A Necessary Prologue: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife

When does a novel require a prologue? Never, many would argue. Ask any agent, editor or wizened veteran of the novel-writing craft: if you can dispense with a prologue, do. And yet, so many novels have prologues. What gives?

This is a craft issue that has interested me for a long time, the more so now, as I embark on a new draft of a novel I’ve been working on. At a recent literary event at which Paula McClain was a featured author, a friend mentioned the prologue to The Paris Wife, and how highly he thought of it. I’d read the book a few years ago and loved it, in part because of my long-term interest in the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, but mostly because it’s just such an ambitious, beautiful, readable novel. But I hadn’t paid much attention to the underlying structure, and I picked it up a few days ago to re-read the prologue.

In common with the rest of McClain’s novel, the prologue is beautifully written. It gives us our first taste of the book’s voice, which is a lovely voice steeped in the language and rhythms of the period, one that McClain succeeds in maintaining throughout the novel. But the voice could just as easily have been introduced in Chapter One, and the question I was interested in was, is McClain’s prologue necessary? After re-reading it a few times, I think it is. Here are two reasons:

The first reason is that it sets the stage for the novel’s action in an alluring way, evoking for the reader some important elements of the book’s historical setting: the lingering trauma of WWI and the legendary ambiance of 1920s Paris:

“Interesting people were everywhere just then. The caf├ęs of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers. On any given night, you could see Picasso walking from Sant-Germain to his apartment in the rue de Grands Augustins, always exactly the same route and always looking quietly at everyone and everything. Nearly anyone might feel like a painter walking in the streets of Paris then because the light brought it out in you, and the shadows alongside the buildings, and the bridges which seemed to want to break your heart, and the sculpturally beautiful women in Chanel’s black sheath dresses, smoking and throwing back their heads to laugh.”

This is wonderful stuff, intentionally reminiscent of Hemingway’s great final opus, A Moveable Feast. Reading it, I was irresistibly drawn to a novel set in this fascinating world. The thing is, the actual story begins when Hadley Richardson meets Ernest Hemingway, not in Paris but in the American Midwest. So without this prologue or its equivalent, we wouldn’t have had this delicious and highly seductive foretaste.

The second reason, even more compelling, comes in the final paragraph of the prologue:

“This isn't a detective story – not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well-made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.”

I felt a kind of internal shiver when I read this passage, even for the second and third time, and I suspect most other readers did too. In an organic and strikingly visual manner, McClain has put us on notice: get ready, a life-wrecking disaster is on the way. Why would McClain reveal this important plot development, which is a major dramatic feature of the book, so early? Probably because she felt that the first part of her story wouldn’t have had insufficient dramatic tension without it. We need to experience the charming, innocent phase of the relationship, the falling in love and trying to make it work, so that we become attached to this couple and have a stake in the success of their relationship. That way it’s all the more dramatic and meaningful when the relationship is broken up by the “pretty otter in my kitchen.”

If McClain had begun the book without introducing the specter of Pauline Pfeiffer waiting in the wings, we might not have felt as much impetus to read on. As it is, we as readers have been placed in a deliciously uncomfortable state of having more information than the characters; we know what’s going to befall them, and so we are filled with dread. This uncomfortable state of foreknowledge is known as dramatic irony. It’s an extremely effective tool for creating suspense. Without the prologue, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position. Perhaps we would have read on anyway, buoyed by the intrinsic interest of the story and by McClain’s lovely writing. Or perhaps not.

So yes, the prologue to The Paris Wife feels necessary. And it’s brilliantly done.

At the above mentioned literary event I learned that we can expect another novel from Ms. McClain, this one about an intriguing figure from the first part of the 20th century, Beryl Markham, the author of the stunning memoir of Africa and the early days of aviation, West With the Night. Given Ms. McClain’s skill as a writer and her unusual talent for capturing the voice and feel of an age, I very much look forward to reading it!


