I just finished the first novel I’ve read in years. What a tonic, what a thrill, what a lark! The joys of total immersion. I had forgotten.
I wrote a dissertation on novels, which I finished in 2010. That left me sated with literary fiction for quite a while, and that’s really the only kind of fiction I am interested in. I keep myself pretty busy with teaching, running a business, writing a blog, keeping an eye on the spectacle that is American politics (somebody’s got to!), directing plays, raising a puppy, cleaning the house, and reading books. Not novels, not short stories, not fictions of any kind. Non-fiction about brain science or empathy or mastering a craft, things that might help me become a better acting teacher or at least a more knowledgeable one, and also give me grist for the relentless blogging mill. In short, I had let fiction come to feel like a luxury I just didn’t have time for.
However, after a while, my conscience woke up, for deep inside, I knew that not reading fiction was a form of self-neglect. Fiction had been a mainstay of my younger self, and had gotten me through some rough patches in life, in a surprising variety of ways. It was perhaps the supreme form of mental and spiritual self-nourishment, I had found. Whenever I moved to a new place, I immediately unpacked my books. They were a constellation of old friends who helped to remind me that although I was in a new place with new surroundings, with new pursuits and new priorities, some element of who I had previously been persisted.
A few years ago, a friend with a taste in books that I found congenial recommended Roberto Bolano’s 5-part epic 2666. What he told me about it made it sound unlikely that I would like it, but I liked its numerical title, its five volumes, and, I suppose, its German connection, which my friend had mentioned. I could also tell that my friend’s passion had been aroused by it: he felt the need to talk about it, and although he was thoughtful enough to restrain himself from asking me to listen to too much about it, his need to talk about it made an impression on me, and I filed the title away somewhere.
A couple of years later, I was heading on a holiday road trip, and someone (my mother?) suggested I get an audiobook. So I got 2666 and listened to the first 10 hours of narration on the road. Then the road trip was over, and I had no further context in which to listen to audiobooks, so I set it aside. I had enjoyed what I had heard, but not so much that I found that I could not put it down.
But I like to finish what I start, where I can, and the book had planted some seeds that had aroused my curiousity. So I resumed my listening, after a break of six months. This time, I found my way into the dark, pulsing core of the novel, and joyfully rediscovered the thrill of total immersion. I came to know why this book had been so acclaimed, and found myself wanting to write a novel, even though I have always found making up stories to be extremely difficult. Still, the complexity and mystery that inhered in this book had hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew it had changed me. I had become a lover of Roberto Bolaño.
But what I wanted to say here, on this blog, is that with this experience I had recalled what a valuable thing for actors reading fiction is. With every novel that we read, we deepen our sense of what people and characters are, but also what words and sentences are. More precisely, we sharpen our sense of what is possible with people and with characters, how they (and we) might answer what confronts them (and us), and what is possible with words and sentences, how words and sentences can help us to answer what confronts us. Such possibilities are the medium in which actors swim when they work on scenes, so greater intimacy with such possibilities is pure win for actors.
No more self-neglect. I will be making time for the reading of novels from now on.