It doesn’t feel right to say that I chose to cast the middle section of my novel, What Belongs to You , as a single, forty-one-page paragraph. I wrote the section very quickly, in a kind of white heat, mostly on the backs of napkins and receipts and other scraps of paper someone might mistake for trash. I numbered these as I wrote and put them in a pile, and it was only when I finished and typed them up that I understood the form of what I had made. Choice didn’t enter at this point, either, since I found the material of the section so difficult; for more than a year, whenever I tried to look at it I felt physically ill.
When I was finally able to work on it again, I began revising the section obsessively, a process I would continue for years; nothing else in the novel was so hard. I returned to my notebook and rewrote the section twice by hand, trying to impose some order on sentences that sometimes scrolled on for pages, anarchic with grievance. But while I questioned almost every word in the section, I never seriously questioned its most obvious formal gambit, the unbroken paragraph. I knew it was a risk, that it might make what I already thought of as an unsellable book less sellable, that it would seem forbidding to many readers. I also knew it was right.
The section begins with an interruption. The narrator, a high school teacher, is in class, in the middle of a sentence, when a woman from the school’s front office walks in and hands him a note. It’s an email from his family, saying that his father, from whom he has been estranged for many years, is dangerously ill and has asked to see him again. The narrator leaves, holding the page in his hand, and walks through a landscape of socialist housing blocks and abandoned construction as he remembers scenes from the childhood he has spent two decades trying to forget.
The narrator of my novel is a writer, and he’s attached to a certain way of using language. He seeks a kind of elegance in language that can dignify experiences that often fill him with shame; he wants to write in a way that allows him to pretend mastery of feelings and desires that are nearly always out of control. The block paragraph, at least as I feel it in this section, is a rebuke or repudiation of that elegance, and of all of the narrator’s attempts to exert control over his feeling.
It’s not that I thought I was doing anything new. The block paragraph novel has a long history, especially in the literatures of Central and Eastern Europe, which may be another reason that it felt right for a novel that’s so bound to that part of the world. But when I think of models for this section, it’s less the obsessive novels of Thomas Bernhard that come to mind, though I love those books, than Reinaldo Arenas’s brilliant Old Rosa , a novella that I first read as an undergraduate. In Arenas’s book, a woman remembers her life in the conditions of greatest possible urgency, as her home and yard burn around her.
For my narrator, too, it feels something like being in a burning house to have the defenses he’s raised against his past tumble down. As he walks, he finds himself assaulted by memories that come all at once and out of sequence; he’s submerged in them in a way that makes various periods simultaneous. Writing without paragraph breaks gives access, I hope, to that sense of simultaneity and submergence. It’s also a declaration that the text won’t obey the usual rules of logic or sequence, that its allegiance is to other modes of conveying experience. Or maybe less its allegiance than its submission. The form is a kind of surrender: In his attempt to make something balanced, measured, conventionally well-made, the writer is defeated from the start.