Jun 092017
 

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In Alice Munro’s work Lives of Girls and Women—billed as a novel, though it is more of a collection of linked stories—“Baptizing” plays Del Jordan, a high school senior seeking sexual initiation, against three antagonists. Two of these encounters end in comic humiliation, while the third is a breathtakingly carnal adventure until she breaks up explosively with her boyfriend.

First, Del meets Clive through her friend Naomi at a trashy bar, but the encounter goes no further than making out drunkenly. Second, she halfheartedly dates her brilliant, socially awkward high school classmate Jerry Storey. And finally, she has a full love affair with a Baptist lumberyard worker named Garnet French. As Glover notes in his essay “The Style of Alice Munro” (from The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro), “this strategy of varying plot structure by using different antagonists in each plot step is also used in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ in which the protagonist Gabriel interacts dramatically with three successive women, Lily, the maid, Miss Ivors, the fellow journalist, and, finally, his wife” (48).

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Let us start, then, by examining “The Dead.”

Glover expands on his analysis of the Joyce masterpiece in Attack of the Copula Spiders (27-29). In each encounter, Glover says, Gabriel oversteps by making assumptions about the women, who put him in his place. Each of the three set pieces end with Gabriel miffed, nonplussed, humiliated, and disabused of some modicum of his self-delusions. Gabriel jokes with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter that everyone would be going to her wedding to a fine young man one day. This is harmless banter of the sort Gabriel thinks should brighten the day of any working girl. But Lily has had it with her fine young man—with all men, really—and she holds Gabriel accountable for the failings of his wicked gender. “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you,” she says. Gabriel colors in embarrassment.

Next he crosses swords with Miss Ivors, a patriot who gratuitously insults Gabriel’s honor as an Irishman because he has the temerity to write book reviews for a British paper. (The nerve!) “West Briton!” she calls him. She apologizes passive-aggressively but smilingly repeats her slander, leaving Gabriel embarrassed and angry. She possesses the passive-aggressive’s gift for detecting a tender spot in her interlocutor’s psyche—a place of insecurity, self-doubt, weakness, or shame—and jabbing him there with a well-filed fingernail. Gabriel pettily avenges himself with oblique allusions to a strawman version of Ivors in a toast over dinner—after she has left the party and can no longer respond. So there!

Finally, the shifting fault lines of the party unearth the coffin of a buried conflict with his wife, Greta. She suggests that they go to Galway for a visit. “You can go if you like,” he says coldly. In a later conversation in their bedroom, Gabriel, aflame with lust for Gretta, is astonished when she bursts into tears. Turns out she is crying over a boy named Michael Furey whom she was in love with, and who died in Galway years ago. Though frail in his health, he stood out in a cold rain pining for her, fell sicker yet, and died. “I think he died for me,” she says. Gabriel achieves an epiphany of sorts, a bitter one: he has never really known his wife, and now he sees her as someone whose soul he cannot fathom, who has loved another more deeply than she will ever love him. He cannot forgive himself for his petty preoccupations in the face of his wife’s deep, true grief. His newfound self-knowledge is rendered comical by his fantastical, exaggerated self-lacerations, of a sort familiar to psychologists. If he must fail, Gabriel must do so in a spectacular manner: “He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts…” Joyce leaves us with a Gabriel-in-a-hair-shirt who is the mirror image of his former vain self. A few sessions with a good shrink might help him sort out his self-image, even if there is little that can be done about clownish male lusts.

Glover states that in these encounters, “Each woman is more important to Gabriel than the previous one. Each comes closer to threatening and overturning his core psychic constructs. And each woman confronts him with the truth” (Attack, 29).

lives-of-girls-and-women

Similarly, in “Baptizing,” Munro arranges three stories that, individually, are broken up in a series of steps, Glover states, “so that they form a miniature story, a dramatic whole within the larger structure of the story.” Each chapter of this tale ends in Del walking home alone.

In the first set piece of “Baptizing,” Del is an inexperienced newcomer in the grotty Gay-la Dance Hall, which her mother, despite her irreligiousness, compares to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. The man Del is paired off with, Clive, amuses himself faking Dutch immigrant and black accents with his friend.

“Hey, Rastus,” Bert says “spookily” (210—gap-mouthed italics my own). Clive is a fancy, inventive dancer who leaves Del feeling awkward as she tries to match his moves. Back at the table, she “drinks like a fish,” as Naomi approvingly observes. But when the foursome leave and drive about in Clive’s friend’s car, Clive pounces on Del (so drunk she has forgotten she is sitting beside him) and slides his tongue down her throat “like an enormous, wet, cold, crumpled … dishrag” (208). They all end up in a hotel, but after heading down the hall to use the toilet, Del removes her shoes, climbs down the fire escape, and walks off barefooted. In her drunken confusion she first wobbles to Naomi’s home, waking Naomi’s father (who later gives his daughter a belting when she returns home). Del finally ends up in her own bed, alone and hungover, in a dry-mouthed conclusion to this failed romantic evening.

The second set piece likewise ends in failure and with Del fleeing into the night. But it veers even further into slapstick, “something jerky and insane from a silent movie,” she later reflects (226). The story involves the teenage genius Jerry Storey. Student body opinion has paired off Del off with the boy for the sole reason that they are the two top scholars. Almost against their will, they fall into a relationship. Jerry shows a not-atypical masculine preoccupation with himself and his achievements. A science and math prodigy, he is baffled by Del’s areas of giftedness, as in her love of literature. Fairly or not, one is tempted to merge the character Del with a young Munro, yet it is Jerry who daydreams about winning the Nobel Prize in, oh, let’s say ten years or so, maybe twenty (217). Like Clive, Jerry uses fake accents—those of British sophisticates or characters from the comic strip “Pogo,” though this time Del joins in with him in silly dialogues that cover their sense of awkwardness together. As with Clive, their sexual exploration is desultory and amusingly unsexy.

Our hands lay moistly together, each one of us wondering, no doubt, how long in decent courtesy they must remain. Our bodies fell together not unwillingly but joylessly, like sacks of wet sand. Our mouths opened into each other … our tongues rough, mere lumps of unlucky flesh (222).

(Again, those dreadful tongues down the throat.)

The relationship climaxes (in a literary if not physical sense) with Del undressing and lying on Jerry’s bed. Embarrassed, they resort to Pogo accents: “Yo’ is shore a handsome figger of a woman,” he tells her (223). But ludicrously, Jerry hears his mother returning home, and he shoves his naked girlfriend into the basement stairway, leaves her there in the dark. Later he tosses her clothes down the laundry chute. She climbs out a window, and again walks home at night in shame and fury. (They make up the next day.)

As authors must, Munro saves her climactic story—her most affecting and beautiful one—for the conclusion. Del has a love affair with lumberyard worker Garret French. She meets him at a revival meeting that she, a nonbeliever, whimsically decides to attend after a teacher who is a Presbyterian elder gives her a promotional button that reads Come to Jesus. There, Garnet spies Del from across the room and works his way over to her. They don’t even know each other’s name, yet he holds her hand as they listen to a hellfire sermon from an itinerant revivalist. It’s a gorgeous way to create dramatic tension—to have the seduction occur, irreverently and irresistibly, in a religious service. Here Munro nods to another work by Joyce, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, which recounts a sermon delivered amid Stephen Daedalus’s preoccupation with fleshly depravities. In “Baptizing,” the preacher’s key image, that of the sinner crossing a rope bridge held by a thread over the chasm of Hell, also alludes to Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but in a comic twist, Del and indeed the entire audience do not quake in their seats, like Edwards’ congregation, but are entertained by a threat of damnation from which they consider themselves personally exempt. As the preacher orates, people sing out, “Amen.” Del muses, “Movie stars and politicians and fornicators gone beyond rescue; it seemed, for most people, a balmy comfortable thought” (233). The affair that follows is all-consuming, even before it is consummated. Del lies awake sleepless until dawn, reviewing every kiss and touch. “Sex seemed to me all surrender—not the woman’s to the man but the person’s to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility” (239—italics mine).

Glover discerns echoes among Munro’s three set pieces. Del and Garnet visit each other’s homes for a meal, just as Jerry and Del do. Garnet’s sprawling, working class family attracts Del in a way that Jerry and his widow mother do not, but there are similarly uncomfortable sexual revelations in each household. Jerry’s mother, ambitious for her boy’s future, warns Del to use birth control when having sex; Garnet carves the names of his conquests into a beam on the porch, Del’s last of all, underscored and surrounded by stars, indicating she would be his wife.

All three relationships implode, the first two comically, while her final, deepest one ends in tragic rage and a kind of betrayal (a betrayal, that is, by Del; she admits this to herself, even though she is a victim of Garnet’s physical brutality). Del and Garnet go swimming together after making love (258 ff). Garnet tells her she must get baptized as a member of his church. Although minutes earlier she has agreed to bear his children, she resists baptism, recognizing that to do so would be to surrender something essential about herself. His half-joking attempt to baptize her himself turns vicious as he realizes the love he has offered is not reciprocated—that “I had somehow met his good offerings with my deceitful offerings … matching my complexity and play-acting to his true intent” (260). He nearly drowns her, but she refuses to give in and manages to escape his clutches. For a third time, the end of a relationship leaves her walking home.

This final set piece provides a revelation to Del, an epiphany, which unites all three panels of the literary triptych. “The scene has the force of a spell being broken: Del speaks of sleepwalking, of waking up,” Margaret Atwood writes in The Cambridge Companion (111). In her encounters with Clive and Jerry, Del was denied not only sexual fulfillment, but the enlightenment of self-knowledge as to where she stands in relation to men. With Garnet, she finds a deeply satisfying sexual relationship—rare in this life, as she is aware—but with a man with whom she has no future. She must give it up to awaken herself from the spell.

—Russell Working

Works Cited

Alice Munro: Lives of Girls and Women
James Joyce: Dubliners
Douglas Glover: Attack of the Copula Spiders
Douglas Glover, Margaret Atwood et al.: The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro

 

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Russell-Working

Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly,The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the ChicagoTribune. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, theBoston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

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Oct 122016
 

Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe Muraille

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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)

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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

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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)

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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

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8.    Epilogue

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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
 

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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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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    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.

 

Sep 092013
 

This week, at the National Post in Toronto as part of the build up to the publication of Savage Love, I am writing a series of very short essays on, well, writing. Mostly about writing sentences. Here is a teaser for the first; it was just published this morning.

English was my worst subject (next to Health) in high school right through to my second year of university when I stopped taking English. I’d fallen afoul of the empty rule syndrome. Don’t use the pronoun “I” in an essay; don’t begin sentences with “but” or “because”; write paragraphs to the topic sentence-body text-conclusion pattern (even if it bores you to death to say the same thing three times); vary sentence structure. The trouble with these rules is that no one told me why any of them would be especially useful.

Vary sentence structure was a rule I puzzled over for years. No one explained grammar to me well enough to make a connection. At first I thought, well, I can write long and short sentences, something like Hemingway. Then I practiced emphatic placement of important material (at the beginning or the end of the sentence, I was told) and inversion (writing the sentence backwards — kind of fun). None of this got me anywhere because I could not connect the spirit of a sentence, what emotional and factual impact I intended, with the idea of sentence structure.

I puzzled through instruction books. I discovered the wonderful distinctions between simple, compound and complex sentences and the even more mysterious cumulative and periodic sentences. I practiced writing periodic sentences until I was blue in the face without actually being able to discover how that made them interesting for readers. They weren’t very interesting to me. And my stories did not seem any better for having good topic sentence paragraphs, long and short sentences, and a scattering of lovely periodic sentences.

The rules were still inanimate, void of life. The nexus of intention and form escaped me. Above all the whole idea that you had to know what you were going to write before you wrote it was like a lock on my soul. It made writing drudgery.

Read the rest here: Douglas Glover: Building sentences

 

Sep 062013
 

At this summer’s residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was in workshop with the inimitable DG. Among other things, we talked about image patterns and their role in buttressing the spine of a story. I was having trouble, though, differentiating between images that clearly possess thematic importance (what some call a symbol) and images that contribute to the story’s backdrop. Here’s an example—do frequent mention of stars in Star Wars mean stars should be read as an image pattern? If not, what can we call these images that repeat because they’re ubiquitous in the story’s setting?

I recalled that in French grammar school—and on through middle and high school—I learned about something called a champ lexical, or “lexical (or semantic) field.” My fellow French-Americans and I would read a text and have to highlight, for example, all the words in the text that refer (either literally or figuratively) to the sea. Then we could raise our hands, hope the teacher calls on us, and proudly claim we’d found the text’s lexical field of the sea. (Then the beloved French teacher would scowl, as I remember it.)

This concept seemed relevant to image patterns so I quickly googled it to refresh my memory. The definition from this French exercise site captured it:

“Un champ lexical est l’ensemble des mots qui, dans un texte, se rapportent à une même notion.”

Or: A lexical field is the group of words that, in a text, refer to one same notion.

One online resource shows an example of this grade school exercise in interpretation. The authors separate various lexical fields in Baudelaire’s “Autumn Song” and warn readers not to reduce their study of the poem to one lexical field (death) but rather to explore more specific ones that add up to something larger—they identify “temporal adverbs” in red, “sensations of cold” in purple, “auditory sensations” in blue, and “funereal terms” in green.

 Le champ lexical

In French literature we also use the notion of a lexical field to include words from the same etymological family. So, you see, lexical field is a concept that encapsulates denotation and connotation, synonym and semantic family. Do we anglophones discuss images (or motifs) in quite the same way?

Ultimately, “champ lexical” theory dates back to early linguistics. It was formulated by German linguist Jost Trier and was influenced by the ideas of structuralist Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. What linguists call a lexical field shares a history with the literary concept, but linguists are isolating and studying “lexemes” whereas French k-12 readers are playing with highlighters. (That’s just scratching the surface, though. The authors of the above article go further with the literary concept, suggesting that we distinguish between denotative fields, which the authors call a lexical field, and metaphorical or connotative fields, which they call a lexical network.)

There are less productive ways to play with highlighters, I have to say. It’s fascinating to look at other education systems and see how they form readers.

Turning quickly to the term “symbol,” we see that the French definition of symbol resembles the English one: élément ou énoncé descriptif ou narratif susceptible d’une double interprétation sur le plan réaliste et sur le plan des idées. To paraphrase in translation: a word used to evoke a secondary meaning.

In the beginning of my investigation into this foreign concept, I thought it might be interesting to think of image patterning as the umbrella over two things: 1) the concrete, bodily, setting-relevant lexical fields and 2) the abstract, metaphorical, theme-related symbols. Now, I think image patterning and lexical fields are closer to synonyms than I had realized, since both terms incorporate the denotative and the connotative. If nothing else, it’s good to remember that the stars in Star Wars are not necessarily symbols. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

—Tom Faure

Aug 122013
 

Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli follows his brilliant essay on Gordon Lish, composition and consecution (published on NC in February) with an equally brilliant and challenging piece on Stein, Walser and Lipsyte and the use of repetition in constructing narrative prose. In many ways this is an extension of his earlier essay since it seems obvious that Gordon Lish and Gertrude Stein emerge from the same stream of American Modernism and play somewhat similar roles as inspirational figures in their different generations. Lish’s influence on Sam Lipsyte goes without saying. And Walser is a European avatar of that same tradition. Jason’s essay, based on a lecture he gave at Vermont College of Fine Arts in July, is cogent, erudite, intuitive and compulsively readable. He teaches you how to read.

dg

 

“The whole idea is that there is the pattern.”

– Diane Williams, “D. Beech and J. Beech”

 

Lately I have been thinking a lot about repetition.

More specifically, I have been thinking about patterns of repetition and compression and ways to compose a narrative so that certain words and phrases carry the burden of motion or narrative momentum.

This all started after I read Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist who published a book in 1953 called Writing Degree Zero. In an essay titled “Is There Any Poetic Writing?” Barthes says that written language has a “relational nature” and that “words are abstracted as much as possible in the interest of relationships” (44). Barthes continues, saying, “no word has a density by itself, it is hardly the sign of a thing, but rather the means of conveying a connection.” According to Barthes, words extend toward other words, forming, what he calls, “a superficial chain of intentions.” As a word stands for itself, it also points to other words in a “relational network” that drives narrative intention and momentum. Barthes suggests that a reading of these relations might function similarly to a mathematical language expressing either “operative equality” or “difference.”

barthes2

As I thought about patterns of repetition, specifically word patterns, this seemed very interesting to me. I started thinking about the inter-textual connections in narrative form and the need for readers to be able to derive meaning from those relationships since it is always necessary to understand where we are going, why we are going there, and what the relational elements of a narrative mean within the context of the work as a whole (47).

Barthes says that our function as writers is “not to find new words, with more body or brilliance, but to follow an order of an ancient ritual, to perfect the symmetry or conciseness of a relation,” and because I was thinking about word patterns, I took Barthes quite literally (45). I thought, what could be more concise or symmetrical than a relational network of the same words and phrases repeating throughout a narrative?

So my journey into the world of word patterns began, and I will attempt to construct that same tour for you by examining word patterns from three stories: Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” Robert Walser’s “Nothing At All,” and Sam Lipsyte’s “The Wrong Arm.”

First, I would like to introduce a working definition of word patterns from the mouth of Douglas Glover. In his essay “The Mind of Alice Munro” from his book Attack of the Copula Spiders, he says, word patterns “begin with mere repetition and accumulate meaning by association and juxtaposition, splinter or ramify, sending out subsidiary branch patterns, and…discover occasions for recombination or intersection of the various branches…in tie-in lines” (95). As portions of a pattern repeat, each repetition conveys its relationship or connection to the pattern. Glover separates word patterns into categories of root pattern (identified as such by its connection to a story’s protagonist) and split-off patterns.

In an echo of the Barthes passage mentioned earlier (“no word has a density by itself…”), Glover says, “No word sits by itself; instead, each word vibrates in a dozen relationships with other words, repeating, competing, dominating, wrenching, transforming, shading, and subverting” (98). Similar to Barthes, Glover emphasizes the relationships between words and the nature of those relationships. In this way, repeating word patterns are charged with a variety of structural and thematic functions. Word patterns, for example, can initiate motive and intention, develop conflict and characterization, convey desire and resistance, action and counteraction.

Glover’s words are a contemporary explanation of word patterns, so before examining a portion of one of the many patterns in Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” let’s take a step back and see what Stein herself has to say about her process since she wrote and lectured on it so extensively. In her lecture “Portraits and Repetition,” published in 1935—eighteen years before Barthes, sixty-eight years before Glover—she says “…if you like repetition, that is if you like the repeating that is the same thing, but once started expressing this thing, expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis” (167). In her own way, Stein is saying that repetition alone is not enough, for how can one say anything by merely repeating oneself? Rather, Stein stresses the importance of how that repetition is positioned in relation to its prior utterance. Stein unpacks this idea later in her lecture when she says, “the repetition consists in knowing that that one is a kind of one” and “each sentence is just the difference in emphasis” (198). Each repetition with variation carries its own emphasis, its own context, and as a “kind of one,” points back to the whole of where it came. As a rule, each sameness should carry its own difference.

In an examination of the work and life of Gertrude Stein, scholar and literary critic Fredrick J. Hoffman writes, “Repetition is an essential strategy in composition; it guarantees similarity and forces the consciousness upon the nature of the thing seen while at the same time it provides the avenue along which movement and change may occur” (Stein, 20). The momentum of Stein’s stories—published in the early 1900’s until the time of her death in 1946—do not rely on discernable plotlines, but rather, as Hoffman says, “subtle gradations of change” and “slow accretions of variant meaning” achieved through a careful balance of repetition with variation (21).

gertrudestein

In “Melanctha,” published in 1909, Stein builds a relational network of patterns that, as Douglas Glover might say, “controls development and meaning within the text” (96). Stein repeats a variety of words with varying emphasis as a way of progressing the emotional battle experienced by Melanctha throughout the story. The patterns in “Melanctha” are too numerous to name now in every instance, but some of the repeating words and phrases can be easily integrated into the following summary: Melanctha is a girl of mixed race who often feels “blue,” loves “too hard,” “too fast,” and can only find “new ways to be in trouble.” She “wanders,” and in her “wandering,” searches for “wisdom” and “understanding.” But poor Melanctha is “full of the excitement of many men,” and can “always only find new ways to get excited.” When her mother becomes ill, Melanctha meets Dr. Campbell. Melanctha and the doctor begin a relationship of “talking” and “listening,” and Melanctha pushes Dr. Campbell to do less “thinking” and more “feeling,” but Dr. Campbell believes Melanctha’s way of “feeling” is much too “hard” and “too fast.” Eventually Dr. Campbell comes to a new “understanding” and a new “feeling” about Melanctha, even though Dr. Campbell believes he is moving “fast” and ahead of his own “feeling.” Yet Melanctha only “suffers” and remains unsatisfied because Dr. Campbell still seems so “slow” in his “feeling.” This struggle of conflicting emotions continues between them, their “minds” and “hearts” never agreeing, until they finally end their relationship.

threelives“Melanctha” is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who narrates closely beside Melanctha and other characters in the story, like Rose Johnson, Melanctha’s best friend, and Dr. Jeff Campbell, Melanctha’s love interest for most of the narrative. Much of the tension in “Melanctha” develops from and is controlled by word patterns, and I would like to look at a few patterns, a few examples, slivers really. The word patterns of “trouble,” “excited,” and “courage” are all connected to Melanctha’s character development, though these same word patterns also control aspects of the conflict between Melanctha and Dr. Campbell. The first instance of “trouble” is tied to Melanctha: “Melanctha Herbert was always seeking rest and quiet, and always she could only find new ways to be in trouble” (3). To give you a sense of its frequency, the word pattern “trouble” occurs 97 times throughout the story. The function of the pattern here is to reveal one of Melanctha’s flaws. The pattern continues on in other instances, though, most importantly, it appears in the sentence introducing Dr. Jeff Campbell: “Jeff Campbell had never yet in his life had real trouble” (14). Already, it’s easy to see the difference, the conflict, between the two characters: Melanctha is always in “trouble” and Jeff Campbell has never known “real trouble.”

Let’s look at a few instances of the intersecting patterns of “excited” and “trouble”: “Melanctha Herbert was always seeking peace and quiet, and she could always only find new ways to get excited” (3). For Melanctha, getting into “trouble” and getting “excited” are connected. One leads to the other, and Stein conveys this relationship in a sentence whose structure is parallel to that of the one with “trouble”: “Melanctha Herbert was always seeking rest and quiet, and always she could only find new ways to be in trouble”. Again, to give you a sense of its frequency, the pattern of “excited” along with its split-off pattern of “excitements” is repeated 27 times throughout the text.

During a conversation between Melanctha and Dr. Campbell early in their courtship, Melanctha suggests that Dr. Campbell do less “thinking” and more “feeling.” Dr. Campbell replies, “…I really certainly don’t ever like to get excited, and that kind of loving hard does seem always to mean just getting all the time excited. No Miss Melanctha I certainly never have mixed myself up in that kind of trouble” (18). Here, the patterns of “excited” and “trouble” intersect to reveal complication and growing tension in the relationship between Dr. Campbell and Melanctha. In this example, the patterns of “trouble” and “excited” indicate opposing viewpoints, alternate lifestyles.

 What makes Melanctha so prone to finding “new ways to be in trouble” is revealed in the following sentence: “Melanctha had always had a break neck courage…” (4) The relationship between “break neck courage” and “trouble” is defined in a later conversation between Dr. Campbell and Melanctha when she says: “…I mean real courage, to run around and not care nothing about what happens, and always be game in any kind of trouble” (37). Dr. Campbell replies, “…its all right being brave every day, just living regular and not having new ways all the time just to get excitements…I ain’t ashamed ever to say I ain’t got no longing to be brave, just to go around and look for trouble…” and, he continues, “that kind of courage makes all kind of trouble…” (38) Dr. Campbell’s idea of “brave” reflects “wisdom” that knows to keep away from certain “excitements” and “trouble.” Alternately, Melanctha’s idea of “courage” is one that leads to new “excitements” and “trouble” of all kinds. This succession of contexts forms a battle of opposites and, as Douglas Glover might say, “the competing points of view strive for interpretive primacy” (97). In other words, whose conception of love will supplant the other: Melanctha’s or Dr. Campbell’s?

Stein constructs the avenue for this struggle along threads of repetition and variation, sameness and difference, through the use of precise, complex word patterns. On “Melanctha,” Frederick J. Hoffman says, “Each of the significant phrases is repeated, again and again, in slightly new contexts, until one is aware of change within a central pattern of conscious experience” (30). Ultimately, the desired effect of Stein’s patterns, of all word patterns, is to produce some sort of change, or, in some instances, an awareness of staying the same.

robert_walser_01

In Robert Walser’s “Nothing at All,” published in 1917, the pattern making is even more transparent. Walser was a German-speaking Swiss writer who published short pieces of prose, novels, plays, and essays throughout 1901 to 1953 during the height of the Modernist period. “Nothing at All” (700 words) is much shorter than “Melanctha” (50,000 words), and while Walser’s patterning and use of repetition is equally interwoven, the compression of his narrative has much to do the transparency of his patterns.

