Oct 122016
 

Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe Muraille

capture

I have an essay in the new issue (July/August — just out though) of American Book Review. It’s called “The Literature of Extinction” and in something like 1,500 words covers the entire history of experimental literature to the present. One of the fascinating things about writing this essay was the insight I derived from Germán Sierra’s essay “Deep Media Fiction,” which we published here in the magazine in January. I keep going back and rereading that essay. It has driven a good deal of my current reading.

American Book Review is a print publication. You’ll have to buy a copy or find it in your library or download, if you can, from Muse. But here is a short passage.

dg

 

We see the world more clearly now (we think). It’s very small, dirty, crowded with people, and heating up. The Anthropocene is the new name given to the period of time (roughly beginning with the Neolithic) human beings have had a significant impact on the environment. Now we know there is no free lunch, and the hubris of our assumption that the earth was an infinite, free resource specially catered for us by the gods is beginning to look like a monumental gaffe.

Nor are we essentially different from the other orders of being (say, trees, rocks, newts); consciousness may be a neural anomaly, or as the A.I. researchers like to say, an emergent property, that is, a side effect of our neural interaction with whatever we are interacting with (just as the colour of an object is not a property of the object but a side effect of the wavelengths of light interacting with eye neurons). Not a self, a soul, a ghost in the machine, but a whisp of smoke, dream-like and temporary.

from Douglas Glover “The Literature of Extinction” American Book Review, Juy/August 2016.

Aug 052015
 
Gordon Lish photo by Bill Hayward

Gordon Lish photo by bill hayward

Tim Groenland has written a compendious and measured account of Gordon Lish’s editing practice (fascinating images of pages edited — Nabokov, for example) and influence, minus the Raymond Carver hysteria. The essay builds on some of the work we’ve published at NC, including Jason Lucarelli’s ground-breaking texts “The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence” and “Using Everything: Pattern Making in Gertrude Stein’s ‘Melanctha,’ Robert Walser’s ‘Nothing at All,’ and Sam Lipsyte’s ‘The Wrong Arm’” plus my own audio interview “Causing Damage — Captain Fiction Redivivus: DG Interview With Gordon Lish.” All are quoted in Groenland’s piece, putting NC at the front of the wave of new interest in Lishian studies.

dg

Here’s a teaser from the Groenland essay:

These studies make it clear that Lish was, in certain ways, “the minimalist in the machine” in Carver’s work (Churchwell n.p.) and it is clear that he applied similar techniques to the work of other young writers of the period: Lish was instrumental in the early careers of Barry Hannah and Mary Robison, for example, making him an essential figure in the development of what was variously known as “minimalism”, “Dirty Realism”, and “the new realism” (or, to use Mark McGurl’s recent formulation, “lower-middle-class modernism”) in the early 1980s (32). Michael Hemmingson has shown that Lish edited Barry Hannah’s fiction extensively throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s: he reports, for example, that the manuscript drafts for Hannah’s novel Ray (1980) are “a confusing, sloppy mess” and that Lish’s editing work here involved carefully rearranging sections into narrative coherence, much as Max Perkins did for Thomas Wolfe’s major novels (Hemmingson 490–491; Berg 119–130, 223–228). Lish performed line editing on photocopies of Hannah’s stories taken from the journals in which they had been printed, just as he did with Carver’s work: in several cases, the journal in question was Esquire, meaning that the editor often saw Hannah’s work through several iterations and could refine his vision of the stories in different stages. Hannah’s attitude to these changes was markedly different from Carver’s, and in a 2004 interview with the Paris Review he was unambiguous in his praise:

Gordon Lish was a genius editor. A deep friend and mentor. He taught me how to write short stories. He would cross out everything so there’d be like three lines left, and he would be right . . . This is your good stuff. This is the right rhythm. So I learned to write better short stories under him. (Hannah, “Art of Fiction 184”)

Read the entire essay @ Irish Journal of American Studies.

Jun 042015
 

NicoleChuNicole Chu

.

Ray Bradbury reminds us that the plot of a story is contingent upon characters chasing after their desires. “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations,” he says in Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. “It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic” (152). What makes the difference, then, between a mechanical plot and a dynamic one? Bradbury suggests that characters will write your story for you if you simply get out of the way and let them go. But I know my characters’ footprints reveal more than just a direct trail to their desires – by charting the plot steps of any story, I can discover what makes a plot dynamic.

I begin by looking up the definition of plot in J.A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory:

The plan, design, scheme or pattern of events in a play, poem or work of fiction; and, further, the organization of incident and character in such a way as to induce curiosity and suspense in the spectator or reader. In the space/continuum of plot the continual question operates in three senses: Why did that happen? Why is this happening? What is going to happen next – and why? (To which may be added: And – is anything going to happen?)

Cuddon defines plot as a pattern of events organized to arouse curiosity and suspense for the reader. He implies that the organization of incident and character must continually incite the reader’s interest; we are not just wondering what’s going to happen next, but we’re left wondering why these particular events are important to the characters and the story. He mentions E.M. Forester’s example of plot versus story to highlight the emphasis on causality: “‘The king died and the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot’” (Cuddon 676). Plot is not just the ordering of events but the ordering should be accompanied by the cause or motive of why an event occurs.

Cuddon’s definition also includes Aristotle’s ideas on plot. In Poetics, Aristotle sees plot as ‘the first principle’ and ‘soul of tragedy’ (Cuddon 676). Aristotle calls plot ‘an imitation of the action,’ as well as the arrangements of the incidents (I learned from Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook that ‘imitation of action’ is not a physical action but rather “an internal, psychological need.” In other words, we can discuss plot in terms of a character’s need or desire and the related incidents that occur). Aristotle requires the plot to be ‘whole’ (to have a beginning, middle, and end), and he also distinguishes between simple and complex plots: the complex has a crisis action that involves recognition and/or reversal, and the simple has neither (Cuddon 676). Aristotle’s ideal plot, therefore, ends with a moment of revelation to the protagonist that coincides with the protagonist’s sudden change of fortune.

aristotleAristotle

Douglas Glover further explains how dramatic narrative can be developed after the initial desire and resistance have been established. In Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, he states: “A character first acts on one impulse and then the other, goes forward, retreats, reels back, makes compromises with necessity, concedes a position out of politeness, ponders his own reactions, realizes that he prefers disorderly love to antiseptic order and changes his behavior” (Glover 26). Put simply, the short story form consists of a character going after something, being blocked from getting it, and changing his behavior to get it another way, and this sequence is repeated over and over. Glover emphasizes that this pattern of conflict must occur such that the opposing forces (A and B) “get together again and again and again” (three being the critical number or minimum). He notes that in the repetition of these poles conflicting, writers are “forced to vary the conflicts in a dramatic and interesting way and you are forced to go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and the relationships” (Glover 27). Glover argues form opens up more possibilities in that writers must create new material related to the same conflict.

In the following discussion on plot, I focus on the repetition or pattern of conflict. In three example short stories, I trace the pattern of character desire and resistance within a story. I am interested in how increasing pressures force characters to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict.” After I identify the pattern of conflict, I see how each story’s sequence of plot events build to a climax and forces characters to “go deeper” and eventually change significantly.

Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point” is about 13-year-old Kurt Pittman who, at his mother’s request, agrees to escort his mother’s friend, Mrs. Gurney, back to her home. Kurt is used to chaperoning drunk locals home, but he quickly realizes that Mrs. Gurney will be difficult. Before they can get across the playfield, she falls on her ass twice and begins to sift through the sand. Kurt finally gets her onto the boardwalk and, despite her protests, dumps her on a wagon to pull her. When he takes a break to breathe, she disappears further down the boardwalk, takes off her nylons, and runs towards the sea. When Kurt repeatedly tries to redirect them to get her home, Mrs. Gurney vomits over herself, babbles on about her age and beauty, threatens to commit suicide, and finally comes onto him by undressing herself, throwing both her blouse and bra into the wind. Kurt at first refuses to look, but he ends up looking at her aging body and expressionless eyes. She presses against him, and he must decide whether to take advantage of the situation or take her home. He decides to bring Mrs. Gurney to her house and tucks her into bed. When Kurt returns home, he can’t sleep and decides to read an old letter written by his father, a Vietnam veteran who has committed suicide. In the letter, the father describes being a medic during the Vietnam War, trying to save the wounded, including a 19-year-old soldier who eventually dies from an explosion. Kurt walks out to the playground, sits in a swing and recalls finding his own father’s body with a bullet wound in the head.

the point

“The Point” is approximately 7,700 words and is told in first-person from Kurt’s point of view. D’Ambrosio breaks up the story into five sections, using line breaks. The major conflict steps between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney (opposing forces A and B) take place in the second, third, and fourth sections. By major conflict, I mean the structure of desire and resistance: Kurt’s desire to bring Mrs. Gurney home and Mrs. Gurney’s resistance to this desire. The first four sections are chronological, moving forward from the party to Mrs. Gurney’s house in about an hour. D’Ambrosio ends the last section with a scene outside of the main plot, a scene that shows Kurt reading his father’s letter and remembering his father’s suicide (thus it is backfill, not plot).

The conflict really begins at the opening of section two when Kurt attempts to walk Mrs. Gurney across the playing field, and Mrs. Gurney plops herself down in the sand, “nesting there as if she were going to lay an egg” (7). She takes off her sandals and tosses them behind her, which prompts Kurt to fetch them. This is Mrs. Gurney’s first action to derail Kurt from his goal. He responds by reiterating his goal (the plot desire): “The problem now is how to get you home.” As if Kurt’s goal isn’t already clear, he thinks to himself, “I’ve found that if you stray too far from the simple goal of getting home and going to sleep you let yourself in for a lot of unnecessary hell.” They start walking again and take “baby steps” across the playing field before Mrs. Gurney falls back “on her ass into the sand” again – another hitch that prevents Kurt from reaching his goal (10).

Once on the boardwalk, Kurt decides to bring Mrs. Gurney home another way: drag the drunkard in a wooden wagon. Despite Mrs. Gurney’s protesting, he somehow gets her into the wagon and starts pulling. When Kurt pauses for a break, he finds “Mrs. Gurney was gone” (11). She slips down the boardwalk, farther from her home, and tries to engage him in drunk talk about Mr. Crutchfield, another local who died earlier that summer. This is Mrs. Gurney’s second major resistance against Kurt’s attempt to bring her home; she no longer sits in the sand but makes it more difficult for Kurt by fleeing the scene.

In section three, Kurt repeats his desire to get Mrs. Gurney home four different times in the span of four pages. The first time is after she pulls her nylons off and he runs and fetches them. He says, “We’re not too far now, Mrs. Gurney. We’ll have you home in no time” (14). She then vomits between her legs, he consoles her with a cigarette, and he again repeats, “We just have to get you home” (15). When she asks him to guess her age, he reminds her, “You’re going home, Mrs. Gurney. Hang tough” (16). When she continues with her drunk talk of how bad life can get, he says, “We need to get you home, Mrs. Gurney … that’s my only concern” (17). In Mrs. Gurney’s four separate attempts to derail Kurt from his goal, he responds with four clear affirmations of his desire.

In section four, Mrs. Gurney poses the most resistance by trying to seduce Kurt. At the beginning of the section, Mrs. Gurney lies down in the sand and takes off her blouse and bra. Kurt looks away and tells her they should go. When she tries to get him to sit, he thinks: “I’d let us stray from the goal and now it was nowhere in sight. I had to steer this thing back on course, or we’d end up talking about God” (19). He says to Mrs. Gurney, “This isn’t good. We’re going home,” once again repeating his goal (for the sixth time, not counting the times he thinks it). He also mentions he can see the house, observes it’s only “one hundred yards away,” and that they’re “so close now” (19-20). Mrs. Gurney, however, tries to engage him in conversation again by offering her house to him after she dies, threatening she’ll kill herself, and babbling about how she met her husband – all her ways of resisting going home.

When none of Mrs. Gurney’s attempts seem to faze Kurt, she tries to seduce him. Mrs. Gurney steps closer and leans in – he resists by saying, “Mrs. Gurney, let’s go home now” (his seventh time). He looks into her “glassy and dark and expressionless” eyes, and he then feels her hand brush the “front of his trunks” (23). He wonders whether he should go “fuck around” and “get away with it.” In the climactic moment, he chooses to resist Mrs. Gurney and hands her his t-shirt to cover up. They move away from the shore and cross the boardwalk to Mrs. Gurney’s home. The plot ends when Kurt leads Mrs. Gurney by the elbow into her house.

Kurt comments at the beginning of his journey that “everything … had a shadow and this deepened the world, made it seem thicker, with layers, and more layers and then a darkness into which I couldn’t see” (9). I had a similar experience of seeing layers and more layers of this story after I separated the plot from the rest of the story. The repetition of the same desire and resistance makes up the main conflict: Kurt wants to take Mrs. Gurney home, but she does not want to go home. Kurt repeating his simple desire versus Mrs. Gurney’s increasing resistance drives the story forward – there’s nothing unclear about what he wants (since he says it seven times). The protagonist doesn’t hint at or suggest his desire –Kurt uses the phrase “I want…” to make the reader aware of his concrete desire.

Glover states that the repetition of the same desire and resistance forces writers “to vary the conflicts in a dramatic and interesting way … [writers] are forced to go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and the relationships.” Kurt’s desire to take Mrs. Gurney home may seem humdrum or routine at first – he doesn’t have any stake in his relationship with Mrs. Gurney since he’s just doing his job. The tension rises with Mrs. Gurney’s increasing resistance: she first falls over, then wanders away, then takes off her nylons, and starts to babble nonsense. But her dialogue in the third section begins to take on an ominous tone: a threat to kill herself is more loaded than her previous statement of how bad life can get. Notice how the tension increases in the following dialogue right before the climax:

“I’m thirsty,” Mrs. Gurney said. “I’m so homesick.”

“We’re close now,” I said.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “You don’t know what I mean.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “Please put your shirt on, Mrs. Gurney.”

“I’ll kill myself, “Mrs. Gurney said. “I’ll go home and kill myself.”

“That won’t get you anywhere … You’d be dead … then you’d be forgotten.”

“My boys wouldn’t forget” (21).

This dialogue serves two functions: 1) The back-and-forth between opposing forces A and B creates the suspense that plot should incite (according to Cuddon’s definition), and 2) The content of the dialogue foreshadows Kurt’s flashback at the end of the story since Kurt did not have any forewarning of his father’s suicide, and he could never forget the bloody and emotional mess.

These previous plot steps build to the climactic moment in which D’Ambrosio must escalate Mrs. Gurney’s resistance dramatically: the drunk woman takes off her bra and tries to seduce Kurt. Her actions force Kurt to “go deeper” into himself and reveal what Glover calls the “moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and relationship”– on the surface, Kurt must decide whether to stick to his goal of getting Mrs. Gurney home or give in to her seduction. On a deeper level, the adolescent questions his beliefs by asking himself, “What is out there that indicates the right way?” (23). In a later flashback, Kurt mentions he misses “having [his father] around to tell [him] what’s right and what’s wrong, or talk about boom-boom, which is sex … and not worry about things” (31). Kurt finally expresses his emotional need for his father after the plot ends, but the main plot between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney allows us to see how his internal conflict plays out in their actions.

The main conflict between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney only takes up three of five sections. D’Ambrosio could have ended the story after section four when Kurt gets Mrs. Gurney home, but the author ends with the backstory of Kurt’s father – specifically, the ending focuses on the father’s mission as a medic during the Vietnam War and his suicide. The father’s story ties in with Kurt’s story because they both have a “mission” to carry out: the father helped the wounded in Vietnam, and Kurt helps the drunk (and wounded) in his hometown. Kurt considers himself a “hard-core veteran” ever since his father assigned him the job when he was 10 years old (5). Both Kurt and his father mention the “job” and what happens when you “lose sight” of the job or “stray too much from the goal” (28). D’Ambrosio includes the backstory of Kurt’s father to resonate with the main plot structure: Kurt’s “mission” to escort Mrs. Gurney home.

By extracting the plot from the rest of the story, I notice what is left on the page: the subplot of Mr. Crutchfield’s death, the root image of the black hole that splinters into white image patterns, Kurt’s internal monologue expressing thematic motifs, and the backstory of Kurt’s father’s suicide. I mention these non-plot devices to point out that if I hadn’t previously traced the plot beforehand, I would have naïvely assumed that the father’s story or Kurt’s flashback to his father’s suicide were all part of the main plot instead of devices that enhance the plot. In many stories, ancillary devices can echo the structure of the main plot, which, in this story, deepen the meaning of the protagonist’s desire to get his job done. “The Point” portrays character desire and resistance mostly through dialogue and action, but the next story shows how another writer captures the main plot in internal monologue.

In “Under the Surface” by Slovene writer Mojca Kumerdej, the narrator is a woman who desires to be alone with her lover and have him all to herself. When she sees an attractive woman flirting with him, she gets pregnant in hopes to keep him forever. She gives birth to a daughter, but the new daughter seems to steal her lover’s attention. The little girl interrupts their Sunday mornings in bed, and on the narrator’s birthday, they celebrate as a whole family – not romantically and privately. One day on vacation, the narrator goes to up to the house while her lover and daughter remain by the shore. She watches her lover napping in the sun while the daughter gets dragged out into the ocean. She lets her daughter drown, drinks brandy, and falls asleep on the bed. Her friend wakes her up and tells her the news. The narrator reflects that she may have let her daughter die, but the narrator now has her lover all to herself.

The story is 3,000 words and is written as an interior monologue mixed in with dramatic monologue. A retrospective narrator reveals to the reader her secret that she withholds from her lover, but Kumerdej uses the second person “you” to direct the monologue at the narrator’s lover. This story covers the span of more than eight years (pre-baby years, five years with child, and three years after the child’s death). Kumerdej also uses a conventional circular structure to the story: the beginning of the story is also the end of the story that takes place three years after the narrator’s daughter drowned. The rest of the story is told chronologically and focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her lover and daughter.

The plot, the pattern of desire and resistance, is created from the narrator’s desire to be alone with her lover and the apparent threats that the narrator sees as a danger to her relationship. I say “apparent” threats because we only see the story from the narrator’s perspective (from an outsider’s perspective, she needs professional help to separate her delusions from reality). The pattern of conflict plays out in the following steps: 1) the narrator has a baby to gain her lover’s attention, but the little girl cries and steals the spotlight, 2) the narrator wants to sleep in with her lover on Sunday mornings, but the little girl physically gets in the bed, 3) the narrator wants to be alone with her lover on her birthday, but the lover wants the whole family together, and 4) the narrator wants to be alone with her lover in the future so she lets her daughter drown.

The set-up of the conflict starts when the narrator sees another woman flirting with her lover by “calculatedly moving around [him] … and “licking her lower lip” (7). The narrator never thought to have a baby – what two people in a relationship who love each other usually do – until now. The real action starts in paragraph two when the narrator announces she “had to take action” and get pregnant (7).

But when the baby comes, the narrator notices that the child doesn’t solidify their love but instead comes between them. The narrator observes that the lover first kisses and plays with their child, leaving the narrator to “wait [her] turn” (8). Even at night when the narrator is woken up by the daughter’s “piercing screams,” the lover rarely gets up to spend time with the narrator. The narrator becomes so angry that she slaps the child, which in turn angers the lover. She considers her baby competition, which drives the couple further apart thus propelling the plot forward.

In the next plot step, the narrator describes again how the daughter intrudes on her alone time with her lover. On Sundays, which were usually reserved for sleeping in, the little girl would run into the room and jump on the bed to hug her father. The narrator thinks: “Our time was becoming more and more the little one’s time, she was the one giving rhythm to our mornings and nights. You didn’t want us, as I suggested once, to lock ourselves in” (10). When the narrator tries to regain alone time with her lover, the lover responds, “That isn’t good … she needs us.” This prompts the narrator to ask, “But what about us?” The narrator feels reproached by him and looks “towards the door in fear … wishing not to hear the tiny footsteps coming towards our bedroom” (10).

In a third plot step, on the occasion of the narrator’s birthday, the narrator suggests to her lover that she wants to celebrate her birthday differently, just “the two of us together” (11). She suggests that they drop the girl off with his parents, but the lover opposes the suggestion “both times.” The narrator assumes he prefers to be with the “whole family,” and he acts as if his parents would be insulted if they didn’t invite them. Each time the narrator tries to be alone with her lover, she feels her lover straying further away.

The last five pages of the nine page story focuses on how the narrator finally gets her lover all to herself: by letting her daughter drown in the ocean and allowing the lover to take the blame. She watches her daughter chase after an inflatable dolphin and get dragged out to sea. The narrator knows she could alert her lover by screaming, but at that moment she “saw a chance for things to be the way they used to be. Me and you, the two of us alone …” (13). The plot ends when the daughter’s body is “sucked into the depths” (13). In this moment, the narrator achieves her goal at the expense of a dead daughter and a guilty conscience that she suppresses by taking showers.

Kumerdej-foto Joze SuhadolnikMojca Kumerdej

When I met Mojca Kumerdej in Slovenia this past summer, she mentioned that her readers – regardless of what country they’re from – want to argue about the mother’s actions in “Under the Surface.” Kumerdej said many readers attack the narrator because they think the narrator’s actions are highly unbelievable – “no mother would ever do that!” they claim. I would argue that the narrator’s obsessive desire partially explains her psychotic actions (or rather lack of action to save her daughter). A closer look at the plot, however, shows a carefully crafted sequence of events that makes the narrator’s actions seem justified in her own mind.

Unlike “The Point,” Kumerdej’s chosen point-of-view brings us into the mind of the narrator, in which we are only presented with her perspective. Plot is not entirely made up of scene as it is in “The Point” where D’Ambrosio uses dialogue and actions to express desire and resistance. Instead the narrator in “Under the Surface,” in a stream-of-consciousness-like confession, proves how far she will go to be alone with her lover. At first glance, the story appears to be a long rambling about the narrator’s undying devotion to her lover (she says she loves him five different times in the span of the story). But the story still includes a clear desire and resistance pattern; the narrator articulates immediate obstacles that become clear plot steps creating tension in the story. The baby arrives, cries and steals attention, grows up and physically and emotionally gets in the way of the narrator’s relationship with her lover. In these plot steps, Kumderdej builds to a crisis action that forces the narrator to commit the unthinkable. The only “logical” action in the narrator’s mind is to permanently get rid of her daughter – as soon as the narrator has the opportunity, she lets her child drown in order to have her lover all to herself.

The narrator’s internal monologue at critical points in the story adds even more tension to the main plot. Kumerdej creates a pattern in which every other paragraph leading to the climax ends with the narrator’s intense desire for her lover and the sacrifices she made:

When for the first time you put your hand on my stomach I knew I had you, and that’s when I decided to have you forever, wholly and completely, without intermediary, disturbing elements that could jeopardize our love (second paragraph).

But no woman in the world is capable of loving you as much as I do, no woman in this world would be capable of doing what I did … (fourth paragraph).

And precisely that is what I did for you, and once in my life took away what meant the most to me … (sixth paragraph).

These lines are not directly part of the main plot structure, but the narrator’s repeated thoughts emphasize her fixated desire. The narrator justifies killing her daughter as a form of her devotion and love. To clarify, the opposing forces aren’t the narrator and her daughter but rather the narrator’s desire to be with her lover (A) versus the narrator’s apparent threats in her mind preventing her from having her lover all to herself (B), which repeat in four distinct steps.

In the climactic scene of “The Point,” the plot steps lead up to a moment that forces Kurt to take action: he ultimately chooses to rebuff Mrs. Gurney’s romantic offering and takes her home. In “Under the Surface,” the plot steps lead to a climax in which the narrator chooses not to take action and leaves her daughter to drown: “I didn’t do anything – and by doing so did everything” (7). Similarly in both of these climactic scenes, each character wrestles internally, even if briefly; both D’Ambrosio and Kumerdej include the characters’ internal thoughts that allow us to see how the pressure forces them to change (or not). Kumerdej writes: “At that moment, I saw a chance for things the way they used to be. Me and you, the two of us alone … I was watching the scene, and it seems to me I didn’t feel anything. No pain, no kind of fear, I was only watching what I thought as things happened” (13). Interestingly the narrator doesn’t “feel anything” in this moment but expresses her emotional transformation after the plot ends.

After the narrator has her lover to herself, Kumerdej includes five short paragraphs that reveal the narrator’s change of emotions. The narrator still desires her lover, but she’s also haunted by the image of her drowning daughter dragging her “into the depths.” The narrator feels isolated because her lover will never know the truth, and she wakes up in “terrifying pain” from guilt-ridden nightmares (14-15). Both D’Ambrosio and Kumerdej could have ended their stories when the plot ended, but they chose to include backstory and internal monologue that illustrate how their characters transform after the crisis action occurs. In one last story, we see again how the sequence of plot events builds to a climax that significantly changes the characters, especially in regards to their emotional and mental state.

Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” is a novella about fourteen-year-old Eréndira who survives her grandmother’s cruelty and, with the help of a young man, becomes free. The story begins in the grandmother’s ornate mansion where Eréndira exhaustedly completes her endless chores. When she falls asleep, the wind knocks over a candlestick she left burning and destroys the property and the grandmother’s possessions. The grandmother decides to prostitute the girl so she can pay off an impossible million-peso debt she has incurred by causing the fire. During her servitude, after countless encounters with men and paying customers, Eréndira meets a young man Ulises who falls in love with her. Among other adventures, a group of missionaries kidnaps Eréndira to protect her, but the grandmother pays an Indian boy to marry Eréndira and free her from the mission. Having fallen in love, Ulises disappears from the story for a while but inevitably returns to run away with Eréndira, but they don’t get far; the grandmother captures Eréndira and chains her to a bed to prevent a future escape. Eréndira entertains the thought of killing her grandmother with boiling hot water but has no confidence in her ability to kill her oppressor. Ulisses returns, and she begs him to murder her grandmother. After two failed attempts with rat poison and a bomb, Ulises slaughters the grandmother with a knife, and the old woman finally dies. Instead of turning to Ulises, Eréndira runs in the direction of the wind and is never heard from again.

The novella is approximately 16,200 words and is divided into seven sections with line breaks. Márquez uses a third-person omniscient narrator with the exception of a two-page transition to a first-person narrator who tells his personal account of seeing Eréndira and her grandmother with his own eyes. Unlike “The Point” and “Under the Surface,” we get to see, from a limited distance, the perspective of multiple characters. Márquez tells the story chronologically (Eréndira is 14 at the beginning and 20 by the end), and his use of the techniques of magic realism creates a fable-like quality. The story also carries the “wind of misfortune” motif that governs Eréndira’s actions– first it blows at Eréndira and causes the fire, then the wind brings along the missionaries and also incites her to run away, and, in the end, she runs into the wind and beyond it.

The main plot takes up only a small portion of the entire text and concentrates on Ulises’s and the grandmother’s conflict over Eréndira. Ulises falls in love with Eréndira, but the grandmother prevents him from being with her. The following plot steps occur between Ulises (A) and the grandmother (B): 1) Ulises wants to sleep with Eréndira, but the grandmother denies him entry into the tent so he sneaks in and sleeps with the girl anyway, 2) Ulises falls in love and convinces Eréndira to run away, but the grandmother captures Eréndira and dog-chains her to a bed, and 3) Eréndira magically summons Ulises, and he attempts to rescue her by killing off the grandmother (third time’s the charm). With the grandmother dead, however, Ulises doesn’t end up with Eréndira since she runs into the wind and disappears forever.

Marquez portraitGabriel García Márquez

Márquez delays the main plot, the pattern of desire and resistance, until the third section of the story. The grandmother’s unrelenting abuse of Eréndira seems like a one-sided conflict until Ulises, the son of a Dutch farmer and Indian woman, poses a threat to the grandmother’s scheming. In the first plot step, Ulises lines up with the other soldiers to sleep with Eréndira, but the grandmother prevents him from seeing her: “No, son … you couldn’t go in for all the gold in the world. You bring bad luck” (298). He later sneaks into the tent and manages to sleep with Eréndira while the grandmother talks in her sleep. Eréndira loves Ulises “so much and so truthfully” – their connection solidifies the continuation of the main conflict. The two lovers are separated after this point since the missionaries kidnap Eréndira in order to protect her.

