Sep 292010

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.

It’s a huge honour and pleasure to introduce to Numéro Cinq my old friend Leon Rooke who, all my writing life, has been an inspiration and a forerunner. This amazing story–“Son of Light”–appeared in Leon’s 2009 collection The Last Shot for which I wrote a review that ran in the Toronto Globe and Mail. There is possibly no better way of prefacing this story than to give you the review, the whole thing.

Leon Rooke is a Canadian from North Carolina with a list of books as long as your arm. He’s a national treasure, a huge and kindly promoter of younger writers, a Shakespearean reader of his own work–have I mentioned prolific? He writes out of a wagon load of traditions which include the American post-modernism of Barthelme, Coover, Gass and Brautigan and the school of southern bombast (William Faulker, Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor–and by “bombast” I don’t mean a negative; I mean the high-flown stentorian style of the great southern preachers, rhythmic, hammering, mellifluous and grand).

Rooke eschews the dreary wet wool blanket of conventional realism, salting his stories with magic, myth, vituperation and improbability. Often, out of the most dark and moribund situations, he wrestles a startling and uncanny beauty, an affirmation of life, a stunning reversal that does not bespeak any faith or philosophy but a joy in the exuberant play of language. Like his contemporary Alice Munro, he writes outside the box, he writes to push idea of story to the limits and beyond. You sometimes read a Rooke story just for the exhilaration of seeing whether or not he can carry off the high-wire experiment he has launched.

In his new book The Last Shot, you will find stories in the southern style (in the Appalachian demotic of his novel A Good Baby), also parables, myths, burlesques, tirades and tender, wistful love stories. The famously reclusive J. D. Salinger appears in one story, haunting the garbage dump where his refuse ends up to make sure no one steals it. In another story, a magical (or literary) plague of moths invades a Mexican village and delivers a kind of aesthetic grace; it ends “…I felt for the first time what a glory it was to be alive in such a dazzling, incomparably fantastic world.”  In “Magi Dogs” a painter paints a dog into a picture of a house and the dog comes alive. In “Lamplight Bridegroom 360″ a mysterious angel robs a bank, mystifies a crowd of witnesses, and delivers the money to a woman dying in a hospital so she can pay for treatment. Somehow the bank staff doesn’t even know it’s been robbed.  In “How To Write A Successful Short Story”, Rooke hilariously sends up creative writing how-to books and conventional ideas of story (all those the ideas and theories he actually avoids) and incidentally tells a story.

Lately, Rooke seems to be interested in the technique of intercalated stories: I don’t recall seeing him do this before in quite the same way. Stories interrupt and delay other stories. The darkly comic novella “Gator Wrestling” is a novella mostly because of the this structure–the heroine Prissy Thibidault just wants to get across town and see the gator Rufus Seed Junior has caught but Rooke interrupts her journey and her story to tell the stories of just about everyone in town before he allows her to get to Junior’s house and see a mob prodding the somnolent gator with paddles till it ups and rips off Acy Ducey’s arm. Then, in Rooke’s version of Aristotelean peripeteia, magic unfolds: Rufus Seed Junior and his entire family, who have always wanted to go to Africa, turn “a lovely light chocolate”. We refrain here from drawing allegorical conclusions–Rooke is not writing a politically correct racial parable; mostly he seems to be having fun playing with stereotypes and attitudes.

I deeply admire the story “The Yellow House” (I included it in Best Canadian Stories when I was the editor) which sets up camp in a dreamy, fairy tale universe (part-allegory, part Italo Calvino of, say, Cosmicomics): there are two houses across the road from each other; in one, every one is sickly, melancholy, hopeless and dying, with an expansive cemetery attached and one “untidy” peach tree (sort of an inverted Garden of Eden); in the other, everything is bright, cheerful, loving and yellow. One day, for no reason except love, a boy from the yellow house walks down through the cemetery to pick the peaches, then he approaches the sickly house and proposes to the last remaining sister Precilla and kisses her fingers.

Suddenly, in a burst of Rookean afflatus, things get better, the sick house is flooded with yellow light, health blooms, sex is about to happen. “Out at sea, storm clouds were forming, tumbling and turning. A tumult of wind swept low over the water. Over the roof of the yellow house could be seen schools of silver fish in flight inches above the water. School upon school of these silver fish, all flying.”

It makes no sense to ask precisely what this means–something about the mystery of love and the delight of story-telling: in stories, grace can strike like a bolt of lightning and fish can fly over houses.

But maybe the best thing in this book is “Son of Light”, a gorgeously written pseudo myth about creation and death (whose name, in the story, is Dark). “I am death, Dark thinks. I could change you utterly.” The passages in which Dark haunts a mysterious desert oasis, sleeping unseen amongst the nomads for company, are an extraordinary blend of the Biblical, inarticulate dread and amazing intimacy. Only Rooke could write death (Dark) as a lonely young man stuck in a desert, curious and affectionate towards humans who are only partly aware of his presence, awestruck, mistrustful, yet somehow able to live with him.

There is something here, some magic Leon Rooke does with a twist of his hand, a complex image of the relationship between life and death, strangely humanized and desperate, comic, sweet, uncanny and so achingly beautiful you wish it were real.




His presence on earth was not a known thing: Dark, the baby. But out here on the long plain, the flat horizon around him like one thinly-sliced peel of orange, he lived well enough. Well enough, that is, to keep living. Dark could sniff where there was water. He could sneeze, and there was water. Where water was he dropped anchor. Anchor and seed, seed from a full pocket. Animals came, first one, then many. Birds dropped down. Grasses grew. Strange fruits. And, from to time, in the beginning to his distress, people.

All these desert oases–not that many–were his. His work, we should say. Proprietorship as such did not interest him; the occasional nomads appeared; they appeared first on the long straight, trudging single file, cresting one solitary dune after another. Onwards to the oasis.  Where the first dropped down, over time dropped down the many: their parched black bodies falling in a heap. Skin hard as leather. What did they do with themselves before this oasis existed?  Well they would not have come this way would they?  An oasis exists, one heads for it. How otherwise may this long plain be traversed? Let us not be silly.

They crouched in Dark’s water, studying the depths as though for monsters. What is that? A water lily. What does it do? It flowers. And then you eat it? They sat so for hours. They sat on rocks, in his palm trees, on the groomed sand he each morning raked with his fingers. They watched each other and the horizon. If a storm was to blow in, if a cold front threatened, they shouted the announcement, arms flailing. In what seemed initially to Dark’s mind to be gibberish. Some time passed before his ears–unaccustomed to any sound except wind, storms, heat so charged it had its own many tongues–consented to think twice about the jumble issuing from their mouths. They spoke a kind of bejangled song, often dirge-like–until one learned to make in one’s own ears specific tonal adjustments. Then–amazing–it was music.

Against the night’s cold they wore skins, frayed furry jackets, lamb it was. Or kangaroo, wallaby–the hides of tree monkeys to the south. Kangaroo were plentiful out here, together with foxes, wild dogs, sand rats, but where had they acquired lamb? Otherwise they went about largely naked. A wrapping of skin which flapped over the groin, occasionally over the buttocks. Over the head. Looping down the neck’s backside. Bones looping the ankle, the neck. White-ringed eyes to lessen the sun’s glare. Their bodies for the most part were tall and leanish, some might say emaciated. One was aware of bones–a frailty?–in a way that one normally isn’t. Tall? Well, he rid himself of that view soon enough: once he had placed himself beside them.

Who’s there? they would say. In that high-pitched squall their voices clung to when frightened or angry. Or were they merely inquiring, as a fox might? They looked tall only because such meagre flesh adhered to their bones.

Dark rushed to no judgement on this. He was scarcely more than skeleton himself.

Large flat feet with over-large toes, toes all but horned: eyes that were ever in drift towards the horizon. They marvelled at certain cloud formations: caravans of bodies not that much different from themselves. Their children, Dark noticed, even-those new-born, had coarsened skin. A child fresh from the womb was immediately pounced upon. The soles of the feat were beaten, the pinkish hands dipped in briny liquid. Brow and scalp roughened.

Dark held these infants sometimes in his arms, if their mothers were otherwise occupied. How strange!  He had never before beheld an object so incredible buoyant. He probed inside these babies’ mouths. Into every orifice. Surely these bundles were not of this earth. It was like holding…nothing. Until it moved. Until it squiggled. Until it wrestled itself over, clutching for something. Well he knew what it clutched after. He had witnessed the deed often. The creatures attempted nursing at whatever object picked them up. Always hungry: how interesting. Propped against rock or tree, they would attempt to nurse that. It was funny. Dark liked it. True, a pup in the wild would do the same. Still, the instinct engaged him.

He could watch these newly-born–mesmerized–these elongated black lumps–for hours.

They seemed never to cry. He remembered with chagrin his own crybaby years. His own fondness for the teat. Crossing impossible hills–wind, rain–an endless freeze. The Death family, eternal voyagers. Nomads themselves. Endless freeze, yet a warmth that also seemed to go on forever. Take it, sugar. Take the sugar. It was not that long ago. Ages, but what were years to his kind’s reckoning?

A single season that time of his youth was: so it seemed to Dark now.

These bonesome nomads had a hardiness he lacked. A backbone he never had acquired. Yet they followed the sun–they tramped onwards–much as his own parents must have done.

Here they came. First one dark shape on a far dune. Hanging there. Gesticulating. Arms flaying like a beetle upended. Quaint, Dark thought. What transpires there? Then another cresting a more distant rise. The same flaying arms. Hither, come hither. My nose smells water. Onward, one dune after another, those solitary marchers–until, unbelievable, here were the many. All falling in a heap where the first had tumbled down.

Finished, you would think. By thirst, famine, disease–by whatever. Then the one eventually crawling on hands and knees from the heap, scuttling on all fours until some benign impulse arrested his progress. Slowly rising. Other heads lifting. Then a full crawl of black bodies. Finally, all in assembly, upright, gibbering and jabbering.

Often the nomads would unfold their cloth, their poles, tent themselves from the throbbing heat. Unfold their goods. Amazing, the multitude of goods. How were these objects transported, when they travelled so denuded?

A mystery.

Well was he not himself a mystery?

More and more the mystery. Over years–how many?–it came to Dark that he was interested. These nomads, they beguiled him. How could such bones–blackened as cooked rabbit, bony as plucked bird…how could they prevail? How was it they had come to imagine they could?

Sometimes they remained a night, remained several nights. Never more than a week, two weeks. A month–six?–at the most. Where were they going? What strange purpose drove them forward. To what purpose, what end? What was out there?  Or there was this: often he would see them out on the dunes, first the one, then the next. He would drop more seeds, find more water. Prepare for their arrival. But where had they got to? He would himself advance over the sand to meet them–not easy!–and espy them miles and miles in the distance. Crossing the long straight, cresting a dune–advancing his way, yes!–but at a certain point, at one specific dune on the long plain, each arriving party veered. Turned away. Why? There they went, heading off elsewhere. He knew these dunes, knew better than any. A thousand times he had traversed them. Nothing was out there. No oases beyond his own. A thousand miles of desert, desert almost without end. Where were they going? Month upon month, and where were you? In a place no different from that place in which you had found yourselves the day before. Nothing to eat, no water to drink, nothing to see except the same stretch of sand, the same sky, the same nothingness. Desert waves, boiling sun. Kangaroo, foxes, dogs, yes–but fewer by the year. And no water.  No vegetation other than the rare scrub bush. A tuft of…had this once been grass?  Bones. A bird carcass now and then. Flinging itself along through bands of pulsing heat until, exhausted, the wings of a sudden fall still. Down comes bird.

Yet there these nomads went. The space was theirs, he supposed. Always had been. It must be occupied, surveyed anew, found and found again. Might an intruder such as himself otherwise establish domain? No, they cared not a whit about him. His like had always been present. His like explained the barrenness, the lifelessness, the hard grabbling for whatever stock came to hand: the odd growth of thistle here, the patch of grass there. A running hare, a bird, a fox, a snake, a frog, a turtle, a dog. Gristle uprooted from the sand. What more was required?  What more had ever been theirs?

But they did come. A relief. Dark had come to desire, even prefer , their company. Often he remained with them in their tents–frayed cloth held aloft by thin sticks–intrigued: they spoke little, laughed rarely. At the antics of small children playing. There’s a beetle crawling over the sand. Let’s pour sand over this poor crawling beetle. When the beetle at last emerges–befuddled, lost, disoriented–they laugh. Let us heap more sand on the beetle, that we may laugh again. An entire day a child might do this–intent as scholars, the beetle’s fortitude against the abysmal heavens as relentless as their own.

Searching for lice in one another’s hair, grooming that hair, was likewise a serious business. Many bones, twigs, the odd stone, rolls of dead leaves, twists of rusting wire, were to be seen in these heads of hair. Each item carefully laid aside until the cleansing was done. Then washed with spittle and, as carefully, restored.

Any evidence of color was disavowed. Vermilion, any color with a reddish hue, most particularly. At his oasis, any leaf so saturated was discussed endlessly. Then buried. Buried deep. A man or woman, never a child, might spend an entire day digging, digging. Remove this leaf that it may never again be seen. Let the hot sands deal with this. Should it possess an afterlife, let it not be ours.

So, too, a child whose nose dripped the color. Bury him in hot sand until the color ceases. Then whip him so that hereafter
he may not make us endure the ordeal.

The dead were unhappy. It was their blood coloring the leaf.

It amazed him: all those laws laid down. From where? Excuse me, but what is your source?

They smiled, discussed the issue, when a wild dog howled in the distance. Who goes there? By twilight, already they were asleep. Side by side, often in piles, limbs entwined, with no sorting arrangement he could decipher. You slept where your body fell.

They ate little. In fact, next to nothing. A fire, in the general scheme of things, was not required.  Fire, on a whippingly cold night, offered its rewards, generally without respect to supper. What would they cook? Could air be cooked and eaten? Perhaps. In fact, very likely. In fact, what else could so winsomely convey the fragrance? Was this not how he had been feeding?

But these nomads had not the knack. They carried sharpened sticks, tools for hunting. Lures, traps. But out here?  Certainly there were desert foxes, moles, kangaroo–but how often in this wasteland did one see them? Spiders, aphids, mites. By day, sun baked the land relentlessly. By night, whistling wind, a near freeze. You could be sure that if a thing moved it was not a thing alive. Not a thing that could be eaten.

Dark they saw and did not see: it was that kind of business. He would be drowsing, the heat invited such, would open his eyes, and one or more gaze would be upon him. An elder, sometimes a child, often women, poked with a stick that space which he filled. No matter. Sticks could not harm him; their thrusting was a nuisance, no more. They made no attempt to rid themselves of him entirely. His presence was an oldish thing: it was dangerous, the sticks, the gazes, but they could not refrain from expressing their discontent.

Perhaps they understood the water, the grasses, the fruits–this oasis–was his creation and they sojourned within it by his pleasure. It could be. Or it could be that this had not occurred to them. Perhaps they believed the oasis had cast itself onto the sands in the same manner that they had been. He was an entity apart from them. A being in whom blood did not course as it did within themselves, but a being nevertheless. May it keep its distance, may it not sojourn into our flesh, may it do its hunting elsewhere: that is all they asked.

Many of these people Dark now knew from memory. He knew their names. Since his own infancy, in a manner of speaking, they had been arriving; now many were old. So he felt himself to be: old, abandoned, all but useless. He did not regard these interlopers–that they certainly were–as his friends, not exactly. Yet he admitted to queer satisfaction: he liked them. Liked their newborn, their aged, their in-between. He was entranced that their personalities adhered to such meagre variance over the years. A new tribe arrives, how much it is like the previous one? Yet in this regard they could surprise him. They could indeed. Uncanny, their presences in regard to this. Such a multitude of paths they struck, yet how frequently the paths circled back. A youth, now grown old, how the mantle of youth still clung to him. Look at that old man sitting in the sand playing with his beetle. Amazing. Well was he exempt?

Notwithstanding this: many, mean and unkind, pure devils in childhood, were gentle and caring later on. What explanation here?

He remembers from his own youth a storm at sea: lightning bolts by the hundreds, each striking simultaneously: like a tree upended, lightning along every limb, igniting from every bough, the sky lit from horizon to horizon. Days on end, no relief. Thunder so fierce its origin seemed to be within you, of and from those scuttling about the heaving deck. Fires everywhere, bodies picked up and flung into the sea. Six times he had himself been struck by lightning, all within the space of seconds. Lightning skating on water, the sea boiling.

All hands lost. The ship shattered into a thousand pieces.

His work? How could that be, when he was himself floating? Fish of a silvery hue drifted around him in untold number: schools of death; among them, lumbering black sharks split apart far within the depths.


Dark has endured similar storms here. Lightning without cessation, wind and rain without end. Wind strips away your being, rain soaks inside, lodges in the heart. Parts of himself are out in the desert, being nibbled at by sand rats, insects: excuse me, what’s this? Edible? No.

During these storms he now huddles within himself, shivering, locked in his own tight embrace, still as snakes coiled on cold chimney hearths. Lower than snakes, elsewise why his exile here?

His mother soothes him, opens her blouse. Fits a swollen nipple to his lips.

Eat. Sleep. Think nothing. Mother is here.

He wants to go home. Where is home?

A while ago at his oasis an old woman, arriving sick, so misaligned in her features that her sickness might have been diagnosed as leprosy, had died during the tribe’s stay.

Their eyes devoured him. You! they said. Ugly one!

He was innocent. He was not even certain he would remember how. He had in fact, out of curiosity, the intrigue of elements now beyond him, held the old woman’s hands as she slipped away. She had looked into his eyes, at first fearful, then nodding. Yes. Yes, she said. You are innocent. I absolve thee. Such a relief that was to him; his eyes moistened, he would have called her back had he the means. He was not her nemesis. Her nemesis was within.

Clean her body with sand. Elevate the face to the southerly direction. Oil the soles of the feet. Fold a bone within each hand. Seven times encircle her body. Each time snip away a cutting of hair, a cutting of nail, a snippet of cloth. Wedge of skin cut from the thighs, should the dead be unmarried; from the belly, if she is.

In the desert, a dog slunk near him, no more than its own space away; it whined miserably, regarding him through scarred eyes. In the distance other dogs watched. The dog inched forward, lay its head in his lap. Foam leaked for the ears and mouth. With a jerk of the head, the dog died.

I’m innocent, he thought. Death arriving as light from the primeval void, light’s speed versus known and unknown obstruction.

I must quit this place, he thought .

The tribe ventured north. He trekked along for the company. They came to rocky shelter whose inhabitants greeted them as though with little comprehension. They ate. Music of a peculiarly Old World kind was played–a somewhat barren sound, reedy, as though it had long been confined to earth.

He loved the cold caves they slept in. A very beautiful young girl slept beside him an entire night: his eyes open, watching the dark. Listening to her heartbeat. She knew someone was beside her–initially she was on guard, without being precisely frightened. Once during the night, she raised up, lifted her thin arms, yawned, then collapsed back into sleep.

He must himself have slept a long time–years perhaps. He waked to a feeling of emptiness, cold and trembling, unable to think where he was. The word ‘tomb’ came to him. Then, ‘entombed.’ That brought a laugh, and he felt better.

He was hungry, starving in fact, but whenever was that not the case? Insects were crawling over him. They must have believed him dead; if, that is, insects held beliefs–which thought brought on another smile. It was at this point that he realized he was enjoying himself. He held aloft one of those insects: a hard dull shell the color of the stony world it inhabited: all those wheeling legs, the waggling head, the bulging eyes–yes?– and found himself entertaining a ludicrous, if wondrous thought. What if he could mate as insects might?

In the cave the nomads had been digging a well. The  digging had been going on for thousands of years. Workers were lowered by rope into darkness. If you listened carefully you could just hear the resounding hammer and chisel. No more than two could work at a time, and the best workers had to be down longest. No one wanted to be thought of as a best worker and for this reason they were habitually complaining about how worthless they were when it came to hammer and chisel. Workers who remained too long were blind for days and days. They emerged, walking in circles, babbling. Tumbling over. Blindfolds were affixed to their eyes. They had to be led by hand to food and water. They seemed to know no one. They believed a black cloud hovered about their heads; they succumbed to panic and flayed at the blackness. They had to be restrained, locked up, put into a cage, or they might do harm to themselves. They spoke of coming across strange parties down there–parties whose outside was inside, who flaked into nothingness when touched, a nothingness that then took shape inside themselves. They screamed through the night. Occasionally they did not emerge from this madness, and were ever venturing out upon the sun-drenched dunes. Disappearing.

No one could accurately assess the depth of the great well. Each measurement had a radically different result. A thousand years digging. Why?

The hours of the day admire their every tick. Each second is a thrill.

The day’s heat was tight knobs of air. You would see out over the desert a massive army trudging your way. But it was heat walking. Heat walked under your shade and the shade burst into flames. Flames out on the dunes, where the very air had caught fire. The very sands did. One’s very eyelids did. Red ants strode the horizon. Fire plants bloomed in the sky: a red forest. Clouds aflame.

He caught a cold, caught worse, and for months curled up into a corner, whining softly, in embrace of himself. Bats hung by day around him, at dusk, first one, then a second, then all in harmony stirring their wings–gone.

A letter was found. Who knows how long it had been buried in the sand? The paper disintegrated in his hand. This hardly mattered. Deciphering ancient texts was old stuff to him. Where he was defeated was in capturing the tone.

Come home, the letter said.



In the city, at Dark’s favored hotel, the hospitaller rushes from his office to greet him. He bows effusively, smiles with the excesses of one in rapture. The hospitaller invites him inside his tiny office. Offers coffee, tea, a biscuit. A glass of plonk, my esteemed friend, or is it too early? Something stronger? This man, like Dark himself, is not native to these parts. He is a newcomer, like the Sikhs, the Germans, the Chinese with their restaurants, the Asians with their taxies. A hospitaller, he knows the importance of a grand welcome. Kiss the lady’s hand, marvel at the arrival of the hatless gentlemen from the desert. Let the man know that his heart beats only for such arrivals: in your absence I have been as a man sick with fever, afloat in apathy, aswim in self-pity. Incomplete. Now, my friend, you are here, and the sun has returned to its proper orbit. Here, let me take your coat. Loosen your tie, rest your feet on this stool.

Travelling so takes it out of one, I’m an innkeeper, do I not know? It tires one, it bags the bones–but, ah, the exhilaration, those new worlds, each of which must be conquered.

All the same, alas, dear friend, we have no vacancy, none at all. How wearisome, I am abject, my apologies! If only I had known you were coming, if only–dare I offer this criticism–if only you had called in your reservation.

The usual, then?

Why, yes, of course the usual. What you must think of me! That I, a newcomer like yourself, in exile, so to speak, like yourself, would turn away a traveller of your distinction! The traveller must be rewarded, must he not? Where would our universe be without the traveller? Marco, Marco Polo, did he not set the pace? Is he not our model, are we not in his shadow? Even you, signor, a foremost globe-trotter. Another glass, then, for our unparalleled Marco–cheers, skol, salud, salute, bottoms up! If we did not have business to summon us, I would say let’s empty the decanter.

The hospitaller’s sofa, then, as usual?

Of course, my sofa. The honor is mine. In there, the little toilette where you may shower and shave, the small shelf where you may stow your belongings. The same peg to hold your coat–oh my, oh my, is it ever dusty. Oh, you travellers, the endurance, the struggle, wind, snow, and rain, but the road is ever there, is it not, it ever beckons. Marco Polo, what travails were sent his way. But ever onwards, onwards, is that not the theory. Onwards, for what awaits us around the next curve, dear me, those spices, can we help being chilled with wonder! But forgive me this prattling, I see you are exhausted. Such long days, such long nights, and nothing but bedbugs, bad water, dust in the nostrils. Tomorrow, by all means tomorrow you must tell me of your sojourn in the desert. The desert, it changes one’s perspective, no? But later, yes later. For now, stretch out on my long sofa, pure leather, black as miner’s black lung, beautiful, is it not?  Here, let me slip off your shoes, I shall have them polished. You need tending, sire, no question, you are looking bony, ragged, lustreless, if I may use that word. Near death, if I may speak frankly. But a wee catnap and you shall be yourself again. I’ll lower the lights, if I may, let me spread over you this soft coverlet. There you are, yes, close your eyes. That scalp will need looking after, you know, it’s baked, your poor noggin is a sea of blisters. You really must wear a hat, you know. Our friend Marco without his hat, what would he have accomplished?  Signor, why did you not follow his example?

Ah, my voice tires you, my apologies, my pleasure in seeing you yanks my tongue one way and another. So sleep, my friend, rest the weary bones. Then onwards, onwards, side by side with dear Marco, eh? I understand, a man of your calling may not tarry, may not dally. My heart will ache, I shall brim with sorrow at your absence. But you will return, will you not? Of course, you are the hospitaller’s glory, without you what purpose would I serve? Until the next time, then, signor! A private room shall we waiting, I promise you, I shall keep the reservation open. Yes, always open, what, in this day and age, that a being of your distinction should be compelled to inhabit a stable?

What? Excuse me, signor, did I hear you correctly? You wish to go home? I am distressed, signor, I will weep tears, but it is as you say: even our friend Marco must from time to time return home. For restoration, to shore up one’s vitality, to see the family, to net our grievances–one or the other. It will be our loss, signor. As you say, your heart has too long been riding the bumpy wagon. Are those tears in your eyes? No worry, we all have them. Shall I say it, signor? Your work here has not gone unnoticed. Your presence has been remarked upon, and not, alas, always agreeably. People talk, you know. Callous remarks are passed. But take no notice, signor: beings such as ourselves, are we ever applauded in our own backyards? And yet, signor: a single drop of moisture on the dry tongue, is that not sweetness of a kind to keep us steadfast, even fertile, in our labor? The beetle on the green leaf, is he too not in part the dreamer? The cloud passes overhead, does not the worthy traveller say Hello, as to a fellow sojourner? So, go home, yes, signor: by all means make the journey. Was this not the motivation for dear Marco’s incredible journey? That his mother should kiss him?

Be assured, signor: the hospitaller shall make all arrangements. Putt-putt, yes, a ship, this is your one available choice. Unless you have learned to walk upon water. No? Then sleep the sleep of an innocent child, old friend. Leave all picky details to me, your hospitaller.


Dark, in his sleep, already walks the ship’s deck–the sea easy, a bright moon hanging. To see the world through the eyes  of his blind hospitaller, he thinks: how strange that must be.  I steer myself by the sound of another’s breathing, the hospitaller had said to him at their first meeting. On a city street this was, in the long, long ago–Dark lost, after an endless time drifting–the hospitaller’s hand a sudden gentle touch at his elbow. By my lights, this is among the heart’s major duties. But you do not breathe, signor, so it was with difficulty that a blind hospitaller could find you. And now that I have, as I am sightless, it must be you who guides me across this noisy street. Take my arm, signor.

Your arm? What was I previously touching, hospitaller?

My heart, signor. Mind the curb now.


Let us stroll along together for a while, signor. Like our friend, Marco, arm-in-arm with  a spice merchant, negotiating terms, let’s say.

How did you come to be blind, hospitaller?

Who knows, signor? Every hospitaller is, that is how matters stand. Long ago,

a nail driven

through a board

split that board

A blind man

passing by

was first to notice

so it came to pass that every hospitaller, as a condition for employment, must be blind. Marco Polo, recall, told his crew his ship’s flag must flutter against wind. Otherwise the world’s true spice capitals would elude them.

I do breathe, hospitaller. Your exhalations are my inhalations. As your breath crests a wave, mine is the stilled water in wait between.

No, signor. This not breath.



What a surprising cargo: in the ship’s hold are bags and bags of pomegranates.

Mice and their ferocious kin nose among the bags, nip the ripening fruit. For nourishment, they prefer the burlap. Dark secures a space for himself among the lumpy bags, here his head, there his feet. The vermin sniff his calloused soles, probe the thick curvature of his nails. They lift their gleaming, scornful eyes: why are you here? What business do you have with us? We want cheese, peanut butter, bacon, New Zealand beef. We want to lick grease, sing songs, dance. Pay attention. Open your eyes. Talk to us. Explain yourself.

Or it may be that they mistake him for one of their own. It is not as though they are given to civility even with each other. Only when cornered by a seaman with a broom is their affinity with common humanity displayed.

Water sloshes along the boards, wetting him. Back and forth, slosh, slosh.

No matter.

Scum, algae, wasp dens, dirtdauber lairs, seaweed, moss, barnacled growths–up there, light spilling between boards, a tropical fern– occupy the walls. A trapped bird flutters endlessly about–in misery, in consternation, scummy-eyed, the head bloody, feathers sparse.

No matter.

Dark rises sorrowfully: his bones ache, movement is a torture. The bird obligingly flies into his cupped hand. He strokes the bird until its tremors cease. Such a quick, urgent heart. It could be the hospitaller is right: he has no heart to beat such as this. A rat glares at him. No favoritism, the rat says.

Daylight. Blinding daylight, he must rub his eyes.

The bird crouches in his open hand. The small heart palpitates, wind ruffles its mite-ridden feathers. I don’t know why any of this has happened to me. Were I a thinking bird I would take up my situation with a higher authority.

Even up here away from the hole, in cutting wind, one can smell the lush aroma of pomegranates.

