Novelist Jacob Paul‘s narrative gusto makes it easy to forget that he is essentially a meditative writer. Even as we’re sped along by the meaty plot, exuberant comedy, and crackling dialogue, Paul’s fluidly reflexive prose cycles us deeper and deeper into what can only be called an authentic inhabitation of consciousness. We are so pleased, therefore, to feature in our current issue the opening chapter of his latest novel, Chelmno Dreaming: A Real Life Autobiographical Fiction of My Alternative Future Life, which opens thusly:
Seven days before his thirty-fifth birthday, Jacob Paul discovered, to his dismay, that his life was the dream of a man slowly gassed in the back of a box truck headed from the Chelmno extermination camp to a mass grave in the woods. This was particularly disturbing because Jacob had just recently begun to feel as if he had at long last grown into his brain. The metaphysi- cal questions his new situation raised were fascinating – two categories immediately came to mind: those of his temporal relativity with that of his dreamer; and those of the validity of the present – future really, or future at least compared to the dreamer’s (waning) existence, a future several genera- tions beyond the van and the mass grave – in which J had lived his nearly thirty-five years – but J felt guilty embracing these pleasurable intellectual digressions. He worried that he was somehow intended to help his dreamer, that there was some practical body of actions he was to undertake that might liberate the dying man from the back of the truck – though J did accept the possibility that his service might be meant to be spiritual or metaphysical.
These thoughts were interrupted by his girlfriend knocking on his study door. He yelled at her to come on in.
“My hands are full!” she complained. . . .
In his “Why Write?” post below, Paul talks a little about the engine that drives his fiction.
The question of why I write is an invitation to meta-discourse that invites meta-discourse about itself (such as is this sentence, which might actually qualify as special category of meta-discourse in that it describes meta-discourse, though I had in mind something more along the lines of: questions like this inspire answers such as “to know what I think” or “to discover who I am” which feel inadequate and cliché even if they are true; or are inadequate and cliché precisely because they are true). In fact, it is the winding meta-meta-meta-discourse-followed-by-a-tangent of the previous sentence that drives me to put finger to keyboard: the opportunity for contemplation of contemplation, for navel-gazing on hyper-drive into hyperspace.
My writing projects generally begin with a problem or question. For my first novel, Sarah/Sara, those were: What would it meant to become religious? What would it look like to use the future tense? How can I reclaim the diary-format from Bridget Jones? Ok, that last was more of a jest. My most recent novel project, the opening of which appeared in this last issue of Green Mountains Review, began with a sentence: “Seven days before his thirty-fifth birthday, Jacob Paul discovered, to his dismay, that his life was the dream of a man slowly gassed in the back of a box truck headed from the Chelmno extermination camp to a mass grave in the woods.” This sentence, which arrived unbidden and largely unwelcome while I was deadheading Russian Sage in my parking strip at the onset of winter, and, more importantly, right in the middle of a novel-in-stories, immediately established a number of problems and questions (can I call them Ps & Qs?), not least of which was: What in the Gayhenom do I do with that?!
But if these Ps & Qs (Ps for short?) imply a quest for answers and solutions, which they do, the part of that process that keeps me coming back is the navel-gazing along the way. The narrative Ps are simply the concrete opportunities for meditation, the framework that allows for abstraction upon abstraction, the necessary cost of doing business. The rewards of that same business are, for me, the alchemy by which the statement that something is meta-discourse immediately leads to an examination of what meta-discourse is, which quickly proves to be another level of meta-discourse in turn.
In Chelmno Dreaming, the abstract question of how to make a novel that follows that first sentence paired with the question of what a character would do who discovers his existence is beholden to a victim of genocide who might expire at any moment and who he cannot access in any meaningful way. The two threads constantly crisscrossed, and in their crisscrossing flipped between action-based concrete moves and intellectual meanderings. In these re-refracted reflections, I found my meta-meta, my opportunity to discover the unexpected, the mental puzzles that demanded more mental puzzles, each only unearthable somewhere beyond the next period or paragraph break.
In this aggressive introspection lies, for me, the opportunity to discover, to find new twists, to revel in unexpected epiphany (are epiphanies ever expected? I suppose not – see? That’s it happening again), in short, to encounter the wondrous and wonder at it. And that Talmudic meandering is, as far as I can tell, something only performed by writing sentences in a row.