What makes a good novel good has as its shadow the badness of the bad novel. We teach ourselves the distinction by an empirical acquaintance with fiction that remains shuffling in the halls of the banal. How often too the most gifted in experience will be unable to make very much of it. In a mysterious way they seem to be unable to tell a story. Compton Mackenzie is to me that sort of writer whose narrative capacity on a linear level is fine, there are even flourishes of good writing but what Aristotle called amplitude is lacking. They lack that beginning, middle and end which he says is what a whole consists of and who am I to contradict Magister Ari. Sometimes his utterances have the wisdom of simplicity like the coach’s dictum on the virtue of possession. ‘If we have the ball they can’t score with it’. Be that as it may, Mackenzie seems to be all middle and it’s all middle because it’s all linear. There’s no depth just progression. Modernist fiction brought in the idea of stream of consciousness which shows the simultaneous aspects of the totality of any state of mind. Natural storytellers do that effortlessly.
I’m looking at a little book, Life’s too Short(£1.99), edited by Val McDermid (Wire in the Blood) being true stories of life at work produced by people who left school without being able to read. This collection would be part of a literacy programme. One of the stories is written by a Garry Pettitt called Life in the Fast Lane. Garry who was a truck driver now retired aged 70 is remembering an incident in which his vehicle jack-knifed on an icy stretch of road. He was 33 at the time. Even though tragedy in our modern sense was averted ,tragedy, in the Aristotelian sense of a literary form is achieved.
In tragedy it is action that is imitated, and this action is brought about by agents who necessarily display certain distinctive qualities of character and of thought, according to which we also define the nature of the actions. Thought and character, are, then, the two natural causes of action, and it is on them that all men depend for success or failure. The representation of the action is the plot of the tragedy; for the ordered arrangement of the incidents is what I mean by plot. Character, on the other hand, is that which enables us to define the nature of the participants, and thought comes out in what they say when they are proving a point or expressing an opinion.(Aristotle: On the Art of Poetry Chap.6)
Garry Pettitt hurtling towards a built up roundabout looking at the side of his trailer tells us:
Suddenly I was a very frightened young man. I realised that I was rapidly heading downhill towards a roundabout that I couldn’t possibly avoid. Hitting it at speed would very likely overturn the vehicle, crush my cab and kill me. I didn’t want to die. I was only thirty-three, with a gorgeous wife and a lovely little boy at home, and it was nearly Christmas. I wanted very much to see them again. I had yet to put up the tree and decorations for my precious little family, and I still had their presents to buy!
It’s a perfect story hardly more than 1,000 words long. Ari would like it.