen idea, I know a guy what knows a guy, if you know what I mean.