“Nothing at All” is told by a first person narrator who narrates the story of a woman, a little “flighty” and a little “absentminded,” who goes shopping for something “good” for her and her husband to eat for supper that night. In town, the woman cannot keep her “mind on the matter,” a result of her “absentminded”-ness.  Between her inability to keep “her mind on the matter” and being a little “flighty,” the woman comes to “no decision” and goes home with “nothing at all.” At home, she explains to her husband how the “choice was too difficult,” and because her “mind wasn’t on the matter,” she bought “nothing at all.” The “good” husband accepts his wife’s explanation and that night they have “nothing at all,” which, ironically, tastes “exceptionally good to them.”

walserbook1The transparency of Walser’s patterning lends itself more easily to categories of root pattern and split-off patterns. Walser even tips off readers to the main pattern of “nothing at all” by initiating the pattern in the title of the story. Instead of tracing each pattern separately, I will trace the root pattern of “nothing at all” and its connection to the split-off patterns of “good” and variations of the phrase “mind on the matter.” As in Stein’s “Melanctha,” “Nothing at All” contains other patterns that carry all other prior utterances to the pattern they came from while relating to other patterns at work throughout the narrative.

The intersection or tie-in of all three patterns (“nothing at all,” “good,” and “mind on the matter”) occurs at the juncture, or climax, of the wife’s decision-making: “It isn’t good when minds aren’t on the matter, and, in a word, the woman finally got disgusted, and she went home with nothing at all” (110). When the woman gets home, her husband asks what “delicious and good” food she bought for supper, to which the wife responds: “nothing at all.” The woman explains: “‘I went to town and I wanted to buy something truly delicious and good for me and you, I wasn’t lacking in good will, over and over I considered, but the choice was too difficult and my mind wasn’t on the matter, and therefore I didn’t succeed, and therefore I bought nothing at all.’” Walser constructs this sentence using the ancient repetitive structures of polysyndeton and asyndeton. Asyndeton is the omission of conjunctions between phrases in favor of rhythm and speed, as in the first half of the sentence: “‘I went to town and I wanted to buy something truly delicious and good for me and you, I wasn’t lacking in good will, over and over I considered…” The final half of the sentence uses polysyndeton, a repetitive structure relying on excessive conjunctions also in the favor of rhythm: “‘…but the choice was too difficult and my mind wasn’t on the matter, and therefore I didn’t succeed, and therefore I bought nothing at all.’” In both cases, asyndeton and polysyndeton focus on the way clauses (or words and phrases) are linked. In other words, Walser uses these repetitive techniques to establish concise connections between three separate patterns: “good” and its split-off pattern “good will,” “mind on the matter,” and the root pattern of “nothing at all.”

Throughout the story, “good” is used in relation to the “something good” the wife wants to buy for supper. “Good,” in this case, represents intention or character desire. In other instances, “good” had the effect of characterization, like in connection with the “good intentions” or “good will” of the woman during her supper-search, and in the use of “good upright husband.” The woman’s motivation carried by the line, “A woman…went to town to buy something good for supper for herself and her husband,” receives its fulfillment in a tie-in line between “good” and “nothing at all” toward the end of the story: “And so they ate nothing at all and were both satisfied, for it tasted exceptionally good to them” (110). The husband is “in no way angry,” and this irony seems to suggest a resolution, because, in a way, the wife succeeds, at least until the final line of the story, which contains the final instance of the root pattern “nothing at all”: “Many other things would probably have tasted better to him than nothing at all” (111). This line reveals the only instance of judgment from the perspective of the “good” husband in the story, and extends the root pattern of “nothing at all” by complicating the narrative. This final instance also completes the circular momentum of the pattern—and the movement of the piece as a whole—as “nothing at all” moves from its connection of “good” into an implied connotation of “not good.” While “good” is a split-off pattern, it occurs more than any other pattern in the text, 17 times in all, 7 more times than the root pattern “nothing at all.” Here, the root pattern drives the avenue of progression, while the enriched pattern of “good” and all its variant meanings helps to elicit deeper meaning from the root pattern and the narrative overall.

lipsyte

The same kind of transparent pattern making is evident in Sam Lipsyte’s “The Wrong Arm,” a contemporary short story from Lipsyte’s collection Venus Drive, published in 2000.  Lipsyte’s root pattern of “the wrong arm,” initiated in the title of the story, controls the development of the narrative while the split-off patterns and repetitive phrases in the narrative initiate change.

lipsyte_venus_drive“The Wrong Arm” is told in the past tense from the first person point of view of an adolescent genderless narrator, who, for the sake of simplifying pronoun use, I will refer to as “he.” A family—consisting of a father, a mother, and three children—sets out on a road trip to see “the boats of the world” sailing up a river somewhere, but during the course of the trip, the narrator overhears his father and mother talking, and the narrator realizes there’s more to the trip than seeing “the boats.” The father says the boats are one thing and that there is another thing that they all need to talk about once they reach “the boats.” The narrator believes that what his father and mother have to tell the children has something to do with the “wrongness” in his mother, who has an arm with a visual history of “all the scars from all the times something tried to kill her in that arm.” Through the years, the mother’s arm has come to be known as the “the wrong arm.” There are strict rules against touching “the wrong arm”, or leading the mother anywhere by “the wrong arm.” Once the family arrives at the river to see “the boats,” in an effort to prove that “the wrong arm” is just like “anybody’s arm,” that they are “making it wrong by saying it was wrong,” the narrator suggests they “go closer” to the boats, and then he does “the wrong thing.”

As with Walser’s “Nothing At All,” “The Wrong Arm” contains a root pattern that centralizes the progression of the story by creating conflict, increasing narrative tension, and tying into the desires of multiple characters in various ways. The root pattern has branching associations of split-off patterns that, in one way or another, relate back to the root pattern. In Gertrude Stein’s words, each repetitive phrase, in connection to the root pattern of the story, helps to provide new insistence, new emphasis to the pattern. Lipsyte uses patternmaking as a way to compress the history of “wrongness” done to the mother’s “wrong arm” while also progressing the pattern in the present moment of the narrative.

Let’s look at an example that outlines the boundaries of the relationship between “the wrong arm” and the other family members: “All we knew about the wrong arm was that it was wrong to touch it, to pinch it, to rub it…The wrong arm was not for us to take her by and lead her. The wrong arm was not for us to tap it for her to turn” (117). This portion of the root pattern containing its split-off pattern of “wrong” wrenches with tension, and provides a source of conflict in the story. The fact that “the wrong arm” should never be touched acts as an obstacle for the narrator in his quest to discover the truth behind his mother’s mental and physical state. The root pattern of “the wrong arm” and all of its split-off patterns of “wrong,” “wronger,” and “wrongness” repeat 27 times throughout the text.

Lipsyte slowly unravels the history of hurt behind “the wrong arm” and its history of hurt through split-off patterns like “bees,” “bad nails in the porch door,” “porch-door nails,” and “scars.” Split-off patterns relate back to the root pattern in other ways, like the way “the boats” functions as the motive for the scene and the way “waste a wish” functions in the narrator’s evolving line of desire. Of course, there’s not enough time to look at examples of these patterns in any real detail, so instead, let’s look at possibly the most important connection to be drawn from the history of “the wrong arm” as seen in this example of the root pattern: “The wrong arm would never heal right.” Not only is it “wrong” to touch “the arm,” but the narrator also understands that “the wrong arm” would never heal “right.” This portion of the pattern is constructed on sameness and difference, or, as opposites, like in the instance of “good” and the implied “not good” in Walser’s story.

The next example of the split-off pattern “wrong” reveals a change in the narrator’s line of desire when the narrator says, “We were making it wrong by saying it was wrong. We should be holding it and rubbing it and taking her by it to lead her somewhere. To lead her by it to the boats” (121). This is the climax of the story, a turning point in the narrator’s understanding of his mother’s arm as he begins to form a new association in his mind. At the same time, this example recalls an earlier utterance of “the wrong arm” root pattern: “All we knew about the wrong arm was that it was wrong to touch it, to pinch it, to rub it…The wrong arm was not for us to take her by and lead her.” The change in the narrator results from his desire to deny the entire history of “the wrong arm,” to move beyond the prior association that touching “the wrong arm” is “wrong,” and so the story ends on the action of his following through: “And then I did the wrong thing.” All at once, the narrator’s actions extend the split-off pattern of “wrong,” complicate story action, and complete the circular momentum of the plot.

josipovici bookThroughout this essay I have looked at small examples of word patterns for the ways they function in narrative through a relational network of connections. On the relational nature of written language, Barthes says, “connections lead the word on, and at once carry it towards a meaning which is an ever-deferred project” (47). In these stories by Stein, Walser, and Lipsyte, the connections between words do not point immediately to one meaning, but rather, defer meaning through the act of repetition. This effect is something that contemporary British literary theorist Gabriel Josipovici, in his book Whatever Happened to Modernism?, calls the “playing off” of “forward movement against stillness and repetition,” an effect that has long been prevalent in poetry (Modernism, 87).

On the making of Three Lives, the book in which “Melanctha” was first published, Stein says, “In the first book there was a groping for a continuous present and for using everything by beginning again and again” (3). Stein’s “using everything,” her reliance on repetitions, and the varying of those repetitions allowed her to construct Melanctha out of a succession of contexts instead of a scene-by-scene based pattern of conflict. The resulting narrative seems temporally odd with a constantly churning, elliptical momentum. As readers, we move through the narrative without seeming to move at all.

In Walser’s “Nothing at All,” a story of only 700 words, 331 words span the arc of the woman’s journey into town for something good to eat, while 182 subsequent words amount to her re-telling of that journey to her husband after she returns home, a movement that is, essentially, a repeating of, or, using Stein’s words, a “beginning again.” Walser dilates the situation and achieves a complete deceleration of forward movement, or, as Josipovici might say, the staving off of forward movement in favor of “stillness” and “repetition.”

Roland Barthes says that narrative “is an act which necessarily implies a duration,” and by “duration” he means an “oriented and meaningful time” (38). In an essay by Ben Marcus in the June 2003 edition of The Believer, Marcus says, “One basic meaning of narrative [is] to create time where there was none” (2). He also says, “Fiction is the production of false time for readers to experience. Most fiction seeks to become time.” The stories by Stein, Walser, and Lipsyte are all concerned with influencing the way readers experience narrative time through using repetition and word patterning as orienting devices to compress time (in the way Lipsyte compresses a history of hurt into “the wrong arm”), or to subvert our narrative-based notion of passing time (in the way Stein carries out her concept of a “continuous present,” or in the way Walser decelerates the forward momentum of his narrative).

As writers, there’s no way to escape time, but there are alternative ways for building narratives outside of using an events-with-consequences based pattern of conflict. In word-pattern based stories, the duration of the narrative persists as long as the dominating or root pattern remains open, and in this relational temporality, the tension between a set of words behaves similarly to the way consequences separate events. Causality and consequence will always be concerns for fiction writers, but the contingencies that result from the textual connections between repeating words and phrases can also provide narrative movement or momentum, and new opportunities for finding ways in, around, and out of story.

—Jason Lucarelli

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Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. New York: Hill and Wang. 1968.

Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Biblioasis. 2012.

Josipovici, Gabriel. Whatever Happened to Modernism?. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2011.

Lipsyte, Sam. “The Wrong Arm.” Venus Drive. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2000.

Marcus, Ben. “On the Lyric Essay.” The Believer. July 2003.

Stein, Gertrude. “Portraits and Repetition,” Lectures in America. New York: Random House. 1935. “Melanctha.” Three Lives. 1909.

Walser, Robert. “Nothing at All.” Selected Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012.

 

Jason Lucarelli lives in Scranton, PA. He is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This is his second appearance on the pages of Numéro Cinq.

 

Jul 022013
 

Sophfronia ScottPhoto by Tain Gregory

Sophfronia Scott offers here a thoughtful, provocative and pragmatic account of the ways a nonfiction writer can use reflection to engage the reader. She talks specifically about the use of techniques such as metaphor, direct appeal, shared experience and the right voice to engage the reader’s heart and imagination. Especially helpful are Scott’s explorations of particular texts to illustrate her technical points: Elie Wiesel’s Night, Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land, and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.

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Introduction

In the past I rarely embarked on a personal essay unless specifically asked for one by an editor because it never immediately occurred to me anyone would have any interest in what I had to say about a particular topic, especially if the action involved happened only to me. I have also had a distaste for the trend towards memoir in the publishing world. When the writer Douglas Goetsch, a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, said to me in conversation that he thought the United States was suffering “from an epidemic of memoir,” I, having read my share of melodramatic manuscripts flooding the marketplace in recent years, was inclined to agree. There are, it seems, millions of keyboards where writers are too enthusiastically tapping out their tales of child abuse, alcohol abuse, road trips, adoption secrets, illness, injury, divorce, you name it. I saw no reason to add my words to this particular multitude.

However in August 2012 I found myself deeply engaged in the writing of a personal essay inspired by a series of tweets I had posted to a friend on Twitter describing a talk I’d had with the singer Lena Horne about learning to iron my father’s shirts. The previous day I had been ironing my husband’s shirts and I posted on Twitter:

I’m going to combine my housework with my literary love and pretend I’m a Tillie Olsen character: I stand here ironing…

lena-horne-smiling-475

The next morning I saw my friend had re-tweeted the post and as I tweeted my thanks for some reason the memory of my Lena Horne talk came to mind.  I wanted to tell my friend about it; he enjoys a good story and I thought he would appreciate it, especially since it included a celebrity. I sent the following in quick succession:

1.)   Thanks for the RT! I once had a conversation with Lena Horne about ironing—we both learned as girls…

2.)   …She said she could never get it right. “I used to weep over my daddy’s shirts.” I said, “And they were all white shirts,

3.)   …right?” My father’s shirts were all white too. She said yes. I was in my 30s. She was in her 80s. But we walked through…

4.)   …Central Park together as girls ironing our father’s shirts.

5.)   I’m in tears now remembering that day.

And I really was in tears. I embarked on the writing of an essay with no ambition other than to explore the source of those tears. This walk with Lena Horne was still in my heart and at the forefront of my mind over ten years later for a reason and, as I discovered as I wrote, those reasons had little to do with her. As the paragraphs of the essay came together I realized that walk had crystallized an important personal moment for me in which I recognized how much love and forgiveness had replaced the anger I once held for my difficult, demanding father.

“Such forgiveness is possible, I believe, not because he is long dead, but because of these unexpected moments of grace reaching across generations reminding me of this: the reason I hurt so much then was because I cared so much then—and still do. As I look back on that autumn afternoon and how Lena took my arm again as we continued our stroll through Central Park, I can see how in that moment I was in my 30s, Lena was in her 80s, but we were both girls ironing the shirts of the first men we ever cared for, and hoping they could feel our love pressed hard into every crease.”

The completed essay, “White Shirts,” when published in the September 2012 issue of Numéro Cinq Magazine, received favorable written responses. What surprised me about the posted comments was how many of the readers saw themselves and their own memories in my essay:

I recall my Aunt Virginia showing me how to iron a shirt when she was doing them for her husband and family of 5 boys after a morning of working in the fields. Yours are exactly the same instructions I recall her demonstrating. Thanks for sharing this evocative memory.

You’ve taken me back to my childhood, ironing the handkerchiefs and pillowcases while I watched my mother and grandmother iron starched white shirts. Thank you. 

This is precious, pulls you into the story, and encouraging to me as a young housewife finding I have grossly undercooked the potatoes in a casserole, and realizing just how quickly a cleaned bathroom collects new hair and dirt- I can get better!

This brings back my own ironing memories. My grandmother, who would be 120 if she were still alive, taught me how to iron. I don’t remember what she had me iron, but I do remember burning my fingers. If I look hard enough, I can still see the tiny scars.

This excited me as a writer—it was as though the essay had become bigger, more vital, because it had struck a chord for so many people. We were all, at once, at the ironing board with our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. I found myself thinking, if this is what creative nonfiction can do, this is the creative nonfiction I want to continue writing.

But how? I felt I had created this shared experience, a kind of universal appeal, by accident. I know the best essayists must be able to make such connections consistently. I decided to begin an exploration of the techniques these writers use to help them communicate their very personal experiences to the broadest possible audience. I believe this is a necessary exploration because, as Richard Todd says in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, “In the family of writers, essayists play poor cousins to writers of fiction or narrative nonfiction.” Indeed their medium, the personal essay, is an unusual form because its existence defies the fact that the reader, at first blush, has no reason to read it. What is the essay’s purpose? Fiction offers entertainment as an essay can, but on a different level: fiction can also present escape, perhaps even a fantasy in which the reader can place him or herself as the main character. Journalistic nonfiction serves the purpose of educating the reader or providing desired information. Poetry can charm with its rhythms and imagery. These forms answer upfront the reader’s ongoing question of  “What’s in it for me?” In a society where words and phrases such as “So what?” and “navel-gazing” and “whatever” demonstrate a less than supportive environment in which to offer one’s story, the essay is immediately at a disadvantage. In everyday conversation we don’t always listen to the stories of strangers, or if we do it’s done with half an ear because the listener is more interested in hearing a moment where they can interject what they have to say, which they believe will be more interesting or more important. Douglas Glover, in his book Attack of the Copula Spiders, warns against  “bathtub” narratives which he defines as “a story which takes place almost completely as backfill in the mind of a single character (who often spends the whole narrative sitting in a bathtub—I am only being slightly facetious).” He notes the form for its lack of drama and movement. But what is a personal essay if not a long form “bathtub” narrative completely crafted from the writer’s thoughts being turned over and over in her mind?

Since I’ve been able to focus on creative nonfiction in my studies, I’m learning this type of focused reflection is not the problem with the personal essay. I realize the essays and memoirs that bother me the most are ones where deep thought and reflection are nonexistent. On top of this the author has not taken the pains to write in a way that would allow the reader access to her personal experience. The writer, either through neglect or inexperience, has produced a work in which she is so caught up in telling her story, usually a traumatic event, that she has not made the thoughtful reflection required to instill the event with meaning. It’s not enough that a person has experienced something horrible such as the death of a loved one, physical abuse, divorce or illness. The person must be able to step back and look at the whole tapestry and contemplate the placement of the event and its effects on her whole being. Once that piece is understood, this gives the writer the foundation to craft and revise a piece with the intention of highlighting this insight.

In many cases the writer has not stepped back at all. Such writers are, in my opinion, still caught up in the event, even if many years have passed. For them writing down the story is the big accomplishment, and that’s because the pain of finding the words has them reliving the event and “surviving” it again. They are too much in it to be above it, so there is no reflection. Thus the event is still too personal for the writer and hence out of reach for the reader. If anything this type of writing does a certain violence to the reader because it subjects them to raw, naked details very similar to a news report from a crime scene. We, as readers, endure the pain, the harsh visuals, and the terror of the event. Then the author thinks it is enough just to explain they got through it, and they’re okay. But how can we believe that when we’re still ourselves in that place of fear and trembling, exactly where they left us?

And yet there are essays and books of essays describing terrible events that, despite their personal nature, manage to capture the reader’s heart and imagination, engaging both the ear and the heart. In order to gain such credibility with the reader a writer’s work should demonstrate that the author has done some focused thinking, first about herself, and then for the reader. For herself the writer wants to do the mental work and reflection that shows she is ready to discover and understand the deeper meaning of the events of her life—to take the step that truly turns life into art. Next, the writer makes choices with the reader in mind—choices of imagery, language and voice with the intent of making a connection with the person reading the words. I will detail here how this process can work using as examples authors who have written engaging, yet deeply personally essays that succeed because the writers have brought to bear the powers of both inner work and conscious attention to craft.

Reflection as Foundation

dmooreFirst of all, reflection is necessary. Dinty W. Moore in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, points out that while everyone loves a well-told story, “the…reason people care relates to what the writer has made of the experience and how the author’s discovery often rings true for a wide readership.”  This reflection can happen before, during, and after the writing of the essay’s initial draft, but it must happen because the writer must be open to new ideas at each level. Otherwise writers may find themselves unwilling to begin because they fear what will come of the writing, stuck partway through because they get mired in the trauma of re-telling their story, or unwilling to revise because they’re still not ready to think about the event at a higher level. I admit this involves mental and emotional issues and maturity as well. As Phillip Lopate notes in the introduction of The Art of the Personal Essay, “It is difficult to write analytically from the middle of confusion, and youth is a confusion in which the self and its desires have not yet sorted themselves out.”

The “how-to” aspect of reflection is difficult because any technique would be contingent on the author’s awareness of the necessity of thinking deeply about the circumstances of her life being examined in the essay, and her willingness to make the conscious decision to do it. These aspects are not always present in a personality. However I would like to venture forward with a few questions a writer may ask if she does want to begin the process of reflection even if she doesn’t know what the answers are or what to make of them. These questions are:

      • Why do I want to write about this particular topic/event/circumstance in my life?
      • Who was I before this event happened to me?
      • Who am I as a result of it? In other words, how do I see the world through the lens of what happened to me?
      • How do I feel about the people I’m writing about? Have these feelings changed over time? Have they not? Why?
      • What are my physical/emotional reactions around my topic? How fresh is the “wound?”

I would also suggest a writer begin a mental practice of consistently asking these questions during the writing process and whenever a memory or past reference presents itself for consideration. On a positive note, this kind of thinking is open to all, young and old, so younger authors need not despair even if the writing results in musings for which they have no clear answer just yet. The fact that they are questioning and making that apparent may be enough to engage the reader. Many readers appreciate the vulnerability of a writer who is willing to admit she doesn’t know the answers. The fact that she is daring to ask the questions that could reflect the reader’s own silent struggle builds credibility for the writer and will eventually help to create stronger work.

The Four Techniques

This paper will focus on four techniques that can be used by writers who can reflect, have reflected, and want to make their writing connect with as many readers as possible. These craft points can help the writer to open the door for readers, to allow them to more easily share in the emotions, thoughts and events the writer is laying before them.

The first technique involves the use of metaphor. As defined in the Google search dictionary, a metaphor is:

1.)   A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

2.)   A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.

In Elie Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust, Night, he tells the horrifying story of his year as a teenager in concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, in which he suffers the deaths of his family members, his friends and, eventually, his own faith. The title Night evokes the metaphor that is the foundation of the whole book. The traumatic material within the covers requires a powerful metaphor. How else can he help the reader grasp the incredible terror and darkness felt by himself and by his people except by connecting it to the darkness we experience regularly and, as children, even fear? It seems every time night falls in the book there is no rest, only fear and concern for what the next day will bring. Night becomes the representation of the darkness cast over Wiesel and his people. He refers to the “nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.” In this section Wiesel combines the metaphor of night with fire to represent the furnaces of the concentration camps:Since in personal essays we deal in the abstract continually, especially when it comes to the writer’s emotions, metaphor becomes essential. Sue William Silverman, in her Vermont College of Fine Arts lecture “Metaphor Boot Camp,” notes the use of metaphor in personal essays allows the writer to make abstract terms or emotions such as the words “love,” “hate,” or “misery,” accessible and tangible for the reader through the use of imagery. This is the answer to the question of how else can the reader relate to a story that only happened to you. It also aids in this question of reflection: “Metaphor helps us to understand what this experience in the past actually meant.”

“No one was praying for the night pass quickly. The stars were but sparks of the immense conflagration that was consuming us. Were this conflagration to be extinguished one day, nothing would be left in the sky but extinct stars and unseeing eyes.”

There is a haunting elegance and beauty in Wiesel’s writing that comes through even in translation. His imagery doesn’t sugarcoat events. If anything it makes them more alive and, though horrifying, accessible. This works because, as Sue Silverman points out in her lecture, “Once you have developed metaphor, you’ve transformed your life into art and all art is universal.”

goodproseThe second technique involves the direct appeal, in other words, the writer brings the reader directly into the essay with the use of “we” or “society.” The idea is that what the writer is talking about leads us to question or examine the bigger picture and how it affects all of us. The direct appeal assumes a certain kind of reader—a concerned citizen, a reader engaged with the world and who wants to know about actions and their consequences on society at large. It also assumes the writer has set herself up in a certain way: she establishes her authority to validate why she can speak to the bigger picture. Richard Todd would argue this isn’t necessary. “What gives you license to write essays?” he asks in The Art of Nonfiction. “Only the presence of an idea and the ability to make it your own.” But he does acknowledge the importance of training a discerning writer’s eye on the issues of our time and the essay being the right vehicle in which to do so:  “An essay both allows and requires you to say something more than you are entitled to say by virtue of your resume alone.”

Eula Biss in her collection of essays, Notes from No Man’s Land, travels back and forth between personal experience and issues such as racism, immigration and education. She lays the foundation of her authority by presenting research she has done. In her essay “Time and Distance Overcome” she connects the innovation of the telephone to another more disturbing American innovation: lynchings. In stating statistics, and quoting newspapers and reports of documented lynchings, Biss creates the framework through which to discuss racism. The facts she presents are aimed to evoke our outrage and disbelief:

“More than two hundred antilynching bills were introduced to the U.S. Congress during the twentieth century, but none were passed. Seven presidents lobbied for antilynching legislation, and the House of Representatives passed three separate measures, each of which was blocked by the Senate.”

