Some Notes on "The Real Character" [Two Month Review: The Invented Part]
The first Two Month Review podcast went up just over a week ago, and the next one—covering the first section of the book, “The Real Character” (pages 1-45)—will be posted next Thursday, June 1st. Prior to each week’s podcast, we hope to have at least some sort of overview post that offers some entranceways to the section to be discussed. These posts aren’t supposed to be complete, absolute, or anything that formal. More like notes or musings, and featuring lots of quotes. They also will be—as much as humanly possible—spoiler free. So you can read them before getting into the book, or after you’ve read that particular section, or post-podcast.
You can also download this as a PDF document.
As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.
I can’t think of another book with as many epigraphs as The Invented Part. Sixteen! There are quotes from David Foster Wallace, Iris Murdoch, Bret Easton Ellis, Marcel Proust, Bob Dylan, and many others. Eleven others, to be exact. Covering the first two-and-a-half pages of the book. Some of these are pithy (Juan Carlos Onetti’s “Always lie”), whereas Geoff Dyer’s runs seven full lines.
Taken as a whole, these sixteen (again, sixteen!) epigraphs make a good deal of sense and serve almost as an overture for the book. They tend to revolve around ideas about reality vs. fiction. About writing and autobiography, and the relationship of both to the truth.
All of that comes together in this one from John Cheever, which also works to frame my initial thoughts about “The Real Character” (emphasis on “real,” emphasis on
“character”), the first part of The Invented Part.
Writing is not crypto-autobiography, and it’s not current events. I’m not writing my autobiography, and I’m not writing things as they happen to me, with the exception of the use of details—thunderstorms and that sort of thing. No, it’s nothing that happened to me. It’s a possibility. It’s an idea.
It’s easy to see The Writer (the main focus of the novel, known as The Boy in this particular chapter) as a stand-in for Fresán, and maybe when we get deeper into the book, it will make more sense to write a post about that. But for now, I want to focus on the last bit of Cheever’s quote: “It’s a possibility.” Because this book is all about possibilities—the way things were, the way they could’ve been—and the interplay between the possible and the invented.
“The Real Character” is basically an origin story. It shows The Boy (who will eventually become The Writer) on vacation with his parents (or “onvacation” since he hears it as a single word), at the beach, running and playing unselfconsciously while his soon-to-divorce parents read in the sun and bicker with each other. And then there’s an event that could’ve broke any number of ways, and which, in retrospect, is the moment that serves as a secret source for all his future writings.
Is this the most important thing that’s happened to him yet?, The Boy wonders. (Who knows, he responds; and, at the other end of his story, decades later, he’ll say yes, when he realizes that the most transcendent events take place in the past but only happen in the future, when we’re truly cognizant of their importance, of the influence and weight they’ve had on everything that has and will come to pass. And it’s that which happens after that makes the before sad or happy. We need to know where we’re coming to in order to fully understand the texture of where we came from. [. . .]
This is the sort of idea that could launch a thousand weed-filled dorm room conversations. We never know what was most important until that moment is long past. In the present, we might sense the possibilities, the way our life could shift based on a single decision or accident, but we never get to see those other pathways. Except maybe in fiction, but fiction has the benefit of being able to make those choices or events part of a larger whole—whether things turned out for the best or not.
This is jumping way ahead, but later in the book The Writer echoes this idea when talking about “logical irrealism”:
If magical realism is realism with irreal details, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details . . . And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism? Those stories and novels with dramatic pacing and a perfectly calculated and managed sequence of events. Like Madame Bovary. Or the neat structure and the precise pacing of most detective novels. But reality isn’t like that. Reality is undisciplined and unpredictable. Real reality is authentically irreal . . . There is more realism and verisimilitude in a single day of the free and fluid and conscious drifting of Clarissa Dalloway than in the entire prolix and well-measured life and death of Anna Karenina.
All this talk of fiction, possibilities, and books is the perfect segue to go back to the parents on the beach who are sort of, kind of reading the same book together:
On the beach, under the sun, the father and mother read the same book. It’s not the first time they’ve done this. That’s how they met: the two of them reading the same book. On a train, the most romantic of all modes of transit. That same book they never stop reading. And, of course, there’s no better argument than that for putting a conversation in drive and taking a ride down the tunnel of love. But as tends to happen with everything that seems charming in a romance’s initial hours, this ritual of reading separately together—of reading the same book but different books, at the same time—now just produces a kind of irritation. The kind of annoyance we experience when, after a long time, we still feel obliged to do something that we obliged ourselves to do in the first place. And, then, you can’t help but wonder, why am I doing this, damn it, damn it, how did I get here, could I be more of an idiot? [. . .]
And the father and mother don’t know it yet, but they’re reading different versions of the same novel in the same way that they’re writing different versions of their marriage and the imminent allegations of their defense and/or prosecution. Because the book’s author decided, almost desperate, just before dying, to alter the temporal flow of the plot—which wasn’t initially linear, but sinuous, present and past and present—and to reorganize it chronologically. To see—he’d just put so much work into those pages and nobody seemed that interested in them, considering them a successful failure or something like that—if, that way, the novel improved, if it was appreciated more, if it sold better. His instructions were followed post-mortem by his literary executor. The new version was considered inferior and he reverted to the original, to the one that—just like real time—moves forward and backward and forward again. But for a few years, in English and in translation, both versions existed at the same time. And The Boy—when he was no longer a boy, when he was able to read and compare them, multiple times—was never sure which his mother had read and which his father had read. Who moved straight and true from past to future and who was left spinning in place.
