The Fundamental Unit of a Novel
What is the unit of the story?
I am going to think about letters as analogous to particles; the way physicists think about them. In their most fundamental aspect they are indivisible. Quarks, leptons: these things are formed of nothing, they have no component parts as far as we know, but simply are, and thus everything is formed of them.
The universe is made up of these seemingly lifeless objects. They are the proverbial billiard balls of existence. Dead units of energy, they interact mindlessly with other particles. They adhere to certain rules and patterns. Yet put together in such and such a way, these building blocks like a trillion pieces of Lego, merge together to form people; they are you. They are me.
They are everything in the universe.
What a trick, what a piece of magic that lifeless becomes life; what a mystery how these things come into confluence to produce thoughts in human minds, which result in these words on a page, and all this suffering, and joy, and confusion, and love.
So too do I see letters as making up the fundamental units of a masterwork of a novel.
No matter what forces were at work in the minds of Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Austen, Orwell, du Maurier, King, or any great writer as they wrote their best pieces, inescapably they worked with letters.
The hands of writers, even more clearly so in the digital age, build works of fiction individual unit by individual unit: they pile together these dead things known as letters: A, B, C …
Alone they are nothing but parcels of phonetic sound; but pile them together in just the right way and then suddenly, bam! There is a spark. People who seem more real than our very own family jump from a page, and events that never happened have the power to break our hears, and draw a tear from our eye.
Combined these letters make words, and all these thousands of words together in a string become an entire life, an experience, that touches our hearts and minds and stirs emotions and thoughts in us, and seems to flow as though they were a river with an entire life of its own.
For me, the great mystery is where does the life enter a novel? Much the same way I ponder at what point does life or consciousness spring from inanimate matter. At what point does this happen? And perhaps more importantly, how can I make it happen?
I know these things are not the same: this analogy of consciousness and a good read. It is our minds that process the words on the page and form an experience for us. But for me as a writer, there is a certain magic in a brilliantly crafted novel. I think there is for all of us. When, I agonise, do these dead letters spring into being, and become a person so real, whose feelings are so exact and troublesome and endearing, that a little piece of our hearts fall in love with them, so strongly that they will always hold a slice of us; become so real that they will always be with us, walk with us, the way only a few most privileged people of even actual flesh and blood will.
It is a mystery; a gorgeous, wonderful, infuriating mystery.
It is an art; a gorgeous, untameable, mysterious art.