In the second plot step, Ulises’s mother notices he’s “lovesick,” and he sets off to trek across the desert and reunite with Eréndira. When Ulises finds Eréndira sleeping with her eyes open, he tries to convince her to run away by tempting her with his father’s homegrown diamonds, a pickup truck, and a pistol. He tells her, “We can take a trip around the world.” Eréndira says, “I can’t leave without [my] grandmother’s permission,” but that night her instinct for freedom leads her to flee with him (316). Their romance is short-lived; the grandmother initiates a car chase to get her granddaughter back. The grandmother then dog-chains Eréndira to the bed slat so the girl can no longer escape (325).

Ulises doesn’t reappear until six pages later when Eréndira calls out Ulises’s name “with all the strength of her inner voice.” This time, Ulises crosses the desert and instinctively (or magically) knows where to find her. While the grandmother sleeps, Ulises kisses Eréndira in the dark and they both hold “a hidden happiness that was more than ever like love” (329). After sobbing in her pillow, Eréndira asks him to kill her grandmother, and he says for her he’d “be capable of anything.” This reunion sets Ulises up to encounter the grandmother for a final time.

In the last major plot step, Ulises and the grandmother meet face to face, and he attempts to kill her on three separate occasions. First, Ulises lies to the grandmother and says he’s come to apologize on her birthday. The grandmother concedes and devours his cake that’s secretly baked with a pound of rat poison. Instead of dying, the old whale sings until midnight and “went to bed happy” (332). Next, Ulises tries to blow up the grandmother with a homemade bomb, and the woman was left with her wig singed and her nightshirt in tatters “but more alive than ever” (334). In Ulises’s last attempt, he grabs a knife and stabs the grandmother’s chest, her side, and a third time for good measure, but she doesn’t go quickly and yells, “Son of a bitch … I discovered too late that you have the face of a traitor angel.” Covered in the grandmother’s green blood from head to toe, Ulises manages to cut open her belly, avoids her lifeless arms, and gives “the vast fallen body a final thrust” (336). The plot ends when the grandmother finally dies, but Ulises doesn’t end up with his love since Eréndira runs into the wind never to be heard from again.

As I mentioned earlier, Glover states that plot is a repeating desire-resistance pattern between two poles A and B. Readers may at first confuse the grandmother’s abuse and sexual exploitation of her granddaughter as the main plot. It’s not. Márquez begins “Innocent Eréndira” with a lengthy dramatic set-up that isn’t part of the main plot structure: a meek, soft-boned girl cannot escape her grandmother’s horrible exploitation. In the narrative set-up, Márquez keeps our interest by pushing the limits of the grandmother’s brutality: she negotiates Eréndira’s virginity for 220 pesos, she orchestrates a bazaar – complete with musicians, a photographer, and a circus tent – to attract hundreds of solicitors, and not until Eréndira shrieks like a frightened animal and thinks she’s dying does the grandmother give her a break. Eréndira doesn’t fight back and consequently doesn’t pose a formidable resistance to her grandmother. Márquez can only sustain readers’ interest for so long (before they ask, “will anything else happen?”) and introduces Ulises in the third section as the real resistance to the grandmother.

Once Márquez establishes the two opposing forces in conflict, he increases the pressure and varies the conflict in an interesting way (he also interrupts the plot steps to reinforce the grandmother’s malevolent behavior and the granddaughter’s helplessness to escape). Notice that in the first two plot steps, Ulises tiptoes and sneaks behind the grandmother’s back in order to physically interact with Eréndira. In these scenes, Ulises doesn’t face any real confrontation with the grandmother other than their first brief encounter, but the old woman and her command over Eréndira still pose a threat. Márquez intensifies the pressure when Ulises comes into direct physical contact with the grandmother; the boy quickly fabricates a story in order to save himself and carry out the grandmother’s murder. This confrontation forces Ulises to take greater risks: he poisons her, fails, blows her up and fails again. Ulises’s actions follow Glover’s definition of plot when the character “first acts on one impulse and then the other, goes forward, retreats … realizes that he prefers disorderly love to antiseptic order and changes his behavior.” Only when Ulises notices Eréndira’s “fixed expression of absolute disdain, as if he [doesn’t] exist,” does he finally carry out the murder. In this climactic moment, Ulises has the choice to either kill the grandmother in order to win Eréndira’s love or he can retreat – he, of course, chooses “disorderly love” over “antiseptic order” and kills for love.

Just like “The Point” and “Under the Surface,” the plot ends with the crisis action, and the author includes the transformation of characters in the aftermath of the climax. In a final scene, Márquez describes Eréndira watching with “criminal impassivity” the final fight between Ulises and the grandmother. In fact, the girl embodies “criminal impassivity” throughout the entire story. Not until after the grandmother dies does Eréndira suddenly “acquire the maturity of a [20-year-old]” and escapes into the wind where “no voice in this world could stop her.” Eréndira’s bold action is the exact opposite of the once cowering, servile girl who couldn’t live on her own freewill. Ulises, on the other hand, suffers greatly after he kills the grandmother. The crisis action leaves him “lying face down … weeping from solitude and fear” since he has just lost the love of his life and is “drained from having killed a woman without anybody’s help” (337). Márquez deliberately arranges the plot steps to finally reveal the emotional and dramatic reversal and recognition that the characters experience.

Márquez’s novella reads like a fairytale because of his use of magic realism (not to mention the similar overtones to the Cinderella story-line: note the use of threes – three plot steps, three murder attempts, very much like a fairytale). In particular, Márquez utilizes magic realism to bring characters back together “again and again and again” in order to continue the main plot. For instance, when Ulises falls in love, every glass object he touches turns blue; Ulises then runs to find Eréndira and tempts her with his father’s magical oranges that contain “genuine diamonds.” Ulises also reunites with Eréndira for a third time when she summons him by calling out his name; in his plantation house, he hears her voice “so clearly” that he knows exactly where to find her. In a last example, Márquez uses magical realism to prolong, rather humorously, the conflict between Ulises and the grandmother. Instead of the grandmother dying after Ulises’s first (or second) murder attempt thereby ending the plot, the old woman lives on to croon her songs and babble in her sleep. Ulises even knifes her open and gets splattered with her green blood, but she’s not yet dead. Although Márquez seems to randomly pepper magical realism throughout the story, he strategically uses the technique to reunite characters and advance the plot. These moments defy our expectations and incite the very suspense and curiosities that plot should stimulate. Márquez’s story exemplifies how imaginative qualities, engaging characters, the combination of horror and humor, and a narrative set-up can coexist with the main plot structure so long as it sustains the reader’s interest.

The example stories I analyze may follow the same form or pattern, but the writers construct the plot in three distinct ways. In “The Point,” the plot is straightforward – Kurt and Mrs. Gurney battle it out until Kurt overcomes her resistance. The unreliable narrator in “Under the Surface” muddles the plot steps in her internal monologue, but she still articulates her desire and competition. In “Innocent Eréndira,” the plot is delayed for nearly a third of the story and yet still manages to mold into the same structure in the end. Plot, however, is not the same mechanical formula applied to every story – plot is a dynamic form that we identify as a pattern of desire and resistance between two opposing forces, but infinitely varied by each writer.

These stories were also originally written in different languages (English, Slovene, and Spanish, respectively), which suggests that in any culture (and time period), plot translates to the same pattern. Why do stories follow this particular pattern of desire and resistance? If plot is to “induce curiosity and suspense” in the reader, writers must invent new ways for characters to pursue their desires, charge through increasing resistance, and come out of a crisis action significantly transformed. No matter what the native language or nationality is of a reader, he or she will inherently invest in characters who chase after their desires, fail, get up and try again. We root for characters who, in our minds, allow us to imagine what it is like to step into their skin and travel to “incredible destinations.”

— Nicole Chu

Works Cited

Ambrosio, Charles. “The Point.” The Point and Other Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. Print.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.

Cuddon, J. A., and Claire Preston. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 4th ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

García Márquez, Gabriel. “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother.” Collected Stories. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Print.

Glover, Douglas H.. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing. Emeryville, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2012. Print.

Kumerdej, Mojca, and Laura Turk. “Under the Surface.” Short Stories Collection:

Fragma. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books, 2008. 7-15. Print.

.

Nicole Chu is about to receive her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is originally from California and currently lives in New York City, where she teaches English Language Arts at a public school in the Upper West Side.

.

Mar 082015
 

Ellena SavagePhoto via ellenasavage.com

Here’s a teaser from an essay on, yes, the personal essay by a delightful Australian writer and editor Ellena Savage, an essay that takes a critical theory view of the position of the personal essay as it is structured within the culture, a step back, as it were, from the usual shallow debates about “truth” and self expression, etc. that cloud the current N. American workshoppy atmosphere. The essay originally appeared in the magazine The Lifted Brow and now resides on Savage’s own site where you will find many other delightful texts.

We acknowledge the personal essay as an ideologically conflicted genre; that as genre, it necessarily deals in the ideograms of dominant culture; and that the genre, born of Enlightenment conditions, is interested in the maintenance of democracy and the valorisation of the individual. The personal essay is an attempt to transpose personal histories over collective ones.

This conflict we speak of arises from the historically instructive nature of the personal essay; that while valorising the individual, is culturally embedded in what Frederic Jameson names the linguistic representation of the dialectical process. It is a catalogue of a collective identity. To understand the personal essay, we are forced to read it within its cultural history.

via The Architecture of Me: Ideology and the Personal Essay | Ellena Savage.

Feb 252015
 

George Szirtes is a prolific poet and translator, a prize-winning poet, also a wit and a deft hand at Twitter. Born in Hungary, he moved to England in 1956, after the uprising in Budapest (probably not something many of you remember, though when I was growing up and going to university in Canada, I knew several Hungarians in diaspora dating from 1956).

We have some of his poems coming in the April issue, a truly special event. But I wanted to whet your appetites and also display this lovely essay he published in Poetry. It’s a defense of rhyme, an apologia for form, not a rant, not a call to arms, but a gentle and passionate reminder of the beauty of traditional rhythms and the human touch. Very smart, and applies to more than just poetry, if you extrapolate.

Rhyme can be unexpected salvation, the paper nurse that somehow, against all the odds, helps us stick the world together while all the time drawing attention to its own fabricated nature. Knowing that rhyme might become part of the field of poetic expectation, we strive to make its arrival as unexpected and therefore as angelic as possible, and, in so doing, we discover more than we knew. Rhyme can be an aid to invention rather than a bar to it. It is an aid because it forces us into corners where we have to act and take the best available course out. In the process of seeking it, we bump up against possibilities we would not have chosen were we in control of the process.

via Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza & Pattern by George Szirtes.

Jan 132015
 

four_weddings_and_a_funeral-362264622-large

I used to teach this movie over and over to creative writing classes. First of all, it enchanted me, then I began to notice the structure, the repetitions, the mirrored scenes, the composition of the scenes, the rhetorical flourishes, and finally I began to think about so-called realism and the romantic comedy. The romantic comedy, a genre I adore, is a deeply conservative confection, a bon-bon based on the idea that out of all the people in the world, there is one true love for you, a person with whom you’ll form a mystical attachment and have many babies and people the earth (these kinds of dramas have their roots in ancient fertility rites, which existed long before we realized that lots of people only meant pillaging the countryside and causing global warming). Nevertheless, they appeal to us because deep down we’re programed to believe that somehow our sexual instincts, love and society will/should converge and create many years of happiness (and babies). This movie is just full of weddings, not just the four in the narrative, but the funeral itself is coded with wedding thematics, and then there are a bunch of after-plot wedding photos at the end.

In any case, what you have here is my teaching outline for taking people through the movie. I am an incredibly tedious person when I have the AV remote in my hand. I describe things, let you watch a few seconds, replay it again and again, whole scenes are repeated, then I explain again and digress and so on and so on. But invariably you begin to see that though this seems (aside from the fantasy aspects of the genre) a fairly  realistic treatment of a bunch of young friends looking for love, the movie is actually a carefully constructed artifice, every word, action, and scene carved to contribute to  the larger work. And the writing is superbly witty (and full of classical Greek rhetorical devices). The screenwriter was Richard Curtis, who also did Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually (which repeats the ensemble cast/multiple plot structure of Four Weddings and a Funeral).

If you watch the movie with the notes in hand and use them to trigger a deeper technical analysis of what is going on, then watch it again and again, till you can really FEEL the repetitions, catch the nuances and tie-backs, see the thematic passages inserted, watch the multiple plots each advance step-by-step, if you pay attention, you’ll learn a good deal about the structure of narrative. Or you can read through the notes and watch the example scenes first.

For as long as it’s available, you can stream the entire movie here for free.

.

Genre: Romantic comedy (true love); ensemble structure with multiple subplots. A fanciful, socially conservative genre, much like the ancient tales told around campfires in caves that educated the audience in the ultimate mores of the tribe. Get married, have children. An ancient, conventional genre, the art is in manipulating the conventions in a witty and original manner.

.

Basic composition principles:

1) Repetition is the heart of art. Watch for repetition of all kinds: large structural repetitions, subplots, thematic passages, bookends, motifs, anaphora, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, tie-backs, simple word repetitions. Distinguish also between repetitions that work to organize the whole work and those that are used to organize smaller segments only. Note also how repetitions are varied to keep them fresh. Note the repetitions of “meringue” and “lovely” and “sheep,” e.g.

2) Strict time control. In this case by using invitations, text time markers, and the clock (lateness) comic motif throughout.

3) Plots are organized into clear, simple steps.

4) Each step, event, or event sequence has a simple informing desire and some dramatic interference. The informing desire varies and can be quite simple. E.g. In the the movie’s third segment, Charlie must simply not be late meeting David. Many small dialogue scenes begin with a simple question. The interference can take many forms as well: not-answering dialogue, scene crunches or interfering scenes, speech impediments (in this movie), suspensions, nested scenes (a version of parenthesis, or what I call in a different jargon nested globs), intercut scenes. Often the desire/interference structure can be expressed grammatically as a but-construction.

5) Clear announcement of thematic material. In a movie, this has to take place in dialogue.

.

1.      Overture: Music closing with the words “when every happy plot ends with a marriage knot.”

.

2.    Wedding #1 (Broken up into segments: waking up and getting to wedding, wedding, reception, post-reception. Each segment then broken up into separate steps and scenes.)

a.    alarm clock motif (note how it repeats and varies throughout; call it a species of anaphora)

(1)    Note how the lateness+alarm clock anaphora is used in a series of parallel structures to introduce the various characters economically

b.    wedding invitation+time switch device (time control)

c.    lateness motif

Lovely dialogue: The only words used are “fuck” and “bugger” (only once at the end).

d.    wedding ceremony (ring issue; meringue word repetition starts up)

(1)    The chief technical problem here is that weddings are all the same. The writer had to invent technical ways of creating dramatic interest in each wedding ceremony. Obviously, the ceremonies are all cut down one way or another. But also note the different other devices that make the weddings interesting. In this case, the device of the scene crunch: while the ceremony is going on, Charlie also has to find replacement rings.

e.    wedding photo motif

f.    walking to reception (Gareth/Mathew thematic scene structure established)

(1)    Secondary subplot (Bernard and Lydia) starts up and goes through preliminary steps, leads to second wedding

(2)    David’s romantic subplot starts up

g.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE MEETS CAREY

h.    bookend devices: Hen’s brother and the demented old man

i.    speech motif (Charlie; sheep word and image repetition begins; note suspension in speech)

Speech rhetoric:

Charlie begins with a joke narrative, leads to a suspension (“there are now skeletons…or so I thought”), followed by a moment of truth-telling about himself and his awe of people who get married, then the suspension ends: “But now back to Angus and those sheep.”

j.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE AND CAREY IN BED BUT SHE LEAVES NEXT DAY (Note word play in sex scene, esp. the repetition of “skulk”.)

Sex scenes: difficult to write; three different strategies offered in this movie.

1) word play over sex scene, e.g. skulking;

2) scene crunch (Charlie trying to be alone while Lydia and Bernard have sex);

3) elided.

.

3.    Wedding #2 (Broken up into: waking up and getting to wedding, wedding, reception, post-reception)

a.    alarm clock

b.    wedding invitation+ time switch

(1)    Bernard and Lydia subplot advances

c.    lateness

d.    wedding ceremony (mispronunciation gaffes)

e.    wedding photos

f.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE SEES CAREY BUT SHE’S ENGAGED

g.    speech (Tom’s travesty of Charlie’s speech)

(1)    Fiona’s subplot (dialogue scene)

(2)    Scarlet’s subplot (dialogue scene)

(3)    David’s subplot advances (meets love interest)

h.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE AND CAREY IN BED AGAIN

.

4.    Non-Wedding Interlude Segment (Broken up into: waking up, wedding dresses, list of lovers, conversation with David, Charlie’s near declaration of love.)

(1)    Note here how the wedding motifs are dragged into a non-wedding segment: invitation, wedding gifts, trying on wedding dresses, etc. (This is an example of thematic forcing.)

b.    alarm clock

c.    wedding invitation

d.    lateness

e.     backfill: gorgeous scene with a LIST and a SUSPENSION.

f.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE ALMOST SAYS HE LOVES CAREY (lovely word repetition begins)

.

5.    Wedding #3 (Broken up into: wedding, reception)

a.    invitation

b.    lateness (this time not comic)

c.    wedding (truncated by Charlie’s lateness; note the point at which he enters the wedding ceremony and how this segment of the ceremony is repeated in the next wedding)

d.    Gareth/Mathew thematic scene

(1)    Scarlet’s subplot (meets Chester)

(2)    Fiona’s subplot (admits love to Charlie)

(3)    Hen’s subplot (new boyfriend)

e.    speech again (Carey and Hamish)

f.    PLOT STEP: GARETH DIES

.

6.    Funeral (Funeral and post-funeral dialogue)

(1)    Note how the language in this segment turns the funeral into a wedding: the church setting, the various tie-backs to ongoing plots, the opening words of Mathew’s speech, the dialogue between Tom and Charlie in which Mathew and Gareth are identified as being married

(2)    Note also the way the comic motifs are omitted: no alarm clock, lateness, no time switch (because the funeral follows so quickly upon Carey’s wedding)

b.    speech again (Mathew)

Note how the camera marks the various plot and subplot characters through the poem.

c.    Tom/Charlie thematic dialogue on true love (thunderbolt repetition begins)

.

7.    Wedding #4 (Broken up into: waking up and getting to wedding, non-wedding, aftermath and real not-wedding)

a.    alarm clock

b.    invitation (note suspension)+time switch

c.    lateness

d.    bookend devices: Hen’s brother and the demented old man

e.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE MARRYING HEN, BUT CAREY SEPARATED

(1)    Fiona subplot advances

(2)    Scarlet advances

(3)    Tom subplot advances (meets Deirdre)

(4)    First marriage couple advances (now have twins)

(5)    Second marriage couple advances (Bernard is “exhausted”)

f.    Mathew/Charlie thematic dialogue in vestry

g.    wedding (interrupted by David; note use of suspension)

h.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE PROPOSES TO NOT-MARRY CAREY; SHE SAYS, I DO

.

8.    Epilogue

a.    multiple subplots end in marriage (except for Fiona)

.

Some definitions:

Anadiplosis: “Repetition of the last word of one sentence, or line of poetry, as a means of (sometimes emphatic) liaison.” Dupriez

Epanalepsis: “Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.” Lanham

Parenthesis: “The insertion of a segment, complete in meaning, and relevant or irrelevant to the subject under discussion, into another segment whose flow it interrupts.” Dupriez

Suspension: A narrative moment when some crucial information is promised but held back till later in the action.

Tie-Back: Textual reference back to earlier material in order to remind the reader, create rhythm and add textual density.

Anaphora: Multiple repetitions of the same grammatical construction at the beginning of successive textual elements.

But-construction: Grammatical construction using the word “but” or some cognate to create dramatic interruption, interference, or contrast at the level of a sentence.

—Douglas Glover

.
.

Dec 052014
 

Shambhavi Roy2Shambhavi Roy

Fiction writers often struggle with various questions related to subplots: How should I structure my subplots? How much space should my subplots consume? What kind of relationship should the subplot bear to the main plot? Should the subplot be congruent or opposed to the main plot? Let’s consider the novels Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler as an entry point into the study of subplots in general and the related techniques of character grouping and gradation.

Aristotle taught that the best plots proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions. John Dufresne is his book The Lie That Tells a Truth tells us that episodes do not necessarily make a plot. He says, “Plot is the writer’s arrangement of events to achieve a desired effect. It is the magnet to which all other narrative elements attach.”

Plot is something, I believe, that can be coaxed into being. John Dufresne says that “a plot begins to form as soon as you ask yourself the appropriate questions: what does my central character want? What is preventing her from getting it? What does she do about the various obstacles in her way? What is the outcome of what she does? What climax does this all lead to? Does she get what she wants in the end? Plot, then, is the element of fiction that shapes the other elements—character, theme, point of view, language, and so on—into a story.”

JDJohn Dufresne

Now let’s turn our attention to subplots, the main topic of this essay. In The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover says this about subplots: “In its simplest and most direct form the subplot is another plot, involving another set of characters, weaving through the novel.” Subplots can vary in size but every novel must have at least one to achieve the resonating or echoing effect that a novelist tries to achieve by modulating or reduplicating situations and characters, by having several people falling in love or dying or praying in different ways—dissimilar people solving the same problem or similar people confronted with dissimilar problems.

In his essay “Emotion of Multitude,” W. B. Yeats says that “the Shakespearean drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of one man and a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women, and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude.” Yeats seems to imply that if we read the experiences of one man, we may imagine it rooted in his own unique personality or providential in nature or the result of unprecedented or uncommon play of events. But if we notice similar dramas unraveling in several individuals’ lives we may be forced to look beyond the characters and we may end up understanding the thematic issues the authors wants to highlight.

Usually, subplots have graded characters closely related to the main characters. On the topic of graded characters, Glover offers us this: “Graded characters are characters in narrative who share, in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion, thematically crucial experiences in such a way as to create structural parallels” (The Enamoured Knight). A group of friends or schoolmates or army buddies make good subplot characters. “The advantage of the near relations between characters on plot and subplot lines is that they can interact with and observe one another naturally” (The Enamoured Knight). However, we must keep in mind that the different character groups we see in novels often—class, family, working groups—are options we see frequently, but they are not the only possibilities for running subplots.

EK

All right, now let’s turn to Sense and Sensibility to better comprehend what might have led Jane Austen to make use of a plot-subplot structure with graded characters. In this novel, after Henry Dashwood dies, his three daughters and his wife inherit a small and insufficient sum, so the Dashwood girls must marry to find respectability and secure their futures. Although their stepbrother, John Dashwood, promised his dying father he’d take care of his stepmother and sisters, he decides to offer them nothing under the influence of his greedy wife, Fanny. Then, a pleasant unassuming man, Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother, visits Norland and Elinor, the prudent Dashwood girl, gets attached to him. Fanny disapproves of the match and complains to Mrs Dashwood, Elinor’s mother, which results in the hasty departure of Elinor, her sisters and mother from Norland to a small rental cottage they’ve found for themselves in Devonshire. Marianne, the younger sister, full of fine sensibilities—which is a euphemism indicating her excessively emotional and impetuous temperament—disregards Brandon, an older, mellow, reserved man and finds her soul mate in a dashing young man named Willoughby, who, not surprisingly, resembles Marianne. Demonstrative and passionate, Willoughby and Marianne never leave each other’s side, leading to much public speculation about their relationship. Then, all of a sudden, Willoughby leaves. Marianne, a romantic, suffers a “violent oppression of spirits” while waiting for him to return. Soon she learns of Willoughby’s engagement with someone else for monetary reasons and falls sick and nearly loses her life as a result of the heartbreak. Like Marianne, even Brandon is wronged by Willoughby: Willoughby flirted with and impregnated a girl-child, Eliza, under Brandon’s guardianship. Even Elinor faces ill-luck in love—Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy, a girl who suffers from a want of delicacy and integrity of mind. But Elinor does not share the news of Edward’s engagement with her family for a long time and bears hardship with a sense of forbearance. In the end, Elinor turns out to be the fortunate one, although just by chance: Edward’s fiancé, Lucy, breaks her engagement with Edward so he can unite with Elinor; however Marianne must content herself to be with Brandon, although she didn’t care for him before.

Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, anonymously, brought its writer no fame during her lifetime, although it was an instant success. With a recent surge of interest in Jane Austen, the novel is more widely read and proclaimed today than it ever was. Written in third person from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, the novel explores the problem of finding a life partner and whether sense or sensibility leads to a better match.

In this novel the plot and the subplot occupy nearly equal space and are accorded equal consideration, forming parallel plot-subplot structure. Right in the beginning, on page three, Jane Austen sets the stage for parallel plots with graded characters.

Jane_Austen_coloured_versionJane Austen

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to learn. (3)

Note the way Elinor’s character is described in relation to that of her mother and her sister. In the next paragraph, the author offers us this about the younger sister, Marianne.

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great. (3)

Throughout the novel, the author uses the words “prudence” in reference to Elinor and “eagerness” and “imprudence” in reference to Marianne and her mother, Mrs Dashwood. Elinor and Marianne—sisters, young, unmarried, constrained by their financial situation, the fact they are women, and the fact they must marry to secure a future for themselves—belong to the same character group, even though they are temperamentally apart. They are both well brought-up girls, who enjoy books and are fond of arts, although Marianne’s fondness for arts is more vehement in nature. Elinor draws and Marianne plays piano. They love their mother and each other. But to illuminate the theme of the novel the author must draw out the differences in the outlook of the two Dashwood girls. So to accentuate their heterogeneity, the sisters form pairs with men who reflect their personalities. Like Elinor, Edward has a quietness of manner and is amiable, warm and affectionate. Willoughby is frank and vivacious and as passionate about music and dancing as Marianne. Not just Elinor but even Edward and Brandon represent sense and the pair, Marianne and Willoughby, sensibility and indiscreetness. Edward and Willoughby mirror the dispositions of the women they are with, though not entirely. Elinor is not as shy as Edward, and Edward doesn’t have the same interest in arts as Elinor. The narrator tells us this about Willoughby and Marianne: “The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—or if any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed.” Jane Austen takes time to define the spectrum of her characters’ beliefs and their propensities, and then these graded characters will trudge along parallel plot lines to explore the central theme of the novel: when looking for a life partner, is it better to follow reason or sensibility? Whether sense or sensibility is the winner in the end?

Both sisters fall in love; they are presented with obstacles and find resolutions. The novel unfolds in a pattern. We see some event bear down upon one of the sisters and observe her reaction to the life event and then we see a similar occurrence in the other sister’s life and witness her response and learn what others think of the whole business. “In fiction,” E. K. Brown tells us, “the rhythmic arrangements that move us most are those where repetition is enveloped in variations, but never so enveloped that it appears subordinate.” That is exactly what Jane Austen seems to want to accomplish. Although the arcs of the two parallel plots cover the same points and are a bit repetitive on the surface, they are designed to achieve the opposite effect: highlight differences and illuminate the theme.

Compare Elinor’s gentle anguish, when she discovers Edward is engaged to Lucy, to Marianne’s finding Willoughby with a woman at a party.

Elinor for a few moments remained silent. Her astonishment at what she heard was at first too great for words; but at length forcing herself to speak, and to speak cautiously, she said with a calmness of manner, which tolerably well concealed her surprise and solicitude—‘May I ask if your engagement is of long standing?’ (87)

Here’s Marianne’s comportment in a somewhat similar predicament.

Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair, and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others, while reviving her with lavender water.

‘Go to him, Elinor,’ she cried, as soon as she could speak, ‘and force him to come to me. Tell him I must see him again—must speak to him instantly.—I cannot rest—I shall not have a moment’s peace till this is explained—some dreadful misapprehension or other.—Oh go to him this moment.’ (119)

When the sisters are about to leave their childhood home in Norland, Marianne sheds tears, but Elinor finds the decision to move prudent and refuses to dissuade her mother, even though her love-interest is in Norland.

A romantic, Marianne says, “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” “Grandeur has but little,” says Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.” Elinor falls for Edward who is not handsome, and his manners require intimacy to make them pleasing. Marianne, who doesn’t approve of her sister’s beau entirely because Edward has no spirit and is not striking enough, falls in love with Willoughby, a charming personality in everyone’s opinion. Even Mrs. Dashwood commends Marianne’s choice and finds Willoughby faultless, although Elinor can clearly see a problematic propensity, in which Willoughby strongly resembles Marianne, of saying too much what he thought on every occasion, without attention to person or circumstances.