The bird lists away; it steers a faltering course before wind halts its progress altogether. It hangs motionless there, fighting the wind. Why will the creature not turn, let the current sweep it away? Matters are not as they should be. Must every breath be an ordeal? The bird’s wings close,  wind releases its grip, the bird plummets. This it recognizes, this it knows. It has been here before: this is mere acrobatics, a question of instinct, something in the bones. Time to soar. But all at once the bird is swooping past him. It flits back into the familiar black hole.

Dark’s feet feel entangled as though by ropes.

Now rain. Hard rain. So much rain.

He remembers seeing once, in the desert, in rippling heat thick as lava pouring along a shelf, a fleet of tall ships skimming the sand. Then the ships one by one burst into flames.
One time, a scrap of paper flew up into his face. Worn by wind and time, tissue-thin, bleached by sun. Indecipherable.

The nomads encamped at his oasis were absorbed with his table, the table where sometimes sat to think deep thoughts. They sat on his table, eating their food. Each had to crawl beneath it to study the table’s underside. They turned over the table and laughed at the four legs thrusting into air. Like woman, someone said. They shook the legs, laughing. They counted the legs. Like two womans, someone said. They laughed harder. An elder dropped down, mounting the table. Not like two womans, he said. No one laughed. They looked with unforgiving silence at the table. After a few days they scorned it and him. The table to them became invisible.

In the ship’s forward hatch a seaman obsessed with walls is placing love inside a very small box. Carefully, as though he holds a precious vase. Now he is wrapping the box in material so much the color of his own flesh he seems to be without hands. He will pitch his little box over the side when no one is looking. That is how certain kinds of love are dispersed into the world, he tells Dark: an open sea, no one looking.

Out on the sea the waves lash out. Foam spews from every mouth. The waves curse the wind, which curses them. Each wave curses the day it was born. The wind loves what it is doing.

Just look, wind says, at those hideous waves. The waves will have nothing to do with each other until they strike shore, where they will attempt to chew every predecessor into tiny bits.

Look at that stupid box. Where does it think it is going?

Look, there’s Dark looking at us. He looks as beaten about as we are: he can hardly hold up his head.

He dreams. It amazes him, these other worlds that slumber inside him. The rabid dog crawling up to settle its head on his lap. Uninvited. Stroke me, the dog said.

In a forward cabin, the skipper too is resting his head, closing his eyes. Thinking, If only I knew where I was going. If only.

The Captain is plunged into solitude. That is why he is drinking. Something like this always hits him midway a journey. He is lulled into grief precisely at that point in a journey when a thousand ports are scant hours apart in terms of the time necessary to reach any one of them. The Captain is certain his cargo–pomegranates, how strange!–would be welcomed at any port visited. Shore leave for his crew would take much the same form, whatever the port: the same bars, the same black eyes, the same whoring.

The Captain dreams himself a sweetheart in every port. How mystical, how practical, is he different from any other seagoing individual? Well, hardly.

In the very port just departed the mistress he loves, loves deeply, will already be forgetting him. Another year until Who’s-its return, she will be thinking as she unrolls the bolt of fine silk he has dropped on her bed. Ahead, another he is himself just now beginning to remember.

He loves all of these women, loves them deeply–most of all those that exist only in his head. Over there a port and over there another port and over there a hundred other ports. Such and so many nautical miles to one, to another: scarcely any difference.

Docking is always for him the hard part. He has never got the hang of docking a ship of this size. A junior officer must take the helm. It is good training for them. They like the job. No one suspects.

Except for that curious passenger down in the hole, asleep among the pomegranates: the Captain is fairly certain this passenger knows the score. Their eyes have met.

But the passenger is listless, he exerts no authority. His power to influence matters will not be exercised on this trip. Like any other passenger, Dark is only leaving one place for arrival at another. He desires only a smooth crossing. No storms at sea, no failures in the engine room. Steady as she goes: he wants that.

The Captain pours more whisky into his glass. Shadows flit here and there. The ship rocks, relaxes back, rocks: boards buckle and groan: it knows how it must behave, and the sea too is, for the moment, merciful.

The ship cuts through the waves. It has no doubts. It is not a ship that has known heartbreak. Pomegranates, the ship is thinking. How beautiful.

A seaman sings in the crew’s shower room.

Sometimes I feel, sings the seaman. He sings with a throaty woman’s voice. All hands hold still when the seaman sings in the woman’s voice. They sit or stand alone, heads hanging, bereft and bedraggled, like rags about to be thrown overboard. Only when the seaman’s singing voice dies will they again be swashbuckling men of the sea. An interesting story is told about this seaman whose singing voice is like a woman’s. In Naples, in Odessa, in whatever rough dock bar, in whatever port city he has shore leave, he swaggers into these bars in his thick seaman’s coat, his black seaman’s cap and steel-toed seaman’s boots: he shouts out, And how are all you fine homosexuals this lovely evening?

Sometimes I feel, sings the singer, like a motherless child.  But the seaman’s song must wait, since there happens at this time in Dark’s voyage the incident of the seaman who loved walls.



“What does the wall say? If it is raining, or cold, or a no-nonsense wind blows, the wall says, Would someone please close that window. The wall speaks politely for the most part. If someone arrives with mop and broom it says nothing. It puts on a gloomy expression, not wanting you to note its pleasure. At night the wall stands there thinking deep thoughts. It is prey to nostalgia. Sometimes–not that often, mind you–lust comes over it like a smile over the madonna. The walls have eyes and ears is a line you might have heard. But this is not strictly true. A wall has a nose, though, and smells you as you pass. I’ve heard them sneezing from time to time. There was a wall I once knew which could run faster than you or me or anyone. Certainly faster than other walls. Walls marry each other. They mate for life, just as does the occasional seaman, animal, or bird. If I ever was to fall in love with a wall I would want to marry it. It goes without saying that walls come and go. They go up, they come down: that’s the natural law of walls. A wall will fall on you, if you’re not careful. They would like to, that goes without saying. A wall hardly knows its own strength. Walls hate trees, whereas they have a warm respect for dogs, for cats–cats most particularly. You can hear their giggles, their pride, as a cat walks a wall. Walls are thirsty. They have a drinking problem. A wall is distrustful of other walls perceived in the distance. What’s that wall up to? You will hear this whispered to you as you pass by.  Outside walls and inside walls have nothing in common, a fact which may strike you as obvious, but I mention it to you because the matter goes deeper than that. What does a wall say? If it is raining, or cold, or a no-nonsense wind blows, the wall says, Would someone please close that window. It speaks politely for the most part. Walls abominate each other. Wars have been declared. If at the end of these wars no wall is left standing, neither outside wall nor inside wall–of course they are both outside walls now–neither will say it is sorry. They have no regret about being seen as heaps of rubble. Regret is not a word in their vocabulary, which is small. Stop. Go. Listen. Quit that. Give me ice cream. Close the window please. Such as that. They are dense to the point of idiocy, or so claim a number of experts in the subject. They have little ambition. Education, travel, the arts–they could care less. But they’ll comfort you on a cold night. They’ll stay beside you when no one else will. They lead long lives. They rarely fall ill, which is why wall physicians are in such short supply. Death’s walls, however: no personality.”


A long way from home, sings the seaman with the woman’s voice.  But the seaman now is stepping from his shower, he is drying himself with a thin blue towel: his ears, between his toes, his scrotum. Not in the slightest does he resemble a woman: burly, big-thighed, compact as a discus-thrower. He is humming, he softly hums, but no one has even the smallest interest in his womanly hums. Like I am almost gone, is his hum. A long way from home. Who cares? Shut up. Because there is beginning now the incident of the seaman trickster.



A seaman in the crew’s sleeping quarters does cap tricks. Find the cap, I pay you ten dollars. The cap cannot be found, you pay me one single. How can a party lose? There the cap is on the man’s head. Dollars flutter in every crew member’s hand. The trickster seaman’s arms whirl, he pirouettes along the floor. The arms fall slack. The cap is gone. The cap is nowhere to be seen. His money is collected.

Again, find the cap. Twenty to one, how can you lose? There he stands, under his cap, grinning. Okay, thirty to one, which of you is ripe for the plucking? Bills flutter, every crew member participating. Okay, but this time none of that spinning, don’t spin. Fine, no spinning. The hat is on his head, there it is. Every eye watching. The seaman is encircled by the crew, how can they lose? The man winks, his mouth opens, his tongue darts out. His ears wiggle. The cap remains on his head. He jiggles buttocks, walks a slow circle. Stoops. Stands. The cap has gone. Cries go up. You mean fucker! You cheater!

Find the cap, says the man. Or pay up.

But the crew must search his body. They must remove his every stitch of clothing. He stands naked before them, grinning. No hat. They search the floor, the walls. His cap is nowhere to be found.

“Fifty to one,” he says. “Make it easy on yourselves.” There the cap is on his head.

At midnight he is still going. Crew members have pledged to him their coming year’s wages. Fifty thousand to one, the odds now are. We are desperate. The rules have changed. The capman remains naked. He is bound by ropes hand and foot. He sits on a paint can in a tub of water.

“The trouble,” someone says, “–is with that cap.”

Sure, that’s the problem. What do you mean?

“It’s a what-do-you-it, that cap. An optical illusion.”

“But we saw it. We touched it.”

The capman, a muscular Japanese, sits naked and immobile in his tub of water. Grinning. That cap restored to his head; waiting the next turn.

“Let him do it without the cap,” a voice suggests.

“What do you mean?”

“He starts off capless. No cap. We have the cap. But when he’s done the cap must be back on his head.

This idea is applauded.

“Can you do it?”

“Sure thing. Even bet. My fifty against your fifty.”

I.O.U’s flutter. Every cap of every crew member is removed from the room. The entire crew decides it too must strip. They must all be naked. The trickster’s cap is secretly hurled into the sea.



The grinning trickster closes his eyes. His cheeks flare. The tongue darts. The men watch, utterly silent. Nothing is happening. Time passes. Such a long time passes. Every man is aware of the ship’s creaking, of this and that swell, the ship’s roll, the hum, vibrations from the engine room. Their destiny: a year without wages. What will their wives say? How will their children survive? To lose their wages on drink, the long binge, a spell in the brig, this a wife can understand. Such is her fate. But for a cap? Merciless Father, what have they done? But now all is not lost. Something can be recouped from their misfortune. Nothing is happening. The muscular Japanese is sweating. His eyes bulge. The little rat has out-foxed himself. They’ve got the little rat cornered.

“I want to raise the ante,” the little rat says.

“What? “

“Sign over your entire lifetime’s wages to me,” he says, “if I can make the cap return to my head.”

“And what do we get?”

“The satisfaction of learning how the trick is done. You can sign-on on other ships. Make your fortune.”

The crew talks this over. Debates rage. Finally it is decided. They will do it. They scribble these declarations upon scraps of paper.

The seaman’s body turns red, turn’s blue. Muscles ripple.  Something is happening along the capman’s scalp. A vague whiteness is there. Something–can it be a cap?–is forming on his head.

Yes, there it is, that terrifying cap that a moment ago was hurled into the sea.

“Pay up,” he say. “Untie me.”

They stare at him. They stare at his awful cap.

Untie me, he repeats.

Not one among them will step forward. How they hate him. He owns their lives, but he is tied there, trussed up like a rat, with his bowl of I.O.U.’s. Finally someone does move. He strikes a match. He holds the flaring match over the assembled I.O.U.s.

The seaman trickster grins.

“Ah, but if you do that,” he says, “I shall own your souls.”

The man with the match hesitates. Seamen are superstitious folk, given to hallucination, rope dreams, dark nightmare. They know the sea is deep, the sky a mystery.

Even now, a mystery is unfolding. The trickster’s bonds are slackening. One by one ropes are falling like dead snakes about his feet. His grin has changed into a thing malevolent.

“The burning would not free you,” he tells them. “Nor would your knives inside my body.”

The seamen know that the man speaks the truth. They are helpless. Their fate is settled. Such is the destiny of every seaman sooner or later. This has nothing to do with disappearing caps. Their lives were never their own. Souls, less so.


Morning. One, after so many. Seamen rush about like bodies released from an asylum. Swash this, swash that, wrap rope to a hundred irons. Hurry up now. Gulls, other seabirds, laze in meditation over the ship, over the water, over one another. A bell rings. Whistles toot. Engines seek the deepest bass.

Secure the hatchets. Ready the anchor. Steady now.

Hail, Capitan! What shore?

Passing the Captain’s quarters, Dark sees a hooded figure just then emerging. A start of surprise. The figure is one of his own, though still a novice. Hardly more than a boy. But ardent in his enterprise, eager–Dark sees that. One of the old-fashioned kind. Dark can almost see the scythe in the boy’s hand. From the very air blowing through the cracks around the Captain’s door he can smell the boy’s work inside that room.

The boy at least has the grace to hide his head. He darts past. Then he is on the water, skimming that water to shore: black cloud above the foam.

Dark opens each porthole in the Captain’s cabin. He spreads pomegranate seeds over every space. Full fruits he stashes in the pockets of the Captain’s clothes. Bag after bagful he rolls under the Captain’s bunk. Linked fruit top the Captain’s charts. Dart likes the Captain. He interests him.

The Captain, pallid, stands by his junior officer at the helm. He watches the helmsman’s every move. At the dock a throng of people are waiting. The Captain is old: too many oceans. Soon enough he will know who has come to greet him.



The laboratories.

What guides Dark’s footsteps? How does Dark know? In no time at all he is entering the laboratory grounds. Security cameras, inside and out, might have caught a shadow whipping past. What was that? What? That shadow, there it is again. Well, whatever it was, it’s gone now.

I am death, Dark thinks. I could change you utterly.

Elevators frighten him; he takes the stairs. Locked doors prove no difficulty. Now he strides a long white corridor, shielding his eyes from the glare. So many lights, so much glare.

What is that pulsing? A sign, HEART WING. There to his front, a pair of swinging doors. Another sign, LONGEVITY UNIT.  He sees endless aisles, tables placed end upon end, stretching a vast distance, the working surfaces covered with vials, tubes, bubbling liquids, microscopes. Cultures under glass. Workers in identical white tie-ons, most of them stationary, bent at these same tables, at these same microscopes. Scribbling onto color-coded tablets: white, yellow, blue.

His kind.

They work in silence, save for a vibrating hum emerging from the floor, the walls. The hum slows, ceases. He must exist as its cause. All turn now. Some rise, juggle spectacles, reduce a flame, slide one way and another this or that item. A hush settles. All are looking at him. They gawk, they murmur to each other. Smiles replace the quick frown. A few look away, down a far aisle. This or that one utters exclamation. Dark hears a voice–clear, precise, meant to be obeyed: Someone go tell Light her son is here. More whispering: a mutter. But now they are turning away: work calls them. So much work, so many years.

A woman’s heels are clattering. Not clattering, not heels exactly…a subdued sound, in fact, softest rubber. But in this hush, with these ears, in this pulsing, in the absence of the beating heart, every sound is magnified.

And here she is. Here someone is. Running his way. A screech. Another screech: his name. Daaaarrrkkk! The sound goes through him, hits the wall, bounces and echoes. His name. How long since he has heard it spoken? Such quivering in how she calls that name. Such heartbreak, such joy. Over there: a dart of whiteness along a far aisle, now that way, now this!

There she is, here she comes. Smiling, and such a smile. Dark feels his own face cracking open. He is leaving himself, he will fade as a shaft of darkness, a weightlessness of dust sifting beneath the floor.

“You’re here!” she cries. “You’re home!”

Arms enfold him.


—Leon Rooke

(“Son of Light” appeared originally in The Toby Press edition of The Republic of Letters, compiled by Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford)


Sep 282010

Here is Jacob’s translation of a passage from Caesar’s The Gallic Wars. Caesar is exposed as possibly a competent general and politician but a total loss in the area of animal identification. I missed this passage when we were reading Latin in high school (and it didn’t make it into the much more interesting Classic Comics version either).


From Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars

Translated by Jacob Glover


Sunt item quae apellantur alces. Harum est consimilis capris figura et varietas pellium, sed magnitudine paulo antecedent mutilaeque sunt cornibus et crura sine nodis articulisque habent; neque quietis causa procumbunt neque, si quo afflictae casu conciderunt, erigere sese aut sublevare possunt. His sunt arbores pro cubilibus ; ad eas se applicant atque ita paulum modo reclinate quietem capiunt. Quarum ex vestigiis cum est animadversum a venatoribus quo se recipere consuerint, omnes eo loco aut a radicibus subruunt aut accidunt arbores, tantum ut summa species earum stantium reliquantur. Huc cum se consuetudine reclinaverunt, infirmas arbores pondere affligunt atque una ipsae concidunt.

—Excerpta e Commentariis C. Iulii Caesaris de Bello Gallico (VI.25-28)

There are also those which are called elk, the shape of which resembles a goat and whose coat varies in color. Their size somewhat surpasses [the animals mentioned earlier on in the passage], their horns are chopped off, and they have legs without joints–so neither can they lie down for the sake of a rest, and if, by unfortunate happenstance, they are caused to fall over, the poor jointless elk are unable to stand up. The trees are their beds, onto which they lean themselves, and in this reclining position they seek quiescence. When a hunter comes upon the trail of these creatures, he makes it a practice to take all of the trees in the area and either uproot them or cut them just enough so that they are left standing. When the elk lean, out of habit, against the unstable trees, the weight of the elk knocks over the tree which, in due course, kills the elk.

—Excerpt from Julius Caesar’s Commentary on The Gallic Wars, translated by Jacob Glover

Sep 272010


The devil only knows what sort of nonsense it all is!  Every man hangs by a thread, an abyss can open up beneath him at any moment, he can create all sorts of unpleasantness for himself, spoil his whole life.” -Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

At least once during every phone conversation I have with my father, he quotes a line from the Cheech & Chong  movie Up in Smoke.  Strother Martin’s character is arguing with his middle-age, burnout son, played by Tommy Chong.  Martin desperately wants his son to find a job.

“When, boy? When?” Martin says. “When are you going to get your act together?”

Since I started writing and chose to embark upon the first prolonged period of unemployment in my life (in order to pursue this degree, and who knows beyond that), my father and I act out this scene weekly.  I laugh, and I have a few rejoinder lines about picking strawberries and bananas, and my dad finds this exchange uproariously funny.  He never tires of it.

But however lighthearted his joking is, disapproval lurks nearby.  Hidden beneath the surface humor is my father’s confusion, concern and probably a touch of shame.  He wants to understand what I’m doing, but can’t seem to grasp it.  He wants to be able to answer his friends when they ask, “What’s Richie doing these days?” but right now, he can’t.  He doesn’t have an answer that makes sense, anyway.

My father worked 30 years for Ford Motor Company.  Work was and is important to him.  He retired a few years ago and took a job driving airport vans in and out of Logan.  He’s always worked.  He doesn’t have a college degree and he thinks people hide-out in academia.  He’s scornful of graduate school.  He cuts his own grass, stains his own fence, and hardly ever takes a sick day.  He also reads, on average, one book every other year.  I must look pretty absurd from his perspective.  I must look a lot like Tommy Chong.  I certainly feel that way at times.  This path often makes no sense, and I was on a different path once, too.  That’s probably the other part of this that drives him crazy.  When I graduated from the Naval Academy almost twenty years ago, I remember what he said to me.  He said, “You’ve got the world by the balls.”

What does it mean to be a writer?  What does it mean to call oneself a writer?  How do you arrive at a point when you can answer the question, “What do you do?” with the unabashed response, “I’m a writer.”?

The poet David Rivard talks about “an on-going betrayal” of his roots, his “original class,” in his essay “Paint Brushes vs. Rollers.”  In this essay, Rivard explores the theme of fathers and sons with respect to writing.  He describes his own process of becoming a poet this way:

All this (writing poetry) involved a betrayal, one that was both pleasurable and guilt-laden.  I was doing something that had no place in the community from which I came.  No standing in the pragmatic world of shop stewards and cops and tillermen.  So there seemed no use in calling attention to myself.  I hardly spoke of it with my family, never called myself a poet (I said vaguely that I was interested in ‘writing’.)

Rivard says that he feels like an outsider in two communities, the working class roots of his home and family—the class he has betrayed by writing, by not becoming a doctor or lawyer—and the more privileged, elitist class of academia and poets.  “I still imagine myself as a usurper, a spy under the mill-owner’s son’s bed, an impersonator who has stolen a privilege to wear poetry, as if it were a frock coat.”  He speaks of a divided self, half-connected to his working class roots and half-drawn to the world of poets and writers.  Continue reading »

Sep 252010

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, my former student Richard Hartshorn and his brother Philip set out on an amazing adventure. They made a feature-length motion picture from scratch with nothing but their own inventiveness, persistence, and money (not to mention a tight group of intensely creative friends). Lots of people talk the talk, but very few ever actually do the work. Through the production Richard kept Numéro Cinq up to date on their progress with his film diary. This is the first in a series of ten diary entries describing the filmmaking process from conception to final cut. Each entry ends with a link at the bottom to bring you back to the table of contents. There are photos and videos, training videos, trailers and posters.

Rich is an actor, dramatist, game blogger, screenwriter and teacher. His diary gives NC readers a chance to see inside another art form, an art that is related to writing but slightly different. Nevertheless the process of imagining and assembling scenes, adapting a book to screen, directing actors, editing and so on are all fascinating in themselves and full of parallels in the world of pure writing. Besides that, I am all for people making art, whatever it is, rather than sitting on their butts in the living room. The sheer chutzpah involved in just going out and making your own damn movie is amazing and should be applauded. The world of art is an outlaw world, you can do anything you want.

What’s most exciting is that this isn’t some big budget extravaganza, no Hollywood packaging deal; this is real people who haven’t waited for the money gods to touch them or for their degrees from USC film school, people just following their passion and making art.

Table of Contents



I recently attempted to adapt some of the earlier works of J.R.R. Tolkien into screenplay form.  This is something I’ve wanted to do for years, and the film project that has resulted from this adaptation has been a blast to work on so far.  The challenges in the first stage of adaptation (the bare-bones screenplay) included, among other things, the following: 1) This text is beloved by many people (including myself) – How do I keep it true to the source material while translating it to “movie” form?; 2) These stories have many different versions, as they are from work considered “unfinished,” so I am essentially working from second and third drafts; 3) This isn’t modern run-of-the-mill fantasy; it’s the work of a Professor of Linguistics at Oxford who gave a fictional “history” to his invented languages by writing a mythology (which came in the form of The Silmarillion, The Book(s) of Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, The Lays of Beleriand and others).  Many of the early drafts are written purely in Old/Middle English.  How do I maintain that quality while making it my own work (not to mention keeping it coherent for someone who doesn’t know/care much about the text itself, since this will eventually be a piece of visual media)?

I.  The Opening – The story takes place at the end of Tolkien’s “First Age,” i.e. tens of thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit.  I’m working from material from three physical books, one of which (The Silmarillion) is an overview written in a style similar to the Norse Myths.  The second, Unfinished Tales (namely the story “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin”) is written in a close third-person narrative.  The third, “The Fall of Gondolin,” from The Book of Lost Tales 2, is very much a draft, originally hand-written and posthumously published by Tolkien’s son, Christopher (and also packed with footnotes by the latter).  As such, words are smudged and sometimes illegible and only left to speculation:  Did this character originally die here?  Was this guy supposed to have a different name?  Which version do we think Tolkien would have revised/canonized had he lived to publish this work himself?  Speculation, in a way, for me, is part of the beauty of this thing – rather than wondering how someone would have done something and completely limiting myself, I’m choosing what seems the most powerful.  I’m also working from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, in which the author discusses with friends and readers elements of his work that beg explanation (a very interesting one which I’ll come back to later: did the “Elves” have pointed ears?  The logical conclusion is “no,” as Tolkien used commonly known terms from European fairytales – Elf, Gnome, Troll, Ogre, Goblin – to describe his original creations, and later expressed deep regret for doing so, as using these words inevitably places inherent assumptions in a reader’s head).

So, the opening.  Essentially, I’m saying “Dear viewer; let’s catch you up on the last thousand or so years.”  There are a million interesting things to talk about, but I need to keep it limited to what’s important to this film alone.  People who have read it already know and appreciate the mythology, and people who haven’t won’t care (and if they do, they’ll go read it).  My brother’s reaction to my wordy first draft, which opened with the entirety of the Doom of Mandos, was something along the lines of “Dude, I know the stories, and I don’t even get this.”  The second draft toned this down – I used relevant lines from the Dooms for ambiance, while writing my own little “prologue” which featured a voiced-over character in the film describing a few events that directly led up to what’s happening in our immediate tale.  It seems simple enough, but it was surprisingly difficult to add something that wasn’t there (even though it kind of was…just not in my words).

Case in point, writing a prologue of an adapted work that many consider “thick” is something that takes a bit of thought and many breaks to go outside and breathe clean air.

—By Rich Hartshorn

Return to the table of contents

Sep 242010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.


Life is not a constant thing, it’s only made of short stories
I couldn’t even tell you where I’m from…I’m guided by the voices I’ve perfected.

Neko Case, “Guided by Wire”

I have to admit I totally cribbed the title for this part from John D. O’Banion’s book Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story,  a review of which is linked in an early Numero Cinq post. I’m currently ingesting this book, which attempts to reclaim narrative discourse  (which he dubs “story”) as an essential half of the dialectic of rhetorical theory, the other half being analytical thought (he calls this “list”). I’ve found it mind-expanding on every level of my own writing – I just replace “rhetorical theory” with “creative nonfiction.” I also wrote an earlier post called “7 Things I Learned from Reading 15 ‘List Essays’” which explored this dialectic before I actually started reading O’Banion’s book.

Montaigne understood this dialectic intuitively centuries before it was given a name. Every essay of his I’ve read (I’m now up to eleven) sidles effortlessly between his own thoughts and condensed narratives, so much so that the two are sometimes indistinguishable. His thoughts range from the aphoristic to personal (the subject of last month’s post), and most of the narratives are either summaries of things he’s read or accounts from his own life. One result of the fluid shifting from systematized “list” (his own thoughts) and “story” (which are, again, mostly short and condensed narratives) is that Montaigne’s essays don’t really seem like “essays” in the modern, systematized sense, but neither do they seem like narrative memoir or history . They are in effect, to borrow from Shklovsky, enstranged – they seem not normal, not scannable, not easily explained or summarized.

Perhaps this has something to do with Montaigne’s own reading habits.  Despite dying  roughly 400 years before the advent of the internet, Montaigne managed to surround himself with continual media stimuli. A gregarious, well-traveled statesman during a time of civil war in France before settling into mayorship of his hometown of Bordeaux, he also was an early beneficiary of the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press 80 years earlier, with a library with which he converses in his essays as fluidly as the many contemporary, living people in his town and country at the time. Thus, writers, statesmen, and local townsfolk bustle in and out of his work, sometimes seemingly without thought to logical or narrative structure – that is, until readers—and millions have read him in the last 430 years—realize that the structure is uniquely Montaigne’s. By the end of his three books of essays, Montaigne changes his mind about some things, solidifies his opinions and viewpoints on others – all within the confines of his strange, shapeshifting, personal systematic method of thought.

Take briefly, for our purposes here, “To philosophize is to learn how to die” from Book I of his essays. Though he begins the essay with three pages expounding on pleasure as the ultimate goal of wisdom, Montaigne’s melancholic mood while writing the essay is quite obvious from the fourth page on, as he approaches death from every angle he can find:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects. (24)

And with this singular determination of thought, Montaigne tells of Egyptians bringing mummified corpses to the dinner table with them (24); the pagan practice of placing their graveyards next to the temples “so that this continual spectacle of bones, tombs and funerals should remind us of our human condition” (27); his own personal admission that he most fears death when he’s at his healthiest (28); tiny creatures in the Hypanis River who live only one day (“those which die at eight in the morning die in youth; those which die at five in the evening die of senility”) (30); Chiron refusing immortality when he found out how long it would last (35); and many, many more examples – too many to list, really. All of this is of course unified not by a specific thesis but by the Great Unifier itself:

Yes, but all leave life in the same circumstances, young and old alike. (21)

For a great majority of Montaigne’s essays I’ve read so far, narrative plays a subservient role to Montaigne’s personal system of discourse – he has thoughts and runs with them, employing personal anecdote and epic story in service to this thought. One notable exception I’ve found so far is “On the Cannibals,” which seems to do the inverse. Most of that essay – about 80% by my estimation – gives extended narratives of warring “savage” tribes in Palestine, the continent of Africa, and elsewhere that European explorers where writing about in disgust at the time. He keeps his own comments relatively infrequent. Actually, his “comments” are mostly stories from European antiquity that mirror the acts that his contemporaries were dismissing as savage. Interestingly, in Chapter 8 of Reorienting Rhetoric , “The Rejection of Narration,” O’Banion speaks to a tendency among sociologists  to rely too heavily on listing and systematizing tribal cultures, most of them oral cultures whose primary mode of thought is narrative. This attempt to systematize tribal narratives leads to ethnocentrism:

By ethnocentrism [sociologist Jack Goody] means a “framework” of thought, including presuppositions, preconceived classification systems, and unnecessary and unconsciously held limitations of perspective. (156)

Compare this, then, to one of the few instances of commentary in “Of the Cannibals”:

…every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. (82)

Here, then, is an example of Montaigne traversing the limitations of his own culture’s systematic thought by employing, when writing of “savage” tribal cultures, their primary mode of discourse – narrative. While this example reveals the limitations of systematic thought, the modern example of I Remember tells Joe Brainard’s own personal narrative as a list.

