John-Michael Gariepy

The Singing Lamp of Bombay: Greensleeves

In theory, this website is supposed be a place to gather all of my writing, and a sort of writing journal to log the progress of my larger works. Good theory. Unfortunately, theory is never practice.

Since I am only working on one large project right now, my book “The Singing Lamp of Bombay”, and since this is my first book, the whole idea of logging regular progress on it seems self-indulgent. I feel like I’m sitting down in the Flight of the Conchord’s New Zealand Consulate and I’m talking to Murray Hewitt about how I need to start referring to my lone fan as a “fan base” (Hi, Julie!). That way, when I talk to publishers about publishing my publishable material, I can say “Well, we know my fan base will buy the book” as opposed to saying “Well, we know that my fan will buy the book.”

Ah, well. I shall have to keep whispering to myself that this writer’s journal is a first good step to getting published while I document my progress… even if it does creep the other security guards out.

As for “The Singing Lamp of Bombay”, I’m up to 65,000 words and work is progressing well. Last month. This month, I’ve been taking some time off while I work on a bunch of essays that have been building up. I’m not too concerned about my ability to return to the story, since I think I have a work-around to the problem I’ve stuck myself in, but the problem I stuck myself in is a doozy. You see, I stole a plot idea from James Thurber, a very strong essayist and short story writer who’s written hundreds of articles for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The plot idea I stole from Thurber was one that he could never figure out how to resolve. He left an outline of it in his last book, “Credos and Curios” published posthumously.

So, to sum up so far, I’m the type of guy who has the hubris to believe that, in my first book, I can resolve a plot that a very successful professional writer could never figure out, and, in a last desperate maneuver, left it dangling in the introduction to his last book. Excellent. Have I mentioned that I’m having trouble resolving that plot? Strange, huh?

The plot, named Greensleeves, is simple to explain. There’s a man who writes books, but lately, he hasn’t written any books. His wife is writing her own stories, and has been passing them on to magazines. Unfortunately, the wife’s stuff is dreadful, and her writing style is abhorrent. Her husband tries to confront her about her plots and her writing, but every time he broaches the subject, the two begin a bitter argument. This goes on, until one day the emasculated husband goes out and buys a gun. He brings the gun home, and proud of his new purchase, shows it to his horrified wife. For as long as she’s known her husband, he’s always been a sweet and passive man. Why, on God’s green Earth would he buy himself a gun? Has he gone mad? The husband, still a little giddy from the new purchase decides to act the part, and claim there’s a giant fish swimming through their bedroom.

The next day, the wife goes out and makes her own purchase. This time, she brings home a dog that she’s named Greensleeves. He’s one part companion, and one part protection from her mad husband. They argue. Greensleeves attacks the husband, and as Thurber puts it, “Nuts to Gordon nuts to Cath. nuts to you and nuts to me.”

The plot involves people doing things the wrong way, which is always a good base for a great story. After all, if the husband had been a little more supportive, or the wife a bit more understanding, there wouldn’t be a story – just a montage of people hugging each other. So what makes this story so difficult to finish? Well, the whole thing just turns Shakespearean at some point. Everyone dies, I guess, because we don’t want the characters to change. To get a resolution that doesn’t involve a dog ripping someone’s throat out, the characters need to fundamentally alter their attitude toward each other. But, if the married couple is suddenly nice to each other again, then we don’t like them any more (and, it threatens to smack of falsehood. People keep grudges. It doesn’t seem proper to end a story with “…and they kept a grudge forever after.”) And, if the characters die, it feels like a cop out. This isn’t Oedipus Rex, here. The tangle of tragedy has only gotten circumstantial. Killing the characters to deal with trivialities is like using a bazooka on something that is much smaller than a thing that a bazooka would normally be used on. Besides, is that going to be the resolution to all your plots that are tough to untangle? Are you going to kill everybody? Gets old pretty fast.

It seems a young Thurber recognized this immediately, and set the plot aside. I’m pretty sure I saw all this, and picked it up despite it. Granted, my story takes place in the 15th century Middle East, but it’s the same story, just puzzled together in a different way. I also had to deal with the fact that dogs are not seen as good pets in many countries in the Mid-East. That kind of bugged me at first, but the more I thought of it, the more I thought it helped the story, rather than hurt it. After all, it’s the wife who has a sudden attachment to this dog, but the husband sees it as a wolf and a scavenger.

So, I’ve fleshed out the plot, and added some extra bits, and ended up at this same spot. At first, I found creative ways to write around the plot problems at the end, but, while I was excited at the time for finding ways to work around the plot, I’m beginning to see them for what they are now: Ways that work around the plot, not with it. If I want to end this story, I have to tackle the central problem that scared Thurber away, not pretend it doesn’t exist. Oddly, though, I think the fact that I walked away from the point of the story for an amount of time might have strengthened the story in the end. Now I can walk back up to the story, remind my audience of the problem, and drive a stake into it. It may not be pretty, but I ain’t no Katie Holmes.

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