The Prize Of All The Oceans

Friends! Sailors!

Salman Rushdie was in his twenties and wrote a cracking failure of a novel; imitative of the books he loved, too much like Pynchon. He knew it was a terrible thing, unpublishable even, and so into a drawer this book went, never to be mentioned again.

Thirty years later, he digs it out and confidently, with a smile, reads a snippet of the book. Now I would be devastated to have written a novel that went nowhere. I wouldn’t be talking about it, although I would be holding this nowhere-novel around my neck like an albatross. But not Salman: “at least,” he says, “I knew not to take it any further. My shit-detector was working.”

This is from Salman Rushdie’s MasterClass on fiction writing. He talks about how to write dialogue, how to find a subject, how to research, how to avoid bullshit. One of the most interesting bits from the class is this part, where he talks about character design:

I remember when Charles Schulz, who draws the Peanuts comic strip, talked about giving up. […] A lot of people wrote in asking him that before he stopped drawing if there was just one thing could he please allow to happen: and that was just once could Charlie Brown kick the football? And he never did it. Because he knew that if Charlie Brown once kicked the football then he would in some way stop being Charlie Brown. And if Lucy just once didn’t whip the football away at the last minute, then her Lucy-ness would be compromised. Their character was their destiny.

I love all this but what really bothers me about storytelling isn’t when characters like Lucy let Charlie Brown kick the football. That’s progress—you want to see characters change over time. Where most storytellers fail at is that they let Charlie Brown kick the ball and then have no idea what to do next, so they go back to Charlie Brown whiffing the ball again. Progress stalls only in bad stories; characters long gone come back from the dead, old jokes return. Thor gets his eye back in the sequel, everyone forgets that Peter Parker is Spiderman, Kratos struggles to be emotionally vulnerable with Atreus again, etc etc.

Anyway, all this talk about storytelling and writing is dead useful for me now, at a time when I feel like my writing has stalled, where I see this great cliff in front of me and nothing but future-nowhere-novels in all directions. So: I have to go back to the very beginning, become a student all over again; read all the books, watch all the courses.

Train the eye and train the ear, as Salman says.

A young Salman walks through the city

“The great gamble of literature—” concludes Salman at the end of one lesson, and pausing for effect “—is that you do it by yourself.”

“And then?”

Another pause.

“You must offer it to the world.”

There is only one way to make all your troubles in life and love and literature disappear: read a book about transportation in the 18th century. I’m a big chunk of the way through The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann which is uh...ya know what? Let’s just read the blurb together:

On January 28, 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty’s Ship the Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as “the prize of all the oceans,” it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.

But then...six months later, another, even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways, and they told a very different story.

Heck yeah, sign me the hell up. But what isn’t captured in the blurb is the pure misery of how people moved about in the 18th century; the depths of depravity that folks would go to, the pain and suffering, the absolute wretchedness of trying to stay alive for months alone at sea. Usually stuff like this is simply intriguing, an intellectual exercise, and I can stay emotionally distant from it all but I dare you to read about the effects of scurvy ten minutes before you go to sleep and have a pleasant evening.

What I love about this book is that it’s non-fiction written like fiction. I’m sure there’s all sorts of artistic liabilities taken here but the book really moves because of it. I’ve tried picking up a lot of history books lately—Cleopatra, the history of hieroglyphics, stories about the last Mughal emperor—but I just can’t read them after a few trodding pages. The writing doesn’t skip forwards fast enough.

So if anything The Wager moves too fast and too quick through all the terrors of that time and it’s simply left me dumbfounded about how lucky we all are today. Sure, everything stinks and is the worst all the time but at least I don’t have to stand on the top of a sinking ship in a blistering storm, lost somewhere in the Pacific ocean, holding my hands out into the wind as I turn myself into a human makeshift sail because our mast has snapped in half thanks to all the stupid thunder and lightning.

That’s the lesson I’m taking away from this book: things could be much worse, eat plenty of fruit to fend off scurvy, and be thankful that you are not a human sail today.

Until next week you foul sea dogs.