I'm of the opinion that everyone needs to have a failed novel under their belt. And so a few months ago I started writing off-the-cuff, much as Butler is doing now, to see how far it got me. Answer? 3 and a half chapters comprising 12,000 words.
Here's the third chapter, which is the only one I was particularly satisfied with. The main problem I found with the novel as a whole is that it progressed very slowly -- very little had actually
until this point, and my plan didn't involve any spanners being thrown into machinery any time soon. You may find this symptom evident in this chapter, although personally I feel the slow pace works well in this instance.
What I'm interested in, critique-wise, is the characterisation. Are the characters distinct? Does the dialogue work? Does the first person narration work? If you have any issues with the work as a whole -- bearing in mind the aforementioned commentary on pacing -- I'd be interested in hearing that, too. I won't justify this by saying "it was an exercise" or "it's divergent from my usual fare", as this is actually something I'm fairly satisfied with.
Exposition: David and Elaine are a married couple (warning sign! I am not married! Assumptions about marital behaviour are afoot!). Charles, a friend of David's, recently disappeared and charged David with looking after his valuables (the nonchalance is entirely intentional). Elaine has been kept late at work by "an emergency".
And ... action!
Elaine was, naturally, kept late by the emergency. I ate lunch in solitude: just a quickly-made sandwich to quell my hunger. Certainly nothing that I enjoyed eating with the worry of Elaine's emergency, and the growing doubts that she'd arrive home in time â€“ or be in the mood â€“ to go to Charles' apartment that night lingering in the back of my mind. The afternoon progressed slowly; and with each passing hour, that growing doubt took on a new urgency, overcoming even my worries about what was happening in Elaine's office to keep her so long.
I was restless, but there was little I could do. The lounge needed vacuuming, and the front lawn could do with a mow, but to do either would mean potentially missing a phone-call from Elaine, and so I was limited to that which I could do in silence. The dishes were the first item to be checked off the list; followed by the laundry, some ironing, dusting and wiping of benches; and finally to the bedroom to change the sheets and re-make the bed. With all that done, I took my attention to the bathroom; cleaning the toilet, shower, and hand-basin before replacing the towels and even re-arranging the medicine cabinet kept me busy, but by the time I emerged and checked the clock not a single peep had come from the phone.
Gradually, just as the tide washes away tracks in the sand, the possibility of Elaine being able to arrive home at a decent hour eroded as the afternoon turned to dusk. I was hungry, after having such a light lunch, but didn't have the energy to make myself dinner and so had to be satisfied with a bowl of cereal eaten at a table for one in a silent, overwhelmingly claustrophobic house. The clock's hands moved from six o'clock to seven o'clock without word from Elaine and I eventually gave up the idea of her ever ringing; that afternoon I had glanced at the clock nearly as often as I had found myself suddenly staring at the phone, unsure if I had really heard it ring or if it had just been a trick of a hopeful imagination.
Days like these had happened before, of course, and I knew that no matter where we went or what we did there would be times when the two of us would be separated. But that night, of all nights! The key to Charles' apartment sat atop the letter, both still on the kitchen table, and I knew that the chance of using it that night was rapidly approaching zero. Soon I realised that even if I'd heard Elaine's car pull into the driveway, there wasn't a chance she'd be willing to go out again just for my sake. No, she'd be after a hot drink, and somewhere to sit and relax while I threw together whatever ingredients I could find to make an impromptu dinner. After having lived with Elaine for so long I knew that much.
Years ago, when I had still been working in an office on the other side of the city, and Elaine and I spent each breakfast together before going our separate ways until six o'clock when we returned home frazzled and weary, we had had an argument that lasted far longer than any other either of us had ever been in. We had not yet married, and we lived in a smaller house then, so the words both bore more gravity and echoed more loudly between the cramped walls we shared.
Like the plot of a French farce, it was difficult to trace the argument's origins to a single phrase or action. I had been out that night, drinking with my friends from work, but that was nothing new for a Friday night; Elaine usually spent Friday nights reading, anyway, and the few times that she came along with me were enough to convince her that I was not being unfaithful, and that I was indeed just having a few beers with a few friends.
All the same, I had returned home that night to furious eyes and a wicked tongue that gave me first the sudden understanding of â€œhell hath no furyâ€; and secondly stunned me into submission for the better part of five minutes as I stood, barely tipsy and entirely cognisant, on the threshold of lounge and kitchen. Her words were ruthless and biting: she claimed that I didn't care about her; that I'd been out enjoying myself all night while she was at home alone; that I ought to spend more time with her after work; that her job was no less stressful than mine, and why should I alone have the chance to celebrate a week's ending?
That's how it began, then, but I couldn't work out why. It was nothing new or unexpected: so why that night, and not once before then? Had she been bottling her emotions up inside her until that night when I walked in to see them spill out with lashes of a tongue and glares from fiery eyes? I did my best to defuse the situation, but it proved futile: she had words she needed to say, so many words, about so many things that eventually the argument catapulted itself over the triviality of a single night at the bar and encompassed seemingly everything we had ever done together before that point. Yes, things were said that probably needed to be said; and I'm certainly glad she said those things before we had married; but all I could think was: why that night? She had been a little quieter at breakfast that morning, but at the time I had thought nothing of it. Maybe she just hadn't slept well the night before. Maybe work had been busier than usual. Maybe she had been stuck in traffic, caught in the rain, help up at gunpoint in a bank queue. Maybe! I knew for certain that it wasn't her period â€“ that wasn't due for another week yet â€“ and I also knew that it wasn't due to my not spending enough time with her; given the circumstances of our both working nine-to-five, I felt that we managed admirably. The argument continued, though, until finally, at two o'clock in the morning â€“ four hours after I had returned back home â€“ it drew itself to a close: not neat and tidy like the eventual understanding of a French farce, but also not lingering like some movie's cliff-hanger conclusion; if anything it was a deus-ex machina, sudden exhaustion closing the valves of anger.