This mode of universality is more often used in essays of a journalistic type, but a a personal essay may actually be the better forum. There is less distance between the reader and the concepts discussed because the writer provides the human connection through their personal experiences and observations. The writer can say “I know this is true because it affected my home/my health/my town/my family/my job.” Her observations are not conjecture, but a living example of the concepts she is pondering in the written word. The concepts alone in such essays are big and difficult: racism, immigration, politics, ecology, religion. When the writer offers as a starting point her own experience, it is an easier way for the reader to wade into the waters of discussion. Several times in her book Biss mentions her own reaction to her discoveries—in one instance watching a documentary has her in tears:

“The point at which I began to cry during the documentary about Buxton was the interview with Marjorie Brown, who moved from Buxton to the mostly white town of Cedar Rapids when she was twelve. ‘And then all at once, with no warning, I no longer existed…The shock of my life was to go to Cedar Rapids and find out that I didn’t exist…I had to unlearn that Marjorie was an important part of a community.”

Biss lays the foundation of her argument with such emotion, then walks us backwards to show how she came to this reaction so that we might understand and possibly even feel the same way.

When a writer appeals to the reader to connect to his or her own experience in relation to the author’s, the writer is utilizing the third technique to communicate to a broad audience. The writer can do this by referencing events or actions that most people have experienced such as having children or eating a satisfying meal. Dinty W. Moore writes in The Truth of the Matter, “We all know grief, fear, longing, fairness, and unfairness. We all worry about losing someone dear to us. We crave attention, from everyone, or from certain people. We love our families, yet sometimes those families greatly disappoint us…These basic human worries and emotions will always resonate when brought clearly to life on the page.” In my essay “White Shirts,” I invoke the pain of touching a hot iron: “A burn rises quickly, a living red capsule on the surface of your skin. You think it will never heal because that’s how much it hurts when it happens.”  I also conjure the feel of a shirt as it is being ironed: “the shirt large and voluminous in Lena’s small hands, the white cotton hopelessly scorched…” and “Sleeves are tricky because of their roundness. They don’t lie flat well so I will usually iron a sleeve and turn it over to find a funky crease I didn’t mean to create running like a new slash down the arm.” I chose these details because my memories of ironing trigger my senses of touch, sight and smell. This is how I made the words I wrote alive for the reader and myself.

The use of detail with this technique is key. The right details can spark the reader’s memory and cause them to, in the moment, relive their own experience even as they are reading about the author’s. Henry Louis Gates does this successfully in his piece “Sunday,” in which he describes the traditional dinner served weekly in his family home. Dinty Moore points out:

“Much of the intimacy here is in the family secrets Gates chooses to share, and the generous description of the table laden with food: ‘fried chicken, mashed potatoes, baked corn (corn pudding), green beans and potatoes (with lots of onions and bacon drippings and a hunk of ham), gravy, rolls, and a salad of iceberg lettuce, fresh tomatoes (grown in Uncle Jim’s garden), a sliced boiled egg, scallions, and Wishbone’s Italian dressing.’ Instead of a weak line like ‘you can’t imagine how much food there was,’ Gates puts us right at the table.”

I should note this technique is different from the use of metaphor because the detail doesn’t have to represent something else. It can stand on its own representing nothing more than the experience itself—it is the experience that connects the reader. In Night such details are found in the descriptions of thirst and heat as the neighborhood is gathered and made to march without water under the heat of a summer sun: “People must have thought there could be no greater torment in God’s hell than that of being stranded here, on the sidewalk, among the bundles, in the middle of the street under a blazing sun.”

The fourth technique involves the writer hitting upon the right voice in the telling of the story. A reader will react to a writer’s voice with the same discernment anyone would use at a cocktail party—if you don’t like the tone or attitude of the voice talking to you, you’re more likely to move away and speak to someone else. In experiencing a personal essay, a reader will not stay at the “party” if they encounter a voice they feel is arrogant, bossy, pedantic, whiny, annoying or anything else that makes them uncomfortable. The writer’s goal is to establish authority and a likeable voice at the same time. For myself, I deem a voice likeable if it is confident, knowledgeable and, if appropriate, has a good sense of humor. This doesn’t mean the writer has to bend over backwards to make her voice likeable. Some writers do this to the detriment of the work, relying too much on colloquialisms or self-deprecation. Even in the real world, trying to be everyone’s best friend simply doesn’t work and usually results in the person transmitting a bland, false persona. In writing this would translate as beige, uninteresting prose. In developing and considering voice the writer would do well to remember that in doing so, she is also establishing her narrative presence, the person in the room she wants to be. Mimi Schwartz, in her essay, “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” says if the writer’s voice is “savvy and appealing enough to make the reader say, ‘Yes, I’ve been there. I know what you mean!—you have something good. But if the voice you adopt annoys, embarrasses or bores because of lack of insight, then beware. The reader will say, ‘So what? I don’t care about you!’ often in anger.”

Having the right voice also gives the writer more leeway in sidestepping the common essay obstacles of egotism and navel-gazing. The nineteenth-century writer Alexander Smith discusses how much can be forgiven a writer if the work is engaging: “The speaking about oneself is not necessarily offensive. A modest, truthful man speaks better about himself than about anything else, and on that subject his speech is likely to be more profitable to his hearers…If he be without taint of boastfulness, of self-sufficiency, of hungry vanity, the world will not press the charge home.”

A writer develops voice through the discerning use of vocabulary, colloquialism, and a general overall sense of camaraderie and shared confidence. When the writer has achieved this, she relates to the reader regardless of age, race, or culture background. James Baldwin, in his reflections on race and his young adult life in Harlem in Notes of a Native Son, develops a voice that is both mature and youthful as he looks back at how certain discoveries and experiences have shaped him and caused him to lose the innocence he once held about his place in society. At his essence, Baldwin’s voice is his connection, authority and narrative rolled into one: I am a human being. And he is most shocked when he finds himself in situations where that simple fact is not acknowledged or respected. “…there must never in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”

Such vulnerability and bareness allows the reader to relate to the writer to the point of oneness. “The essayist can also appear as a figure who boasts of little in the way of heightened emotion or peculiarity of feeling,” says Richard Todd in Good Prose. “This sort of writer’s whole claim on the reader is the claim of the norm: I am but a distillation of you.” Indeed, this has been one of the most admired aspects of Baldwin’s book—his ability to reach out beyond his very specific experience to touch, intimately, readers who are nothing like him. In 2012, in an essay published in recognition of the 25th anniversary of Baldwin’s death, the writer Robert Vivian recalls how as a young white man first reading Notes of a Native Son, he felt Baldwin’s voice spoke directly to him:

“…there was something about his voice and how he wrote that felt intimate and familiar and deeply personal, almost as if he were writing in my voice, my skin, my way of looking at the world, which must be why some writing is so capable of addressing the universality of human experience regardless of the very real and limiting facts of people’s lives through the mysterious, sympathetic alchemy of prose that can, in its greatest practitioners, so deeply strum the common chords that make us all one.”

Communicating from No Man’s Land

Eula Biss’s award-winning nonfiction collection, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, is a challenging read because the author takes on some of the most difficult subject matter of our time: race, the loss of self, sociopolitics, immigration and education. But her use of the four techniques described here makes the material easier for the reader to digest. It’s as though Biss is taking readers by the hand and gently leading them on her expedition through No Man’s Land.

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The book is organized around Biss’s experiences of different parts of the United States beginning with her time spent in New York, then moving on to California and later the Midwest. It opens with “Time and Distance Overcome,” an essay on racism that sets the tone for the ensuing pieces. It ends with “All Apologies,” a reflection on whether apologies can truly be made and whether real forgiveness is possible when the perpetrators of a wrong are long deceased or apt to commit the wrong again and again.

In her essay “Letter to Mexico” Biss uses the metaphor of the ocean and its tides to communicate the sense of the city of Ensenada being overwhelmed by ever surging numbers of ugly Americans who have, courtesy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), relieved Mexicans of a good chunk of their wages and manufacturing businesses. The Mexicans are powerless against the influx of Americans just as any person would be powerless against the enormity of the ocean.

“I was confined to the shore there, even when I was not in the tourist district, where the cruise ships unloaded and middle-aged Americans periodically swarmed the bars and souvenir stands then receded like a tide.”

Biss also uses metaphor in her essay “Three Songs of Salvage” to communicate how the ever present rhythm of drums from her childhood when her mother practiced the Yoruba faith still mark time for her today. “I fell asleep to the distant sound of drums, which I was not always entirely sure was the distant sound of drums. Rain, blood in the body, explosions in the quarry, and frogs are all drums…I know now that I left home and I left the drums but I didn’t leave home and I didn’t leave the drums. Sewer plates, jackhammers, subway trains, cars on the bridge, and basketballs are all drums.”

Biss frequently uses the direct appeal in “Is This Kansas” to challenge the reader to question how we view the behavior of college students and the connection of that thinking to what our society looks like. There is a chiding nature to her comments as she presents her observations. The reader might feel she’s being called out by Biss because the reader may very well have one of views the writer highlights. If the reader does have such a view then a crack has been opened and Biss has the opportunity to make the reader see things in a different light.

“I would often wonder, during my time in that town, why, of all the subcultures in the United States that are feared and hated, of all the subcultures that are singled out as morally reprehensible or un-American or criminal, student culture is so pardoned. Illinois home owners propose ordinances against shared housing among immigrants, while their sons are at college sharing one-bedroom apartments with five other boys. Courts send black teenagers to jail for possession of marijuana, while white college kids are sentenced with community service for driving while intoxicated, a considerably more deadly offense. And Evangelicals editorialize about the sexual abominations of consenting adults, while very little is said about the plague of date rapes in college towns.”

In using details to connect the reader to their own experiences, Biss helps the reader experience with new eyes a place such as New York City that the reader may only know through movies or television show myths. She appeals to their sense of loneliness, alienation, and even fear because that was so much her own experience of the city. Biss anchors all of this with details that engage the reader’s senses.

“I could see barges silhouetted against the hazy pink horizon at dusk. I tried to walk down to the water and promptly dead-ended at a huge, windowless building labeled Terminal Warehouse.”

“The station at Coney Island was half-charred form a fire decades ago and packed with giant inflatable pink seals for sale…Caramel apples were seventy-five cents and the din of the fair games was intolerable. One freak-show announcer screamed, ‘If you love your family, you will take them to see the two-headed baby!’ It was gross and crazy and base…The beach was packed with naked flesh and smelled like beer and mango. And the Wonder Wheel inspired real wonder as I rose up over Brooklyn in a swinging metal cage.”

The voice Biss develops in her book has an intriguing mix of vulnerability and authority. From a writer’s standpoint such a voice puts you exactly where you want to be with the reader: the vulnerability helps to establish trust and rapport; the authority seals your credibility. The reader will listen to what you have to say. We feel for Biss in her youthful questioning of her guilt, her feelings about her race, her fear. But she is fearless when it comes to delving into research to support her marked disturbance and indignation over attitudes, traditions and social norms. In “Land Mines” she discusses the failures of the education system, first establishing herself as a participant in that system, and then examining policies she has directly read or experienced. Her indignation sometimes seems close to bubbling over when she describes the University of Iowa’s considerations for how to make their school more diverse in ways that do not consider the well-being for their diverse students.

“One didn’t need to spend very long at that institution before realizing that the interests of everyone else—the funders, the administrators, the professors, the graduate students—came before the interests of the undergraduate students. And as in any feudal system, the people on whom the entire system depended were robbed, as completely as possible, of their power.”

Her essay “No Man’s Land” has a voice presenting Biss’s views with wide-eyed clarity. She puts herself, as well as society, under the microscope as she compares her experiences in the slowly gentrifying Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park with the observations of Laura Ingalls Wilder of how the white man usurped the lands of the native Americans. Biss establishes her voice with direct rhetoric, using her research and her strong point of view to ground her statements about “pioneering” in America and what that really means—in one example it means unjustified fears:

“This is our inheritance, for those of us who imagine ourselves pioneers. We don’t seem to have retained the frugality of the original pioneers, or their resourcefulness, but we have inherited a ring of wolves around a door covered only by a quilt. And we have inherited padlocks on our pantries. That we carry with us a residue of the pioneer experience is my best explanation for the fact that my white neighbors seem to feel besieged in this neighborhood. Because that feeling cannot be explained by anything else that I know to be true about our lives here.”

Biss’s voice also makes it easier for readers who may be longtime fans of Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books to look at the series in a different way. If Biss had been too harsh the reader could have been led to misinterpret the essay as a criticism of the books. Instead Biss shows respect for the author and, in turn, her own readers as she follows through with her observations.

Mining the Night

As mentioned earlier, Elie Wiesel in his memoir Night uses the night as a long-form metaphor to invoke the darkness and horror of his experience as a teenager in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the Holocaust. But he also uses other metaphors and the rhetorical techniques discussed here to draw as many people as possible into the intimate nature of his pain and despair.

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The book opens in 1941 with Wiesel as an eager 13-year-old student of the Talmud. When the “foreign Jews” including his own Kabbalah teacher, Moishe the Beadle, are removed from their town of Sighet, Transylvania, few members of Wiesel’s community read the action as the precursor of the horrors to come, even after Moishe escapes and returns with his eyewitness account of the killings of the deported Jews. Wiesel details the downward spiral of his people’s condition and their continued hope that things will get better until, sealed in rail cars, they can no longer ascribe to the delusion.

The powerful emotions related in Night require metaphor to help the reader access the book’s hard moments of despair and desolation. “Not far from us, prisoners were at work,” he writes, “Some were digging holes, others were carrying sand. None as much as glanced at us. We were withered trees in the heart of the desert.” Pain on such a scale can only be abstract to the outside observer. But metaphor, as noted from Sue Silverman’s lecture, allows Wiesel, in beautiful language, to turn his experience, though terrible, into art that the reader can take in and be in.

Wiesel uses the direct appeal technique in a different way. Instead of speaking directly to or challenging his readers, he is making the appeal by telling his story. It is an implied appeal: Wiesel is telling his story so he can bear witness to these atrocities to the world. In turn the readers learn from his testimony and the appeal is that we don’t allow such atrocities to happen again. He says this directly in the book’s introduction. It is the whole reason for the book’s existence and the reason Wiesel does his best to help the reader look, not look away.

“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory.”

There’s also, I believe, an appeal present in the undercurrent when Wiesel and the people around him more than once wonder at how and why the rest of the world didn’t know the extermination of the Jewish people was in progress. And if they did know, why wasn’t anyone saying or doing something about it? “How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real.” This, to me, feels like Wiesel’s call to all readers to be awake to the occurrences of the world, no matter what country.

In terms of details, Wiesel frequently activates the reader’s senses through his descriptions of pain, heat, cold, smells, colors, and more. In early parts of the book, his descriptions of spring recall the normal aspects of the season: brilliant skies, beautiful blossoms, delicate smells and bright green grass. This is the part the reader can relate to. Then he overlays the fear of the Germans and the transfer into the ghettos. He also uses the details of home, the trappings of home, to communicate to the reader what is being left behind. When he and his family enter the home of family members who have been transported away, they find “the chaos was even greater here than in the large ghetto. Its inhabitants evidently had been caught by surprise…On the table, a half-finished bowl of soup. A platter of dough waiting to be baked. Everywhere on the floor there were books. Had my uncle meant to take them along?”

When describing the camp’s horrors Wiesel’s descriptions become more physical:

“We whispered. Perhaps because of the thick smoke that poisoned the air and stung the throat.”

“An SS officer had come in and, with him, the smell of the Angel of Death. We stared at his fleshy lips.”

“ ‘It doesn’t hurt.’ His cheek still bore the red mark of the hand.”

The voice Wiesel uses often sounds like that of a witness giving testimony, which is exactly what he is doing. In fact, one reviewer refers to the book not as a memoir or essay, but as a “human document.” But Wiesel also has a poetic rhythm in much of the work that mesmerizes the reader with the beautiful depth of his dark musings. There is a natural vulnerability that comes through because of the youth of Wiesel’s narrative character during the events. He is at once sympathetic and authoritative with being strident, accusatory or vengeful. This makes Wiesel all the more believable, because he has created a voice that doesn’t seem prone to exaggeration or puffed up with hyperbole. Even when an observation could seem outsized, the words are presented with such gentle calmness that the reader can’t help but take them seriously. This happens, for example, when he conjures the image of he and his campmates as lost souls condemned to a kind of purgatory from which they can never escape.

“In one terrifying moment of lucidity, I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time, seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either.”

At times Wiesel’s rhetoric is straightforward such as in instances when he uses repetition to evoke emotion. The repetition of the word “never” in the following passage, for example, has the heaviness of a hammer driving home the losses Wiesel knows he must live with for the rest of his life.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.”

The Voice of Inclusion

James Baldwin’s 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son is described on the cover of the 1979 paperback edition as “the moving chronicle of Baldwin’s search for identity as a writer, as an American, and as a Negro.” At the time of its writing, a time in America where segregated bathrooms, restaurants, hotels and transportation still existed, such subject matter could easily be considered singularly personal and exclusive. However, Baldwin’s work succeeded in accessing an audience so broad that the work is still considered relevant both to society as a whole and to each individual reader who experiences it.

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The first part of the book features Baldwin’s unflinching assessment of creative works including the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film Carmen Jones, and Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, and his examination of what they have to tell us about current views on the mythical perceptions of Negros especially concerning issues of skin tone, sexuality, and cleanliness. Baldwin then moves into personal reflection regarding his life in Harlem, memories of his father, and his frustration with the realization that racism will affect him regardless of how clean, educated or well spoken he is. These reflections go deeper as Baldwin’s insecurities are laid bare in Paris where he is arrested for a menial crime and incarcerated in a system that cares little for his rights or personal comfort.

Baldwin uses his most powerful metaphor in the opening paragraphs of the book’s title essay. He describes the race riots in Harlem that took place after his father’s funeral and the smashed glass in the streets become, for Baldwin, a representation of the apocalypse—a destruction of a world he has known and a harbinger of the unknown world he is entering.

“A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass…And it seemed to me, too, that the violence which rose all about us as my father left the world had been devised as a corrective for the pride of his eldest son. I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until the real thing comes along.”

At the end of the section, this metaphor returns when Baldwin hurls a water glass at a restaurant waitress who refuses to serve him. The glass hits a mirror behind the bar and shatters. This gives rise to another metaphor, this time evoking the cycle of freezing and thawing, and how in this moment, Baldwin “thaws” and is freed from a frozen state of anger and boldness which then moves him to a state of fear.

“She ducked and it missed her and shattered against the mirror behind the bar. And, with that sound, my frozen blood abruptly thawed, I returned from wherever I had been, I saw, for the first time, the restaurant, the people with their mouths, open, already, as it seemed to me, rising as one man, and I realized what I had done, and where I was, and I was frightened.”

Baldwin does not make direct appeals so much as direct observations of America as a whole or large, significant groups within it such as the “Progressive Party” or the “optimistic American liberal.” These observations challenge the status quo, with Baldwin unafraid of declaring when he feels a situation is unacceptable. At the time of his writing this fearless tone would have made Baldwin’s readers uncomfortable about their own commitment. They also might feel concern over the risk of a Black writer speaking so plainly when he could still suffer the consequences of his words.

“Finally, we are confronted with the psychology and tradition of the country; if the Negro voter is so easily bought and sold, it is because it has been treated with so little respect; since no Negro dares seriously assume that any politician is concerned with the fate of Negroes, or would do much about it if he had the power, the vote must be bartered for what it will get…The American commonwealth chooses to overlook what Negroes are never able to forget: they are not really considered a part of it.”

In his essay “Equal in Paris” Baldwin uses detail to convey the fear and alienation of his days-long incarceration in a French prison. It’s interesting how a few of these details are not all that different from the ones Wiesel chose to describe the cells at the concentration camps. Baldwin allows the cold, the hole that served as a common toilet, the narrow cubicles, and the very fact that he begins to cry, to communicate to the reader the dire nature of his situation and his emotional condition. At one point, during his transport to another facility, “I remember there was a small vent just above my head which let in a little light. The door of my cubicle was locked from the outside. I had no idea where this wagon was taking me and, as it began to move, I began to cry. I suppose I cried all the way to prison…”

As mentioned earlier, Baldwin’s voice has served to connect to readers who find his voice so familiar that they identify with him, even across the wide canyon of time. It’s interesting that readers react to him this way because I didn’t find the voice particularly friendly or appealing. Baldwin has a formality about his phrasing and choice of words that, to me, make me feel he wasn’t an easy person to get to know in real life.

“But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source.”

Perhaps he felt this formality was necessary for the time and his subject matter. I can respect this choice. He was, after all, still a young man when Notes of a Native Son was published. He wanted to write about his thoughts on serious matters and in order to be taken seriously he had to establish his sound of gravitas. This is his business as a writer. However, I believe he also understood the importance of letting the reader know he is a real person and he does that effectively as well. In his “Autobiographical Notes” at the beginning of the book there is some hint of warmth as Baldwin notes how he loves to laugh and talks about his commitment to his writing.

“…I love to eat and drink—it’s my melancholy conviction that I’ve scarcely ever had enough to eat…and I love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too profoundly, and I do love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything…I consider I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

Maybe that’s the Baldwin readers connected with first, and that is the voice they carried with them as they read the ensuing essays. He has introduced himself as a respectably amiable person. There’s no reason for the reader not to want to accompany Baldwin on his musings.

Conclusion

Though the focus of this exploration has been how to reach the broadest possible audience, I believe every piece of writing, at its heart, is an author’s attempt at conversation with just one reader. In many cases the writer knows at the outset the communication will be a difficult one, akin to two people speaking different languages. The writer, in order for her endeavor (which is to tell a story or relate an experience) to be successful, must try as many ways as possible to bridge the gap of understanding. If she can manage to do that, the happy result may be a bridge that more than one reader can utilize. In fact it can be used again and again, with readers crossing from all angles. In this way the writer achieves the broader audience.

The techniques described here can hopefully be the building materials a writer uses to build this bridge, keeping in mind that even the use of just one can bring a reader closer to relating to the writing than if she attempted none of them.

—Sophfronia Scott

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Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Toronto [u.a.]: Bantam, 1979. Print.

Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2009. Print.

Glover, Douglas “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise.” Attack of the Copula Spiders: And Other Essays on Writing. Emeryville, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2012. 23-42. Print.

Kidder, Tracy, and Richard Todd. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor, 1994. Xxiii-Liv. Print.

Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Scott, Sophfronia. “White Shirts: Essay — Sophfronia Scott.” Numero Cinq. N.p., Sept. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

Scott, Sophfronia. “Writing Your Heart Open.” Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts. Hunger Mountain, 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Vivian, Robert. “Baldwin in Omaha.” Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts. Hunger Mountain, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006. Print.

William Silverman, Sue. “Metaphor Boot Camp.” Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing Residency. College Hall Chapel, Montpelier, VT. 4 Jan. 2013. Lecture.

End Notes

INTRODUCTION

Glover, Douglas H. “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise.” Attack of the Copula Spiders: And Other Essays on Writing. Emeryville, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2012. 23-42. Print

Kidder, Tracy, and Richard Todd. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor, 1994. Xxiii-Liv. Print.

Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Scott, Sophfronia. “White Shirts: Essay — Sophfronia Scott.” Numero Cinq. N.p., Sept. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

Scott, Sophfronia. “Writing Your Heart Open.” Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts. Hunger Mountain, 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

THE FOUR TECHNIQUES

Gates, Henry Louis. “Sunday.” As published in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor, 1994. Xxiii-Liv. Print.

Schwartz, Mimi. “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” As published in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

Vivian, Robert. “Baldwin in Omaha.” Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts. Hunger Mountain, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2013.

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Sophfronia Scott recently completed her second novel, Lady of the Lavender Mist, and has essays in two new Chicken Soup for the Soul books: Inspiration for Writers (May 2013) and Reader’s Choice 20th Anniversary Edition (June 2013). She published her first novel, All I Need To Get By, with St. Martin’s Press in 2004. Her work has appeared in Time, People, More, NewYorkTimes.com, Sleet Magazine, Gently Read Literature, The Mid-American Review, The Newtowner, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Sophfronia is currently a masters candidate in fiction and creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short story, “Murder Will Not Be Tolerated,” will be in the Fall 2013 issue of The Saranac Review. She blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.

Jul 012013
 

Sue Hall

Herewith a smart, practical essay on the fraught topic of authorial voice in memoir-writing. In the naive view, a memoir is just you telling your story — nothing simpler. In actual fact the narrator of a memoir is almost always binary, a double-thing, the you you once were and the you who is writing the book now, and one of the great arts is orchestrating the two so that they weave knowingly through the text, adding resonance, wisdom and a pleasing dance of time. Susan Hall is on the cusp of graduating with an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and knows whereof she speaks. As her quarry text for analysis she uses Mary Karr‘s wonderful 2005 memoir Cherry, a gorgeous, witty, frank, and immensely skillful story of Karr’s teenage years.

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Introduction

Some painting are said to jump right off the wall. Whether a painting is abstract or realistic, the artist uses color, line, and light, to trick the eye into believing that depth and dimension exists where there is only a flat canvas. A well-written memoir is similar. The reader must be able to enter an image of the author’s past that mimics time and life itself. Real time is chronological of course, yet our brains are so full of both memory and anticipation that the moment in which we find ourselves glides along between that which we recall and that which we expect. How does the memoirist simulate this? By telling a story of her past while including elements of the present, which was of course the future… then.

