I recently finished reading Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I like the way he writes, telling the story once and then telling it through all over again from a different perspective, and then returning to the first perspective with all the things he seemed to have forgotten the first time through. Then he takes into account the dog's view of things, elaborates some details left out of the first few go-throughs, and finally tells the whole thing over once more, recollecting everything from the beginning in light of everything since. But it's really the same story from the first thirty pages repeated over the course of three hundred pages. And it's a beautiful novel.

Self-contradictory, and intentionally so, because he clearly states at the beginning that we only have one take at life. There are no practice rounds, he says. No trial runs or initial read-throughs. Not for the characters, but for the author the story can be repeated ad infinitum. As long as he can find a new set of eyes (Tomas's estranged son, the dying pet, or the ex-lover's ex-lover in Thailand) he can tell the story in a new way. It cannot happen more than once, but once can happen in an infinite number of ways.

I have been thinking about the different ways to tell a story, because I am trying to write one myself. Not doing a very good job of it. I can't seem to make up my mind about the basic style. My impulse is to write in a manner similar to Kundera. Take a few small events that make up a story and expand upon them according to the variety of eyes peering out of each neighbourhood window. But then I think of what the story actually is - and I hesitate. My story isn't like Kundera's at all. It is neither light nor heavy. It is a self-proclaimed 'perfect narrative arc,' and like all good stories it begins en media res. It is not like Kundera, who goes from beginning to end and back again in so many circles. It is like Big Fish.

I have not read the novel by Daniel Wallace, but I have seen the film. Tim Burton's adaptation of Big Fish came out in 2003, and I must confess that I didn't really like it back then. I knew that I should. It was a perfect story. A careful narrative arc with a variety of characters both exotic and strangely familiar. I have no excuse for myself. Perhaps I was in the mood for something with less narrative integrity, something, let's say, closer to Hollywood. But I am older now (cough*ahem), and better able to appreciate a good story for being just that - a good story. I appreciate it because it is rare. And if I want my own story to be anything, that is it - I want it to be a uniquely well-crafted story, with characters both exotic and familiar, and with undeniable narrative integrity. Burton's Big Fish charms. It is unbelievable, yes, but it wills you to believe despite yourself. To throw out some bigger words (which are only acceptable because this was about Kundera to begin with), Big Fish dares to ignore all the postmodern claims on narrative by telling a story as Homer told stories. Dare I call such a method universal?

Don't get me wrong. I like The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I like it alot. I think Kundera is brilliant. I enjoyed every minute I read it. And I know that if I could write like that, I would be a laudable author. But I am not sure that I want to be a good author. I think I would rather tell a good story. Is it necessary to choose? Perhaps not. But I haven't yet figured out the balance between the two.


  1. You know you don't have to be absolutely breathtakingly brilliant on your first novel.

    It just has to sell.

    Once you have teh monies then you can revolutionize the way we sees the novels.


  2. I know, I know... but I'd like to be breathtakingly brilliant regardless. Or just breathtaking...


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