From one of the many tomes I had read on the “art of fiction,” I had got the idea that, like Athena, the goddess of wisdom who sprouted full-breasted from the head of a man, the majestic sweep of my novel would roar out once I could “see” my first sentence—roar out like Niagara through the head of a pin.--Frederick Exley
Frederick Exley has been on my mind a lot lately, having just read his blistering landmark 1968 novel, A Fan's Notes, in preparation for reading and reviewing Brock Clarke's less-blistering (but no less potent) 2010 novel Exley.
It's hard to read A Fan's Notes in large doses. It would be like chugging a quart of vodka. There are so many moments when he comes right off the page, kicks you in the baby-making nether-regions, spits on you when you're down, then snuffs out a cigarette on the back of your hand. Those of you who think I exaggerate Exley's brutality to the reader have obviously never picked up A Fan's Notes. As Walter Kirn once wrote, "His prose is moist with lyrical revulsion." There's a lot of self-loathing and cynicism soaking the pages of that autobiography thinly disguised as a novel. I loved every minute of it; even while the poison was going down, I was smiling in recognition.
Amid the brutal scenes of alcoholic vomit, mental hospitals, electroshock therapy, and an extended "depression on the davenport" interlude, there are some excellent moments of metaphorical language, such as the above quote. When I read A Fan's Notes, I was galloping down the homestretch of polishing off the latest revision of my Iraq War novel, Fobbit. It was a laborious process: tinkering with words, slashing away whole sentences, adding more flesh to skeletal characters. I was worn down by the effort, yet flush with hope for what the novel might one day become. Despite the days and days of revision, some of the best sentences of Fobbit are probably still unwritten, padlocked inside my head. I can strain and grunt all I want, but they won't come any easier. All I can do is show up for work on time every day, crack my knuckles, splay them above the keyboard and keep vigil for the words which may or may not show up.
When I read that sentence about Exley's idea of his novel roaring to life, "like Niagara through the head of a pin," I felt the burn of recognition. Yes, I too had been waiting for the floodgates to open on the novel, waiting for the tumble of words that will make Fobbit the best it can be. Like Exley, I'll still sit here and stare at the head of that pin, waiting for that first welling bead of water to appear.
God, I hope the electroshock doesn't hurt.