It’s made explicitly clear later, but the book The Boy/The Writer’s parents is reading is Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A novel that really was published in two differing orders: one that was semi-complicated and filled with flashbacks, the other that was more straightforward and chronological. With art there’s always the opportunity to rearrange things and explore other possibilities.
Another thread that runs throughout this chapter is a sort of tension about the possibility of going back in time and changing one’s life. This is most explicit with the parents, who, while they’re lying on the sand have that untoward thought that a lot of parents have at one time or another—what if I could go back to the time before I had kids?
No, the father and mother are dragged along by The Boy. The father and mother drag their feet, and a wicker basket, and an umbrella, and towels, and their own bodies. And the father and the mother are dragged by The Boy. As if he were steering them, lassoed, pulling them along, strangling them with an invisible and inseverable rope around their necks. And it’s not like the mother and father have tried to sever it, but it’s also not like they haven’t thought many times about what it would be like to cut it. And—presto!—magically return to the past, to those other beaches, where The Boy only existed as a pleasant and egotistical fantasy. The father and the mother return, further away all the time, to The Boy as a mere idea that occurred to them every so often. An idea to enjoy for a while and then hide away under lock and key (one of those keys that you can’t ever find when you look for it and that, with the aid of a pair of parentheses, seems to become invisible) in the drawers of a more or less possible future, always yet to come or, at least, a lateral future, in the possible variation of a possible future. This is what every father and mother in the universe dreams when they close their eyes, though none of them ever confess it. Right there. In that instant. Before falling asleep and dreaming of any other thing, of free falling or being naked in public—the greatest hits of the common nightmare. But first, like the trailer for a movie that will never premiere. About what it’d be like to not be parents. To wake up on a planet where there wasn’t someone resting—yet restlessly moving and making noise—in the next room. About times when they went to bed late or not at all. [. . .] And sometimes The Boy’s dreams overlap with his parents’ dreams, producing a strange phenomenon: The Boy dreams he’s running on a beach without them and his father and mother dream they’re running on a beach without him. And they’re all so happy. And yet the next morning they understand that they can’t live without each other; that, though less and less, they still need each other; that now, nothing and nobody can or will ever be able to separate them or untie the knot of their lives.
And yet, the invulnerability of that instant of pure love doesn’t last long; and now The Boy is trying get away from them, running.
One of my favorite aspects of Fresán’s writing—which he really exploits in this novel—is his endless list making. Amusing, poignant, wooly, and overflowing, these lists make manifest all the various possibilities of a given situation.
What does The Boy think about? Lots of things! A good writer would point to the racing nature of the boy’s mind, how thoughts are freer when you’re small and haven’t yet heard how stupid your voice sounds when it’s recorded, or what you look like when you dance. An equally good writer might pull out a few telling examples of what’s going on in The Boy’s mind—ideas that illuminate his character and fears, while foreshadowing the arc of his story. (I’m not sure that’s a book I would think is “good,” but whatever.) Fresán provides forty-one random examples of The Boy’s thoughts over six pages, ranging from the childish,
— Why does Superman appear to exert himself equally—the same muscle
tension, the same knit brow—when he picks up a car or alters the orbit of an
— Is Jell-O animal, vegetal, mineral, or interplanetary?
to the more character-specific,
— What’s a comma doing putting itself between two numbers? Was mathematics created just to drive him crazy, a universal conspiracy in which everyone pretends to understand something that’s clearly incomprehensible and has no sense or logic? And what makes a psychotic so sure that 2 + 2 makes 5, while a neurotic knows that 2 + 2 makes 4 but just can’t handle it? And what about the person who always thinks that 2 + 2 equals 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, or the exact number of times you have to let the phone ring before answering or hanging up?
to the more philosophical wonderings a reader looking back on life as a child might think.
— Why is it that now, later on, when people sing “Happy Birthday” they seem to always be thinking about their own birthday, about how many they’ve had, how many they’ve got left, about whether or not they are happy birthdays?
Although I think the seven sections of this novel could be read in any order, “The Real Character” is a great opening piece, introducing The Boy/The Writer and Fresán’s literary style (references, digressions, lists, and sidesteps) alongside a number of key motifs, not the least of which is the idea of “the invented part,” which comes up near the end and which is where I’ll leave off for this week.
The invented part that is not, not ever, the deceitful part, but the part that actually makes something that merely happened into something as it should have happened. Something (everything to come, the rest of his life, will spring from that there and then, from that exact moment) more authentic and valuable and pure than the simple and banal and often unsubtle and sloppy truth. [. . .]
Then, unavoidably, unable to avoid it, when answering those questions, he’ll put on a parentheses face, he’ll invent something, anything, when answering how he invents the invented part. The invented part—an oh so insubstantial cloud that, nonetheless, manages to make the sun shut its mouth and stay quiet for a while—is nothing but a true shadow projecting itself across the real part.