Sunday, November 13, 2011

Books for Writers: "The Confidence Man"

 I am not generally a laugh-out-loud sort, but an audible chuckle did escape me when I figured out what was going on in Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.
“What?” my wife Brenda said.
I looked over and smiled at her. “Nothing. Just admiring the cleverness.”
Clever Herman Melville. He made a career out of writing about places and things and killed it by writing about that other noun: people.
He may have ended his days as a shipping clerk, but the man had insight. Is the confidence-man God or the Devil as some have suggested, some Puck or other out to tweak our hubris on board our slow boat to oblivion? Maybe. I think it more likely that the confidence-man is us, all too human, ever-changing and always in need of a few bucks.

The notes in the back of my copy were equally fun. Other writers made cameos in the book and I'd missed them all, not being as well-versed or classically educated as I should. Hello, James Fenimore Cooper; there you are in Chapter 21, my bear-skin clad “Missouri bachelor.” Mark Winsome, at any moment, may become a transparent eyeball. By the way, Mark, how's Eggbert doing on Walden Pond?
Melville has always impressed me, even in the days when my teachers were beating the imagery of Billy Budd's forehead and his rival's sunken chin to death. To include so many Easter eggs (to use a modern term) of historical and literary renown, Melville had to have a depth of knowledge alien to the Google-reliant citizens of the 21st Century.
And he did it all without a word processor.
I'll read it again some day but at the moment I'm looking at The Confidence-Man through a narrow lens: How to write a story about a voyage without writing a travelogue.
In some ways Melville had it easy: the confidence-man's trip down the Mississippi is a metaphor. Why include passages about muddy water and passing boys and escaped slaves on rickety rafts when your journey is really time's passage? If it's not a literal journey, there's no need to get literal.
What I can take from Melville is his way of creating his story's real movement through his characters. The real journey in the book is the one the confidence man takes as he moves from mark to mark, lie to lie and identity to identity. He's the serpent, the trickster, the coyote in our Steamboat of Eden; he's the only one moving while the rest of us stand still and pat ourselves on the back. As he forces his victims (maybe students is a better word) to reconsider their positions on religion, justice and politics, they go off on their own journeys, likely not to return to the exact spot from which they departed. He's an ever-changing catalyst of change.
Looking at my own ms., I can see how this is an important thing to consider. My larger voyage is not intended as a metaphor, although there is a parallel to humanity leaving the nest and my young protagonists' growth toward adulthood. Like any teen, their power to affect the larger picture is limited but they have great potency in their secret lives. A word from the popular girl can ruin a high-school kid's whole day, or make their reputation. My characters must take on new roles as the story progresses, changing even as their worlds become more static.
So, lessons learned. Move the story through the characters rather than via a giant colony ship. As long as my novel doesn't begin to resemble a great, white whale, with Melville's help, I should be fine.
Call me Rob.


  1. Well said. As I read your words and apply them to the work I have already done I can see this in my story. As my MS has progressed my protagonists' role within has grown and morphed adjusting to the changing conditions. Let's hope I pull it all together correctly.

  2. Debra,

    I am definitely in the you-learn-how-to-write by reading camp, although I'm not as fanatical about purity as, say, Francine Prose is.
    I do enjoy studying how a classic like "The Confidence Man" is put together, and how much writing and reading has changed Melville's day. Just the sheer weight of his paragraphing could be daunting to a weekend reader. Still, there is value there.

  3. I came back to return the courtesy visit to my blog, but now I'm also subscribing. I've been doing a lot of reading for years and have barely begun actually applying it to my writing. This being said, I don't think I'd be any sort of decent writer without the years of "field experience" in reading.

    I hope the weekend was great!

  4. Thanks for checking out the post, making the comment, and hitting the "subscribe," Amberr. I;ll try not to disappoint.

  5. I love how you take lesson from just about everything you read. It makes me want to go back and read my favorite books just to figure out why I think they are so special. Awesome post, Rob.

  6. I'm definitely doing it more these days. I burn through books pretty quickly when I'm pleasure reading (near constantly). I'm hoping I don't get to the point where I'm analyzing everything. Merle Drown's dialogue workshop, a couple of summers ago, took some of the joy out of the "Dexter" novels for me. I started revising the dialogue attributives in my head. Thanks, Merle.