I counted seventeen different occasions when Jane Austen brings out the striking diversity in the conduct of these two sisters. The sisters form two parallel mountain ranges reflecting sound off each other so the echo reverberates in the reader’s mind. The author seems to pitch antithetical ideas because, I believe, human beings do not understand in a vacuum but in relation to one another. In E. K. Brown’s terms, the two sisters “irradiate each other and become clearer by irradiation.” By offering contrasts and similarities the author is according greater depth to these characters and the social milieu, while trying to get at the hidden truth.

In the end, Elinor, although prudent, selfless, calm, hardly fairs better than Marianne, even though Marianne is eager and imprudent. Elinor’s cautiousness is not entirely a helpful trait, given that she cannot discuss her feelings openly and is unsure how Edward feels for her. Ultimately, she unites with Edward only because of happenstance. So, in a way, the author declares “sense” as the winner somewhat grudgingly. We see the same pattern reappear in the cast of characters supporting the two parallel plots: Willoughby, Brandon, and Edward Ferrars. Shy and sensible, Edward loves Elinor but gets engaged to Lucy because of a past commitment. If Lucy didn’t abandon him, he could count on a miserable life ahead of him. Brandon, another calm, rational, caring man, never marries his first love, fails to protect the child, Eliza, under his guardianship, and finally unites with Marianne only after Willoughby deserts Marianne. True, Willoughby finds himself in a frightful place toward the end of the novel, but then, he has abandoned sense and even sensibility for that matter—he has lived a life of extreme indiscretion: rejected Marianne, flirted with and impregnated a young girl, and married solely for monetary reasons. The author has placed Willoughby near the edge of the spectrum of her characters, but with the help of her other characters, she argues for and against her ideas imparting depth to the discourse.

It is clear that the main benefit of having closely related characters and a tightly interwoven plot-subplot structure is to act as the glue holding and unifying the story and bestowing a direction and a sense of purpose. The author shows several characters struggling to find life partners so we get a flavor of the emotion of multitudes. The plots and the subplots point in the same direction so the theme is emphasized and we get a sense of the larger world. How else would we recognize the complexities inherent in identifying a life partner, and the fact that it is so hard for anyone to be right in this matter?

So what other benefits Jane Austen reaps by having parallel plots with graded characters. As I read Sense and Sensibility and considered the topic of graded characters, I also realized that having two sisters driving parallel plots was also serving as a subtle memory rehearsal device by reinforcing and comparing constantly. When Elinor expresses her thoughts on the subject of move from Norland and then Marianne wails over the same issue, the reader knows for sure the family is moving. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the role this repetition plays. The more a bit of information or an idea is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, to be “retained.” People tend to more easily store material on subjects that they already know something about, since the information has more meaning to them and can be mentally connected to related information. So if you want your readers to retain bits from your novel in their long term memories you may want to consider closely related characters and an interlaced plot-subplot structure so these characters can frequently cross each other’s paths and reflect on each other.

In the end, we must recognize that narrating Marianne’s story, along with Elinor’s, doubles the length and makes the novel more interesting. Far more engrossing, Marianne and Willoughby serve as a balance against Elinor and Edward, who are shy, reserved and not so amusing. Does that mean if a protagonist is ill-tempered or morose, we should consider a lively and more engaging character driving a subplot to relieve the strain off a difficult topic? Definitely something we should keep in mind.

Now let’s turn to The Accidental Tourist to see the plot-subplot structure in that novel. After Macon Leary’s twelve-year-old son gets shot and killed, Macon and his wife Sarah separate, because Sarah cannot find any comfort in her husband.

Left alone with just an unruly dog for company, Macon has difficulty sleeping and wishes his wife would return. Then he breaks his leg and is forced to move to his sister Rose’s house where Rose and Macon’s two brothers, Charles and Porter, live. To help train his dog, whose violent tendencies have increased as a result of the move, Macon hires Muriel Pritchett. She is a divorced woman and the mother of a seven-year-old reclusive boy with medical problems from the time of his premature birth. At first Macon refuses to get involved with Muriel, but, ultimately, her eccentricities and her problems draw him out of his shell. He cohabits with her in her house, which is in a slummy neighborhood, and teaches her son math and plumbing techniques, even though he is not in love with her or even entirely comfortable with her, for that matter. Disorganized, unsettling and unpredictable, Muriel has a “nasty temper, a shrewish tongue and a tendency to fall into spells of self-disgust.” Not surprisingly, Macon’s siblings disapprove of the relationship and try to convince him she is not the right woman by reminding him she is much younger and just out there to catch a man so he could provide for her. At this point, Macon’s ex-wife, aware of Macon’s live-in relationship, tries to woo him back. As Macon has never really gotten over Sarah, he cannot help but move back with Sarah; but Muriel, unwilling to give up on Macon, follows him around when he goes on a business trip to Paris. Finally, after an argument with Sarah, Macon realizes that he and Sarah “have used each other up.” He realizes he must embrace his new life with Muriel and leave the memories of his dead son and his ex-wife behind.

SS

Anne Tyler’s tenth novel, written in 1985, The Accidental Tourist was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. With a clear plot-subplot structure, the main story has Macon Leary as its lead character, and the subplot features his sister Rose. The minor subplots are about Macon’s two older brothers, Porter and Charles.

Just as in Sense and Sensibility, the subplots in The Accidental Tourist are driven by close relatives, the sister and brothers of the protagonist. As if the fact that Rose and Macon are siblings isn’t enough to bring them together often, Rose has a relationship with Macon’s boss, Julian, and this gives the author an opportunity to talk about Rose every time Macon meets Julian. Even Macon’s estranged wife, Sarah, is close to Rose and when Macon and Sarah reconcile they discuss Rose’s situation in life. The relationships form a tightly woven pattern so the characters can observe each other and compare and contrast.

Just as the two sisters in Sense and Sensibility are both similar and different, Macon and his sister and his two brothers resemble each other and have traits that establish their distinctness as human beings. All of the Leary children are grammar fanatics, orderly, somewhat socially stunted, and idiosyncratic. They even look alike: “Their hair had an ashy cast and their eyes were a steely gray. They all had that distinct center groove from nose to upper lip. And never in a million years would Alicia [their mother] have worn an expression so guarded and suspicious.”

Rose has her kitchen so alphabetized that she keeps allspice next to ant poison and considers it perfectly normal to live with her brothers. Macon sleeps in a body bag, does not use a dishwasher, and stalks around in circles while showering, sloshing the day’s dirty clothes underfoot. Even though the details differ, the siblings have the same strange quirky feel about them, as if they are different shades of each other. But the siblings wouldn’t become real in our eyes if the author didn’t list their unique characteristics to round them up as human beings.

Books Anne TylerAnne Tyler

So Anne Tyler lets us know that Rose is the only social Leary, who helps out neighbors and old relatives; Porter is the best looking Leary kid, talkative, and able to run finances and plan taxes; Charles, a sweet-faced man who never seems to move; and Macon, even though he shares several character traits with his siblings, is not always comfortable with the idea of abiding with Rose and his brothers. He experiences moments of anxiety when he wonders if has gone any further in life since his childhood days. And he is also the only one who considers the fact that that they might be unconventional. When Julian visits Rose’s home, Macon tells Rose that Julian was there just because “he hopes we’ll do something eccentric.” Macon wishes none of his siblings would say or do anything awkward around Julian.

Unlike her three brothers, Rose wants to experience love. Rose says, “Love is what it’s all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love.” But Charles and Porter, after their failed marriages, seem content in Rose’s house with Rose overseeing the housekeeping for them. Even Macon does not seek romantic associations actively, although he can get entangled into them. To a certain extent, Macon and Rose share the desire to be in romantic relationships, and therefore, their lives evolve in a similar fashion, creating a congruent plot-subplot structure. After Rose marries Julian and lives with him for a while, she begins to get disoriented with the newness of her life and moves back with her brothers. Similarly, Macon abides with Muriel for some time and then moves back with his estranged wife. In the end, both Macon and Rose unite with their lovers, although in variant ways—Macon leaves his estranged wife and goes back to Muriel and Julian begins to live with Rose and her brothers. .

Now let’s focus for a minute on the textual space devoted to Macon versus that devoted to Rose. As this novel has a clear plot-subplot structure, Macon enjoys the lion’s share of space. Rose does not appear in the first chapter—there is not even a mention of her. She appears for the first time in the second chapter and then disappears till the end of the fourth. The fifth chapter is dedicated to describing Macon’s siblings, particularly Rose. And from then on, Rose is mentioned in every chapter, even if it is just to let us know that she drove Macon to Julian’s place. In the last chapter, although we don’t get to see Rose, Macon’s ex-wife, Sarah, informs Macon that Julian has moved in with Rose and the brothers. Of the twenty chapters in this book, Rose occupies significant space in just four and the brothers are given much less consideration.

So why have Rose and the brothers? What purpose do they serve? Several, in my opinion. First, with the help of these subplots, the author highlights the theme of the novel—the nature of love and the fact that for successful love relationships one has to reach a point of wisdom or a compromise between the desire for order and chaos. As we see Macon and Rose struggling to understand what they want and where they belong, we get the “emotion of multitudes,” a feeling that even though we are reading a novel with a simple structure and few characters we are in a large and teeming world where everyone is trying to fathom the meaning of love, marriage, and compromise in an ever changing world.

Note how all the Leary kids seem to drift back to their place of origin. After Macon breaks his legs, he moves in with Rose and his brothers and experiences quiet contentment. Macon gets involved with Muriel only because his dog, Edward, is unsettled in unfamiliar surroundings and begins to attack everyone. Even though Macon misses some aspects of his life at Rose’s place, he is lulled by the ease and simplicity of his childhood routines and hardly seems to desire new relationships. Even though he says his lack of interest in sex is a result of his son Ethan’s death, one cannot help notice that he has always shunned newness and unfamiliarity. Even when he was young, it was Sarah who initiated and drove the relationship forward, not Macon. Anne Tyler sheds light on the same appeal for one’s native environment through Rose. Rose, fascinated by the concept of love because she’s never been in a relationship before, falls for Julian and marries hastily, but within a few days of her wedding, she leaves her marital home and comes back to live with her brothers. She unites with Julian only because he sheds his traditional idea of a marital home and moves in with her brothers. Julian says, “She’d worn herself a groove or something in that house of hers, and she couldn’t help swerving back into it.” Even Charles and Porter have the same regard for familiarity as Macon and Rose. And all the Leary children love and deeply care for each other. Rose ministered to the needs of her ailing grandfather and cooks and cleans for her brothers, and they, in turn, care for her in a subtle, heartwarming way. Looking at Macon, Rose, Porter and Charles, readers may begin to wonder if, at some level, we all have the same affinity and weakness for our first homes. We do not know if this is the effect Anne Tyler wanted to achieve but nevertheless with the help of her subplots and graded characters, she underscores the human tendency to value familiarity—the sense of well-being we associate with our childhood home—and the intimacy we share with our siblings and other blood relations.

What other purpose do the subplots serve? What other “emotion of multitudes” does the author hope to evince? Let’s consider the partners the Leary kids are attracted to. Rose, a sober, prim woman, who “folds her hair unobtrusively at the fact of her neck where it wouldn’t be a bother” and wears “spinsterly and concealing” clothes, finds love in Julian, a playboy, living in a Singles apartment. Rose’s brothers try their best to dissuade her from getting involved with Julian but for some reason she cannot resist. Even Porter and Charles were married to women unlike them, who made fun of them. Macon, a man in his forties, obsessively organized, grammar fanatic, has a strange attraction for Muriel, a talkative, neurotic, disorganized woman. Every one of Macon’s siblings thinks Macon and Muriel are unsuitable for each other. But when Macon moves back with his ex-wife, he misses Muriel’s eccentricities and her misusages. Even though Macon and his sister and brothers have a fondness for the familiar, they are also enthralled by the unfamiliar, and the same can be said about their spouses. We, the readers of The Accidental Tourist, wonder if most of us “in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion” exist in a confused state, drawn toward and repelled by the familiar.

Accidental Tourist

Now let’s turn our attention to the two married couples in The Accidental Tourist. Even though Macon and Sarah have been together for decades, even though he loves her dearly, the only comfort they seem to accord each other is the comfort of routine. When Muriel tells Macon she wants to marry him, he says, “I don’t think marriage ought to be as common as it is; I really believe it ought to be the exception to the rule; oh, perfect couples could marry, maybe, but who’s a perfect couple?” And then later, thinking about a conversation Macon had with his wife, we learn this: “Thinking back on that conversation now, he [Macon] began to believe that people could, in fact, be used up—could use each other up, could be of no further help to each other and maybe even do harm to each other.”

On the other hand, Macon enjoys the cozy, sloppy presence of Muriel, a woman he does not love. At times he is ashamed of Muriel but still ends up making a home with her. And Rose loses her fascination for marriage soon after she gets married and returns to her childhood home. Although she is attracted to Julian, a traditional wedding and a married life provide no comfort to her. Ultimately, her marriage survives because Julian moves back with her forming an unconventional arrangement. So is there some truth that the author wants to shed light on here? Is it possible to live and find comfort in unorthodox relationships and arrangements outside of marriage with people we do not even love? Is marriage as an institution worthy of the respect we accord to it, given that people and their conditions change so frequently?

After studying these two novels, Sense and Sensibility and The Accidental Tourist, it is clear that their subplot structures are different in key ways. Rose occupies far less space than Marianne, probably because Jane Austen wants to initiate a dialogue with her readers, but Anne Tyler seems to open our minds to a new idea, one that may not have too many takers in the middle class. The key thing to note is the fact that subplots must parallel or reflect the main plot, otherwise the various elements of a novel fly apart and the text lacks rhythm and unity of thought.

—Shambhavi Roy

 

.

Shambhavi Roy, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, lives in Saratoga, CA, with her husband and two kids.

Nov 132014
 

CaptureNarcissus by Caravaggio via Wikipedia

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they used to tell the story of an hidalgo who had emigrated from Spain as a very young man, and who had amassed a huge fortune in the sugarcane industry. Old and ill, he gathered his many children around him in order to give them his final instructions. “If I should die here in Havana,” he told them, “promise me that you will send me back to Spain to be buried there.” One after the other, all of his children swore that they would carry out his will to the letter. “However, if for some reason I should die in Spain,” he added, “I want you to bring me back here to Havana to be buried.” “Of course, Father,” his eldest son assured him, “That too we shall do. But tell me: why do you wish this?” “Oh, I don’t know,” replied the old man, “Just to fuck around.”

It is in such a spirit that I would like to propose a brief meditation on mirror scenes in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction. Gratuitously in other words, in a largely unfettered and fundamentally playful perspective, one not driven by the prospect of immediate utility, but rather by simple (and very nearly idle) curiosity.

The burgeoning of the detective novel in Nordic countries during the last couple of decades is a remarkable phenomenon, comparable in many ways to the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s. Working in the wake of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose ten-volume Martin Beck series (1965-75) set the terms of the trend, an impressive diversity of writers has broadened the genre’s horizon of possibility in significant ways. I’m thinking here of figures such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson, Kristina Ohlsson, Kjell Eriksson, Åke Edwardson, and Håkan Nesser (Sweden); Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø (Norway); Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland); Peter Høeg and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Among the many intriguing features one may find in this body of work, it abounds in mirror scenes, that is, moments when a subject comes face to face with her or his reflection in the mirror.

That the detective novel should deploy a topos such as this one makes a great deal of sense. For that literary genre is all about discovery after all; and perhaps, as much as anything else, it is about the prospect of self-discovery. Think for instance of Oedipus, an excellent example of an early detective, and consider especially the way he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. When asked what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the afternoon, he replied “Man,” and that answer of course did the trick. Yet the real answer to the Sphinx’s question is “Me”—as the rest of Oedipus’s tale clearly demonstrates, to his doom. The moral is clear enough: no riddle can be solved if the subject cannot first come to terms with himself or herself. And in certain cases, the subject need look no further than that. Such is the lesson of the gnothi seauton, the imperative of self-knowledge that has animated Western culture from its very beginnings. And such, too, is the impulse that subtends the mirror scene wherever we may find it these days, in our increasingly specular culture.

CaptureOedipus and the Sphinx (detail) by Gustave Moreau

The other key figure in the tradition of mirror gazing is of course Narcissus. There are many versions of his myth, and the lessons they put on display are varied. The most harrowing among them is the version that Ovid recounts. Asked if Narcissus will live to a ripe old age, a seer remarks, “Yes, if he does not come to know himself.” It’s a sly answer, and a very perverse one, too, cutting across the grain of cultural commonplace as it does. Its moral is more immediate than that of the Oedipus myth, and less equivocal with regard to the gnothi seauton. Both tales, it must be recognized, paint a dark picture of the encounter with the self, one where deliberate, uncompromising introspection leads to catastrophe for the subject. All of this is to say that the mirror scene is a cultural topos more than passingly vexed, and more than usually fraught with contradictory messages. When contemporary literature turns to that topos and puts it to use, even in offhanded ways, its trappings come along with it, which may help to explain why even the most apparently innocent mirror scene typically creates a disturbing moment in a text, a moment of exceptional reflection.

In what follows, I would like to consider the different shapes those moments assume in the Scandinavian detective novel, proposing along the way a loose, heuristic typology that may help us to think about them more efficiently. My own sense is that those scenes are deeply involved with the poetics of the gaze in literature, with the representation of the self, with the way the human subject grapples with his or her humanity, and with what we may hope to find when we look into the mirror of the text.

CaptureKarin Fossum

Before we leap into those moments, it is important to point out what is not a mirror scene; and in doing so it is best to be both draconian and exhaustive. First, it should be noted that the mere mention of the object does not suffice. When Karin Fossum writes, “I got up every morning and went out to the bathroom, and there was his toothbrush below the mirror” (Don’t Look Back 255), there is indeed a mirror in the scene, but the subject fails to encounter herself therein. Fossum is particularly fond of events like that, sometimes wagering upon pure (and from the devotee’s point of view, purely otiose) analogy: “A mirror-like tarn, no bigger than a large pond, lying among the spruce trees like a secret space” (Don’t Look Back 26). One gets the same sense of missed opportunity when the mirror is invoked in a figural, metaphorical manner. “The same questions. Again and again,” complains Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren, as he grapples with a particularly thorny problem, “Over and over again. Reflecting themselves in the mirror” (Mind’s Eye 19). Those questions may reflect themselves till the cows come home; they are not human beings, and their specularity has no psychological or moral depth. More cruelly still, Åsa Larsson insists upon the absence of the mirror, and we benighted readers are left to muse upon what the moment might have been like if only a mirror had been present: “‘What gorgeous clothes,’ smiled Sanna, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. ‘Look at this jumper! Pity there isn’t a mirror in here'” (Sun Storm 26).

One must also dismiss a category that I would like to call the mirror scene manqué. “He was in such a hurry,” remarks Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, “that for once he didn’t stop to admire himself in the little mirror hanging beside the coat rack by the door. If he had, he would have seen that his aura was heavy and dark. Almost black” (My Soul to Take 131). Here, the subject’s encounter with the mirror is conjectural, rather than actual, and thus unsatisfactory. A more literal example of that species presents itself when Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole finds himself nose to nose with a great white shark at the Sydney Aquarium: “At first he thought it was his own reflection he could see, then his eyes became accustomed to the light and he felt his heart register a last pounding beat before it froze. The Great White was beside him, watching him with cold, lifeless eyes” (The Bat 168). Though this is not a mirror scene, it should be noted that there is an ironically specular dimension to it, for as he gazes in horror at the shark Harry Hole realizes that he, too, may have something of the coldblooded predator about him.

Jo nesboJo Nesbø

We must also agree to turn aside from scenes of simple introspection, moments of self-appraisal undertaken without the mediation of the mirror. Consider this passage from Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled: “He sat at his desk, feeling that he could now examine himself at arm’s length: the man staggering around in the West Indies, the miserable trip to Thailand, all those days and nights when everything seemed to have ground to a halt apart from his bodily functions. He was looking at himself, but he realized that that person was somebody he no longer knew. He had been somebody else” (57). Perhaps he was indeed “looking at himself,” but not in the literal sense; and in a rigorous consideration of mirror scenes, we owe it to ourselves to be as literalist as we possibly can.

When one character in Mankell’s The Pyramid asks another, “Have you even seen what you look like?” and that latter individual testily retorts, “I don’t spend my time looking at myself in the mirror” (9-10), the suggestion is that looking at oneself in the mirror is something that vain, lazy people do, something that is unfit for people of a more active, engaged, and robust constitution. And perhaps it is for reasons such as those that Inspector Kurt Wallander upon occasion deliberately eschews the mirror: “He splashed cold water on his face and took a long leak. He avoided looking at his face in the mirror” (Henning Mankell, One Step Behind 333). Other passages in Mankell’s writing are a bit more difficult to dismiss, because while the mirror therein is virtual rather than literal, the subject’s encounter with himself has a great deal of flesh on its bones: “Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that was both concave and convex at the same time. No-one had ever seen anything but the surface: the eminent jurist, the respected minister of justice, the kindly retiree strolling along the beach in Skäne. No-one would have guessed his double-sided self” (Sidetracked 14). I realize that I have been relying heavily upon Henning Mankell here. Having read him so attentively, and with so much pleasure, over so many years, I feel now that he is a close personal friend. I’d like to go to IKEA with him. More pertinently, his writing provides a very rich vein of classic mirror scenes, as we shall see in a moment, undoubtedly the mother lode insofar as Scandinavian detective fiction is concerned.

Before we get there however, and having now plucked most of the low-hanging fruit in the non-mirror scene orchard, let me invoke a few examples of passages that hover right on the threshold of mirror scenedom. Consider this passage from Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back: “Each time he looked at the picture of his father, his own old age seemed to advance uncomfortably on him” (35). Clearly, the subject sees something of himself when he gazes at the picture of his father; but to call this a mirror scene is to reach too far. It offers, in a sense, a negative image of a mirror scene, a notion that can be confirmed by comparing it to a positive image of the same topos, such as this passage in Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga: “He examined his face in the mirror and saw that he was getting more and more like his father” (201). Yet when the subject gazes at a photograph of himself, rather than one of his father, the elements of a full-blown mirror scene fall easily into place, as Åke Edwardson understands: “He removed the cloth and stared at a photograph of himself, taken shortly before high school graduation” (Death Angels).

Then there are textual moments when the encounter with the mirror is implicit, rather than actual. “She sat anesthetized at the kitchen table,” writes Åsa Larsson, “and recalled the joy she had felt earlier; the bike ride to the city and back, how she already felt more fit, the feeling of putting on the black skirt and the neat blouse, her new appearance that the hairstyle and her more conscious application of makeup gave her” (Sun Storm 329). Any reasonable person would infer that the subject had put her makeup on while looking in the mirror; yet the narrative elides that moment maddeningly.

As much as it pains me, it must be said that in certain mirror scenes nothing happens—or nothing of real interest. “Gullberg was completely exhausted after all his efforts on Monday,” writes Stieg Larsson. “He did not wake until 9:00 on Tuesday morning, four hours later than usual. He went to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He stood for a long time looking at his face in the mirror before he turned off the light and went to get dressed. He chose the only clean shirt he had left in the brown briefcase and put on a brown-patterned tie” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 124). The moment is flatly constative; it provides nothing beyond the simple fact of the encounter; it has no depth. A passage in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists is similar: “They returned to their own base, where there was no one but the chief of the Stockholm Police. He was standing in front of the mirror combing his hair with great care. Then he eyed his tie, which as usual was of plain colored silk. Today it was pale yellow” (226). In both cases, alas, we learn more about the tie than we do about the subject. Certain other passages of this sort set up the encounter with the self, and then shy away from it, as it were: “While she was putting on her coat, Thóra looked at herself in the large mirror. She knew it was important to make a good impression at the first meeting, especially if the client was well-off” (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Last Rituals 12-13).

When the devil holds the candle

Still other instances put mirror substitutes into play, and I think we can agree that they clear the bar when those proxies are functional. Here are two examples of that ilk, the first borrowed from Karin Fossum, the second from Åsa Larsson: “Zipp could see the outline of his own face in the black of the television screen: a cowardly, wavering thing” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 222); “She looked at her reflection in the mirror that the roll of aluminum foil attached to the wall provided and where her face appeared cracked in a thousand wrinkles, before she tore off a sheet and handed it to Johnny” (Sun  Storm 172). Sometimes those proxies are human. Arnaldur Indriðason is especially fond of moments like that: “Looking at Steve, she saw her own anxiety reflected in his face” (Operation Napoleon 237); “Marion Briem’s eyes revealed clear pity and a sad certainty that they were looking at their own reflection” (Jar City 121). Other people’s faces can serve as very efficient mirror substitutes, often reflecting an image of the subject that is no less faithful than one that a more literal mirror might provide, if one is willing to embrace the phenomenon of projection that such scenes put on stage, that is. For this specular relation between the self and the other is patently a matter of projection, as Henning Mankell points out: “Wallander looked at Martinsson’s and Hanson’s tired faces and wondered what his own face must be like” (Firewall 68). In other instances of the same effect, Mankell underscores the fidelity of that projection for our benefit, confirming the information that the other’s gaze conveys by a more literal encounter with the mirror: “‘At your age you shouldn’t stay up all night,’ she said. Wallander looked at her with surprise. ‘Is it so obvious?’ She bent down and got her bag from behind the counter, then fished out a make-up mirror and handed it over to him. She was right. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. His hair was a mess” (One Step Behind 239).

Capture

As we move beyond these dubious, hybrid, or limit cases toward sturdier and more compelling examples of mirror scenes, it should be noted that their fundamental discursive mode is interrogative. That is, whatever else they may put on offer, mirror scenes portray a questioning subject; and the vector of that questioning points directly toward the subject herself. Gazing at his own reflection, a character in Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of the Night articulates the question that quickens any mirror scene at all, be it overtly or more subtly: “‘Who is Stig Franklin?’ he asked the mirror” (275). We are squarely in the orbit of the gnothi seauton here, of course, and that’s just where we’ll remain as we trace the subject’s fate through three types of encounters with the mirror. The first type involves simple recognition, a moment wherein the subject comes across a mirror and recognizes himself or herself unproblematically. In the second type of scene, such recognition is not immediate, but progressive, and it involves a process that runs the gamut from the mildly difficult to the outright traumatic. In the third type, finally, the subject fails utterly and definitively to recognize himself—and I hereby promise not to dwell upon that morbid eventuality more than is strictly necessary.

Having postulated those categories so very categorically, allow me to temper their terms just a bit. For it must be said that the scenes of simple recognition one finds in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction are very rarely simple. One does come upon scenes of that sort—”As the coffee was brewing, Wallander went into the bathroom. He noticed with pleasure that he looked healthy and energetic” (Mankell, The Fifth Woman 20)—, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, scenes of this first type involve something beyond the subject’s mere recognition of himself. In The White Lioness, for instance, Wallander’s recognition may be immediate, but it is problematized by the recognition of far broader truths about himself and about his manner of being in the world: “When he got back to his apartment, he stripped and stood naked in front of the hall mirror. ‘Kurt Wallander,’ he said aloud. ‘This is your life'” (182). He reads himself in the mirror in this moment of naked truth—and of course we read him reading himself, recognizing as we do so that what is fundamentally at stake in scenes like this is interpretation itself. Obviously, the principle of self-knowledge is deeply imbricated in scenes such as this one. Yet upon occasion the promise of unique identity that is implicit therein is put into question by the encounter: “He saw himself in the mirror and realized that he looked like thousands of other young people” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Cop Killer 274). In that instance, the subject recognizes himself without difficulty, but he fails to recognize his particularity, and by virtue of that the encounter has gone badly awry.

CaptureSjöwall and Wahlöö

For it is almost always the other who vexes the encounter with the mirror, whether that other be real or virtual. Sometimes, it’s a matter of checking one’s appearance in order to appreciate how other people will see us. That sort of moment can be relatively uncomplicated, like in this passage from Håkan Nesser: “She checked how she looked in the mirror. It’ll do” (Borkmann’s Point 131). Or this one, from Sjöwall and Wahlöo: “It was now eight o’clock on Monday morning and she was standing in front of her large mirror in her bedroom, admiring her suntan and thinking how envious her friends at work would be” (The Fire Engine That Disappeared 144). Alternatively, the moment can be significantly more fraught: “Carl took a step toward the mirror and ran one finger along his temple where the bullet had grazed his head. The wound had healed, but the scar was clearly visible under his hair, if anyone cared to look. But who the hell would want to do that? he thought as he studied his face” (Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes 3). Who indeed? But that’s just the point, of course, because whoever else may choose to look at Carl, we readers are looking at him, and in that sense we constitute one of the others that lurk on the edges of these scenes.