My own memoir-in-progress was lacking this quality. Frankly, it was flat. I was writing about my past with all of the descriptive fervor I could muster, and I worked hard to portray the persona of my young self, but my own authorial voice was missing. My attitude and wisdom in regard to my past would pop into the narrative unintentionally, in a way that only served to make it unclear. Then one day in workshop, a teacher asked, “Who is thinking this, the Sue of then or the Sue of now?”  I had not made the distinction clear. I focused solely on the narrative of the past and disregarded the depth of character that I should have created by overlaying my current self onto the story.

Sue Silverman distinguishes the difference between these two voices in her book on writing, Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir as the voice of innocence and the voice of experience. She writes:

You can think of the Voice of Innocence much like the horizontal plot line: it’s the voice that tells the story of what happened, the events. On the other hand, think of the Voice of Experience like the vertical plot line: it’s the voice that interprets or reflects upon the events. (51)

It is the voice of experience that was missing from my work, the voice that “examines what the author, sitting at her desk writing, understands about events now” (Silverman 53).

In my reading, I began to look specifically for the two distinctly separate voices that an author must include, that of the subject in the scenes versus the current day author. What I discovered was that sometimes these voices mingle so closely that it is easy to miss. Yet some memoirists will juxtapose them so boldly that the author sitting at her desk, the author now, becomes as apparent a presence as the younger innocent character.

Sven Birkerts says that:

The narrator, who is also the narrative subject, can’t just be assumed. If the memoir is to be something more than a thin reportorial digest of events, if it is to matter, than the writer must create her identity on the page, making it as persuasive and compelling as that of any realized fictional protagonist. In other words, the memoirist’s “I” must be an inhabited character, a voice that takes possession of its account . . . Is the writer bemused by the actions of the younger self, or moved to contemplate a former innocence? The reader responds to a whole gamut of clues” (26, 27).

I set out to find the specific craft techniques with which a memoirist might create her identity on the page; I began to search for the clues. I chose to look specifically at Mary Karr’s work, because she presents her authorial voice with a wide variety of techniques. Karr presents herself, the subject then and the author now , with effective precision.

 [SPACE]

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Mary Karr’s memoir Cherry is about her life in Leechfield, Texas, during her adolescent years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is a classic coming-of-age story in which the young, and often lonely, Karr searches for a connection to family, friends, and community. As her mother and father both occasionally leave home for short stretches of time (generally to get drunk) she turns to her sister, friends, and boyfriends to help her feel the comfort of belonging. But each of these people threaten to pull away from her as well. In the end she comes to realize, through the words of a friend, that as she separates from her community and moves out of Texas, she will bring with her the comfort of a consistent and strong sense of herself.

Surrounded by a varied group of characters, Karr sees herself as one who is smarter and more driven than most of the people in her town. This creates a lonely situation for her, as she rarely transforms herself in order to fit in with others. Instead she moves through friendships and relationships as the quasi-intellectual philosopher who aspires to eventually leave town and become a writer. While she is drawn to certain people, and she has some satisfying connections with many, her central struggle is rooted in her conflicting desires to feel both securely connected to those whom she loves while also recognizing and acting upon her individual aspirations.

Cherry begins with a prologue and is then structured into four parts. The prologue, entitled “California 1972,” portrays Karr as a young adult embarking on a car trip and move to California with a group of friends. Part ONE, entitled “Elementary’s End,” places Karr at the beginning of junior high school. The author’s teen years are then presented chronologically through the book, ending in the time just prior to the California trip. The beginning of the book, therefore, marks the end of the story.

This strategic use of temporal shifting allows the author to focus the memoir on the vertical story: the dynamics of the protagonist’s relationships and her unfurling sense-of-self. Because it has already been revealed that the young Karr will eventually move away, the story can concentrate on the events that lead to the author’s decision to move. It is not a story about what happened, but rather how and why it happened. The author seems to search for a deeper understanding of herself, as she reflects back over the events and her response to them.

The structure of Cherry is unique also in Karr’s use of point of view and tense because they change with each section of the book. The prologue is written in the second person, present tense. This particular second person point of view does not have the narrator speaking to another person addressed as “you” but rather is the author speaking to herself, or of herself. In this regard it is essentially the first person point of view with the narrator writing her own story, but with the word “you” in place of “I.” The pronouns are essentially interchangeable.

Part ONE begins the story with a more traditional first person past tense format. In part TWO the narrative remains in the first person but the tense is changed to present. The very short part THREE (only 12 pages long) moves back to the second person present tense. And part FOUR, which comprises more than half of the book, is done entirely in second person but with the tense changing from past, to present, and in the end to an overlap of future and present tense. These variations segue smoothly from section to section but serve to differentiate the stages of the young character’s story as she changes and grows. Karr’s elementary and junior high years are presented in the first person, while her high school years are presented in the second person. Each of the two halves of the book, the first half in first person and the second half in second person, progress from a start in the reminiscent quality of past tense, to the immediacy and intensity of present tense.

Chronologically, the story of young Karr begins in part ONE, titled “Elementary’s End.” But again the book begins with a prologue that marks the end of the story chronologically, in which the young adult narrator is departing for a surfing trip to California with a group of friends. In the prologue, Karr introduces the reader to her family and friends. She portrays her father as loving but removed. Her mother is interested in Karr’s adventures, but she is self-absorbed and relives her own sense of adventure vicariously through the young Karr. Her older sister Lecia is simply ashamed to be part of the family.  Lecia tells people that she is an orphan “raised among distant-cousin lunatics” (9) in order to disassociate herself from the family. The impending trip to California is poorly planned and heavy drug use on the trip and a troubled time is foretold.

The first chapter opens with Karr at the end of her elementary school years, trying to literally elbow her way into a clique of friends, unsuccessfully. She introduces to the reader, the boy she had a crush on, John Cleary, and the girl who became her best friend, Clarice Fontenot. The narrator refers to herself and the other kids in her neighborhood as “still unformed” (43), thus establishing the theme of the book, which is Karr’s adolescent search for romantic relationships, friendships, and a sense of self as she disconnects from her family.

Part TWO is about young Karr’s developing sense of sexuality and the loss of her friendship to Clarice. She has her first kiss with John Cleary and spends time with him doing homework but also giving him a leg massage. Then, before the eighth grade, Clarice puts an end to their friendship. The author sees herself juxtaposed against Clarice, who wants to be a secretary while young Karr wants to be a poet or “Newspaper woman” (97). Clarice leaves the friendship because young Karr makes her feel bad about her aspirations and because Karr thinks she is smarter than Clarice. Which young Karr realizes, is true.

The very short Part THREE, entitled “Limbo” is about the author’s suicide attempt in the eighth grade. She writes of her mood at the time, “Oh you are manufacturing an arena of darkness in your sullen self” (113). She begins to “romance suicide” (113) and attempts it by taking an overdose of Anacin. Her parents come to her aid, although they do not know that it was an overdose that caused her to be sick. Her father drives a far distance to get her some plums, at her request. And young Karr wakes the next morning to “snap out of it” (117). She recognizes that she is loved and resolves to survive for that reason.

Part FOUR, entitled “High,” comprises more than half of the book. Young Karr is in high school and she becomes an active drug user. She makes a new best friend, Meredith Bright, based on the fact, according to young Karr, that they are both smarter than the other kids. They bond over a shared aptitude for literature and poetry and a recognition of their mutual suffering. Young Karr then begins dating a boy named Phil who is three years her senior.  She becomes a rebel at school and faces the principal often, which causes her to wonder if the high school experience is going to give her the ticket out of Leechfield and into college as she hopes. She loses her virginity with Phil, but finds that as a result, she feels distant from him, and they break up.

Young Karr befriends a boy named Doonie, who is reintroduced from the prologue. He is one of the friends with whom she will travel to California. He is a surfer and a heavy drug user and scenes depict a variety of drug related events. So the story begins to point toward the books beginning and the story’s end, edging closer to the scene in the prologue when young Karr will embark on the trip.

Toward the end of the book young Karr is with two new friends at a bar. She is tripping and her experience becomes surreal and unnerving. She witnesses a woman shooting-up drugs into her neck as she lay on a bathroom floor carpeted in shards of broken syringes. Karr awakens the next day and thinks back over the night, then goes to Meredith’s house to tell her about it. Meredith tells Karr that she has accomplished something good by surviving the experience; she says that Karr has changed and yet remains the “same self” (276).  The narrator reflects then on her young self as having been “only half-done inside” (276) but “something solid was starting to assemble inside” (276) her. On the final page Karr writes “That oddball catchphrase [the same self] will serve as a touchstone in years to come, an instant you’ll return to after traveling the far roads” (276). This line brings an ending solution to the prologue scene, which has not yet happened chronologically but which the reader anticipates. The entire book leads to this, to the strength the author had begun to find as a teen that would carry her through the time in California and always.

The voice of the narrator moves from being brazen to brave, from inquisitive to in-depth. The writing becomes denser in the second half of the book, with long complex sentences that often hold multiple images, concepts, or actions. The imagery and scenes become intense, gripping, with suspense and tension as the young Karr pushes forward through her high school years. The complexity of her life then, is reflected in the complexity of her syntax and imagery.

There is a tone of resolution in the end. The current-day author is gentle with herself, as if she is telling her young self that her struggle makes full sense. Her current attitude is illuminated in that final interjection of her future self when she writes, “That oddball catchphrase will serve as a touchstone in years to come” (276). The word “oddball” is light and humorous as it also acknowledges her opinion of her young self. It is slightly judgmental, but light and forgiving. In this final passage, we see that the author has come to fully understand her young self as well as how the young Karr determined the eventual path of the older Karr. The author emerged then, as well as again now, with new wisdom. She is changed yet the “same self.”

Karr’s techniques

Birkerts says that a memoir becomes:

. . . a work comprising at least two time lines – present and past. The now and the then (the many thens), for it is the juxtaposition of the two – in whatever configuration – that creates the quasi-spatial illusion most approximating the sensations of lived experience, of recollection merging into the ongoing business of living . . . The sin qua non of memoir, with the past deepening and giving authority to the present, and the present (just by virtue of being invoked) creating the necessary depth of field for the persuasive idea of the past” (6).

It is not enough then, to simply record the past. The present-day experience of the memoirist, superimposed over her memories of the past, creates the closest approximation of the phenomenon of life itself, lived always in a moment preceded by a culmination of both lost and recalled moments.

In Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, Thomas Larson writes that “This layered simultaneity, time over time, is the prime relational dynamic between the memoir and memoirist: the remembering and the remembered self” (36).  If the author includes only a recollection of the past, the result is less about “memoir” and more about the reporting of events. Silverman suggests, “Without this Voice of Experience, the memoir might address significant events, but it would read more like journalism – timely – whereas it should feel timeless” (55).

Karr reveals her current self in the narrative of Cherry when she inserts her presence on the page using the following techniques:

1) She makes direct reference to her current self within the narrative.

2) She interjects the future with prolepsis or a flash-forward.

3) She indicates a shift in perspective from that of the young subject of the scene to that of the current day author by using a change in the tense.

4) She blends her wisdom into the narrative with interpretations of herself within both time lines.

 Direct References

Karr begins Chapter One, following the prologue, with a direct and clear indication of the two time lines comprising the book. The first sentence opens the chapter in the author’s past, with imagery of a girl’s pets. But Karr skillfully puts her current self immediately into the second sentence. She writes, “Violet Durkey has a hamster and a miniature turtle who lives in a shallow plastic bowl under a palm tree with snap-on fronds, and an albino rabbit named snuffles with pink ears from Easter. It’s the hamster I’m thinking about here” (17). These two sentences comprise the total first paragraph and set up the binary structure for the entire book. The author is presented in the now as clearly as she presents herself then by beginning the story with vivid and distinct imagery from her past and then including the word “here” with a direct reference to herself. The second sentence essentially says, “I’m here.”

In many instances, Karr refers directly to her current moment of writing.  In one example she gives a bit of back-story about her mother’s past, but then returns to the time of the writing of the story. She writes, “Mother also had a secret history of hasty marriages and equally hasty dissolutions . . . But I’m writing about the 1960s, when Lecia and I didn’t yet know about all her pre-Daddy adventures” (23).  This technique enables her to fill her sentences with action as she brings the reader further back in time, then up to her present moment of writing, before segueing back into the 1960s where her story is unfolding. The reader is carried in a fast moving time machine that wraps the author’s chronological life into the “timeless” and fully dimensional quality that Silverman and Birkerts both suggest.

We see the direct indication of the author’s moment of writing similarly when she shows the reader a particular choice she has made in the writing process. For example Karr introduces a new character, a boyfriend in high school, by writing, “Let’s call him Phil” (164). She could have simply used the fictitious name and kept the focus on the story timeline from the past. But the author’s current moment of writing is indicated with her decision-making process itself.  Her presence is also directly implied with the inclusion of the first person contraction: “let’s.”

In addition to revealing the author’s presence with the illumination of her decisions as she writes, Karr also insinuates her present self by including her process of recalling her past. For example, she writes about a comment she made to her mother, “You want the butter passed, you don’t talk about arrows shooting. I said something to that effect” (36). Here, she admits that the memory is not entirely clear. She asserts that she said something to her mother in that particular dialogue all those years ago, but she doesn’t recall exactly what it was. This brings the reader out of the story of the past and into the current experience of the author as she is engaged in the act of remembering. While it has the effect of overlaying the two time lines, her honesty about the limitations of her memory makes her a trustworthy author and deepens her character.

The interjections of the current day author add dimension and depth to the other characters as well. Karr uses her current memories and attitude to reveal more about a character than her young self would have known or been able to articulate. She writes in a passage about her older sister Lecia,  “I looked down at Lecia. Surely her hair hadn’t been in curlers all day, but that’s how I recall it—in giant wire rollers under a lacy net” (39).  This reference to her memory—how she recalls her sister now, tells the reader much more about the characters than the image alone could. Karr, as an adult, has put her memories into categories, as we all do. So her sister takes on a persona, almost a caricature of a stereotype.  The reader is told, in effect, that Lecia spent so much time with her hair in rollers that the current day Karr automatically recalls her this way. One might surmise that Lecia was preoccupied with looking good. There is a humorous sarcasm in the current day author’s tone that is playful. Although the passage alone does not explain exactly what the author thought about the rollers then, or what she thinks about them now, the passage shines a light on the two characters, the author Karr and her sister, enough to create some unanswered questions about their relationship. Thus creating some tension and allowing the simple image of the hair rollers to provide more information about the character than it otherwise would have without the author’s current day perspective.

Parenthetical asides abound in Cherry. Within them, Karr also interjects her presence directly. The parentheses themselves simply point to the presence of the author now. They are the commentary of the narrator, and not the thoughts or words of the young subject of the story. They offer a perspective that the young Karr, the subject of the scene, could not have.

As if sharing a secret even more personal than the childhood events in the story, Karr confesses in one parenthetical aside that she often didn’t wash her hands when she was young. In a scene that takes place in the restroom at a roller-skating rink she writes, “This song was warped by coming through the pink plywood door to where we stood at a makeshift sink with little blue packets of Wash—‘N’—dry for after you got done peeing. (Actually, because I never overtly peed on my hands, I never bothered with hand washing anyway)” (18). In this humorous parenthetical wink, Karr’s confident sense of self invites the reader’s respect. The technique allows the author to create the dual timeline as well as to add information, interpretation, irony, and the attitude of the author.

Prolepsis

A prolepsis takes the narrative to a future point ahead of the time in which the story or scene occurs. It is a flash-forward, and although it can portray a scene that is expected to happen, or imagined might happen, in Karr’s memoir she uses prolepsis often to reveal events or interpretations of events that actually did happen later in her life. Karr does this first and foremost by beginning the book with the chronological ending. The reader knows what the author knows, that young Karr will eventually take a trip to California.

Karr layers the time lines with the use of prolepsis throughout the book as well. She is able to create a persona for both of her characters, the young subject of the scenes and the wise author who is formulating the story. For example, early on in the book she interjects the author now with a prolepsis in a parenthetical aside that portrays the changes in her attitude from then to now. In the scene, young Karr begins to feel estranged from her boy friend when he engages in silly pastimes and she discovers that her attraction to him is beginning to diminish. But the author now has a gentle and compassionate view of the boy in retrospect. She writes a prolepsis parenthetically:

The worst of these is a record of two guys having a fart contest, which ends when one actually batches his pants. (Twenty years later, this notion and its attendant memory will strike you as wicked funny. Also you could then recall the boy’s tender, odd ministrations with the fondness they warranted.) (188)

The prolepsis technique transforms the flat chronological timeline of the young character into a three-dimensional form, like turning a line drawing of a square into one of a cube. The reader is placed within the timeless space of the author’s past and present. For example in a passage in which young Karr takes a drawing tablet from her mother’s studio and begins a journal, she writes,

Any fable I’ve told about who I was then dissolves when I read that loose-jointed script I wrote. We tend to overlay grown-up wisdom across the blanker selves that the young actually proffer. (When my son was born, I remember staring into his blue, wondering eyes, then asking the obstetrical nurse what he might be thinking. ‘You know the static channel on your TV?’ she answered.) (24).

This flash-forward reveals that Karr experienced profound life-changing events such as childbirth and parenting. The juxtaposition of the innocent and naive young Mary in the scene against the persona of the mature author who has endured child rearing, indicates that the perspective of the memoirist is from a vantage point that is a culmination of the entirety of her life. It portrays the older and wiser character who survived the challenges of her childhood and leaves the reader in that space in between, wondering what the next page will reveal about her path from naive to wise.

Karr uses prolepsis also to create dimension around events, exposing them from the naive vantage point of the young Karr as well as from the wise author who knows what the young girl did not. For example, in the prologue we see the young character anticipate the trip to California; the narrator reveals what her young self expects and hopes for. She uses prolepsis at this early stage of the book to show that the awaited trip will in fact impact the young character’s life in a profoundly different way than what she envisioned at the time. She writes of the friends who will join her on the trip, “ . . . though before those six bodies in your company have hardened into adulthood, several will be cut down by drug-related obliterations. Two will take their own lives. Two will pull time in jail” (13). Then she continues to write of herself, “Who saw it coming? Not you, certainly. Not the friends who follow soon in their own frail vehicles. Casualties to jack up the tally” (14). She follows this passage with a reference to her later self at a specific age, and with particular details that reveal to the reader how Karr will eventually contextualize her experience in California. She writes,

In Los Angeles, drugs work these transformative magics till the place stands as a geographical epicenter of grief, a city as sacked and ruined for you as Troy. Well into your forties, any time business forces you to fly there and you watch the airport tarmac unfurl from your cabin’s glinting oval, it will feel like the wrong side of some psychic track (14).

Juxtaposed against the young character’s hopes and dreams for the trip before it happens, this flash-forward provides very moving dramatic irony.

 

Tense Changes

Karr renders the binary aspect of time in Cherry with her use of tense, by changing it within the narrative to indicate which of the two timelines she is writing from.  Each of the two halves of the book is written first with past tense then changes to present tense. But within each, the author occasionally switches from one to the other as a way to transport the reader from a focus on the young Karr’s perspective to that of the current author.  An example of this occurs in Part ONE when she shifts from past to present tense within a single paragraph. In a scene in which young Karr is at a park watching a tackle football game with a group of her friends, she writes, “In fact, even once the game had ended, when the big boys had run off to make phone calls or do chores, we stayed waiting to be called for supper. I can almost hear the melamine plates being slid from the various cupboards and stacked on tile counters” (32). Her shift to present tense indicates her current moment of writing, when she can hear plates sliding in her memory/imagination.

She continues this reflective voice with the use of another tense switch later in the same passage, but in this one she also adds a direct reference to her current moment of memory/writing. She writes,

At some moment, Clarice figured out as none of us had before how to shinny up the goalpost. That sight of her squiggling up the yellow pole magically yanks the memory from something far-off into a kind of 3-D present. I am alive in it. There’s early frost on the grass, and my ant bites itch (32, 33).

This particular passage continues for another six paragraphs in the present tense. The imagery is vivid and the reader is immersed in the immediacy of it, adding to the level of tension and suspense as Clarice “yanks both her pants and her underscancies down around her bare feet” until an adult neighbor arrives on the scene “holding [a] spatula in her hand with which she intends to blister [the children’s’] asses, Clarice most specifically” (33). Karr segues the transition back to past tense with the use of a prolepsis. She writes, “Decades later, I asked Clarice point blank why she did it. We were in our forties then, living two thousand miles apart, and talking – oddly enough – on our car phones” (34). The prolepsis that she adds at the end brings the reader through another time traveling adventure, up to the future while also nestled back into past tense. This technique pulls the reader out of the past moment, and fully into the visceral quality of the author’s memory; the reader is simultaneously in now and then.

Karr reverses the technique in Part TWO. She writes in present tense throughout, with the immediacy of the memories as she did in the short passage above from Part ONE. To indicate the presence of the current author’s reflective process, therefore, she switches back to past tense. For example, she writes about a night when she is thinking about John Cleary and she masturbates and has an orgasm. She writes in present tense, “Then the horse leaps between my legs, and that soaring fall enters me, and everything dissolves” (88).  The paragraph that follows this passage is then written in the past tense after the author makes a direct reference to her current moment of remembering. She reflects on the scene when she writes: “I remember the next morning, or think I do, lolling in bed like my own bride . . . Touching myself didn’t seem so bad. Mother said everybody did that . . . What shamed me was the plastic bag [filled with John Cleary’s hair, stolen by Karr for use in a love spell], that an ardor so pure as mine for John Cleary could involve such deceit” (88, 89).

The presence of the adult author in this particular example allows the reader to feel comfortable with the subject.  Without the wise and mature reflection of the grown woman, the scene might simply be treading too close to a private moment in a child’s life. By reflecting so blatantly from a place of wisdom, the author invites the reader to reflect along with her on this private moment, thus retaining and even enhancing a high level of trust for the author. This also acts to elicit empathy for the author, both as a young girl and as a mature and confident adult.

In Part THREE, which is only 12 pages long, Karr indicates her presence by remaining in the present tense while condensing large spans of time into one passage, as though an entire time period was emerging as a present memory. For example, she writes, “Thus junior high seems a series of mishaps that vault you involuntarily from one mudhole to another—each time landing deeper, more remote” (104). Rather than interjecting her presence with asides, she allows the reader to watch her memory and reflecting process as it happens. The narration zooms in to the specifics of a moment and a scene, and then zooms out to a more reflective perspective. This cinematic technique with the use of time portrays the memory process of the current day author and puts her presence on the page.  But it also allows the short section of the book to span an entire year in her youth, to condense the time into a single transformative experience.

In Part FOUR, which comprises the entire second half of the book, Karr uses all of these tense-change techniques. It is written in second person point of view, and she repeats the shift from past tense to present tense midway through, as she did in the first half of the book in the 1st person point of view.  She insinuates the adult author again, by shifting temporarily from one tense to another. In the final chapter, though, she inserts the future tense. It is a use of the prolepsis technique but indicates the wisdom that the author has gained and it propels the end of the story into the unwritten future. As quoted earlier in this paper, she writes in present tense, “For years you’ve felt only half-done inside, cobbled together by paper clips . . . but something solid is starting to assemble inside you” (276). Then she reflects with her current wisdom and writes in future tense, “That oddball catchphrase will serve as a touchstone in years to come, an instant you’ll return to after traveling the far roads” (276).

 

Interpretation

Karr’s interpretations of the events in her story put the author’s presence on the page in the most enriching way.  The wisdom portrayed in this technique gives her character depth and substance while again enhancing the three dimensional aspect to time and memory.

Of a scene in which she loses her virginity, Karr writes,

You’re not scared of the physical act, for Phil has been kind. But you have one raging horror of looking like you don’t know what to do (you don’t), and another horror of looking like a slut, and so don’t tell him that you’re on the pill, hoping the rubber he winds up using will numb his smart dick from knowing that some brute stole your cherry. (How odd, you’ll later think, that you embarked on your first love affair—meant as an intimacy—with such a large sexual secret in tow” (182).

This example of her interpretation expressed in a prolepsis portrays the wisdom of the current author to such an extent that it reflects the very theme of the book. Without it, the event in the story would simply be journalistically reported. With an emotionally laden subject such as sex and intimacy, to omit the wisdom gained through introspection would make the information nothing but titillating at best, bordering on pornographic. But by inserting the depth of wisdom in this scene, the theme of the book, which is Karr’s dualistic search for both intimacy and independence, is enhanced.

The author’s interpretation of events and characters is often inserted in small doses, such as a parenthetical aside. But Karr enriches the work as a whole when she occasionally includes a full passage of reflective wisdom. In the following example she illuminates important information about her friend Meredith’s character as well as her own, while she also adds commentary and provides valuable insight. She writes:

Kids in distressed families are great repositories of silence and carry in their bodies whole arctic wastelands of words not to be uttered, stories not to be told. Or to be told in sketchiest form—merely brushed by. It’s an irony that airing these dramas is often a family’s chief taboo. Yet the bristling agony secrecy causes can only be relieved by talk—hours and hours of unmuzzled talk, the recounting of stories. Who listens is almost beside the point, so long as the watching eyes remain lit and the head tilts at the angle indicating attention and care.