Historical Fiction: A Conversation about Genre and Meaning

It was my great pleasure to be interviewed recently by Alden Jones of the Fiction Writers Review about the “genre” of historical fiction, the process of researching Will Poole’s Island, the differences between writing novels and short stories, and more. Here's an extended excerpt:

"The Historical Novels Review has a working definition of historical fiction: it takes place more than fifty years in the past, and the author is constructing one crucial element of the setting—the time period—from research rather than direct personal experience. But is historical fiction actually a genre in the way that fantasy or science fiction or romance or crime are genres? I don’t think so. Not if you consider that by the above definition, books as divergent in approach and structure and voice as A Tale of Two CitiesBlood MeridianThe English Patient, and The Pillars of the Earth would all be grouped in the same genre . . . 

And here’s the thing about writing historical fiction: you’re not trying to reconstruct or mimic history, which would be altogether boring even if it weren’t impossible. What you’re trying to do is to create a new version of it that will tell a good story while simultaneously capturing something essential, not only about the period, but also about contemporary life. Given all this, every one of my characters must, to some extent and by definition, reflect 21st-century American values."

Read the full interview here.


Negative Capability in Fiction: The Strange Magnetism of Karen Russell's Swamplandia!

Purple clover, Queen Anne's lace,
Crimson hair across your face
You can make me cry, if you don’t know.

With my fiction writing students I sometimes play a game called Smoke: It’s like Twenty Questions, but “slant.” One player thinks of a person (famous or otherwise) that everybody knows. The other players ask questions and try to guess the identity of the person. The catch is that they can’t be questions that will elicit direct answers; they must have to do with the person’s “essence.” For example: If this person were a kind of smoke, what kind of smoke would he or she be? If this person were a type of wood, what type? If a car, what kind of car? What smell or color or sound or music or food or stone or fabric or plant or animal would he or she be? Answers must be given quickly, without thinking, and it’s important to avoid questions about movies, books, political parties, or other subjects that might reveal anything direct or factual about the person. It’s often amazing how few questions it takes to solve, and it really points up the uncanny power of intuitive associations in writing, especially about character.

This is exactly what Bob Dylan is doing in the lines quoted above. Have more evocative lines ever been written about a character? Can’t you see the woman Dylan is describing? Don’t you feel you somehow know her? This is the power of what John Keats referred to as negative capability: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

And this also helps us to understand why Karen Russell has taken the literary world by storm. Consider the following sentences, selected almost at random from Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!:

“The fan was blowing at the chief’s headdress, flattening every feather so that they waved in place, like a school of fishes needling into a strong current.” 

“Unmenaced, all the fish inside the hole had grown huge and lippy. The bass turned in a thick circle, a clock of gloating life.” 

“The sun was lowering itself behind the tree line at an angle, as carefully as a round man descending a ladder.”

These are more than just vivid descriptions. They’re vivid descriptions that give us direct access to a very unusual inner world. Russell has negative capability in spades: she’s able to make unexpected and surprising leaps in a way that is not rational, but that is at the same time so profoundly true. In fact, she has managed to write an entire novel that seems to inhabit the dreamlike, liminal realm of the collective subconscious. This is no mean trick.

Witness this passage, which is taken almost arbitrarily from the extended imaginative tour de force leading up to the book’s conclusion: 

“Out here the mosquitoes were after me for red gallons—you could see clouds of them hanging above the grassland. I’m sure they are still out there hovering like that, like tiny particles of an old, dissolved appetite, something prehistoric and very scary that saturates the air of that swamp. A force that could drain you in sips without ever knowing what you had been, or seeing your face.”

There’s no explaining the impact of a passage like this. No analyzing it in a way that will prove more fruitful than simply reading it and letting it expand in one’s mind. This is the realm of the great poets. Not every fiction writer has the ability to do this. For me, it is the power of negative capability that accounts for the draw of Karen Russell’s deeply strange story-world, and it explains why a debut novel as quirky and hard to categorize as Swamplandia! has made such a splash.