But we’re not the only ones, I think. For even if there are no other flesh-and-blood witnesses to these events in the fictional world, mirror scenes always suggest a doubling of the subject. That effect can be more or less pronounced. Sometimes it is merely a question of a subject seeing himself in an unexpected way, projecting an image of himself that he had not anticipated: “In the mirror behind her he saw himself sitting with an idiotic grin on his face” (Jo Nesbø, The Bat 80). Other cases suggest a deeper alienation of the subject from himself, as if I really were an other: “The mechanic stands next to me, gazing at his own reflection as if it belonged to some stranger” (Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow 213). Who is that stranger one sees in the mirror? Is he merely a pretext, a figment, a convenient and temporary construction enabling us to see ourselves objectively? Or is it really someone else, someone with whom we are largely unacquainted? If it is true, as Peter Høeg’s Smilla argues, that “you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger” (Smilla’s Sense of Snow 395), are we to take that assertion literally or figuratively? For if it is indeed the case that mirror scenes put the act of interpretation itself in play, the manner in which we choose to interpret them must be deeply involved in the success or failure of the wager they stake.

Capture

Consider for example this passage from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman: “He had looked in the mirror as recently as the evening before and seen a tall, sinister figure with a lean face, wide forehead, heavy jaws and mournful gray-blue eyes” (55). One may choose to read that passage in a literal sense, in which case the moment becomes a very strange one indeed, and in some respects the reading experience is enriched thereby. Or one can read it more figuratively, imagining that the subject is impressed by the alterity of the image he sees, but not duped thereby. Those choices are conditioned by a wide variety of factors—and not least by extremely thorny questions of readerly desire. Like the White Queen, we can easily believe six impossible things before breakfast in the looking-glass world of fiction. And we may well seek the thrill of the uncanny while simultaneously attempting to normalize and rationalize a given narrative event. Faced with a passage such as the one I just quoted, most readers would opt for a figural interpretation, I imagine. And all the more so insofar as they are acquainted with the supremely rational Martin Beck. For he is a man who never forgets who he is, and no matter how unrecognizable his reflection may seem, he is always able to bring himself back to himself: “While he hung up his coat he glanced at his face in the mirror. He was pale and looked sallow and he had dark circles under his eyes. This was no longer due to the flu but to the fact that he had gone without much sleep” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Roseanna 61).

Other subjects are not as lucky. Karin Fossum’s Zipp Skorpe, for instance, is a badly broken man: “He stopped in front of a store that sold mirrors and looked at the dozens of tiny Zipps. It suited the way he was feeling: shattered into thousands of pieces” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 175-76). Still other individuals embrace that estrangement effect, putting it to use in an effort to get outside of themselves. Such is the case of a teenager in Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked, who makes himself up as an Indian warrior before committing the first in a series of murders: “The first strokes on his forehead had to be black. It was as if he slicing two deep cuts, opening his brain, and emptying the memories and thoughts that had haunted him all his life, tormenting him and humiliating him. Then the red and white stripes, the circles, the squares, and at last the snake-like designs on his cheeks. None of his white skin should be visible. Then the transformation would be complete. What was inside him would be gone. He would be born again in the guise of an animal, and he would never speak as a human being again” (12). In other cases, the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is a fundamentally unhappy event, because it triggers a sense of self-loathing. “She was 16, and had gone to stay with her mother in Malmö,” writes Henning Mankell. “It was a time of crushing defeats, the kind only a teenager can experience. She hated herself and her body, shunning the image she saw in the mirror while strangely enough also welcoming the changes she was undergoing” (Before the Frost 24). At least this character comes by her self-loathing honestly, for she is none other than Linda Wallander, the daughter of Kurt Wallander. And he is someone who has honed self-loathing to an art: “You flabby piece of shit,” he tells his reflection in the mirror, “Do you really want to look like a pitiful old man?” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 27).

Henning-Mankell-007Henning Mankell

In order not to end my discussion of recognition scenes on that sour note, let me point out a final topos that they commonly exploit. I have argued that the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is typically accompanied by the perception of broad truths about oneself. It is useful to imagine those truths as significantly mobile ones. That is, they shift over time, and that process of shifting leaves perceptible traces upon the face. “When he looked at his face in the rearview mirror, he thought that every scratch, every lump, every discolouration from purple to black was a memento of the week’s events” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 217). The cultural cliché upon which this passage plays is a familiar one, of course, but it bears special scrutiny in the present context. For if the face is indeed a kind of text in which a person’s experience may be read, two considerations follow. First, the situation of a subject gazing at her face in the mirror and reading the story of her experience thereupon is very much like the situation that we are in, as gazers and readers. Second, each of these scenes, whatever else it may seek to put on display, is not simply specular, but rather doubly so: that is, the mirror function is itself mirrored in a reflection upon representation and its possibilities.

Scenes of difficult recognition are fewer in Scandinavian detective fiction than in certain other regional traditions one might name, though I hesitate to draw sweeping cultural conclusions from that fact. As to the shapes they assume, I mentioned a moment ago that difficult recognition scenes run the gamut from incidents that are mildly disturbing for the subject to events that are far more traumatic. On the former end of that horizon, one finds scenes where it is merely a question of momentary hesitation before recognition sets in. By way of example, consider this scene from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, where Inspector Van Veeteren gazes absently into a mirror as he makes a phone call: “While he was waiting for a reply he observed the grotesque face glaring at him from the shiny surface above the telephone. It was a few seconds before it dawned on him that he was looking at his own reflection” (68). Those “few seconds” are readily dismissed, and the uncanniness of the moment can easily be rationalized by appealing to Van Veeteren’s distracted state, the fact that the “shiny surface” was not obviously a mirror, and so forth. Yet the face that confronts him is nonetheless “grotesque,” and its expression is “glaring.” Both of those features serve to heighten the strangeness of this encounter, and to broaden the distance between the subject and his image. Moreover, rather than dismissing the incident out of hand, Van Veeteren continues to reflect upon it, gazing upon his face as another person might do, or even as if it belonged to another person. “He was smiling,” he notes. “The corners of his mouth were raised to form a generous curve and gave his face an expression suggesting a touch of lunacy” (68). That coldly phenomenological description of a smile, and the conjecture of lunacy (rather than a more reassuring and conventional interpretation of a smile as a sure sign of happiness) testify to the difficulty Van Veeteren finds in coming to terms with his reflection. That impression of difficulty is further underscored by the comparison that Van Veeteren next invokes. “Like a posturing male gorilla,” he muses (68), and the analogy seems so apt to him that he pursues it: “he stood there glowering at the gorilla” (69). In other terms, what we find in this incident is an apparently trivial scene that opens onto an event far more disturbing, a conversation of self with self wherein the interlocutors stray ever further one from the other. Without wishing to belabor the point, it should be noted that, just as “simple” recognition is never really simple, so “difficult” recognition is actually difficult, in every case.

the-minds-eye

If time is at issue in that scene from Nesser, it is only a brief moment in time, those “few seconds” that it takes for Van Veeteren to recognize himself. More consequential stretches of time are often at stake in scenes of difficult recognition, however. Most characteristically, these occur when the subject finds it hard to accept that she or he has grown old. These scenes are highly variable, to be sure, but they tend toward the latter end of the spectrum I described, that is, toward trauma. “The face I saw in the mirror terrified me,” remarks Fredrik Welin in the final moments of the story he tells. “I had become old” (Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes 240). On the one hand, Mankell is playing on a cultural commonplace here, the one that holds that as we age, our sense of ourselves does not age at the same rate, so that we are often unconscious of how old we have actually become. On the other hand, when we do come face to face with our aged selves (and whatever the particular vehicle of that encounter may be), it is most often an occasion for mild surprise, rather than outright terror. Yet clearly mild surprise pays fewer dividends than does terror, when it is a matter of storytelling; and just as clearly, Mankell has chosen to accentuate the strangeness of this moment in his novel in order to heighten its narrative effect.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man, when Lennart Kollberg confronts himself in the mirror after having shot someone in the line of duty: “That person there has killed a man” (108). It is not that Kollberg cannot recognize himself; instead, that recognition is “difficult,” because it entails the acceptance of a harsh truth about himself. The estrangement effect is very pronounced when he designates himself as “That person,” and the effect is further amplified when he muses about other killers he has known: “During his years on the force he’d stood face to face with more murderers that he cared to think about” (108). What distinguishes him now from those others? And, more disturbingly still, what distinguishes the self he has always believed himself to be from the self he has now so unmistakably become? In other words, has he become someone else entirely?

Questions of that ilk can make the encounter with one’s reflection in the mirror a very painful experience indeed. “Every morning he looked into the little mirror on the wall and asked himself if he was staring into the eyes of a madman,” Mankell says of a character in Before the Frost (246). And of course that’s one way to rationalize the estrangement effect: I look unfamiliar to myself and thus I must be going crazy, because otherwise I would recognize myself easily. Yet such a gesture obviously creates a kind of feedback loop whereby alienation is accentuated rather than attenuated, and it thus points tantalizingly toward catastrophe. For pushed relentlessly to their limits—and why would we readers wish it to be any otherwise?—such moments can have only one outcome: the utter failure of the subject to recognize herself.

Throughout my discussion of mirror scenes, I have argued more or less stridently that the way they function is closely bound up in questions of readerly choice and semiotic desire. That is especially true of this third and final type of scene, which puts on offer an I who has in fact become an other. Now, whether we read that metamorphosis in a literal or a figural manner is entirely (or mostly, rather) up to us. For my own part, speaking as a mirror scene fundamentalist, I would argue that we must take mirror gazers at their word whenever possible. I am forced to concede, however, that some cases strain our credulity more than others. Consider the moment when Stieg Larsson places Lisbeth Salander in front of the mirror in The Girl Who Played with Fire: “She studied herself in the mirror and decided that Irene Nesser looked a little bit like Lisbeth Salander, but was still a completely different person” (68). It is very difficult to imagine that Salander fails to recognize herself here. For one thing, she is an exceptionally astute individual. For another (and more compellingly), she has just disguised herself as this “completely different person,” Irene Nesser, and she is checking the effect of her disguise in the mirror. In other terms, she is assessing the effect her disguise will produce when other people look at her. We have already discussed gestures like that one, of course, and I think it is prudent to dismiss this moment, reluctantly, from our catalogue of failed recognition scenes.

CaptureNoomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Another moment, again involving Lisbeth Salander, occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it is far more difficult to dismiss: “She had a dazzling view of Lake Zürich, which didn’t interest her in the least. But she did spend close to five minutes examining herself in the mirror. She saw a total stranger” (442-43). The encounter is far more uncanny than the one in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The abyss between the self and the reflection of the self yawns more broadly, and the language is more uncompromising. Reason tells us to interpret this figuratively, but desire urges us to read it literally. In this instance, one can really go either way; it is a shining example, I think, of a passage that teeters in precarious equilibrium right on the brink of this third and final type of mirror scene. Sort of like a funambulist, in other words. And what is it about funambulists that fascinates us, other than the possibility that they might fall off the wire? It is the very precariousness of their situation that keeps us breathless, and the danger that awaits them, below. Insofar as mirror scenes are concerned, that danger is defined precisely by the possibility that the subject might fail to recognize herself. It is a fear that haunts many of us, notably including those people who inhabit the worlds of Scandinavian detective novels: “What she feared most of all was to walk down the street and not exist, to step into the elevator at work and discover that the mirror reflected someone else, to exit the elevator and hear the poisonous tongues gabbing behind her back” (Kjell Eriksson, The Cruel Stars of the Night 110).

Jo Nesbo

It is that kind of fear, and the fascination it provokes in us, that fuels our reading of passages such as this one: “Harry went to the lavatory, splashed some cold water over his face and confronted his reflection in the mirror. Beneath his wet, closely cropped fair hair he saw a pair of bloodshot eyes with dark bags under them and drawn, hollow cheeks. He tried a smile. Yellowing teeth grinned back at him. He didn’t recognize himself” (Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star 40). And this one: “Kristín closed the door. A mirror hung in the hall and when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass on her way back to the living room, she did not recognize the figure in it: a gaunt-faced stranger with dark circles under her eyes and dirty hair, matted around her ear which was now red with fresh blood where the wound had reopened. She was wearing the thick snowsuit which was still stained with Steve’s blood. She did not know this woman. Did not know where she had come from. She stared at her, shaking her head with incomprehension” (Arnaldur Indriðason, Operation Napoleon 307-08). And this one, too: “He turned on the cold tap and tried to rinse the blood off his face. He did not recognize his reflection in the broken mirror. His eyes were staring, bloodshot, shifting” (Henning Mankell, The White Lioness 293). Each moment creeps closer to the moment of no return, to the moment of absolute catastrophe. Because if the subject can no longer recognize himself, what in the world will become of him? And what will become of us, granted that we have willingly suspended our disbelief in order to dwell in these fictional worlds?

For it is largely a question of suspense, I think. Moreover, in that very perspective it is we readers who are the funambulists, suspended vertiginously between what we know and what we wish, between experience and imagination, the real and the virtual, recognition and bewilderment. In such a parlous, tensive state, with all of our senses on the alert, we can learn a great deal about who we are and how we read literary texts. For each of these mirror scenes reflects us, too, and the gestures we sketch as we interpret them. They are eminently welcoming, integrationist tropes, in other words, pointing toward the permeability of the boundaries between the fictional world and the phenomenological world. They suggest that even the most committed rationalist among us has a role to play in an imaginary drama, whether that drama be bound up in the struggle of crime and punishment or in the dynamic of writing and reading, whether it be staged on the foggy plains of Skåne or on the comfortable hillocks of one’s own couch.

—Warren Motte

.

Works Cited

Adler-Olsen, Jussi.  The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Trans. Lisa Hartford.  New York: Plume, 2012.

Edwardson, Åke.  Death Angels.  Trans. Ken Schubert.  New York: Penguin, 2009.

Eriksson, Kjell.  The Cruel Stars of the Night.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Fossum, Karin.  Don’t Look Back.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2005.

—.  When the Devil Holds the Candle.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2007.

Høeg, Peter.  Smilla’s Sense of Snow.  Trans. Tiina Nunnally.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Indriðason, Arnaldur.  Jar City.  Trans. Bernard Scudder.  New York: Picador, 2005.

—.  Operation Napoleon.  Trans. Victoria Cribb.  New York: Picador, 2012.

Larsson, Åsa.  Sun Storm.  Trans. Marlaine Delargy.  New York: Delta, 2007.

Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

—.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2009.

—.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

Mankell, Henning.  Before the Frost.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  The Dogs of Riga.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Faceless Killers.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Fifth Woman.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Firewall.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  Italian Shoes.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2010.

—.  The Man Who Smiled.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: New Press, 2006.

—.  One Step Behind.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Pyramid.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg with Laurie Thompson.  New York: Random House, 2009.

—.  Sidetracked.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The White Lioness.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

Nesbø, Jo.  The Bat.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Vintage, 2013.

—.  The Devil’s Star.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Harper, 2011.

Nesser, Håkan.  Borkmann’s Point.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  Mind’s Eye.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2008.

Ohlsson, Kristina. Unwanted.  Trans. Sarah Death.  New York: Atria, 2012

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa.  Last Rituals.  Trans. Bernard Scutter.  New York: Harper, 2009.

—.  My Soul to Take.  Trans. Anna Yates.  New York: Harper, 2010.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö.  The Abominable Man.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Bantam, 1974

—.  Cop Killer.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

—.  The Fire Engine That Disappeared.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1977.

—.  The Laughing Policeman.  Trans. Alan Blair.  New York: Vintage, 1976.

—. Roseanna.  Trans. Lois Roth.  New York: Bantam, 1971.

—.  The Terrorists.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

/

Warren Motte

Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003) Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

Nov 082014
 

Frank Richardson bio pict 2The author outside a bakery in Bamberg, Germany

/

For a long time, as I read, I paid no more attention to the length of sentences than I did to their grammar or syntax. It wasn’t until I discovered Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu that I learned to appreciate how long and short sentences can be juxtaposed for emphasis and how syntax can mimic the flow of thought and action. Of course, Proust is famous for his long sentences, some of which extend well beyond 200 words; these sentences intrigued me the most. The closest analogy I can imagine is that discovering Proust’s long sentences was like discovering a new genre of music, as if I had lived my life without knowing there existed such things as symphonies. If prose is like music, then some types of writing must resonate with particular people just as we have different musical tastes, and Proust’s swirling syntax certainly resonated with me. Eyes opened, I pursued the subject and discovered the rich variety of ways other writers employ long sentences to dramatize the actions and thoughts of characters.

But why labor to construct a 200-word-long sentence when a dozen shorter sentences can communicate the same information and not task the reader’s attention and patience? A sentence is greater than the sum of its propositions. A sentence’s syntax – the order in which the words of the sentence are arranged – affects its emotional impact, e.g. placing a proposition at the end of a sentence engenders suspense. But the possibilities extend far beyond this simple example. In Artful Sentences Virginia Tufte limns an incredible range of syntactic arrangements that function symbolically. She describes “syntactic symbolism” as when “syntax as style has moved beyond the arbitrary, the sufficient, and is made so appropriate to content that, sharing the very qualities of the content, it is carried to that point where it seems not only right but inevitable” (271). In the following excerpt from the novel Correction, Thomas Bernhard uses repetitive syntax to symbolically represent the protagonist’s mania for perfection, viz. he corrects himself while explaining the process of correction:

We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously, because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification . . . (242)

Tufte cites many examples to illustrate the diversity of emotional and mimetic effects of syntactic symbolism. What Tufte calls syntactic symbolism, David Jauss calls “rhythmic mimesis” and notes that “sometimes the syntax does more than convey the appropriate emotion; sometimes it also rhythmically imitates the very experience it is describing . . .” (70-71).[1] The rhythm of the syntax in Bernhard’s prose conveys the protagonist’s exasperation while simultaneously informs on his character. But the “experience” Jauss refers to can mean movement, whether physical action or the more nebulous movement of human thought. I’ve found these types of motion mimesis to be particularly effective applications of the extended syntax of long sentences.

Thomas.BernhardThomas Bernhard

It is important to note that neither Tufte nor Jauss restrict their examples to long sentences; rhythmic mimesis can be conveyed by sentences of all lengths. But given my penchant for longer sentences, I began looking for how they might be used in the manner Jauss and Tufte describe. After surveying a wide range of fiction (different time periods, genres, narrative modes, etc.), I noticed a pattern whereby authors applied long sentences effectively to create a rhythmic mimesis of motion, speech, consciousness, and even character. In the last category a long list can be used to communicate a fictional character’s character, as exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s obsessive memoirist in The Mezzanine. Motion mimesis – using prose to imitate actions – is an excellent use of long sentences with stunning examples found in such diverse works as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many of Faulkner’s stories, and the fiction of David Foster Wallace. Spoken language is no less rhythmic than written, and the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal demonstrates that long sentences can be used to capture the personality and style of a teller of tall tales in his 1964 Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. In the depiction of the conscious mind in fiction, James Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses still exemplifies how the syntax of long sentences can mimic the rhythm of thought. Two contemporary writers who answered the challenge of capturing the mind’s stream of consciousness include: David Foster Wallace, who in Infinite Jest takes the reader into the realm of the subliminal, of dreams and drug-induced states; and the French writer Mathias Énard, who pushes the boundaries of what we call a sentence even further than Joyce, with his book-length sentence in his 2008 novel Zone.

/

The List

The most obvious reason to add propositional content to a sentence is to increase the amount of descriptive detail, and long sentence constructions often contain lists. But the point isn’t to string together a random catalogue of items just to fill the page: lists can elucidate character.

Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine is a daydream, a meditation on life, on questions large and small. The story, presented as a memoir, is told in first-person point of view by Howie, a thirty-year-old factotum obsessed by his childhood. The novel is short, 135 pages, composed of fifteen chapters, many of which have long, detailed footnotes wherein the narrator indulges his love for digression. Howie’s conflict is with himself. He wants to achieve what he calls a “majority,” that is, a moment when he will have “amassed enough miscellaneous new mature thoughts to outweigh and outvote all of those childish ones” – the age of forty, by his calculations – but his obsessive recollections, his seeing the world through the screen of childhood memories, remains his primary obstacle (Baker 58). The novel’s plot is built around a single event – an escalator ride – during an ordinary day five years prior to the novel’s present (its fictional time of writing). At that time, Howie worked at an unnamed corporation and takes us from his lunch break back to his office on the building’s mezzanine, with the escalator ride serving as the focal point. In a narrative where there are more tangents than forward motion, a reader might become overwhelmed with the apparently superfluous anecdotes, but these memories, meditations, and observations – and Baker’s seamless segues between them – are the real magic of The Mezzanine.

Nicholson_BakerNicholson Baker

The story begins as the Howie’s lunch hour is ending and he is approaching the escalator leading to the mezzanine of his office building. Howie is an obsessive, voracious observer of the world around him and delights in sharing his observations in this “memoir.” Mid-way through the second paragraph he digresses to inform us about his activities during his lunch hour, including a two-page-long footnote on the history of drinking straws. Thus, it becomes clear early that this escalator ride is going to take some time to complete; indeed, it will take the remainder of this engaging and richly imagined novel. By chapter five Howie hasn’t even stepped onto the escalator; the story has focused on his past. The first paragraph of chapter five is composed of three short sentences and one long cumulative sentence (341 words) that enumerates Howie’s favorite “systems of local transport” as a child, including rotisseries, rotating watch displays, hot dog cookers, and, of course, escalators:

Other people remember liking boats, cars, trains, or planes when they were children – and I liked them too – but I was more interested in systems of local transport: airport luggage-handling systems (those overlapping new moons of hard rubber that allowed the moving track to turn a corner, neatly drawing its freight of compressed clothing with it; and the fringe of rubber strips that marked the transition between the bright inside world of baggage claim and the outside world of low-clearance vehicles and men in blue outfits); supermarket checkout conveyor belts, turned on and off like sewing machines by a foot pedal, with a seam like a zipper that kept reappearing; and supermarket roller coasters made of rows of vertical rollers arranged in a U curve over which the gray plastic numbered containers that held your bagged and paid-for groceries would slide out a flapped gateway to the outside; milk-bottling machines we saw on field trips that hurried the queueing [sic] bottles on curved tracks with rubber-edged side-rollers toward the machine that socked milk into them and clamped them with a paper cap; marble chutes; Olympic luge and bobsled tracks; the hanger-management systems at the dry cleaner’s – sinuous circuits of rustling plastics (NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY!) and dimly visible clothing that looped from the customer counter way back to the pressing machines in the rear of the store, fanning sideways as they slalomed around old men at antique sewing machines who were making sense of the heap of random pairs of pants pinned with little notes; laundry lines that cranked clothes out over empty space and cranked them back in when the laundry was dry; the barbecue-chicken display at Woolworth’s that rotated whole orange-golden chickens on pivoting skewers; and the rotating Timex watch displays, each watch box open like a clam; the cylindrical roller-cookers on which hot dogs slowly turned in the opposite direction to the rollers, blistering; gears that (as my father explained it) in their greased intersection modified forces and sent them on their way. (35-36)

Howie follows this long catalogue with a short sentence, telling us that the escalator shared qualities with these systems with one notable exception: he could ride the escalator. This telescopes his childhood obsession into adulthood – he can, after all, still ride escalators – where the escalators stimulate Proustian involuntary memories of childhood including, he tells us, memories of his and his father’s shared “mechanical enthusiasms” and of the specific memory of his mother taking him and his sister to department stores and instructing them on escalator safety. This memory, in turn, stirs his concern that he spends too much time (in the present of his writing, not the time of his riding the escalator) thinking of things exclusively in terms of his childhood memories, an epiphany that sets up the last paragraph, a précis for the novel:

I want . . . to set the escalator to the mezzanine against a clean mental background as something fine and worth my adult time to think about . . . I will try not to glide on the reminiscential tone, as if only children had the capacity for wonderment at this great contrivance.[2] (39-40)

True to his digressive tendencies, however, the escalator won’t be mentioned again until chapter eight, and it is not until the midpoint in the novel that Howie actually boards the escalator.

Baker’s long list sentence adds character detail to this dense tale. First, note his eye for specifics: the “blistering” of the hot dogs, the “men in blue” at the airport. Second, he uses metaphor and simile: the “new moons of hard rubber” and watch boxes “like open clams.” Thus, the list not only informs on Howie’s whimsical, yet poetic and reflective nature, but also shows us, by example, his obsessive behavior. Howie acknowledges he likes the things other children liked, only he liked something else more, something odd, something unusual; and then he shows us how much it all meant to him with his detailed recollection. Once Howie begins his recollection, he becomes lost in it; his list goes on and on and he can hardly break free from its hold on him as new things are added and elaborated in fractal-like digressions. Howie spirals into many such lavishly detailed memories and the long sentences convey his sense of being lost in contemplation. Despite his continuing attempts to escape the gravitational pull of his childhood, Howie keeps being drawn deep into memory. A convincing stylistic choice, this long list sentence adds detail while simultaneously revealing character through syntactic symbolism – the long, uninterrupted flow of Howie’s list shows us his obsession with his childhood.

/

Motion Mimesis

Syntagmatic extension of a sentence always has one consequence: it keeps the reader in the moment. Except for perhaps sentences that run for pages, most readers will read to the end of a long sentence before making a full stop at the period. Dwelling on the action can have several effects depending on the subject, including heightening the emotional impact of the moment, whether that is grief or joy, ecstasy or terror. When actions are depicted by the sentence, the rhythm of the prose can lend itself to mimicking the character’s movement. An excellent example of such motion mimesis is found in the climax of William Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning.”

“Barn Burning” is a coming-of-age story set in the post-Civil War American South. The 23-page story has a linear timeline, is written in the past tense, and covers six days, from a Monday through a Saturday. The third-person limited point of view focuses on the thoughts of the protagonist, the ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, youngest of the four Snopes children. The paterfamilias, Abner Snopes, is a violent sociopath, and at the beginning of the story he is a suspect in the burning of a barn. After being found not guilty, he loads up his family for the twelfth time in ten years and moves to the next hamlet to find a work on a farm. The day they arrive Snopes indulges his hatred and jealousy by going to the house of the landowner Major de Spain and deliberately soiling an expensive carpet with horse manure. When asked to clean the rug, Snopes destroys it in the process. In court for the second time within a week, Snopes is fined ten bushels of corn; enraged, that night he sets out to burn de Spain’s barn. When he sees that Sarty is shocked, he becomes worried that his son will thwart his plans and has him held back by his mother. After Snopes and the older son leave, Sarty breaks loose and runs to the de Spain mansion where he bursts in and warns them of the imminent arson. Sarty flees down the road toward the barn and is soon passed by de Spain on horseback. Hearing three shots, Sarty believes his father dead and runs away, leaving his family forever. The primary image of “Barn Burning” is “blood,” which Faulkner uses eight times and always in the context of Sarty and his father or family. In the climax Sarty must choose between his father, his blood, and what he feels is the moral, right choice of warning de Spain.

lg-portrait-of-william-faulkner-896William Faulkner

Young Sartoris has an apparently instinctive sense of right and wrong that jars with his father’s violent, malicious behavior. In the opening scene when his father is before “the Justice,” the boy knows his father is guilty: “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (Faulkner 4); and two days later, after his father is told by Major de Spain that he’ll have to pay twenty bushels of corn for destroying the rug, Sarty, working in the field, hopes that this will mark the end of his father’s reign of terror; he thinks: “Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish – corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses – gone, done with for ever and ever” (17). He can’t believe it when his father tells him to get the oil; he knows what his father intends to do. As Sarty is fleeing down the road after warning de Spain, his “blood and breath roaring,” he is in a semi-fugue state:

He could not hear either: the galloping mare was almost upon him before he heard her, and even then he held his course, as if the very urgency of his wild grief and need must in a moment more find him wings, waiting until the ultimate instant to hurl himself aside and into the weed-choked roadside ditch as the horse thundered past and on, for an instant in furious silhouette against the stars, the tranquil early summer night sky which, even before the shape of the horse and rider vanished, stained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying “Pap! Pap!”, running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, “Father! Father!” (24)

The motion described by the sentence begins with de Spain’s galloping mare gaining on Sarty and continues with him flinging himself into the ditch. After the stunning pause with the juxtaposition of “furious silhouette” and “tranquil . . . night sky (“stained” as blood stains), the motion then gathers momentum as Sarty resumes his sprint. What follows are sixteen more verbs, mostly action verbs, expressed as present participles[3] (as opposed to the past definite). This creates a sense of simultaneity and continuous motion. Faulkner repeats “running” four times and “run” twice within the second half of the sentence; this emphasis extends beyond the motion it is describing to become a metaphor for Sarty and his future. Following the gunshots, he pauses briefly crying the familiar “Pap! Pap!” – his blood; his blood now severed he resumes his run but now he is running away as he had imagined when his father asked him to get the oil: “I could run on and on and never look back . . .” (21). This horrible moment, the defining moment of Sarty’s life, when the choice he made results in the death (at least as far as he can tell) of his father, this desperate race, is captured wonderfully by the Faulkner’s long sentence. The reader is held in suspense as the Sarty runs toward his father and as de Spain rushes to defend his property and is finally swept along with the boy as he runs and runs, never to look back.