Without such talk by the kids of these families, there’s usually a grave sense of personal fault, of failing to rescue those beloveds lost or doomed. That silence ticks out inside its bearer the constant small sting of indictment—what it, what if, what if; why didn’t I, why didn’t I, why didn’t I . . .

It’s the gravity of such silence that you detect in Meredith. At some point, she levels her sea green eyes on you and says: I can tell that you’ve suffered. Which observation takes your breath away in its simple nobility (156).

Karr builds the reflective narrative and then segues into the scene with Meredith so that, side-by-side, the interpretation of the author stands juxtaposed to the frank observation made by Meredith.  The two time lines complement each other. Each becomes more potent due to the presence of the other. As it stands, the shared empathetic understanding between the two girls is clearly portrayed. Had the author presented only the scene from the past, Meredith’s statement alone would have an entirely different effect on the passage.  She might sound insincere.  But more importantly, the interpretation of the author simply illuminates very important information about her life and her story.

At times, Karr interjects her interpretations in an unfinished form, so that the reader sees her current-day action of introspection. For example, in the prologue she writes, “Maybe it’s only after your daddy’s been dead fifteen years that you create this longing of yours for him and his denial of it, because it’s easier to bear the notion that he rejected you than vise versa” (8). The word “maybe” in this use of prolepsis/interpretation, propels the narrative into a new direction, taking the reader out of the scene and into the action of the current author’s thought process. Simultaneously, though, it brings the reader deeper into the substance of the scene itself. Rather than a simple depiction of an event, which is the moment when young Karr is ready to leave for California and her father ignores her, it illuminates her young character’s turmoil.

Once again, the layering of her time lines puts the reader deeply and equally in now and then, mimicking the way we experience consciousness. But in the author’s act of interpreting her story, the archetypal search for meaning is revealed. The reader is able to see her own introspective action mirrored in the author’s quest for self-knowledge.

Birkerts contends:

. . . new modes of access are wanted, new perspectives through which our late-modern lives can be understood. And this is one of the signal uses of the memoir. For whatever story the memoirist may tell, he or she is also at the same time modeling a way to reflectively make sense of experience – using hindsight to follow the thread back into the labyrinth. Reading their work, we borrow their investigative energy and contemplate similar ways of accessing our own lives (22).

In this regard, Karr’s use of her own current day interpretation of herself, both then and now, is a universal action that every reader can relate to. The content of the introspection is moving, but the bravery of the act itself inspires the reader and invites a deeper commitment to the read.

Conclusion

The illusion of passage and panorama of time is just one of the many effects gained by the techniques discussed in this essay.  With the use of direct references to the current-day author, prolepsis, tense changes, and interpretation, Karr shines a spotlight on herself in the moment of writing, thus creating dimensional form. The young character becomes a person with an impending future, which creates a sense of importance to the events unfolding in the scenes. Also, a conversation begins to emerge, a dialogue between the author and reader, which draws the reader in. And with the author’s wisdom and growth superimposed over the struggles of the young character, the persona of the narrator becomes realistic and authoritative.  Karr’s techniques help to create a fully realized character with a thoroughly dimensional life.

The author’s multifaceted persona is not simply enhanced but truly created when she tells her story from binary vantage points. The characters of the past and present juxtapose each other and each one stands out more boldly against the backdrop of the other. Ultimately there is a relationship between these two separate voices, as the author looks back on herself with both a subjective and objective point of view. Two time lines wrapped like DNA around each other create a timelessness and timeliness and it becomes the story of she who has lived to tell the tale.

The author of a memoir, who is necessarily also a character, becomes lifelike and believable when she is presented with the complexities of life experience over time that include growth, struggle, and eventual wisdom. Such a character, intimately whispering her story in the ear of the reader, transcends the pages and comes to life.

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Books cited

Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2008.

Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Karr, Mary. Cherry: A Memoir. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000.

Larson, Thomas. Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. Athens: Swallow Press, 2007.

Silverman, Sue William. Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2009.

 —Susan Hall

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Susan Hall is about to graduate with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is an Expressive Arts Therapist with an MA degree from Lesley University and she lives on the coast of Maine with one dog, one cat, and countless sea birds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun 022013
 

Robin Oliveria 

Herewith a cogent, revelatory, insightful essay on the inner complexities of novel construction, to be precise, the often ignored (unthought, unimagined) techniques of character gradation and grouping. Don’t scratch your heads and ask what character gradation is. It never fails to amaze me how few people who want to be writers have the vaguest idea of how a novel is put together. Plot and subplot, for example. How are they related, how is the subplot introduced through the text? Too many proto-novelists naively assume that a novel is just a 300-page story (um, without having thought much about what a story is either). Character gradation and grouping is related to subplotting; it’s a technique for deploying other characters (plots) as devices that reflect the concerns and themes of the main plot characters. It’s a form that helps the novelist invent content and also create a consistence and cohesive thematic whole. It is an old technique (though few readers actually notice it).

Robin Oliveira has thought long and hard about the structure of novels. She is a former student of mine, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine  Arts, who rocketed into the ranks of published novelists with her well-received Civil War novel My Name is Mary Sutter. Her second novel, based on the painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, is due out with Viking next year. She has contributed to Numéro Cinq from the outset. And it is always wonderful to have her back.

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For the most part characterization in novels has not been discussed in terms of coherence, that is, in the scientific meaning of the word as the intermolecular attraction that holds molecules and masses together.  Coherence is important because a novelist must corral the differing, wayward elements of a novel into a whole, making associations and connections between characters and events.  An efficient way to do this is through character gradation and grouping.

Character gradation is a cousin of the tried and true literary device of comparing and contrasting characters, but it is more than that.  In his book The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover explains that parallel and contrasting characters do not just share traits, but that “traits are varied, diminished or intensified from one character to another, that is, they are graded.”[1] I like to think of gradation as a spectrum, with the full shade of a trait, from fully realized to fully opposed, deliberately manifested in the population of a novel.  This spectrum is crafted by the careful writer in order to flesh out the themes and story question presented.  Grading ensures that the novel’s central issues reappear again and again in a number of guises.  In essence, grading does the difficult work of achieving the coherence necessary to reinforce the meaning of the book.  In addition, groupings and cross-groupings have a kind of cascading effect that helps to build momentum.  As Glover explains, “The effect of character grouping and gradation is…to create a thematic and structural cohesiveness, a critical intensity of focus which prevents the long story (with all those extra characters) from sprawling and dissipating its energy.”[2] These gradations cause echoes, reminding the reader of how the characters are connected and also what they have at stake, what emotional issue is tantamount, and ultimately what the story is about.

Character gradation is the child of echoing and repetition, which E.K. Brown discusses in his book, Rhythm in the Novel.  In his first chapter, “Phrase, Character and Incident,” he comes to the conclusion that repetition, combined with variation of action or character trait or even phrasing, establishes the “rhythmic process, the combination of the repeated and the variable with the repeated as the ruling factor.”[3]In his discussion of James and Thackeray, he makes another point, which is that “flexibility” and the use of “antithesis” “irradiates the characters.”[4]   Therefore, variation of character traits combined with alternating groupings of characters achieves a sense of connectedness that is a powerful tool when devising a novel’s population.  This coherence not only solidifies theme, as Glover says, but these variations and repetitions graded on a spectrum amplify the story, which gives the novel vibrancy and the sense of a larger world.

With these principles in mind, I begin my discussion of gradation and cohesion as manifested in novels by Jane Austen, Anne Tyler and Mark Haddon with assertions fundamental to my thinking on characterization.  They are: that a novel is a story about people, and people act in such a way as to secure that which they desire.  They desire something because of who they are, where they have been, who they love, of what they have been deprived, what they perceive they need, and what they do not consciously understand about themselves (though the author does, or will come to, as the characters develop).  That a novel by design is a cohesive entity.  That nothing is inserted into a novel by accident.  That each element of the story serves the larger whole.  That a novel or story is built, brick by brick, rather than spilled onto the page, and each brick is the result of who the characters are and what they want; their desire dictates plot.

With these assertions in mind, I will argue that in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, character gradation is a fundamental and indispensable tool.

pride2In Pride and Prejudice, Austen populates her novel about the Bennet family daughters’ romantic fortunes with neighbors, family friends and extended family.  But it is how she characterizes them that gives the novel its cohesive feel of being about one thing.  The story revolves around the question that if one wishes to marry for love, as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do, how does one choose a marriage partner when faced with class and financial obstacles?

The principal characters in this story are the two eldest daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Jane and Elizabeth, and the two men with whom they will fall in love, Mr. Bingley and his friend Mr. Darcy.  Again, if we think of gradation as a spectrum, diminished to heightened, or opposite to opposite, we see how Austen crafted her principal characters.  Notice how alike Jane and Bingley are, and how singular Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are; how opposite Jane and Elizabeth are, how dissimilar the two male friends are.  Elizabeth is lively, playful, witty and can easily see peoples’ base motivations, though she fails to perceive, at first, Mr. Wickham’s base character.  She is a more vibrant character than Jane, who is sweet, kind, never finds fault in anyone, and would never ascribe dishonorable reasons for anyone’s actions.  Mr. Bingley, who will eventually marry Jane, is described in terms similar to Jane: he is gentlemanlike with a pleasant countenance and excellent manners.  Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s opponent and future husband, is deemed by all to be proud, class-conscious and disdainful of those beneath him; different from Bingley, but like the vivacious, independent-thinking Elizabeth in that both share the trait of pride, causing them each to prejudge the other, resulting in dual, unfavorable impressions that are not easily unseated.

Austen uses these principal characters’ gradations to craft a spectrum of attitudes toward the story question.  She employs this method by setting off Bingley and Darcy as opposites, though they are also grouped as friends.  This opposition is interesting, since they are not opponents in this story.  They are parallels.  Bingley’s courtship of Jane runs a very close second plot to the Darcy/Elizabeth romance.  But from the beginning, Austen writes:  “Between him and Darcy was a very steady friendship, in spite of a great opposition of character.”[5] They act out this opposition of character in a variety of ways:  Darcy refuses to dance at a party where Bingley dances every dance; Bingley falls in love with Jane immediately despite her poor family connections while Darcy must overcome his pride; Bingley yields to his friends’ and sisters’ opinions, while Darcy defies them.

Jane and Elizabeth are at odds as well, though they are grouped as sisters.  Jane quickly falls in love with Bingley, while Elizabeth initially despises Mr. Darcy before comprehending his true character and falling into love.  Jane pines away for Bingley in London, accepting her fate, while Elizabeth visits Darcy’s home, Pemberley, accepts dinner invitations from him, and fights his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, even when Elizabeth has no evidence that Darcy is in love with her.  These articulate variations are a type of repetition.  Both the sisters are in love, they are in love with two friends, yet their personalities and actions are dissimilar.  Furthermore, Austen groups each pair of lovers.  Jane and Bingley are parallels.  As Mr. Bennet says to Jane, “Your tempers are by no means unlike.  You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved upon; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income.”[6] Elizabeth and Darcy, however, remain in opposition, and everyone is amazed when they are engaged—sisters, father, mother, friends, relations.  But the careful reader knows that they acted in the same way, just as Jane and Bingley did: they each disliked the other at first.  This variation of action and intention in groups has a wonderful, dynamic effect on the novel as the reader experiences all the permutations of love and desire.

How does this pair of lovers feel about marrying despite class and financial obstacles, the story question at hand?  Again, they are graded.  Jane and Bingley provide the calm backwater to the more tempestuous love affair between Darcy and Elizabeth. For Bingley and Jane there is no obstacle.  Jane wishes to marry for love, falls in love and remains true despite the class and financial obstacles in her path.  Bingley perceives neither class nor financial obstacles, and is only persuaded not to marry Jane because his sisters and Darcy, who are very conscious of the issue, persuade him that Jane is not in love with him.  Elizabeth and Darcy, however, confront the issue and each other.  When Darcy proposes the first time, and Elizabeth wisely but pridefully turns him down, Darcy verbalizes the class and financial differences between them, saying he is proposing in spite of them.

Reinforcing the central question of how to choose whom to marry, Austen presents a series of couples to echo the two main couples.  Elizabeth’s dear friend Charlotte Lucas, who eventually marries Mr. Collins—Elizabeth’s second cousin who proposes first to Elizabeth and then, when refused, applies to the acquiescent Charlotte—is drawn in opposition to Elizabeth by a differing perspective on marriage.  Charlotte believes that “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance…It is better to know as little of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”  Elizabeth counters, “It is not sound.  You know it is not sound, and that you would never act this way yourself.”[7] But Elizabeth is wrong.  Charlotte will and does act exactly in this way, marrying Mr. Collins, a man invariably described as absurd, conceited and obsequious.  This direct opposition of Charlotte to Elizabeth, though they are friends, serves to dramatize the story conflict and further illuminates Elizabeth’s desire to marry for affection, not money or class associations.  Were Charlotte merely a friend who did not wish to marry, she would have no parallel plot, and Charlotte as a character would neither resonate nor reflect on the story question.  But she is constructed in such a way that she serves as an antithesis to Elizabeth’s desire to marry for love, then enters into a marriage that will serve as the antithesis to her marriage to Mr. Darcy, all the while being grouped with Elizabeth as a dear friend.

Furthermore, Austen inversely mirrors the Charlotte/Mr. Collins marriage to the coupling of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.  In the elder Bennet marriage, it is Mrs. Bennet who is universally considered absurd, and Mr. Bennet the man who chose poorly.  Mr. Bennet, however, upon learning that Collins and Charlotte were about to be married, thinks “Charlotte Lucas, whom he had been used to think tolerably sensible, was as foolish as his wife….”[8] But while Mr. Bennet believes himself to be sensible, he is as foolish as Charlotte, a sober person marrying for the wrong reasons.  Elizabeth contemplates her parents’ marriage thusly: “Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.  Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever.”[9] So, ultimately, Mr. Bennet was the foolish one, not his wife.  This question of who exactly is the foolish one again reinforces the story question of how to choose a desirable marriage partner.  This inverse mirror reinforces the theme and aspiration of both Jane and Elizabeth that choosing well in marriage will provide the only possibility of future happiness, and fattens the peoplescape, or population, of Austen’s novel.

Yet another iteration of a poor coupling is that of Lydia, Elizabeth’s youngest sister, with the officer George Wickham, a dissipated fortune hunter who preyed first on the young Miss Darcy, the very minor character Miss King, and finally Lydia, who was deluded and silly enough to behave without any deliberation, on the basis of flirtation alone.  Lydia’s actions serve as the brightest opposite to the more sober method of obtaining a husband adopted by both Jane and Elizabeth, and Wickham and Lydia as a couple are the stunning opposites of both Bingley and Jane and Darcy and Elizabeth.

The Gardiners, Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, are yet another couple echoing the main couples, serving as an example of a fine partnership to which Elizabeth and Jane aspire.  They are also relatives.  Darcy has an aunt, too, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  Note the symmetry here, another kind of grouping. But here is where the similarity ends. While the Gardiners are egalitarian and helpful, Lady Catherine is autocratic and obstructive.  Where the Gardiners hope for the union of Darcy and Elizabeth, Lady Catherine campaigns against it.  Where the Gardiners cooperate in helping Darcy mend the miserable connection of Wickham and Lydia, thereby tacitly agreeing to a union between the two families, Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth to sunder the possibility of her marriage to Darcy and to decry the poor family connections that Darcy also once disdained.  At the close of the novel, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are grouped with the Darcys as representative of the happiest of couples, as well as Jane and Bingley.

These couples populate the novel as echoes of the main characters, providing numerous contrasts to the way Jane and Elizabeth are going about their romantic affairs, showcasing imprudence and resignation (Charlotte) and foolishness (her mother and Lydia) in order to highlight Jane’s and Elizabeth’s more prudent approaches.  Their stories of course are subplots, but they are subplots because of how they mirror and magnify the main characters’ plots, and they mirror and magnify those plots because their desires and character traits are grades of the main characters and their conflict.  These multiplications not only populate the novel but also give it coherence, imparting that sense of a whole world with teeming inner connections.

Austen also groups individual characters.  Elizabeth’s three younger sisters are all shades of Mrs. Bennet.  Austen echoes Mrs. Bennet’s character in the headstrong, silly Lydia.  Lydia is a younger variation of Mrs. Bennet, who also once loved a redcoat: “I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well—and indeed so I do still at my heart; and if a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year, should want one of my girls, I shall not say nay to him.”[10] When the regiment leaves Meryton and Lydia is pining for the loss of the officers’ society, Mrs. Bennet says, “I cried for two days together when Colonel Millar’s regiment went away.  I thought I should have broke my heart.”[11]


Kitty is first grouped with Lydia—considered by their father to be “two of the silliest girls in the country.”[12] —but toward the end of the novel, when she is “removed from the influence of Lydia’s example, she became, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant and less insipid.”[13]

Mrs. Bennet has lesser echoes in her sister Mrs. Phillips, whose behavior is likewise “vulgar”[14], and in Lady Lucas, who echoes Mrs. Bennet in her singular desire that her daughter Charlotte be married, no matter what the cost.

The other sister, Mary, is a minor echo of Mr. Collins and, though it is never directly stated, is the obvious marriage partner choice for her double.  She sounds like Mr. Collins when she speaks: “ [Lydia’s elopement] is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of.  But we must stem the tide of malice…loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin….”[15] He stupidly ignores her, underpinning the theme that most people make foolish marriage choices.

I think it is important to note that the techniques of grouping need not be as obvious as those previously discussed.  Notice that Austen makes Mary seem the best choice for Mr. Collins only by inference.  Mary’s opinions are his opinions; when she speaks, she mimics his self-righteousness.  Never are the two described as being alike, yet every reader knows that Mr. Collins should have chosen Mary, an association achieved merely by this more subtle method of grouping.

Elizabeth’s suitors are also graded.  Mr. Collins appears at first to be primary on the least desirable.  However, Mr. Wickham, at first grouped with Bingley in appearing to be the best choice for Elizabeth, is revealed instead to be the worst when Darcy reveals Wickham’s attempted elopement with his younger, vulnerable sister.  And when Wickham instead succeeds in eloping with Lydia and extorting a fortune from Darcy, Mr. Bennet has this to say of him:  “He is as fine a fellow…as ever I saw.  He simpers, and smirks and makes love to us all.  I am prodigiously proud of him.  I defy even Sir William Lucas himself, to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”[16] This reevaluation regroups Mr. Wickham at Mr. Collins’ end of the spectrum.  A fainter echo is Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is presented and grouped with Mr. Bingley as a better alternative to the proud, disagreeable Darcy.  In Charlotte’s mind, Fitzwilliam was “beyond comparison the pleasantest man,”[17] but in the end, he remains nothing but a faint echo of Mr. Bingley and yet another contrast to the incomparable Darcy.

The lesser characters of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst serve as opposites to Elizabeth.  Miss Bingley wishes to marry Darcy and goes about it all the wrong way, using teasing and jealousy in an attempt to alter his emerging affection for Elizabeth.  Mrs. Hurst is an echo of her sister, and her marriage to the frequently drunken Mr. Hurst echoes the ill-advised marriages of other couples in the novel.

In summary, in Pride and Prejudice, grouping and regrouping of the characters magnifies the theme of the novel and coheres the whole.

dinnerDinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler,is the multi-generational story of the Tull family: Pearl, the matriarch, her husband Beck and their three children, Cody, Ezra and Jenny.  Like Austen, Tyler uses character gradation to enhance, emphasize and reinforce her novel’s essential question, which is: Can a family, divided by a history of pain, come together?  Like Pride and Prejudice, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is populated by family members, their spouses and friends.  But Tyler’s novel employs a more interior POV and hence the characterization is less firm.  The reader’s view of the characters in Dinner shifts as the characters regard themselves and each other at different points in their lives.  Memories are unreliable, conflicting; assessments change, not in the way that Elizabeth’s opinion of Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy changes, but in a more complex, unstable way.  Therefore, the characters can be viewed only in their shifting relations to one another.  But this shifting characterization still provides its own kind of cohesiveness, because the shifting groupings further link each of the characters one to the other.  In effect, Tyler has taken this technique to its most articulate expression, further enhancing her story of this unstable, troubled family. It is important to note that Tyler tells the story in third person, shifting from one character’s view point to another as the novel progresses, a perfect approach in this instance since Dinner is the story of a broken family. Still, Tyler’s employment of character gradation works in much the same way that Austen’s does.  The foundational principle is the same: repetition and variation of character traits in order to group the characters to reinforce theme and story.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant begins with Pearl’s story.  The matriarch is on her deathbed, having willed herself to die by deliberately catching pneumonia through self-induced immobility.  Intermittently conscious, she reviews her life: her relationship with the husband who deserted her, and her life with their three children, Ezra, Cody and Jenny.  We learn that Pearl experienced moments of explosive anger, that she was never very happily married, that she considered herself unreliable, at times, as a mother.  She wonders why her children did not find themselves a substitute mother: “You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say.”[18] Before she dies, she instructs Ezra to call everyone in her address book, knowing full well that the only one left alive is Beck, the absent husband.  It is this dual wish/act—dying and having Ezra call her estranged husband—that will ultimately unite this sundered family.

The characters in this novel shift associations as in a kaleidoscope of literary Venn diagrams, in which character traits and associations are grouped and regrouped again and again.  The shifting and regrouping, both of desire to reunite and the characters’ assessments of one another, are so fluid that they are difficult to outline.  As in Pride and Prejudice, the groupings in this novel are based on desire.  In this case, the groups shift on the basis of whether or not reunion is desirable.  In the first grouping, Pearl and Ezra want the same thing, for the family to be reunited.  Pearl wants the family to be together so much that she does not tell the children that their father has left, and pretends to them and the neighborhood that someday Beck will return.  Ezra spends the novel trying to unite the family over meals, adopting the traditional mother role and thereby becoming the substitute that Pearl insists her children need.  He is also grouped with her by both her and his siblings.  We’re told that “Ezra was her favorite, her pet…The entire family knew it. ”[19] And Pearl thinks Ezra will stay with her, “the two of them bumping down the driveway, loyal and responsible, together forever.”[20]

But the novel’s Venn diagrams constantly shift as the characters make associations with the other characters.  At various times, Ezra is grouped with Luke, (Cody’s son) and Ruth, the woman Cody will steal from Ezra.  However, as soon as Cody marries Ruth, his regard for her, and therefore the way he associates her, changes.  Where once he grouped her with Ezra, he now groups her with his mother, using the same description he used to describe Pearl.  Later, Cody reassociates Ruth with Ezra because she, too, tries to feed him.  But just after Cody steals Ruth from Ezra and marries her, he encounters an old girlfriend whom he had dropped because he thought she preferred Ezra instead of him.  As soon as she relates that she had always considered Ezra “a motherly man,” Cody develops an heretofore unheard-of affinity for Ezra because “she really hadn’t understood Ezra; she hadn’t appreciated what he was all about.”[21] You see the cascade effect here, the kaleidoscope.  One character is grouped to another, is grouped to another, then is regrouped again.  These subtle cascading impressions link Cody to Ezra, enhancing in the end the plausibility of this damaged family being able to reunite.  Gradation, therefore, serves to cohere and reinforce the story question.

Pearl is grouped with others beside Ezra and Ruth.  Pearl and her daughter Jenny are both characterized as tidy, though later Jenny will abandon that trait when she becomes a substitute mother to her third husband’s brood of children, whose mother abandoned them, an act which creates two more groupings: one of abandoned children and another of parents who abandoned their families.  To further reinforce the theme, Becky becomes a substitute mother to all of Joe’s children, a split off from Pearl thinking they all should have found a substitute.  Also, Jenny leaves her first husband Harley and never tells the family, just as her mother did when Beck left.  And Jenny loses her temper with her daughter just as Pearl did with her: “’No,’ said Becky, and Jenny hauled off and slapped her hand across the mouth, then shook her till her head lolled, then flung her aside and ran out of the apartment…All of her childhood returned to her: her mother’s blows and slaps and curses, her mother’s pointed fingernails digging into Jenny’s arm, her mother shrieking, ‘Guttersnipe!  Ugly little rodent!'”[22] In another cascade, Jenny’s daughter Becky later develops anorexia, as Jenny had as a child—Jenny was once referred to as looking as if she had come from Auschwitz.  And to further illustrate how complex the groupings are, in an even more convoluted reflection, Jenny thinks Cody perceives that everything she says “carries the echo of their mother.”[23]

The men, too, are linked in this cascading fashion.  Previously, we observed the cascade from Ezra to Luke and Ezra to Ruth.  Tyler groups Cody with Beck—the father he could never please—in that he takes a traveling job like his father and ends up living the life he lived as a child, unconnected to his neighborhood.  Unlike his father, however, Cody takes his family with him wherever he goes, echoing Ezra’s desire that the larger family be reunited.  Note here the subtle method of grouping by action.  While Darcy and Bingley acted in opposite ways, Cody and Beck act alike.  Yet Cody would never be able to consciously admit that he is anything like his father.  Indeed, he prides himself on being the exact opposite.  But he is the same.  While Ezra takes on motherly qualities, Cody takes on paternal characteristics.  It is a way for the reader to see the grouping without the character ever being aware of it; indeed, if Cody ever admitted to being like his father, I am not certain he could survive the psychological blow.  Toward the end, when Ezra has invited Beck to the restaurant for the funeral meal just as Pearl wanted and Beck, feeling out of place, leaves, it is Cody who ultimately finds his father and, more importantly perhaps, recognizes his son in his father: “There was Luke, as if conjured up, sitting for some reason on the stoop of a boarded-over building.  Cody started toward him, walking fast.  Luke heard his footsteps and raised his head as Cody arrived.  But it wasn’t Luke.  It was Beck.  His silver hair appeared yellow in the sunlight, and he had taken off his suit coat to expose his white shirt and his sharp, cocked shoulders so oddly like Luke’s.”[24] This grouping has, again, the effect of delineating the associations between characters and answering the story question of whether or not a family can reunite after pain.  And the answer is, Yes.  Cody, the one who feels most responsible for the breakup of the family, the one who develops the paternal qualities, the one who thinks, “Was it something I said?  Was it something I did?  Was it something I didn’t do, that made [Beck] go away?,”[25]and the one regarded by his mother as “Always cheating, tormenting, causing trouble…”[26] is the one who ultimately invites Beck back into the family circle.

