(continued again, from here)
Johnny Pseudonym and the Noms de Plume
At last, a winner! My third attempt was a success, at least within the generous framework of Nanowrimo: it was 50,000 words long, and it was at least aspiring to be a novel.
What happened: The story was primarily about Johnny Pseudonym, an embittered twenty-something rock musician trying find himself musically and reshape his life. He meets and, eventually, falls in love with Kat Isaacson, a smartmouthed highschooler, and they both have strange and eventually dangerous interactions with Harold Becker, a mentally unraveling divorcee and accountant for the company Johnny works for and Kat’s father owns. Things culminate when a completely whacked-out Harold tries to kill Johnny with a katana stolen from Kat’s father’s office.
It sounds ridiculous in capsule form. But setting aside the plot arc summarized above, there was some good conversation and something in the way of genuine character development. Johnny managed to deal with some of the self-destructive anger he’d carried out of a (shadowy, briefly recalled) childhood in the Hitler househould (his father reversed the family’s WWII-era migration to the less contentious “Hiltner” based not on any pro-Nazi sentiment but on sheer bullheaded stubborn principle). Kat managed to turn some of her creative energy away from compulsive lying and toward more concrete outlets like music. Johnny and Kat’s one-time boyfriend managed to meet in the middle after a rocky emotional triangle. And a bunch of ancillary characters — high school friends of Kat’s, mostly — had all sorts of minor social adventures.
It was still a big ridiculous mess, though. Pretty much every portion of the book having to do with Harry Becker was terrible — I never had any idea who this guy actually was, his motivations were thin when they weren’t just plain contrived.
Harry was, in my mind, supposed to be a grumpy-but-reasoned anal-retentive accounting executive, perhaps an auditor of some sort (the book never got specific), with a dead wife, a simmering bout of alcoholism, and a grim, combative attitude toward the world. He was a pattern-minded person, excellent at finding connections and chains of reason or evidence. Also, a technophobe — he depended on his long-time secretary, the bookish Janice, to handle all of his email and miscellaneous computer tasks.
Early in the book, however, Janice is fired without specific reason (though, if you ask me, she was probably stealing from the company for years, the wily old bat), Harry quickly loses patience with his new temporary secretary, and the first act of the book ends with Harry throwing a hissy fit of such magnitude that he gives himself a stroke in mid-lambast.
And the rest of the plot of the book, the arc I imagined when in October of 2003 I was feverishly improvising a structure for the story, involved Harry losing it. And lose it he did: he found in the hospital-bedside Bible a rich new source of patterns and secrets to which he could turn his clever mind, and quickly took up an obsession with the image of God as a holy administrator and Harry as some ladder-climbing executive of heaven’s army. He begins seeing things, including, eventually, his dead wife — who, it turns out, is Janice, post-makeover, crazy in her own way and morbidly courting her way into the life of the man for whom she worked for years amidst the agony of an unrequited attraction. With Janice egging him on and playing the role of his deceased wife (whose presence Harry unquestionably attributes to the will of God), Harry moves from passive religious fanatic to active religioso thug when he concludes that Kat is some latter-day manifestation of a corrupting woman-demon, a Jezebel poisoning the life of her father, E. S. Isaacson.
A little about E. S. Isaacson, then. I had originally imagined him as a significant character in the story, a sort of mystifying and confident authority figure acting as a lynchpin to most of the business-related set pieces. As it turns out, he made perhaps five appearances in the novel, long enough to befriend and find an avid admirer in quietly-collapsing employee Harry Becker (who E. S., understandably in the scope of their interactions, scares the hell out of), have Harry over for dinner with his wife and Kat and Kat’s ex-boyfriend, and get hit by a car (driven by Janice! Who hit him on purpose!) and go to the same hospital his daughter later ends up in after a frenzied confrontation by a now-completely-bonkers Harry in an alley outside a club.
So much for E. S. Isaacson. The E, by the way, stands for ‘Elijah'; the S, ‘Something’. Apparently his parents had as odd a sense in names as did Johhny “Jonathan Hitler” Pseudonym’s.
And the gaggle of supporting characters — Vi, Branson, Alex, Jack, others whose names I really ought to be able to remember — were invented afterthoughts, characters written into the story on the fly when I wasn’t sure what to do with Johnny or Harry. And what a difference! Without a plan or a ridiculous plot-function, these high school kids were able to act like real human beings. They commited faux pas, they got drunk, they yelled at each other and laughed and had awkward moments. They were great. They were, insofar as the novel I ended up writing had one, the heart and soul of the story. They were the genuinely inspired, spontaneous breath of life, and I found as I neared the end of the book’s (ever morphing) plot, I was less interested in the plot-characters than in these misfits.
Theme! The book had a couple of aesthetic themes — again with the pre-planned Ideas and Notions that I came up with that October. Harry’s new-found obsession with the Bible justified the use of cherry-picked Biblical verse as chapter seperators. Harry had visions, Johnny had strange dreams (both flashbacks and surreal ad hoc mental trips), Johnny’s musical cohort staged an Apocalypse-themed music show near the end of the story featuring trumpeters and the breaking of seals and so forth (which biblical allusion led an unhinged Harry Becker to freak out and attack Kat). There was a strong if only superficial god streak to the whole thing: the attitude of the book was altogether secular and skeptical.
I could go on. There a lot of details that are coming back to me as I write this. However, I’m almost out of time, so I’ll just toss out some tidbits and leave it at that.
Johnny continues the tradition established in my first effort of a leading character with a superficial resemblence to the author. In this case, we’ve got (a) disgrunted musician, (b) market research phone monkey. The fact that I wrote the entire book while on the job as a market research phone monkey and finding my feet in a new band ties it all together.
Kat owes a lot in at least inspiration to my friend Mary MacPherson, who in high school was a tremendous liar (or storyteller, depending on how you frame it).
The novel had about 12 appendices, written in a mad dash to reach 50,000 words. The day I finished the story itself, I found myself a couple thousand words short, and resorted to a series of dedications, explanations, lists (Vi’s 37 nicknames, broken down by good/ill/neutral intonations and etc), and alternative endings (replacing, for example, the katana by which Johhny is nearly killed with a frozen swordfish named “Katana”).
Johnny worked for a thin parody of the company I worked for at the time; Kat attended a thin parody of my own high school; the novel featured, through out it’s contents, at least a hundred fictional Portland bands; Kat claimed in a drunken prank to have fibromyalgia, an affliction I surprised myself by knowing the name of despite knowing nothing about; and so on.
Heady stuff, this novel-writing.