/

The Never-ending Story

As anyone who has ever listened to a speech knows, there is a rhythm to the spoken word. A speaker may drone on and on and put the audience to sleep, or he can be dynamic, lyrical, and modulate his tone to keep the audience’s attention. Generally we need pauses in a speech; they are necessary moments of reflection and break the monotony of an unchanging cadence. Aside from soliloquy, fictional characters rarely have unmitigated speech; otherwise the writer, like the droning speaker, might lose his audience. So it is intriguing to find a writer who is willing to take up the challenge of writing a continuous monologue without chapters, without section breaks or line breaks; indeed a monologue as a single sentence that captures the rhythm of language while still entertaining the reader. Such is Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.

First published in Czechoslovakia in 1964 and in an English translation by Michael Henry Heim in 2011, Hrabal’s single-sentence book defies categorization. His friend and reviewer Josef Sǩvorecký called it a “long short story” (Sǩvorecký 7). Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the introduction for the 2011 edition, called it a “novel in one monologue” (Hrabal viii). Semantics aside, this unique story, or collection of tall tales, is a wonderful example of how a writer can sculpt a very long, yet engaging sentence that mimics the spoken word. Hrabal developed his style of story-telling, what he called páblitelé – which Sǩvorecký translates as “tellers of tall tales” and which Thirlwell translates as “palavering” – based on the free-association rambling of oral story-tellers in his life. But this is not a form of automatic writing or free writing – genuine craft is expressed in Hrabal’s prose; the narrator’s monologue (it isn’t really a speech – speeches are organized logically and are intended to communicate specific information – neither of which applies here) is by degrees whimsical, ribald, lyrical, poignant, and profound.

Bohumil-HrabalBohumil Hrabal

Superficially, the book represents the uninterrupted speech of a septuagenarian shoemaker named Jirka who is regaling a group of sunbathing women with his stories of being a soldier during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, his sexual exploits, his opinions on the church and religion, and his humorous digressions of tall tales. It is told in the first-person, mostly in the past tense, and follows real time in that the amount of time it takes to read the 117 pages approximates the time it would take to actually listen to the narrative. Jirka’s desire is to be listened to, to flirt with the ladies; his conflict is keeping his listeners’ attention. But unlike a random, garrulous old man droning on and on, one who won’t let you go until you hear every variation of the same big fish story, Jirka keeps us listening:

neither Havlíček nor Christ ever laughed, if anything they wept, because when you stand for a great idea you can’t horse around, Havlíček had a brain like a diamond, the professors went gaga over him, they tried to make him a bishop, but no, he chose justice, a little coffee, a little wine, and a life for the people, stamping out illiteracy, only perverse people dream of rolling in manure (better days ahead) or of chamber pots (your future is assured) because the thing is, dear ladies, you’ve got to rely on yourselves, take Manouch, who thought he had it made because his father was a jailer and all he did was drink and pick up bad habits, which leads to fights like the quarrel in the days of the monarchy between the social democrats and the freethinkers and clerics over whether the world comes from a monkey or God slapped Adam together out of mud and fashioned Eve from his insides, now He could have made her out of mud too, it would have been cheaper, though nobody really knows what went on, the world was as deserted as a star, but people twitter away like magpies and don’t really care, I could set my sights on a charmer, a prime minister’s daughter, but what’s not to be is not to be and could even take a bad turn, Mother of God! the crown prince had syphilis and that Vetsera woman shot him, but then she got shot by the coachman, though any young lady will tell you you might as well be buried alive if the man in your life has a faulty fandangle, when I was serving in the most elegant army in the world I told our medical officer, Doctor, I said, I’ve got a weak heart, but all he said was, So have I, boy, and if we had a hundred thousand like you we could conquer the world, and he put me into the highest category, so I was a hero . . . (3-5)

For the purposes of this essay I’ve selected this 340-word excerpt of the 117-page long sentence so that a sense of the rhythm can be appreciated. In the book as a whole, after the comma, the most common punctuation mark Hrabal uses is the question mark, then the dash, then the exclamation point; there are no colons or periods (even at the end) and only one semicolon.

In this relatively short passage there is an astonishing variety of subjects. He begins with philosophizing about the writer Havlíček and Christ (a favorite subject); then makes an aphoristic statement (a common habit); he reflects on Havlíček’s history with clear parallels to his own (Jirka’s) values; he quotes ironic entries from his favorite book of dream interpretations, refers to his audience, and then drops another aphorism. He interrupts himself at one point with the exclamation “Mother of God!” (another habit) indicating that he has just remembered something that he absolutely must tell the ladies right away. Note that Hrabal doesn’t let us forget the scene: more than a dozen times in the book Jirka refers directly to the women he is speaking to, but here he also says “though any young lady will tell you,” an indirect nod in their direction and a preface to his flirting. He concludes this part of his never-ending sentence with a tale of the absurd, a lampoon of his time in the military (another favorite subject).

Sǩvorecký writes that Hrabal’s importance “lies predominantly in this language, in how his stories are told” (8). The book’s forward momentum is carried by Jirka’s engaging voice and the bizarre, often humorous tales he tells. Narrative voice isn’t carried by subject matter and diction alone, but by the order of words, i.e. the syntax with which those words are arranged.

/

The Persistence of Thought: Mind Mimesis

One of the most elusive subjects in fiction, as in life, is the nature of human consciousness. Philosophers have been arguing about how we know (or think we know) what we know and how we know what others know since the emergence of language. Epistemological questions aside, how can a writer convey – or attempt to convey – the nature of human thought?

Methods for representing a character’s thought span the range of narrative modes. Consider first-person. It seems straightforward enough: have the character simply tell us what he is thinking. When addressing another character, this is dialogue, or if alone, a soliloquy. Soliloquy typically follows the rules of grammar and is logically organized. And soliloquy, although spoken alone, is presented as if to an audience, which requires it to be more coherent (Humphrey 35). But what if the language is internal self-address, i.e. the language we “speak” only to ourselves? The narrative mode used to describe this is variously called free direct thought, internal monologue, or autonomous monologue. Interior monologue, in contrast to soliloquy (or dialogue) is more associative; prone to spontaneous, illogical shifts; and is rich in imagery (Cohn 12). The acme of internal monologue in literature is found in the “Penelope” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses is the ur-text for modernism. Published in 1922, this canonical “stream of consciousness” novel is the story of the lives of three principal characters, Leopold Bloom (who works in advertising), his wife Molly (a professional singer), and a family friend Stephen Dedalus (an aspiring poet) on a single day: June 16, 1904. The book is divided into eighteen sections and is organized according to Homer’s Odyssey, with Bloom in the role of Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman myths). Bloom’s journey takes him from home, through his day in Dublin, and then back again; along the way he is joined by Stephen. Almost all of the chapters focus on Bloom, but the last chapter, commonly referred to as “Penelope” in reference to Odysseus’s wife, takes place in the mind of Molly while she tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep after her husband returns home and joins her in bed at approximately two in the morning. “Penelope” is divided into eight “sentences,” although the only reason for designating them thusly are line breaks with indentation; the chapter has no punctuation except for two periods, one at the end of the fourth sentence; one at the end. The run-on nature of the chapter is the point, that thought doesn’t stop; it keeps flowing in an endless stream until you either fall asleep (except for dreaming) or die, i.e. you can’t turn thought off.

james-joyceJames Joyce

Molly has had a singular day: she has had an affair with her manager Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. Lying awake in bed, her thoughts roam: she thinks about Boylan and compares his sexuality with Bloom’s; she thinks about her marriage and that she and “Poldy” (whom she suspects has had an affair too that day) haven’t have sex since their son Rudy died shortly after he was born eleven years prior; she thinks about the future and is worried about their finances, she fantasizes about the twenty-something Stephen; and she thinks about her past, including the men she has known, her childhood in Gibraltar, and (famously) when Bloom asked her to marry him and she said yes. The only indication of an external world is a train whistle she hears; the only action, when she gets out of bed to use the chamber pot. Molly’s character is highly nuanced and through her unedited stream of consciousness the reader empathizes with the conflicts she faces in her life. After her fantasy of seducing Stephen concludes, her thoughts turn back to Boylan, then to Bloom as the last sentence of the chapter begins. She is annoyed with Bloom for having kissed her bottom after he crawled into bed. Her annoyance leads to sexual fantasies with other men until she is distracted by Bloom crowding her on the bed; she thinks:

O move over your big carcass out of that for the love of Mike listen to him the winds that waft my sighs to thee[4] so well he may sleep and sigh the great Suggester Don Poldo de la Flora if he knew how he came out on the cards this morning hed have something to sigh for a dark man in some perplexity between 2 7s too in prison for Lord knows what he does that I dont know and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldn’t be in the world at all only for us they dont know what it is to be a woman and a mother how could they where would they all of them be if they hadnt all a mother to look after them what I never had thats why I suppose hes running wild now out at night away from his books and studies and not living at home on account of the usual rowy house I suppose well its a poor case that those that have a fine son like that theyre not satisfied and I none was he not able to make one it wasnt my fault we came together when I was watching the two dogs up in her behind in the middle of the naked street that disheartened me altogether I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since O Im not going to think myself into the glooms about that any more . . . (778)

This 392-word excerpt depicts the silent, unmediated self-communication of a fictional mind saturated with thoughts that transition associatively with dizzying speed. She is annoyed at Bloom for hogging the bed; she compares his wheezing (or perhaps snoring) with a song called “The Winds That Waft My Sighs to Thee” (remember, she is a professional singer; she doesn’t “say” to herself “His snoring sounds like X, rather the association pops into her consciousness as she listens to him breathe); she invents an epithet for Bloom; she thinks about the card reading she did for him; she’s aggravated about agreeing to fix him breakfast; she philosophizes about what a better world it would be if “governed by the women”; she reflects that men are ungrateful and then thinks of Stephen, whom she worries about in a maternal way; she speculates that Stephen’s parents don’t appreciate him and that they are ungrateful which leads to her thoughts of her dead son Rudy and that she should have given the coat she knitted for him to a needy child; and she reflects that she and Bloom haven’t been intimate since Rudy’s death, which she then resolves not to be depressed about. She uses the imperative (“O move over”), indicative (“I dont care what anybody says”), and subjunctive (“if he knew”) mood. She uses the past, present, and future tense. And all of these grammatical forms are switched between with the fluid rhythmicity of thought.

The first and most obvious feature of this excerpt that adds to its verisimilitude as internal monologue is the fact that it is uninterrupted; there are no gaps in the text as there are no gaps in our thoughts. Another feature of “pure” internal monologue that makes this example (and the entire “Penelope” chapter) successful as speech-for-oneself is the use of non-referential pronouns, i.e. “he” refers to Bloom, Stephen, and Rudy at different places in the stream of thought, and, significantly, there is no immediate reference to whom of the three she is thinking about. After all, Molly knows who she is thinking about and doesn’t need to explain it to anyone – this isn’t a soliloquy, this isn’t a speech, and this isn’t dialogue. Finally, the thought mimesis isn’t disrupted by Molly reporting her actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. This last quality doesn’t apply particularly to this passage, but it is important to the success of the chapter as a whole. The only action she takes is to use the chamber pot and Joyce is careful to address her kinetic perceptions without action verbs (q.v. sub).

.

Mathias Énard’s Zone, published in France in 2008 and in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell in 2010, is a novel that parallels Ulysses in many ways. Like Joyce, Énard borrowed his structure from Homer, this time: The Iliad. Also like Joyce, Énard explores consciousness with internal monologue. With Zone Énard follows the tradition of novel-length sentences such as those by Bohumil Hrabal, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Camilo José Cela. Zone is presented as a single-sentence internal monologue by the protagonist Francis Servain Mirković, a former spy for French Intelligence, now fleeing to a new life aboard a train from Milan to Rome. However, the sentence is interrupted by twenty-four, numbered chapter divisions (loosely reflecting Homer’s epic), and three chapters are devoted to a tale-within-the-tale (a book Francis is reading in which the plot parallels his own). Neither the parallel story, nor the chapter breaks detract significantly from the continuity of Francis’s roaming thoughts, and the stylistic choice of an internal monologue allows Énard great freedom in creating an intricate network of associated images.

The novel begins in media mentum in Francis’s mind as the train is leaving the Milan station: “everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing . . .” (Énard 5). Two bronze weapons clashing. Énard’s war imagery begins immediately and doesn’t relent. Francis, Croatian veteran of the Bosnian War, amateur historian, spy, has fled France with a suitcase full of war crimes information. He plans to sell the documents to the Vatican for $300,000, his nest egg for retirement under an assumed identity. The story of a man trying to escape his past, Zone is told from Francis’s point of view in internal monologue, but with the psychic distance shifted toward autobiography and reportage, i.e. with thoughts organized more logically than Joyce presents Molly’s meditations. Francis, in his recollections, tells a story, or many stories, during his trip. Francis never leaves the train, although the locations he passes serve as segues for his mental peregrinations through history (personal and otherwise), especially of wars in the Mediterranean region.

Dorrit Cohn, in her 1978 seminal work Transparent Minds, notes that “unity of place . . . creates the conditions for a monologue in which the mind is its own place . . .” (222) and compliments Joyce on his decision to place Molly in bed where she doesn’t need to address her kinetic perceptions. Of course, that isn’t entirely accurate since Molly does get out of bed to use the chamber pot. Énard also places his character in a position of stasis, the train seat he occupies for the trip, and, like Molly, Francis will get up and move about only briefly. However, Énard gets to have it both ways: yes, Francis is static (most of the time) but he is also on a moving train passing through the Italian countryside and through Italian cities – opportunities for Francis’s thoughts to segue between subjects. Sometimes Francis only notes the city without comment, such as when he passes through Parma and Reggio Emilia, but other times he uses the location as a platform to digress about history, or to facilitate his meditations. As the train pulls out of Florence, Francis thinks:

I’m facing my destination, Rome is in front of me, Florence streams past, noble Florence scattered with cupolas where they blithely tortured Savonarola and Machiavelli, torture for the pleasure of it strappado water the thumb-screw and flaying, the politician-monk was too virtuous, Savonarola the austere forbade whores books pleasures drink games which especially annoyed Pope Alexander VI Borgia the fornicator from Xàtiva with his countless descendants, ah those were the days, today the Polish pontiff trembling immortal and infallible has just finished his speech on the Piazza di Spagna, I doubt he has children, I doubt it, my neighbors the crossword-loving musicians are also talking about Florence, I hear Firenze Firenze one of the few Italian words I know, in my Venetian solitude I didn’t learn much of the language of Dante the hook-nosed eschatologist, Ghassan and I spoke French, Marianne too of course, in my long solitary wanderings as a depressed warrior I didn’t talk with anyone, aside from asking for a red or white wine according to my mood at the time, ombra rossa or bianca, a red or white shadow, the name the Venetians give the little glass of wine you drink from five o’clock onwards, I don’t know the explanation for this pretty poetic expression, go have a shadow, as opposed to going to take some sun I suppose at the time I abused the shadow and night in solitude, after burning my uniforms and trying to forget Andi Vlaho Croatia Bosnia bodies wounds the smell of death I was in a pointless airlock between two worlds, in a city without a city, without cars, without noise, veined with dark water traveled by tourists eaten away by the history of its greatness . . . (330-331) [Énard’s italics]

 One of the first things to note is that the internal monologue is more conversational, more dialogic than Molly’s internal speech. Joyce’s style eschews active verbs and punctuation, giving it a less edited and more organic feel. But such a style would be difficult to maintain for the 517-page journey Zone follows; “Penelope” is just over 40 pages. Énard’s more coherent syntax is more readable and more forgiving. Nevertheless, the sentence (fragment) succeeds in capturing the flowing thoughts of the character using many of the same techniques used by Joyce including: omitting punctuation (in places), rapid and spontaneous free association, staccato rhythms, and poetic imagery.

Francis’s thoughts flow in free association when the thought of torture triggers a list of torture techniques including strappado, the use of water, and thumb-screws; here the absence of commas, definite articles, or other grammatical devices helps create the stream of consciousness effect. In this 286-word excerpt Francis then: generalizes ironically about the past (“those were the days”), has doubts, observes his fellow travelers, thinks of the languages he knows and once spoke with a friend and his ex-girlfriend, reflects on the present in generalizations, and finally returns to his past where the names of his fellow soldiers and friends run together with locations, trailing off in poetic imagery.

menardMathias Énard

There are three notable differences between this monologue and the type of pure internal monologue seen in the Joyce example. First, it is broken up with punctuation. Second, Énard uses referential pronouns, e.g. Xàtiva/his and pontiff/his, and people have proper names. Third, the thought mimesis is interrupted by Francis’s declaring his perceptions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun, e.g. “I hear Firenze Firenze” – Molly hears a train, but she never tells the reader. This last difference is significant for action depiction as well.

Both Molly and Francis act in their memories, whether it is Molly musing about her first sexual encounter in Gibraltar or Francis reliving the horror of watching his friend get shot in Bosnia. But for movement in the narrative’s present, internal monologue can be difficult to manage without disturbing the reader’s perception, i.e. if the reader has accepted that they are “listening in” to someone’s thoughts then describing external events can be as jarring as changing the point of view. For example: one of the distinctive features of pure internal monologue is that thought isn’t disrupted by characters reporting their actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. In the following excerpt, Molly gets out of bed to urinate and find a sanitary napkin, but we only read her impressions:

O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh sweets of sin whoever suggested that business for women what between clothes and cooking and children this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens I suppose they could hear us away over the other side of the park till I suggested to put the quilt on the floor with the pillow under my bottom I wonder is it nicer in the day I think it is easy I think Ill cut all this hair off me there scalding me I might look like a young girl wouldnt he get the great suckin the next time he turned up my clothes on me Id give anything to see his face wheres the chamber gone easy Ive a holy horror of its breaking under me after that old commode I wonder was I too heavy . . . (769)

In the first line, where we expect the word “bed,” we find the interjection “pooh” – a word that has spontaneously popped into her consciousness. There is a missing copula in “this damned old bed too jingling.” She never “thinks” she is walking to the chamber pot, only wonders where it has gone. Compare this with the following passage from Zone where Francis describes going to the toilet:

I’d like to go have a drink at the bar, I’m thirsty, it’s too early, at this rate if I begin drinking now I’ll arrive in Rome dead drunk, my body is weighing me down I shift it on the seat I get up hesitate for an instant head for the toilet it’s good to move a little and even better to run warm non-potable water over your face, the john is like the train, modern, brushed grey steel and black plastic, elegant like some handheld weapon, more water on my face and now I’m perked up, I go back to my seat . . . (54)

Note the first-person pronoun and action verb use: “I shift it,” “I get up,” and “I go back.” There are three constructions using copulas (or implied copulas): “it’s too early,” “it’s good,” and “the john is.” As a result of the action verbs and copulas, what should be internal monologue feels like reportage.

Nevertheless, Énard demonstrates the versatility of a long sentence internal monologue. I agree with Mary Stein, who wrote in her 2011 review of Zone: “Énard’s ambitious prose functions as a structure necessary to and inseparable from Mirković’s narrative identity.” The stream of consciousness fluidity of the long run-on sentence mimics Francis Mirković’s disturbed mind, and if some verisimilitude of consciousness mimesis is sacrificed, his narrative identity still supports a web of imagery that rises to the level of great art.

/

Altered States

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s sprawling 1996 novel, opens during the Year of Glad (ca. 2008) in an imagined future where the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have been combined into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) and corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year. Three interwoven plots follow separate groups of characters, including: the protagonist Hal Incandenza and his schoolmates at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, a group of men and women in a drug rehabilitation house nearby, and a Québécois terrorist group.

Most of the action of the novel takes place one year prior to the opening scene and is narrated in the past tense by, arguably, Hal. The novel, told primarily from a third-person point of view, has numerous examples of first-person intrusion, and it is always Hal. Hal is a linguistic prodigy, and his way of interpreting the world is revealed in a stylistic manner consistent with his consciousness, i.e. with elevated diction and complex syntax. Hal is also a drug addict. In fact, many of the characters have substance abuse issues and Infinite Jest is in many regards the epic of addiction. During Hal’s senior year at his private high school he struggles with marijuana addiction while, simultaneously, Joelle Van Dyne struggles with cocaine. Joelle is the ex-girlfriend of Hal’s older brother Orin and, after her near-fatal overdose, becomes a resident of the rehab house near Hal’s school.

dfwDavid Foster Wallace

Although Wallace depicts the consciousness of his characters almost exclusively using third-person narration, he still achieves a stream of consciousness effect in many scenes. The problem with first-person presentation of characters in drug-induced states of altered consciousness is that, as readers, we neither expect them to speak in coherent language, nor can we imagine any coherence to their thoughts at all. Thus, Cohn writes that “the novelist who wishes to portray the least conscious strata of psychic life is forced to do so by way of the most indirect and the most traditional of the available modes” (56), what she terms “psycho-narration” (or third-person narration). Wallace makes effective use of long sentences to depict altered conscious states in the scenes of Joelle’s overdose and Hal’s nightmare.

Joelle, who has a late-night radio show, was disfigured some years before when acid was thrown in her face. She now wears a veil and is a member of the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” Early in the primary timeline, Joelle[5] returns to the apartment she shares with Molly (who is throwing a massive party), locks herself in the bathroom, and proceeds to commit suicide by smoking freebase cocaine. The following 449-word long sentence is from her point of view and takes place after her second dose from her homemade pipe:

The voice is the young post-New Formalist from Pittsburgh who affects Continental and wears an ascot that won’t stay tight, with that hesitant knocking of when you know perfectly well someone’s in there, the bathroom door composed of thirty-six that’s three times a lengthwise twelve recessed two-bevelled squares in a warped rectangle of steam-softened wood, not quite white, the bottom outside corner right here raw wood and mangled from hitting the cabinets’ bottom drawer’s wicked metal knob, through the door and offset ‘Red’ and glowering actors and calendar and very crowded scene and pubic spiral of pale blue smoke from the elephant-colored rubble of ash and little blackened chunks in the foil funnel’s cone, the smoke’s baby-blanket blue that’s sent her sliding down along the wall past knotted washcloth, towel rack, blood-flower wallpaper and intricately grimed electrical outlet, the light sharp bitter tint of a heated sky’s blue that’s left her uprightly fetal with chin on knees in yet another North American bathroom, deveiled, too pretty for words, maybe the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (Prettiest G.O.A.T.), knees to chest, slew-footed by the radiant chill of the claw-footed tub’s porcelain, Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue, lacquer, she’s holding the bottle, recalling vividly its slogan for the last generation was The Choice of a Nude Generation, when she was of back-pocket height and prettier by far than any of the peach-colored titans they’d gazed up at, his hand in her lap her hand in the box and rooting down past candy for the Prize, more fun way too much fun inside her veil on the counter above her, the stuff in the funnel exhausted though it’s still smoking thinly, its graph reaching its highest spiked prick, peak, the arrow’s best descent, so good she can’t stand it and reaches out for the cold tub’s rim’s cold edge to pull herself up as the white-party-noise reaches, for her, the sort of stereophonic precipice of volume to teeter on just before the speakers blow, people barely twitching and conversations strettoing against a ghastly old pre-Carter thing saying ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ Joelle’s limbs have been removed to a distance where their acknowledgment of her commands seems like magic, both clogs simply gone, nowhere in sight, and socks oddly wet, pulls her face up to face the unclean medicine-cabinet mirror, twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner, hair of the flame she’s eaten now trailing like the legs of wasps through the air of the glass she uses to locate the de-faced veil and what’s inside it, loading up the cone again, the ashes from the last load make the world’s best filter: this is a fact. (239-240)

Joelle’s overdose results in an altered state of consciousness. Wallace begins the descent into her mind with a complete sentence of indirect internal monologue: she hears someone asking if the bathroom is occupied The voice . . . in there”). Rather than ending this sentence with a period, Wallace creates a run-on sentence with several clauses that describe her perceptions using vivid imagery (e.g. adjectives like beveled, warped, steam-softened, raw, and mangled). About halfway through the sentence she thinks of the nickname Orin gave her. The next clause is a complete sentence and internal monologue: “Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue,” followed by a single-word thought (“lacquer”), and then the narration shifts back to third-person (or perhaps indirect internal monologue) with “she’s holding the bottle.” There are memories, then more sensory descriptions (sound is now white noise); she regards her limbs as distant, has lost her shoes, is lost in hallucination (“twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner”), and finally reloads her pipe for another dose. The long, run-on nature of this sentence; the free associations; the irrational switching between perceptions, actions, and thoughts; and the poetic imagery all contribute to creating a stream of consciousness effect in this passage.

Conveying a dream state presents the writer with the same problem of drug-induced states: it is subliminal thought. Hal’s nightmare of finding “Evil” in his dorm room is a tour de force of long-sentence syntax engendering suspense and depicting the process that takes place in a dreaming mind.

A subchapter begins with first-person narration during an indeterminate time, i.e. it could be outside the narrative while the implied author is writing. The narrator feels he is coming to a realization about nightmares. After letting this thought trail off in ellipsis, the narration resumes in second-person (heightening our identification with the character) as Hal (“you”) dreams that he is lying in bed in his pitch-dark dorm room. In the dream, Hal pans the room with a flashlight, listing what he sees:

The flashlight your mother name-tagged with masking tape and packed for you special pans around the institutional room: the drop-ceiling, the gray striped mattress and bulged grid of bunksprings above you, the two other bunkbeds another matte gray that won’t return light, the piles of books and compact disks and tapes and tennis gear; your disk of white light trembling like the moon on water as it plays over the identical bureaus, the recessions of closet and room’s front door, door’s frame’s bolections; the cone of light pans over fixtures, the lumpy jumbles of sleeping boys’ shadows on the snuff-white walls, the two rag throw-rugs’ ovals on the hardwood floor, black lines of baseboards’ reglets, the cracks in the venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, InterLace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil. (62) [Wallace’s italics]

The five words “the face in the floor” (following “TPs”) are embedded 26 items into the list of things Hal sees in his flashlight beam. The reader is bored when they reach “the face in the floor,” i.e. they pass right by it – as Hal does – only for it to dawn on them later (at word 224, the italicized “no”) that floors don’t have faces. Just as Hal “sees without seeing,” we read without reading. When it dawns on Hal that he has seen something that doesn’t belong, the narration shifts to a fast, frantic pace using polysyndeton and no commas (in stark contrast to the long list of comma-delineated items) as Hal searches the room for what he thinks he saw, and when he finds it, he recognizes it as “Evil.” A pictorial representation of the cat’s eyebrows adds to the subliminal quality of this part of the sentence. A short, eight-word sentence set off as a separate paragraph follows: “And then its mouth opens at your light.” The emphasis placed on this short sentence mimics the shock of being attacked in a nightmare; it is the climactic moment when dread finally becomes acute horror. Again, Cohn reminds us:

the language of . . . psycho-narration is meant to elucidate rather than to emulate the figural psyche. The narrator builds a symbolic landscape as a kind of theoretical correlative for a subliminal stratum that can never emerge on the conscious level or the verbal surface of the figural mind. (55)

Wallace shows that either the third-person or the second-person narrative mode is effective for depicting consciousness; perhaps even more so than first-person, for those modes can stretch to subconscious altered states.