Other characters’ situations reflect and comment on the Tull family situation.  Echoing the abandoned children plot are Joe’s children, most specifically embodied in Slevin: Slevin is Jenny’s stepson, whose mother walked out on them, an inversion of Jenny’s history.  Mrs. Scarlatti is portrayed as Ezra’s substitute mother because she is also husbandless and had a deceased son who was a soldier, as Ezra is about to become at one point.  She also acts as Ezra’s mother, calls him her dear boy, and upon her death leaves him her restaurant, supporting his dreams in a way that Pearl could not.  And Ezra attends Mrs. Scarlatti in the hospital (as he will later tend his mother on her deathbed).  Mrs. Payson is also presented as a surrogate: “[Ezra] has been like a son to me.”[27] In a further iteration of the substitute mother idea, Ezra replaces the waiters in the restaurant with “cheery, motherly waitresses.”[28]

These connections, Venn Diagrams, and shifting groupings have the effect of, again, “reinforcing theme,” as Glover saysThese groupings are wrapped up with desire: Ezra wants the family to stay together, as does Cody, as does Jenny, as does Pearl.  Tyler sets her characters to act as one whole as they stumble about trying to achieve this.  Again, it is character associations and gradation that accomplish the task of coherence most successfully.

curiousWe even find this device of character gradation in Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which would at first seem impossible, because this story is narrated by an autistic, savant teenager, whose disability is distinguished in part by an inability to discern character.  To illustrate how deep a challenge the use of gradation is in this instance, when Christopher, the narrator, describes his two teachers, he writes, “Siobhan has long blond hair and wears glasses which are made of green plastic.  And Mr. Jeavons smells of soap and wears brown shoes that have approximately 60 tiny circular holes in each of them.”[29] This characterization is not even characterization.  It is merely a description, telling us nothing of who these people are.  As Christopher tells us at the beginning of the narrative, he cannot read any other emotion than happy or sad, that all others are far too complex, lead to confusion and cause him to resort to screaming and groaning as coping methods, or to retreat by going outside at night to pretend that he is the only one in the world.  Therefore, it would seem impossible that character gradation could be used as a literary device to convey theme and enhance cohesion in this novel.  But character gradation is nonetheless a significant element in the book and Haddon uses it seamlessly, without ever unraveling the autistic cocoon.  Haddon employs this device to answer the story question in this novel, just as Austen and Tyler did.   The story question in this case at first appears to be Who killed Wellington?, the neighbor’s dog, but percolating underneath is the question of which even the narrator is unaware, though the reader is made aware of it immediately.  It is the question of whether or not Christopher is going to survive emotionally in a world in which he is handicapped.

Because Christopher’s disability prevents him from being able to speculate about the other characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, Haddon must resort to subtler ways of grading and grouping characters.  Though Christopher is unable to grade himself, he can, however, grade himself against someone who is not a fully developed, three-dimensional character.  Throughout the book, Christopher compares himself to Sherlock Holmes, a two-dimensional character in another story in which a dog gets killed, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

He says,

I also like the Hound of the Baskervilles because I like Sherlock Holmes and I think that if I were a proper detective he is the kind of detective I would be.  He is very intelligent and he solves mysteries and he says

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

But he notices them, like I do.  And it says in the book

Sherlock Holmes had, in a very remarkable degree, the power of detaching his mind at will.

And this is like me, too, because if I get really interested in something, like practicing maths, or reading a book about the Apollo missions or great white sharks, I don’t notice anything else.[30]

Christopher not only compares himself to Sherlock Holmes, he compares the act of writing his book to Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery:

Also Doctor Watson says about Sherlock Holmes

His mind…was busy in endeavouring to frame some scheme into which all these strange and apparently disconnected episodes could be fitted.

And that is what I am trying to do by writing this book.[31]

He can also grade himself in relation to characters he himself imagines.  He fantasizes about the kind of people he wishes populated the world.  In his dream, “there is no one left in the world except people who don’t look at other people’s faces and don’t know what these pictures mean [in the text there is an illustration of complex facial patterns indicating shades of emotion] and these are all special people like me.  And they like being on their own and I hardly ever see them because they are like okapi in the jungle in the Congo, which are a kind of antelope and very shy and rare.”[32] Christopher is saying that he is special like these imagined people and that they are shy and rare.  It is an indirect way for Christopher to state that he is shy and rare.  It is the most intimate thing he will say about himself, but he expresses it in a dream.

When it comes to real people, not literary characters, Christopher ungroups himself.  He is never like anyone else.  For instance, he might be going to school at a Special Needs school, but he is unlike any of the other students.  “All the other children at my school are stupid.”[33] But while Christopher doesn’t grade or group characters, Haddon does, and he does this by making us aware of parallels and contrasts Christopher is not aware of.  For example, at another point in the book, Christopher says that he does do stupid things: “Stupid things are things like emptying a jar of peanut butter onto the table in the kitchen and making it level with a knife so it covers all the table right to the edges, or burning things on the gas stove to see what happened to them, like my shoes or silver foil or sugar.”[34] Here, Christopher is unaware of himself, but Haddon deftly uses this list to group Christopher with the classmates he scorns and to convey how Christopher is seen not only by society, but by his parents, too.  Christopher knows he is not stupid, because he plans to sit for “A Level maths” and pass them, yet society regards him as stupid.  He may not be willing to make the association himself, though he does without fully expressing it—he says, “I’m going to prove I’m not stupid”[35]—yet Haddon groups Christopher with his Special Needs classmates to make us reflect on the essential question of whether or not Christopher will survive in a society which regards him as incapable and odd.  Haddon also groups Christopher with other characters in the book.  Christopher says he is different from others because “the pictures in my head are all pictures of things which really happened.  But other people have pictures in their heads of things which are real and didn’t happen….”[36]

But as Christopher’s dream about the okapi-like people suggests, Haddon is grouping Christopher with those Christopher is ungrouping himself from.  This is most clear when Christopher reports, as an example of how “others” think, a fantasy very like his own: “And Siobhan once said that when she felt depressed or sad she would close her eyes and she would imagine that she was staying in a house on Cape Cod with her friend Elly, and they would take a trip on a boat from Provincetown and go out into the bay to watch the humpback whales and that made her feel calm and peaceful and happy….”[37]

Through these fantasies, both of which involve rarely seen animals, Haddon subtly groups Siobhan with Christopher.  This grouping reinforces the story question yet again, because one of the reasons Christopher begins to come out of his autism is that Siobhan encourages him to investigate the death of Wellington, an investigation that forces him at first only minimally out of his shell—talking to the neighbors—but ultimately leads him to the previously impossible solitary train trip to London to find his mother.  By encouraging him to investigate and write the book we are reading, Siobhan enables Christopher to believe in the end that he can move away to a university in another town.  She has helped him to survive.  They are a team.  Siobhan and Christopher act in the same way, dream the same things, work toward the similar goal of solving both the small mystery of the death of Wellington and the larger mystery of his survival.

All of these groupings are indirect—implied rather than stated—but there is one direct instance of grouping in the novel, that of Christopher and his father.  But Christopher does not make this connection, his father does.  When Christopher is unable to control other people, when they cross the bubble of his self-protection, he becomes angry and hits.  He hits a policeman, he hits his father, he hits a girl at school.  When his father is revealed as the murderer of Wellington, and the two get into a fight, his father says: “But, shit, Christopher, when that red mist comes down…Christ, you know how it is.  I mean, we’re not that different, me and you.”[38] Not only does this passage reveal that his father and Christopher are alike, it reinforces the subtler meaning that although Christopher is shy and rare, he is not as unlike others as he thinks he might be.

Through Christopher’s efforts to place himself in the world by comparing himself first to the two-dimensional Sherlock Holmes and then to okapi, the reader understands that Christopher will always be isolated; however, we also believe that Christopher will survive because in the end he is able to face the future and make plans and hope: “And then I will get a First Class honors degree and I will become a scientist.  And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”[39] There is a tension in the novel between what Christopher understands about himself—that he is different and always will be—and the possibility of being able to make his way in the world.  At the beginning, we fear he will be unable to.  But by the end, the possibility exists that he will have a bright future.  This change in Christopher and in our attitude toward his future is because of the shifting and grouping of characters.

Therefore, even in a novel narrated by an autistic savant, character gradation exists,not as densely, perhaps, as in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Pride and Prejudice, but in all three of these novels, grouping and gradation serve to cohere the theme and answer the story question.

To what end, all this?  What does it matter if a character is grouped, graded or opposed?  Just this: in our daily lives we meet people randomly.  The important and the unimportant pop in and out, at important and unimportant times.  We begin our days with the letter carrier or the clerk at the grocery store, or our spouses after a quarrel or our teenagers sullen over some unrevealed irritation (as teenagers have).  Our daily lives have only the cohesion we assign it.  But whereas we have little or no control over the people in our lives, a novelist has all the control over all the lives in a novel, and this constitutes an obligation to the reader that the world in which she immerses herself will be one of cohesion and import; that the author will not introduce characters willy-nilly; that the author will have something to say, a story to tell, and that the fictional world will be contrived in such a way that it will make sense of the story dilemma presented.

Novelists promise the reader something that real life rarely yields: the illusion that a reader can make sense of her own life.  And an effective tool for accomplishing this magic trick is by constructing subtle associations and connections between characters that reinforce meaning and intent, that help solve the characters’ problems, that yields light on the confusion and tumult of everyday life and helps the reader understand what drives mankind to weep, love, adore, disdain, despair, abandon and sometimes yield to the hope that life matters in some shimmering way.  But a writer cannot achieve this mystical, ephemeral thing without precise craft.  I submit that character grouping and gradation, as daughters of echo and repetition, underpin our fiction with a sturdy backbone that will achieve the goal not only of illumination, but of coherence.

—Robin Oliveira

 

Robin Oliveira is the author of My Name is Mary Sutter, winner of the 2007 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction and the 2010 Honorable Mention from the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction. A Registered Nurse, she also holds a B.A. in Russian, and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, Drew, but longs to live in Paris where she recently traveled to do research for her historical novel on Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, just published by VIKING.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Glover, Douglas, The Enamoured Knight (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 2004), 128.
  2. Ibid., 130.
  3. Brown, E.K.,  Rhythm in the Novel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950), 17.
  4. Ibid., 27.
  5. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice   Ed. Donald Gray. 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), 2000. 11-12.
  6. Ibid., 227.
  7. Ibid., 16.
  8. Ibid., 7.
  9. Ibid., 155.
  10. Ibid., 21.
  11. Ibid., 150.
  12. Ibid., 20.
  13. Ibid., 252.
  14. Ibid., 251.
  15. Ibid., 187-188.
  16. Ibid., 214.
  17. Ibid., 120.
  18. Tyler, Anne,  Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant  (New York: Fawcett Books, 1996), 2.
  19. Ibid., 37.
  20. Ibid., 186.
  21. Ibid., 166.
  22. Ibid., 209.
  23. Ibid., 84.
  24. Ibid., 299.
  25. Ibid., 47.
  26. Ibid., 65.
  27. Ibid., 78.
  28. Ibid., 122.
  29. Haddon, Mark,  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time  (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.
  30. Ibid., 73.
  31. Ibid., 73-74.
  32. Ibid., 198-199.
  33. Ibid., 43.
  34. Ibid., 47.
  35. Ibid., 44.
  36. Ibid., 78.
  37. Ibid., 79.
  38. Ibid., 121-122.
  39. Ibid., 221.
May 172013
 

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Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, here’s a practical look at the utility and felicities of  research from a former journalist and Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer, Russell Working. I met Russell years ago when he was staying the Yaddo, the art residency in Saratoga Springs. I wasn’t at Yaddo, but I live about six minutes away and am always going over there to visit (or rescue) friends. Russell won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his first book The Resurrectionists and then spent six years as a freelance reporter in the Russian Far East and the Middle East. His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope and Narrative. Of his 2006 collection The Irish Martyr (the title story won a Pushcart Prize) I wrote: The Irish Martyr is a powerful, brave and dangerous book that takes us to the borderlands where religion and geopolitics rip apart the lives of ordinary people. These are stories about torture, decapitation, rape, kidnapping and trafficking in women and babies. They are about men and women caught in the meat-grinder of history, caught between trying to survive as human beings and the vicious tools of dogma, ideology and greed. Russell Working knows the dark corners of the world, he knows the personal underside of the news stories we have become all too accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. He writes straight from the heart, with a moral indignation that is palpable.

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Many years ago, I was working on a novel that involves a husband who is searching for his missing wife. In it my protagonist, Paul, goes into a morgue with a cop and a coroner to identify a body that might be hers. The question was, how to describe the morgue? No problem! I knew all about that. I had never been in a morgue, but I had seen them on TV and the movies. Good enough.

Plus, I am a fiction writer. That means I can just use my imagination, right? And unlike in journalism, nobody gets to demand a correction. So I wrote it just like on TV, the walls were lined with stainless steel drawers. The coroner pulls one open. And there’s the body, covered by a sheet.

But wait a minute. Dead bodies: it must smell bad. So I had my coroner light up a cigar to cover the odor. He offers cigars to the detective and poor Paul, who thinks he is about to see the corpse of his murdered wife.

“Smoke, gentlemen?” the coroner says.

“He smokes the good stuff,” the detective says. “Cuban seed.”

*

Needless to say, I never sold that novel. And as for that scene, it bogged down in the writing. It was lifeless. I was stuck. I fought my way through it, but the description never stopped smelling dead. The trouble was, I needed to report my story, in the way that a journalist might, to pick up the phone, make an appointment with a coroner, and head out to the morgue with a notebook in hand.

I needed to go to take in the sounds and smells. To interview a staff. To investigate. To research. Scribble notes. Record the interview. Look around the crypt where the bodies are kept. Did it have a high vaulted ceiling or a low one? Were there bare light bulbs or phosphorescent track lighting? Were the walls tile or plaster? Then take it all back to my computer, throw out the dross, and turn the key elements into fiction.

I was a newspaper reporter, yet I had never taken that basic step, at least for this particular scene.

Now, wait a minute, you may say. Why do we need to do this? If we’re fiction writers, don’t we get to make things up? And if the fiction is autobiographical, can’t we just rely on our own memories? We lived it, after all. What if we’re magical realists? What if my protagonist is a centaur or a flying squirrel who thinks he’s Batman? And as for creative nonfiction, aren’t many of us writing memoirs, which means the topic is subjective? Who needs research, to say nothing of shoe-leather reporting?

Well, when we write a scene, whether it is magical realism or a noir tale of murder, we strive to imagine a narrative world that is vivid and believable within the rules it agrees to play by. In one way or another, we seek to establish a sense of verisimilitude. Beyond that, we want our construction of events to seem plausible within the universe of writing. We wish to speak with authority. Reporting and hands-on research will inspire stories and suggest images and characters and the plotline itself.

When a reader takes up a book, he and the author are engaged in a joint act of creation, and he must reconstruct that world in his mind based on the details the author presents in words.

Think of the reader as Hellen Keller: she is blind and deaf and, for that matter, let us imagine that she doesn’t even have a sense of smell. All she relies on is touch: the touch of our words. We sign into her palm, telling her what is out there. She must trust us. We as authors are all she has to experience this created world. She clings to our arm, eager to know what we see and hear, forming pictures of her own within her mind. Thus she, too, participates in a joint creative act by envisioning the scenes and the characters that we sketch with words.

But when we hit a false note, Ms. Keller perceives the author behind the artifice of fiction, dressed in sweats, unshaven, unshowered, slouching in a chair with a cup of microwaved coffee, trying to think of some event to move the story along.

There are days when we all may feel we’re staring at a screen going nowhere. Perhaps these, most of all, are the days that could stand the help of reporting. The writer who thinks his job is confined to his desk at home is much more likely to trip up readers with phony descriptions or outlandish turns of plot. He yanks Ms. Keller out of the joint act of dreaming and thrusts her into the role of skeptic.

In 1989, Harpers Magazine published an essay by Tom Wolfe titled, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” a manifesto that was as bombastic and full of itself as its title. Wolfe quoted his own fiction approvingly and at length, and took it upon himself to denounce many of his contemporaries, who were angered and bewildered by his tone. The New Yorker described him as crashing a cocktail party and throwing writers around like a professional wrestler. A literary brawl ensued (always a fun thing), with some of America’s leading writers weighing in in the letters to the editor. But amid the uproar, Wolfe outlined some important lessons for writers, and I would argue that these apply both to fiction and creative non-fiction. He stated:

[The] task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage.

He goes on:

Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary. To write Elmer Gantry, the great portrait of … a corrupt evangelist … Lewis left his home in New England and moved to Kansas City. He organized Bible study groups for clergymen, delivered sermons from the pulpits of preachers on summer vacation, attended tent meetings and Chatauqua lectures and church conferences and classes at the seminaries, all the while doggedly taking notes on five-by-eight cards.

Fine, you may say. That was Tom Wolfe, the guy in the white suits and high-collared shirts. The showman. Sure, he writes novels, such as Bonfire of the Vanities, but he cut his teeth on nonfiction like The Right Stuff. Of course he would recommend playing the reporter.

And as for me, I am a newspaper reporter by profession. Of course I am going to plug the skills of my dying medium, which is going the way of the town crier.

So how about a literary figure who is more in tune with the spirit of our times?

As it happens, not everyone agrees with Wolfe. Consider Jonathan Franzen, author, Freedom, which propelled him onto the cover of Time magazine. He argues that these days research doesn’t matter much—including, presumably, the reporting, notebook in hand, that I recommend.

In February he was asked to contribute a list of rules of writing to the Guardian. Number 5 was this: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” Likewise, in an interview, he says, “I avoid [research] as much as possible. It gets in the way of invention.”

So is Wolfe wrong, or embarrassingly passé? Are we at our best when we discipline ourselves to remain at the desk and just pound the words out, unleashing the magical forces of our creativity?

In the age of Google, are we just wasting our time when we go out and scribble notes about the slaughtered lambs hanging in a halal butcher shop or the Chicago ex-cons selling jars of organic honey at a farmers market? If we are out jotting impressions in notebooks, aren’t guys like Franzen racing ahead by sitting at his desk and applying himself to the actual writing of books?

Time magazine hailed Franzen as “A Great American Novelist,” and nobody has called me up to sit for a cover portrait. No doubt his greatness contains such multitudes that he could write just as well from a padded cell. Perhaps only we hacks need to actually look at the things we are describing, the way minor artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci looked at live models when they drew the human form.

But I shall let you in on a secret: even Franzen doesn’t really believe what he is telling you. It strikes me as so unhelpful, I almost wonder if he is trying to winnow the competition by sending young writers up the wrong path.

Ha! They believed me, the suckers!

Here is why I know he isn’t being entirely straight with us. In the very next sentence of that interview I just cited, he admits that he traveled to West Virginia for four days to investigate coal mining communities for Freedom. He also said he had the help of others in researching Minneapolis neighborhoods, even though he himself is from Minnesota.

The research shows. He writes of the “matchstick Appalachian woods and the mining-ravaged districts.” He describes an hourglass-shaped vein of coal that lies under the mountains, at the center of which lives a clan headed by a man named Coyle Mathis, who is refusing to sell his ancestral home to a company that plans to remove the mountaintop, mine the coal, and create a nature reserve. When Mathis receives an offer to buy his property, Franzen writes, he “didn’t even wait to hear the details. He said, ‘No, N-O,’ and added that he intended to be buried in the family cemetery and no one was going to stop him.” When Mathis threatens to sick his dogs on the man making the offer, even shoot him, the scene has an authenticity that surely owes something to Franzen’s reporting in West Virginia.

So how do we use research and reporting to enhance, rather than obstruct, creativity? Here are some recommendations:

 

1. Get out.

As writers, we tend to feel that the only work that matters is that spent in front of the computer, pushing up the word count displayed at the bottom of the page. But simply getting up and getting out into the world can make the words flow afterwards, whether we’re heading to an A&P, like John Updike, or a scrap metal yard or a foreign country.

In Michelle Huneven’s novel Blame, an alcoholic history professor with a wild streak, Patsy MacLemoore, wakes up in jail after blackout. Patsy’s story begins thus:

Patsy MacLemoore came to on a concrete shelf in a cell in the basement of the Altadena Sheriff’s department. Her hair had woken her up. It stank.

She had said she would rather die than come back here. She’d said that both times she’d been here before.

The little jail had no windows. Fluorescent tubes quivered night and day. A fan clattered, off-kilter. Each of the three connected cells contained a seatless stainless-steel toilet and a tiny, one-faucet sink.

Lurching to the undersized sink, she drank from it sideways, cheek anchored against the greasy spout. The dribble was tepid and tasted of mold. In the next cell over, June’s haughty face loomed. Did she fuckin live here? Every time Patsy’d been in, she was, too. June’s top lip was like two paisleys touching. What’d you do this time, Professor? said the lips.

Don’t know, Patsy said. …

Not what I heard, June said. And lookit your face.

Patsy’s fingers went to a ridge of scab crystallizing along her cheekbone. No wonder her head hurt.

Returning to the shelf, she noted the itchy rasp of the prison gown. Lead-blue, unrippable, it was made of 45 percent stainless-steel, according to the label. She was naked beneath, not even panties.

I hear you’re in deep shit, Professor, [June said].

It is not until Patsy is sitting opposite two cops and her own lawyer does she begin to comprehend what she has done. She is tossing out flippant remarks—“We have to stop meeting like this”—when she sees a file in front of the detective. On it is written, HOMICIDE.

She learns she has been accused of running over and killing a mother and daughter while driving drunk. Her whole life as she knew it is over and she is heading for prison.

In an email, I asked Huneven how she was able to portray so convincingly the events including Patsy’s time in jail and a prison firefighting camp. Her discussion of how she researches illustrates my point. Huneven interviewed widely. She talked to everyone she knew, male and female, who had been in prison or jail. She unearthed subplots and storylines in real life.

She wrote me, “One woman in particular—she’s essentially Gloria in the book—talked to me at length; she’d been sober forever, but was manic depressive. With twenty years sober, she got off her meds, stole a hundred thousand bucks from her boss and drove across country delivering it to poor people she met at McDonalds and the like. She was sentenced to 4 years, served two, part of it in fire camp. For the firefighting details I interviewed a young woman I know who recently spent two summers fighting fires in the Sierra.”

Equally important, she visited the scene. Lacking Franzen’s mystical abilities as a seer, she was forced to trudge on down to a courtroom in person and spend a day observing what went on.

She writes:

“I interviewed prosecutors, who in turn did research for me about how much time a drunk driving/ criminal negligence charge would get you in the early 1980’s. I was momentarily stumped when I found out that they couldn’t prosecute for drunk driving because the accident happened on [private] property, but that ended being up a rather interesting part of the narrative, I thought. I interviewed a probation officer, I actually made my husband, who is a lawyer, write the declaration that frees Patsy from responsibility in the end. He gave me SUCH a dull document my agent made me slice it back to the few salient sentences.”

In my own writing, getting out of the office has inspired some of my best-received stories. I used to live in the Russian Far East, and I made five reporting trips to China. On one trip I encountered a couple whose lives would inspire a short story in my collection, The Irish Martyr.

In China when a freelance reporter such as myself asks around in a hotel for an interpreter, an uncomfortably friendly middle-aged man with hair dyed shoe-polish-black will show up in a white sedan with a soldier at the wheel and red flags flapping from the bumpers. Because I usually did business reporting, this never was a problem.

But on one visit I wanted to write about a highly sensitive topic, North Korean refugees. I couldn’t rely on the official story. Through friends I found an interpreter, and by sheer luck he knew of a refugee.

