The Tanpura Principle in writing is the idea that much of writing occurs while doing something else, because the base of poetic inspiration, the supporting drone, is always there. It’s what my friend meant when she quipped that even a budget could be a poem. She did not mean that one had to ruthlessly integrate identities in order to make oneself intelligible to the outside world, but that in poetry there was a kind of harmonic listening that could occur anywhere, and in any way.
There are times when we don’t hear the drone, because we are too tired or too overwhelmed with other emotional, spiritual or even logistical challenges to know it. But the point is not then to “cultivate inspiration,” rather, it is to remember that the drone is always there, perhaps even especially there, in the fatigue and frustration of our “other” work.
The fun in writing novels, for me, has often come from the tension between traditional forms, which for the most part I love, and the ideas I tend to get, which never really fit into the forms. As a reader, I’m always delighted when a clever writer takes a familiar kind of story and finds a way to break it and reassemble it; for this reason I’m drawn, in my reading, to the margins of genres, where people who clearly love the rules lovingly disobey them.
There are pitfalls to this approach, of course. How many times have you seen the description “literary thriller” and gritted your teeth in anticipation of it not quite working? Often, the elements of fiction, especially familiar genres of fiction, that most whet the appetite of readers are the same ones that writers wish to subvert or eliminate. And the readers who aren’t interested in the genre that the writer is cannibalizing might find the transplanted elements distasteful or dull. The danger, of course, is that the writer ends up satisfying no one, even herself.
To a degree, the failure to report aggressively on these institutions reflects the need of reporters to maintain access to their sources and to the daily drip of information and occasional scooplets that are the bread and butter of business reporting. But the problem extends far beyond that. America’s moneyed class is extremely powerful, and reporters who take it on run into many of the same roadblocks that Hersh did when investigating Sidney Korshak and Gulf and Western—including discomfort from their own editors. What else to call this but self-censorship?
Given enough space and time, all conceivable chains of events could be played out somewhere, though almost all of these would occur far out of range of any observations we could conceivably make. The combinatorial options could encompass replicas of ourselves, taking all possible choices. Whenever a choice has to be made, one of the replicas will take each option. You may feel that a choice you make is “determined.” But it may be a consolation that, somewhere far away (far beyond the horizon of our observations) you have an avatar who has made the opposite choice.
All this could be encompassed within the aftermath of “our” big bang, which could extend over a stupendous volume. But that’s not all. What we’ve traditionally called “the universe”—the aftermath of “our” big bang—may be just one island, just one patch of space and time, in a perhaps infinite archipelago. There may have been many big bangs, not just one. Each constituent of this “multiverse” could have cooled down differently, maybe ending up governed by different laws. Just as Earth is a very special planet among zillions of others, so—on a far grander scale—our big bang could have been a rather special one. In this hugely expanded cosmic perspective, the laws of Einstein and the quantum could be mere parochial bylaws governing our cosmic patch. So, not only could space and time be intricately “grainy” on a submicroscopic scale, but also, at the other extreme—on scales far larger than astronomers can probe—it may have a structure as intricate as the fauna of a rich ecosystem. Our current concept of physical reality could be as constricted, in relation to the whole, as the perspective of the Earth available to a plankton whose “universe” is a spoonful of water.
Sara Scherr made the first move. Both she and Alan Dappen, the man who would become her husband, remember that part vividly.
The year was 1972, and the two were college students working as counselors at her father’s summer camp for kids with asthma in the fresh air of West Virginia’s rolling mountains. They’d known each other for a little while. Alan actually had flown into camp early the year before to take Sara to her senior prom — but only as a favor to a buddy who had a thing for Sara’s older sister, blissfully unaware of his date’s burgeoning feelings for him.
“He was very slow,” Sara jokes now, but in other areas, she liked the level head of the boy only a year and a half her senior but already an old soul, and his meticulousness. She was also drawn to his sense of adventure. And so at the end of the summer of ’72, their second spent together at camp, she kissed him, “and the switch flipped,” says Alan. “That was the beginning of the end for me.”
To most Dunkin’ customers, the change will hardly register—no one has used the full name in years. Depending on where you’re from or the circles you run in, it’s always been Dunkin’, or Dunkies, or Dunks. But, by officially dropping the “Donuts,” the company has put an end to a long-running mystery: despite living nearly my entire life in the Northeast, I have never seen a person dunk a doughnut into a cup of coffee, nor heard tell of anyone actually doing it.
Plug remains wonderfully eccentric and occasionally surreal. Still looking for guidance on “the writer’s life”, and particularly preoccupied with literary prizes he might one day win, he continues to seek out acclaimed authors. These literary encounters, real and imagined, are possibly the funniest parts of the book.
While imbued with Moss’s characteristic elegance, insight and deep sense of place, it packs a bigger punch than her other novels: at just 149 pages, it’s a short, sharp shock of a book that closes around you like a vice as you read it. Her earlier work considered the small dramas of daily lives in expansive, almost languorous detail. This story is tauter and tenser: plot driven, time limited and entirely out of the ordinary. From the terse, dismaying little prologue, in which an iron age girl is marched out and murdered before an audience of neighbours and family, to the hair-raising, heart-stopping denouement, it hurtles along and carries you with it, before dumping you, breathless, at the end.
There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of Nell Stevens’s latest book, confessing to having “changed names, scenes, details, motivations and personalities” in both the personal and the historical sources for this partly autobiographical romance, which is also a love letter to Elizabeth Gaskell. The Victorian novelist and her contemporaries are “not always faithfully quoted”, Stevens warns, but neither is the author (or, rather, her avatar, Nell), who is in the famously difficult position of telling a story. Truth is slippery, biography sort of pointless, and autobiography the worst of all. Let’s just call the whole lot fiction right from the start.
These somewhat old-fashioned narrative skills tend to appeal more to readers than to novelty-seeking prize juries. But, as with Moncur’s piano-tuning, practising a craft to this degree of refinement is an impressive feat. This sweeping tale of love and revenge, fate and free will, surrender and control will delight its author’s many fans.