***

Are long sentences necessary for every work of fiction? Absolutely not. There are many examples of beautifully written stories containing only short, simple sentences; however, the power of long sentences is undeniable when you consider the numerous ways they can be effectively applied. Capturing the rhythm of motion – whether of actions or thought or speech – using linear prose presents a challenge for every writer. Virginia Tufte and David Jauss describe an elegant solution: use syntax symbolically; allow the syntax to mimic the rhythm. Faulkner, Hrabal, Joyce, Énard, and Wallace, achieve subtle and poetic effects through the syntax of their long sentences. But their achievements with long sentences, and those of writers like Nicholson Baker, also extend to character elucidation and conveying emotional content.

In my search for examples of long sentences, I found sentences greater than 150 words in the work of over fifty authors. Some of them stay within conventional grammar (like Baker and Faulkner), while others depart from those conventions radically. The standard rules of grammar are followed for a reason, they bring coherence to our prose; too severe a departure from these rules and the text’s meaning is lost. Nevertheless, there are justifiable reasons for coloring outside the lines; especially if, in the end, you can create sentences as effective and poetic as those by the writers I’ve surveyed. Jauss counsels that “the more we concentrate on altering our syntax, the more we free ourselves to discover other modes of thought” (68), and building long sentences is certainly a dramatic way to alter our syntax.

Looking back on my meditation on the long sentence, I find it remarkable that I didn’t find a place for the writer who set me on this path, M. Proust. Turning the pages of the volume of À la recherche I’m currently rereading, Proust’s narrator describes the musician Vinteuil as:

drawing from the colours as he found them a wild joy which gave him the power to press on, to discover those [sounds] which they seemed to summon up next, ecstatic, trembling as if at a spark when sublimity sprang spontaneously from the clash of brass, panting, intoxicated, dizzy, half-madly painting his great musical fresco . . . (Proust 233)

A fitting description for the wild exuberance some writers seem to have for their long, “panting,” “intoxicated,” “dizzy,” and sometimes fully-mad sentences – writers like Proust. Too bad I didn’t have more space to write about him. Perhaps next time.

—Frank Richardson

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988. Print.

Bernhard, Thomas. Correction. New York: Vintage-Random, 2010. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP., 1978. Print.

Énard, Mathias. Zone. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Rochester: Open Letter, 2010. Print.

Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1995. Print

Hrabal, Bohumil. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011. Print.

Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1959. Print

Jauss, David. On Writing Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Ed. Christopher Prendergast. Trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier. Vol. 5. London: Lane-Penguin, 2002. Print.

Sǩvorecký, Josef. “Some Contemporary Czech Prose Writers.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4:1 (1970): 5-13. Print.

Stein, Mary. “This Ancient World, A Review of Mathias Énard’s Zone.” Numéro Cinq 2.18 (2011): n. pg. Web.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 2006. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.

/

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun

 /

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Jauss’s italics.
  2. Despite wanting to divest himself of childhood memories, he never does; even the last page includes a reference to “when I was little.”
  3. Q.v. The Mezzanine excerpt wherein eleven present participle action verbs describe the motion of the various systems of local transport.
  4. Reference to a song: “The Winds that Waft My Sighs to Thee,” by W. V. Wallace.
  5. She is known also by the epithet “The Prettiest Girl of All Time” or “P.G.O.A.T.,” a nickname given her by Orin.
Jul 162014
 

Capture

The Full Monty (script by Simon Beaufoy — he won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009; director Peter Cattaneo) tells the story of a group of unemployed Sheffield (UK) factory workers who hit upon the idea of stripping for money. There are all kinds of political and gender implications, but  you could say that one message has something to do with the emasculation of working class men in a late capitalist environment. In this case, the men go through a strange self-induced re-education process during which they begin to see how they have objectified women (as they themselves become objectified). That’s one element of the mix. On another level, the plot is extremely traditional (read mythic): the band of unlikely heroes wins the Golden Fleece against all odds (as in just about every sports movie ever made). The movie is also traditional in that, though it begins with a political statement (about the late capitalist economics of impoverishment), it doesn’t posit a political solution. The solution is somewhat magical, which is part of the reason we like such movies. (And there’s no need to criticize a movie for being no more than it is.)

The basic compositional problem of all narrative is how to create dramatic interest through the use of structure. Story alone can only take you so far. If you drew a Venn diagram of the narrative arts as used in film and fiction, a huge number would appear in the common area, especially techniques related to structural elements (plot and subplot, for example). But you also find an amazing number of rhetorical devices that cross over between the arts. What follows is my movie notes in an outline form, an outline of The Full Monty with an emphasis on structural expedients, techniques, repetitions, nested scenes, scene crunches, images, etc., that went to create a lively piece of film.

For however long it is available, you can watch the movie online here.

dg

.

The film: Mildly satirical comedy with a political edge; romantic elements; team-and-training plot; ensemble structure with multiple subplots.

Basic composition principles: 1) Repetition is the heart of art. Watch for repetition of all kinds: large structural repetitions, subplots, musical motifs, thematic passages, bookends, motifs, anaphora, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, tie-backs, simple word repetitions. Distinguish also between repetitions that work to organize the whole work and those that are used to organize smaller segments only. Note also how repetitions are varied to keep them fresh. 2) Strict time control but also a temporal consciousness based on desire, backfill and tie-backs. 3) Plots are organized into clear, simple steps. 4) Each step, event, or event sequence has a simple informing desire and some dramatic interference. The interference can take many forms as well: not-answering dialogue, scene crunches or interfering scenes, suspensions, nested scenes (a version of parenthesis, or what I call in a different jargon nested globs), intercut scenes. Often the desire/interference structure can be expressed grammatically as a but-construction. 5) Gradation of characters in plot and subplots. 6) Progression d’effet (scenes and event sequences get shorter as we get closer to the climax of the movie).

1. Overture: Ironic 1950s documentary of swinging industrial Sheffield sets up the disjunct between then and now, a foreshortened history of the decline of the British steel industry, the destruction of the post-WW 2 working class, the displacement of predominately male laboring class. Closes with a literal time switch to move us to the present that hyphenates the two juxtaposed pictures of a working steel mill and Gary, Dave and the boy in the abandoned steel mill. Ends with literal time switch “25 Years Later.”

2. Announcing the problem and solution: (Broken up into segments: stealing girder, Chippendales, dropping Nathan at school next morning, job club, confrontation over custody and support payments. Segments vary from one scene to a set of connected scenes.)

a.    Stealing girder

        i.    Stealing girder 1; intention: to steal and sell girder

(1)   Nathan “stealing”/Gary “liberating” (sets of Nathan as voice of reason and morality, Gary as wilder, willing to bend the rules, even the rules of language)
(2)   10 years we worked here (backfill)
(3)   Don’t tell your mother
(4)   Scene crunch interruption by mill band
(5)   Security guard locks door (Lumper)

ii.    Stealing girder 2

(1)    Can’t we do normal things?
(2)    Nathan drops girder
(3)    That were your bloody maintenance
(4)    Nathan leaves
(5)    Gary & Dave trapped
(6)    Joke w/ pedestrian

 b.     Chippendales

i.    Walking from canal to bar

(1)    Complaining about being wet (tie-back to previous scene)
(2)    “take your kit off” is a tie-forward line
(3)    Commenting on passing woman
(4)    working men’s club taken over by women
(5)    Jean is inside (“it’s her money”) SUBPLOT
(6)    where’s your pride man
(7)    Gary says Dave has to get her out of there

        ii.    Gary in the men’s room (nested scene); aim: to get Jean out

(1)    Dave too fat to get in
(2)    Gary sends Nathan in to get jean
(3)    BUT Nathan goes to drink beer

(a)    Jean and girlfriends come to men’s room
(b)  Jean: Dave’s given up on work, me, everything (SUBPLOT)
(c)    girlfriend pees in men’s urinal standing up

(4)    Gary goes after Nathan in the bar
(5)    Gary lies to Dave about Jean in the bathroom
(6)    “Hot Stuff”

c.    Dropping Nathan at school next day; intention: to make plan to spend time with Nathan next weekend

(1)    Nathan hung over (time switch device that tells us this is the morning after the scene in the bar)
(2)    Nathan complaining about Gary’s flat
(3)    Gary suggest going to Sunday league soccer match
(4)    Nathan wants to go to Premier League match
(5)    but Gary can’t afford it, suggest a hole in the fence
(6)    Nathan disgusted

d.    Job Club; uses Gerald as the device of the third thing to enhance what is essentially a talking/thinking scene

(1)    women peeing like men comment is tie-back to men’s room scene but anchors the conversation
(2)    men…extinct-o, only in zoos, a joke
(a)    Gerald, a foreman (class consciousness of movie), interrupts
(3)    get his “kit off” (repetition from above)
(4)    IDEA dawns
(5)    10,000 quid “worth a thought”
(a)    Gerald mocks them
(b)    fight between Gerald and Gary

e.    Intensification of PROBLEM; intention: Gary wants to get his ex to drop her request for sole custody

(1)    confrontation about sole/joint custody
(2)    700 pounds in arrears
(3)    Gary on the dole
(4)    Nathan doesn’t like staying at Gary’s place
(5)    Barry, the sneering boyfriend

3. Forming the team: (Jogging with Dave and meeting Lumper, first rehearsal at mill, getting Gerald to join, tryouts at the mill during which Horse and Guy join up, scene in bedroom w/ Dave and Jean.)

a.    Comic scene crunch, Lumper joining the team

i.    Gary and Dave jogging

ii.    Gary trying to convince Dave to join

iii.    But Dave only wants to help

(1)    Dave stops to help Lumper in his stalled car
Things that repeat: garden gnomes, dance, your kit off, sun bed, walking up the wall, shoplifting and running out of the store, exercycle

(2)    dawns on us that Lumper is committing suicide SUBPLOT
(3)    Dave has beautiful not-answering conversation

Things that repeat

iv.    Dave runs up hill to have cigarette w/ Gary

(1)    Dave realizes what’s going on and runs back
(2)    saves Lumper
(3)    Lumper calls him a bastard
(4)    Dave puts Lumper back in the car

v.    Lumper, Dave and Gary discuss how to commit suicide

vi.    Gary and Dave have become Lumper’s mates (smile)

(1)    cut away to Lumper’s house and invalid mother

b.    First rehearsal

i.    Gary dancing

(1)    Cut to that night at the mill
(2)    Reasons for taking Lumper into the group: he’s got a car, a place to rehearse, he’s a musician and it’s good therapy for him! (sort of a temporal/motivational filling in line)
(3)    Hot Chocolate “You Sexy Thing”; I believe in miracles
(4)    Nathan embarrassed at Gary’s dancing, runs away

ii.    Scene between Gary and Nathan

(1)    Find Nathan in Lumper’s car
(2)    Beautiful not-answering dialogue
(3)    Establishing and reiterating motivation: I’m trying to get some brass together so as you and me can keep seeing each other
(4)    I love you, you bugger (a sort of thematic moment)

c.    Getting Gerald to join scene sequence

i.    Dancing class; first speeches tell us that they’ve decided they need to learn to dance and Nathan suggested coming to the studio

(1)    Peering through window (repeated in Gerald’s interview scene)
(2)    Gerald confronts them
(3)    he lies to his wife about them being pals from work
(4)    Gary lets on he knows he’s lying

ii.    Next morning

(1)    Nested scene begins with the boys arriving outside Gerald’s house and playing with the gnomes

(a)    Then we move inside, Gerald leaving for work
(b)    wife asks about ski vacation
(c)    Gerald almost tells her the truth (nice depiction of inner conflict)

(2)    Gerald and the boys meet outside
(3)    crucial loading line when Gerald says dancing requires “skill, timing, fitness and grace”
(4)    Gerald says he has an interview, he refuses to help

iii.    Gerald’s interview

(1)    Gerald seated before a row of men at a long table
(2)    Gary and the others interrupt his conversation with the gnomes at the window (repetition of their faces at the window, repetition of gnomes)
(3)    Gerald at the door, yelling at them

iv.    Job Club

(1)    Gerald tries to fight Gary
(2)    tells the story of his desperation and lies
(3)    Gerald’s bourgeois class consciousness comes out

v.    The boys make peace

(1)    Repetition of eyeing women, 1-10 classification
(2)    Gnomes business to make reparation
(3)    you can’t dance

d.    Tryouts at the mill; repetition of the interview structure we just saw

i.    Depressed guy who can’t get his clothes off

(1)    crucial line: this is no place for kids

ii.    Horse; old but can dance

iii.    Guy; can’t dance but is well endowed

(1)    nice little dramatic bracket when Gerald realizes he knows Guy and tries to conceal his identity
(2)    walking up the wall, Gene Kelly reference and joke

e.    Dave and Jean going to bed

Method used

i.    Black man dialogue is a tie-back to the previous scenes
ii.    Jean’s refrain: “I’m married to you, remember?”
iii.    Dave too tired to make love; “amazing how tiring it is doing nought.”

4. Training: (Flashdance video sequence in which Dave joins finally, offside trap rehearsal, Gerald’s house to practice taking clothes off, another rehearsal, the hundred pounds to book the bar problem, training in the field.)

a.    Stealing the Flashdance video scene

i.    Dave, Nathan and Gary watching Jean flirt in store (apparently she works in the store); Jean is the tie-back device here
ii.    Not enough money for video
iii.    Dave runs out the door (watch repetition of this)

b.     At the mill watching Flashdance

i.    Dave commenting on her skill as a welder
ii.    Gerald talks about her dancing
iii.    Gerald’s challenge “I can teach anyone to dance in a week, even you, mate. Well, two weeks.”

c.    Dave and Gary walking

i.    Jean wants Dave to take security guard job
ii.    Tie-back reference to guy she’s flirting with
iii.    Gary mentions “two weeks”

iv.    Dave says “it’s a thought” and thus joins the group

d.    Gerald’s house; intention: to practice taking clothes off

i.    Little motifs started up in dialogue: sunbed, plastic cling film
ii.    Scene interrupted by repossession team

e.    Rehearsal

Rule of threes

i.    Gary fixing velcro to pants
ii.    Nathan mentions that he’s been to prison

f.    New problem: Gary needs 100 pounds just to book the club (breaks down into a series of scenes)

i.    Scene with club manager who says he won’t book the club except for a 100 pounds down
ii.    Nathan and Gary go to wife who refuses and offers him a job
iii.    Nathan takes out his savings for Gary

(1)    Crucial motivating and loading scene because it’s clear Nathan is taking his father at his word and his father isn’t that sure himself. Nathan is making his father a better man. “You said so. I believe you.” “You do?”

g.    High point of training sequence; scene outdoors on hill top park, impromptu soccer game; a sense of camaraderie and joy that has been missing in their lives

5. Things go badly: (Gary ups the ante with the full monty boast, unemployment line scene, Gerald’s place for sunbed scene, Horse in phone booth, Dave and Jean-Gary dancing-Dave in shed, Gerald tells Dave his problem, dress rehearsal intercut w/ Dave working as security guard, police station intercut w/ Lumper and Guy sneaking away, Gerald goes home to find repossession in progress, Gary and Gerald meet Nathan after school, Lumper’s mother’s funeral.)

a.    Putting up posters

i.    Meet a couple of women
ii.    Gary ups the ante, says they’re going to take off all their clothes
iii.    Woman: “Hellfire, that would be worth a look.”

b.    Unemployment line

i.    Charming scene in which the men unselfconsciously begin to dance to music heard over someone’s radio, Gary smiles

c.    Gerald’s house; intention: to use the sunbed on a rainy day

i.    Gary not in scene
ii.    Really a lovely little loading and thematic scene, mostly dialogue, beginning with the girlie magazine and the word tits
iii.    Becomes a discussion of how men look at women and how women might look at these men; “They’re going to be looking at us like that.” The men here begin to reconstruct themselves as more sensitive beings.
iv.    Guy pulls out the leather thongs
v.    Time check: It’s Monday. Performance is on Friday. Dress rehearsal “tomorrow” meaning Tuesday.

d.    Series of quick parallel scenes on various plot lines dealing with self-doubt and anxiety

i.    Horse in phone booth

subplots

ii.    Little nested scenes beginning with

(1)    Dave and Jean
(2)    Gary and Nathan

(1)    sets up “you’re ahead” joke later
(2)    Gary asks if Nathan thinks he’s making an ass of himself; no answer

(3)    Dave in the shed

(a)    beautiful depiction of a man torn within himself; wrapping himself in plastic and eating a chocolate bar

iii.    Gerald telling Dave about his erection problem

e.    Dress rehearsal (Tuesday); series of intercut scenes

i.    At the mill, the boys waiting for Horse’s relatives to arrive
ii.    Dave a security guard, Gary trying to get him to come to rehearsal
iii.    Rehearsal

(1)    second wall dancing joke

iv.    Dave and Gary, second shoplifting scene

(1)    Dave “just can’t” join the group

v.    Gerald’s problem discussed

(1)    nature programs joke starts up

vi.    Rehearsal intercut with Dave at the store and cop approaching

(1)    Gerald ever so slightly flirting with Beryl
(2)    cop comes in
(3)    Guy and Lumper escape

f.    Police Station; series of intercut scenes

i.    Gary says they were robbing pipes (tie-back to opening scene)
ii.    Security tapes brought in, question about security guard

(1)    CUT TO Lumper and Guy running

iii.    “You’re ahead” joke (tie-back) to scene with Nathan (lovely moment when Gerald forgets himself and grabs the remote from the policeman, everyone is more concerned with the dancing than the impending charges (the idea here is, as in the unemployment line, that dancing is taking over their depressed souls).

(1)    intercut with scenes of Lumper and Guy sneaking into Lumper’s house, then beginning to kiss

iv. Nathan’s mother comes for him and we have a scene with a sequence of very negative language: “pornography” and “indecent exposure” (Bakhtinian battle of discourses much like in the first scene). “Look at yourself, Gary.” (Motif of “look at yourself” lines.)
v.  Against this is Gary’s discourse “We were trying to get you your money.” And Nathan’s discourse: “He is trying.”
g.  Gerald goes home to find his house being repossessed

i.    His wife can’t forgive his lying
ii.    She breaks a gnome, says she never liked them
iii.    Sunbed repetition
iv.    Ski vacation tie-back
v.    Six month repetition
vi.    Not-answering dialogue
vii.    Image repetition of exercycle

h. Gerald shows up at Gary’s apartment

i.    He’s got the job
ii.    Sunbed repetition
iii.    Summary of wife leaving him (tie-back to previous scene)

i.  Gerald and Gary go to meet Nathan after school (Wednesday?)

i.    Confronted by Nathan’s mother and the ineffable Barry
ii.    Gerald puts his arm around him
iii.    Wife looks a bit regretful

j.  Gary approaches Dave at the store

i.    “We’re all finished.”
ii.    Asks to borrow a suit for the funeral (Lumper’s mother died (two days ago, so when is this?)
iii.    They run out of the store together, third shoplifting scene

k. Funeral (SUBPLOT)

i.    Guy and Lumper lovers

6.    The turn: (Series of parallel scenes: Guy running the hill, Horse at unemployment office, Dave at breakfast, Gerald buying papers, Lumper’s orchestra, Gary and the barkeep; job club; Dave and Jean.)

a.    Parallel scenes

i.    Guy running

ii.    Horse at unemployment office

iii.    Dave seeing newspaper

iv.    Gerald buying newspapers

b.    Gary runs into manage who says they sold 200 tickets

c.    Gary arrives at job club to say “we’re on”

i.    They convince Gerald to try once time
ii.    Dave remains outside and depressed

d.    Dave and Jean

i.    “Who wants to see this dance?” “I do.”

7.    The performance: (Gary demurs because men in the audience but Nathan convinces him, all threads of movie converge in a kind of erotic ritual rejuvenation.)

a.    Dressing room

i.    Problem: Men have been allowed in club, this embarrasses Gary who suddenly can’t go on

ii.    Dave shows up with Nathan

iii.    Nathan says his mother’s outside and Barry wasn’t allowed to come

iv.    Nature shows joke repeated

v.    Men go on stage

vi.    Nathan orders Gary out “You did that.”

b.    Finale: the Full Monty

i.    Threads brought together

(1)    Beryl and Gerald flirting
(2)    Jean and Dave
(3)    Lumper’s band playing
(4)    cops show up
(5)    Gary’s ex catches his belt

ii.    Soundtrack “You give me reason to live.”

Some definitions:

Anadiplosis: “Repetition of the last word of one sentence, or line of poetry, as a means of (sometimes emphatic) liaison.” Dupriez
Epanalepsis: “Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.” Lanham
Parenthesis: “The insertion of a segment, complete in meaning, and relevant or irrelevant to the subject under discussion, into another segment whose flow it interrupts.” Dupriez
Suspension: A narrative moment when some crucial information is promised but held back till later in the action.
Tie-Back: Textual reference back to earlier material in order to remind the reader, create rhythm, and add textual density.
Anaphora: Multiple repetitions of the same grammatical construction at the beginning of successive textual elements.
But-construction: Grammatical construction using the word “but” or some cognate to create dramatic interruption, interference, or contrast at the level of a sentence.

Douglas Glover

.
.
.

Mar 022014
 

Photo on 2-19-14 at 1.35 PM
During the last winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Patrick Madden and I co-led a creative nonfiction workshop. Besides the usual group discussion of a student manuscripts, we found time to do some teaching as well, focusing on trying to nudge the class away from the general student obsession with narrative, with just getting the true story down. We tried to get them to think about something else while they were writing, things like technique, genre, and tradition. In the first (of six) workshops, we talked briefly about the use of lists in composition (lists in sentences, lists in paragraphs, and list as structural devices). Then we directed the class to read Leonard Michaels’s short story “In the Fifties,” an autobiographical story (might as well have been called an essay), plotless, apparently, a list of events and characters he met. Then we invited the students to write an imitation, or at least use the idea of a list and the Michaels story as a springboard for launching themselves into their own material.

After a week, in the last workshop, the students read out their  essays, cobbled together in a few days interrupted by workshops, lectures, readings and revelery. The results were spectacular, beyond expectation (it was an unusual class to begin with). Two seemed eminently publishable. Today I am publishing the first (the second, Kay Henry’s “In  Dubai,” is here), “Ten Ways to Leave” by Melissa Matthewson, a lovely, poignant evocation of a relationship in the leaving of it, charmingly written, rich with detail (in so brief a piece), startling  and profound in its emotional honesty. And, of course, you can barely see the influence. Such is the nature of influence; good writers take an influence and make it their very own thing.

dg

.
I.

She could go out the back door and down through the yard marked about in roses with hips and the overgrown grass, the juniper slope, the limestone soil and past the jungle gym where the children play out their dreams of kings and queens and kingdoms ruled with swords, fire, dragons, and sometimes happy endings.

II.

She hears a story one afternoon and can’t forget the image of a woman walking the highway at night, alone, having left her husband standing in the parking lot of a store where he has chosen smoke instead of love and so she thinks she could leave with that same kind of drama: treading the turnpike while he watches her from a convenient store window, the road spread out before him like a long strung out piece of thread that will unravel the more you fuss with it, the more you tear at it with your fingers.

III.

She could go while he is sleeping, but she thinks that would be unfair and doesn’t he deserve just a little bit of reason? If she did leave that way, she could sit on the bed first, the children sleeping in the other room, and watch his chest swell to the night, put her hand on his mouth, see every part of him move in dreams or nightmares, something she’s never done, never even been curious about, which makes her wonder. So maybe when the ice thaws, she’ll sneak from the bed tiptoeing through the house to the door and exit into a landscape of disquiet, apprehensive of the choice to go, but surely confident in the fantasy she holds in her mind.

IV.

She left him once for Montana, driving up the north highway and over the mountains into the snow and that was it for awhile. She lived alone in a new place and she thought this was life chosen well, but she missed him remembering when they drank beer on porches while watching cars and bicycles and stars heavy with sky. From there, she went on talking to her sheets at night, grabbing the pillow for his absence.

V.

Maybe they could go for a hike, climb to the top of a mountain and look out from there, the way they did with their children once, the spread of all that grass and rock and peak, the wildflowers just then a new thing. They ate lunch: cheese, chocolate, salami, crackers. On top of that mountain, the wind picked up and it blew their children’s hair and they pointed their fingers to their house in its blue painted wood, just over the three ridges to the west where they could barely make out its slant and hold in the distance. They picked ticks from their hair because they lay in the grass laughing at the sky and it was spring remember. Yes, she thinks they could go for a hike and she could leave him there with the children on the mountain. She could remember him cutting cheese into slices on his knee listening for any movement in the manzanita.

VI.

Or maybe that’s too dramatic. Maybe they should just be straight about it—sit on the couch together over coffee, or more likely, a drink: bourbon, ginger, bitters, a little lemon, the kind she always makes for him in a small glass with ice. She might sit with him and look out the window and over all that they’ve done together, everything they’ve created, and still know it is all lost to the past anyway. Maybe she would cry. Maybe he would too. Or maybe there would be no tears. Maybe they would have used up everything they had in the build-up to that moment, so that at that point, the fatigue of a relationship overcomes them and they are quiet in their chairs in that room when the shadows take over the floors and the walls and all that is heard is the empty burden of what is absolute then: the love having gone a long time ago slipped from them when they weren’t paying attention.

VII.

She could remember how they never did take a honeymoon. She could remember how they watched a sunset over the water in Baja one time when they thought they knew love. She could go like a butterfly. Or the coyote they saw in a field, trotting in from a distance and surely the postman would stop in his wagon if he came along. They watched from the car, the animal poised in dangerous pursuit of its prey, all of it in the last flicker of day until the coyote ran up into the frustrated hills without dinner, without anything to take his hunger away.

VIII.

Or she could remember how they left Homer’s tomb one morning in Greece, the Aegean spread out behind them like a blue map made up of what they couldn’t know. She could remember how they brushed their teeth on his grave. She could remember how they spit. She could remember how they held hands. She guesses that staying is a probability because of just these memories, that story, those moments. She considers their weighted history over and over again and really, she thinks the complicated details of leaving are the only things that keep her there still. It’s the mechanics, she’ll say.

IX.

She thinks then about the train she once took through France, through Switzerland, through Spain. She rode the early rail and left him in Brussels, though she lingered in the entry to the hostel before she left, sat down on the couch, pulled him to her, let his head fall into her lap, their cheeks flushed from pints of beer. He walked her to the station through a storm and when he left, she sat on the depot floor wishing for coffee and one last night next to him in bed naked and in love. She can’t recall that feeling now. She can’t conjure it in this tired, cold place of leaving.

X.

She could leave by writing the departure. Maybe that’s the best way. Like here. There could be any number of scenes: stomping out of the restaurant throwing her napkin on the floor; sneaking out through the window too late when another man waits in an idling car; running away as if in pursuit chased by children or thieves or…; in the car early in the morning with just the sprinklers and newspaper man; or a surprise retreat when he returns from an errand, the house packed up, or just her things packed up, the door slightly ajar, her coat waiting on the couch, hands fumbling with the zipper of her sweater or her earrings and she thinks perhaps this is the most obvious choice, the most conventional and unoriginal of all departures, the one and only way she can retreat and leave behind the safest thing she’s ever had, this story that was never supposed to end in this way, at this point, in this now.

—Melissa Matthewson

Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in TerrainUnder the Gum Tree, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Hothouse, and Camas, among other publications. She holds an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

Jan 172014
 

The hoary catchphrase “Show, don’t tell” and the reputation of American minimalism skewed the assumptions of generations of writing students by sending them down the rabbit hole of restraint and obliquity. Time and again, I have seen writing students try to write with both hands tied behind their backs. Somehow all sorts of emotional and mental description have become forbidden in the culture of creative writing. “Show, don’t tell” means that simple sentences like “Bob was sad” are ineffably old-fashioned and somehow improper in the modern world of prose (fiction and nonfiction). The only solution is to make people read actual stories and notice the myriad ways real writers do indicate, well, emotion. Herewith, an essay by a former student of mine, Walker Griffy, who read and saw  and now describes — a healthy corrective — some simple techniques for telling emotional states of characters.

dg

 

A clear representation of character emotion does not necessarily mean writing things like “Bob is sad.” Actually, “Bob is sad” can work just fine as a starting point. But we generally expect a text to go further, to let the reader know not only that Bob is sad, but how sad Bob is, why Bob is sad, and how that affects Bob and his place in that particular story. The examples I’ll be using in this essay will provide a better understanding of what techniques can be used to accomplish all of these tasks simultaneously.