It’s not surprising after reading even one page of I Remember that Joe Brainard was primarily a visual collage artist and secondarily a writer (to his own mind, at least) – his list-memoir is a pastiche of over a thousand descriptive images, short narratives, inversions, fantasies, revelations, and name checks, all tied together only by the fact that all begin with the words “I remember.” Brainard arranges them rarely with any apparent care for narrative cohesion – rather, he piles image upon image, memory upon memory, until the memories, almost by sheer weight, combine and condense into a vibrant, sometimes hilarious, sometimes gross, sometimes heartrending portrait of a gay youth in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the Fifties who moves to New York City and becomes part of a major art movement.

When reading various “list essays,” one question continually nagged at me: Could anyone pull this off in a book-length work?  I asked this question to Patrick Madden at the July residency, and he asked me if I’d ever heard of Joe Brainard. I’d heard the name, but didn’t know much about  him – to my shame, it turns out. Brainard was an integral part of the New York School of poetry (not the New York School of art and painting, to whose aesthetic movement his artwork bore little resemblance) and, living in New York City and fancying myself a novice historian, I’m now duly embarrassed that Brainard has eluded me until now. I Remember is not just a book but a compilation – he published many of the entries in smaller, chapbook-like editions through the Seventies, including I Remember, I Remember More, and More I Remember More.

If Brainard’s memory is a wide horizon, he swathes  the disparate elements into bundles in multiple ways. Due to the list format he uses to relay those memories, I found in myself a tendency to delineate his memories into categories, or simply “areas.” I’ll attempt to and elucidate many of these areas in due time, but before that it’s important to grasp two elements they all share:

  1. Brainard is a lingual minimalist. All of his memory-paragraphs are short, with almost no modifiers (i.e., adjectives or  adverbs).
  2. Every memory is separated by both an tab indent and a line break.

Now, to briefly return to Shklovsky. These two stylistic choices work together  to remove each memory from the linear horizon, to decontextualize it, to make it strange:

The purpose of the image is not to draw our understanding closer to that which the image stands for, but rather to allow us to perceive the object in a special way, in short, to lead us to a “vision of this object rather than mere “recognition.” (Shklovsky, “Art as Device,” Theory of Prose p10)

Brainard frees each individual memory  from its original context, and forces it to stand naked, competing with thousands more naked memories before and after it for the reader’s attention. Sometimes there is a vague, free-associative sense of the memories’ relationships to each other, as in these four short paragraphs:

I remember chalk.

I remember when green chalkboards were new.

I remember a backdrop of a brick wall I painted for a play. I painted each red brick in by hand. Afterwards it occurred to me that I could have just painted the whole thing red and put in the white lines.

I remember how much I tried to like Van Gogh. And how much, finally, I did like him. And how much, now, I can’t stand him. [28]

But much more often the memories are estranged from each other, leaving the associations to the reader. These reader associations can be personal, whether a recognition of objects, emotions, or references in the memories. They can also be connections inferred between the memories – I, for example, noticed that Brainard remembered “the outhouse and a Sears and Roebuck catalog “ on page  24, then on page 60 “a ringworm epidemic and being scared to death that I would get it,” and I remembered a recent show on NPR where a scientist described his lifetime contribution to his field – the discovery in the fifties that ringworms were spread primarily through fecal remnants that bare feet stepped into on their way to the outhouse.

Now, about those categories. At first I was going to number each memory and list the occurrences of each major area of experience, maybe even make a nice circle graph that would reveal something about the balance of the memories or some logic in their ordering, but I soon realized that 1) that’s a lot of work, 2) it would be a little too nurturing of my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and 3) most importantly, such itemization would do a disservice to the intuitive, spontaneous quality of the work Brainard has created. So instead, in light if the impulsive nature of the book itself, I decided to simply open the book at random with my notecard of categories/areas in hand, pick a memory, and explain how it elucidates at least one of the categories I’ve deduced from my first reading. (The categories are in italics.)

  • “I remember a tower on top of a building in Tulsa that changed colors every few minutes. But only green and yellow and white.” (104)
    This simple, airtight description of an object is something Brainard repeats many, many times throughout the book. Sometimes these objects come before over after an event or action that gives them context, but many times, like this one which comes right after a series of memories involving the barber shop, the context is quite loose. It’s followed by a memory about the hat store, so the only inference I could imagine would be an aesthetic or metaphoric connection of the tower atop the building and the hat atop the head. Which actually makes a strange sense, given Brainard’s penchant for visual collage which is apparent here and elsewhere in the book though his visual description of colors.
  • “I remember (after school) soda fountain shops with booths, and a jukebox, but only in the movies.” (143)
    I really love this one, because it does, in three lines, many of the things Brainard does so well throughout the book – he remembers something from his childhood, then inverts it into something else, thus commenting in the influence TV had (has) on his perspective (he was, after all, raised in the golden age of television).
  • “I remember a boy I once made love with and after it was all over he asked me if I believed in God.” (20)
    Actual self-contained narratives are relatively sparse in the book, and as seen here, are sparse within themselves when they do appear. But here we have a story, in a sentence, that merges (so to speak) two of Brainard’s main concerns throughout the book, sexual discovery and god and religion. While many of his other descriptions of sexual encounters are graphic and non-erotic, this one is actually both sweet and ironic. It’s one of the few times his idealized view of love and romance shares space with the reality of his own experience.
  • “I remember a story about a couple who owned a diner. The husband murdered his wife and ground her up into hamburger meat. Then one day a man was eating a hamburger at the diner and he came across a piece of her fingernail. That’s how the husband got caught.” (59)
    This might be called cheating, if there were rules – not an actual memory but a memory of a communal myth, made especially delectable  by the nature of the myth. I mean, who hasn’t heard a story, growing up, about something disturbing going on at the fast food joint? (My mother used to tell me McDonald’s made their burgers from worms, a legend so ubiquitous that devoted a page to disproving it.) This memory/legend also combines Brainard’s fascination with the disgusting and his sense of humor with his sometimes morbid, sometimes elegiac, always matter-of-fact mention of death.
  • “I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly.”
    Holy mackerel. I have to say, this one actually made me stop reading for a minute when I first read it. Here is something you’re not supposed to admit remembering, a racially charged episode where the primary cultural plotline of his time, the Civil Rights Movement, assumes secondary importance to the child’s simplistic, external view of the world. More than most, this particular memory walks a fine line between honest and asinine.

The wonderful irony of both Montaigne’s essays and Brainard’s I Remember is that both, through intuitive enstrangement of normal, everyday language, achieve their own sort of “magical realism,” for lack of a less-used term. Where Montaigne achieves this through seamless juxtaposition of the personal narrative and grand, almost omniscient statements, Brainard makes his own personal experiences epic by singling them out and alienating them from each other, and using clean, sparse language to relay them.

Serendipitiously (for me, if not for the topic of the piece), I read a recent article on about Kevin Morrissey, the Virginia Quarterly editor whose suicide has attracted national media attention. In this devastating, sad essay, Steve Almond uses a list format similar in style to Brainard’s to trace the narrative of Morrissey’s death and the aftermath, and also to question a publishing industry that’s becoming more and more bottom line-driven, writers and editors – himself included – who sometimes forget amidst the seas of rejection letters (and our own narcissism) why we write:

We’re going to destroy ourselves as a species if we lose the capacity to imagine the suffering of others. One way to do this – the best way – is via our imaginations, via storytelling. It’s our job to help spread that particular virus, in our work and our lives. The point isn’t to take sides. There are no sides. There’s just the one side. And we’re all on it. [Read it all]

—John Proctor

Sep 212010

Laura Von Rosk lives with her dog Molly on a lagoon just outside Schroon Lake, New York. She curates the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project, a gallery dedicated to the experimental and the avant garde. She’s an old friend and a wonderful landscape painter. She paints landscapes of the hyperreal, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of the Adirondacks outside her window, but often deeply rooted in fantasy, formal invention and eros. Sometimes the land becomes a female nude, sometimes it is denuded. She never paints a human being in her scenes, though sometimes there are tracks or smoldering fires or lopped trees left behind by humans. Some of her most interesting work starts with a quotation or a reference. She loves the Hudson River School, illuminated manuscripts and the early renaissance Italians–but where they might fold a landscape around a church or a scene with figures, Von Rosk subtracts the human so that absence haunts her landscapes. She plays with form: the classical elongated S of landscape art leading back through the painting to the horizon becomes a track or a valley or a lake. She plays with holes, scoops, gouges, cliffs, crevices, rivers. Sometimes she paints fields of holes.  And then she  inverts the form and fills her pictures with bumps, lumps, hills, knobs and mounds. Everything she paints is small, layered with tiny brush strokes, painted over and over again, on laminated wood panels first covered with a white gesso and sanded glossy. What digital reproduction cannot show is  the strangely beautiful effect of these layers of paint, the depth and glow of  the images under good light.  The aim here is not for realism or any kind of conventional romantic land(-e)scapism. Von Rosk’s trees are tree-ish without being trees; their oddness is startling and dreamlike. Her vision of Nature is melancholy, a bit lorn and bereft. But the layers of painting reflecting back at the viewer add an intensity, a luminescence that reminds one of religious icons. The paintings shown here all start from somewhere else. “Lake with Dead Trees” nods to Thomas Cole (notice how, from Cole to Von Rosk, the romantic deer  in the foreground have disappeared). “Three Philosophers” is Von Rosk’s idea of Giorgione’s painting by the same name. “Black Trees” is inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow.” And “Untitled (craggy hills)” is Giotto without God, Christ or people. Vladimir Nabokov said somewhere that all books are about other books, and much the same can be said of painting. Von Rosk telescopes the history of art and lets it echo somewhere in the background along with the echoes of the  absences, the people, the busy-ness, and the voices that have all gone mysteriously missing.


Lake-dead trees

Lake with Dead Trees (after Cole), oil on wood, 12 x 12 inches.

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Sep 202010

Rebecca Martin

Rebecca Martin is a former student, a very committed and independent person who has worked all over the world helping to make it a better place. See her wonderful “Dispatches from Moscow” on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. This essay was her critical thesis at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a masterful example of the genre, an incisive, clear and compelling analysis of how authors get across to the reader the emotional states of their characters.



Midway through grad school, I knew I had a problem when people’s comments began to sound alarmingly the same. “This story seems blank, impressionistic.” “I can’t tell what the narrator wants or what she feels about other characters.” Once, to my horror, a workshop participant said she was annoyed by my narrator’s condescending attitude, an attitude diametrically opposed to my intention. Advisors pitched in as well. One advisor wrote that I seemed to be holding back. Another said that while the details of my African journey fascinated her (a kind note), my emotional journey was missing from the page.

Clearly, I needed to admit that despite my exotic settings and riveting plot points (dazzling only me, apparently), the reader would not turn the page unless she felt engaged by emotion. Why are emotions important? As Bharti Kirchner writes in “Putting Emotion into Your Fiction,” emotions are “more compelling than ideas, facts, and reasoning, which are the stuff of nonfiction. In fiction, the character must act from emotion, rather than reason. And emotional truth is the reward readers hope to get from a novel.” (Kirchner 139.) Kirchner notes in her essay a preliminary list of techniques for emotional representation: establish character sympathy in openings; show physical symptoms in your characters; write dialogue that sizzles; create atmosphere in setting; and use symbolism, feeling words, and diction in one’s writing.

I started to write because I wanted to better understand and share perspectives gained from my years of teaching and living overseas, an experience that deeply changed me. But whether my intention is to explore, persuade, or simply inform, the reader needs to come away with a lived experience, felt through the emotions on the page. In writing this essay, I hope to provide myself with a set of techniques and ground rules that will help the reader experience the emotions of my characters, and my own as a nonfiction essayist.

First, I shall note and compare three key techniques of emotional representation as implemented in three short stories, each by a different author. Each author uses the techniques to shape the emotional arc of the story. The techniques are also used in a manner that is best suited to reveal the final discoveries of his characters. I shall then discuss how both the arc and final discoveries achieves an aim, to move a character towards a changed emotional state, a construct of the self that—in the most satisfying stories—has been altered from the character’s initial desire. Finally, I’ll conclude with a list of “rules” for emotional representation drawn from the essay.

The stories discussed are all first-person narratives, which allow me to more easily make comparisons between them, and to my own work. However, I believe my conclusions can also be applied to stories written from a third-person point of view. The stories are: “Run Away, My Pale Love” by Steve Almond, “Previous Condition” by James Baldwin, and “Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien
The key techniques I found fall into three chief categories: 1) the narrator’s emotion in thought, 2) his interaction with other characters, and 3) his physical behavior.

Character thought revolves around assessments of what the narrator desires: his progress or frustration towards a goal. These thoughts can be the re-thinking of events (both in backstory and in front story), the naming of emotions, and thinking about emotions in thematic passages, which are observations at a slight remove from ongoing action.

Character interaction includes the narrator’s observations and reactions to other characters’ physical appearances, facial expressions, habits, actions, and dialogue.

Finally, a character’s physical behaviors include his body language, actions, gestures, and internal physical symptoms.

In the three stories, setting details (atmosphere) and diction also play an important role in revealing emotion, but I shall only touch on them briefly as they intersect with the three key techniques above.

Character Thought

I shall start with a discussion of character thought, prefaced by a brief summary of each story.


“Run Away, My Pale Love” by Steve Almond appears in his collection of short stories, My Life in Heavy Metal. “Run Away, My Pale Love” is approximately 12,000 words and constructed by numerous short passages, most under a page long.

The following is the nucleus of the story: One May morning, David, a 30-year-old doctoral candidate of comparative literature, sees Basha, a young Polish woman, on a nameless American campus. Two weeks later, he manages to ask her out, but she refuses to kiss him. At this point, David notes to himself that he longs for a grand romance, which Basha also seems to want; on their second date, they have sex until dawn. She returns to Poland. At the end of his summer break, David visits her in Warsaw. She tells him she wants to return to America with him, but David goes home alone. He visits her a second time at Christmas, this time staying in Katowice (a city about 150 kilometers from Warsaw) in the apartment that Basha shares with her twice-widowed mother. Mamu accepts David, but he observes that the genuine affection and intimacy the two women share is missing from his relationship from Basha. The following May, he returns for a third and final summer-long visit to Katowice, time he uses to work on his dissertation. By this time, the couple’s sex life has wilted. In July, David is offered a teaching position in America, but Basha refuses to join him. On his final night, Basha refuses sex. They tussle and Basha elbows him in the mouth. She runs into Mamu’s room. Mamu comes out an hour later to hug him goodbye. David breaks down and sobs in Mamu’s arms.

For a story about sexual infatuation, David’s narrative thought plays a surprisingly important role—surprising because he mostly thinks his emotions, rather than closely feeling them. The narrative is peppered with his intellectualizations and includes two thematic passages that are also somewhat abstract in tone.

In the opening lines, David notes his confused mental state.

This was just before my thirtieth birthday. I was in graduate school of all places. I had no idea why. None of us did. We were extremely well-spoken rubber duckies. You could push us in any one direction and we would flounder on forever. Sometimes, in the drowsy winter hallways, my conscience would rear up and remind me I was dumb with luck. Other times, I wish they would turn the whole place into a homeless shelter. (Almond 79)

Here, David’s “conscience” is pricked, which re-enters later, when he assesses his relationship with Basha. Also in this first paragraph, character sympathy is established by David’s comic self-deprecating voice, and note also the inclusive “we,” a first-person reference that David returns to in the conclusion.

In keeping with David’s tendency to think his emotions, even his first sighting of Basha is a mental construct. He is with a friend when he sees Basha, but insists that he is not gawking. “This was more or less true. Somewhere in my mid-twenties it dawned on me that female beauty didn’t require any encouragement from me. Female beauty was doing just fine on its own. But I couldn’t get this woman out of my head.” (Almond 80) (Italics mine.)

He manages to get Basha’s phone number because he tells her he loves The Painted Bird, although he has never read Kosinski. They have a disastrous first date in which he forgets his wallet. This scene is followed by a thematic passage in which he again intellectualizes his emotional state:

The amateur psychologists in the crowd will perhaps sense the significance of the lost wallet: The subject subconsciously enacts a fantasy in which he is stripped of his identity through a powerful, exotic love.

To which I would respond: Doy hickey.

I was ravenous for a love so grandiose as to obliterate my past. (Almond 81) (Italics are Almond’s.)

This statement of being ravenous for a grandiose love, better than any other, reveals David’s goal. But he is also trapped here in an intellectual murkiness, and denial. He says not the stripping of his identity, yet wants to obliterate his past? (Hickey means love bite, but the sole reference I could find for doy was on a high-schooler’s blog, in which he says his sister uses doy! for not! There is also the similarity to doohickey, but I have to conclude that Doy hickey is Almond’s inventive wordplay at work here, to express denial.)

He goes on in this thematic passage to describe his tendency to wreck relationships before they can get off the ground, and ends the passage with a statement that is abstract, universal in construct. “What we want is the glib aria of disastrous love, which is, finally, the purest expression of self-contempt.” (Almond 82) Importantly, Almond returns to a statement of a shared universal condition in the final phrase of the story.

David even describes their sexual encounters in intellectual terms. After the first time they have sex, he states that “Basha had been sent to rescue me from the dull plight of my life. This, it would turn out, is the main thing we had in common: a susceptibility to the brassy escapism of myth.” (Almond 84) Later, in their hotel room, she tears the button off his pants. “I’d seen this sort of thing, in films hoping to suggest reckless passion. But this was the first time I’d been inside the animal experience, so famished for physical love as to overleap the gooey crescendo of intimacy.” (Almond 86) David’s narrative distance, his naming of leaping over true intimacy, tips the reader off to the ultimate fate of their relationship.

When Basha expresses her desire to return to America to make a life with him, his reaction is again distant, ideational, alluding to the universal. “This was all terribly real. I had to remind myself. . . . Hadn’t I come to Poland in the hopes of just such a plea? Don’t we all, in the private kingdom of our desires, dream about such pleas?” (Almond 88) But the conclusion of her “end to the hunt,” as David calls it, is to be prolonged. He returns home, where he notes in the second thematic passage:

We were ideally suited to the long-distance relationship, with its twisted calculus of wish fantasy and ardent grief. We wrote long epistles full of desire and ardent grief. We perfected the art of nostalgia, extracting the finer moments from the tangle of actual experience. We took the inconvenience of our love as proof of its profundity. (Almond 89)

When he returns to Poland at Christmas, staying in Basha’s and Mamu’s apartment, he now enjoys the doting attention of both women, but his stance is at a conscious remove. “What will I have to do? Stand there and look pretty. This was the secret dividend of loving a woman from a foreign country: very little was required of me.” (Almond 90) On this trip, his inability to feel real intimacy is also mirrored in Basha: “She was emotionally inobvious. That was true. But wasn’t that part of the mystery? Wasn’t that, in some sense, the entire point?” (Almond 92)

A shift occurs in the story here, away from its emphasis on losing oneself in sexual infatuation to David’s longing for intimacy. This is felt in his observations of Basha and Mamu (character interaction). Still, when he returns to the States, surrounded by other women students, he notes: “The last thing I wanted was a woman who actually understood me.” (Almond 96)

By this point, the plot point of dying passion—fantastic or real—has been set. When he returns to Poland for his final trip, he observes what seems to be Basha’s fear of her own emotions: “Aside from sexual congress, during which her mind and body seemed open to the fluctuations of experience, she remained determinedly opaque. She was not dumb or shallow. . . . She simply mistrusted the depth of her feelings. (Almond 97) This is also when David notes that their “sex life wilted under the rigor of permanence.” (Almond 97)

Finally, at the end of summer before his return to the states, when Basha refuses to join him, she claims that he loves her too much to leave (denial of true emotions on her part as well). On his final night, when she refuses sex, she inadvertently whacks him in the mouth, drawing blood. She runs to Mamu for comfort and he understands then why Mamu has never resented him. Mamu knew all along that Basha would never leave her. Yes, the three techniques of thought, interaction, and the physical are woven together here, but again, rather than expressing the end of the relationship in personal terms, as a physically felt emotion for example, David relies on a generalization: “Men were people who left; they were not dependable. Their other charms, their money and their words and their cocks, these were only temporary compensations. Her daughter was finally learning this.” (Almond 101) He does admit, on a more personal note, and put in second person to suggest universality: “There is a point you reach, I mean, when you are just something bad that happened to someone else.” (Almond 101)

Finally, in the last line, David has a physical reaction that expresses his emotional state. Mamu hugs him, and he buries his head in her bosom and sobs, “for Basha, for Mamu, for all of us in the suffering of our desires.” (Almond 101) David’s final thought, “all of us suffering in our desires,” functions emotionally (and more so than other character thoughts) because it occurs in the context of character interaction, and his weeping, his physical break-down.

David is a man sinking in his intellect. He cannot make a leap of faith, enter intimacy. Actually, the most deeply felt emotional moments seem to occur in David’s interaction with the other characters, but I’ll discuss that later. The point here is that Almond has chosen to rely on character thought to talk about loneliness. In an interview, when Almond was questioned about the graphic sexuality of the entire collection (My Life in Heavy Metal), he responded:

That’s just the furniture. What people are doing in the book, men and women, is desperately seeking a path from loneliness and desperation, and so they throw their bodies before their hearts . . . if you really want to talk about the really interesting part of sexuality—which is the emotional vulnerability of it, how much is at stake, how desperate and embarrassed people are, how ecstatic and out-of-control—that is off limits. (From an interview on Identity Theory)

Almond extends the rope of David’s intellectuality as far as it can sustain him. At first, the narrative relies on a tragic-comic tone in longer passages of thought, a denial device. (Here also, Almond employs diction, the use of such phrases as “sexual congress,” “determinedly opaque,” and “the rigor of permanence,” to show David’s wonky take on things.) However, the narrative is increasingly subsumed by particularized observations of the other characters, and when abstractions do occur they become more particularized as well. When the rope of David’s intellectuality finally snaps, he is emotionally stranded.


Peter, the narrator character in “Previous Condition” by James Baldwin, is also a man at the end of his rope, but Baldwin relies on all three techniques of emotional revelation more equally. In Ann Charters’s editorial introduction (from Major Writers of Short Fiction), she notes: “‘Previous Condition’ was originally published in Commentary in October 1948. The critic Peter Freese considers it one of the most important stories in Going to Meet the Man because it ‘contains nearly all the themes and techniques Baldwin was to unfold in his oeuvre and thus serves as a useful introduction to an understanding of his work.’” (Charters 58)

That said, most of the narrative thought occurs out of the present action of this story. (The story is approximately 5,500 words and has eight scenes, two of which are backstory. There are also two thematic passages, the first an actual dream and the second dream-like, but both these passages also occur outside of ongoing action.) In the present moment, Baldwin relies almost entirely on character interaction and physical behavior to reveal emotion.

The summary of the story is as follows: Peter wakes and recalls a recurring nightmare. He wonders what to do about his situation. He is an out-of-work black actor, living in a room lent to him by a white friend, Jules, in all-white New York boarding house, but he expects to be kicked out soon because of the landlady’s racism. In a backstory scene, he recalls the first time he was called a nigger, his mother calling him a bum, and his return to his New Jersey hometown for his mother’s funeral. In a second backstory scene from the previous year, his white girlfriend Ida chastises him for a derogatory remark he makes about black people, and he also recalls how he has learned to play the fool. Back in the present moment, he thinks of a dream-like experience he’s had of listening to music. Then the landlady kicks him out. He visits Jules and confesses his worry about his increasing hatred of everyone. That night over dinner with Ida, he flares up when she tries to comfort him. He then takes the subway alone to Harlem, where he drinks in a black bar, but when a woman sitting next to him makes a friendly comment, he insults her. Immediately regretful, he offers to buy her and another woman drinks. When she asks him, “Baby. What’s your story?,” he responds, “I got no story, Ma.” (Baldwin 71)

The story opens with Peter’s physical symptoms, his sensations waking from his dream, and then the sounds in the boarding house. The first instance of narrative thought occurs in the recollection of his dream. He can’t recall the dream exactly, but assumes it must have been his recurring nightmare of running in fear. This paragraph concludes with a naming of emotion: “I would go to sleep frightened, and wake up frightened and have another day to get through with the nightmare at my shoulder.” (Baldwin 60)

The dream passage is immediately followed by thoughts about his past, a device that Baldwin uses often in the first half of the story to speak about his “previous condition.”  Peter is back in New York because the Chicago play he had acted in folded. Here are two excerpts from that long backstory paragraph: “I played a kind of intellectual Uncle Tom, a young college student working for his race. The playwright was a liberal, I guess.” (Baldwin 60) He then thinks that he should be out trying to find another acting job.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t face it. It was summer. I seemed to be fagged out. And every day I hated myself more. Acting’s a rough life, even if you’re white. I’m not tall and I’m not good-looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand. (Baldwin 60)

Although he names feeling “fagged out” and hating himself, the tone here is so factual, so dryly and ironically voiced, with anger bubbling just under the surface, that I am drawn to this character. We understand from his voice that he is struggling to avoid self-pity, and so character sympathy is established.

In a short second scene, he describes his dismal, borrowed room, and notes that every morning he expects to get kicked out, again in a factual, thinking tone. “I didn’t know what would happen. It might be all right. But the waiting was getting to me.” (Baldwin 61)

This second scene ends with another backstory paragraph. I’ll quote the entire paragraph here, as I admire Baldwin’s diction. The parallel sentence structures of short clauses (pronouns followed by blunt verbs) create a rhythm of hopelessness and irony.

I’d done a lot of traveling in my time. I’d knocked about through St Louis, Frisco, Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans, worked at just about everything. I’d run away from my old lady when I was about sixteen. She’d never been able to handle me. You’ll never be nothin’ but a bum, she’d say. We lived in an old shack in a town in New Jersey in the nigger part of town, the kind of houses colored people live in all over the U.S. I hated my mother for living there. I hated all the people in my neighborhood. They went to church and they got drunk. They were nice to the white people. When the landlord came around they paid him and took his crap. (Baldwin 61) (Italics are Baldwin’s.)

The next two scenes (the third and fourth in the story) are also backstory. He recalls his childhood, related entirely in action and dialogue. The second backstory scene is a trip with Ida upstate. Peter is twenty-five and Ida is thirty, married to a wealthy ballet dancer who she suspects is homosexual but hardly ever sees. Peter ends the description of her with this thought: “We never let it get too serious. She went her way and I went mine.” (Baldwin 63)

The distant nature of their relationship triggers an insertion of a page-long description of how he has learned to adopt a false self-identity to cope with racism. I’ll cite two excerpts of narrative thought here, because they most directly address his present emotional condition.

I’d learned to get by. I’d learned to never be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong. What might be accepted as just good old American independence in someone else would be insufferable arrogance in me. After the first few times I realized that I had to play smart, to act out the role I was expected to play. (Baldwin 63) There are times and places when a Negro can use his color like a shield. He can trade on the subterranean Anglo-Saxon guilt and get what he wants that way; or some of what he wants. He can trade on his nuisance value, his value as forbidden fruit; he can use it like a knife, he can twist it and get his vengeance that way. I knew these things long before I realized that I knew them and in the beginning I used them, not know what I was doing. Then when I began to see it, I felt betrayed. I felt beaten as a person. I had no honest place to stand on. (Baldwin 63)

If we can specifically locate Peter’s desire in the text, it occurs in these last three sentences, although his desire is expressed in a negative sense. What he wants is the opposite of what’s stated. He wants to feel not betrayed, not beaten. He wants an honest stance. But the only way he can be accepted is through vengefully playing off white guilt.

Baldwin concludes this backstory scene by noting how his white New York friends, mostly his theater crowd, always seem to pity him. They acknowledge his talent, but he senses that they think he’ll never get anywhere. The tone here changes from dry and ironic to more genuine, almost confessional. “I wondered if I trusted them; if I was able any longer to trust anybody. Not on top, where all the world could see, but underneath where everybody lives.” (Baldwin 64) This narrative thought also refers to his desire—that he wants to trust people, including himself.

In the following scene, we return to the present action, a few moments after he has woken. Peter is still listening to Beethoven from the radio downstairs. Here, Baldwin inserts one last recollection from the past, a marvelously lyrical and dream-like paragraph which I believe could be called a thematic passage because it alludes to what he desires. Peter recalls going to an outdoor concert with Jules and Ida. In the stadium, “There, it seemed to me the sky was far away; and I was not myself, I was high and lifted up.” (Baldwin 64) Additionally, the setting details here work to create an atmosphere of communality and peace with the world.  The passage concludes:

There were pauses in the music for the rushing, calling halting piano. Everything would stop except the climbing soloist; he would reach a height and everything would join him, the violins first and then the horns; and then the deep blue bass and the flute and the bitter trampling drums beating, beating and mounting together and stopping with a crash like daybreak. When I first heard the Messiah I was alone; my blood bubbled like blood and fire; I cried; like an infant crying for its mother’s milk; or a sinner running to meet Jesus. (Baldwin 64)

Peter sees himself as “the climbing soloist,” but then being joined by others. In the last sentence, he returns to his desire for innocence and redemption, although inflected by solitude again. These emotions are emphasized by the active verbs: bubbled, cried and crying, and running.

Then the landlady knocks on his door, kicks him out. The conclusion of this scene is in character interaction and physical behavior, as is most of the rest of the story for that matter. First, he visits Jules where he confesses his worries about what’s happening to him. This is followed by the scene with Ida at dinner. Both of his friends sympathize with his troubles, but Peter feels they can’t really help him. In these two scenes, all the emotional revelations occur in character interaction and physical behavior.

The concluding scene, Peter riding the subway to Harlem and drinking at the bar, follows this pattern of active scene inflected by Peter’s observations. It’s as if the ongoing rush of events don’t allow him to insert the narrative thoughts that might lend him perspective, distance. I found only one passage of character thought that is not embedded in action or direct observation. In the last half-page of the story, after he regrets insulting the woman at the bar, he notes:

I longed for some opening, some sign, something to make me a part of the life around me. But there was nothing except my color. A white outsider coming in would have seen a young Negro drinking in a Negro bar, perfectly in his element, in his place, as the saying goes. But the people here knew differently, as I did. I didn’t seem to have a place. (Baldwin 70)

The casually inserted line, “But the people here knew differently, as I did,” is the sole reference Peter makes to any identification with “my people” as he sarcastically notes elsewhere. By extension, I think we can infer that Peter thinks the other people in the bar don’t have a place either. The story concludes with another woman joining the first, Peter offering to buy both of them drinks, and with him saying that he doesn’t have a story.

If we consider Peter’s desire, trying to find an honest place on which to stand, we might say that his small recognition of the other people in the bar hardly mitigates his own isolation. Still, in the end he has achieved a somewhat more honest stance. He finally admits that he doesn’t have a story or a place.

Baldwin uses narrative thought chiefly to note Peter’s “previous condition” and his wishes for the future (both of these are moments out of a present time), but most of the present emotional moments are revealed through character interaction and physical behavior. It is noteworthy that the final emotional revelation of the story is in dialogue (his interaction with other characters), because this is a story of a man in a social construct.


Of the three authors, O’Brien has most inventively staged the key techniques of emotional representation in his story “Rainy River.” Like Almond and Baldwin, he uses the longest passages of character thought in the first half of his story, to provide background information and context. O’Brien also makes his character conscious of the role of narrator thought; the character states that his intellect can’t help him. Also, unlike the other two authors, O’Brien uses thematic passages (four in “Rainy River”) not only to assess progress towards a goal, but also as a transformative device.

This story is approximately 6,500 words, has seven scenes, and is framed as a recollection of events taking place twenty years before, in the summer of 1968. (The story was first published in 1990.)

First, I must note that O’Brien’s work has provoked much speculation about his blending of autobiographical truth and fiction. Suffice it to say here that O’Brien has stated that his goal has been to write story truth as distinct from happening truth, so in discussing this first-person narrative, I shall simply refer to the narrator as Tim and to the author as O’Brien.

The summary of the story is as follows: In the opening, Tim states that he has always been too ashamed to tell anyone this story. He recalls his objections to the Vietnam War, but he has falsely assumed he can’t be drafted as he is about to go to graduate school (Harvard) on full scholarship. Then in June, he receives his draft notice. He considers his options including Canada. One day at his summer job at a hog slaughterhouse in his Minnesota town, he has what constitutes an emotional breakdown. That same morning, he takes off, drives to a small resort on the American side of the Rainy River, the border with Canada. Now late August, the resort is empty except for the owner, an 81-year-old man named Elroy Berdahl. Elroy does not question Tim, simply takes him almost wordlessly. Tim stays for six days during which time he helps Elroy with the tasks of winterizing the resort. Elroy refuses to take payment for Tim’s stay, and instead pays him for his help. On Tim’s last day, Elroy takes Tim in his boat to a fishing spot twenty yards from the Canadian shore. But Tim can’t jump. He sobs loudly. They return to the resort. The next morning while Tim is packing, Elroy disappears. Tim returns home and then goes to Vietnam.

The opening lines are this confession:

This is one story I’ve never told before. Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife. To go into it, I’ve always thought, would only cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession. (O’Brien 39)

Rather than the reader needing to “be elsewhere,” this confessional opening is a promise of intimacy, guaranteed to draw the reader into the realm of the secret—a ploy that is perhaps best known in the opening line of the diary of Anne Frank: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone. . .” (Frank 1) This promise of intimacy is how O’Brien establishes character sympathy in his first line.

Tim states that his confession feels not only embarrassing, but shameful: “For more than twenty years, I’ve had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I’m hoping to relieve some of the pressure on my dreams.” (O’Brien 39) This is the desire of the story, stated in narrative thought:  to relieve his shame, his loss of courage at letting himself be drafted. He also notes, that he used to think that courage was something to be hoarded, like an inheritance account to be drawn out only when necessary, as opposed to the “bothersome little acts of daily courage.” (O’Brien 40)

Tim then poses a full page of questions about the morality of the war. Finally, he notes, “I had taken a modest stand against the war,” but “Oddly, though, it was almost entirely an intellectual activity.” (O’Brien 41) So far, the narrative has been his thoughts about his shame and objections to the war. However, when he receives his draft notice, his immediate reaction is a physical symptom, but he quickly returns to narrative thought: “I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn’t happen. I was above it.” (O’Brien 41) (Italics are O’Brien’s.) He concludes this scene with another page of narrative thought in which he thinks about who should be responsible for the war.

The second scene begins with a summary of his summer job. This long paragraph is remarkable for its gory details of being a pig declotter (his job is to squirt a heavy water gun at the eviscerated hog carcasses), a horribly rich parallel to what killing in a war might feel like, but the tone is distant. Tim the narrator is still in avoidance mode. (And this is an authorial choice as well. The details of the hog fluids and blood clots spraying Tim are vivid enough to stand on their own.) Tim only states mildly: “It was not pleasant work.” (O’Brien 43) In fact, the worst thing about the job seems to be the smell of pig that he cannot wash out, which makes him recall: “. . . it was tough getting dates that summer. I felt isolated; I spent a lot of time alone.” (O’Brien 43) And almost as an afterthought, he recalls: “And there was also that draft notice tucked away in my wallet.” (O’Brien 43)

This avoidance technique (here in Tim’s numb tone) is found elsewhere in O’Brien’s work, perhaps most pointedly in another short story, also in this collection: “How to Tell a True War Story.” Avoidance (which is an interesting way to present emotion) can be used in any of the key techniques. I’ll note later how O’Brien uses avoidance in not-answering dialogue.

Still in this second scene, he wonders if he might qualify for a conscientious objector’s status or if he might go to Canada. “In the beginning the idea seemed purely abstract, the word Canada printing itself out in my head.” (O’Brien 44) But he begins to imagine details “a hotel room in Winnipeg, a battered old suitcase,” (O’Brien 44) and names that he fears loss of respect and ridicule if he were to become an exile.

Next, the first thematic passage occurs. The passage might also be called rhetorical because Tim does not reflect on the past; he imagines what would happen if he left for Canada. He pictures in his mind the people in his hometown sitting around at the old Gobbler Café, what they would say if he became a draft resistor. “At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d carry on fierce arguments with those people. I’d be screaming at them . . .” (O’Brien 45)  But the arguments are imagined; it is as if he is arguing with himself. The page is too long to quote here, although I also admire O’Brien’s use of diction here, his repetitions of parallel sentence structures, repeating—like a rolling drum beat—such phrases as: “I feared . . . ,” “I held them responsible . . . ,” and “They didn’t know . . .” (O’Brien 45)

Finally, he does have a physical reaction at his job (his emotional breakdown), but I will detail that later in my discussion of physical behavior. However, it is important to note that it is Tim’s physical reaction that makes him decide to drive north towards Canada, not his character thought which has dominated the first eight pages of the story.

The third and fourth scenes are Tim’s narrative of driving north, arriving at the resort, and his interactions with Elroy. These pages are the bulk of the action, and the emotions shown here are largely in physical symptoms, his inflected observations of the landscape and resort, and in character interaction. However, narrative thought inserts at one point (in the fourth scene), when Elroy nearly asks about Tim’s situation, but Elroy holds back.

The man understood that words were insufficient. The problem had gone beyond discussion. During that long summer I’d been over and over the various arguments, all the pros and cons, and it was no longer a question that could be decided by an act of pure reason. Intellect had come up against emotion. My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not even the folks at the Gobbler Café. I was ashamed to be there at the Tip Top Lodge. I was ashamed of my own conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing. (O’Brien 52)

“Intellect had come up against emotion,” O’Brien writes. Intellect has proved inadequate. So far, O’Brien has used character thought to provide context, to name emotions, and to speculate about the future. However, the more deeply felt emotions thus far are revealed in physical behavior and character interaction. This scene, the fourth, concludes with a fairly long dialogue passage: Tim asks for his bill, but Elroy ends up paying Tim for his work.

Inserted here is a short fifth scene, Tim at the moment of writing the story, looking back twenty years. He notes that the past doesn’t seem real; it’s as if he were “watching an old home movie.” (O’Brien 54) This scene works as another thematic passage, as if he is wondering how well he is doing in relieving the pressure of his shame. Not very well, it seems, because the main thing he recalls is his inability to explain his feelings in a letter to his parents. He recalls himself: “…some poor yoyo with my name and face tried to make his way toward a future he didn’t understand and didn’t want.” (O’Brien 54)

Scene six starts with the boat trip up Rainy River. After Elroy cuts the engine and drops his fishing line twenty yards from the Canadian shore, there are two thematic passages, back to back, but I think they can be called two separate passages because the narrative devices are different. In the first thematic passage, O’Brien starts with “I want you to feel it. . .,” the wind on the river, and he states: “you’re twenty-one years old and you’re scared . . . ” (O’Brien 56) Seven rhetorical questions are then posed:

What would you do?

Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did? (O’Brien 56)

The switch to second-person and the questions are so direct, that I found myself seriously considering what I would have done. O’Brien so skillfully puts us in Tim’s place, that we experience the moment. Tim answers his own questions by saying: “All I could do was cry.” (O’Brien 57) He feels that he was not only embarrassed by his tears, but also by “the paralysis that took my heart.” (O’Brien 57)

In the next paragraph, the beginning of the following thematic passage, Tim names his “. . . crushing sorrow . . . I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation.” (O’Brien 57) Then, in the same two-page-long paragraph, Tim imagines being drowned in a flood of powerfully distinct images. The images are of himself and of people from both his past and future—his classmates, his future wife, his unborn daughter and sons, and of soldiers and Vietnamese, both alive and dead. He also imagines public and historical figures he will never meet. In all, I counted forty-two images. The final image is: “There was a slim young man I would one day kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My Khe.” (O’Brien 58-59)

In this passage, in this accumulation and piling up of images, O’Brien again employs diction as an emotional device. I think of this passage as thematic because while it is not a dream, it is certainly dream-like. (Tim calls it a hallucination.) He imagines having to face these people, and because he realizes he can’t face them unless he goes to war, this thematic passage is not merely assessment; it is transformational. It allows the pivotal decision of the story. Tim concludes this passage with this turning point:

“I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule . . . I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.” (O’Brien 59)

The last two pages of the story (the final scene) are numb in tone, an almost uninflected description: Elroy pulls up his fishing line, and the next day Tim packs and drives home. Has Tim fulfilled the desire of the story, which is to overcome his shame? He has found the courage to confront his shame, but I have to conclude that no, he will always live with it, from the subdued tone of the last three sentences of the story. “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.” (O’Brien 61) (The deepest feelings may be revealed in a somewhat contrapuntal fashion through restraint.)

Summary of Narrative Thought in the Three Authors

All three authors rely more heavily on narrative thought in the first halves of their stories to provide context. Beyond that, there are differences in narrative thought that have to do with 1) tone, and 2) how the characters assess progress towards goals. These differences arise out of the narrator’s personality and the nature of what they desire.

Almond changes the tone of David’s narrative from comic-ironic (this fits his intellectual frame of mind) to that of genuine sadness. Almond also inserts thematic passages and frequent thought assessments of his progress, but the most deeply-felt emotions are mainly revealed in interactions with the other characters. This fits the failure of his unrealistic love as it is brought up against reality.

Baldwin’s narrative thought is bitter-ironic (Peter has learned to disguise his real emotions) but at times, the tone is despairing. The narrative thought and thematic passages are mainly backstory. Peter has had these “previous conditions” ground into him. In present-moment narrative thought, he does note that he is becoming increasingly hateful, but most of the emotional revelations occur in active scene, as if he is finally testing a no-win situation.

The tone of O’Brien’s narrative thought vacillates from rage (at being forced to fight) to numbness (trying to distance himself from his shame). The story is written from the perspective of an older man trying to justify his first adult decision. Of the three authors, O’Brien’s narrative is most deliberately staged in his character’s consciousness. Tim attempts to rationalize, but ends up relying on his physical emotions, some of which are shown to another character. Tim does assess his progress in thought, but interestingly, he also uses two thematic passages not only to assess progress but as a transformative device.

Character Interaction

As I noted in my introduction, character interaction includes the narrator’s observations and reactions to other characters’ physical appearances, facial expressions, habits, actions, and dialogue.


Despite Almond’s lexical virtuosity in narrative thought, his handling of character interaction more poignantly reveals David’s emotions. His first sighting of Basha alludes to a kind of frailty or vulnerability: “She had the plumpest cheeks I’d ever seen. Her eyes were pinched at the corners, and blue patches stood out below them. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in a year. Every other woman I could think of seemed coarse and stingy by comparison.” (Almond 79)

As well, his obsession with her seems like it might be too fanciful, too improbable, although his reaction is still comic. On their first date, he sees her waiting for him: “She looked elegant and chimerical: the head of a lioness, the body of a swan. At dinner I choked on my chicken korma.” (Almond 81)

Their first kiss is a failed venture:

I stepped in front of her and let my face fall forward. She executed a brisk little sidestep. My lips smeared the side of her cheek. A pinecone fell from the tree outside, striking the roof with a soft thud, as if to close the subject.

Later, standing outside her dorm, I said: “Will I ever get to kiss you?”

Her lips pursed, like a waiter who is out of the most popular item on the menu.” (Almond 82-3)

In the next passage, they do kiss, and I will quote this entire paragraph, for its dark details about Basha and its foreshadowing of doom.

We kissed and she smiled, her lips turning back on themselves. Her teeth were faintly discolored, as if she’d had a quick bite of ashes. I had never seen the classic Slavic facial structure at such close quarters. When she laughed her cheeks rose with the strange, graceful bulk of glaciers and her eyes became Mongol slashes. Frowning, her face took on the milky petulance of a Tartar princess. Even at rest, her face expressed the severe emotions I associated with true love, which I had always known to be exquisite and doomed and slightly stylized. (Almond 84)

Their eventual lovemaking has an unreal albeit tragic-comic quality: “We made love, or fucked, did that thing where our center parts fit and unfit, a half-dozen times, in panicky sessions, ten minutes or so, until she cried out tak! tak! then fell silent.” (Almond 84) And later, in another kiss: “And the rot of her mouth turned me on! (Is there nothing the early days of love won’t fetishize?)” (Almond 84)

Still later, when he first visits her in Warsaw and they go to a hotel, David’s description of their lovemaking betrays a lack of intimacy, of two people who despite the intensity of their passion are not communicating:

Basha wanted nothing to do with clitoral stimulation, tricky positioning, languorous gazes. Put it in, was her agenda. Let the flesh speak. Her face went rubbery. She took on the aspect of a madwoman plucked from one of Hogarth’s Bedlam prints, ready to tear her hair, throw shit, which pleased me . . .

“Make big come,” she said. “Make big come in my pussy.”

“Tell me—”

“Now. Now-now-now.”

Afterwards, her body looked like something tossed ashore.” (Almond 86-87) (Italics are Almond’s.)

What were David’s unspoken words, I wonder. Tell me you love me? After another lovemaking session, they have quite different reactions. David feels tranquil, but this is the moment Basha chooses to tell him that she wants “‘to come to America to make a life with you, David.’ Her hands trembled. Her breathing was ragged. This was all terribly real. I had to remind myself.” (Almond 88)

At this point in the story, he meets Mamu, whose behavior makes him realize his failure of intimacy with Basha. From here to the end of the story, there is as much interaction with Mamu as Basha. This first observation of Mamu’s and Basha’s relationship takes place during his Christmas visit in their small Katowice apartment:

Mamu appeared, flushed from the cold (and it would turn out, a good deal of wine). She was a handsome woman, wide cheeks and a plucked mouth. Basha’s face bloomed. It was clear at once that they were deeply in love, as mothers and daughters sometimes grow to be, without the interfering needs of men. (Almond 90)

Mamu tells him she is glad to meet him, but David’s exclusion is further reinforced in this mix of character interaction and physical behavior:  “Then she pulled me into a sloppy hug and Basha laughed and pulled me back to her side, scolding Mamu in Polish, a language that seemed to me always, in the mouths of the Olszewska women, a volley of quick and playful whispers.” (Almond 90)

Almond uses Mamu’s constant smoking as a symbol of her attitude towards love—assured but as far as love alludes to men, forsaken. “Mamu was one of those smokers whose motions are so calm and practiced, so assumed, that the act becomes an extension of their personality.” (Almond 91) She smokes a brand called Petit Ceours but “often she let them burn untended, the ashes making elegant snakes. She seemed to enjoy the option of smoking as much as the act.” (Almond 91)

After a night out of heavy drinking, Basha and David make love, then he staggers to the bathroom, sick from the vodka he drank. He hears a tap on the door. He opens it because he thinks Basha is knocking, but Mamu is standing in front of him (again, character interaction and physical behavior are meshed here). “I was naked. My penis dangled. The sweetness of her daughter’s sex, like flesh that has been perfumed and licked, rose into the air between us. I wanted to duck behind the door, but in that moment such an action seemed to constitute an accusation.” (Almond 92)

David feels accused for his lustfulness, his dishonest intimacy with Basha. But then, he explains that he drank too much and inadvertently lays his hand on his stomach. Mamu glances down briefly, for “not even a moment, a charged little half moment.” (Almond 93) David wonders if she is still interested in men, even though Basha has told him that she is not. Mamu turns away; David notes that she has the same body as Basha, only older. He apologizes for waking her up, and also partially hides behind the door. “. . . the expression that settled onto Mamu’s face then seemed unutterably sad. Her teeth carved out a tiny failed smile. ‘It doesn’t matter to me,’ she said.” (Almond 93)

This is a wonderfully emotionally revealing scene. David is sick (of the soul). Mamu is not interested in sex (she barely notices David’s nakedness, and her husbands have abandoned her in their deaths), which foreshadows how later Basha will be disappointed in David.

By now, the tone of the narrative has changed. David’s voice has lost its flip quality and is now infused with shame. The night before he leaves, Basha gets very drunk, positions herself for anal sex, and asks if David likes her like this.

It took me a moment to gather my voice and Basha laughed, as we would wish all women to laugh, at the fallacy of their depravity, at the idea that anything, in the end, can disgust them. “I want anal love,” she said, making the word sound French and exquisite.

Is it cruel for me to repeat her words like this? Should I lie, make them sound prettier, more poetic? But this is what she said. This is the form her desire took at that moment. Or perhaps, less flatteringly, she intuited my need for a memorable degradation, some form of going-away present. (Almond 95)

David observes this in his last visit, when their sex life has waned: “She wanted to be cuddled, fawned over, stroked like a child. If I pushed for more, she claimed to be sore, or tired. . . .Where had the wanton accomplice of our early days gone?” (Almond 97)

When David’s job offer comes and he asks Basha to join him, she says, “‘You won’t leave,’. . . She refused to imagine that I had another life, beyond her beauty, thick with the troubled symptoms of adulthood.” (Almond 98) Basha is living in a fantasy romance, just as David cannot yet admit his obsession of her might be only sexual, the body before the heart.

On the last night before his penultimate departure, Basha refuses sex altogether. Still he presses himself on her, and they struggle, after which she runs to Mamu arms for comfort.  “The two of them stood there for a minute. Then they moved off, like a pair of wounded soldiers, and I heard the door to Mamu’s room swing shut.” (Almond 100)

An hour later (Basha is still in Mamu’s room), Mamu comes out to the kitchen and slices kielbasa for a sandwich for David’s trip. “The skin of her hands was like beautiful pink paper.” This poignant detail speaks of frailty, tenderness.

David constructs an apology, says he might have hurt Basha because he was angry at having to leave. “Mamu gazed at me. Smoke drifted from her nose. She had known this was coming, after all. Men were people who left . . .” (Almond 101)

But Mamu is not angry. She steps up to David and takes him in her arms. Despite the sexual passages in this story, David’s reaction here is the most honestly and deeply felt of any of his character interactions (and physical behavior). “I buried my head in her bosom, which smelled of laundry soap and ten thousand meals, and began to sob, for Basha, for Mamu, for all of us in the suffering of our desires.” (Almond 101)

Almond’s handling of the technique of character interaction follows the trajectory of the story. At first, David is fascinated by Basha’s exoticism. Then there is the unreality of their relationship. He sees Basha and Mamu interacting with more intimacy. Finally, the relationship ends, with David’s recognition of universal isolation and suffering. While the tone of narrative thought is somewhat distant, the description of character interaction is more emotionally inflected, through careful choice of words and sensitivity to loss.


Baldwin relies quite heavily on character interaction in active scene to reveal emotion. After all, Peter is a character struggling in a charged social context. Interestingly, besides Peter’s interactions with other characters, Baldwin’s passages of nameless characters in setting descriptions also inform us of Peter’s isolation.

Because Baldwin flips from past to present so frequently in this story, it seems more efficient to discuss character interaction chronologically as it occurs in Peter’s life. I’ll also summarize, instead of extensive quoting, to expedite my discussion.

His first recollection (at his youngest age in the story) occurs at the age of seven. He tosses a ball back to a white girl, but she calls him nigger. He doesn’t know what nigger means, but when he asks his mother, she reprimands for his unwashed face that is “dirty as sin.” (Baldwin 62) She also tells him, that if a white person ever calls him nigger again, he should say that he’d rather be black than “lowdown and nasty like some white folks is.” (Baldwin 62)

As he grows older, he joins gangs that fight with white gangs. His mother would scold him and say “You wanna end up like your father? . . . You ain’t never gonna be nothin’ but a bum.” (Baldwin 62) (Italics are Baldwin’s.) He has never met his father, although he was named for him.

When he returns for his mother’s funeral six years later, the poverty of their house is the same. Baldwin describes the family that has moved into the house, their children running through it, and this first backstory scene ends with a sad reference to himself as a younger man. “The oldest boy was tacking up a mirror.” (Baldwin 62) All of these childhood memories of character interactions are the first of many opportunities Baldwin uses, to reveal the emotions of not being unable to overcome previous conditions. In this backstory passage, he sets the stage by showing his first tensions with whites and his early negative self-image.

In the second backstory scene with Ida, he recalls how he has learned to play the fool with policemen. Ida says, “Worse things have happened than chain gangs. Some of them have happened to you.” Peter says: “You mean you think I’m a coward?” (Baldwin 63) But they are both so uncomfortable whenever the issue of racism crops up that they avoid further discussion. In this scene, Peter also recalls the unspoken pity his white theater friends feel for him.

Jules is also sympathetic to Peter’s difficulties. When Jules lends him the depressing room, he tells Peter that if it doesn’t work out, he can move in with him. “‘Think it’ll be all right for awhile?’ He sounded apologetic, as though he had designed the room himself.” (Baldwin 66)  This consortium of past and current relationships reveals Peter’s feelings of isolation, resentment, and helplessness.

In the present moment of Peter waking up (as if Peter wants to rouse himself from past troubles), Baldwin uses the sounds of people in the boarding house—rising and leaving for work with active verbs like whine, shuffle, slam, and thud—to convey a feeling of life closing down on Peter. Then the landlady comes up to his room. Peter observes remarkably hateful details about her, but interestingly, the details are also of her fear, as if she can’t avoid the all-encompassing net of racism.

Her glasses blinked, opaque in the light on the landing. She was frightened to death. She was afraid of me, but she was more afraid of losing her tenants. Her face was mottled with rage and fear, her breath came rushed and little bits of spittle gathered at the edges of her mouth; her breath smelled bad, like rotting hamburger on a July day. (Baldwin 65)

She screams at him to go uptown, where he belongs. Peter responds: “‘I can’t stand niggers,’ I told her.” (Baldwin 65) Then, Baldwin inserts Peter’s thoughts of what he would like to do to her, a shocking demonstration of the anger that he feels. “I wanted to kill her, I watched her stupid, wrinkled frightened white face and I wanted to take a club, a hatchet, and bring it down with all my weight, splitting her skull down the middle where she parted her iron-grey hair.” (Baldwin 65) Very few authors can write with such violence but still retain the reader’s sympathy, a feat accomplished by grounding the reader in Peter’s abusive past and his negative self-image.

He then visits Jules. This scene is approximately 600 words, and except for a few sentences, all dialogue, including several long speeches from Peter. Baldwin rarely uses dialogue summary in the story. Instead, he uses the fully-told dialogue lines as discovery moments. In this scene, at first Peter speaks sarcastically, then he feels genuinely ashamed at venting at Jules and ashamed of not fighting the landlady. Yet he also admits:

Goddamit to hell, I’m sick of it. I’m goddamn tired of battling every Tom, Dick, and Harry for what everybody else takes for granted. I’m tired, man, tired! Have you ever been sick to death of something? Well, I’m sick to death. And I’m scared. I’ve been fighting so goddamn long I’m not a person anymore. (Baldwin 66)

Then he confesses his fear about what is happening to him. “How can I explain to you what it feels like to be black when I don’t understand it and don’t want to and spend all my time trying to forget it? I don’t want to hate anybody—but now maybe I can’t love anybody either—are we really friends?” (Baldwin 66)

Jules assures him that they are friends, and that he can empathize because he is Jewish, but Jules also says, “I can’t help you—take a walk, get drunk, we’re all in this together.” (Baldwin 66) Jules invites Peter to stay in his apartment, but later Peter doesn’t to take him up on that. Instead he goes to Harlem.

In the next scene (also mostly dialogue), when Ida asks him at dinner if he found a job yet, Peter reverts to his characteristic sarcasm. “Metro offered me a fortune to come to the coast and do the lead in Native Son but I turned it down. Type casting, you know. It’s so difficult to find a decent part.” (Baldwin 67) (While Baldwin wrote a book of essays Notes of a Native Son, the reference here is to Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, the story of Bigger Thomas, a poor young black man who inadvertently kills a white woman and then intentionally kills his own black girlfriend.)

Ida and Peter banter jokingly for a few minutes about his movie prospects, but then Peter tells her that the landlady has kicked him out. Ida exclaims: “‘God save the American Republic,’ . . . ‘D’you want to waste some of my husband’s money? We can sue her.’” (Baldwin 68) (Peter sarcastically repeats this refrain, “God save the American Republic,” or variations on it, three more times in the story.)

Peter doesn’t want to sue, but Ida persists in comforting him, including this line: “Don’t let it throw you. What can’t be helped you have to learn to live with.” (Baldwin 68) Peter is silent, but notes: “I sat like a child being scolded, looking down at my plate, not eating, not saying anything. I wanted her to stop talking, to stop being intelligent about it, to stop being calm and grown-up about it; good Lord, none of us has ever grown up, we never will.” (Baldwin 68) Peter’s use of the inclusive we speaks to his increasing awareness in the story of everyone’s helplessness, their inability to deal with racial injustice, as if this is something imprinted forever from childhood.

Still Ida rattles on about hatred everywhere because people just don’t understand. Peter wants her to leave him alone. Finally their conversation comes to a close.

I grinned: the painted grin of the professional clown. “Don’t worry, baby, I’m all right. I know what I’m going to do. I’m gonna go back to my people where I belong and find me a nice, black nigger wench and raise me a flock of babies.”

Ida has an old maternal trick; the grin tricked her into using it now. She raised her fork and rapped me with it across the knuckles. “Now stop that. You’re too old for that.”

I screamed and stood screaming and knocked the candle over: “Don’t do that, you bitch, don’t ever do that!” (Baldwin 68) (Italics are Baldwin’s)

This is Peter’s most direct expression of anger in the story, but he immediately feels fearful because everyone is watching them. “A black boy and a white woman, alone together. I knew it would take nothing to have them at my throat.” (Baldwin 69) Peter apologizes and they leave, with a promise to meet the next day. Again, they both smooth over raw nerves. He repeats to himself: “God save the American Republic.” (Baldwin 69)

In Peter’s subway ride to Harlem, Baldwin again uses the backdrop of other people to underscore his isolation.

Anonymous, islanded people surrounded me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes. I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.) I looked at the ads, unreal women and pink-cheeked men selling cigarettes candy, shaving cream, nightgowns, chewing gum, movies, sex; sex without organs, drier than sand and more secret than death. (Baldwin 69)

This is America for Peter, a desolate place without humanity (it’s noteworthy that Baldwin repeats the words death and kill a half-a-dozen times in the story), but Harlem is hardly better. “My people, my people. Sharpies stood on the corner, waiting. Women in summer dresses pranced by on wavering heels. Click clack. Click clack. There were white mounted policemen in the streets. On every block there was another policeman on foot. I saw a black cop. God save the American Republic.” (Baldwin 70)

In the bar, he can’t contain his anger. He is standing next to “somebody’s grandmother,” a woman whose face is “sullen and heavy and aggrieved.” (Baldwin 70) She makes a friendly overture to him:

“Hello, papa. What you puttin’ down?”

“Baby, you can’t pick it up,” I told her. My rye came and I drank.

“Nigger,” she said, “You must think you’s somebody.” (Baldwin 70)

He doesn’t answer, but he observes that she must have been pretty once:

. . . before she hit the bottle and started crawling into too many beds. . . Then I realized I was feeling a little excited by her. . . I kept on drinking, listening to the voices of my people, watching the faces of my people. (God pity us, the terrified republic.) Now I was sorry to have angered the woman who still sat next to me, now in deep conversation with another, younger woman. (Baldwin 70)

Next is where Peter, in a passage of narrative thought, longs for an opening and realizes by extension that none of them in the bar have a place. This prompts him to offer the two women drinks. The first woman is suspicious, but Peter drops his usual sarcasm. He is finally honest. “‘On the level,’ I said. ‘Both of you.’” (Baldwin 70) The story concludes with these three lines: “‘Baby,’ said the old one, ‘What’s your story?’ / The man put three beers on the counter. / ‘I got no story, Ma,’ I said.” (Baldwin 71)

As I noted earlier, the last lines are significantly dialogue (character interaction) because this is a character struggling against a racist society. The character interactions in this story supply a range of emotions, but still Peter often uses sarcasm in character thought and dialogue to cover over his anger. For the most deeply-felt emotions, the key to his inner life, I think we need to turn to his internal physical symptoms.


For a longish short story “Rainy River” has remarkably little character interaction, but this is appropriate because in most of the narrative Tim privately wrestles with his conscience. In the opening, he does confess that he hasn’t been able to tell anyone this story. But after that, there is only one other character interaction, aside from the scenes with Elroy Berdahl. After Tim gets his draft notice, his father asks (in reported speech) what his plans were. “‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Wait.’” (O’Brien 42)

In two of the thematic passages, there are also imagined character interactions. Early in the story, Tim imagines the “people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Café on Main Street,” (O’Brien 45) gossiping about the sissy O’Brien kid, and his imagined arguing and screaming at them. (O’Brien 45) In another dream-like thematic passage, he also imagines all the people from his past and future rising up in front of him. These imagined interactions are a powerful technique of revealing emotion, for use in thematic passages or in ongoing scene.

Tim introduces Elroy Berdahl, the source of real character interaction in the story, by stating what function the man plays in his life.

The man who opened the door that day is the hero of my life. How do I say that without sounding sappy? Blurt it out—the man saved me. He offered exactly what I needed, without questions, without any words at all. He took me in. He was there at a critical time—a silent, watchful presence. Six days later, when it ended, I was unable to find a proper way to thank him, and I never have, and so if nothing else, this story represents a small gesture of gratitude twenty years overdue.( O’Brien 48)

Elroy is the silent witness, the man who guides Tim towards resolving his crisis of conscience. Actually, I thought naming him his savior is somewhat questionable, as Tim feels so ashamed of taking what he calls the cowardly route, but the point is that Elroy’s presence helps Tim realize that he is “ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing.”  (O’Brien 52)

Tim’s initial description of Elroy emphasizes his eyes, as if Elroy can see into his soul.

Even after two decades, I can close my eyes and . . . can see the old guy staring at me. Elroy Berdahl: eighty-one years old, skinny and shrunken and mostly bald. He wore a flannel shirt and brown work pants. In one hand, I remember he carried a green apple, a small paring knife in the other. His eyes had the bluish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine . . . I’m absolutely certain that the old man took one look and went right to the heart of the things—a kid in trouble. (O’Brien 48)

Their first actual dialogue lines are written with admirable restraint. “‘Dinner at five-thirty,’ he said. ‘You eat fish?’ / ‘Anything,’ I said. /  Elroy grunted and said, ‘I’ll bet.’” (O’Brien 49) Elroy’s line, I’ll bet, refers to what he knows is Tim’s hunger to resolve his problem.

In narrative summary, Tim tells how they spent the next few days. They eat together, take hikes in the mornings, work on the resort, and at night play scrabble (Elroy always wins).

At times, I felt the awkwardness of an intruder, but Elroy accepted me into his quiet routine without fuss or ceremony. He took my presence for granted, the same way he might’ve sheltered a stray cat—no wasted sighs or pity—and there was never any talk about it. Just the opposite. What I remember more than anything is the man’s willful, almost ferocious silence. (O’Brien 49)

Elroy never asks Tim why he is there, although Tim realizes Elroy doesn’t have to ask—after all in 1968, “guys were burning draft cards and Canada was just a boat ride away.” (O’Brien 49) And Tim admires Elroy’s intelligence, his room is filled with books. “…on those occasions when speech was necessary he had a way of compressing large thoughts into small, cryptic packets of language. “One evening, just at sunset, he pointed at an owl circling over the violet-lighted forest to the west. / ‘Hey, O’Brien,’ he said. ‘There’s Jesus.’” (O’Brien 50) This short dialogue line gives us huge insight into Elroy’s character. (I’m from laconic Minnesota stock myself, so Elroy’s line makes me recall compacted irreverent comments my own father has made.)

Tim also notes this regional influence on Elroy.

To an extent, I suppose, his reticence was typical of the part of Minnesota, where privacy still held value, and even if I’d been walking around with some horrible deformity—four arms and three heads—I’m sure the old man would have talked about everything but those extra arms and heads. Simple politeness was part of it.” (O’Brien 51)

When they discuss Tim’s bill one night, Elroy avoids asking about Tim’s plans. They negotiate the bill (at a reduced rate), but then Elroy exclaims that he forgot to pay Tim for his work, and asks how much he got at his last job. Without intending to go into the details at first, Tim ends up telling Elroy all the visceral details of working in the slaughterhouse. Elroy must have understood this parallel to killing in a war, but this is his only comment (I’d call this a form of not-answering; it deflects Tim’s tension):  “‘Well, to be honest,’ he said, ‘when you first showed up, I wondered about that. The aroma, I mean. Smelled like you was awful damned fond of pork chops.’ He almost smiled.” (O’Brien 53)

Elroy figures he actually owes Tim money. Tim refuses to take it, but “In the morning, I found an envelope tacked to my door. Inside were the four fifties and a two-word note that said EMERGENCY FUND. The man knew.” (O’Brien 54)

In more avoidance or not-answering technique, when Elroy takes Tim fishing, he busies himself with his tackle twenty yards from the Canadian shore. But Tim he thinks he must have planned it, “to bring me up against realities, …to stand a kind of vigil as I chose a life for myself.” (O’Brien 56) Tim looks at the shore, asks himself the rhetorical questions of what would you do, and then imagines all the people in his past and future. He starts to cry, at first softly, then louder. Elroy says nothing. (Again, not answering.)

Elroy Berdahl remained quiet. He kept fishing. He worked his line with the tips of his fingers, patiently, squinting out at his red and white bobber on the Rainy River. His eyes were flat and impassive. He didn’t speak. He was simply there, like the river and the late-summer sun. And yet by his presence, his mute watchfulness, he made it real. He was the true audience. He was a witness, like God, or like the gods, who look on in absolute silence as we live our lives, as we make our choices or fail to make them. (O’Brien 60)

The metaphor of Elroy quietly fishing speaks to the theme of fishing for answers. But finally Elroy pulls in his line and they head back to Minnesota. “‘Ain’t biting,’ he said.” (O’Brien 60) The answers must be found within oneself.

In the morning (the last scene), Elroy makes breakfast, but only nods when Tim tells him he would be leaving, “…as if he already knew. He looked down at the table and smiled.” (O’Brien 60) After Tim finishes packing, he notices that Elroy’s truck is not there. Tim feels it is appropriate that Elroy would not want to witness Tim’s departure. The remaining paragraph is Tim’s restrained description of returning home and finally, to the war.

Character interactions in this story are of imagined interactions and the one real relationship with Elroy. Both of these employ avoidance technique. The imagined interactions are ultimately exactly that, the avoidance of a real confrontation. Nor does Elroy ever confront Tim, but his presence helps bring Tim to a decision.

Summary of Character Interaction in the Three Authors

As noted in the summary of narrative thought, there are some tonal differences which also are carried though in character interaction. Again, these differences are determined by the narrator’s personality and by the nature of his desire (Almond’s comic-tragic tone, Baldwin’s angry-ironic, and O’Brien’s confessional tone).

Each author also uses character interaction to fit the emotional arc of his story—how the desire of his character plays out in active scene. Almond’s use of character interaction conveys David’s fascination of Basha from a distance, then the confused entanglements between all three characters, and lastly, David’s final isolation. Baldwin most heavily relies on intense character interaction as fits Peter’s struggle against society. Finally, O’Brien writes imagined character interaction and portrays Elroy as an almost mute witness, both of which fit Tim’s solitary struggle with his conscience.

Physical Behavior

The technique of a character’s physical actions (as it is used to reveal emotion), occurs in two subcategories: his gestures and body actions, and his internal physical symptoms.


In Almond’s story, I’ve already noted a few of David’s physical actions as they occur in his interactions with Basha and Mamu. In his first attempt to kiss Basha, his face simply falls forward. The first time they make love, their “center parts fit and unfit, a half dozen times, in panicky sessions.” (Almond 84) He’s turned on by the rot of Basha’s mouth because he has fetishized her ashy teeth. The emotions expressed in their lovemaking betray a remove, the disconnect of the body from the heart.

In fact, it could be said that David is most intrigued by Basha’s strangeness, her exoticism. The first time she speaks to him, she sits in a seat next to him in the campus computer lab. “‘Is it all right?’ she said. Her accent was excruciating: the blurred diphthongs of Russian, the sulky lilt of French. My heart did a little arpeggio.” (Almond 80) This internal symptom, the reaction of David’s heart to Basha’s awful accent, touchingly betrays a desire to be taken out of himself.

There are several references to the fallacy of the body, which are also described somewhat at a remove. Before they have sex, Basha tells an amusing story about what she said at a dinner when the Dean of Students was presented with a large steak. (This quote starts with Basha speaking.)

“It was a like a car tire. . . I turned to him and said: ‘You have such a huge meat!’” This story thrilled me, its slapstick reference to the male part. Basha knew what a cock was! She understood the great harmless joke that all cocks come to in the end. And this idea, however improbable, led to the idea that she might touch my cock. (Almond 82)

Later in the story, when she rushes to him at the airport, David notes their physical inappropriateness: “She was far too beautiful for me, my sharp face and chickeny bones.” (Almond 86) Still later, David again refers to the unreal quality of their lovemaking. “She let out a luxurious sigh as I slid into her. Such drama! It was like leaping onto Broadway cock-first.” (Almond 90)

Midway through the story, when David begins to realize that their affair is doomed, Almond employs more genuinely felt physical reactions. When Basha says she wants to come to America to make a life with him, David notes: “I felt my heart chop.” (Almond 89) When they go back to the apartment after their drunken night out, he notes: “Salt rose in my throat. My body heaved and gasped. I suspected—as do all unpracticed drinkers—that I would never feel right again.” (Almond 92) His body is betraying him. Witnessed naked in the bathroom by Mamu, his body feels like an accusation, then he ducks behind the door to hide himself from her. But in this passage, he also clings to an intellectualization of the body, as if denying the reality of their relationship. “But Basha did not understand what a stubborn customer the body is. The heart may turn the lights out. The body never closes for business.” (Almond 93)

However, when Basha refuses sex altogether, he notes: “She understood that the body can only express wishes. It cannot undo facts.” (Almond 99) The fact is that their affair has run aground, but David still thinks: “It was time for our bodies to leap to the rescue.” (Almond 99) He reaches for her, but Basha tells him not to touch her and here her body does leap to the rescue, in defense. She kicks at him, and then, “Basha’s elbow swung back, knocked me in the mouth, and I could taste blood now, a good taste, sweet and full of ruin.” (Almond 99)  Almond’s choice of “sweet ruin” to describe the taste of his blood poignantly describes the end of their relationship. An hour later, he goes to the kitchen where Mamu asks him if he has packed. “I nodded. I could feel the swell of my fat lip.” (Almond 100) This is what David is left with—a fat lip—as if all his desire for passion amounts to little more than mouthing off.

Finally, in the last sentence, David has a genuinely felt physical reaction to reveal the final most profound emotion in the story (which I’ve quoted in my discussion of character interaction), of David burying her head in Mamu’s bosom and sobbing.

Almond uses more direct physical sensations as the story progresses. It’s interesting that earlier in the story, David uses phrases like I felt my heart . . . and I became aware. Towards the end, when his emotion is more keenly felt, he writes more directly: Salt rose in my throat. My body heaved . . . and I buried my head. . . and began to sob. . .

However, since this is a story in which neither David nor Basha establish real intimacy, most of the descriptions of physical behavior are at a remove. By the end, David discovers that his physical passion is desperation—the body blindly following a path away from loneliness, the discovery that he frames as a universal condition.


Baldwin’s strategy is somewhat similar to Almond’s, to punctuate more deeply felt emotions with a physical reaction or symptom, but Baldwin’s representations of emotions in physical behavior is more genuinely felt. Indeed, in his opening lines, Baldwin starts on an intense note by describing a physical symptom of isolation and panic. “I woke up shaking, alone in my room. I was clammy with cold sweat; under me the sheet and mattress were soaked. The sheet was gray and twisted like a rope. I breathed like I had been running.” (Baldwin 59)

Next is a page of narrative describing how he has ended up in the borrowed room. Back in a present moment, when Peter thinks about waiting to get kicked out of the room, Baldwin inserts the next physical symptom. “The sweat on my body was turning cold.” (Baldwin 61)

Baldwin then returns to backstory, the two flashback scenes. There are a few physical reactions here, i.e. Peter sticks his tongue out at the white girl, and cries when his mother scolds him. This is his behavior when confronted by a policeman: “I acted like I didn’t know a thing. I let my jaw drop and I let my eyes get big.” (Baldwin 63) He equates honesty with trust and innocence as shown in yet one more backstory passage when he first heard the Messiah. Here he uses the physical symptoms of his blood bubbling, crying like a baby, and running like a sinner.

Back in the present moment, in the encounter with the landlady, Peter notes his fear. “I was trembling like a fool.” “My mouth was dry.” “I couldn’t get my voice up; it rasped and rattled in my throat.” (Baldwin 64)  Peter attempts to close the door, but she puts her foot in the way. In this stand-off, Peter feels unwarranted guilt. “My skin prickled, tiny hot needles punctured my flesh. I was aware of my body under the bathrobe; and it was as though I had done something wrong, something monstrous, years ago, which no one had forgotten and for which I would be killed.” (Baldwin 65)

She threatens to call the police, leaves. Peter packs, but his fear is noted again. “I tried to take as long as possible but I cut myself while shaving because I was afraid she would come back upstairs with a policeman.” (Baldwin 65)

Next is the scene with Jules, in which Peter confesses his worries about his increasing distrust of everyone. Although the scene is mostly dialogue, the last line is this physical symptom: “I felt that I was drowning, that hatred had corrupted me like cancer in the bone.” (Baldwin 67)

In the scene with Ida, at first Peter’s chief emotion is weariness at her endless sympathetic rationalizations. “The food came. I didn’t want to eat. The first mouthful hit my belly like a gong.” (Baldwin 68) When she persists, he begins to panic. “I began to sweat in my side of the booth.” (Baldwin 68) But Peter is unable to control his panic, and anger, leading to this intense reaction: “I screamed and stood screaming and knocked the candle over.” (Baldwin 68)

Everyone turns to look and Peter feels fearful. “My stomach felt like water . . . I turned cold, seeing what they were seeing: a black boy and a white woman, alone together. I knew it would take nothing to have them at my throat.” (Baldwin 68) As they leave the restaurant “…the ground under me seemed falling, the doorway impossibly far away. All my muscles tensed; I seemed ready to spring; I was ready for the blow.” (Baldwin 69) Outside, they promise to meet the next day, and here Peter feels frustrated. “I started to walk away. I felt her eyes on my back. I kicked a bottle-top on the sidewalk. God save the American Republic.” (Baldwin 69) This scene is remarkable for its range of emotions presented—hopelessness, panic, anger, fear, and frustration—all punctuated by physical reactions and symptoms.

In the concluding scene, most of Peter’s emotions are expressed in his observations of others: his hatred of the white people on the subway and his ironic description of the people in Harlem. His observations of the woman in the bar might mirror himself: “sullen and heavy and aggrieved.” (Baldwin 70)

But then, in an interesting twist, as if Peter is about to finally discover his place (as he refers to it), he notes: “I realized I was feeling a little excited by her; I laughed and set my glass down.” (Baldwin 70). Then, just before he places their order with the bartender, he notes in the final physical symptom of the story: “I was shaking like a baby.” (70) This is a reference to the earlier enfant crying for its mother’s milk, and to Peter’s desire for innocence, to strip himself of his armor of distrust and anger.

Because of the ironic and wry tone of most of the narrative, physical symptoms are the most reliable source of emotion in this story. As well, there are the repeating motifs of desire for innocence, i.e. the baby crying, and of the many variations on fear: sweating, trembling, cutting himself while shaving, and turning cold.


Of the three stories, O’Brien most carefully stages his character’s physical emotions. At the beginning of “Rainy River” even Tim the character is aware that his objections to the war are intellectual, but as the story progresses he notes that words can no longer help him. At first, the physical emotions are generalized, but further into the story, are located in specific areas of the body to fit the emotional arc.

The first physical reaction occurs when he receives the draft notice. “I remember opening up the letter, scanning the first few lines, feeling the blood go thick behind my eyes. I remember a sound in my head. It wasn’t thinking, just a silent howl.” (O’Brien 41) But he does think; for the next page he enumerates his many political objections. Finally, at the end of this first scene, the emotional reaction moves from his head to his stomach. “I remember the rage in my stomach. Later, it burned down to a smoldering self-pity, then to numbness. (O’Brien 42)

This numbness turns to pressure in the next scene in his small town. Tim notes: “I felt paralyzed. All around me the options seemed to be narrowing, as if I were hurtling down a huge black funnel, the whole world squeezing in tight.”  (O’Brien 43) Of course, he does feel terror, but still the emotion is generalized, not located in specific parts of his body. “I sometimes felt the fear spreading inside me like weeds. I imagined myself dead. I imagined myself doing things I could not do—charging an enemy position, taking aim at another human being.” (O’Brien 44)

Towards the end of the scene, while he is hosing out the hog carcasses, he has an emotional breakdown which he now locates in the general region of his heart. “I felt something break open in my chest. I don’t know what it was. I’ll never know. But it was real, I know that much, it was a physical rupture—a cracking-leaking-popping feeling. I remember dropping my water gun.” (O’Brien 46)

Later in the shower, he still feels something leaking out of his chest, possibly his courage and moral integrity. “Down in my chest there was still that leaking sensation, something very warm and precious spilling out, and I was covered with blood and hog-stink, and for a long while I just concentrated on holding myself together.” (O’Brien 46)

In the next scene, on his drive north, Tim recalls: “It’s a blur now, as it was then, and all I remember is a sense of high velocity and the feel of the steering wheel in my hands. I was riding on adrenaline. A giddy feeling, in a way, except there was the dreamy edge of impossibility to it . . . it couldn’t come to a happy conclusion.”  (O’Brien 46-7) In this same scene, he also has a visceral reaction to Elroy’s piercing eyes. “I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open.” (O’Brien 48)

At the beginning of the next scene, Tim summarizes how Elroy took him in. Meanwhile, privately, he feels enormous anxiety. “I was wired and jittery. My skin felt too tight. After supper one evening, I vomited and went back to my cabin and lay down for a few moments and then vomited again.” (O’Brien 50) He touches on other physical symptoms as well: he sweats, he can’t sleep, he feels as if he is falling, that he has “slipped out of my own skin.” (O’Brien 54) Several of these symptoms are almost out-of-body experiences as if he wants to void himself.

When their boat trip nears the Canadian shore, Tim returns to locating the emotions in his chest. “I remember a sudden tightness in my chest as I looked up and watched the far shore come at me. This wasn’t a daydream. It was tangible and real.” (O’Brien 55) Elroy stops the boat. Tim can see details on the shore—mulberry bushes, pine needles, a squirrel. “Inside me, in my chest, I felt a terrible squeezing pressure. Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it—the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier.” (O’Brien 56)

This is the beginning of the thematic passage in which Tim asks, “What would you do?” He answers his own question: “All I could do was cry. Quietly, not bawling, just the chest-chokes.” (O’Brien 57)

He also feels like he is drowning: “I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation, as if I had toppled overboard and was being swept away by the silver waves.” (O’Brien 57) This drowning sensation is the transition into the long passage in which images of people from his past and future flood his imagination. “And right then I submitted. I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to. That was the sad thing. And so I sat in the bow of the boat and cried. It was loud now. Loud, hard crying.” (O’Brien 59-60)

O’Brien locates the emotions in this order: eyes, head, stomach, general numbness, his first rupture in the chest, a generalized out-of-body anxiety, returning to his chest, drowning, and finally the release of crying. But interestingly, the chest (heart) emotions are the moments that are transformative. His chest pops when he’s at his hog butchery job; he decides to go to Canada. His chest squeezes on the boat, and he knows he won’t be able to jump overboard.

The short conclusion scene returns to numbness, although this is not located in Tim’s body, but in the flat, uninflected narrative. This is the only way Tim can relieve his shame (his stated purpose in writing the story), by numbing himself out.

Summary of the Technique of Physical Behavior

All three authors punctuate emotions (usually the most deeply felt emotions) with physical reactions. Almond narrates at a remove, but as he realizes the relationship is failing, that changes to more deeply-felt physical reactions. Baldwin punctuates all his emotions—anger, shame, fear—with physical symptoms. O’Brien locates emotions in different parts of the body to fit the arc of the story and uses these physical emotions to push his character towards change. In all three stories, I think we can say that physical reactions and symptoms are the most reliable source of emotion. Character thought and interaction are more easily inflected by an unreliable narrator.

Baldwin and O’Brien also use recurring sensations. In addition, I am impressed by the variety of language play all three authors use to express physical emotion—inventive simile (my heart did an arpeggio) and the intensity of active verbs (i.e. pop, crack, leak, chop, shake, hit, drop, drown, carve, rock).

Thoughts on the Overall Emotional Arc

As Douglas Glover states in “Notes on Novel Structure,” “The important thing to remember: the novel is a machine for desire.” In these stories, the goal is an altered emotional state. Almond’s David wants to lose himself in romantic passion. Baldwin’s Peter wants to find an honest stance. O’Brien’s Tim wants to relieve his shame.

Their progress towards these goals is marked in emotional moments. David sees the intimacy that Basha and Mamu share and experiences the fallacy of the body in his lovemaking with Basha. Peter is kicked out of his room, and can’t find solace from Jules and Ida. Tim tries to reason himself out of his shame, flees to Canada.

The characters also become less sure of themselves as the story progresses. They extend the ropes of their desires as far as they can. David calls on Basha’s and his bodies to rescue them. Peter finally looks for communality in Harlem. Tim gets twenty yards from the Canadian shore, but breaks down.

In the end, the characters all fail their initially stated goals. David is left lonely and suffering. Peter can’t find an honest place. Tim does not relieve his shame. What they are left with is an adjustment: David connects his loneliness to a universal condition, Peter recognizes that other black people may share his lack of honest place, and Tim acknowledges that at least he tried to face his shame and it was legitimized by one other character. But in each case, I think we can say that they are forced to examine the limits of self, and in a sense obviate themselves in order to make those final discoveries.

Actually, I initially found it difficult to decide which stories to discuss. I reread some of my old favorites, but found myself disappointed. They seemed to somehow lack a certain resonance or complexity. In the end, I chose to examine three stories that simply made me wish that I had written them myself. As it happened, the stories all share a failure towards goals, and what I think of as a complicity in the character’s own undoing.

In an informal talk, David Wojan once mentioned that the essential construct of poetry is the “box of the self.” This struck a chord with me because I thought the best of prose also addresses this limitation. I also recalled a lecture by the poet Stephen Dunn, actually a reading of his marvelous essay, “Alert Lovers, Hidden Sides, and Ice Travelers: Notes on Poetic Form and Energy.” Although the essay is about poetic form, I’ll summarize his main points for its relevance to prose.

First, Dunn cites several definitions for form, including his favorite (because of its sexual connotation, he notes) from Kenneth Burke: “Form is the arousal and fulfillment of desire.” (Dunn 145.)

Dunn also notes how the demands one makes upon oneself as a character in one’s own poem shape the container of the poem.

But interestingly, Dunn notes that the bad poet, like the bad lover, is preoccupied with self, and to illustrate this pitfall he suggests the metaphor of the writer as an ice traveler who wants to put himself “in the middle of a big lake; let’s call it Lake Eros.” (Dunn 151) There are different kinds of ice travelers, he explains. The ice fisher plunks himself over a hole and pulls out predictable fish. The ice skater skirts the safe edge of the frozen lake and is only concerned with brilliant surface effects.

However, the experienced ice traveler will not take the easy route. He will slip and slide towards the center of the lake where the ice is thinnest and possibly melting. He needs to tread lightly, although he is aware that at all times, the ice must bear his full weight. He is “always interested in what it means to stay alive,” (Dunn 149) yet realizes that the further he moves towards the center, the fewer choices he has. “We are limited by the choices of diction and rhythm that we’ve already employed, and by the poem’s contextual logic.” (Dunn 150) But as Dunn also notes, he wouldn’t have it any other way. These experienced ice travelers don’t stop to fish, but:

“. . .when they pass over the ice just right, spectacular fish break through the ice and offer themselves. These fish are recognizably fish, but they have no names. The job of the ice travelers is to name them. And then they toss them back, not out of pity or compassion, but because the fish they name always are for others to find, and to do with as they please.” (Dunn 151)

To apply this to the short stories discussed, I found that somewhere fairly close to the stories’ openings, the authors establish a promise of what to expect in terms of stated goals. This is set in an emotional framework: they desire an altered emotional state. The author also establishes a certain lexicon, how he will note progress. These are the emotional representations. Then the authors extend the ropes of emotional and dramatic tension to put their characters in a melting center, where they are unsure of themselves. This is where the surprising fish spring out that must seem unexpected, a discovery. Importantly, these are also the fish that must be shared selflessly with the reader.

Inside the stories, the emotional energy comes from how the characters are complicit in their own undoing. They state goals, but then they have to make accommodations which take the form of criticizing themselves. Almond’s David criticizes his insistence on the body. Baldwin’s Peter criticizes his growing hatred of everyone and himself. O’Brien’s Tim criticizes that he can’t overcome his shame. In the end, they are not able to perform beyond their limitations.

However, their final discoveries name something beyond their own limitations. David recognizes a universal suffering. Peter says that he doesn’t have a story, but this void is shared with others. Tim’s shame is made real by recalling Elroy’s witness. In each case, the character must obviate himself towards a larger recognition, and this is the discovery that must be shared selflessly with the reader, for the reader to do with as he pleases. In a successful story, this final experience of the reader also needs to be emotional.

Glover also states in his discussion of theme that: “Every novel, in a sense, at its thematic base, is the story of a human infant encountering the grim reality of other wills, scarcity, work, choice, loss and evil. Every plot focuses on the disconnect between the self and the world.” The self against the world plays into the stories. Almond alludes to a lack of intimacy in the world. Baldwin emphasizes racist society. O’Brien talks about the injustice of the Vietnam War. I realize also that this is somewhat of a contradiction. Perhaps indeed, it is the characters’ worlds, not their own limitations, that won’t let them achieve their goals. But to go deeper into this would involve a discussion of how dark stories function, another topic.

However, in these particular stories (to emphasize again this point of final obviation), most of the emotional energy arises from how the character criticizes and recognizes the limitations of self. Each author’s choices of emotional representation inform each failure with its own cosmic quality. Each character is complicit in his own undoing. Perhaps as well, I have grown out of my old favorites because I have come to expect out of prose an intelligence of language play that speaks to beauty, to how failed desires are expressed with humility and grace.


To sum up, I have formulated some ground rules for myself, discovered in the course of writing this essay. I consider these rules a starting point: to be noted in future readings of other authors and to begin to apply to my own writing.

  • The reader must be involved emotionally in the opening by establishing character sympathy. This is usually established by voice (i.e. humor, humility, earnestness of struggle), but also might be seen in the intensity of the character’s desire.
  • The goal of a story must be an altered emotional condition. (After a character achieves X, he will be different emotionally.)
  • The narrator notes his progress towards his goal in moments of emotional representation. Avoidance of emotions can also be a useful device.
  • The narrator’s personality and the nature of the goal determine which techniques of emotional representation to emphasize or otherwise modulate. The writer can choose to emphasize character thought, character interaction, or physical behavior and/or orchestrate all three.
  • Character thought is usually ongoing assessment, identifying how he feels about what he has achieved so far. Character thought can also be a projection into the future. Some character thought can also be transformative, that is, not merely assessment but leading to a change of action. Thematic passages (an interpretation of the action, dreams, or imagined actions) can also be either assessing or transformative.
  • Character interaction is how the narrator tests his progress against other characters. However, imagined interactions are also an extremely useful emotional device to reveal what the character would really like to do.
  • Physical behavior is often the most reliable sign of emotions, especially internal physical symptoms. Physical behavior can be narrated from a distance or closely, for different effects.
  • Diction can be used to reveal emotion in all three techniques. Examples of emotional diction include parallel sentence structure, the repetition of phrases, choice of an abstract or more visceral lexis, and especially the use of concrete, active, and non-generic verbs. A restrained tone is also useful to reveal the deepest emotions.
  • Setting details and atmosphere can also be inflected to reveal the character’s emotional state.
  • The closer the character gets to his goal, the more unsure he becomes. This can be shown by a difference in tone in character thought (and the thoughts themselves), a change in character interaction, or more intense or otherwise changed physical behavior.
  • The conclusion of the story should show how the character has satisfied or failed his goal. The most successful stories are those in which the narrator obviates himself in order to make a larger recognition. The conclusion should also be an unexpected discovery that allows the reader to come away with a shared emotional experience.

—Rebecca Martin

Works Cited

Almond, Steve. “Run Away, My Pale Love.” My Life in Heavy Metal. New York: Grove Press, 2002. (79-101)

Almond, Steve. Interview with Robert Birnbaum. Identity Theory: The Narrative Thread. Posted January 26, 2003.

Baldwin, James. “Previous Condition.” Major Writers of Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 1993. (59-71)

Dunn, Stephen Dunn. “Alert Lovers, Hidden Sides, and Ice Travelers.” Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs. New York: Norton, 1993.

Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Translated by Susan Massoty. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Glover, Douglas. “Notes on Novel Structure.” Attack of the Copula Spiders, Biblioasis, 2012.

Kirchner, Bharti. “Putting Emotion into Your Fiction.” The Writer’s Handbook. Ed. Sylvia Burack. Boston: The Writers, Inc., 1998. (139-144)

O’Brien, Tim. “On the Rainy River.” The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. (39-61)


Sep 182010


It’s a pleasure to introduce Stephen Henighan (pictured above in Cairo in August for the feast of Ramadan) to the pages of Numéro Cinq. Stephen is a prolific author, world-traveler, critic, translator and polemicist, a man who lives by his words or in his words. I put him in Best Canadian Stories when I edited that annual anthology. That’s what I think of his writing. Over the years his commentaries on Canadian literature and writers have been acute and revelatory. You should look him up. This story was previously published in the venerable Canadian literary magazine Grain.



For thirteen hours, from the time the plane lifted off from London, crossed the Atlantic, landed at St. John’s, Antigua, then travelled the final hour over the Lesser Antilles –visible out the window as a trail of dark green bloodspots flowering on the translucent pale-blue slab of the sea–  up to the instant they landed at the little Cuban-built airport with a bump that woke the passengers who had lapsed into an alcoholic stupor, Philip waited for Doreen to speak.  She had uttered her last words in the departure lounge. When a flight attendant brought in the barrell kids –small children going home to visit their families,  their names written on bibs that hung across the fronts of their pink pinafores and white dress shirts–  Doreen exclaimed: “That was me! I grew up travelling like that. Except for me it was between Toronto and Jamaica.”

She remained silent as they picked up their luggage from the carousel and found their way outside where a beaming German couple held up a sign that said Philip & Doreen.  “Mitzi,” said the attractive wife, who looked older than her wiry husband. “This is Fred.” She smiled. “When people book on line, you never know what to expect.”

Doreen met his eyes.

They knew this reaction: the exuberance that camouflaged nervousness when people were uncertain how to respond to an interracial couple. As they climbed into the back seat of Fred and Mitzi’s jeep, Philip sensed Doreen’s disappointment.

The vacation had been her idea. She had persuaded him months ago, when they had realized that their business trips to England would overlap, that they should take advantage of the cheap deals available from London. She had overcome his resistance to package vacations by finding an on-line offer for a remote lodge: three holiday cabins on an isolated point overlooking a tiny bay on the island’s southeast shore.  With the bright-eyed girlishness she revved up whenever she was openly trying to twist his arm, Doreen enumerated the advantages: the private beach;  the outside world accessible only via a forty-five-minute vertical hike up the coastal mountains to the highway; a stash of tinned food strongly recommended; free airport pickup; a low price for a week’s accommodation on the condition that they tell their friends about the place when they got home.

He dozed against the door as warm air flooded the jeep. Fred was driving through deep gulleys where a dozen shades of green vied for the sunlight. Tall, droop-leafed coffee plants grew close to the road. As they climbed, houses on stilts bobbed up above the vegetation at the tops of the ridges like gravity-defying cubicles rising towards heaven.

On a cliff-face cleared of undergrowth, red spray-paint announced: Cuba and Grenada. Friends forever.

“After the hurricane, they couldn’t rescue people because the roads were blocked with fallen trees. The Cubans came and cleared the roads.”

“Some of the same Cubans who were here under socialism in the 1980s came back,” Mitzi said. “People welcomed them like they’d returned from the dead. When the international aid organizations arrived their job was easy because the roads were clear.”

“I work in international aid,” Philip said.

“Mitzi,” Fred said, “we shouldn’t talk about politics with our guests.”

“It’s all right.” Philip repeated the formula he had been obliged to utter a dozen times during his days in London: “We’re not American, we’re Canadian…. We took our vacation in Cuba last year.”

Doreen, looking out the window at the construction workers in their white T-shirts and black hard hats, nodded.

Clinging like a contour line to the flank of the mountains, the two-lane blacktop road hurtled them past abundant greenery speckled with little white houses. Here and there, a village clustered around a greystone church that looked as though it had been airlifted from a meadow in rural England; vendors cooked snacks on primus stoves at the edge of the road. Fred turned off the blacktop and geared down. The jeep crawled over huge ruts. By the time they emerged onto the point darkness was falling and  they caught only a glimpse of Fred and Mitzi’s white stucco house looking out over the dull sea and the three wooden cabins facing the bay. Fred crossed the yard  and disappeared into a shed. A generator came on. The roar of the sea in Philip’s ears and the air’s moisture made the glow of the  lamps strung from wires around the yard feel as fragile as life itself.

He hugged Doreen. “You’re not regretting this?” he murmured. “You don’t think we should have cancelled?”

“I couldn’t be doing nothin’ else now,” she said.

“You are the only guests,” Mitzi announced, leading them towards the cabin closest to the stucco house.  She offered to cook them supper.  Philip said that they were tired and would go to bed. In the cabin, where the bed was enclosed in a tent-shaped mosquito net,  they hung their plastic bags full of crackers, tinned sardines and tuna from wooden pegs in the bathroom and tied themselves up in the net. The surf smashed on the beach.  He opened his mouth to ask Doreen whether she was going to be able to sleep. Then he was awake and it was bright daylight. The room felt like a box vaulted up into the sky and shot through with light. It was barely five-thirty in the morning, but there were no curtains on the broad windows overlooking the sea and the sunlight was warming their bed; the roar of the waves sounded louder. When he slipped out from under the mosquito net, the whiteness of the surf hurt his eyes. Doreen got up, the strap of her rumpled nightgown twisted on her shoulder. Her hair was a mess. Not Afro enough to remain short and tight,  yet too Afro to fall into an elegant shape as it grew out, Doreen’s hair  was her constant preoccupation. Seeing it clustered into two beehive-like bunches, one halfway down the back of each side of her head, made him feel a horrible sadness. He hugged and kissed her.

“If you think we’re gonna get up to any monkey business with these windows you can forget it.”  She sidestepped him and scanned the beach.  “Look! A fishing boat come in!”

Before he could move, she had opened her suitcase and begun to dress. She raked her hair into shape in front of a mirror and was out the door and hurrying down the path to the beach, Fred and Mitzi’s dog bounding at her heels.  On the sand, a man was lifting plastic buckets out of a small boat. Two large women were walking towards him.  By the time Philip dressed and got to the beach, the women were bargaining with the fisherman for his catch.

“You want one that’s skinny like me,” he said, “or one that’s fat like you?”

“Fat like me!” a woman said. Their voices were as rhythmic as the waves, but they spoke standard English, a  relief to Philip, who struggled to understand the Jamaican patois of Doreen’s sisters.

As soon as the fish changed hands, Doreen stepped forward to scrutinize the contents of the buckets. “That one!” she said, pointing.

“That one cost nine,” the fisherman said.

“M’give you six,” Doreen said, her patois surfacing.

“Eight and he’s yours.”

“Seven an’ I don’ go no higher.”

“For a pretty woman  I go to seven.”

“Sweetie,” Doreen said to Philip.  “You got some money? What money it have here anyway?”

“Eastern Caribbean dollar,” Philip said. He laughed. “I like the way you bargain when you don’t even know what the money is.”

He paid the fisherman, who looked Doreen up and down. “Where you come from?”

“Jamaica,” Doreen said, supplying the answer she gave to black people who asked her this question. When white people asked, she said, “Toronto.”

The fisherman’s lean ribs pressed against his skin in the gap where his shirt hung open. “The Jamaican woman she have a nice shape.”

As Doreen took the fish, Philip laid his arm around her shoulders.

“A Jamaican girl she live up the hill here,” the fisherman said. “She marry a man from here. You go see her. She be wanting company from home.”

As they climbed the path, the dog trotting in front of them and panting at the fish,  Doreen whispered: “Man, the people here look like they just got off the boat from Africa! They’re not mixed at all!”

He followed her, his feet slipping on the path.  Doreen was as proud of her upturned Hindu eyes, long Arawak jawline, half-Scottish great-grandfather and one-quarter Chinese grandmother, as she was of her African heritage. She said she felt most comfortable in places like Jamaica and Cuba, where there was a language to talk about people like her, or cities like Toronto, where mixing was the daily business. Worried about how she felt here, he said: “At least they appreciate the Jamaican woman’s nice shape.”

“You sure put your arm around me fast! ‘Nobody’s touchin’ my woman.’  And you say you’re not possessive!”

Daylight lent the point a ragged appearance. Long grass entwined with creepers was encroaching on the yard beneath the wires where the lamps hung.  Fred, dressed in a floppy-brimmed sunhat that threw his face into shadow, was swinging a scythe at the undergrowth. They went around the corner of the house and found Mitzi on the covered patio, clearing up the breakfast dishes. Through an open doorway they saw a local woman sweeping the floor of an industrial-sized kitchen. “This is Georgina,” Mitzi said.  “When we have tour groups, Georgina and I cook for twelve!”  She crossed the tiles and wrested the fish from Doreen’s hands.  “You want me to freeze it?”

“Thank you, Mitzi. I’ll cook it the last night.”

“Georgina, put this body in the freezer!”  Mitzi said with a laugh.

Philip couldn’t look at Doreen.

“Mitzi,” he heard her say in a level voice, “do you know if I can get a flight to Jamaica from here? I might have to go for family business.”
Mitzi frowned. “There are not many flights between islands…. You’re not leaving?”

“If I go, it only for two-three days. Philip stay here.”

“You know there is a Jamaican girl who lives up the hill on the other side of the beach?”

“The fisherman told us,” Philip said.

“She cuts hair,” Mitzi said. “She studied this in Jamaica.”

“Until Macey come, there’s no one around here who cuts hair,” Georgina said from the kitchen.

Mitzi nodded. “This is such a small island that people don’t have the opportunity to learn a trade.”

“That’s why we came here,” Philip said. “They said there was nothing to do.”  He still couldn’t look at Doreen. “I guess we’ll go back to our cabin now.”


They woke at five-thirty to the sound of the waves. No matter how hard they tried at night to kill the saboteur mosquitoes that slipped inside the net, each morning they found fresh bites on their shins. By the third day, in spite of the fact that his skin was so light and hers so dark, matching reddish scabs shielded  the space between their ankles and their knees  like the greaves of  centurions who belonged to the same expeditionary force. They prepared their meals of crackers and tinned sardines on the balcony, sweeping the crumbs over the edge to discourage the ants which crossed the planks in tiny swarms that moved as fast as a tropical storm running in over the sea.  Each day they had a morning swim and an afternoon swim. The water was warmer in the afternoon, but the weather was more turbulent. Big black clouds built up over the mountains. Between swims, they read paperbacks on the balcony and took walks uphill, where trees brought down by the hurricane blocked the clipped English lanes that ran through the tropical undergrowth. They skirted  slack-bellied brown cattle that grazed in groups of two or three,  and tiny shepherd boys sleeping in the grass. Their customary non-stop banter about politics slowed.  He struggled to convey to Doreen his sensation of being in a place where nothing more could happen. Fred and Mitzi talked about the revolutionary government, the Cubans, the  American invasion, the next twenty years of slow decline, then the hurricane, which knocked over the nutmeg trees, the core of the island’s  economy, like men shot dead.

They drove Philip and Doreen  up the coast to see the empty nutmeg factory in Grenville,  where a bitter foreman waved at the echoing factory floor where hundreds had worked. “They’re all gone,” he said. That evening, the conversation Philip had imagined them having about the island’s problems failed to happen. As soon as night fell, Doreen undressed and went to bed. It surprised him that she, who under normal circumstances refused to kiss him if there were a finger’s-width crack between two curtains in a hotel room, took off her clothes with unflinching confidence in this cabin where broad bare windows exposed them on two sides. Doreen was right, of course, that there was no one out there, that in the all-engulfing darkness of the rural night no one could see anyone else; yet her abandon suggested a change in her mood, even a shift in her personality. He felt  one step behind. He toiled to catch up to her in the hot fury of her beautiful slender black body.  At each climax he felt gripped by the need to go deeper inside her.  He wanted, with a rage that unnerved him, to give her a child, as though this fusion of their beings might break down her silence.

Fearing the mosquitoes, neither of them went to the bathroom after lovemaking. He eased off his condom, tied it around the neck and wrapped it in  toilet paper. In the violent suddenness of the dawn, he woke to see the twisted nub of latex-bulged tissue paper glowing with the luminosity of a recently evolved life form.

On the fourth day they walked to the village at the top of the hill. The coastal highway ran through the centre of town. Soaked with sweat from the climb, they found a corner store where they could buy soft drinks. The woman behind the counter offered a computer where they could check email. Against their judgement, they agreed to break the spell of their removal from the world.  The sight of dozens of work-related messages make Philip feel irritable.  He logged out. Doreen studied her messages in silence, read a few of them and  offered no comment during the long downhill walk to the beach.  Her reserve persisted into the next day. In the afternoon, as he watched her emerge from the water in a tan-coloured bikini,  her unruly hair rolling on her shoulders in the wind, he handed her the towel she had draped across the trunk of a fallen palm tree. As she smiled into his face, he said: “You don’t want to talk about it?”

“Nothing I can say’s going to change anything.”

“But, Doreen, isn’t it better– ?”

“I don’t feel like talking.”

On their fifth night, feeling penned in by the small bay,  they splurged on a cooked dinner on Fred and Mitzi’s balcony.  That afternoon a group of young people had driven two jeeps down through the bush and set a bonfire in the short, goat-gnawed grass which began just above the brown sand. As Philip and Doreen watched from their balcony, two of the young men felled a tapered coconut tree. Doreen winced as the tree hit the ground. To the sound of gangsta rap, the young men stripped the tree of its coconuts and sat down with their girlfriends to drink rum, eat coconuts and roast hot dogs. An hour later, when  they drove away, they hurled jeers in the direction of the point  and left their bonfire burning. The evening breeze skimmed in off the sea, driving the fire across the short grass in the direction of the bush.

Fred appeared, hurling curses at the empty beach. A bucket in his hand, he descended the path in jerky leaps. He opened a faucet at the end of a long, rickety pipe and filled the bucket with water. He emptied the bucket over the flames, returned to the faucet and filled the bucket a second time, then a third.  By the  fifth  dousing, the fire was hissing into submission.  Fred continued pouring water over the charred logs and scorched grass long after the fire had gone out.

That evening, as they  ate their steaks and corn on the balcony, where the breeze had grown cool enough for Doreen to drape a long-sleeved shirt over her tanktop, Fred was raging.  “People here used to have a culture of living with their island! They climbed up the tree to get coconuts. Now every time they want a coconut they cut down a tree!”
“Young people think they can have everything lickety-split like on TV,” Georgina said.

“That’s what we came here to get away from!” Mitzi said.  “Since the hurricane everything is worse.” She looked at Doreen, whose loose-sprung curls were falling into her face.
“Macey isn’t like that. I think that in Jamaica they teach people to work.”

“Lots of Jamaicans have two jobs,” Doreen said, growing animated. “But it have lazy people like everywhere else.”

“Tomorrow you must visit Macey,” Mitzi said.   “You won’t have time on your last day because we must drive to the airport. I will give you directions!” she said, stepping into the kitchen for paper.

Next day, after their lunch of water biscuits and sardines, Philip said: “Do you want to  visit the Jamaican girl?”

“I guess.”

“Are you thinking about the trip to London?”

“I’m trying not to think about anything.  Let’s visit the Jamaican girl,” she said, getting to her feet.

They walked the length of the beach and found the path described in Mitzi’s directions: a bald zigzag that climbed through the undergrowth at an angle so steep that they had to grip the bushes and haul themselves up hand over hand. Sweating and gasping, they emerged onto a sloping headland and followed a broader path, worn wide by cattle and clipped by goats, past ruined one-room houses, the sheet metal torn from their roofs glinting in thickets of long grass. Turning around to catch their breath, they saw the point where they were staying projecting out into the sea like the tapered  blade of a shovel laid on the dark blue water. They followed  the path until it intersected with a steep  single-lane blacktop road.

When they got to the top of the hill, a long-legged young woman wearing a white T-shirt and short twisted dreadlocks came out to greet them. “How are you, Doreen? Finally, you reach! Every day, I ask m’self why that Doreen don’ come visit me?”

“You knew I was here?”

“Girl,” Macey said, lowering her voice, “on this island, everybody know everything. I can’t say a word to your boyfriend here unless you keep right in the middle of the
conversation.  Oh, these small-island people are suspicious! Sometimes I wish I back in Kingston where nobody know my business.”

She waved them towards her house. Grey rooftiles had been hammered to the front of the porch.  The three of them sat down on the steps. Macey’s skin was of a lighter brown than that of the Grenadians; her face was round, with a wide mouth and a strong chin.  “I thought I miss my family here. Instead I miss my privacy.”

“You can’t forget your family,” Doreen said.

“But I gotta say I like it here. It peaceful. In Kingston you got to watch your back.” Looking at Doreen, she said: “Girl, you need a haircut. Why don’ you come see me the day you reach?”

“I wasn’t ready.”

“You ready now?”

Doreen gripped Philip’s arm. “I ready.”

Macey got to her feet. “Why kind of haircut you want?”

“I want straightenin’,” Doreen said, standing up.

“Straightenin’ gonna cost you.  I go into St. George’s to get the solution. For straightening, I charge fifty EC dollar.”

“Sweetie,” Doreen said. “We got fifty EC dollar?”

“I think so.”  Astonished by Doreen’s compliance, Philip wondered whether Macey’s offer had contained a cultural signal, indiscernible to his eye, which ruled out bargaining. He found fifty EC dollars and handed them to Macey. The young woman took the money and disappeared into the house. “Straightening cost twice that much in Toronto,” Doreen said in a whisper. Macey returned carrying a towel, a bucket and a container of straightening solution. She wore white gloves like a pathologist. She sat Doreen down on a plastic chair on the porch and wrapped the towel around her shoulders.  As Macey set to work, Philip backed away. The scabs on his shins itched in the heat. At the side of Macey’s house,  the frame of a black chest of drawers, stripped of its innards, sat tumbled on its back among scattered pieces of lathe fanned out across red-brown earth.

“Why you come here?” Macey said. She doused and lathered Doreen’s hair. She dragged Doreen to her feet and bent her forward.  Doreen braced her elbows on the rail of the porch. She made Doreen lean over the rail  until she was staring down at the hurricane wreckage. The wood and cardboard had half-sunk into the earth, becoming one with the soil in a coarse humus. “Why you come to Grenada?” Macey lathered and rubbed until she was hauling Doreen’s head up and down. “Why don’ you go to Jamaica to see your family?”

Doreen gasped. Suds ran across her cheeks. “I go to Jamaica next week for my brother funeral!” she shouted.  She stood up and burst into tears. A man on the other side of the road stared at them.  Doreen shook herself out of Macey’s grip.  Philip rushed up the steps and hugged her trembling body. Her hair crushed by lather, Doreen’s  head shone forth in its strong dark roundness as her lips nuzzled his shoulder.

She turned around and let Macey’s hug receive her. “We book this vacation, then they murder my brother in Kingston.  They going to do an autopsy so they put him on ice so I decide to go on vacation anyway. I think maybe being around West Indian people do me good.”

The two women rocked together like coconut trees whose suppleness belied the force of the wind. “It be all right, Doreen,”  Macey said. “I happy you come and see me.”

Doreen gave Macey a squeeze, as though she were the one offering comfort. She stood up, strong and independent as she had always been and yet, Philip sensed, older.

“Straighten my hair good, Macey! My hair gotta shine for my brother funeral. And try to do it quickly, please. Philip and me goin’  to Fred and Mitzi’s place. Tonight I’m cookin’  a fish dinner.”

—Stephen Henighan


Sep 172010


#1: At War with Clarity

It might seem anti-climactic to end these posts with a topic as simple as clear-writing, but this lesson encompasses those that preceded it.  In fact, with little exaggeration, all the previous nine posts led straight to this one.  Clarity does necessarily mean simplicity.  It also does not mean strict realism or attempts to capture verisimilitude.  Clarity in writing is not just how the writer conveys words but how he thinks about writing.  It involves being clear and in control of what you are trying to say before you put pen to paper.  It’s not always expressed on the page, but clarity must be discovered in the writer’s mind.

For most of my writing life, I’d been at war with clarity, which meant I’d been at war with my own mind.

Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that clarity was not a virtue in writing, but a sign of weakness.  I wrote with a thesaurus at my side, convinced that if I up-armored my stories with big words and abstract characters, no one would notice the stumbling mess of structure and inept storytelling which those words tried to conceal.  I didn’t realize that I was fighting a counterinsurgency against my own confusion and ignorance about the nature of good writing.  All my attempts to gussy up my prose took me further and further away from the heart of a good story.

When I wrote a weak scene or if a chapter stalled out, rather than staying with it and thinking my way through (which demanded the hard work a writer must do), I would race back to some earlier part of the book and start blasting plain words off the page.  I filled my stories with half-deranged characters speaking through hijacked, quasi-intelligences in the form of fuzzy characterization.  I littered my pages with obscure allusions to even more obscure books.  It’s fair to say that I sought confusion, hoping that it would pass as mystery or intrigue.  These stories were destined to fail because with each escalation of vagueness, with each minefield of fancy rhetoric and symbolism, I crept further and further away from anything resembling a real story.  I didn’t realize that the true enemy in these pitched battles was my inability to write a story.

And it felt like hard work, struggling as I imagined real writers struggled.

The truth was that I had no fucking clue what I was doing.  But what I wouldn’t do, what I fought against tooth and nail, was being obvious.  If someone reached for a dictionary to read my stories, then kudos to me!  DG nicely summarizes this conundrum in his essay “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise.”

“The fear of being too obvious is a common failing of inexperienced short story writers.  Excessive obliquity leads straight to the purgatory of vagueness…Students speckle their stories with symbols, clues and hints instead of saying what they mean and telling the reader how to read the story like real writers.  They want to be interpreted (the effect of too many English literature classes) instead of being read.”

Because I didn’t know how to tell a story, I masked my ignorance with vague and abstract images.  I thought that by using big words, and lots of them, I could camouflage  the utter lack of a story.

Clarity meant simplicity, and any lunkhead could tell a simple story, I figured.  Only an artistic lunkhead (like me) would spend hours looking for the perfect word.     Continue reading »

Sep 172010

Several months ago, when this re-entry into hell began, I set out to collect and share some of the many lessons I’d learned from the brutal, tumultuous orgy of unrelenting pain and suffering at the hands of  NC moderator.  While this list evolved, I’ve had time to think of ten more, and ten after that, but for the sake of those poor readers who’ve followed this serial installment, the end is near.

Here is the opening statement from my original post:

What follows are informal thoughts on the top-ten things I learned this semester.  Caveat 1: I learned way more than ten things.  (At least eleven or twelve.)  I’m setting out to reveal the 10 most consistent mistakes I made and looking at a few outside sources to help clarify my explanation.  I hope that the NC moderator (and my former advisor) will feel free to comment, correct or criticize any of the entries for future students.  (I’m also sure that future students will be better-versed in these things, and less likely to make the same mistakes I did.)  Caveat 2:  I didn’t come from a literary background, so please don’t laugh too much if some of these seem woefully obvious.

And now, without further delay, a recap of the top ten, counting down towards the grand finale, the number one thing I learned last semester.

10.  Use attributed dialogue

9.  Pronouns Without Antecedents Are Abstractions

8.  My Dirty Little Secret: Grammar Issues

7.  Letting Go

6.  Letting Characters Speak the Truth

5.  My Love Affair with Abstractions

4. Use Caution When Exiting the Bathtub: Shy and Retiring Plot Problems

3.  Deficiencies of Desire

2.  Verbs

1.  Will be revealed later today.

-Rich Farrell

Sep 172010
Trekking on top of the Perito Moreno glacier

An Estancia in Patagonia

Donigan Merritt

Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, like to refer to their city as the Paris of Latin America. It is not. (Neither was Prague when calling itself the new Paris.) Depending on one’s level of chauvinism, this may or may not be seen as a compliment, but what Porteños can accurately claim is that their city is the most European and the least Latino city anywhere in the Americas.

Buenos Aires is thought to represent Argentina, but it does not. At least Porteños should hope it does not. People outside of Latin America usually know five things about Argentina: Eva Peron’s crying song, the “dirty war,” the economic meltdown and debt default in the early years of the 21st century, steak houses, and Patagonia. Wise Porteños should claim that Patagonia is representative of the real Argentina.

Somewhat similar to “dude ranches” in the States, an estancia is a working ranch that now takes in guests to make ends meet. Although the word estancia simply means ranch, and many, if not most, are working ranches, not bucolic B and B’s with a few decorative cattle and sheep, plus a couple of decked-out gauchos strolling about in picturesque berets. Many estancias are huge, thousands of acres, particularly in the West Texas flat of the Pampas, where gauchos still work much as they have for two centuries.

The estancia at Nibepo Aike

Not all estancia guest ranches are alike. I have visited two. One just an hour and a half’s drive from the center of Buenos Aires, the other a long flight down the length of Argentina, to the bottom of Patagonia. The former is more hotel (two swimming pools, for example, one an infinity pool), with the only ranching activity being performed as a show for guests; their feature was horseback rides along the creek. The other was a working ranch with a large herd of range fed cattle, and even larger flocks of sheep. That one, Nibepo Aike, located a rough one hour slog on a ragged dirt road from the airport in the town of El Calafate, houses the few guests it can accommodate in a wing of the ranch house that used to bunk gauchos, and offers mainly one service: food and drink. Although they are helpful with directions and setting you up with excursions.

Joined by six friends from Europe, my wife and I spent a few days at Nibepo Aike this past January (mid-summer down here), using it mostly as a base from which to explore the nearby glaciers, in particular, the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the only glaciers in the world that is not receding rapidly; no one is quite sure why it is still expanding. The estancia is, convenient for explorations, on the far edge of the Glacier National Park, at the terminus of the dirt road from El Calafate – terminating because just past the estancia is the impassable Andes range and the border with Chile.

The view of the Andes and one of the small glacier lakes from the Estancia

The rooms are along each side of a narrow, creaking hallway leading away from the large main room, behind which is the kitchen, from where an amazing amount of food is delivered three times a day. Most of the décor remains from the days before guests were taken in, and the few additions fit nicely with what’s already there. My favorite piece was an ancient Underwood typewriter made into a lamp.

There is a large stone fireplace in the main room – a wonderful evening treat even in the middle of summer (it’s not much further down the road to the jump off to Antarctica, it’s worth remembering), to while away the late hours with a glass, or a bottle, of Argentina’s fine vino tinto – Malbec. When we were there, it was full, but that means only two other couples; with our eight people, that took all the rooms. One couple was Swiss, the other from Buenos Aires.

Gauchos bringing in the sheep in the afternoon

Awakening the first morning early, hoping to get in a long hike in the nearby hills, I encountered grazing cattle milling about on the lawn next to our room. The gauchos were already on their horses and at work. On the way in to have breakfast, two gauchos moved a group of fifty or sixty sheep along the road out front.

We spent that day hiking around one of the small lakes just a short walk from the estancia, and in the hills behind the estancia, that grow up to be the Andes on the other side. That night we were treated to a full Monty parilla (it means grill or BBQ), during which Malbec flowed through our glasses like water and burdened platters groaning under the heaping weight of cow and lamb parts, half of which I had never considered edible before. (I still hold that opinion about some of it.)

Only able to eat a bit of yogurt the next morning, we were picked up in a van and driven to the Glacier National Park, where we boarded a boat on Lake Argentina and wandered around among ethereally blue ice bergs and ice islands on our way to Perito Moreno.

Cooking up the lamb

There is no way to write about this that can come even close to what it looks like, up close and personal, and even less to be able to describe the sound of ice cracking within the glacier itself, and chunks the size of buses or houses exploding away from the glacier’s leading edge. The best I can do is say that ice cracking in a glacier sounds like a howitzer firing next door.

To come to Argentina and only see Buenos Aires, is like going to the United States and only visiting New York. What is best about this country, what is best about the United States, for that matter, is not to be found in its signature cities, but in the “out there,” and Patagonia is the most out there place I have ever seen.

—Donigan Merritt

Sep 142010

DG’s friend and colleague at VCFA Nance Van Winckel has sent in two new photocollages to grace our pages. These are cross-genre, off-the-page, photo and graffiti mash-ups that push against the constrictions of conventional form in delightful ways and fit rather nicely in the Numéro Cinq aesthetic. Think of them as Not-Not Poems. Look at Nance’s web page for the latest news and links to online poems and stories. But also check out her Off The Page video from the summer residency and her Pho-toems by Nance Van Winckel video.

WORMHOLE IS TO THEORY AS FLAME IS TO FLINT (photocollage, 30″ by 18″)

ROO ‘N BOOM LOVE MORE THAN YOU (Photocollage, 16″ x 24″)

Sep 122010

Genni venice

Here are the opening pages of Genni Gunn‘s new novel Solitaria. Genni is an old friend of DG, dating back to the time before he had children and used to fly across the country to this or that summer workshop (the summer he met Genni, he did three in a row in New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan). Once upon a time, Genni used to tour with bands in western Canada, which always struck DG as exciting and romantic (given his own sheltered upbringing). Now she writes novels, stories, and poems and the occasional opera. She is Italian by heritage. The photo above was taken in Venice and seems to DG to be iconic–Genni in the mysterious aquatic city, only half-western, caught in the embrace of the golden and opulent east.

By way of a further introduction, here is the novel trailer.


From Solitaria

By Genni Gunn

Facilis descensus Averni:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradium superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.

It is easy to go down into Hell:
night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide;
but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air,
there’s the rub, the task.

— Virgil

Fregene, Italy, July 15, 2002

They navigate through thick traffic, from Rome, for an hour and a half, in stifling heat, among stalled cars and angry drivers. Finally, the Fregene exit leads them off the freeway, and onto Viale di Pineta through the ancient pinery, down to Lungomare di Levante, where they turn left at the seashore, and continue until they stop in front of iron gates, chained and padlocked. Visible through the bars, a dilapidated villa rises among pines and wild hibiscus whose magenta petals shimmer in the July heat. Yellow police tape girdles the entire area.

Once, this villa was the pride of its owners, nestled in a sprawling lot facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by palms and oleanders on manicured lawns where children played and cats sunned themselves. Over time, the children grew and moved to the cities. When the owners died, the villa was sold to foreigners who came only in summer. In the winter months, small boys climbed over the fence and played in the tall grass no one tended. Sometimes, they built fires on the beach, and tried to pry open the green shutters. The villa was sold and resold, neglected and abandoned by owner after owner, none of whom lived there.

“This must be it,” the cameraman says, pointing to the number on a pillar whose plaster has broken away in chunks to reveal old bricks and mortar. He turns down the air conditioner.

The show’s anchorwoman sits beside him, fanning herself with a small spiral notebook. On the side of the van, the familiar logo — a large c ending in a question mark, inside which are the words: Chi L’Ha Visto? Who Has Seen Him?

A policeman unlocks the gate, checks their ids, and lets them in. While the crew unloads the van, the anchorwoman walks around, surveying the area for appropriate footage.

The villa looms over her, casting a dark shadow to the east, eclipsing the tent erected over the excavation site — a makeshift lab where forensic specialists gather specimens. She shivers under the unrelenting sun, then searches for the demolition foreman, interviews him, and jots his answers in the notebook.

The new owners want to tear it down and build something new.

We were going to take out the trees first, and that’s when we found him.

Continue reading »

Sep 092010

William “Kit” Hathaway poem (see links at the bottom of the post for two other poems published on Numéro Cinq plus other Hathaway web presences) is an acute and generous reader. When I asked him for a new poem, he wrote back: “Here’s a poem that seems to fit with the fine Balgach poem, though I wrote it thinking about a Tony Hoagland essay in Poetry before I read ‘Fighting.'”

Just to add a little perspective, here is a paragraph excerpted from Kit’s entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

…he mixes tragedy and comedy to satirize and criticize himself, other poets, academia, and various other targets. This blending of tones and modes, along with his recent change to a more serious, wide-ranging satire, make him distinctive and may account for his high standing among his fellow poets, such as Albert Goldbarth and Norman Dubie, who have highly praised Looking into the Heart of Light (1988), with Dubie calling him “a great American poet.”


By William Hathaway

Yes, even for you
who weren’t here yet before
the traffic became too much, too always
and too loud to think, it is
what it is, even so. A saying you say
often that says no matter
what’s said nothing can change
what so relentlessly changes
and so the less said the better,
flipping open your phone,
beeping your car to life,
easing into the ceaseless rush.

A jackknife nests
in my pocket I’ve lost & found
so often for so long I’ve lost the story
of my feeling for it. When it’s lost,
nestled unbeknownst to me
in the crack of a dusty couch, is it
not lost until I miss it? No.
Yes, I’m always saying no
to you now. Look, I’ve found no
you’ll say when you listen.

There’s nothing to say
is the only thing left to say, you say.
So many amusing ways
to say this just by saying something
else before you finish saying
what you were saying. When night
falls and the road becomes
a gushing stream of light, out
creep dark creatures to eat
the dead swept up on the shores
of that river. Even without light
their eyes would blaze out
from black shapes into blackness.

— William Hathaway

See also “Bufflehead Dawn,” “Martin Points,” “Bitterness,” “Betrayal,” “The Poetry Career,” “Today.”

Author Interview with Adam Tavel in Poets’ Quarterly

Sep 072010

Here’s a poem by Martin Balgach. He sent me a batch, but it was difficult to choose. Martin and DG met in 2008 during the Vermont College of Fine Arts Slovenia residency. Martin was a student in DG’s workshop, a mixed workshop with poets, fiction writers and nonfiction writers and no end of exuberant discourse and inter-genre translation. Martin is a great traveling companion, full of appreciation, astonishment and gentle good humour. He bought DG coffee the day the ATM ate his card in Croatia–upon request DG can supply you with a photo of the ATM machine. Martin has since graduated, lives in Colorado, and writes lovely poems. The photos DG took in Slovenia and Croatia.



By Martin Balgach

In the battle for emotional supremacy
I’ve challenged the wind to a duel
but I’m carrying an idea instead of a gun

Now I know the wind is tough and cold
and not in that romantic
this is invigorating kind of cold
but more that middle-aged guy
in baggy black dungarees
drinking alone at a dive bar cold

It’s that tough in your gut
like a memory-you-want-to-forget
cold, it’s the kind of cold
that spits in your lungs
and tugs at your heart like a kid
tugging on the tail of a pet
but the pet is whimpering
because the game went too far

And I know why the motion
of each new morning keeps teasing us—
The problem is heaven—
We have the idea of more so we want more

I’ve been considering this for days
I’ve branded the hindquarter of my brain
with the melancholy symbol of a neon duck
fucking itself with a crucifix

Yeah, there are a thousand funny things to say
but the real things get caught in my throat like paste

Either way, tomorrow will be a new massacre
I’ll be losing the fight, staring at the sky

The cosmos will look like an old string of Christmas lights,
the kind that all go out when one bulb breaks
But it won’t be Christmas as the wind keeps kicking

—Martin Balgach


Sep 012010

Lately, NC has been overrun by some strange, possibly disturbing (disturbed?) posts.  There have been  trips to Wal-Mart, essays about dead, German philosophers, a gilded Michael Jackson and ‘Bubbles’ statue, and some impostor (or series of impostors) running around claiming to be DG.  It’s all very confusing.  It seems the perfect time to throw my “Top-10” essay back into the mix.  How could it hurt?

For those of you following these posts with bated breath (and I know there’s at least one of you out there…Bubbles is a huge fan) it began as a series of short essays covering ten of the more important lessons I learned as student working with DG last semester at VCFA.  DG approved this series and has been paying me handsomely for each installment.  (By the way, Doug, the checks haven’t been arriving.  Could you re-confirm my mailing address?  Thanks in advance.  These Talisker bills are adding up.)

I’m down to the top two.  Number two covers, quite simply, verbs.

(Please note: all quotes in this post are from DG’s essay, “The Attack of the Copula Spiders.”)

I entered last semester (my third) bright-eyed and eager.  Though tales and legends swirled regarding the dangers of the Shredder’s realm, I believed I could safely navigate the terrifying path, escaping with little more than a few scratches and cuts.  Ah, the joy of innocence!  Three steps into that primordial, Canadian forest, a sharp pain split my calf.  Toxic venom spiraled toward my spine.  Before I could hack off my own leg to prevent further injury, the face of a copula spider appeared, a spider bearing a shocking resemblance to DG.  It mocked me as it scurried back to its upstate NY home.  Arachnis copulataris.  (Confused?  Keep reading! )

“A copula spider occurs when a student uses the verb ‘to be’ so many times on a page that I can circle all the instances, connect them with lines, and draw a spider diagram on the page.”  (See exhibit A)

Exhibit A: The Copula Spider

Continue reading »

Aug 312010


It has been said that creative nonfiction authors like to write about themselves: I had a tumultuous childhood, I went a year without eating anything brown, I find gems of wisdom in the ingredient lists of common foodstuffs.  That’s nice, but the real world isn’t populated solely with various iterations of the first person.  Though all the “others” out there might interrupt our self-indulgent reveries, they often have something very important to say.  So how can we carefully and strategically let them into our personal essays and our memoirs.

introductions1McPhee’s “Founding Fish,” page one.

I am, generally speaking, a science and nature writer.  Therefore, so-called “experts” (actual scientists and naturalists) always poke their heads into my essays.  In an effort to learn how to organize and orchestrate their entrances, I decided to look at the opening chapters of two books that are rich with interlopers: Founding Fish, by John McPhee, and Hell or High Water, by Peter Heller.  (You’re gathering by now this is a critical essay DG asked me to tweak and post here.  I, sadly, do not have the lucrative publication deal Mr. Farrell enjoys.)

McPhee’s book is an all-angles examination of one species of fish: the American shad.  In the opening chapter, McPhee spends more than two hours reeling in one of these anadromites from the Delaware River.  Woven into this primary narrative are segments about the landscape, the life history of the fish, and the key characters that will figure prominently in the remainder of the book.  Heller follows a kayak expedition down Tibet’s Tsangpo River, which has never been successfully run.  The author, a kayaker himself commissioned by Outside Magazine to follow the trek, doesn’t ever get into the river, but instead walks the shore with the “ground team” supporting the seven boaters.  In the prologue and first chapter, Heller juggles the entrances of all seven kayakers and nearly a dozen other major and minor characters.

introductions2Heller’s “Hell or High Water,” page one.

In these two books, the authors use a variety of methods to introduce the large number of characters.  This essay will examine the structures and triggers employed in introducing these characters.  An introduction structure refers to how a character is brought into the story over time, and appears in these books in four types: continuous, suspended, stuttering, and brief.  An introduction trigger refers to the immediate reason the character is introduced, and appears here in five types: by the story, by association, by background, by others, and by needed expertise.

Types of Character Introduction Structures:

Continuous: A continuous introduction includes a lengthy introduction and description of a character the very first time the character is encountered.  McPhee uses this structure to introduce the three expert fishermen, Buddy Grucela, Erwin Dietz, and Gerald Hartzel.  On page 5, these three men are mentioned for the first time: “[Cervone] knew he wasn’t fishing with Buddy Grucela.  He knew he wasn’t fishing with Erwin Dietz or Gerald Hartzel – living figures in the Cooperstown of shad.”  There is a short paragraph, and then McPhee begins a more than two-page description of Dietz and Hartzel, in sequence, before entering and even lengthier description of Grucela.  At no point during the introduction and description of these three men does McPhee return to the present story (that of him fishing with the Cervones in the Delaware River).  The three expert fishermen are called by name, then brought into the book with lengthy descriptions.

Suspended: A suspended introduction includes an initial mention of a character, by name or “profession,” then a later lengthy introduction after other action or discussion has occurred.  McPhee uses this structure to introduce the other two fishermen that appear in the opening chapter: the Cervones, who are in the boat with him.  On page 5 the men are mentioned by name: “Three of us were in the boat, close and tandem.  I was in the middle, fishing over the shoulder of the skipper, Ed Cervone.  Fishing over my shoulder was Ed’s son, Edmund Cervone.”  No further information is shared about these men (except for Ed’s psychology degree, which is used for humor, not introduction) until page 12, after having left the present action to introduce the three expert fishermen and relate some natural history elements.  Then the Cervones return to the story: “Edmund Cervone, behind me, said nothing.  Edmund was an instinctive, natural absolute river fisherman.  On various outings, fish had come to his line while avoiding his father’s and mine” and “Ed Cervone is the sort of person who, when he is fishing, might as well be chained among the shadows in a cave.  No nuance of depth or color is too subtle to prevent his frequent adjustments of style.”  Until this point, though McPhee has divulged his companions’ names, there has been no other information shared.  Notable also is the reiteration of physical location in the boat (“Edmund Cervone, behind me”), to tie the two portions of the introduction together.

Stuttering: A stuttering introduction is composed of several initial mentions of a character, sometimes not even by name, then a later lengthy introduction.  Heller uses this technique to introduce the expedition kayakers.  Though each of the seven (including the expedition leader Scott Lindgren) is dealt with similarly, the technique is illustrated here through Willie Kern.  Kern first appears on page 1, in the second paragraph of the book, though not by name.  He is an undifferentiated member of a group: “The kayakers moved quickly, pulling on life vests and helmets, and didn’t speak.  It was already afternoon.  After 10 years of planning, there wasn’t much to say.  They were seven of the best expeditionary paddlers in the world, from four countries, led by Scott Lindgren of Auburn, California.”  On page three he reappears, again without being named: “If anyone could get it done, though, it would be these seven.  Most of them had been kayaking since they were children, and in recent years each had paddled close to 300 days a year.”  On page 4 he begins to emerge individually, and is at last named, at the conclusion of a list of all the kayakers: “Twin brothers Johnnie and Willie Kern, 29, from Stowe, Vermont, have a reputation for fearlessness – for years in the States, a truism went: ‘If the Kern brothers won’t run it, nobody will.’”  Much later, on page 15, he is mentioned once again by name: “For the past two weeks, Scott, Dustin, Willie and Johnnie Kern, and Dustin Knapp had been working 22 hours a day editing footage of their latest video.”  Three sentences later, in what constitutes the fifth time Willie Kern is brought up with the other kayakers or mentioned by name, he is finally described in full, beginning with: “The first person I met was Willie Kern.  He was tall, broad-shouldered, and bulky, with a goatee and wide-set, intelligent eyes, and he had shades propped on the brim of a baseball cap.”  An ensuing paragraph continues the physical and skill-set description

Brief: A brief introduction reveals a character by name or with a brief description without a follow-up appearance by the character.  This technique is used by both McPhee and Heller when the character is minor or introduced for a very specific purpose.  On page 23 of “Founding Fish,” in the second to last paragraph of the chapter, McPhee introduces an expert briefly:  “Soon after that evening in Lambertville, I told this story to Richard St. Pierre, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Headquartered in Harrisburg, on the Susquehanna River, he is a shad specialist, who has worked as a shad consultant on the Hudson River, the Columbia River, and the Yangtze.”  Mc Phee then uses just two sentences to conclude the chapter – in essence using St. Pierre only to deliver the chapter’s punch line.

Types of Character Introduction Triggers:

The Story: When the story is the trigger, the character is physically encountered by the narrator during the primary action of the story.  On page 5, McPhee uses this trigger technique to introduce the Cervones by describing the “lay of the land” of the fishing expedition he is on: “Three of us were in the boat, close and tandem.  I was in the middle, fishing over the shoulder of the skipper, Ed Cervone.  Fishing over my shoulder was Ed’s son, Edmund Cervone.”

In “Hell or High Water,” this is the dominant introduction trigger, and is often used repeatedly with the same character, such as in the introduction of Willie Kern and the other kayakers.  On page 1, when Heller first describes the kayakers entering the water, he is standing on the bank watching them.  When Willie Kern is finally introduced in detail, Heller begins with: “The first person I met was Willie Kern.”  Similarly: “Steve Fisher ambled out of a video editing room.”

Association: When an introduction is triggered by association, the character is introduced when real-time action or thought makes the narrator think of the character.  This association can be to illustrate contrast or similarity, or as an example or proof of the real-time action or thought.  McPhee uses this trigger to introduce the three expert fishermen.  On pages 5 and 6, he moves from the initial mention of the Cervones to the continuous introduction of the experts.  He uses contrast to shift from characters he is physically near to characters that are in his mind:  “Cervone the Elder, who has a doctorate in psychology, seemed unimpressed – seemed to be suggesting, through a light shrug, that he knew bullshit by its cover.  He knew he wasn’t fishing with Buddy Grucela.  He knew he wasn’t fishing with Erwin Dietz or Gerald Hartzel – living figures in the Cooperstown of shad.  He knew that in my seven years as a shad fisherman I had risen steadily into a zone of terminal mediocrity.”

Heller uses this trigger technique to introduce the late kayaker Doug Gordon and to offer proof of the danger of the expedition.  He does this twice for Gordon, once on page 3:  “There was no guarantee that any of them would come back alive.  The last team to make a serious attempt on the Tsangpo – an American group led by Wickliffe Walker in 1998 – made only 27 miles before seasoned kayaker Doug Gordon drowned.”  And again on page 6: “’Have you heard of the Tsangpo Gorge?’ It may have been the breath of the down-valley night wind, but I don’t think so: A wave of goose bumps spread over my shoulders.  ‘Yes,’ I said.  Three years before, I had attended a memorial service for 42-year-old Doug Gordon.”  A short description of Gordon and the circumstances of his death follows.

Background: When an introduction is triggered by background, the character appears in a secondary story to the main story, such as in an anecdote from the past or something the narrator heard second-hand.  Heller uses this technique with several other kayakers, including Doug Gordon again, who are peripheral to the main story but provide context.  On page 9, Heller is describing the expedition’s leader Scott Lindgren, and begins to relate the story of another expedition down the same river: “…but [Lindgren had] already backed off once when other teams were clamoring at the gates.  In the spring of 1998, when [Scott Lindgren] and [Charlie] Munsey were there the first time, a race was on.  An old Special Forces Vietnam vet and expeditioner, Wickliffe Walker, and Tom McEwan were putting together a team of former whitewater racers and Olympians – including the ill-fated Doug Gordon – for a run in the fall.”

Others: When an introduction is triggered by others, the character is mentioned in the story by someone other than the narrator, which leads to an introduction of the character.  McPhee uses this technique to introduce the two wives, Marian Cervone and Yolanda Whitman, beginning on page 20:

“Well,” the cop continued, with the slightest pause.  “Your wife called.  She wants you home.  She thinks you’re dead.”

Laughter on the bridge – 9:50 PM

It was not true that Marian Cervone was concerned about her husband.  By her own account, the man is too unpredictable to worry about.  She wasn’t worried about Edmund, either.  It was my wife, Yolanda Whitman, whose mind had been crossed by the ultimate possibility.

Heller also uses this trigger technique to introduce one of the expedition kayakers who was not apparently present in the office where he met the others.  Johnnie Kern appears in detail (after a stuttered introduction) on page 15-16:  “I pointed to a Liquid Lifestyles poster of a kayak midway down monstrous 80-foot falls and asked if the paddler was Willie.  ‘That’s Johnnie, dang him,’ [Willie] said.  ‘My stunt double.  I’ll be using him a lot on the Tsangpo.’  Johnnie was Willie’s fraternal twin and looked like him, with a long, trimmed moustache and soul patch.”  A lengthy description of Johnnie follows.

Expertise: When an introduction is triggered by the need for expertise, the character is introduced for the purpose of adding credibility to a statement made by the author/narrator, and usually includes a reference to the character’s credentials.  McPhee introduces Richard St. Pierre this way, but also Willy Bemis, who figures more prominently in the book but appears on page 14 of the first chapter for his expertise:  “One look at that forked tail and you know that the fish is active in the middle of the water column and not sitting around on the bottom like a bullhead catfish, whose tail is so rounded it looks like a coin.  A trout has a rounded tail, as well, and, as a swimmer, is one notch up from a catfish.  I am indebted for these descriptions primarily to Willy Bemis, an anatomist of fishes, who is a professor of ichthyology at the University of Massachusetts.”  McPhee introduces Bemis to give him credit for his knowledge, essentially citing a source.

Both authors use a wide variety of introduction structures and triggers, and tend to group their characters together with similar techniques.  McPhee uses continuous structure for the expert fishermen, but suspended structure for his companions.  Heller uses stuttered structure for the seven expedition kayakers, but either brief or continuous structure for everyone else.  Dare I say there is probably another essay here about how to establish the importance (or not) of characters through the choice of introduction structures and triggers….

PS:  If you’ve recently read something with plenty of characters introduced early on, I’d love to hear about it.

—Adam Arvidson

Aug 272010

Naton Leslie, Photo by Jennifer May

Here is a story by my old friend Naton Leslie, short story writer, essayist, poet, teacher & mad antiques collector extraordinaire. He lives down the road from me in Ballston Spa and teaches at Sienna College. This story is from his collection Marconi’s Dream which won the George Garrett Fiction Prize. I wrote a blurb for the book. It went like this:

Naton Leslie’s passionately detailed prose wrings meaning from the lives of Americans passed over by the go-go economics of the last thirty years, the working poor of the rust belt and the old upstate New York mill towns gone to seed. His characters are desperately trying to find love and dignity in the wreckage of a society where the old verities—honesty, hard work, fair dealing— don’t count for much any more.

The rather splendid photo above is reproduced here courtesy of Jennifer May who just published a book of author photos River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers.


Author’s Note

I’ve always been fascinated with depression-era stories, as they always contain a certain pathos and desperation.  Sometimes I they think enter the realm of mythos as well; the story of being served up your own pet rabbit on a dinner plate has been told to me by a number of people, and nearly always the same way: the somber faces of the parents; the silent dinner as everyone digs in and devours Thumper etc. While my father also told this story, as reported in the following piece, he had other, more singular tales to tell.

—Naton Leslie


My father always laid claim to a Dickensian childhood, to hear him tell it. And he did, often, whenever some little triumph or tragedy entered our pale, inflated lives. When he delivered newspapers, long before breakfast, he’d pick apples along the way to keep from truly expiring from hunger. He had been close to death many times—but this is not about death.

This is about the movies. My father swept the movie theater floor for the change he’d find, and for a free ticket to the next show. Then he’d see Flash Gordon, the news from The War, Roosevelt relaxed in his seat, shaking hands with other men my father called great, or, if he was lucky, white-hatted men who finally gunned down their black-hatted foes—simple justice, simple myth-making when there was a real enemy, when there was a right and a wrong, a drunk and sober, a dirty and clean, a hungry and full, a happy and sad. On this he was adamant. His days were times of extremes, delineated like black and white film, not muddy and imperfect and phony, with our life-like living color. It was damned shame, he’d say, the way things turned out.

But my father is telling this story, mind you, not me. I’m not part of this story, or maybe simply a witness, an ear. I don’t even have to tell this story because you already know it. Your parents had their own snow drifts to navigate when they walked, often barefoot or at least bareheaded (come-on, you’d say) to school, their own pet rabbits slaughtered and served up on their own depression plates—that’s another story he told, too, and I’m sure he didn’t make it up because it’s happened to so many other people.

One time, at the Orpheum theater (a great name, I always thought, for the location of my father’s own Stygian stables), he was finished sweeping up the candy wrappers and popcorn, and the manager offered him a ticket to a show, but not to the next movie the next night because Gene Autry would be making a personal appearance, before the opening of a new feature film—even the big stars did that kind of stuff back then, he said. They weren’t primadonnas, like now. Well, my father would say, the theater owner knew he’d have no trouble filling the house with paying customers and didn’t want to waste a seat on him. He was sorry.

My father, the poor waif who swept up after the paying customers, was a great fan of all cowboys, especially those like Roy Rogers, but he tried to hide his disappointment as he left, walking home in tennis shoes that were both left feet because he’d bought them himself from the second-hand store because he’d needed them and there was a war, you know, and rationing. He tried to hold his chin up anyway, because he was strong, even back then. So he walked home, in the snow, I’m sure there was snow; there was always snow when you had to walk back then, and he left footprints that looked like they were made by someone you’d call Hopalong Cassidy, who was my father’s hero, though Cassidy had both left and right boots. He got home early so he could do his chores, for which he never received so much as a thanks, let alone a nickel, and then he’d go to bed early so he could deliver the paper the next day. It was Sunday, and the papers were extra heavy. A real burden.

But the manager had a soft heart, a common ailment back then, along with a stiff upper lip, tight fists and something my father simply called “backbone,” though I never knew if it meant you couldn’t sit down or stand up. The next day my father showed up after the show to sweep, but this time he was wearing a toy six-gun, a genuine Wyatt Earp, pearl-handled, hog-legged gun my father often described, his only toy as far as I could tell, which he bought with the sweat of his brow, I tell you. Nothing was given to him, not like children today, he’d say. But how I wanted that cap gun, all metal and nearly real.

But this is not about me. This is my father’s story. There he was, doing his job, when he heard a voice call out his name, and the owner walked down the aisle with another man, and as sure as you’re born it was Gary Cooper, tall and silent, my father’s favorite cowboy, asking him if he’d like to get a drink down at the soda fountain when he finished his work. This was better than seeing him before the movie. This was my father as a boy and his hero, Roy Rogers, walking down the street, the two of them, with everybody watching as they sat at the counter and had a fountain Coke and a hamburger too, and he usually didn’t get meat more than once a week—just my father and Jimmy Stewart or someone, I can’t remember who, but I know he was proud, and there was no snow, and he was wearing his six gun and everyone was finally envious of him. When the story ended we knew we’d never feel as proud as he did that afternoon. And we knew he spoke the truth.

—Naton Leslie

Aug 272010

Jeet and Robin 005

A little over a decade ago, Hugh Kenner returned to Canada to deliver the Massey Lectures, a long-standing Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio lecture series. House of Anansi subsequently published Kenner’s lectures under the title The Elsewhere Community, and Jeet Heer wrote the following review essay for Canadian Notes & Queries #55 (the same magazine, not the same issue, that just published my essay on Alice Munro). Though all this happened some time ago, it’s a pleasure to bring Jeet’s essay back on Numéro Cinq; new eyes make the piece new. And some of Kenner’s background may come as a surprise to a new generation of American readers.

Jeet Heer, whom I have come to know since he scrambled up the bear-sex idea in my novel Elle a couple of weeks ago, is a graceful man, a widely published and prolific literary journalist and a comic book scholar (he is finishing his doctorate at York University, incidentally, my alma mater, in Toronto).


On Hugh Kenner’s The Elsewhere Community

By Jeet Heer

Canadians, who are now merely indifferent to literature, once lived in fear of it. Customs agents, armed with a high school education and a list of proscribed authors, stood guard not only against smut but also naturalism, aestheticism and modernism – anything strange and foreign. As late as 1946 books by Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, Zola, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce were deemed by official policy to be dangerous to the Dominion.

During this distant era, Hugh Kenner, a student at the University of Toronto, developed an interest in twentieth-century literature. His mentors of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, both of whom benefited from studying abroad, had brought back word of modernism of the Canadian hinterland. Kenner discovered that Joyce’s Ulysses, otherwise verboten in Canada, could be found in the restricted access section of the University of Toronto library. However, in order to take a look at the illicit text, Kenner needed to secure two letters of reference: one from a religious authority and one from a medical doctor. Kenner knew a priest who could vouch for his morals, but unfortunately, was unable to find an obliging M.D. to attest to the fact that reading Joyce would not corrupt his physical stamina. Ultimately, Kenner had a family friend, a Jesuit priest, smuggle into Canada a copy of the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Reading Ulysses, along with meeting Ezra Pound in 1948, was a turning point in Kenner’s life. Modernism, he quickly decided, was the central literature of his time. While D.H. Lawrence was also forbidden in Canada, Kenner believed that it was Joyce’s masterly of language, much more than his sexual frankness, that made him a revolutionary writer. He once made a sharp comparison between Lawrence and Jocye:

The telling difference between Constance Chatterly’s surrender (“She was utterly incapable of resisting it. From her breast flowed the answering, immense, yearning over him; she must give him anything, anything”) and Marion Bloom’s (“yes and my heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”) is a difference in the molecular structure of language: the former, a Victorian survival applied to counter-Victorian situations, the latter a radical linguistic innovation, rhythm and syntax interlocked, assured. Which is why the presence or absence on American shores of Lady Chatterly’s Lover ultimately makes no difference except to the publishing trade and the custodians of the immature, while the presence of Ulysses has for some decades been slowly altering the world.

