About Belle

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Belle was born at the convergence of two rivers: a wish to experiment further with hypertext forms and the thought that there was a background story left untold in Someone to Lean On.

In the course of the past two years, I had written hypernovels and -novellas which took the form of a chaotic collection (Kazoo Concerto), a compass (Brooklyn of Dreams), a grid arranged by character and year (Montauk) and an X consisting of two stories which intersect (Someone to Lean On.) In the earlier cases (Kazoo, Brooklyn, Montauk) I had one or more stories I wanted to tell and the form followed. In each case, the final structure was determined quite late. For example, Kazoo was destined to be separate stories and even after they were linked into one tale, I thought to provide an index listing all of them. Only at the last moment did I think of them as an unknown space to be explored by the reader. The compass interface for Brooklyn was an afterthought, though it now seems to me integral to the story. My original idea for the interface to Montauk was a spiral of visual links, arranged from the earliest outwards; the grid, with each story represented by a playing card, was also a late thought.

Someone to Lean On was the first story in which I imagined the form first, then found a theme. I wanted to spear two stories through each other; they would have a middle chapter in common. Belle began the same way: I thought to explore the personality of the protagonist through twelve or so views by other people. Most of the action, the interest, of the story would be the contrast of perspectives on her, the parallax effect when the reader shifts from one view to another. Time would be a less important element: the action of the story might all take place on a single day, and there would be no need for the reader to discover the segments in chronological order. The exercise would be to obtain a holographic view of the title character, not necessarily a sequential view of events pertaining to her.

So a circle of stories. This raised a crucial design issue: would the protagonist's own story be told at the center, or did the circle need a center at all? Here my traditional impulses won out: I wanted the portrait to have an absolute truth at the center, and create a tension between that truth and the twelve views. Thus Belle fails to follow modern fiction to its final destination as an incarnation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: truth is ascertainable; we just have to visit the inside of Belle's head to find it. When one character thinks she is fragile and another that she is made of steel, we have a place to go to determine which of them is right.

I think the twelve stories, without Belle's at the center, would still have been a complete work, but of a very different character. In Belle's story you find out a few salient facts, particularly about her early life with her mother, unknown to the others. And you would never have had the opportunity to read her translation of Le Mal, which is the conscience of the work. The twelve stories surrounding Belle also contain many facts unknown to her, some of them quite upsetting. They illustrate the possibility that if you really could read the thoughts of the people around you, you would want to be as far away from them as possible.

In searching for a theme which could be expressed in a circle of stories, I hit on that of some subsidiary characters from Someone to Lean On. Sometimes one has the feeling that a personage has a mysterious life beyond the limited role she plays in your story. As I wrote in the introduction to Kazoo Concerto, that sense led to the creation of the fragments which elucidate the lives of Kazoo's minor characters. After writing the John Chalfin segment of Someone, I saw that there was a lot more to be said about the Chalfins. Belle, who has died years before the story begins, is mentioned only a few times, so she presented the most blank space. I knew a good deal more about some of the others: Bernard, Charles, Ian, Trina and John.

Once I figured out that Belle was French Canadian, I spotted the opportunity to link the story to two of my other works, Kazoo and Brooklyn. In Kazoo, we first see Samantha Lazare as a very intelligent, confident young woman who knows she is rather plain. In Brooklyn, she and her father Terry walk on to the stage for a few minutes, visiting her cousin, Lina Hanrahan (who herself does a walk on in Montauk). I found Belle a job at Brooklyn College, made Terry Lazare (whom I already knew from Brooklyn was a professor at the college) a friend of hers, and sent them off to the beach with twelve year old John, five year old Samantha and ten year old Lina. Thus I accomplished two things simultanously: used each of them to give a view of Belle, and filled in some information about the formation of three characters who appear as adults, or become adults, in other works of mine.

Although I think Belle succeeds in accomplishing what I wanted from it as to form and story-telling, I also think it is one of the most unsympathetic things I have ever written. My work largely lacks villains: Brian Hanrahan of Brooklyn, liar, drug user and thief, is a sympathetic character; Liam Molloy of Montauk, who cheats his brother and sister and thoughtlessly destroys his own wife, is a normal man with a piece missing. Of all the work I've made available on the Web, only Belle contains a gallery of grotesques. Bernard Chalfin is a sadist with no redeeming features; if a safe fell on his head no-one would miss him. His brother Charles, though not as cruel, is a hypocrite and weakling. Terry Lazare is unfaithful to his wife and a wimp. Joe Charlton is on the edge of mental illness, obsessed with violence. Frankie Falco is a creep. Trina Chalfin is a victim who has become monstrous. I find that Belle lacks the usual compassion I feel for all of my characters.

Belle herself is, like Darcy in Montauk, more passive than it is safe for anyone to be. Part of my fascination, and distaste, for the story is that she lives bright and unaware, in the midst of these grotesques who would exploit or harm her. When I think of some of the other women I have written---Samantha, Lina, Deirdre Molloy of Montauk--they seem to me people with whom I would be delighted to be friends, and with whom I would have much in common. By contrast, if I met Belle one day, I think I would be puzzled by her. I would probably feel sorry for her. And we would almost certainly have nothing to say to one another.