On the last day of the 2010 AWP Bookfair, the powers allow non-AWP civilians to enter the arena to buy books and hobnob with writers, and I was sitting at the Slough Press table and a lady and a boy of maybe 10 or 11 came by and looked over my books. He was really taken with That Demon Life—which put me in an uncomfortable position.
I want everyone to read my books—everyone, including kids. But—but—when I tell people That Demon Life is a comic novel about lust and laziness, with lots of drinking and screwing and miscellaneous bad behavior—well, I’m serious. It really is. And is that appropriate for a kid?
My parents let me read pretty much anything. I moved pretty much from Dr. Seuss to adult novels. An example: I loved James Bond, so for Christmas in the 4th grade I got a boxed set of the complete works of Ian Fleming! That was so cool….
But I’m not a parent. (Thankfully!) I had never had to concern myself with thoughts of familial censorship or appropriateness until that day in Denver.
In the end I steered the kid over to Long Time Ago Good, and his mom bought it for him. I guess that’s good, right?
I’ve been thinking about these things since I read Steve Himmer’s essay, Making Room for Readers. Himmer was in a somewhat different situation than I was in, but at least my kid had a good mother who wanted him to read almost anything. It was me and not the controlling adult who thought my book might be inappropriate….
Back in 2007 I received a rejection on my novel, That Demon Life. It was a bad rejection—the agent basically liked my book, and we corresponded for a couple of weeks, but then she finally said No. She turned the novel down because she felt there wasn’t enough movement in the protagonist of the book. She also really hated the epilogue.
I was more than bummed-out. This was a blow. I wondered if I should massively revise the book. And so I took a day or so and reread the manuscript and wrote a memo to myself about character changes in the book—or lack of character changes in the book. I was trying to get my feelings sorted out....
I forgot all about the memo until I found it yesterday on my hard drive….
Thoughts on Character Transformation in That Demon Life
1. There are structural impediments to large-scale change or character transformation in the novel. TDLtakes place over the course of a week (with an epilogue two weeks after that). The tight time frame limits how far any single person can be transformed, unless it’s Saul on the way to Damascus or something.
2. Many novels have characters who don’t change. Four examples that have influenced me:
A. War & Peace. Pierre’s happy at the end, and wiser, but he’s still the same kindly, bumbling, idealistic, over-intellectualized man he was 15 years earlier. Andrei is dead--so there's a change! Nicolas is an adult version of the young man he was, Marie has moved from having an overbearing father to having an overbearing husband, Sonya is likened to an energetic kitten in the opening and a content old housecat in the epilogue (okay, change, though still cat-like), and though Natasha has moved from a young girl concerned with singing and dancing and flirting around to a grown woman concerned with being a mother, does that really count as a transformation or is it a recognition of the aging process? When Denisov looks at Natasha, he still sees the 14 year-old, which says more about him than Natasha….
B. The Sun Also Rises. The whole fucking point of this book is that Brett & Jake will never ever change! Never ever!
C. A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius’s valve opens up and he hits the road—but he is going to be the same nut in New York that he was in New Orleans. (On the other hand: Ig’s mom does change, as do Jones and Levy….Ignatius could then be a catalyst for change?)
D. The Gay Place (“The Flea Circus”). Over the course of a busy week, Roy actually does some legislative work, helps out the governor, and kind of makes a commitment to Ouida, but he’s still the same lazy, sardonic drunk he was before….(Hmm, kinda TDL-ish?) Is the sorta-commitment a change? Don’t think so, not really….
3. EM Forster warns against privileging Round Characters over Flat Characters (I think; it’s been a long time since I’ve read Forster). This is only pertinent if you concede that a Round Character must have the“potential to change.” Though at any rate you need flat & round both….
4. People don’t change, anyway. I deeply believe this. Behaviors may manifest themselves in different ways over time, but the Person’s basic character remains the same. In striving for verisimilitude, the novel needs to remain true to human character (or at least true to my perception of it).
5. Desire for character change a reflection of the aspirations & wish-fullfillments of the reader? Should I care and if so how much?
In the end, I didn’t do any revisions. I even kept the epilogue. I liked That Demon Life—it was the book I wanted to write. I still like it….
I put this together quite quickly, but it kind of works! I guess I'm advertising Google at the same time I'm advertising That Demon Life, but, oh well....
I've learned that That Demon Life is a finalist for the Writers' League of Texas Book Award!
Yeah, that's an exclamation point in the previous sentence--I'm pretty excited. You've heard the cliche about how it's nice to be nominated, right? Well, it is nice.
This desk has been the starting point for two and a half dissertations and two books:
§ In 1964, my father bought the filing cabinets to store materials for his dissertation.
§ In 1974, my mother placed a board across the cabinets, transforming it into a desk, and wrote her dissertation at it.
§ In 2009-2010, I wrote my dissertation at it.
§ In the early part of this decade I rewrote and revised That Demon Life sitting at this desk.
§ In the middle part of the decade, I wrote Long Time Ago Good here.
There will be more books coming from this desk, though I doubt there will be any more dissertations….
At one point several years ago I was reading Larry McMurtry’s novel, Duane’s Depressed. It’s a good book, but I had a “Hey, wait a minute” moment at the point where Duane—who’s, well, depressed, and has decided to change his life by breaking ties with his family and moving out to a cabin in the country—decides he needs a bicycle, and he whips out his wallet, which is stuffed with cash he’s won playing poker, and he buys the bike. Hey, wait a minute. Does Duane not realize how privileged he is? Does McMurtry? I couldn’t stop thinking about all the non-white, non-oilman depressed people in the world who didn’t have a pocket full of money or a place to go hide from their families.
I was writing my novel, That Demon Life, at the time, and so I put in a little passage reacting to Duane’s Depressed:Linda almost laughed out loud thinking about it—start life over and do absolutely nothing. Why not? She had the resources—a trust fund from her mother left her in a position where she didn’t have to worry about a paycheck, ever. Linda knew how lucky she was to have a rich dead mother. There were plenty of other people out there who were sad and messed up and still had to soldier off every goddamn morning to work in some dreadful job or other. There were some brave people out there. Heroes. Linda was glad she didn’t have to be one of them (106).
So my book got published, and some people have read it (and more people should). One of them said the other day, “I finally figured Linda out—she’s just a trust-fund baby.” Well, no. The reader didn’t get it. Not “just.” Linda understands her privilege, and is in the process of developing a little bit of empathy. But as far as the reader goes, there’s nothing to be done. You write something down, and it’s not yours anymore—it belongs to the reader. And, of course, one of the main themes of That Demon Life is that you cannot control what other people think—and the book takes the further, Classical Stoic view that because you can't control what other people think, you shouldn’t care what other people think. But I’m not always a very good Stoic.