The next morning being Saturday, I slept in and woke at eleven o'clock to find her sitting at the kitchen table. Her hair was unkempt, falling down over her face and giving the distinct impression of a photograph cut up into many pieces and then sloppily re-assembled. She wore a bathrobe and nursed a mug of coffee. When I walked in she looked up at me and then back into her mug.
'I'm sorry about last night,' she almost whispered. 'I really don't know what got into me.'
'That's alright,' I soothed. 'I don't have to go out on Friday nights. You're right; I do have all week to see my friends at work. Next week I'll take you out somewhere nice.'
'No, it's not that,' she sighed, and took a sip of her coffee. I thought she was going to say something more, but instead she just stared blankly out through the kitchen window. What she saw out there, I've no idea; it was Winter, and even at that hour the window was frosted over with chill.
'David,' she began again, some time later, 'do you ever sit and wonder what other couples are doing at this moment?'
'No,' I told her, and I was being perfectly honest. I'd never given it a moment's thought. Presumably they too had slept in and were having a quiet breakfast. Perhaps they were still in bed. Whatever they were doing didn't really concern me, and I told her so.
'Well,' she started, 'I do. They're so different than we are! Don't you ever realise that? They don't work two jobs or own two cars or spend so much time away from each other. We're so young, David. We're too young to be living this life. My parents work two jobs and own two cars. Doesn't that frighten you?'
I gave it a moment's thought. 'I suppose,' I said. 'When you put it like that. But Elaine, this isn't the 60s or 70s anymore. The world's changing. We couldn't afford this house on just one wage, and imagine how difficult life would be with just one car.'
'Perhaps we don't need this house, then,' she argued. 'Perhaps then we wouldn't need that second job, and one of us wouldn't need that second car.'
'Well â€“' I began, and stopped. I took a moment to collect my thoughts. Outside, I heard someone's lawnmower start up; it was half-past ten on a Saturday morning, and the world was slowly waking. 'If you feel that way,' I continued, 'I suppose we could just get by on one wage. But: is there something else you're not telling me? This is all very sudden. You're not thinking of quitting your job, are you?'
Elaine didn't reply for a few moments. Her hands were wrapped around a coffee mug, but by then I knew the coffee inside must have gone cold. 'I don't know,' she finally murmured. 'I enjoy my work, but â€“ well, I just feel that so much of the week is wasted away. And I don't love this area enough to live here forever, and I only ever use my car to drive to work and back, and â€¦ well, you get the idea. It's all so â€“ pointless, my having a job and a car.'
'So we'll move,' I said, in a rare show of decisiveness. 'We'll go to the real estate agent's and we'll look at what options we have. And then we'll go to the caryard and see how much we could trade in a used Mitsubishi Magna for.'
Elaine looked up at me, suddenly, and brushed her hair away from her eyes. 'You'd do that?' she asked. 'You'd really be prepared to go through with it?'
'I don't love this house any more than you do,' I replied, 'and I'm sure if the need arose we could survive on just one wage and one car.'
'It just seems a bit â€“ drastic, don't you think? To up and go just like that?'
'Nonsense,' I told her. 'A decision has to be made somewhere. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the start of our new life together, a new chapter in the book that is David and Elaine.'
'Maybe it is,' Elaine admitted. 'But then, I didn't expect it to happen now. I doubt I could up and leave my job anytime soon anyway. I was just â€“ trying to explain to you how I felt. Not that I wouldn't be grateful, of course.'
'Don't worry,' I smiled. 'I just want you to know that if you really don't like this life so much, we can change it. There's still time. And if something drastic happens we could still survive. Look at birds: in Winter their nests can be blown away by wind and rain, but then they just make themselves a new one. They're prepared to deal with it. So we'll do the same: we'll pretend our house has been blown away, and we'll look into what we can replace it with.'
A silence descended upon the table. The lawnmower must have moved out of earshot.
'I wish I was a bird,' Elaine sighed, at length. 'They have it so simple.'
'I don't know,' I said. 'You'd have to be able to fly and sing. I'm not sure I could get the hang of it.'
'Oh, I'm sure you'd learn,' Elaine told me. 'And then you could do nothing but flit from tree to tree and sing all day. Doesn't that sound nice?'
'Hmm,' I thought aloud. 'It does, a bit.'
'Anyway,' Elaine began, a full minute later and in a suddenly cheery tone, 'what do you have planned for the day?'
I shrugged. 'Well, I told Charles that I might go around later this afternoon,' I told her. 'But I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I saw him some other time. Is there anything you wanted to do?'
'Hmm,' she thought aloud. 'Charles. You know â€“ you always go around to see him, but he never comes here to see you. Perhaps you could invite him here. It's been a while since I've seen him, too.'
I gave the idea some thought. She was right, of course: I didn't think Charles had ever even seen the outside of my house, let alone the inside. And how long had it been since he'd last seen Elaine? Not since I'd proposed, I realised; and that had been three months ago.
'Sure,' I agreed. 'At least, I'll give him a ring and see what he thinks of it.'
'Alright,' she nodded. 'I suppose I should bake a cake or something if he's coming round. Or even if he isn't. It's been a while since I've baked a cake.'
'Your mother would be appalled,' I joked. 'A Penn girl not baking at every waking moment? Sacrilege!'
Elaine laughed. 'Well,' she said, 'that settles it. I'll bake a cake.'
'And I'll ring Charles.'
We left the breakfast table at eleven o'clock. She went to get dressed, and I walked to the telephone, every moment wondering what I'd miss if our life was blown away by a sudden gust of wind.