James Henry Valentine "had never happened upon anything of any real value in this life, least of all the secret to true happiness" (p.5). "James had never found himself either ... The trouble was Jim was never exactly sure what he was meant to be on the lookout for or beating himself up over" (p.6). Later he says "I think I figured out fairly early on that there was no me to find, that if I wanted to "find myself" I would need to invent myself" (p.178).
He's an English teacher, a loner, a budding writer. When 40 he talks to a strange man in the park then returns home to find he has a wife who he's known for over 20 years. He has grown children too. He has to reconstruct his new past from the evidence available. He takes 5 years to do so. The book he writes about it ("Memoirs of a Made-up Man") is a success but his wife leaves him 5 years later. He never really connects with his children. The follow-up short-story collection "The Man Who Wrestled Angels" fails, though the individual stories did ok in magazines. Finally, after a gap of years he meets the man (God) again. God points out that "Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. With himself. Such is the guiding principle of existentialism" (p.295). There's a final, satisfying twist at the end involving a rake.
That's the plot. I'll now look at a few of the devices.
There are several of them. For example there's "A sphere passing through a three-dimensional space appears in the distance as a speck ... Similarly a man moving through life may be perceived as an embryo, an infant ... It was the world that had changed about him" (p.9). The analogy sometime follows the statement it's illustrating - i.e. It's show and tell. There are also mixed metaphors. Take for example "Pleasure was an aside and rather surprised each of them when it did catch them unawares. It was like an attractive hitchhiker who might catch their eye but, while they were wrestling with their consciences, the moment would slip from grasp and there would be no turning back" (p.12). Note that we're given a fairly literal description, then we're given an analogy. The "no turning back" ending is apt, but not the "slip from grasp". An alternative style would be "Pleasure was like an attractive hitchhiker who might catch their eye but, while they were wrestling with their consciences, the moment would pass and there would be no turning back".
Sometimes figures of speech rather than clustering around a single analogy arrive like London buses - "the son proved a harder nut to crack. His poker face was no mere affectation either. The man seemed incapable of a knee-jerk reaction" (p.13)
There are several of these too, including
- "Jim was forty and had been since he was thirty" (p.14)
- "Meaning is a symptom of action" (p.36)
- "Feelings are like spots - you shouldn't pick at them or they get all infected and scabby" (p.49)
- "The past is like yeast" (p.127)
- "Pity is like guilt: both are binding agents, tying things together that would really rather be apart" (p.168)
They work well. Some of them are extended towards being analogies.
The role of writer acquires a cosmic significance eventually, but even early on it attracts attention.
- "There is a special circle of hell earmarked for writers when they sit around all day long having great ideas but with no practical means of recording them" (p.24)
- "the real him was a writer" (p.47)
- "What aggravated Jim was that he had no feeling of empathy for his character" (p.90)
- "Someone should invent a new word, wroter, past tense of writer, one who who once wrote but no longer writes" (p.167)
- "I am a writer - we are always alone" (p.225).
- "Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research" (p.226)
The Craft of writing
We're given little lessons in writing
- "you decide, purely for the benefit of the plot you understand, your protagonist needs something, fleshing out, an idiosyncrasy" (p.83)
- "Plot Point No 1: Start the ball rolling with an event outside of the protagonist's control that initiatives a chain of events" (p.171)
- "Now would be a good time to take stock so far. A plot needs a number of elements for it to do its job: a believable and sympathetic central character - I nominate myself for that position ... " (p.183)
- "It's always tempting late in a book to graft in a bit of backstory to kick the feet from under your audience" (p.241)
At first the writing's in the 3rd person. On p.25 we're asked "Have you given any thought to who I am yet? You've probably taken it for granted I'm the omniscient narrator". The main narrational elements are
- Jim Valentine (wannabee writer. Manipulated by Joe and narrator)
- Jim Murdoch (I've never met him, but I presume he's real)
It's subsequently pointed out that "There is another thing with regards to storytelling that comes into play here and it has to do with who exactly is narrating. In some books the voice-over is never identified ... It is omniscient ... Omniscient narrators have zero invested in the outcome ... My narrators tended to be of the imperfect variety - unreliable witnesses" (p.174). Later, new elements emerge
- On p.165 the text becomes Jim's 1st-person narrative
- On p.222 the addressee issue is discussed. On p.240 there is "Why do we writers write? What do we get out of it and why do we need readers so? To validate who we are"
- On p.229 Jim asks "if my life has been nothing but a work of fiction, who're the readers?". Joe answers "The angels", pointing out later that Jim isn't real, and that "Life does not imitate art ... Like is art" (p.303)
The most common mode is the monologue - raconteuring - even if two people are in discussion. Either God is lecturing Jim or the narrator is talking to the reader who can't interrupt.
- I've never heard the phrase "loaded for bear" (p.30) before.
- On p.181 "streaks ahead" (rather than "streets ahead") appears. I've not heard it before, though apparently it's fairly common.
- The description of multi-dimensional time on p.85 will keep SF writers happy.
- There are Beckettian flourishes: when the none-too-young home-help gives Jim occasional relief; on p.254 there's a passage about sharing ashes fairly amongst a family tree of offspring.
- There are many allusions, of which I probably only picked up a few.
Character-development is a major theme, an analogy that works on 3 levels.
- God made us
- Authors create their characters
- We create others and ourselves
These level can be nested and twisted. Occasionally, sometimes for comic effect, the layers are confused (metalepsis) - God creates authors who create God. At each level the creator needs readers. Because of Jim Valentine's amnesia, he has to re-create himself, but perhaps that's life's norm - "Nietzsche ... proposed the unimaginable: the God was dead (or had at least forsaken us), which would mean we are all writing ourselves" (p.261). Jim thinks his home help (who loves soap operas) is the sort of viewer who'd post cards to the characters, but he doesn't consider it that strange - aren't other people always creations of some sort? I'm sympathetic to the theme and empathize with the hero. I've recently read Maria Taylor's Instructions for making me poetry pamphlet which tackles similar issues.
When God appeared I was at first worried, for the same reason that I don't like "Q" episodes in StarTrek TNG - anything can happen. But there are few (albeit major) interventions. The novel could have excluded the God character entirely, beginning with an amnesia attack. It would have lost a level of analogy that way, but might have gained more readers.
There were passages when the conjecturing went on too long for me. On p.206-233 for example, nothing much happens and I struggled. But perhaps I'm supposed to. A character admits - "Granted, I am prone to rambling and beating around bushes" (p.245). What kept me reading through these passages were the aphorisms, analogies, references, and writing tips, and I was keen to see how the story would end.