Layers Like Baklava

I have attached a diagram to illustrate the many layers of The Hakawati.  The novel’s structure is kind of like a braid.  There are three main lines of story that intertwine: The present, the past, and the fairy tale.  These main lines then have offshoots, little mini stories, that add even more complexity to the structure. 

You end up getting this beautiful mishmash of reality and fantasy and the two rub up against each other and inform each other.  Mostly, the overlap is in tone, or adding a little bit of context to another part.  The different story lines don’t really talk out loud to each other much.  Rather, they seem to whisper. 

Just like melody and harmonies in music, the layers of the storylines all blend together to make a much bigger sound than one instrument playing alone.  It’s a very cool effect.  And now, without further ado, I give you the rough diagram (this is just for illustration, it’s by no means exact nor comprehensive.)

Modes of Storytelling

This month’s mentor is one I like so much I actually wrote about him for my MA thesis.  Since I don’t want to let all that dense academic jargon go to waste, I’m going to be pulling bits from my thesis to help me talk about Rabih Alameddine.

First, let’s talk a little about The Hakawati (translation: The Storyteller).  It’s a novel that’s not quite a novel.  When we talk about novels, we usually talk about plot structure, arcs, one cohesive line that takes us from the first chapter to the last.  Some authors mix it up and give us something unexpected.  Alameddine is one of them.  In his book, he’s giving us a more literal representation of a traditional oral storyteller by structuring The Hakawati in a different way.

The book Orality and Literacy, by Walter J. Ong focuses on the different characteristics between written and oral culture. Among those differences is the structure of narrative, which he explicates in the chapter titled “Oral Memory, the Story and Characterization.” The inherent difference between “orality” and literacy lies within relying on either memory or text, between listening to the story or reading it:

What made a good epic poet was, among other things of course, first, tacit acceptance of the fact that episodic structure was the only way and the totally natural way of imagining and handling lengthy narrative, and, second, possession of supreme skill in managing flashbacks and other episodic techniques… If we take the climactic linear plot as the paradigm of plot, the epic has no plot. Strict plot for lengthy narrative comes with writing. 141
Alameddine’s book combines the physical text of literary tradition, with the episodic techniques of oral tradition to create a book which belongs to both, thus making it wholly neither, but instead a third form born of the hybridization.

When I read The Hakawati, suddenly 1,001 Arabian Nights made sense.  Based on the layered storytelling structure, I realized how Scheherazade could maintain enough suspense to buy herself another night, and another, and another.  It’s not just that she stopped in the middle of a story at dawn, it’s that she stopped in the middle of a story, which was really part of another story, and even when she finished the story in the story, she was still nowhere finished with the first story.  It’s like the best TV series where in each episode they conclude one complication, just to reveal that Complication A affects Complication B, which triggers Complication C.  For every thread they tie up, they unravel one or two more.  That’s what keeps us eagerly anticipating the next episode.  In a way, we have oral storytelling structure to thank for that.

Whew.  I promise the next post will be more concise.  It will also have at least one picture.  Stay tuned!

Where to Put the Good Blonde?

In Good Blonde and Others, the opening selection is about Kerouac, hitchhiking back from Mexico, catching a ride in a brand-new Lincoln Mercury driven by a beautiful blonde in a bathing suit. Throughout the section, Kerouac wonders who on Earth would ever believe that he’s so lucky?

Apparently, he didn’t think anyone really would, or he thought the section too lengthy, or he thought some other kind of editorial thing about it…because it remains as a fragment. He mentions the blonde in the second chapter of The Dharma Bums (imagine my interest when it suddenly appeared as I was reading along), but she is a brief, flitting literary construction to get him from point A to point B:

“hitchhiking the rest of the way from Santa Barbara in one long zipping ride given me, as though anybody’ll believe this, by a beautiful darling young blonde in a snow-white strapless bathing suit and barefooted with a gold bracelet on her ankle, driving a next-year’s cinnamon-red Lincoln Mercury, who wanted Benzedrine so she could drive all the way to the City”

An almost-paragraph is all that’s left of some twenty odd pages of writing.

So, why not put in everything and make it a longer chapter?

This has something to do with the tone of the book The Dharma Bums. The main guy, Ray Smith (another Kerouac doppelganger), is all about enlightenment…and sex doesn’t enter into it. Now, I’m not psychic, but I bet Kerouac had that figured out. Rule of thumb: don’t put in lengthy sections that have nothing to do with your theme/point/story. Episodic as it is, The Dharma Bums, like On the Road, is a focused presentation of a period in Kerouac’s life – not everything is gonna make it in.

A lot of good writers do this: write way more than they would ever need. I read somewhere that Amy Tan wrote almost a thousand pages for The Joy Luck Club. The end product is around three hundred pages. That’s seven hundred pages of material that didn’t get in there. Same with Kerouac. “Good Blonde” is a twenty page episode cut down to about a paragraph.

How do you know what material is extraneous material? How do you know where to put the Good Blonde? Or do you even utilize your Good Blonde section at all?

A few things that I’ve thought of to help in the decision making process:

1. Finish your story…all thousands of pages of it…and take a real hard look to see what it’s really about. If it is about a mother’s love, do you really need the main character to be married five times and to focus so much on husband number three? Probably not. Stuff like that can be pared down. Throw it on a scrap pile to be cannibalized later into a short story or something.

2. Is the extra material all front-loaded? If it’s taking your forever to get to the real story – like a hundred pages or so – you may be doing what they call ‘a running start’. Most of the material you think of as character-building, or background, is extra. The Good Blonde portion of The Dharma Bums is up front. If Kerouac had spent twenty pages telling us about this unbelievably lucky pick-up he would have taken an extra twenty pages to get Ray (main character) and Japhy together – and that’s the central relationship in the story, so the Blonde is just a run-up. You can cut those. Scrap pile ’em.

3. Conversely, does the denouement of your story go on forever, like Lord of the Rings? Similar principles to #2 apply.

4. Can characters be combined? Do you really need enlightenment scenes with three different characters? Why not smush it all down to one scene and one character? If you find yourself repeating insights or details, remember: the reader will get it the first time! You’re not adding in new or essential information at that point and the scene, as well as the characters that go with it, can probably go.