Married to Form

October 22, 2008

Anyone who works in any creative medium will agree: artists are married to form. We struggle with it every day. Even in our sleep the structural problems in our work bother us. Form nags us, never lets us alone. We deal with it, cope with it, wrestle with it. Form is a constant in our lives.

To paraphrase Woody Allen, who paraphrased Groucho Marx, ‘my novel thinks its a chicken.’ So why not just tear it up? I can’t, I need the eggs.

Starting a novel is like shoving off to sea with only the vaguest notion of a destination. All I know is it will be a long journey. I don’t know where I’ll end up, I don’t know how I’ll get there, but I know there will be storms, surprises and structural headaches. No sane person will start such a trip without reasonable confidence they won’t end up drowning (the difference between Herman Melville and Captain Ahab). I’m not going to write this book if I think the plan is unworkable.

I was wary as I approached my second novel (Skydaddy, Alyson Books). I had a theme in mind, fatherhood. But my three main characters all had complex social identities that raised additional themes inescapably. Starting with an omniscient narrator, I wanted two of the characters, foils of each other, to narrate sections of the book in first person. Also, to explore my theme from a different angle, I needed a fourth main character (a foil of a foil). Would I end up with an incoherent mess?

Multiple themes. Sound familiar? Beethoven expanded on Sonata Form by adding subjects far beyond the conventional main and secondary themes. In his biography of Beethoven, Maynard Solomon attributes “a sense of striving for diverse solutions” to the 4th Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto, what I hear as an almost gluttonous piling up on his plate of structural challenges. My first impression of the 4th Piano Concerto was that it shouldn’t even exist — the material was so rich and diverse, by all reason it should collapse in on itself. But it doesn’t!

I followed what I call Beethoven’s First Law of Aesthetics: any structural problem can be solved. If Beethoven could successfully weave, balance and integrate a double Theme & Variations — showoff! — in the last movement to The Eroica, then the tiny structural troubles I faced were so completely insignificant, there had to be an answer. Even if I didn’t know what that answer was, Beethoven’s First Law said there had to be one. I only had to find it. And so I set off to sea.

Not only does the Master beckon us to dare, he shows us there’s no excuse not to. Beethoven’s First Law destroys all excuse for pedestrian design. Coherence is the one artistic rule l’ll obey. The work has to hold together; if not, it fails. But the artist who achieves coherence through timidity, somnolent restraint, conformity, ordinariness, domesticated subject, and then expects us to admire his control, will impress only an indoctrinated few.

We can ride in perfect balance on the back of a pack mule, or we can hold on for dear life to a runaway mustang stung on its butt by a radioactive hornet. Well, Beethoven turned perfect pirouettes on the back of his runaway radioactive mustang — showoff! Beethoven may be unique in human history in his ability to maintain control over wild, radical material. I can’t do that–can you? But he’s a symbol for the rest of us. Before the Towers fell, I’d stand at the adjoining base of the Twins and look up to the edge against the sky. There was Beethoven. I was an ant, a beetle. In the end, the only thing that matters is aspiration.

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