Per Second Per Second

Allowing your characters to ignore the law of gravity doesn’t always lead to postmodernism. Sometimes it just indicates sloppy writing. In the novel I’m currently reading, Journey to the End of the Night, which is by Louis-Ferdinand Celine and which came recommended by Jack Kerouac, I can’t figure out what it indicates.

The book started out pretty well. Existentialist figure caught up in the mass insanity of World War I, his disillusionment in the reality of the trenches. He manages to escape the war, goes to Africa (think Heart of Darkness), gets malaria, wakes from his malarial coma to find he has is now a galley slave. A slave galley plying the seven seas, circa 1916. Bit of a stretcher, that. He helps row across the ocean to, of all places, New York City. A slave galley in New York Harbor. But our hero has a plan. He has taught himself everything there is to know about counting fleas, and as everyone knows, Americans are ‘connoisseurs of technique.’ So he escapes, offers his services as a flea-counter, and joins the American workforce. The first chance he gets, he walks off the job and gets a room at ‘the most luxurious and sumptious’ hotel in North America. The desk clerk does not seem to notice that he is dressed like a bum. Who has time to notice clothes when the law of gravity has been thrown out the window?

Here’s the problem for the reader; novels with no gravity are not about anything. If Celine intends to show us something about the world, which is my impression, he has shot himself in the foot. Surrealism is a delicate balancing act frequently mistaken for self-indulgence. Celine is a horribly self-indulgent writer, a solipsist’s solipsist, and it’s a crying shame that someone with Jack Kerouac’s natural talent was so taken in by him.

More frequently though, characters defy gravity in little ways. Many years ago I was reading a forgettable novel whose protagonist was a hippy-dippy alternative sort of a flower child who unfortunately had some sort of issue at the bank but fortunately happened to be friendly with the bank president and so went to talk to him about it. At that point I put the book down. There had been nothing in the story so far to indicate that in any, shape, or form our heroine might be socially involved with bank presidents. Not impossible to imagine, but a little preparation might have been helpful. As a girl, she had baby-sat the bank president’s daughter. As a student, she had won an art award presented by the bank. As a young woman, she and the bank president had been stuck on an elevator together. Something, in other words, to establish a previous relationship. But no. For the sake of the plot, it becomes convenient to allow a character to ignore basic physical laws, and if the reader doesn’t like it he can just lump it. Or close the book.

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