Writers often lament the fact that they are beset by distractions. Some will go to great lengths to isolate themselves, going on retreats or hiring an office or hiding out in a garden shed. The Crossed Out Notebook is a warning to be careful what you wish for.
Pablo is a struggling scriptwriter in Buenos Aires. He has been kidnapped by Santiago, a famous movie director, and forced to write screenplays for him in the basement of his rural home. Why? According to Pablo, it’s because directors think they can do it all, but they can’t. Santiago is a great director but a mediocre writer. He needs Pablo.
After five years, Pablo has adjusted to his incarceration and he and Santiago have formed a strict writing routine. They plan and discuss scenes each day for the movie they are working on, and then Pablo writes them when Santiago leaves. So far they have written two successful films like this. Santiago is determined that the next film will be the one that will win everything (which Pablo interprets as code for success in Hollywood).
In order to aid him, Pablo is given books, films and music. To keep himself from despairing when he thinks of his past life, and in particular his mother, he focuses intently on art. When he’s not writing he muses on a host of great (overwhelmingly male) authors, directors and musicians from Joyce to Borges to Fellini. He obsesses over the music of the Beatles. He describes his development as a writer. Despite his unhappiness and his concern for his family and friends, he can’t help draw pleasure from what he has achieved and this creates a terrible conflict in his relationship with Santiago.
The novel is supposedly the words he writes in a notebook, which he meticulously crosses out every morning, so that Santiago will not be able to read them. It is the one thing that is his, and is a stream of consciousness, free of the constraints of narrative form. In this way he brings to life the question of whether writers should be led by inspiration or structure, and the ideas popularised for cinema by Robert McKee in Story, who in turn draws on Aristotle’s Poetics. It is also his attempt to keep a sense of self, something apart from Santiago, in a situation where he only exists in the world in the words of a script bearing someone else’s name.
While the obvious parallel is with Stephen King’s Misery, a thriller about a reader imprisoned by an obsessive fan and forced to write the story she wants to read, there are also echoes of King’s memoir On Writing. In that, King describes, about as well as anyone can, the role of the unconscious in writing:
There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in.
Pablo is talking about the relationship between a screenwriter and a director, but perhaps he is also talking about the two sides of any creative person – the inventive, unconscious, inspired part, and the practical, organised, connected, project-managing part.
Despite the subject matter, The Crossed Out Notebook is not all darkness. There is some bleak humour in Pablo’s reflections, and in his battle of wills with Norma, the housekeeper who delivers his food. Pablo makes some smart observations on popular culture and the business of movie marketing, the intersection between art and entertainment. He uses rhythm and repetition to great effect and I can imagine in the original Spanish this would be even more effective. It is also interesting reading it in translation because some of his musings are on the effect of translation. As they write their Hollywood masterpiece in Spanish, before sending it to the translator, Pablo and Santiago reflect not just on the words but on how the concepts will translate.
The Crossed Out Notebook isn’t a crowd pleaser in the same way as Misery, which is a fascinating study of creativity and obsession, but which you can read as a cracking thriller and never give a thought to the underlying themes. This is a book about ideas, and it won’t chime with everyone. However, if you are interested in cinema or writing or the mysteries of the creative process, it’s an intriguing and satisfying read.
I received a copy of The Crossed Out Notebook from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Crossed Out Notebook on Goodreads
Enjoyed this? For another darkly fascinating literary take on a man trapped in a basement, take a look at my review of The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan