Style not up to scratch

Even when engrossed and transported, we readers are in constant negotiation with our book's author. Example: your author tells you that a man wakes up in his bed and finds himself to be a cockroach. A cockroach, you say? OK, Franz, it's your book, but this had better be good. And because it is the great genius Kafka telling you this story, the negotiations go well and you invest some mindful time in the premise. A few sentences in, and a cockroach narrator is no big thing.

Chapel Hill resident William Conescu's first novel, "Being Written," requires negotiations too, but he is no Kafka, and his premise is far less bold. The device Conescu uses is slight: his protagonist, Daniel, hears the scratching of an authorial pencil in a godlike hand. Scratch, scratch, scratch, he hears, and Daniel is convinced that he is "being written" into a novel. A minor yet ambitious character, he wants to achieve more novel-time for himself and strives to make a bigger place for himself in the story being told.

In alternating chapters, Daniel insinuates himself among feckless Boston 20-somethings, uncovering their dreams and weaknesses, making openings for himself in their lives. Seduced early in the book by Delia, a thwarted singer, Daniel grows obsessed with her, finding chances to manipulate events toward his interests. He also "influences" the author over the course of the book. Things turn his way and finally Daniel moves from its margins to its center, hearing the author's scratch-scratch-scratch, though its sounds even starts to annoy him:

"The scratching still won't go away, so you decide that you will. You put on a new T-shirt and a clean pair of running shorts and head outside. ... At the corner, you turn left. But the scratching follows you even when you quicken your pace. ... You're running pretty fast now, but you can't shake the author. ... You can probably make it to the corner in less than 10 seconds. ... The author's pencil seems to slow down, and when you reach the intersection nine seconds later, the scratching vanishes into the sounds of the traffic."

Over the course of this nearly 200-page novel, the scratching pencil takes on the presence of a telltale heart, thumpa thumpa thump. But that thump was a short story's obvious device, and its feverish effect was bearable. (Poe never actually says "thump," but we hear it.) The metamorphosis is half as long and more traumatic. We might also think of Pirandello's meta-theatrical play "Six Characters in Search of an Author," of Thornton Wilder's chattering maid Sabina, looking out at the audience, and, of course, the dearly departed Opus the Penguin, wondering whose ghostly authorial hand was drawing him. No matter how clever the writer, a knowing character who steps outside the frame is always a risky move.

The writer may require too much negotiation, too much suspended disbelief, for the narrative to be engaging. (A cockroach? Wait just a minute!) The reader's engagement comes with a price. There are several issues to negotiate with Conescu while reading "Being Written." First: why a pencil? Well, it makes a scratching noise, sort of, but it does become tiresome, not compelling. Second: the characters are all, like Daniel, paper-thin. Their lives lack details or reasons, except to drink with each other and avoid depth. And that's third: Not many thoughts are expressed in these pages, and if an idea does appear, the scratching pencil reminds us of how shallow it is. For all his desire to be a character in fiction, Daniel never reads or refers to a book in "Being Written."

By the time we understand that this is not an existential novel, or a wise allegory of our toylike lives in the hands of an authorial god, or a fable, or a puppet caper or a hallucinatory dream ... well, it seems unimportant to us.

Ultimately, "Being Written" may be a worthy exercise for a writer with admirable promise. He shows us some magic in his technique, at least one characterization that repels us with sordid clarity (a male musician turned gay hustler), and -- apart from the distracting auditory hallucinations of the primary character -- coherent interior monologues. But an editor or writing mentor might well have advised Conescu to put this story aside and go to work on something else, using his nascent subtlety as a writer to deepen his people and work to fabricate a compelling character without a scratch in the narrative.

As a reader, I am an unforgiving negotiator and admit that I might miss many reading pleasures by taking a hard line with innovators, geniuses, and comedians. While I do not ask every writer to be Kafka -- or Berkeley Breathed, either -- I want the success of their risky work to be the same success I feel as a risk-taking reader: less scratching, more art.