She had escaped North Korean, her hair thinning from malnutrition, and was sold as a wife to a Chinese peasant. In my story, “Dear Leader,” I described the day she is taken to meet her new husband. Let me do a Tom Wolfe and approvingly quote my own fiction:

An ethnic Korean marriage broker named Bong-il drove her to her new home near Yanji, rasping dire warnings all the way in the back seat of his smoky Land Cruiser while his driver adjusted the music on the stereo. “If you run away, we will find you, understand? He is paying good money for you, and we are men of our word. We will return you, and you’ll discover what an angry husband can do to a girl. I know this one guy, he chained his wife to the bed and gouged her eyes out the third time she tried to run away. If we don’t find you, the police will, and you know what that means: back to North Korea. Stay put. Even if he beats you, you’ll be fed, unlike in Hongwan, right? You will live. Seems like a fair bargain.” He threw his cigarette butt out the window and asked, “Are you listening?” She was. “Good,” he said, “because I’m not trying to scare you, I hope you’re happy, I truly do, you are such a pretty girl, or you will be when you fatten up and your hair grows back. … Incidentally, it’s his prerogative to resell you if he wishes. Maybe that isn’t so bad. Think of it this way: if you don’t get along, maybe you’ll end up with someone more compatible.”

This monologue was inspired by the refugee’s description of the conditions under which she arrived. In fact her very predicament is drawn from my interviews with the real-life refugee woman and the husband who had bought her.

We mere scribblers cannot invent such situations. We go out and sift through the infinite range of stories the world offers us. And it amazes us.

 

2. Find a Guide.

Dante had Virgil to guide him in his pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. If you are overwhelmed in an unfamiliar area or topic, find a guide.

By way of example let us consider George Packer, a reporter for the New Yorker. In a 2007 nonfiction piece, Packer described meeting two young Iraqis in Baghdad. Othman was Sunni, Laith was Shiite.

Packer met them at the Palestine Hotel, where, two years earlier, a suicide bomber driving a cement mixer had triggered an explosion that nearly brought down the hotel’s eighteen-story tower. He writes:

It had taken Othman three days to get to the hotel from his house, in western Baghdad. On the way, he was trapped for two nights at his sister’s house, which was in an ethnically mixed neighborhood: gun battles had broken out between Sunni and Shiite militiamen. Othman watched the home of his sister’s neighbor, a Sunni, burn to the ground. Shiite militiamen scrawled the words “Leave or else” on the doors of Sunni houses. Othman was able to leave the house only because his sister’s husband—a Shiite, who was known to the local Shia militias—escorted him out. Othman took a taxi to the house of Laith’s grandfather; from there, he and Laith went to the Palestine, where they enjoyed their first hot water in several weeks.

These two men became his guides. Packer says in an interview with the Poynter Institute that this is his general practice. “I need someone who can provide me with the introduction to the place and give me sense of the landscape,” he says.

For a story on the U.S. Senate, Packer relied on the insights of beat reporters who knew the ins and outs of the institution, along with the staffers familiar with its obscure rules. When he decided to investigate the roots of the financial meltdown, he chose Tampa in part because a friend there could show him around. The two canvassed the Tampa Bay area, driving through subdivisions and taking to people randomly. What he learned in those interviews became the core of the story.

“Once I get there, I’m constantly saying, ‘Who else should I talk to?’ ‘Do you know anyone in this situation?’ ” Packer says. “And people tend to be quite generous with that information, and most people want to tell their story.”

Fiction writers also may find a guide helpful in unfamiliar territory. In interviews, Colum McCann has talked about how he lived with homeless people in the subway tunnels and traveled to Russia to research another novel. But the book I wish to discuss is Zoli, is about a Roma, or Gypsy, singer and poet born in Slovakia in the 1930s during the height of fascist power in Europe.

In it, the six-year-old Zoli, who will become an acclaimed singer and poet, learns from her grandfather that fascist militiamen have driven her clan and its wagons and horses out onto the winter ice and encircled the shore with fires. The ice collapses and the people drown. Zoli tells us, “My mother was gone, my father, my brothers, my sister and cousins, too.”

The book has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the life of Roma, a society that has long been persecuted and also closed to outsiders. Its descriptions struck me as deeply authentic. Consider this description of a visitor enters a Roma settlement:

Doorframes used as tables. Sackcloth for curtains. Empty çuçu bottles strung up as wind chimes. At his feet, bits of wood and porridge containers, lollipop sticks and shattered glass, the ground-down bones of some dead animal. He catches glimpses of babies hammocked from ceilings, flies buzzing around them as they sleep. He reaches for his camera but is pushed on in the swell of children. Open doorways are quickly closed. Bare bulbs switched off. He notices carpets on the walls, and pictures of Christ, and pictures of Lenin, and pictures of Mary Magdalene, and pictures of Saint Jude lit by small red candles high above empty shelves. From everywhere comes the swell of music, no accordions, no harps, no violins, but every shack with a TV or a radio on full volume, an endless thump. …

He is led around a sharp corner to the largest shanty of all. A satellite dish sits new and shiny on the roof. He knocks on the plywood door. It swings open a little further with each knuckle rap. Inside there is a contingent of eight, nine, maybe ten men. They raise their heads like a parliament of ravens. A few of them nod, but they continue their hand, and he knows the game is nonchalance—he has played it himself in other parts of the country, the flats of Bratislava, the ghettos of Presov, the slums of Letanovce.

In an interview McCann discusses his research methods. He says his guides, Martin and Laco, introduced him to writers, musicians, ethnographers, sociologists and Roma activists. He went to the most notorious Slovakian settlements to see the conditions of life there: the mud and wattle huts, the poverty, the desolation. No electricity, he says. No running water. He sang old Irish songs, hung out and watched what they did. He was an outsider, dependent on others to show him around, but he showed empathy and tried not to intrude.

He adds:

[O]ne day I was in Svinia … [and] a big group of kids and I went down to the local soccer pitch to play football together. We were playing away happily, quietly. But then these “white” women started shouting at us from a distance. Before we knew it we were hounded out by the mayor and the local policemen who called us “fucking Gypsies.” Except they were a bit puzzled by me. They kept staring at me. As if to say, Who’s the white boy? … We got kicked out. They locked the gates behind us. I tried to protest in English and apparently they were calling me another bleeding heart, another European sentimentalist. We walked away, back to the settlement. A half-mile along this country road. Quietly. No fuss. No fights. There was lots of broken glass at the field near the settlement. That’s why we couldn’t play there and had to go to town.

But therein lies the dilemma. I could make this a story about being treated terribly by the local authorities. That’s true, but it’s also true that nobody smashed glass on that field other than the Roma themselves. The kids had ruined their own field. That’s the heartbreak. That’s the contradiction that fiction, too, has to find.

Moments like that are hard to create from an office chair in front of your laptop.

;

3. Talk to sources who have lived the life you’re writing about.

Interview taxi drivers, garbage men, street preachers, beauticians, aldermen, astrophysicists, the homeless Poles who sleep in dumpsters in Chicago—whomever you’re writing about.

In November 1959, two ex-cons entered a farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, and murdered the owner, his wife, and their two children. It was a horrific, senseless, random crime of the sort that makes headlines nationwide and then vanishes into the criminal system. But Truman Capote saw behind the headlines a powerful story worthy of a great writer’s attention, and he decided to pursue it for his so-called “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. He and his assistant, Harper Lee, traveled to Kansas. At the courthouse they tracked down the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents who were handling the case.

In 1997 George Plimpton wrote an oral history on the writing of the book for the New Yorker.  He recounts how Capote left a singular impression with the people he spoke to.

One agent tells Plimpton, “Al Dewey [a KBI agent], invited me to come up and meet this gentleman who’d come to town to write a book. So the four of us, KBI agents, went up to his room that evening after dinner. And here [Truman] is in kind of a new pink negligee, silk with lace, and he’s strutting across the floor with his hands on his hips telling us all about how he’s going to write this book.”

My point is not that we all need to wear pink negligees when we’re interviewing cops. Rather, is that Capote, a gay New Yorker, was bold enough to go into an alien milieu, that of homicide detectives, and win their cooperation, despite some outrageous behavior. He obtained extensive interviews with nearly every major person in the book, including the murderers themselves.

KBI agent Alvin Dewey said, “He got information nobody else got, not even us.”

(Truman’s breach of ethics in achieving this scoop are a matter of discussion for another day.)

*

Last year I dug up that old novel of mine—the one with the cigar-smoking coroner—and I blushed when I read some of the scenes. But still, I thought it was worth another go, and after a revision, so did my agent.

When I first dove into the manuscript again, I decided to research every major element of the plot. I interviewed cops and day laborers and a guy who paints houses for a living. I found two University of Chicago surgeons who treat bullet wounds, and I  sat in on the class of an Aikido instructor.

A cult plays a central role in the novel so I interviewed a woman who had spent two decades in Tony Alamo Christian Ministries; its leader is now serving a 175-year sentence in federal penitentiary for taking girls as young as nine across state lines to have sex with them. I listened to sermons by the Rev. Jim Jones, who led 900 of his followers to their deaths. I interviewed the CEO of a nonprofit dedicated to the rescue of big cats such as lions and tigers.

Since writing the original draft I had visited a morgue in Russia, but I still sought out an investigator at the coroner’s office in Los Angeles. That, after all, was where the book was set. She agreed to talk to me, but she said we could not under any circumstances, see the crypt—the area where they store the bodies—or the rooms where the autopsies are done. All we could do is meet in her office.

I was a little disappointed, but it was better than nothing.

We looked at all kinds of grisly photos. As I described the situation in my novel, she would show me pictures. She saw that I wasn’t going to throw up on her desk when we saw the grim images. When I asked about the layout of the crypt, she said, “Oh, hell. Let’s just go look at it.”

And suddenly we were trotting downstairs, donning surgeon’s masks—which kind of hindered our cigar-smoking—and marching in to see the room where several hundred bodies were stored.

Now, I’m not going to give away all my hard-earned research to other writers. Needless to say that in this particular morgue, at least, was nothing like what you see on TV.

There is no substitute for seeking out sources. If your character is a high school football coach, call one up and ask if you can drop by practice some afternoon. If she is a lawyer or a foot masseuse or a Ukrainian baker, go find one to talk to. If you want to write about a journalist, talk to one.

If you are writing a memoir, be willing to interview your family or friends or others who lived the experience you are writing about.

All right, but how do you reach the people you need to talk to? Admittedly, it is harder for a fiction writer than a newspaper reporter, but it is not impossible.

For the LA County Coroner’s Office, I dug up a story that quoted a woman extensively, and called her directly. I simply told her I am a writer working on a novel, and I wanted to get things right. She seemed pleased at my diligence. To talk to a cop, I called the LAPD public affairs office. The spokeswoman told me she doubted any detective would talk to me, but she said she would ask. It turned out the head of the department was intrigued by my project and was willing to help.

If the official sources say no, try a back door. Talk to friends and put out feelers to reach people.

Record your interviews. Interestingly, Capote didn’t do this, but he claimed to have had near perfect recall. He said that when he was a boy, he would memorize pages of the New York telephone book. Then he would have somebody quiz him: “On line so-and-so, what’s the name there and what’s the telephone number.” He didn’t even take notes; he and Lee would return to their rooms and write down their recollections of conversations afterwards.

For mere mortals, a good recorder is essential. In writing Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer and his collaborator Lawrence Schiller said they recorded hundreds of hours of interviews amounting to thousands of pages of transcripts. This is why the voice so closely parallels those of the characters whose lives it recounts. I have a little Sony digital recorder that you can plug it into your computer when you get home, so you can download the audio file and transcribe it later. As you do, this will help you accurately recall what they said. It gives you a sense of your source’s voice, character, thought patterns, and manerisms.

Once you have talked to your sources, something interesting happens. They become a Council of the Wise whom you can consult with further questions. Ask them for their email address. You need to use them judiciously, but they are great for checking out details. Don’t send lists of 20 questions or they won’t reply, but use them.

I did this with the coroner’s investigator. The missing persons detective had told me a rather amazing story about how a cadaver dog sniffed up a homicide victim. But I needed to know who would respond to a scene where a body is found in a backyard. I emailed my source in the coroner’s department, asking how many personnel would show up, and she sent me a long email in reply. Here is just a small part:

Shallow Grave in a backyard: Personnel present: Police Department Homicide Detectives & Photographer, Coroner Special Operations response team (Handling Investigator, Criminalist, Forensic Anthropolgist, Photographer and Cadaver Dog & Handler -remaining team members consisting of other Investigators, Forensic Attendants and Criminalists).

.

4. Do your homework.

Fine, but how do we know what sources to seek out? Of course, this is often plain from the work itself. But it also helps to do your homework. Before McCann traveled to Europe to research the Roma, he spent a year in the New York Public Library. Huneven had done a major investigative piece on the California Youth Authority years ago, and she drew off of the contacts she made them.

Doug Glover has a novel named Elle, about a lusty young French girl whose shipmates abandon her on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during an early expedition to colonize Canada. She is found by a native hunter, who becomes her lover and helps her survive, and she is drawn into what has been called “a bear-haunted dream world.” She even shape-shifts into a bear.

The novel makes heavy use of aboriginal mythology and magic. And yet what also interested me was the vivid realism in its portrayal of 16th century France and native life in its newly established colonies. It feels grounded in reality. The myths it describes are convincing. In his acknowledgments Doug, says he plundered many books to come up with a compelling vision of life that era. But he also tells me that in researching the novel, he talked to a librarian at a reservation who had archived tapes of interviews with old Indians.

Doug also hunts through bibliographies looking for papers published in journals, especially old ones. He would find a paper, and from its bibliography and get even more sources.

“The key to research is that you’re looking for the fact that is not commonly known,” he told me. “It infuses your writing with authenticity, if it’s real yet somewhat surprising.”

He also offers a hint for those who are uncomfortable with the idea of interviewing. Doug says he would never go up to an Indian and ask him about anything directly. But if you hang around, you start to get a feel for things such as way they name and nickname people and the kind of humor they have.

Thus he gives his characters names like Comes Winter, an Indian girl who was kidnapped and taken to France and is dying of consumption. One little boy is named Old Man, while an old man is named Gets Close to Caribou.

Gets Close to Caribou earned his name one winter when a panicky caribou spooked in the wrong direction and almost trampled him to death. Gets Close was unconscious for a week—he dreamed the caribou lifted him in its mouth and carried him to Caribou Mountain, north of the Land of Nothing. He stayed with the king of the caribou, a former hunter who had fallen in love with a caribou-woman. All present-day caribou are descended from this hunter and his caribou girlfriend.

In my own case, in reporting for my fiction, I have gone to the federal courthouse in Chicago and pulled records on an ongoing Russian mafia trial, including indictments and transcripts of FBI wiretaps. This gave me the chance to read about the father-son team of money launderers Lev and Boris Stratievsky. The father was nicknamed Dollar, the son Half-Dollar. Great names! I didn’t use those in my fiction, but they set my imagination running.

The two were laundering millions of dollars as a part of a broader criminal network of Eastern Europeans. They were shipping stolen cars and heavy machinery abroad, peddling drugs and guns to Chicago street gangs, committing mortgage fraud, and trafficking in young women. These reports provided a rich background that allowed me to think more expansively about the mobster at the center of my story. For one thing, I moved my mobster out of a Chicago two-flat into a mansion on Lake Michigan.

Think creatively. You can also request military records to find out if that veteran you are writing about is telling the truth about the Navy Cross he claims he won or whether he even was in Vietnam, let alone butchered all those women and children he butchered there.

You are all familiar with the Internet, but I will say two things.

1. It can be a marvelous research tool for original documents, even if you don’t have access to legal databases. For example, there is a web site that has extensive documentation, including original court records, on American jihadists who have been convicted on terror charges.

Elsewhere, you can find FBI transcripts of Jim Jones urging his followers to commit suicide in Guyana, and one woman arguing, futilely, that the children should be spared.

2. But the Internet can be a deadly trap. It keeps you at your desk, rather than getting you out into the world. It’s tempting to check out Google street view rather than drive to that neighborhood with a notebook in hand. It is also a distraction. Franzen warns about this with his usual hyperbole: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

§

Let me conclude by returning to Tom Wolfe. His point is not merely that on-scene research and reporting create verisimilitude and make a novel gripping or absorbing, although these are important. Rather, he states, this kind of reporting is essential for the very greatest effects literature can achieve. Wolf writes:

In 1884 Zola went down into the mines at Anzin to do the documentation for what was to become the novel Germinal. Posing as a secretary for a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, he descended into the pits wearing his city clothes, his frock coat, high stiff collar, and high stiff hat … and carrying a notebook and pen. One day Zola and the miners who were serving as his guides were 150 feet below the ground when Zola noticed an enormous workhorse … pulling a sled piled with coal through a tunnel. Zola asked, “How do you get that animal in and out of the mine every day?” At first the miners thought he was joking. Then they realized he was serious, and one of them said, “Mr. Zola, don’t you understand? That horse comes down here once, when he’s a colt, barely more than a foal, and still able to fit into the buckets that bring us down here. That horse grows up down here. He grows blind down here after a year or two, from the lack of light. He hauls coal down here until he can’t haul it anymore, and then he dies down here, and his bones are buried down here.” When Zola transfers this revelation from the pages of his documentation notebook to the pages of Germinal, it makes the hair on your arms stand on end. You realize, without the need of amplification, that the horse is the miners themselves, who descend below the face of the earth as children and dig coal down in the pit until they can dig no more and then are buried, often literally, down there.

The moment of The Horse in Germinal is one of the supreme moments in French literature—and it would have been impossible without that peculiar drudgery that Zola called documentation.

— Russell Working

——————————-

Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

 

 

Apr 022013
 

Sheila Heti Photo by Lee Towndrow -Sheila Heti: Photo by Lee Towndrow

Sheila Heti is a Toronto writer whose 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? created a trans-Atlantic sensation. It was a 2012 New York Times Notable Book of the Year and it has just made the long list for the prestigious The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in the UK. David Haglund in The New York Times Book Review wrote: “Funny…odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable…Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of.” The Economist‘s reviewer said: “Ms. Heti’s deadpan, naked voice is what makes Sheila’s journey so engaging… [Her] mordant take on modernity encourages introspection. It is easy to see why a book on the anxiety of celebrity has turned the author into one herself.” And in The New Yorker, no less a critic than James Wood opined: “[Sheila Heti] has an appealing restlessness, a curiosity about new forms, and an attractive freedom from pretentiousness or cant…How Should a Person Be? offers a vital and funny picture of the excitements and longueurs of trying to be a young creator in a free, late-capitalist Western City…This talented writer may well have identified a central dialectic of twenty-first-century postmodern being.”

It’s a delight to publish here what might be the definitive Sheila Heti interview, a lengthy, intimate, wide-ranging conversation with Jill Margo as interlocutor. Margo probes and nudges most gracefully and does not limit the topics to the purely literary.  Her interview has the aura of something overheard, and what you overhear are two intelligent women talking about art and the writing life. It’s a treat.

dg

 §

I interviewed Sheila Heti at her home in July of 2012 on one of those disgustingly hot and humid Toronto days that—to swipe a phrase from Billie Livingston—felt like “being under a dog’s tongue.” Sheila, as it turned out, lives not far from me on the top floor of a house on a corner lot that I’d walked by several times before. I’d always admired the place because of its gothically romantic and overgrown garden that disappears the tall fence and nearly obscures the house.

When Sheila came to the door, she looked cool (literally) and put together. She was even wearing nice, proper shoes instead of flip flops or bare feet. I’m not sure if I would’ve thought to put shoes on if I was being interviewed in my own home—especially in that heat. I couldn’t decide if it was a gesture of fashion, professionalism, or maybe even a kind of guardedness.

I had met Sheila twice before. The first time was around 2001 when she read from her debut book, a story collection called The Middle Stories, at a reading series I hosted in Victoria, BC. The second time was nearly ten years later, in 2011, when I hosted her reading at the Robson Reading Series in Vancouver. That was the year after her fifth and most recent book, How Should a Person Be? had been released by Anansi in Canada. It was published the following year in the U.S. by Henry Holt & Company and has since been featured on many Best Books of 2012 lists, including in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Salon, Flavorpill, The New Republic, and The New York Observer.

How Should a Person Be? is subtitled “a novel from life” and is described as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part bawdy confessional.” It exists in ambiguity between the real and the fictional. Its characters are based on Heti and her friends and, for the most part, appear to have their same names. There are emails and transcribed conversations throughout the book that could be considered real documentation. The book is structurally and thematically compelling and I’ve recommended it to many of my friends and colleagues because it’s well-written and occupies such an interesting space in the zeitgeist.

In the years between the two times I hosted her for readings, Heti has published three other books, including a novel, Ticknor, (2005); and an illustrated book for children, We Need a Horse, (2011), featuring art by Clare Rojas; and with Misha Glouberman, a book of “conversational philosophy” called The Chairs Are Where the People Go, which The New Yorker chose as one of its Best Books of 2011.

Heti also works as Interviews Editor at The Believer and has contributed many interviews with writers and artists to the magazine. It’s also of note that in 2001, she created the ever-popular Trampoline Hall lecture series (hosted by Misha Glouberman), at which three people deliver lectures on subjects outside their areas of expertise, then take questions from the audience.

It was a pleasure to talk to Sheila and to be reminded how a writer should be along the way.

— Jill Margo

 §

THE BEGINNING

JM:  Let’s start at the beginning. Your first book was The Middle Stories. It was published when you were twenty-four. Tell me a little bit about where you were at when you wrote that book.

SH:  I was studying art history and philosophy at U of T and it was around the time I was twenty-one or so. I was trying to teach myself how to write. The last writing I’d done before that was at the National Theatre School where I was studying playwrighting, but that didn’t really end up working out for me. So I started to write stories. I was writing a lot and I was writing very quickly and all I really wanted to do was get to the end of each story. I’d sit down and write five or six in a row. In the actual collection, the stories are pretty much as they were written and were only very lightly edited. Mainly, the editing was me selecting the good ones from the hundreds of stories that were just nothing—that didn’t have any spark in them or anything.

JM:  Did you always want to be a writer?

SH:  It was one of the things I always wanted to be since I was a kid, and I also wanted to do other things. Like a lot of artistic kids, you just sort of want to do everything— you want to act, and you want to direct plays, and you want to write, and you want to draw. But writing always fit in there.

JM:  What about the family you grew up with—did they support your artistic endeavors?

SH:  I think my mom didn’t necessarily want this for me, but my dad supported anything I did. He didn’t have preset ideas of what his daughter should be like, or what his daughter should do. He supported me when I wanted to act, he supported me when I wanted to write. He was always very encouraging.

JM:  What do you think is the best thing you ever did for yourself as a writer?

SH:  Probably moving out when I was seventeen, and supporting myself since then. I think it gives you some confidence and a lack of fear to know that you can support yourself from a young age. I’ve never had to support myself in ways that hurt my ability to write so that gave me confidence that I could perhaps write and support myself over many years.

I think maybe the worst thing I could have done would’ve been to get a well-paying job at a young age that I then got locked into because I got used to a higher standard of living. I think moving out at seventeen and living on so little meant I got used to a low standard of living and I know if I had to, I could always go back to that.

JM:  What other kinds of jobs have you had?

SH:  I worked as an editor at this magazine called Shift, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a technology and culture magazine in Toronto. I’ve done temping and I’ve worked in restaurants and just the usual kind of makeshift things.

JM:  Do you feel like you’ve had to be quite strategic with your writing career?

SH:  No, I’ve had a lot of good luck. I’ve never been afraid of sending my stuff out so that’s allowed for good luck to happen because I haven’t just been on an island. I sent my stories to McSweeney’s, but if I didn’t send them, they never would have published them, so I think that’s paired with good luck. I don’t think I’ve had a strategy; I’ve had a desire to be in the world.

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PROCESS & PATIENCE

JM:  Technically, how do you write—when and where and with what?

SH:  I use my computer. I’ve always used a computer. I usually write in this middle room in the place where I live. I always usually just write in whatever apartment I’m living in. I don’t write in cafés or anything like that. I can’t imagine it. I don’t write with music on. I don’t like having people around. That’s pretty typical.

And then I just write whenever I want to. I don’t really have a schedule. I used to worry a lot about that. I used to think that you had to have a schedule but I realized that I don’t need one. I like writing enough and I want to write enough that I do write enough. I don’t have to beat myself with a stick.

Every day is completely different. I feel different every day when I wake up, and what I want to do every day is different. By this point in my life I have so many different projects that I’m working on, like editing interviews for The Believer and various collaborations, that there’s always something I most want to do. I figured that out a few years ago. I used to think that you could only work on one thing at a time but I realized that it’s better to work on lots of different things because that way there’s always something that you’re in the mood to work on.

JM:  Was it much of a struggle to just let yourself work organically like that?

SH:  It took probably ten years or so for me to accept my way working, and to believe that work was going to get done. But when I was writing The Middle Stories, even then my only discipline was that when I felt like writing I had to write. You can’t miss those times. That was the foundation of discipline for me. I really tried to be sensitive to those moments. Sometimes I’d leave class and go home to write. Now, I don’t just wait for those moments of, let’s say, inspiration, but I still try to always write when I have that feeling. If I don’t—if I have the feeling, but instead watch a movie, or read a book, or go on the Internet or email—then I feel really bad and like I’ve let myself down. It’s like something wanted to be expressed in that moment and I missed it and I’ll never get it back.

JM:  Do you know the late poet Ruth Stone? She said that when a poem came barreling across the fields where she was working she had to stop what she was doing and run and catch it. If she had to, she’d grab it by the tail and pull it back towards her. I’ve always loved that image. You’re basically saying the same thing—that you have to capture the moments and trust that the writing is going to get done.