Before looking at those examples, I want to clarify exactly what it is I’m talking about when I say “character emotion.” I’ll start with the most concrete definition of emotion from Merriam-Webster: “the affective state of consciousness.” When that is applied to the writing of character emotion in fiction, it is literally placing the reader within the character’s consciousness and explaining how a character’s emotional state affects his behavior. This allows a character to act in a rational or irrational way without confusing the reader; the motivation is not coming from a place of logic and reason, but rather a well-understood emotional state.

Now that I’ve provided an idea of exactly what is being discussed when using the phrase “character emotion,” I want to break down some techniques for representing emotions in a story.

,

Techniques and Definitions

First, there is the technique of direct reporting. With the direct reporting technique, a narrator can describe the way a character is feeling, or a character can identify his or her own emotions. This is the most clear and effective way character emotion can be presented to a reader. Aside from a first-person narrator, a character only identifies his or her own emotions in dialogue. Of course, when used in dialogue, it is only as trustworthy as that character may be, but when employed by a narrator, the reader is left with a concrete understanding of what the described character is feeling. I will primarily look at examples of the narrator employing the direct reporting technique, but it can also be used by characters within the story. The example I used earlier of “Bob is sad” is a simple, but perfect, example of direct reporting. The reader knows what the character is feeling and applies that to any actions that follow.

In her story “Nettles,” Alice Munro employs a first-person narrator to explore the feelings and thoughts of a woman struggling with her definition of love. The story begins with a flashback to the narrator’s childhood and her first encounter with love as a young girl, which unwittingly set the standard for love that would last her whole life. The story then moves ahead to the narrator’s divorce and her finding her first love again after many years. The narrator uses the direct reporting technique to describe both her emotions as an innocent child experiencing love for the first time as well as an adult searching for a fulfilling relationship following a failed marriage.

Recalling the first love she felt for a traveling well-digger’s son, the narrator describes the relationship in adult terms, but makes clear how the emotions felt as a little girl: “We were like sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression. And for me at least that was solemn and thrilling.” Although she is looking back on her time with this boy, the narrator is directly telling the reader how she felt thrilled by the relationship, which then, in the following narrative, serves as a contrast to what she experiences with her husband as an adult. It is a powerful emotion because it is one she longs for long after she has grown up. The technique of direct reporting tells the reader exactly what the narrator’s motivation is.

The story goes on to describe her adult life after she’s left her first husband, and the narrator uses direct reporting to describe the emotions she feels for a lover in this passage:

We exchanged news—I made sure I had news—and we laughed, and went for walks in the ravine, but all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex fused people’s best selves. I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman of my age. There were times when I would be so happy, after our encounters—dazzled and secure—and there were other times when I would lie stone-heavy with misgiving.

First, she describes scenes that took place with her lover and the conflicting experience of casual discussion while wanting sexual gratification. By the time the narrator gives a direct report of the emotions “happy” and “stone-heavy with misgiving,” the reader is already caught up in a well-defined, conflicted situation, so the clear statement of the narrator’s feelings helps to anchor the reader in that emotional state.

The second technique I’d like to discuss is the indirect reporting of character emotion. Indirect reporting is the technique of having the narrator or a character guess, judge, or intuit the emotion of another character based on an interpretation of actions or statements. The difference between direct and indirect reporting is that the emotion being expressed is interpreted; it is not presented as a factual emotional state, but rather a perceived one. With this technique, the narrator, or more commonly, another character comments on a character’s possible emotional state or motivation. This allows the reader to simultaneously see that emotion from an outside perspective and gain further insight into how the commenting character is seeing and processing those around him or her.

A good example of this technique is found in Andre Dubus’ story “The Winter Father,” where the protagonist is a divorced man learning to be a part-time father to his children who live with their mother. The story begins with the couple’s divorce and then follows the first few months of their separation, focusing on the father’s relationship with his own children with whom he no longer lives. The first time the man goes to pick up his children after moving out, he sees his ex-wife and makes the following observation: “Her eyes held him: the nest of pain was there, the shyness, the coiled anger; but there was another shimmer: she was taking a new marriage vow: This is the way we shall love our children now, watch how well I can do it.” This excerpt contains both indirect reporting of character emotion and thought. The third-person limited narrator is observing, interpreting, and reporting both emotion and thought that the father deduces from the expression on his wife’s face.

A third technique is character emotion depicted via physical manifestations. A writer represents a character’s emotion, say, sadness, in action, say, crying. When I first began studying this technique, I was looking for physical manifestations of emotion that stood on their own. And while those certainly do exist, I came to the conclusion that the most effective examples are often used in conjunction with direct reporting. This discovery had a particularly strong impact on me because I have found through personal experience as a learning writer that the emotion I believe I am clearly depicting with only physical manifestations is almost never clear to the reader. These exclusively physical manifestations, I’ve found, are almost always lacking in terms of revealing character emotion because they are just too subtle. The benefit of using the physical manifestation technique coupled with direct reporting is that it creates a visual to go along with the emotion being expressed.

I found a good example of this technique in Carson McCullers’ story “Sucker,” which is told from a teenage boy’s first-person perspective. The narrator tells the story of how his relationship with his younger brother Sucker blossoms and is then destroyed in tune with the narrator’s blossoming and then failing first romance. The story ends with the narrator lamenting the loss of a relationship with his brother following a frustrated outburst one night. This example uses direct reporting with a great amount of physical manifestation to show the younger brother’s reaction to an angry outburst from the narrator: “He sat in the middle of the bed, his eyes blinking and scared.” Here, the physical manifestation is given with a single-word of direct reporting: scared. However, that single word is enough to establish the young boy’s emotions and place the following passage into context for the reader, allowing the narrator to use exclusively physical language without sacrificing information:

Sucker’s mouth was part way open and he looked as though he’d knocked his funny bone. His face was white and sweat came out on his forehead. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and for a minute his arm stayed raised that way as though he was holding something away from him.

I’ve given these few short examples just to illustrate the techniques in practice. These were all stories I read early in my time as a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and they stuck with me as some of my favorites. It was only in going back in my reading in preparation for this essay that I began to notice things that I had skimmed over while focusing on other craft aspects the first time around. Now I want to look at two more short stories that utilize all three techniques and set a great example for all writers to follow.

/

The Dead

The first of the two stories I’d like to examine is “The Dead” by James Joyce. In this story, Joyce uses a third-person limited narrative in Gabriel Conroy’s point of view. The story follows the protagonist through a night of encounters at an annual celebration. Throughout the story, Gabriel has three different encounters with women that affect his mood and cause him to grow self-conscious before he can assert himself and move past it. As the story moves forward, each encounter grows in its respective influence on Gabriel’s mood. As the story progresses, so does the insight into Gabriel’s emotional state.

“The Dead” focuses on Gabriel’s relationship with women in his life, moving from the rather inconsequential (a maid at the party) to a female journalist, Miss Ivors, a colleague whom he respects, before ending with his wife. During the party, Gabriel’s conventional patriarchal social assumptions are exposed through successive conflicts with the three women. Most of the story action takes place during the party, but the significant action with his wife takes place after the couple returns to a hotel room for the night. Gabriel mistakes his wife’s moodiness for sexual passion then becomes angry when she doesn’t react to him. Suddenly, she begins telling him about a lover, Michael Furey, who died many years before, died of love, and Gabriel is left mourning the fact that he had never loved anyone, even his wife, the way this ex-lover had loved her.

After each plot event (with the maid, with the journalist), the narrative always returns to Gabriel’s internal state, and as such, his emotions are paramount to the tone and meaning of the entire piece. Each encounter makes him gloomy and self-conscious until he engages in various ritual behaviors such as focusing on his speech or making condescending jokes that help to discount the women and make him feel better. Only when he has the plot conflict scene with his wife does Gabriel find that his habitual practices do not work; he is unable to render the encounter insignificant. Finally he has to see himself and his wife as they really are.

I’d like to now look at some examples of the techniques I’ve already discussed asthey are used to represent the emotional aspect of “The Dead.”  In the first scene, Gabriel makes a slightly off-color remark to one of the maids working at the party. To show Gabriel’s response to the maid’s retort, Joyce uses direct reporting of emotion:

He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the heading he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

This passage contains a great amount of information about Gabriel, and most of it is emotional. It begins with the direct reporting of his emotional state following the conflict with the maid: “He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort.” The paragraph continues with another example of direct reporting: “It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel.” This continuation of direct reporting by the narrator gives another emotion to Gabriel’s reaction to the incident. His thoughts, affected by the gloom cast over him, then turn to his upcoming speech, and the narrator continues to employ the direct reporting technique: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers.” Although the language in the passage then changes to express more character thought than emotion, the entire paragraph serves as a perfect example of direct reporting and clearly establishes the internal condition of Gabriel.

Later, Gabriel has a social conflict with Miss Ivors, a woman who is essentially his equal and a friend. The conflict begins when Miss Ivors needles Gabriel for writing a column for a paper not as pro-Irish as she would like, a charge that confuses Gabriel: “When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive.” The scene continues with more chiding from Miss Ivors as Gabriel grows more flustered: “Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy.” The scene also contains outbursts from Gabriel, a brief example of direct reporting in dialogue, such as proclaiming, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” in response to Miss Ivors’ accusing him of being a West Briton (an Irish insult something like an African-American being called an Oreo). However, following this more rattling conflict, we again see the other side of Gabriel.

Once Miss Ivors has left the party, before dinner is served, Gabriel is able to forget all about the encounter: “He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table.” This example contains two different descriptions of Gabriel’s emotional state. The first describes him as “quite at ease” and the word “now” following that description adds the element of a change in emotional state, so it is clear to the reader that he has overcome the previous emotional struggle that was causing him to feel agitated. This is not only a good example of the technique, but it is also very important to the momentum of the narrative; this scene repeats the conflict of the earlier scene with the maid with increased dramatic intensity. More is at stake in this encounter for Gabriel than with the maid.

Near the end of this story, Gabriel’s emotions swing again when, instead of making love to his wife as he desires to do, he listens to her talk about a former lover. Joyce uses the direct reporting technique to show how, in an instant, Gabriel’s rush of giddiness comes to a halt: “The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to grow angrily in his veins.” As far as emotional language is concerned, this is perhaps the strongest description in the entire story. Both the mental and bodily representations of this sudden anger are first described as dull before growing almost uncontrollable. The scene continues with Gabriel’s wife telling him the story of her relationship with Michael Furey, including how he had died for her. The tale of Furey’s death inspires this last example of direct reporting, which shows, I think, perfectly the intensity of Gabriel’s internal struggles and the realization that he has failed to love his wife as much as his wife’s dead lover once did:

A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself.”

Joyce doesn’t use indirect reporting as much direct reporting in “The Dead,” but there are still some fine examples. Joyce’s focus on Gabriel’s internal state leaves little room for indirect emotional commentary, but he uses the technique increasingly near the end of the story where, instead of primarily reacting, Gabriel begins looking at his wife and trying to interpret her mood.

First, here is an example from earlier in the story when in the second act, so to speak, after his conflicted exchange with the journalist, Miss Ivors, on the dance floor, Gabriel becomes self-conscious and tries to figure out why she suddenly wants to leave the party: “Gabriel asked himself was he the cause of her abrupt departure. But she did not seem to be in ill humour: she had gone away laughing.” In this description, Gabriel is attempting to exonerate himself from blame, but he is attempting to do so by indirectly reporting the emotional state of the woman just before she leaves. I’ve found that indirect reporting can also contain information about the character commenting on the emotion, and here is a good example. Although he is providing emotional information about this woman, the narrator is also showing the reader Gabriel’s frame of mind and how that affects his interpretation of the woman’s emotional state.

But to return to the end of the story — once Gabriel and his wife have gone to their hotel room, he feels a sudden afflatus of love and sexual attraction for his wife and he thinks she is feeling attracted to him. Gabriel’s emotions in this scene swing wildly as I’ve already shown in my discussion of direct reporting, but here, Gabriel also attempts to read his wife’s emotions. When she has not reacted to his affection the way Gabriel hoped she would, he asks himself why. “Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord!” Although he is not making a clear statement about what he believes is bothering his wife, the questions Gabriel poses internally do provide commentary on the woman’s emotional state. From those questions, the reader knows she is distant, perhaps hesitant, and emotionally unresponsive to the love Gabriel is attempting to display. Like the first example of indirect reporting, this commentary also supports the emotional representation of Gabriel himself. He poses these questions internally, as well as hoping that she will do something differently, without ever speaking directly to her.

Joyce’s story provides many examples of how the third technique of physical manifestation is almost always informed or aided by direct reporting. Going back to my first example of direct reporting, in the passage which shows the gloominess that Gabriel experiences early on in the narrative, the narrator expands on how Gabriel attempts to dispel the gloom by “arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie.” This example provides a strong outward manifestation of Gabriel’s emotions, but the action of rearranging his cuffs and bow-tie would not be as effective without the clear purpose behind the action: dispelling the gloom that comes over him. Tying such clear emotions with a character’s natural physical reaction to those emotions creates an extremely successful bit of characterization in only a few words.

Finally, I’d like to return again to the end of the story where the narrator gives an intimate view of Gabriel’s relationship with his wife. After an agonizing back-and-forth inside his own mind about wanting to be affectionate with his wife and alternately wanting to possess her violently, Gabriel finally reacts to a kiss she gives him: “Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it.” This is really a good example of how a strongly physical scene, or sentence really, is aided so much by the inclusion of a small example of direct reporting.

When I first selected this text, I was attempting to use it as an example of pure physical manifestation, primarily because so much of the description is physical. But it was also this example that informed my decision to focus on how physical manifestations are informed by directly stated emotions. If the directly stated emotion of delight were removed, the reader would be left with Gabriel trembling at his wife’s kiss and smoothing her hair. Although it would remain a touching moment, with all of Gabriel’s emotional conflict, the reader might be left wondering if he was in fact nervous or overwhelmed or even feeling guilty. But much like the previous scene where Gabriel was about to carve the goose, this is a brief moment of reprieve, and the inclusion of that delight tells the reader that Gabriel believes his wife has felt his adoration and that all is well. The act of smoothing her hair is the continuation of that adoration and, in light of the story’s ending, perhaps Gabriel’s most admirable attempt at loving his wife as well as dead lover had before.

This final excerpt stands on its own as an example of this third technique, but in reading the story as a whole with a focus on the emotional elements, I really began to see how the constant, consistent inclusion of clear emotional language and motivation builds a foundation and then an entire structure that manifests in a character who is wholly understandable, regardless of how irrational his behavior or thoughts may seem on their own. And as a writer, that certainly sounds like an achievement I would welcome in my own work.

 

Good Country People

The second story I would like to discuss is Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” In this story, O’Connor uses a shifting third-person limited narrator and a healthy dose of irony to show how false perceptions and assumptions can have unforeseen consequences. The story is about an unassuming mother, Mrs. Hopewell, who seems to find the best in people, and her cynical daughter Hulga who is handicapped by a childhood accident that left her using a prosthetic leg. The action of the story really begins when a naïve, seemingly simple-minded boy visits the house selling Bibles. After being invited to dinner, Hulga agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic with plans to take advantage of the young man, who she assumes is a dumb, backwoods Christian. As their date progresses, Hulga is tricked by the boy into removing her prosthetic leg, which he steals, leaving Hulga helpless in a barn loft. In this story, character emotion is especially important because it sets up the dark humor and irony that are trademarks of O’Connor’s work.

One of the first examples of direct reporting in the story does not describe either of the two primary characters, but rather the nosy and stubborn Mrs. Freeman whose husband works for Mrs. Hopewell. The description of Mrs. Freeman comes from the third-person narrator, but it is given from the daughter’s point of view:

Mrs. Freeman would take on strange resentments and for days together she would be sullen but the source of her displeasure was always obscure.”

This example of direct reporting clearly describes the emotion Mrs. Freeman would take on, that of being sullen, but also adds a bit of emotional characterization; not only does she exhibit her sullen mood in her behavior, but it can come from unexpected sources and even last for days. At the beginning of the essay, I used “Bob is sad” as a simple example of emotional reporting, and O’Connor’s line here a perfect example of how an author can say exactly that: “Mrs. Freeman is sullen,” but also how sullen — “for days” — and why (in this case, she directly states that the reason for the sullen mood is not always clear).

After the young Bible salesman has been introduced, the narrator provides the first bit of information that suggests some contradiction to Hulga’s cynical demeanor. After the young man stays for dinner, she agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic, which is a surprising turn in itself since the young salesman seems like a person Hulga would normally avoid or spurn. Her agreeing to meet him is surprising enough, but the larger surprise comes when the narrator introduces the reader to a vulnerable side of the young woman by directly reporting her emotions when she believes she has been stood up:

She looked up and down the empty highway and had the furious feeling that she had been tricked, that he had only meant to make her walk to the gate after the idea of him.

Here, we get the direct use of the noun “feeling” to accompany the emotion of fury. She is not only upset or angry that the boy she agreed to meet with, a boy she would normally mock, has stood her up, but she is furious. The passage has the added bonus of expressing her insecurity with the accompanying exposition and shows the reader that Hulga may actually be more defensive than gruff and impatient.

Although O’Connor shifts her third-person point of view throughout the story, the reader gets very little information about the young salesman aside from what is given by other characters. In one example of indirect reporting, the emotional impact of Hulga’s statement of atheism on the young man is described: “At this he stopped and whistled. ‘No!’ he exclaimed as if he were too astonished to say anything else.” Hulga’s perspective here provides what she imagines the young man’s emotional reaction would be.

O’Connor uses direct reporting quite a bit, but very often she combines it with physical manifestation. In my first example, Mrs. Hopewell is reacting to the young Bible salesman’s pitch. He presents himself as simple, doing the only thing he’s capable of to help provide for his family. He mentions that he has a physical defect that prevents him from other opportunities, which has a strong effect on the mother.

He and Joy had the same condition! She knew that her eyes were filling with tears but she collected herself quickly and murmured, “Won’t you stay for dinner? We’d love to have you!” and was sorry the instant she heard herself say it.

There is a great deal of emotional information in this example. First, the thought that the boy has a similar physical condition to her daughter is informed by multiple direct reports of the mother’s emotions toward her daughter’s ailment earlier in the story. The physical manifestation of this emotion comes in her eyes filling up with tears. The reader understands that her tears are coming from both her sadness about her own daughter and sympathy for this young man and possibly tears of joy because her daughter has found a co-sufferer. However, there is more direct reporting that follows this to better depict the woman’s exact emotional state. The fact that she collects herself, asks the young man to dinner, and then is instantly sorry she extended the invitation shows her struggle with her own emotions.

Now, finally, I’d like to show how O’Connor uses physical description to represent emotion in a complicated and calculating character like Hulga. Unlike her mother, Hulga is the type of character who does not express her emotions in a direct or (connected) physical way; however, it is still important for an author to be able to describe both the internal and external simultaneously for effect, and that is exactly what O’Connor does in this example:

She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood.

“She sat staring at him” is the kind of line I used to use in my own work. But O’Connor goes further. Whereas I would leave that line alone and beg the audience to make an intuitive leap, O’Connor’s narrator gives a deeper physical description (stoic face, freezing-blue eyes), as well as the emotional reason behind this description because there was nothing in her stare or her eyes or her face that suggested she was moved. Then we get the key word but, and we know there is a shift. Then the narrator gives us a direct report of Hulga’s contradictory, but powerful, emotional response. Although the description is of her heart stopping and her brain pumping her blood, the narrator uses the verb feel — “felt as if”, telling the reader immediately that this is not a physical reality, but rather an emotional reaction to the young man’s words. This emotional information supports the final scene of the story when the young Bible salesman, who has moved Hulga to trust and vulnerability, removes her artificial leg and steals it, revealing himself as a fraud and a rather twisted individual.

— Walker Griffy

Walker Griffy received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches composition and literature at Santa Monica College.

Dec 212013
 

A little tour de force of TV writing (cute, self-consciously witty, knowing, just a tad smug). But still very energetic, a great scene. Why? Because it shows the characters THINKING. The scene has a plot and it uses what I call the Device of the Third Thing; it’s a two-character scene made immensely richer by the reader/audience seeing the scene reflected periodically in the eyes of the silent man.

dg

Dec 022013
 

Here’s a teaser to David Winters’ terrific interview with Christine Schutt at Quarterly Conversation. We’ve been reading about her on NC as part of our focus on Gordon Lish and his influence on contemporary fiction. This interview a  wonderful addition to the ongoing discussion.

dg

 

CS: “’Reality,’ of course, is man’s most powerful illusion; but while he attends to this world, it must outbalance the total enigma of being in it at all.” So says Erik H. Erikson, but reality does not for me “outbalance” the bewildering experience of being in the world. Add the scrim of memory and incessant excursions into the past, and the most I can do to construct a world is to stitch together sensations of it. I do not want an impenetrable style but prize compression and music. I abhor quotidian easy speak, psychobabble, brands, news and slogans—a “writner’s prose” as Gordon Lish once described it. Mine calls for close, hard readers of fiction. This year in reviews of Prosperous Friends, I was bumped up from being a writer’s writer to being a writer’s writer’s writer; either way, it cautions challenging prose ahead. A lot is left unsaid and must be inferred simply because I want to avoid the dulling effect of belated language.

via The Christine Schutt Interview | Quarterly Conversation.

Oct 202013
 

AquinHubert Aquin

Here is an essay of mine from my book Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, also published in Dalkey Archive’s magazine Context, which you can find at the link below. It used to be online but then disappeared when Dalkey reorganized its website. Now it’s back. The late, great French-Canadian novelist Hubert Aquin was a huge influence on me: he was a pyrotechnic genius, a black romantic, a revolutionary spirit and a suicide. He burned hard and bright. Nothing like him anywhere else.

dg

1. Why are some novels more difficult to read than other novels? Why do some authors choose to write difficult books when they could just as easily write so-called well-made books, books that would presumably have a better chance of achieving a wide audience and commercial success? If writing a book, like speaking, is a form of communication, then doesn’t difficulty rather defeat the purpose of writing at all? What is the difference between a difficult book and a well-made book? And how do they both relate to the not-writing of a book, to unwriting, to silence?

Read the rest at Difficulty and Revolution | Dalkey Archive Press.

Sep 172013
 

.

This is the beginning of things, the Ur-essay, the thought-lode out of which most everything else I have written about literature has evolved. It was written in the late 1980s and so, to an ever so slight extent, is a period piece. It forms the centre piece of my book of essays and memoir Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (Oberon Press, 1999). The ideas here expressed evolved out of my philosophical background, long reading, and the lessons I learned during my time at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I mention specifically the novelist Robert Day (who now contributes mightily to NC), but I would be remiss if I didn’t also recall the influence of the late Claude Richard, who was a visiting professor from the University of Montpellier at the time.

I reprint the essay here because the book and the essay were both published long ago; such is the nature of readership that older things fall out of the line of vision. But in fact this essay (and Notes Home from a Prodigal Son), along with The Enamoured Knight and Attack of the Copula Spiders and my long essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought” form a consistent, coherent and elaborated system of thought about writing, criticism and philosophy.

dg

…there is an other [irony] besides the irony of the learned man; there is the poem, in the sense that it is rhythm, death and future.

— Julia Kristeva

1

The best writing teacher I ever had was a Kansas cowboy named Robert Day who showed up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a last minute, one-semester replacement for a sick colleague in January, 1981. The first day of classes he strode into the room wearing Fry boots, jeans and a checked shirt. Without saying a word, he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote across the full length of the blackboard in huge looping letters: REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM.

At the time, Day had only published one novel, a book called The Last Cattle Drive. He was a tenured English professor at Washington College in Maryland. He was a past president of the Associated Writing Programs. As a young man, he had worked at G. P. Putnam’s in New York and could recall for us the excitement over the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Summers he went back to western Kansas where friends ran a borderline ranch. He kept a horse there, a horse which at various times had eaten loaves of bread through the kitchen window, or Day’s hat. All summer long he would hand out with his friends, their cattle and his horse.

That semester we read Queneau, Musil, Rulfo, Achebe, Nabokov, Tutuola, Abe and Marquez. Day did not tell us what he meant — REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. Maybe he forgot. Half-way through the semester he read the second draft of my novel Precious, three hundred typed pages of plot, dialogue and scene that stubbornly refused to come alive. I still have the notes I made during our conference, fifty-four words. It took less than fifteen minutes. But like a skilled surgeon he had opened the novel up for me and shown me its heart still beating, its bones, nerves and veins.

He taught me four basic devices. The first  was what he called the language overlay. My first person narrator was a newspaperman, he had printer’s ink in his blood. Day said I ought to go through the novel, splicing in words and images, a discourse, in other words, that reflected my hero’s passion for the newspaper world. So, for example, Precious now begins: “Jerry Menenga’s bar hid like an overlooked misprint amid a block of jutting bank towers…” Or, in moments of excitement, the narrator will spout a series of headlines in lieu of thoughts.

Second, Day taught me about sub-plots. The main plot of a novel, he said, is like a pioneer wagon train moving across the prairie. The sub-plot is like the Indians coming in out of the hills to attack from time to time. The pattern of the sub-plot must reflect or parallel the pattern of the main plot, Day said, just as the gene inside a cell contains the pattern for the whole body.

Third, he showed me how to use background and revery. My protagonist must have been somewhere before the novel began, he must have a story to tell that will give texture and depth to his thoughts and, by extension, to the narrative. In Day’s words, he wanted me to “give the novel a memory.” Once again, the background must reflect or parallel or bear the seeds of the main action. A revery that does not bear a relation, in pattern, to the main plot is wasted. It diffuses the reader’s attention. It makes the book foggy and boring.

What this means in practice is that far from being “loose and baggy monsters,” to use Henry James’s phrase, in which the author has room to digress, expand or linger, a good novel is a tight, formal production with very few wasted words.

Finally, Day told me how James used the confidante device to modulate the weight of a given speech. In Precious, I had two secondary characters who were both close to the hero. What if I created a pattern of giving and withholding information? What if I made one of the secondary characters the hero’s confidante, the person to whom he told his secrets? He could then maintain an ironic distance from the other, giving opportunities for lightness and humor. The reader would sit up and pay attention when the confidante was on the scene.

Day then lied and told me I could splice all these changes into the novel in three weeks. Actually, it took me five months, and I rewrote the thing from beginning to end. I remember those months as being the best time of my life; the woman I lived with then says otherwise. She says she never remembers me being more miserable. What that means, really, was that the work was hard but also amazingly exhilarating.

What I had learned was far more than a collection of four devices. I had learned a secret about writing stories, novels and poems. Also painting pictures and composing symphonies. I had learned that a novel is not a string of seventy-five thousand words, all different, all pressing the plot forward. If you think about it, the stories of most novels can be told in a page or two of summary. Then imagine me trying to stretch that summary over another two hundred and ninety-eight pages.

Or, to use an image I had carried in my head through two earlier failed novels, think of a novel as a bridge thrown across a bottomless gorge with nothing to support it from one end to the other. In my mind I had to get a running start and write fast for fear of not making it across. I wrote my first novel in six weeks in a state of terror. As a bridge it was a shambles.

What I had learned was that besides story, plot and characters, the novel needs patterns. That in fact the story, plot and characters don’t begin to come alive until they are submitted to a pattern. I had made a common mistake. Before Robert Day, I had assumed that a novel’s “aliveness” depended upon its verisimilitude, i.e. how closely it resembled what we call real life, whereas in fact it depends upon patterns. I think this is what Day meant when he wrote REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. He meant for us to notice that, like a poem, the novel should be seen as an arrangement of materials of which one, but only one, is the story. This patterning is the poetic quality of prose.

2

In a poem it is much easier to see the patterns. We’ve all had to map out sequences of stressed and unstressed syllables, the ABBAs of rhyme, the internal rhymes of alliteration, the surprising anti-patterns of sprung rhythm and free verse. We’ve all dissected extended conceits, noted the effects of diction and imagery. These are the things we focus on in a poem. Narrative, story and verisimilitude are secondary to the poetry of poetry, by which I mean the effect of patterns.

