Notes on American Dead

Okay, so this is something I’ve been wanting to do for the longest time. I’m going to talk about a book. I say A book, but for a good long while this was The book. The American Dead project took about three years to wrestle into submission. It was a long and miserable path to tread from conception to publication, and it would be a shame to let all the memories and secrets of its creation go unshared or forgotten. So I’m gonna share a few of them, by no means all, but a couple which might be interesting to those few who’ve read the book, or even those who’ve yet to do so.

Okay then. American Dead. (follow link to get novel!)

I guess the best place to start would be the title. It wasn’t always American Dead, of course. That was simply the last choice on a long list. It began as The Wreckage, and went from that to In the Wreckage, In the Wasteland, and finally to American Wasteland. That was the title I called it by when I wrote the book, and it’s the one I tend to think of when I think about this story. Unfortunately, the title was already taken. I think it was a dietary book, or something about garbage… whatever, you can look it up. I suppose I could have just taken it, and who would have ever noticed, eh? But no, I felt compelled to seek out an alternative. The book, which began as a very closely focused collection of short stories, had expanded into something more like a full-fledged novel, and picked up a few themes and ideas along the way. I’ll talk more about that later, but it’s sufficient to say that the American part of the title had become more important to the story than the Wasteland. I tried at first to bring back and earlier idea, and go with American Wreckage, but it just didn’t feel right. I don’t remember how or when I came up with American Dead, but it was an obvious match. The phrase conjured up in my mind two contrasting images: the singular dead, identified only by his country of origin, and the plural dead. I heard in my voice the flat emotionless tones of a bland newsreader listing off a tally of casualties after some disaster or attack. And I heard a rather chilling question in my mind, played back like a half-remember song lyric: “How many American Dead?” It was the perfect concept for a story which had become about far more than a single dead boy, and grown larger, expanding into a search for the true cost to the American people of the events of that angry opening decade of the twenty-first century.

I guess I should back up a little and talk a bit about the basic story of American Dead. You probably shouldn’t read this if you haven’t read the novel itself, though I’ll do my best to avoid any outrageous spoilers. If you are reading this without having read the book, first: why? and second: It’s the story of a small community shaken by the death of a young man. It takes place across the year 2002, and is told by about a dozen point-of-view characters, each offering their own take on the tragedy. Some questions are answered, others are not. Some mysteries are resolved, others are not. Some characters are happy at the end, others are not. Okay, everybody up to speed? Good, we’ll go on. Shall we?

American Dead is not really a novel, in my mind. Nor is it a collection of short fiction. Now, I know I did write “a novel” there on the cover like a complete duff, but I’ll get rid of that come the second edition, eh? What American Dead is, to me anyway, is something I guess I’d call a fractured prose narrative. It’s a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Not every piece fits in exactly with every other piece, and no two pieces work in the quite the same way, but together they make a complete picture. Get it? Fractured prose narrative, right? That make sense? Ah, fuck it. I guess it’s a novel.

When the book first started to take shape it was, essentially, a reaction against everything I knew about contemporary American literature. Given that I started writing it during my last semester of college, that’s no great surprise. I was fed up, sick to death of the proscribed ways and means. I was done reading the same two dozen short stories they use in every class, I was done being told what kind of style was appropriate, and I was very done being instructed in structure. Three act pap has never interested me. Never will this writer be accused of any lack in ambition, my way or bust! And I’ve busted more than a few times, believe me. American Dead was an experiment, really, in constructing a plotless narrative. Scenes come and go, their connection to each other subtle and their purpose oblique. Characters drift in and out of the narrative. I wanted to make a window into the little world of Verden; I was far less interest in constructing a door. This is something that can be seen, but not entered, the reader is kept behind glass, seeing nothing but what passes before them, knowing that there is a whole world in the periphery yet unable to access it. I wanted a murder mystery with no killer, a drama with no resolution, and a tragedy with no catharsis.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. My characters took over, to a certain extent, and demanded quite sternly that their stories be told. A great deal of the final third of the novel was built only after I thought I’d finished, and a great number of arcs left purposely dangling were allowed to curve gracefully downward. I have a hard time now imagining how the book could have ever stood up without Nathan and Jessica’s final chapter, or Jeffery’s final confrontation. There’s something to be said for structure, I guess.

Hm… this is getting pretty long. And I haven’t actually started talking about the good stuff yet. You know what, I think I’m gonna have to split this baby up into a couple separate posts. Look for the next one… you know, whenever I get around to writing it.

Bye bye now. See ya soon.

(Read more notes here)

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