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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

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.


Blogger Neal Kristopher said...

It is great to see your blog back, William! And a fun topic, to boot. R&G are dead was my favorite part of my lit class in High School, which annoyed all of the kids that didn't get it to no end.

And I would read the crap out of this novel!

May 15, 2011 at 2:10 PM  

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