With novels and stories, the reverse is true. We tend to read a novel first for plot and character and the narrative’s relation to reality, what post-Saussurean critics call its “aboutness,” and only secondarily, if at all, for pattern. This is a little like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit argument. You know how you can draw a little circular figure with an elongation here and a dot there. If you squint your eyes one way, you can see it’s a rabbit with long ears. But if you squint another way, it becomes a duck with a protruding beak. With poems and novels, you can read for pattern or you can read for aboutness, depending on how you squint your eyes.

It happens to be the case, though, that we rarely read novels for patterns. One reason for this is that the novel’s very aboutness gets in the way. It is the easiest and most natural thing in the world to read a novel for plot and character. In fact, in most cases you have to read for plot and character in order to situate yourself, as an observer, in the world of the novel. The shift of focus, the new squint, if you will, from plot to pattern only happens on rereading. A good reader, as Nabokov wrote in his essay “How to Read, How to Write,” is a rereader.

When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and the artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have one in regard to the eye in a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy the details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave toward the book as we do toward a painting.

When Nabokov makes a distinction between “what the book is about” and our “artistic appreciation” of the book, he is separating our reading of the subject, story and characters — the book’s aboutness — from our appreciation of the book’s so-called artistic qualities, the details we would notice if we looked at a novel the way we look at a painting.

Nabokov assumes that we all look at paintings for more than the resemblance they bear to old dead people in funny clothes, for more than romantic seascapes and sunsets. He assumes that we see, for example, Whistler’s mother as something other than an elderly lady in a plain black dress and that we know, perhaps, that the painting of Whistler’s mother was originally titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and that when Whistler talked about painting he would say, as he did in a letter to his friend Fantin-Latour:

…it seems to me that color ought to be, as it were, embroidered on the canvas, that is to say, the same color ought to appear in the picture continually here and there, in the same way that a thread appears in an embroidery, and so should all the others, more or less according to their importance; in this way the whole will form a harmony.

Whistler is talking about patterns, patterns of color that exist over and above and through the subject of the picture, its aboutness. And when Nabokov talks about “artistic appreciation,” he is talking about appreciating the patterns of the novel in the same way, the repetition of certain verbal events or structures in a novel like the colors in a painting. This is precisely the way we appreciate poetry, where it is, as I have said, much easier to see that sounds and words are like oil paints or, for that matter, like notes in a piece of music.

3

Other ages and times have provided writers with pattern books, with instructions on rhetoric and composition. They put names to commonly used devices: paronomesia, periphrasis, prosopopoeia. Even in the 1920s at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, my aunt was taught to write, to compose sentences, by translating back and forth from Latin to English. But no one teaches composition any more except in remedial programs to students who patently can’t write at all.

Instead we teach creative writing with the emphasis on “creative” (which, I guess, implies that there is “uncreative” writing as well, though I have never seen it). At Iowa, outside of Robert Day, teachers tended to urge us to “write what you know.” If we managed to do that, they said, whatever we wrote would come out all right. Ernest Hemingway, that most brazen of liars, once wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence…,” sending generations of his competitors chasing vainly after a will o’ the wisp reality. Why people choose to believe what he says about writing and not what he says about his manliness is a curious instance of intellectual willfulness and self-deception.

In university English departments, on the other hand, students are taught criticism — Arnoldian, Freudian, New, Structuralist and Post-Structuralist, etc. Archetypes, symbols, influences, foreshadowing, metaphor and theme. Academic critics tend to see a novel as full-blown, not something built; as something found, not constructed. Academics are romantics — they see, or prefer to think they see, romantic intention in a novel as opposed to the bricks and mortar. I tried to tell a friend of mine, a person partway through a PhD. in English, what I meant by a pattern in a novel. She said, “Well, we call that recurring imagery.” A singularly bloodless phrase. But fair enough. Yes, that is sort of what I mean.

But why does it recur? And who made it recur? And is that all there is to it? Does the phrase “recurring imagery” help a writer? Academic critics generally see recurring images as evidence of a point the author is trying to make, part of the aboutness of the work. Deconstructionists, on the other hand, look for recurring images that the author may not have intended so as to “deconstruct” the aboutness of the work. In either case, they are wedded to thematics, to aboutness, to truth. Write what you know, throw in a little recurring imagery, and it’ll come out right. That’s what the creative writing schools and the English departments teach us.

In general it’s not terribly bad advice. Many writers get by with no other. Every writer borrows to a greater or lesser extent from the real world the images which he or she deploys in his or her novel. Every writer who has read significantly has an instinctive feel for rhythm, pacing and the repetition of images. But to go through life believing “Write what you know and throw in recurring imagery” is like going through life believing in God and free enterprise — it leads to a conservative and narrow view of life and art.

4

Pattern is an ambiguous word and I want to keep it that way. Writing a novel, Faulkner once said, is like a one-armed man nailing together a chicken coop in a hurricane. It helps to be open-minded and undogmatic about the rules of the operation.
Experience itself rests on our ability to recognize patterns — Forms Plato called them — in the sensory flux. A pattern that does not repeat itself is not a pattern, it is chaos, or it is something like God, or it is nothing. And the ability to recognize patterns is tied up with out ability to remember. Pattern, repetition and memory are the foundations of consciousness.

The same happens in a novel. On a very rudimentary level the author depends on pattern, repetition and memory to give the reader confidence in the world of the book, what we call verisimilitude, the quality of seeming to be real. In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna appears on almost every page. Anna is a pattern, a group of words and characteristics that repeat. If Tolstoy had changed Anna’s name, age, hair color and social background every chapter or so, we would throw the book down in disgust.

Pattern can mean a model or design upon which something else is constructed. Or it can mean the systematic repetition of certain design elements as in the pattern in wallpaper.

Pattern can, for example, refer to something large such as a plot.  All romances are based on, say, the model boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy gets girl. We also say there are no new plots under the sun. And we refer to coming-of-age novels, which have plots based on myths and rites of passage, or adventure novels, which are based on the quest model. What we call genre is a sort of pattern.

But pattern can also refer to something minute, a device such as, say, the list or the epic simile or even the structure of a sentence. Here is Nabokov talking about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

Gogol called his Dead Souls a prose poem; Flaubert’s novel is also a poem but one that is composed better, with a closer, finer texture. In order to plunge at once into the matter, I want to draw attention first of all to Flaubert’s use of the word and preceded by a semicolon. This semicolon-and comes after an enumeration of actions or states or objects; then the semicolon creates a pause and the and proceeds to round up the paragraph, to introduce a culminating image, or a vivid detail, descriptive, poetic, melancholy, or amusing. This is a peculiar feature of Flaubert’s style.

Now, though the actual number of usable patterns may, for practical purposes, be infinite, we always choose to use a finite number in any given piece of writing. This finite number of further reduced by the fact that many of the patterns are repeated throughout any given work. The more patterns a writer knows, however, the better his or her chances of being published, being read, or of writing a masterpiece that will endure. The way a person learns patterns is by reading; literature is an encyclopedia of patterns and devices.

Though it is possible to invent a pattern that no one has ever used before, originality in a writer generally amounts to an ability to vary the pattern in fresh ways. One might, for example, decide to use Flaubert’s semicolon-and sentence pattern in a contemporary rites-of-passage novel set in Montreal’s Jamaican emigre community. The pattern would be Flaubert’s, but the variation, the unique application, would be the author’s own.

Repetition, as I have said, is also a pattern. But it is a pattern of a different order, perhaps the pattern of patterns. To me, it is the heart of the mystery of art, of novel-writing. Without it, the novel becomes a strung-out plot summary.

I have tried to think out why repetition is appealing, why it is aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing. I think there are two reasons, or sorts of reasons. The first is essentially conservative — repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude.

The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love. This is the sort of thing Lyotard is talking about when he writes about “intensities” or patterns of intensities in his book Économie Libidinal, or what the Spaniard Madariaga meant when he talked about the “waves of energy” in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Seville.

In Anna Karenina there are two sub-plots: Levin’s marriage and Anna’s brother’s marriage. The novel actually begins with a sub-plot scene — Anna’s brother banished to sleep in his study for having an affair with a maid. These subplots are not simply tacked on. They repeat the marriage theme of the main plot, Anna’s marriage. Anna’s brother’s marriage is, like her own, a marriage on the rocks because of infidelity. Levin’s marriage is, by contrast, dutiful and steadfast.

Tolstoy created three identical patterns which twine and leapfrog and reverberate through the novel. Of course, the details, the contents, are different (this is one sort of variation); and, in the case of Levin’s plot, the structure, the pattern, is inverted, a positive to the negative of the other two plots (repetitions of abstract structures such as plots or relationships can vary in three ways — congruence, contrast or inversion, and the tree in the seed).

References to plot and subplot form a kind of rhythm in the novel. This rhythmic repetition of structures has something to do with what we call pace. As each plot comes round again for scrutiny by author and reader, it is like a new wave of energy, a drum beat. Anna’s story is the melody; Levin’s is a kind of booming base note thudding in counterpoint to Anna’s; Anna’s brother’s rhythm is lighter, more frenzied and comic. Or they are like Whistler’s colors, threading through a painting, darker, lighter, heavier, fainter.

There is another sort of repetition in Anna Karenina, one more mysterious yet. Just after Anna meets Vronsky, there is a train accident. A station guard, either drunk or muffled up too much against the cold weather, fails to hear the train approaching and is crushed to death. This station guard returns in Anna’s thoughts over and over again. He begins to inhabit her nightmares. He even migrates into Vronsky’s nightmares — transformed now into a dreadful-looking little man with a bedraggled beard, bending over a sack, groping in it for something and talking in French about having to beat, to pound into a shape a piece of iron. At the end of the novel, Anna sees him again just as she throws herself beneath the wheels of the train: “A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her.”

Obviously train imagery is repeated as well, at the beginning and the end. Why? Coincidence? Or is Tolstoy telling us something about the 19th century Russian transportation system? Of course not. Is it foreshadowing? Well, sort of. But foreshadowing is a word I don’t trust. Does this mean Tolstoy is telling us ahead of time that Anna is going to die in a train accident? I think not. I think there is some other motive at work, that the repetition of trains and bedraggled peasants, this bookending of image and incident, the beginning and the end, has a pleasing quality all its own, symmetry, if you will, a rightness, that is felt and appreciated, not “known.” Overture and coda, rather than prediction. A symmetry that would be lost, say, if Anna drowned herself or beat herself to death with a hatchet.

As a pattern, this terrifying little peasant just seems to pop up. He is just there — and there and there and there. He “means” nothing, except insofar as he is associated by juxtaposition with a larger pattern of trains, death, dreams and Vronsky. Somehow he manages to accrue all the potential horror of that pattern. He reminds us, not of the end to which Anna journeys, but of the beginning; so that when she dies, her end is freighted with a kind of fatedness that makes it all the more horrible and pathetic. The peasant is a tiny thread in the tapestry of the novel, a hint of color in the painting, a grace note in the symphony. Nothing more. Yet without him, how much shallower a book Anna Karenina might be.

It is worth noting that certain kinds of patterning, e.g. the repetition of character traits, enhance verisimilitude, while others, e.g. Anna’s peasant, work against it. We might distinguish between these by calling the one sort patterns of verisimilitude and the other patterns of technique. Every novel uses both, so every novel is a little balancing act between the two, or a war. John Hawkes, the experimental novelist, for example, says that “plot, character, setting and theme” (which are generally what I mean by patterns of verisimilitude) are the real enemies of the novel. “And structure,” he adds, “–verbal and psychological coherence — is still my largest concern as a writer. Related or corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute the essential substance or meaningful density of writing.”

But, oddly, though patterns of technique and patterns of verisimilitude tend to destroy one another, like matter and antimatter, both are necessary to the work. Depending on how heavily the author plays up one or the other, his or her novel will be more or less “realistic” or more or less “experimental.”

Getting the balances right in any given work is part of the art of art and its mystery and is a skill that cannot be taught. It leads to the feeling, a feeling I have had twice, once with each of my novels, of submission, of loss of freedom, of loss of expressiveness. Because there is a point in the process of writing a novel at which you must submit to the strictures of pattern that you have chosen. All of a sudden, there are things you can no longer fit into this novel, things you must cut, and other things that you must put in. And, of course, with something as complicated as a novel, you never get it right. And you end up wanting to slash your wrists.

As Paul Valéry once said, “A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.”

5

I have already noted that some patterns in novels, those patterns which tend to create verisimilitude, are like the patterns of experience in the world. This is as much as to say that a conventionally realistic novel reflects a certain metaphysics or philosophy of being and knowing. Modern novels of a less conventional sort also reflect a metaphysics, but it is a new metaphysics, a radically new way of talking about the locale of existence.

Vladimir Nabokov, whom I have quoted extensively and who has influenced a whole generation of North American writers (in Canada, at least two Governor-General’s Award winners, Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man and Hubert Aquin’s Trou de Memoire, owe huge debts to the structural and verbal pyrotechnics of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire), was an intellectual heir of the Russian Formalists. Formalism was an aesthetic and critical movement that thrived in St. Petersburg and other eastern European cities early in the twentieth century. The Formalists pegged a whole philosophy of language and literature on the split between meaning and signifiers, between aboutness and pattern.

What they did was put a theory to the things painters like Whistler and, soon after, the French Impressionists, and Surrealist poets like Breton, Eluard and Ponge — all the way back to Mallarme (Nabokov sneaks Mallarme quotations into his novels) — had been doing ten, twenty, thirty or more years before. They simply recognized that aboutness and pattern were two aspects of the things we call art and language, and that you could, in fact, have pattern without aboutness.

Since it seem impossible to have aboutness without pattern, a corollary of this is that aboutness is somehow secondary, a poor cousin, on the aesthetic scale of things, to pattern. Nabokov again:

There are…two varieties of imagination in the reader’s case… First, there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature… A situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we know or knew. Or, again, a reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.

This is what the post-Sausurrean critics, recently so popular in Europe and on American university campuses, are saying. Aboutness is old-fashioned, authoritarian, and patriarchal. Signs — read, pattern, poetry — are playful, subversive, and female. How a thinker can jump from a purely logical incongruence — the fact that, apparently, you can have pattern without aboutness but not vice versa — to these strings of value-loaded predicates is marvelous indeed and evidence that the instinct for narrative and romance has not died behind the ivy-covered walls of academe.

Another corollary of splitting the categories of pattern and aboutness is that there is a sense in which pattern itself creates meaning. Or to put it another way, the novel is about its own form. Or every book is about another book, or books. And every work of art is a message on a string of messages which begins nowhere and ends nowhere, to no one and from no one, and about nothing except the field of pseudo-meaning created by previous and future messages. It is all a game of mirrors and echoes. A little dance of images, words, and patterns. The of the Hindus, or all is vanity, all is dust, sure enough.

Keats wrote, “A man’s life is an allegory.” Nothing else. Or conversely, Korzybski says, “The map (read, the allegory, the pattern, the words) is not the territory.” Which is to say, as Jacques Lacan does, that all utterances are symptomatic and that the real is impossible.

6

Form (or pattern) and aboutness (or content, or reality) are the binary opposites of thought. The stance of the modern, whether he or she is a novelist, critic, theologian, or psychologist, is that ontology begins and ends with the former, that so-called reality is a highly suspicious article.

We are pressed back to a position of washed-out Cartesianism: I think, therefore, I think; or more precisely, I think, therefore something is thinking. Structuralists like Levi-Strauss say things like, “There is a simultaneous production of myths themselves, by the mind that generates them, and, by the myths, of an image of the world which is already inherent in the structure of the mind.” Linguistic philosophers like Wittgenstein say, “The world is my world: that is shown by the fact that the limits of language stand for the limits of my world…I am my world.” Except that this “I am” is not the body but language itself.

Reality, meaning, aboutness, the good, God and the self are pushed away into the realms of the unconscious, the unknowable, the unspeakable, and the unfathomable. In a very logical sense, they no longer concern us here as we race toward the end of the twentieth century. To say you are writing “realistic novel” is to commit as much of an intellectual solecism as, say, the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart does when he says God spoke with him before breakfast. The words “realistic novel” can only be spoken by a person who is speaking in the discourse of an earlier age or in parody.

Think of yourself in a room with bare plaster walls and no windows or doors. You have an infinite supply of variegated wallpapers. You paper the room with something in blue with a skylark pattern, then you do it over with angels, then an abstract, decorative pattern.

The first thing you notice is that you can’t see the wall anymore. This is the first effect of language, according to the philosophers and critics. As soon as you begin to use language, describe the world, you can no longer see it. You can only see your description. In fact, since we can’t even begin to describe something without language, then the existence of the wall itself becomes moot.

The second thing you notice is that each layer of wallpaper covers the previous layers. They’re lost, though you know they’re under there. In a sense the old wallpaper, the past, becomes part of the reality you are describing with each new layer of wallpaper. And sometimes you wake up in the morning and wish you still had the skylarks. You might even try to scrape some of the new wallpaper off. But that only makes a mess.

All you have is the design of each successive layer of wallpaper, and, just possibly, the shape of the room, its broad outlines, its cubic form. Life and art are a little like this. We only see the current wallpaper, remember bits and pieces of the old in the form of myths and memories of memories and fragments of discourse which no longer “mean” what they once meant. And, if we’re lucky, we intuit, or think we intuit, some vague outline of the something which may or may not be the room or the womb of reality.

To be a writer is to write with this knowledge, that the wallpaper is wallpaper and not the room, walls and plaster. It is to have that quality which Keats said went to form a man of achievement “especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” what he called Negative Capability — “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative Capability is the artist’s ability to suspend belief in any particular conceptual system (or wallpaper) or to see the conceptual system as pattern, as opposed to reality, as material in itself to be juggled and juxtaposed. Or, to put this another way, aboutness is illusory. What we see as aboutness the artist sees as just another pattern or part of a pattern. Or again, everything is pattern, infinitely plastic and malleable. A person who believes in a particular conceptual system believes that everything can be explained by reference to that conceptual system. Whereas the artist sees the pattern and feels the mystery that looms beyond the pattern.

The truth of the matter, everything that seems supremely important in life, begins when the talking, writing, painting, sculpting, filming and singing of discourse stop. All talk or art that says it’s telling you the truth about life is second rate. Of course, you can write something second rate that’s very popular, even quite good, for all these categories are relative. But great art is pattern over mystery, it is juggling words over whirlpools of silence.

7

In the extended sense, this view of language, life and art can seem exceedingly austere, if not forbidding and bleak. “The ultimate goal of the human sciences is not constitute, but to dissolve man,” says Levi-Strauss. (Just as Nabokov says that one of the functions of a novel is to prove that the novel in general does not exist.) Few of us can help feeling a nostalgia for the old ways, or what we think are the old ways, of talking. For ancient beliefs. For certainty and immortality. For familiar stories with plots and characters and recognizable locales. For adventure, romance and magic.

A lot of fictional, intellectual and political hay has been made out of this nostalgia, a nostalgia expressed, say, in the phrase “breakdown of values.” When an old way of talking disappears, many people are forced to apply narrative in order to explain it to themselves. They often feel they have a stake in the old way. They invent metaphors and analogies — machine breakdowns, erosion, war, disease — to make themselves feel easier. And to sell books.

You can see where nostalgia led Levi-Strauss in his wonderful autobiographical novel Tristes Tropiques. The annihilation of the self, of meaning and aboutness, by structural anthropology drove him into a quest for theological support, which he may or may not have found wandering amongst the Buddhist temples of the Far East. Or think of Sartre turning from the barrenness of existentialism to the warm, sloppy infantilism of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Or of Michel Foucault leaving his university office every afternoon to pursue a gruesome and self-destructive quest through the bath houses of New York until his death from AIDS.

One can look at people like Sartre, Foucault and Levi-Strauss as contemporary monks whose intellectual vigor and honesty led them to the conclusion that God, man and reality cannot be reached through words. (On December 6, 1273, at the age of fifty, Thomas Aquinas suffered something like a nervous breakdown and never wrote again.) That, by analogy, telling a story is a logically impossible project. That our only recourse (save for silence) is to take a step willy-nilly into narrative, or faith — Keat’s Negative Capability is something like Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith. It can’t be done — all the critics and philosophers tell us — but some of us will jump in anyway and start the story “Once upon a time…”

In this regard, the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy once wrote:

…a novelist these days has to be an ex-suicide. A good novel — and, I imagine, a good poem — is possible only after one has given up and let go. Then, once one realizes that all is lost, the jig is up, that after all nothing is dumber than a grown man sitting down and making up a story to entertain somebody or working in a “tradition” or “school” to maintain his reputation as a practitioner of the nouveau roman or whatever — once one sees that this is a dumb way to live, there are two possibilities: either commit suicide or not commit suicide. If one opts for the former, that is that; it is a letzte Losung and there is nothing more to write or say about it. But if one opts of the latter, one is in a sense dispensed and living on borrowed time. One is not dead! One is alive! One is free! I won’t say that one is like God on the first day, with the chaos before him and a free hand. Rather one feels, What the hell, here I am washed up, it is true, but also cast up, cast up on the beach, alive and in one piece. I can move my toe up and then down and do anything else I choose. The possibilities open to one are infinite. So why not do something Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Faulkner didn’t do, for after all they are nothing more than dead writers, members of this and that tradition, much admired busts on the shelf. A dead writer may be famous but he is also dead as a duck, finished. And I, cast up here on this beach? I am a survivor! Alive! A free man! They’re finished. Possibilities are closed. As for God? That’s his affair. True, he made the beach, which, now that I look at it, is not all that great. As for me, I might try a little something here in the wet sand, a word, a form…”

—Douglas Glover

Sep 132013
 

Savage Love Cover

Here’s the complete series of short essays I wrote for the National Post as the Guest Editor this week of the Afterward section (edited by Mark Medley). Read them in reverse order as they work in ascending order of complexity, each one building on the previous entries. Mark Medley invited me to write these essays as part of the fanfare for the launch of Savage Love (in bokstores next week).

dg

Click on the link: Douglas Glover

Sep 122013
 

This is the last in a series of short essays on “building sentences.” I wrote this series for the National Post in Toronto. They all appeared in the online section of the newspapers this week. To get the greatest benefit, it’s best to read them in sequence as they begin simply and increase in elaborative possibilities as you go along: but-constructions, lists, parallel construction and the epigram.

dg

Writers create drama in sentences and paragraphs by using grammatical forms to juxtapose material with different shades of meaning. If you say, “Usually Mel’s mother reminded her of a giraffe, but today she seemed more like an elephant,” you force the reader to compare elephants, giraffes, and mothers and the differences between them. Power lies in the differential relation.

Here is Keats on modern love: “And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up…” – a line of poetry that forces the reader to measure the distance between his idea of love and a dressed up doll. And here is an aphorism from my story “Bad News of the Heart”: “And what is love? An erotic accident prolonged to disaster.”

In his Historie of Serpents (1608), Edward Topsall wrote: “Some learned Writers..haue compared a Scorpion to an Epigram..because as the sting of the Scorpion lyeth in the tayle, so the force and vertue of an Epigram is in the conclusion.”

Aphorism, epigram and apophthegm are words that refer to roughly the same set of constructs: short, witty statements built around at least one balanced contrast. I taught myself to write them after reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Someone called Durrell’s style lapidary; after I looked up the word, I wanted to be lapidary, too. The Greeks wrote epigrams as epitaphs, to be carved on stones over the graves of heroes, hence the term lapidary, words worth being carved in stone for the ages.

The easiest way to teach yourself how to write aphorisms is to collect an assortment from your favourite writers, group them into formal types, and map the types. “Love is an erotic accident prolonged to a disaster” is a definition type. You get a lot that begin: love is, life is, women are, the world is, and so on. “The world is but a school of inquiry.” (Montaigne) “Life is always better under the influence of mild intoxicants.” (Glover, “Woman Gored by Bison Lives”) Here is one I stole from a woman I dated briefly and put into a story: “Love is like the telephone – more than one can use the line.”

The predicate contrasts with the subject of the sentence, or, to be more precise, it contrasts with the common understanding of the term in the subject. Epigrams and aphorisms are always subverting the common understanding and reader expectation; their nature is to be provocative and ironic.

Read the rest at the National Post

 

Sep 112013
 

Here’s a teaser to the third in my series of short essays on Building Sentences at the National Post. We are, yes, in the drumroll phase of my book launch for Savage Love.  Much appreciation to Mark Medley, the book editor at the National Post, for giving me the opportunity to write these.

dg

Parallel construction was another one of those structures English teachers taught me in high school without also telling why it was in the least useful or beautiful. Drone, drone, eyeballs rolling back in my head; another C- on that test. Later I learned the lesson. Here is an example from Mark Anthony Jarman’s great short story “Burn Man on a Texas Porch.”

“I’m okay, okay, will be fine except I’m hoovering all the oxygen around me, and I’m burning like a circus poster, flames taking more and more of my shape–am I moving or are they? I am hooked into fire, I am hysterical light issuing beast noises in a world of smoke.”

What you have here are two sentences built on a series of parallels that invert briefly at the parenthetical em-dash and then modulate into a variant (I’m, I’m, I’m, am I, I am, I am). The simple meaning of the sentence is that the narrator is on fire. But Jarman uses parallels to throw the sentence forward in a series of waves of energy, each surge encoded with another grotesque and moving image of self-incineration. The parallels delay the end of the sentence (as the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky tells us, delay is the first problem in writing a story) and create a passionately dramatic telling. Instead of mere description, the sentences become a poem.

    Each new iteration of the parallel creates more of that mysterious thing I call aesthetic space, a blank spot into which the author has to imagine new and surprising words. Form never limits a writer; it creates openings for fresh invention. It also creates an opportunity for what I call narrative yoking, syntactically juxtaposing two or more ideas to create astonishing new connections, or psychological parallelism.

Read the rest at the National Post

 

Sep 102013
 

Here’s the second in a series of short essays about writing sentences that I am putting together for the National Post in Toronto this week as part of the promotional fanfare leading to the publication of Savage Love. Yesterday I did but-constructions; today we have the rhetoric of lists. Here’s a teaser; it was just published earlier this evening.

dg

    The first technique I learned and applied consciously was the list. This was in an early story “Pender’s Visions” that begins with a line – “Pender is a bottle, a glass, a table, a gun, a house.” The line becomes a refrain through the text, only to modulate in the last section of the story into “Pender, a bottle, a glass, a table, a gun, a house, a world…”

    This was, as I say, a first attempt (no apologies for being young), but you can see the rhythmic effect of a long series that becomes a structural effect by the repetition of the line throughout the text, and then becomes a thematic effect by the modulation of the series at the end. The modulation is especially significant because a series (of vaguely like entities) creates reader expectation, and the reader always enjoys having his expectations tweaked.

    Rabelais was a gargantuan list-writer. In an early chapter of Gargantua and Pantagruel, he gives a paragraph long list of plant matter the boy Gargantua uses to wipe his butt. “Then I wiped myself with sage, with fennel, with dill and anise, with sweet marjoram, with roses, pumpkins, with squash leaves, and cabbage, and beets, with vine leaves, and mallow, and Verbascum thapsus (that’s mullein, and it’s as red as my _____)–and mercury weed, and purslane, and nettle leaves, and larkspur and comfrey. But then I got Lombardy dysentery, which I cured by wiping myself with my codpiece.”

    This is complex and hilarious, hilarious because it is a long silly list that contains some very odd choices. Pumpkins? Note also that list makers pass on conventional punctuation and grammar. Instead of a series of items separated by commas right to the end, Rabelais modulates to comma-and breaks, then reverts to the earlier convention, then goes to comma-and to the close of the sentence. A lot of “ands.” Rhythm is everything in a list, but you don’t want the rhythm to send the reader off to sleep.

    Rabelais also disrupts the list with the Latin name for mullein and inserts a comical parenthetical (breaks voice, as it were) and comments directly to the reader, creating a syntactic drama that breaks the rhythm temporarily. Then he adds a but-construction (see my previous column) that gives the list a plot. Instead of an endless repetition of the same wiping act, the boy gets dysentery (with an ethnic slap at Lombards). Then we come back to wiping.

    This is brilliant list writing because it’s outrageously funny, rhythmic, and has plot. The basic principles are all there: list, rhythm, disruption (by changing up series members, by grammatical disruption, by authorial interruption, by but-construction), and plot.

Read the rest at the National Post.