There’s something special about good novels. Words on a page propel you into a world that lives halfway between the writer’s imagination and your own.
Novels are different from other art forms. They’re much more compliant than films. For one thing they let you read them at your own pace which is different from everyone else’s. Nothing so democratic as a film that forces you all along at the same speed, willing or not. They are also perfectly happy to accommodate a break for food or sleep or a momentary distraction – a knock at the door, or that reassuring cup of tea as you get to the end of the chapter. They don’t mind at all even if you have, for a second or two, or a decade or more, put them down or lost your place. But they do like you to come back eventually.
Where they actually are, where it is that whatever is going on happens, is uncertain. They’re not out there like a picture or music. They are an external object, of course they are (at least when they sit on the bookshelf with their pages primly clasped together) but something changes after you’ve started reading and are becoming troubled by an ambiguous remark from that policeman or David Knight’s uncertain memory.
You see you have already contributed so much to get the world complete so that the characters can move round within it. Yes, there may have been a page or two of description of where and when we are and that telling detail that suggests so much. Yes, David has realized that the knife in the man’s back couldn’t have killed him. That’s clear enough.
But the thing is that you’ve had to colour in the rest. The thousand details a second that we see but don’t notice as we look down the street. All that is you. The novelist has determined the main strokes but on the other side every time the story happens, for each reader, it’s in a different universe. Not that you should feel any concern. More important to find out who has dumped the body in the garden.
And the good thing about the characters is that they’re always as you imagine them.
So don’t put out the lights just yet. They’re only a few pages to the ending and you’re torn between wanting to get there and the terrible knowledge that once you do the new world that stretched out across the unread pages will fade and that, as with everything, you will need to say goodbye.
You know it’s late and cold outside, but you pull the covers round you and turn the page. After all you have read novels before and you’ve come prepared. In the corner of your eye, on the table, there’s that other book, that other novel, that you’ve always wanted to read. You can start it in the morning. But first you must find out what happens next, in this one, here and now.