SH:  I have to trust that it’s going to get done and that that’s just me and that’s just my process and there’s nothing to really worry about. And if it doesn’t get done, also, who cares?  If it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. The world doesn’t need your books. So it seems silly to force yourself to write if there’s nothing to write.

JM:  “The world doesn’t need your books” is an interesting statement coming from a writer. Can you talk about that a bit more?

SH:  Well, the world isn’t sitting around waiting for your books. The world is taking care of children and making money to pay the rent and eating dinner. If you don’t write your books, pretty much who cares? There are already more than enough good books for any reading person. You do it because you want to, not because the world is begging you.

JM:  Earlier, you said that the stories in The Middle Stories weren’t really edited and that the ones without spark were just thrown out. That’s unusual. Can you talk about your editing process—or lack of it—then vs. now?

SH:  It’s something I’ve learned to do over the years. I’m not sure what I thought in the beginning. I guess I must have thought that everything I did was perfect. Now I see all the ways the things I’ve written can be better and better, almost to infinity. I don’t think it’s because my standards have changed, but my imagination for what writing can do has expanded. I used to only think about writing in terms of the sentence, but now I think that a piece of writing can be a game that a readers uses to play with the world, a book can be so many things. So all new kinds of calibration are needed.

JM:  Do you have any superstitions or rituals around writing or do you take a strictly pragmatic approach?

SH:  I don’t have any superstitions or rituals around it. No… no, I can’t think of any.

It’s just work. It’s a certain kind of work, but it still is work. You have to put in a lot of time, but I don’t think superstition comes into it. I don’t think magic comes into it, apart from the magic that comes into it when you work. That’s magic—when things happen that you weren’t trying to make happen, but sort of happen on their own. It’s like, if you work for a number of years on something, then there are just layers to it that give it more meaning than you could give it if you just spent a week or a month on it. I think that’s the most interesting thing about writing—working on something over five or six years. I’ve learned to really love that. I guess Ticknor was my first experience of that. You’d think that you’d get bored, but there are so many different angles on something and there’s a whole world that you’re looking at and so I think the text becomes more intelligent the more time you spend on it.

JM:  I think so, too.

SH:  I don’t think two years is enough.

JM:  I wonder what Joyce Carol Oates would say?

SH:  [Laughs.] For me, I think you need five years. That so far seems like the right amount of time to spend on a book. Maybe seven years is even better. That’s one full cycle they say, right?

JM:  Do you always feel that patient with the process?

SH:  Mm-hmm. Yeah.

JM:  So you’re really, truly enjoying the process?

SH:  I mean, what’s the rush? You want to make something good.


OTHER PEOPLE’S VOICES

JM:  What do you consider your best or favourite piece of writing—and not necessarily a whole book?

SH:  I don’t have that, but I really like doing the interviews that I do for The Believer. I like—I love editing them. I think that it’s really fun. I find that the most enjoyable work—I don’t know if it’s the best work, but it’s probably the most enjoyable work that I’m doing these days.

JM:  What do you like about it?

SH:  I like other people’s voices and I like how other people think and I like how other people express things and I think editing an interview is really fun. I think it’s some suppressed playwrighting urge. I move things around a lot. I change people’s sentences sometimes. I cut things out. I really edit it a lot. I try to edit it in such a way that when I send it back to the person I interviewed they don’t think I’ve done anything to it because it still seems like them and feels like them.

JM:  Trampoline Hall, which you started, is also about curated voices and it’s hosted by Misha Glouberman, whose words you transcribed for The Chairs Are Where the People Go. So other people’s voices really are a thing for you. I wonder how much of that has to do with the writer wanting to get out from behind her desk and engage with the world?

SH:  That’s part of it. Part of it is just—I know what I think, what I feel. My biggest fantasy is always being inside someone else’s body, their experience of the world. Sure, I can imagine that from behind my desk, but I can also approach it more directly, but actually talking to people.

JM:  What writers, past and present, do you feel closest to?

SH:  I love Kierkeggard. I love Jane Bowles. I love C.S. Lewis. I guess those are the first ones that come to mind. In the present [scans the bookshelves in the room], I like Helen DeWitt a lot. I love Ben Lerner’s recent book, Leaving the Atocha Station and Sarah Manguso’s memoir about her illness. Leanne Shapton’s work I really like a lot…

A lot of those are people I know, but with the exception of Leanne, who I met through a friend when we were quite a bit younger, I know them because I like their work. I want to know the writers who are alive today whose work I like. I want to talk to them.

JM:  You have an amazing multi-disciplinary artistic community yourself. How does your community—having a network—support you as a writer in your life?

SH:  It’s everything. I don’t think you can exist professionally—not to mention as a human—apart from the support of other people. I think people put a lot of emphasis on being published, but I don’t think being published is exactly what matters. I do think you need people that think you’re great and that think your work is meaningful. They don’t have to be people that can publish you, but that have to be people who believe in you and can be critical of you.

I’ve always had people to show my work to and I’ve managed to find supporters. I feel like the work doesn’t really exist in the absence of somebody else engaging with it. I think one often shows their work hoping it’s done and hoping that somebody else will say it’s done, but really the deeper hope is that they’ll say it’s not done. It feel like it’s important to hear that things are not done, that things are not ready. With Ticknor, one of the most important things my editor, Martha Sharpe, said to me when I handed in the book was that it wasn’t done. She didn’t even say why. Margaux said the same thing when I showed her How Should a Person Be? I guess athletes have coaches, but for a writer it’s someone who says “it’s not done.” You always know what needs to be done though… no one needs to tell you that.

JM:  Do you have the same first readers?

SH:  They changes slowly over time, just like one’s friends change over time.

 

STRUCTURE, AUTHENTICITY & PSYCHO-ANALYSIS

JM:  Let’s talk about How Should a Person Be? It’s been called “odd” by The New York Times Book Review and “weird” by Margaret Atwood and Geist Magazine and none of them meant it in a bad way. I think it is probably meant in terms of structure, but I’m not sure because I personally don’t find the book “odd” or “weird”. Do you think it is?

SH:  I don’t know. I think that maybe it is in comparison to a straight-forward, realistic narrative of the kind that you tend to see, but I don’t think it’s odd in itself. I think it makes a lot of sense.

JM:  What do you think they meant? I’ve puzzled over this myself.

SH:  I have no idea. It doesn’t really matter to me. People just use the words that they have. They’re trying to communicate to their reader that it’s unusual.

JM:  How did the unusual structure evolve?

SH:  Just really gradually over the years. I had a lot of different sections that were unrelated on the surface. Only I could see their relation, but I had to bring the relation between them out so I think the book became more narrative and became more of a story. Things that were just so far outside the world of the book fell away and I made Margaux and Sheila and their friendship more the focus over the years. I think it was more intellectual earlier on and more philosophical. It was more about ideas than the people.

JM:  How or why did it become less about ideas?

SH:  I just felt some of that stuff was perhaps not as interesting. It’s better to put the philosophy into the action of the characters and the form itself, as opposed to just stating what you’re thinking. I think if you put it into the bodies then it sticks around in the reader’s memory longer. It’s more emotional and more visual.

JM:  Philosophy is part of your background and education. Psychology seems to play a part in the book as well—

SH:  With the Jungian analyst—

JM:  Otto Rank is mentioned as well.

SH:  Psychoanalysis was the 20th century’s great new field, wasn’t it? It affected all the artistic work that has been done in the last hundred years and it really changed the way we see sex and sexuality. It’s huge. It’s hard not to think about what Freud has done to us. One of the things I wanted to do with this book early on was to write a history of art. I just couldn’t because I’m not a historian, but I think some of that fascination with art’s development and change over time, and the influence of psychoanalysis upon it recently, has remained.

JM:  I wonder about “authenticity” too. There seems to be a never-ending search for it these days. Does the book critique that or participate in it?

SH:  I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking that word a lot.

JM:  No?

SH:  I don’t really understand what you’re being authentic to. The idea of authenticity is that there’s a fixed, certain central self that you can move closer to or further away from. I don’t know that I believe that—that there’s this one fixed self that you’re betraying or being loyal to depending on how you behave.

JM:  I think the notion of authenticity is very much a product of our time and the market. David Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, argues for authenticity and I know Shields gave your book a positive blurb so he must have seen something that furthered his argument. Is the book consciously attacking the ideas of what fiction should be though?

SH:  I don’t see the book as an attack, it’s just not interested in a lot of the conventions because I just found them really boring. I just find a lot of fiction boring. I have all my life.

JM:  The book is subtitled “A novel from life”, so that to me means that it blends fiction with autobiography. So, is that hybrid what you find most exciting? Can you talk a bit about that?

SH:  No, I’m not interested in that in itself. If you tell me that someone has written a “hybrid” book I wouldn’t by that fact be excited to read it. I like when writers do what they have to do. I had to write the book in this way because I wanted to think about what we owe to other people, and what the artist owes to the people around them, and I thought the only way to do that would be to put it to the test—to engage and write about my friends and in the process answer some of these questions for myself. I couldn’t have moved forward in any other way. There were some questions I needed answers for, and fiction was the only way to answer them, and so was talking to my friends.


REAL PEOPLE

JM:  Did you have a personal code of ethics—dos and don’ts—for using real people, like Margaux Williamson, as characters in the book?

SH:  I would have never used somebody’s name if I hadn’t got them to read the manuscript many times and received their approval. I have very rarely written about real people without them knowing it. Mostly it’s a matter of consent and I’d say consent was about 90 percent there.

JM:  So you asked the people before or as you were writing about them?

SH:  As it was happening. I had a friend who didn’t want to be taped or written about, so I didn’t tape or write about him. I kind of gauged who was interested in being part of it and who wasn’t.

JM: Was there anything off limits that came up?

SH:  Yeah, of course. You make all sorts of decisions about that and the sensitivity of the people around you.

JM:  Was there any backlash to any of that or did you come out relatively unscathed?

SH:  No, no backlash. I don’t know what you really mean by backlash but my friends are still my friends and everything is okay. People are usually more upset about not being in something you’ve written.

JM:  You found that?

SH:  I’ve found that all along from my whole time writing.

JM:  I read somewhere that you can’t imagine working with completely fictional characters again since writing How Should a Person Be? Is that true now, and if so, why?

SH:  I’ve never said that and it’s not true. Right after finishing that book I wrote, in a week, an entirely new book made up of fictional characters in fictional scenarios. There was some part of me that was longing to do that, I think. It’s so much easier to follow your imagination than to deal with other people and try to follow your imagination at the same time.

,

IN THE DESERT

JM:  There are several references to sand in the book. For example, Sheila blows a speck of it off of the spine of a book and she brushes it off a seat on a bus. What’s up with the sand?

SH:  It’s because they’re in the desert. I wanted to suggest that it is still the desert. There is this echo of the desert or this residual desert tying all my characters to the Jews and the exodus and wandering and trying to find—I mean, the Jews in the desert got The Ten Commandments, you know, to try and figure out how to live, and they wanted the answers and the rules. I evoke Moses a lot in the book and so the sand relates to all of that.

JM:  I figured it was part of the underlying Jewish narrative—the forty years in the desert. To what extent does Sheila the character and Sheila the writer tap into that metaphor and make it her own?

SH:  It’s in the book. I can’t really explain it more than that. Sheila the character wants to answer the question about how to be and she wants to be a great person.

JM:  But what about Sheila, the writer—you—do you want those things too? Or, would you rather we, the readers, not think about that?

SH:  I don’t think anyone wants to be a lousy person.

JM:  What about Israel’s name being Israel? Is there any significance to that?

SH:  There’s lots, but I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to say point by point what I was thinking, mainly because I can’t remember. Also, I was thinking so many things Of course there are so many connotations to the kind of place Israel actually is and ideally is, and how Sheila feels about how her lover actually is and ideally could be.

m

ISRAEL’S COCK & THE FEMALE GAZE

JM:  When people talk about this book they inevitably talk about the sex. In some ways, that makes me want to not talk about the sex, because there are a lot of other things going on in the book. At the same time it’s something I, as a reader, am still trying to make sense of. The sex scenes are tonally different than the rest of the book and float apart from the main narrative involving Margaux. How did you intend the sex scenes to work—what’s their function?

SH:  Their function was sex. Their function was the body and the uncontrollable force. The thing that takes you over, despite yourself. I think that the writing is different because it’s different to be in sex than it is to be in conversation. Also, Israel is not a boyfriend, he’s a lover. Sex with a reliable boyfriend would be portrayed differently.

JM:  The blow job is presented more as an art form than a sex act. There is a point when Sheila talks about perfecting the blow job that made me think of Martha Stewart. I say this with tongue in cheek, but it’s that same sense of obsession, dedication and perfectionism that she has. Martha also turns what could be considered—in stereotypical and heteronormative terms— banal, ‘women’s work’ into art too. Why blow jobs?

SH: I feel like it’s kind of a joke.

JM:  Mm-hmm.

SH:  I was also thinking about Internet porn. Would we have become so interested in Paris Hilton if it wasn’t for her sex video and all these goddamn sex videos?  The blow jobs also related to the work of art that isn’t an object—the work of art that is an act, which Sheila is so obsessed with after reading Otto Rank. It’s just—I mean, it’s silly and it’s awful and it’s terrible to think about, and it’s funny and it’s degrading and it says something about—well, what are we more interested in? Seeing women make their paintings or seeing women perform blow jobs? Obviously the second. That’s the age we’re in. Maybe that’s always been the age. Maybe history has always been in that age but only now do we have the Internet with all its porn, and men and women can see so much of it, and do.

JM:  There’s a real satirical element to it.

SH:  It’s pathetic. But maybe it’s not pathetic. Maybe there’s something there. I don’t know.

JM:  I’m thinking about some of the men I’ve talked to about this book. There were a few confessions—when pressed—that reading the sex scenes made them feel insecure. In other words, women are used to being objectified but men aren’t. Was there any element of payback?

SH:  How could it be payback? People watch porn that’s all about worshipping the cock. How could it be so different to read about it than to see a video about it? Why should the words make them so much more uncomfortable than the image? Is it just weird to be inside of the woman’s head instead of inside the man’s head when you watch porn?

JM:  Yes, that’s exactly it, I think. It’s the female gaze, as opposed to the usual male gaze. If women write about sex, people talk about it. Even if a female author only mentions sex on three pages of a whole book, especially if it’s explicit, it’ll get talked about. There’s something to that.

SH:  Why does it make men feel insecure?

JM:  Mm-hm.

SH:  No, I’m asking you. You’ve talked to them.

JM:  If the female gaze is worshipping a cock, I think men want to know how they measure up.

SH:  Really? That’s interesting. Like, I’m not as good a lover as that character… or no one’s worshipped my cock… or I don’t have a big cock… or what?

JM:  All of the above, maybe. Just like how women measure themselves up to the women depicted through the male gaze. Also, I think men are surprised to find out that women think about cocks that much.

SH:   I don’t know if women do. It was just that piece of writing.

JM:  I think it plants a seed—

SH:  I’ve had more men respond to, “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something.” There’s a friend of mine who I asked for some advice about a work thing and he was like, “Well I have an opinion about it but I don’t want to be another man who’s trying to teach you something.” And I’m like, “Look you’re my friend, my colleague, and I’m asking you for your advice.” That’s the thing that gets back to me, not the sex stuff.

JM:  I only talked to a small sample of men, so who knows how representative they were, but your book made them, at least, think about their own sexuality and whether they measured up.

SH:  It wasn’t what I was going for.

JM:  It’d be great though if your book made James Wood think about his… wood.

m

THE SO-CALLED GIRLY NARRATIVE

JM:  At one point in the book, Sheila says she has to take a “massive shit”; she repeatedly objectifies Israel’s cock; she is ambitious, and; at the core of the book is Sheila’s friendship with Margaux, which revolves around dialogue on art rather than on men. These things don’t scream “girly narrative” to me and yet, that is what some of the media have deemed it to be. How offensive do you find that to be?

SH:  I don’t care. I don’t care what anyone says about the book. It doesn’t touch me. I read what people write about it because I’m really curious but I don’t really feel like my doing this is right, or wrong, or good for the book, or bad for the book. Anyway, this is just a first wave of responses and I don’t think the verdict of any book is determined by the first wave of responses.

JM:  But you didn’t sit down to write a girly narrative.

SH:  No, but I don’t care if someone says that. You put something in the world because you want people to having feelings and thoughts about it.

JM:  Has it made you notice anything about the world and people who are still treating women a certain way?

SH:  I’ve always known that women writers and male writers are looked at through different lenses, but so are male athletes and female athletes, and so are mothers and fathers. On a certain level, I think we’ll always have that, unless gender stuff gets so fucked up in the future that male and female become so small.

JM:  I think that the sex scenes and supposed girly narrative are not the most interesting things to talk about when talking about this book, yet the responses are interesting to me.

SH:  It’s fun to see that stuff going on in America. In Canada, nobody was talking about the book in that way, so it’s cool to see it being used as a prop in peoples’ arguments. It’s funny. It’s interesting to hear.

 

OH, CANADA

JM:  The book was first published in Canada in 2010 and is now having a second life having been published in the States, with revisions, this June. Though you had dedicated readers and admirers here in Canada when the book first came out, I still found the response to be underwhelming. The book, sadly, wasn’t even considered for any of Canada’s major literary prizes. The response in the U.S., however, could be described as overwhelming—including major coverage in The New Yorker. Why do you think that is?

SH:  I’ve experienced that difference from the very beginning of my career. I could not get published in Canada. I sent my stories to every literary journal in the country for years. I sent four stories to McSweeney’s and they published them.

I think America just has a completely different aesthetic than Canada and it’s a less conservative place. America likes to fight and I think people are more open there. Canadians pretend to be very open but I don’t really think that’s true. I know a lot of Canadians who, as individuals, are open, but I think as a culture we’re not.

Canada is a very ‘pay your dues’ kind of place. The perfect title for a Canadian book is Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are. That’s the problem with Canada in terms of being an artist here. There’s great financial support, but there isn’t a lot of cultural support and I think a lot of writers would agree with me. We do have some great people writing about books and we do have great readers, but it’s not a mass, it’s just these dots of light.

JM:  Do you feel a sense of rejection from the literary powers that be? As a reader, I feel that you should be on more lists and that you’re not the only one in Canada that’s been looked over.

SH:  I had no expectation that I’d be on any of those lists.

JM:  Do you feel let down by that at all?

SH:  No, it’s not my stomping ground, you know? I don’t get invited to the Griffins or the Gillers. I’ve never been invited to read at Harbourfront. I just don’t get those invitations.

JM:  I hear you when you say that’s expected because it’s happened since day one, but no outrage for that?

SH:  Certainly not outrage. I mean, I kind of figured out my place when The Middle Stories came out and was so weirdly received, and when my stories weren’t being published here. You quickly get used to that kind of rejection so it becomes the norm. Then I think, maybe this is actually better because I live here and I have a nice life here and I write here and I have all my friends here who I make art with, and my family. Then, in America, that’s where I publish and it’s like when you go downtown to your office and do your work there and then you go back home. So in some ways it’s nice to have those things separate.

Most of the money I make is from being published in American magazines, from my job at The Believer and publishing my books with American publishers. At this point in my life, I’m happy to have them separate and I don’t crave anything from Canada. I’ve had support here from Anansi, who has published all my books. Martha Sharpe is hugely important to me because she’s supported me from the beginning, but she’s no longer at Anansi. I have other supporters like Stephen Osborne at Geist and Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore in Montreal. Like I say, there are these little points of light and that’s good enough for me.

JM:  That’s a healthy way to look at it. I can tell you though that when I think about the Sheila Heti story from my point of view, there is something really pernicious about the prize cultures and the upper canon and how many people don’t fit in here. I also find it to be a heart-sinking feeling that we’re not always claiming our own in Canada.

SH:  America just has feelings about things much more easily as a culture than Canada. If you have a culture that doesn’t have feelings about art then you don’t have an artistic culture. I look at Shary Boyle, I look at people in the other arts—artists who I think are great—and I don’t see the culture having a lot of feelings for their work. I’m sure Shary has her supporters. I know tons of people who love her work. Despite her show at the AGO, you still don’t feel like there’s this feeling in Canada that we have a great artist here and that we want to make her greater. I suppose she’s representing Canada at the Venice Biennale, but there’s got to be more than that.

JM:  So you feel for her what I feel for you. Again, I maintain that there is something embarrassing about your own country not recognizing its artists as it should. What is there to learn from this?

SH:  I don’t know if there is anything to learn. I don’t know if Canada wants to learn. Do you think Canada wants to learn to be different in this regard?

JM:  I think Canada does recognize some amazingly talented people, but there needs to be a greater range of recognition.

SH:  They give you your grants. It’s almost like, here’s your money and leave us alone—or, we’re going to leave you alone. There’s just this weird—

JM:  Administrative approach.

SH:  Maybe, yeah. There’s just no emotion in it. The last sort of scandal I remember was when the National Gallery bought Voice of Fire. Do you remember this? It was like fifteen years ago. People were like, “It’s just red with a black stripe.” People got so angry about it. Has there even been a painting in the paper since then?

JM:  There was Sniffy the Rat. The artist Rick Gibson was going to crush the rat between two canvasses in downtown Vancouver, but was sabotaged and then chased by animal rights activists. That was the same year though.

SH:  Right. So our conversation is then about cruelty to animals or ‘I’m a taxpayer and I don’t want to spend all this money on a painting my kid could do.’

JM:  You must be grateful for the States.

SH:  Like I said, I’ve had a good career so far. I know a lot of people for whom it is incredibly depressing though. You can’t make a living in Canada as an artist in any satisfying way.

JM:  Would you ever leave Toronto?

SH:  I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not planning on leaving. I love Toronto. I love living here and I most want to live here. Who knows though? I’d also move if I had reason to.

 

CODA

JM:  Do you like talking about your current projects?

SH:  No.

JM:  Earlier you said that you have a “nice life.” Can you describe what makes your life nice—give us a little peek into the woman behind the writer?

SH:  I’m not sure what to say. I have a wonderful boyfriend, my brother lives nearby and so do Margaux and Misha. I recently got a little studio so now I don’t have dirty dishes calling to me when I’m working. I have a lot of books on my shelves that I can’t wait to read. The apartment we live in is very charming with a nice lawn. What else?

JM:  How should a writer be?

SH:  Oh. Well, I think you have to write whatever you want to write and not worry about how you’re going to come off or how you’re going to appear. You have to put your ego aside and not think, ‘People are going to look at me a certain way if I write this way.’ It matters zero. All that matters is the book, so you have to be willing to sacrifice some kind of decency, or appearance of decency, or else you’re going to come up against so many things that you won’t let yourself do. I think people are often afraid of the thing they most want to do and I think that’s the thing you should do. If all you want to do is write about red trucks and you think ‘that’s so childish’ and ‘who wants to read about red trucks’ then you just have to do it. You have to do that on every level and in every sentence.

I don’t think there’s anything interesting about a writer who isn’t doing radically what they want to do. I feel like there’s no other realm in life in which you can be free. You can’t be free in a relationship, you can’t be free as a mother, you can’t be free as a daughter, you can’t be free as a citizen, and you can’t be free in any realm of life. The only person who can be free is the artist through their work. They can’t be free as a human but the work can be free—they can be free with their work. I think that’s why we go to art, to see what the human is when they’re free.

If you’re not free, because you’re afraid you’re going to look weird to people or something like that, then I don’t see what there is to get out of the work or where the pleasure is for the reader. The thing one hopes for in a work of art is for it to be an example of freedom—and by freedom I think I mean totality—the totality of what a human is. Then people can experience every part of themselves. Going through life, you usually can’t experience every part of yourself on a day-to-day basis, but art should be a reminder of all the different parts of yourself and should light those up.

—Sheila Heti & Jill Margo

——————————————

Jill Margo

Jill Margo’s work has been published in literary magazines and newspapers. She has been a finalist for both a Western Magazine Award and for The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize. She is also a former executive director of the Victoria School of Writing and a former artistic director/host of two reading series (Sundays at the JBI and the Robson Reading Series). Originally from British Columbia, she moved to Toronto in the summer of 2011 to attend the University of Guelph’s MFA program. Her mentor through the program is Francisco Goldman. You can read a sample of her work online at Geist Magazine.

 

Mar 212013
 

Here is an interview I did with Robert Coover in 1996 shortly after the publication of his novel John’s Wife. We were talking over the phone; the interview starts slowly as we feel each other out. But as it gathers steam Coover says marvelous things about his forerunners, Ovid, Kafka, Rabelais and Cervantes. He talks about how, when he planned the novel, he actually started with a paragraph count and the idea of a Bell curve. He also does a lovely reading of a passage — as he says, his first “telephone reading.”

This is from a raw tape that has been in a cardboard box for years; so my usual apologies for the sound quality.

Click the little triangular button to listen to the interview.

Coover Part 1

Coover Part 2

—Douglas Glover

See also interviews with Gordon Lish, John Hawkes & William Gass.

The Enemies of the Novel: DG Interview With John Hawkes
Causing Damage — Captain Fiction Redivivus: DG Interview With Gordon Lish
Limericks, Degraded Modernism and The Tunnel: DG Interview with William H. Gass