Confident of the importance of modernism, Kenner would spend his career writing about not only Joyce and Pound, but also their many friend and disciples, including T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and W.B. Yeats. Viewed as a whole, Kenner’s critical oeuvre constitutes our best guide to twentieth-century English literature. No one else has written about such a range of authors with as much care, as much thought, as much perception. Moreover, especially in major books like The Pound Era (1971), Kenner has written prose of rare grace and energy, making him one of the few academic literary critics who delight as well as illuminate.

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Aug 242010

Sex and poetry don’t often go together, to my mind at least–you know, not automatically anyway, although maybe, sometimes.  (Well, what do I know. Poets are so quiet. You never know what they’re thinking.) My friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, a Toronto novelist and story writer, smacks them together violently along with a hybrid motor car and a tale of old love in this new story “The Longest Destroyed Poem.” Kathryn’s two novels and her first collection of stories can be found at Amazon. Look her up.



The Longest Destroyed Poem

By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

When Rosa saw him after all those years her first thought was how fleshily ugly Victor had become, and yet, if she was honest to herself, he hadn’t ever been much of a looker. He was a poet. And the second thing she thought was how easy it would have been all those years back to get him in one of his gin sleeps, and suture his mouth tightly shut. She imagined the semi-circular needle and the thick surgical thread, black and angry, and the coarse knots, like waxed midges, at regular intervals, but of course she was, in those days, not equipped with expertise in any field much less doctoring.

Victor noticed her in that split second, too, and he knew what Rosa was up to, for his face changed, channel surfing from neutral smug — well, this was his everyday face — to impending doom. The eyes dilated and he reeled ever so slightly backward. Rosa was driving. Coming up through the Annex on her way home from the hospital. It was primal instinct that led her to accelerate, and a surge in adrenaline after that, that — she could practically feel the dopamine firing her into focus — had her steering the Prius up between two parked cars over the curb and, then, right into Victor’s stomach. Whoop!

Their relationship had been a competition. Who could drink the most (him), who could over-extend orgasm (her) — like that. They were practically athletes when it came to domestic games. And now it was like the car ate him right up. Rosa paused, pulling her foot off the gas pedal, and then hitting it again, which bucked the car forward. She was excited to see him lift up, a test dummy, and fly along with the chassis of her ecovehicle through the plate glass window of the East-West Futon store.

Twenty-five years. He would be sixty-something, and she damn well wasn’t revealing her age. She looked fabulous. Better than back then, when she’d thought she wanted to be an artist, and Victor had made a point — she realized this as she realized many many things, that is she realized it in retrospect — of dropping into the conversation — the one she hadn’t actually been having with him, because she was instead focused almost solely on the fact his much younger roommate had a hand under the blanket her crotch also happened to be under — that he was off to bed early so he could work on a poem he’d been having trouble with.

A poem, she had thought, one he’s been having trouble with, like most men would say of their carburetor, or a girlfriend, things you really could fix by hitting them with the right sort of wrench or else a witty comment. But a poem. It hadn’t occurred to her that one worked on these. To her they arose genius born on the onion pages of a Norton’s Anthology.

Yet through the moist fug of foreplay, she had heard this little gem of information, and even though what the much younger roommate had been doing was more or less exactly what she wished for to happen, she discreetly pulled away and said she needed to go to the washroom, and where was it? And then Rosa followed her pheromonal imperative up the stairs to rake the door gently with her new manicure.

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Aug 222010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne. To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

The personal essay as a form is relatively new to me; I enrolled at VCFA in the area of Creative Nonfiction, in fact, without a complete understanding of what the term means, and after my first residency I found I wasn’t the only one. In asking CNF faculty, I found they frequently brought up the terms “literary journalism” and “personal essay.” They almost always referred us to Phillip Lopate’s introductory essay from The Art of the Personal Essay for basic traditions of the personal essay form, and I referred to Mark Kramer’s “Breakable Rules of Literary Journalism” from the Literary Journalism anthology, which I also teach in my Media Writing classes. I’ve found that, while my media writing (and teaching) tends to follow the rules of literary journalism, the work I’ve been most interested in learning and doing recently has been personal essay. So, it makes sense that I would want to learn the traditions and conventions of the form, in the context of both my own writing and the CNF genre.

While Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay is a perfectly apt summation of the form for the general reader, I had my worries as a writer about applying a descriptive list of formal attributes to my own writing (and reading!). One name, though, kept coming up in both the introduction and my conversations with other people writing, teaching, and learning the personal essay form, a man who died more than 400 years ago, whom Lopate considers so important to the personal essay that he gave him his own section titled “Fountainhead” – Michel de Montaigne. I hadn’t read him since taking an undergraduate Renaissance literature course, and the only thing I remember is liking the fact that he was the only Renaissance writer we read who wasn’t obsessed with the nature of God. So last semester I read Montaigne’s three essays in the Lopate anthology, including the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” After reading all three of them, but especially “On Some Verses…,”I started to realize why Montaigne is so frequently cited, and – I’m not ashamed to admit it – I decided I want to write like him.

Which is, of course, a fool’s errand. But, at the least, I’ve decided to use his work as a model. So, for each of the five months of this semester, I’ll identify a technique Montaigne uses, show said technique at work in at least one other personal essay, and attempt an explanation of its purpose and effects. Besides my obvious hope that it will somehow ingrain some of these things in my own writing, I hope this series will be helpful to other writers struggling to come to grips with the personal essay form. And yes, I’m making this up as I go– I’ll be reading Montaigne’s Collected Essays each month as I go, annotating, denotating (okay, denoting), compiling, and analyzing as I go, god help me.

This month’s entry is on a central concern to most non-fiction writing (perhaps more so than fiction, but not exclusive to non-fiction) – the integration of “big ideas” with first-person narrative.  Montaigne does this masterfully in all three of his essays I’ve annotated so far, but none so seamlessly and extensively as the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” I’ll describe the macro pattern first, then for the sake of brevity I’ll  look at this pattern in the first two pages of the essay. After that, I’ll look at how Joan Didion employs this technique in her essay “Goodbye to All That.”

All 54 pages of “On Some Verses” generally eschew an overarching narrative, instead integrating, in order according to the amount  of words Montaigne gives to each, the following three elements:

  1. Personal anecdote, self-revelation, and opinion
  2. Aphorism, advice, and universal wisdom
  3. Direct quotations from other authors

For now I’ll concentrate specifically on 1 and 2, as 3 will probably merit its own essay later this semester. It’s also important here to note the difference between opinion and aphorism. In the (more frequent) cases where Montaigne gives his personal opinion, he generally uses the first-person and employs humor and winking self-deprecation; when using aphorism, he switches to the omniscient third person and the tone shifts to a weighty circumspection.  The fact that the personal material takes up the most space doesn’t necessarily betray a preference on Montaigne’s part – though it probably does – but rather  a necessity of the form. Montaigne’s forbear Cicero, quoted here from John O’Banlon’s Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story, posited that narrative is “the fountainhead from which the whole remainder of the speech flows.” Most readers will attest that a story is more interesting than an argument, and the arguments people respond to most are the ones grounded in personal narrative, whether theirs or someone else’s.

Montaigne starts “On Some Verses” big:

To the extent that useful thoughts are fuller and more solid, they are also more absorbing and more burdensome. Vice, death, poverty, disease, are grave subjects and grieve us. We should have our soul instructed in the means to sustain and combat evils and in the rules for right living and right belief, and should often arouse it and exercise it in fine study. But for a soul of the common sort this must be done with some respite and with moderation; it goes mad if it is continually tense. [58-59]

You’ve probably already noticed that he’s meta-writing here, identifying and addressing some of the issues I’ve just pointed out that a personal essayist faces when writing, and reading  – we want to read and write important things – but too much weight at once will crush all but the most interested readers. (Edie Brickell’s most memorable words, to me, were “Shove me into shallow water, before I get too deep.”) Aware of this, Montaigne spends a lengthy paragraph confessing that his own body is failing him, summarizing in one confessional sequence how he went from, “In my youth [needing] to warn and urge myself to stick to my duty,” to his present state, where “I defend myself against temperance as I once did against sensual pleasure.” He continues in this vein for several pages afterward, describing – sometimes with humor, sometimes with a sigh – what a drag it is getting old, punctuating his personal confessions with aphorism and advice like “Wisdom has its excesses, and has no less need of moderation than does folly,” and “Let childhood look ahead, old age backward.” [59] In the course of 54 pages, Montaigne covers disease, depression, women’s roles, sex, love, vice, religion, fatherhood, and literary criticism, maintaining an obvious  self-awareness as a writer throughout.

Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” written roughly 400 years after “On Some Verses,” also mixes personal anecdote with universal statement; it also, at least in part, covers similar thematic territory. One of the essay’s major tropes is a Blakean focus on innocence and experience. I’ll focus on this here in context of the essay’s relationship to Montaigne’s. The innocence (or youth) vs. experience motif runs through literally every page of Didon’s essay, intermingling with the other motifs as well as narrative snapshots of her life in New York:

…one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before .(681)

She then tells of arriving at Idlewild, hearing a song on a jukebox on the Upper East Side that she thinks must be about her, and mistaking the Triboro Bridge for the Brooklyn Bridge from her apartment window in Queens. The most aphoristic statement of the essay is perhaps the one I can most endorse personally:

It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young. (682)

She segues from this into a story of a party in December which she goes to with an older male friend who has slept with five women and owes money to two men from the last party they went to, giving narrative attestation to her previous aphorism.

…I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never loves anyone quite that way again. (683)

After this, she tells of eating a peach on Lexington Avenue with the lush detail of a first kiss.

I knew that it would cost something sooner or later – because I did not belong there, did not come from there – but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have high emotional balance. (683)

There a delicious ambiguity to this statement – will the peach cost her something later, or is it something else? She recounts charging food at Bloomingdale’s in order to eat on $70 a week, looking in the windows of brownstones while thinking about she ways she would make herself rich, meeting extravagant people at extravagant parties, and watching the holidays and years go by.

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu. (684)

Which leads into her observation that for her first year she lived entirely in other people’s apartments, and after that she had a longstanding aversion to buying furniture, eventually leaving all of her belongings in her old apartment to move into a “monastic” apartment on 75th Street, where her new husband finally moved actual furniture when they were married.

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it. (685)

This leads her to recount minute, seemingly unrelated flashes of memory, mnemonic smells, touches, sensations.

I suppose that a lot of us who have been in New York have the same scenes on our home screens. (685-6)

After this, she transposes a panoply of sleepless nights with friends at different bars with the comfort of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee at her midtown job writing advertising copy, then describes the comforting loneliness of housesitting her friend’s apartment in the West Village with no one calling her, to the very end going to every party she was invited to.

You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair. (687)

And here she tells of everything seeming old, like she’d heard it all before, avoiding certain parts of the city, hurting people she cared about, insulted those she didn’t, crying compulsively “in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries,” contemplating the final step to becoming a New Yorker – getting a therapist – but getting married instead, and leaving New York with him.

All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. (688)

It wasn’t until I strung these lofty statements together and summarized the stories between that I discovered the road maps they gave to the succession of short narratives that might seem to have only intuitive coincidence with each other. In fact, each story reinforces the aphoristic point made by these epic statements, and allows her to be open-ended about the ending – in fact, seems to leave her no choice but open-endedness, as that’s the structure she set up.

—John Proctor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

Aug 202010




It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain, no splashing from the gutter, no gurgling around the house. Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass. —Man in the Holocene

We would like to think there is, if not an amity, at least some correspondence between what ticks inside our heads and whatever it is that runs the world’s clock. Geiser, the protagonist of Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, indirectly voices such a desire throughout the novel. As for Geiser, as for writers and readers. If fiction is an ordering of experience, point of view can define relationships within that expe­rience. Between readers and author there is the narrator who shapes the telling and manages the way we receive its characters and the story’s message. The point of view established in a text is based on assumptions about what narrators and char­acters understand and are capable of understanding, about what they can and can­not do in the world, and about what the world might offer in return. The concept itself implies, perhaps, that our knowledge of people and the world exists only as it is refracted through a mind. Point of view can also, in the distance it sets between narrators and characters and between writers and readers create “the interest, the conflicts, the suspense, and the plot itself in most modern narratives” (Martin 131). More is involved here than dramatic effect, though: the way we feel about charac­ters and what they do contributes to our understanding of them. We would like to think that the distance that separates us can be closed, that tensions can be eased, that we agree about something, that conflicts find resolution, or, failing all these, that we might at least learn something from the broil. The evidence from Holocene and most recent fiction has been less than favorable, however. Certainties are dis­covered, but these certainties do not add up to much or tell us what we want to know. Still we are reluctant to give up these desires, and if we can’t fulfill them, we still try, those of us who write fiction, to find ways to contain our disappointment.

The horologists who study our fictions and the way we tell them have not brought consensus or felicity, either, and it is difficult even to find a useful defini­tion of point of view or one upon which all agree. The writing handbooks only give a few superficial details, while theorists have dismantled and rebuilt the concept so it can fit into their complex, comprehensive theories of narrative. Stevick regrets the phrase “point of view” because of its ambiguity and broadness: it can refer to the “intellectual orientation of a work. . .to the emotional stance of the writer. . .and to the angle from which a fictional work is narrated”(85). The third sense, he says, has stuck in one guise or another with most theorists, but I prefer a definition that includes all three. An outlook, intellectual or otherwise, will determine this angle of vision and color the light it passes, and it may be hard in some cases to separate Stevick’s second sense from the third. Point of view in the narrower sense depends on Point of View in the larger (hereafter I will resort to the melodramatic gimmick of capitalizing it). Not that this inclusion brings clarity; in fact the opposite may be true, that it compounds the distortion. And theorists may be frustrated in their attempts to create a coherent, unified theory: theories about point of view ulti­mately depend on a coherent, unified Point of View, and their elaborate structures may not have anywhere solid to rest.


Covert vs. Overt Narration

If a theoretical basis for point of view cannot be settled on, the behavior can at least be observed. An author has several matters to resolve and coordinate. First he needs to decide who speaks and in what grammatical person, almost exclusively first or third. Then he has to determine the degree the narrator is present as a per­son. A narrator can have an existence in a story that ranges from covert (or effaced), where we are scarcely conscious of his presence, to overt, where we are aware of being directly addressed by a distinct personal voice, separate from those of the characters. If overt, the narrator may be involved in the story itself as an active participant or perform only as an observer, marginally involved in the plot. Or he may be located at some point removed which may not even be specified, where, though we are aware of his presence as a personal voice, he is not directly linked to the time or place of the story and can move freely across the terrain with­out restraint, and even have the perspective of knowing past and future events, knowledge characters locked in the time of the narrative do not share. A covert narrator can have similar privileges, but because, covert may be even freer because we’re less likely to think of this type as even being located in space and time.

Whether overt or covert, the range and depth of a narrator’s field of vision also need to be defined. A narrator may follow one character closely, presenting only his thoughts and feelings and seeing only what he sees (though we’re not bound to his vision: our understanding of this character will be qualified by other characters he encounters and what they say and do), or be able to observe closely the lives of several or all characters. A narrator may then stay on the surface, reporting only characters’ external words and actions, or dip inside their heads and present their thoughts, feelings, and whatever else he finds there. An author also has to decide on how his narrator will present this material, by summary and analysis, by direct or indirect quotation of their words and thoughts, or by some combination of these (free indirect discourse—more on this later). And in summary and indirect dis­course, the narration will be conditioned by the manner in which it is said, the tone of the narrator’s voice, his language, its rhythms.

Finally, an author has to decide how trustworthy to make his narrator. Unreli­able narrators, usually made so by their age and immaturity or by some emotional instability, stake a point against which another viewpoint must be posited (oh, let’s call it the author’s, but then there is also the possibility the author does not have one or refuses to give one, in which case the first point can’t be set and we’re all lost in relativity). But what is the opposite of unreliability? To say a narrator is reliable leads to the question as to what he is reliable about, and any account that goes beyond presenting the details of behavior must have a way to assemble them. Ulti­mately, we have to consider Point of View in the larger sense, whatever intellectual baggage the narrator carries. And selection of Point of View will influence the other decisions. A moralist on the order of Thackeray or a Marxist might give his narra­tor absolute authority and have him look through the eyes of a limited character—limited because a single individual at best can only play a small part in a larger social order—and may not have him spend much time inside that character’s head because there is little there he finds worthwhile (Cohn makes this point on Thack­eray, 67). A psychologist of whatever camp, on the other hand, may demote his orators and revolutionaries to characters who think they know what they’re talking about, but don’t, because he may believe their ideas not only ignore the funda­mentals of human behavior but also because their ideologies are suspect them­selves, based on psychological imbalance.

However gross my characterizations of the above narrators—thank heaven none of these exist, or exist very long—any writer is going to have, even though not formalized into theory, some attitude towards people, along with opinions on why they behave the way they do and how they should behave, and these will influence his esthetic choices. The person and thoughts about the person cannot be abstracted out of motive in fiction, the way, perhaps, motif can in music. We, of course, do not read fiction to learn ideas, any more than we look at a painting so we can imagine and then contemplate lines of perspective, but in both arts, perspective shapes the work (and perspective itself in the visual arts depends on a theoretical position). Even to reject ideas themselves implies an intellectual stance, and a writer who accepts this tact may spend his time on the surface, paying more atten­tion to craft than theme, turning point of view into a prism which produces many bright and interesting colors, but such a work will still influence the way we think about people and how seriously we take them.

Yet anyone trying to deal with the workings of the mind, however much he wants to believe in the permanence and universality of his views, has to face the fact that not only gray matter but also theories and opinions about it are loose and malleable stuff. Trends change along with what we raise from the depths (the rea­son why I suspect any attempt to define a theory of stream of conscious writing is doomed, also the reason why I’m glad we have writers: they create better fictions about the mind). Writers dealing with social order have to contend with a similar looseness in the rules they believe govern social conduct. It could be argued (and I would agree) that the most successful writers are those who most take on the chal­lenge of Point of View but at the same time recognize its limitations and do not let it too rigidly control their work. These writers also realize not only that much behavior is simply idiosyncratic but also that part of their task is to produce indi­viduals who embody those idiosyncrasies, not reduce them to a set of ideas. I include Point of View in my definition of point of view not because I believe there exists some kind of transcendent order that writers can grasp and in which they should align their work, but the opposite. Just as we accept their characters as “real,” as people who in some way exist, we grant their ideas a similar reality—but only provisionally. We always have to step back from a work and decide if charac­ters behave the way we think actual people do, just as we measure the writers’ ideas against what we believe to be true. We cannot do so until, however, until both are fixed before us in a text, becoming a kind of proposition, and point of view is one way to establish this fixity.

Two examples from Joyce and Mann will illustrate the interrelationship of the different aspects and also define opposite strategies used in third person narratives I will use in analyzing Frisch’s novel. As in Holocene, both narrators center on a single consciousness and have access to that character’s mind. And in all three, the characters are in a state of emotional distress, posing challenges to reaching an understanding of what is going on inside their heads. First, a passage from Mann’s Death in Venice, where Aschenbach is caught in a moment of infatuation with the boy Tadzio:

Too late, he thought at this moment. Too late! But was it too late? This step he had failed to take, it might quite possibly have led to goodness, levity, gaiety, to salutary sobriety. But the fact doubtless was, that the aging man did not want the sobering, that the intoxication was too dear too him. Who can decipher the nature and pattern of artistic creativity? Who can compre­hend the fusion of disciplined and dissolute instincts wherein it is so deeply rooted? For not to be capable of wanting salutary sobering is dissoluteness. Aschenbach was no longer disposed to self-criticism; the tastes, the spiritual dispositions of his later years, self-esteem, maturity, and tardy single-mind­edness disinclined him from analyzing his motives, and from deciding whether it was his conscience, or immorality and weakness that had pre­vented him from carrying out his intention. (qtd. in Cohn: 27)

The excerpt begins with the actual words of Aschenbach’s thought, but pre­sumably he is so distraught that he can go no further and the narrator has to take over. While the narrator is not located in the story in any physical way (how could he be, and then get inside Aschenbach’s head?), he has a distinct presence and speaks to us as a person in his own voice, using his own language. He also speaks with authority, talking about certainties (“the fact” of Aschenbach’s condition). The source of his authority comes from his superior knowledge of human behav­ior, along, perhaps, with his superior control of his emotions which makes such dispassionate analysis possible. And while he largely focuses Aschenbach’s psy­chological condition, his analysis has the force of judgment, a judgment based at least on the virtues of moderation. Whatever the narrator’s exact beliefs, we are aware that he does have a larger Point of View, and this Point of View puts him—and us—at an emotional and intellectual distance from Aschenbach, whom he analyzes as if he were a patient on a couch, if not someone in the confessional, hopelessly unrepentant.

Compare this example with one from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

He shook the sound out of his ears by an angry toss of his head and hur­ried on, stumbling through the mouldering offal, his heart already bitten by an ache of loathing and bitterness. His father’s whistle, his mother’s mut­terings, the screech of an unseen maniac were to him now so many voices offending and threatening to humble the pride of his youth. He drove the echoes even out off his heart with an execration: but, as he walked down the avenue and felt the grey morning light falling about him through the drip­ping trees and smelt the strange wild smell of the wet leaves and bark, his soul was loosed of her miseries.

The rain-laden trees of the avenue evoked in him, as always, memories of the girls and women in the plays of Gerhardt Hauptmann; and the mem­ory of their pale sorrows and the fragrance falling from the wet branches mingled in a mood of quiet joy.(30-31)

Again, the narrator follows his character closely, reports on his behavior, sees through his eyes, and knows what is going on inside his head. He is in touch with Stephen’s emotions as he describes his anger at home and his relief when he escapes, and also knows his habits and predilections—the effect of trees on him “as always,” along with his taste in theater. In both examples, the characters are too absorbed in their present emotional state to make any comment themselves. Here, however, the language of the narrative is rich with imagery, and unlike Mann’s nar­rator, Joyce’s is more interested in presenting emotional fullness and engaging us in it, rather than analyzing its problems. But where does the language come from and how does the narrator feel about this scene or want us to feel? Perhaps having wet leaves described as “strange” and “wet” reflects Joyce’s insight and might alter our perception of them, but the emotion is Stephen’s not the narrator’s. And while the language may not be directly Stephen’s, it is the kind of language he—or at least a sensitive yet sentimental youth—would use. All of the language, its rhythms, its diction, and its imagery, is conditioned by Stephen’s sensitivity and immaturity (a risky trick for Joyce, because so much of the prose has the charm but also the ungainliness of adolescence). Only a mawkish writer would have his narrator use words like “the humble pride of his youth,” and while in other fictions these words might be presented ironically if not sarcastically, as if calling to attention Stephen’s sentimentality, the context of Joyce’s novel does not support such a conclusion. While it is clear that some presence is controlling the narrative which has consider­able privilege in depicting the character, it is difficult to separate the narrator from Stephen. The narrator is an effaced one, not a distinct and separate voice, and exists only to present Stephen as he is at any given moment. Mann’s narrator has proba­bly seen Aschenbach’s fall all along and hints at it. Joyce’s narrator only follows Stephen as he rises and stumbles, without giving us clues as to which might happen next.

Further, while we may question Stephen’s emotional excess and his judgments of his parents, perhaps even form conclusions about the volatility of youth, the larger Point of View here is also Stephen’s: he believes in souls, not the narrator, and has an opinion as to their gender. Joyce does not use his narrator to assert some theological belief. Yet Stephen’s Point of View is incomplete and unstable, and does not provide a full, coherent way for us to reach any definite assessment of him or anything else. Point of View, inasmuch as it exists in the novel, comes from the maturing Stephen as he develops one, and we sense at the end he has more work to do. Here Point of View is dependent upon the character and to an extent inseparable from him, and thus suspect.

Cohn uses the terms dissonance and consonance to describe these two exam­ples respectively. The terms do have unfortunate connotations, as an overt narrator could be in harmony with his character, the covert, at least implicitly, removed, though her use is neutral. Her purpose is to measure distance, and the examples set opposite poles between which other narratives might vary. In the dissonant type, the “narrator remains emphatically distanced from the consciousness he narrates,” while the consonant involves the mediation of a narrator “who readily fuses with the consciousness he narrates” and thus brings it close(26).

Along with the obvious technical differences in the way these types of narra­tions are constructed, there will also be differences in the effect they have on the reader and different trade-offs as well. The covert narration will have a greater degree of immediacy and spontaneity: we see character in the throes of existence without being aware of a separate consciousness channeling this information. But since the narrator closely tracks the character’s thoughts and absorbs his language, his voice will be just as uncertain and unstable. According to Cohn: “The absence from A Portrait of any sort of evaluative judgments has led to the unresolved dis­cussion of its author’s attitude toward Stephen; but Joyce’s avoidance of a marked authorial presence is surely sufficient proof that the portrait of a problematic artist as a problematic young man demands from the reader the same tolerance for ambiguities that went into its making” (32). Joyce’s knowledge of people and the world are built into the way he constructs his character and narrator, but these larger meanings, inasmuch as they exist, will be implicit, and more open to varying interpretations. The appearance, if not the actuality of directness and coherence is sacrificed, the trade-off. Overt narration has the advantage of directness, as the nar­rator not only provides a vehicle for discussion, but also has the means for amplifi­cation, through analysis and commentary, as well as through summary enhanced, perhaps, by his superior control of language. If the writer wants us to take him seri­ously, his voice will assume the force of authority. As Cohn points out, “the stronger the authorial cast, the more emphatic the cognitive privilege of the narra­tor. And this cognitive privilege enables him to manifest dimensions of a fictional character that the latter is unwilling or unable to betray”(29), but, again, at the loss of closeness and spontaneity.


Voice in Frisch

The poles, then, define a spectrum not only between closeness to and distance from a character, but also between authority and subjectivity, and clarity and ambiguity. Towards which end does Man in the Holocene belong? I will argue both, in a sense, and in a sense, neither. Frisch, then, the opening sections of the novel:

It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of noth­ing, to hear no thunder, no rain, no splashing from the gutter, no gurgling around the house. Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.

Somewhere a tapping on metal.

It is always with the fourth floor that the wobbling begins; a trembling hand as the next piece of crispbread is put in place, a cough when the gable is already standing, and the whole thing lies in ruins—

Geiser has time to spare.

The news in the village is conflicting; some people say there has been no landslide at all, others that an old supporting wall has col­lapsed, and there is no way of diverting the highway at that spot. The woman in the post office, who ought to know, merely confirms that the mail bus is not running, but she stands behind the little counter in her usual care-laden fashion, keeping usual office hours, selling stamps, and even accepting parcels, which she places unhurriedly on the scales and then franks. It is taken for granted that state and canton are doing everything in their power to get the highway back in order. If necessary, helicopters can be brought in, unless there is fog. Nobody in the village thinks that the day, or perhaps the night, will come when the whole mountain could begin to slide, burying the village for all time.

Somewhere a tapping on metal.

It is midnight, but still no pagoda. (3-4)

This is obviously a third person narrator, and, as gradually becomes apparent, one who follows a single character, Geiser, closely and is privy to what goes on inside his head. The first sentence is a conditional with a gnomic flavor, as might come from an overt narrator with authority, who is commenting about some desir­able state of affairs for man in general, were it not for the specific, localized details of splashing from a particular gutter and gurgling around a particular house. Throughout these sections, there also seems to be some narrative control of time as well, as most the sentences are cast in progressive tense or habitual present, yet the actual time is vague and confusing. And so much of the narrative that follows looks only like objective description, such as might come from an effaced narrator who only reports places, events, thoughts, and sensations, and does so sparingly without comment or analysis. At the outset, who even is being described, where he is, and what happens—much less when—are not immediately clear, and we have to piece the evidence together as it comes. The second sentence tells us a pagoda is actually being built, sometime at night. The second section marks the first actual event in the present, after the progressive time of the first section, but who hears the tapping or where it comes from are still not specified. In the third we become aware of the person who not only hears the tapping but must be the subject of the speculation in the first sentence, an actual person who would like not to hear the noise of rain. And this must be the same person who builds the pagoda, who coughs, whose hand trembles. That “the whole thing lies in ruins” is in the present tense instead of present perfect, which would indicate a completed action, tells us this person has been trying to build one several times, may be doing so now, and will continue to try, probably without success. The fourth section tells us indirectly that this person is Geiser, who either cannot or does not want to sleep, and who is killing time with his construction. Then the fourth section takes us away from the house to a village, presumably the one where Geiser lives, and reports on the villagers’ opinions on a landslide, a highway that may have been damaged. But mention of a landslide takes us back to the first section: it was probably caused, if it did happen, by severe storms—over a week’s worth, we find out on the next page—which might explain why Geiser does not want to hear the rain. He is worried. The sixth section gives only the second actual event in the present time of the narrative, a repetition of the tapping, and the seventh finally identifies the time specifically, midnight, though it is not clear how much time has passed since the beginning section—or how many pagodas have risen and fallen. It would seem, however, that Geiser has been at it for a long time, that his concern about the storm must be considerable. Perhaps this is why his hand trembles.

The narrator does not give much help, and even after several pages, we only have a vague sense of where we are or who is involved. As we read on we are fed information bit by bit, and each new detail forces us to go back to reevaluate what we think we have learned. Only later do we find out that the highway is the only entrance to the village, thus that it is out would leave the villagers—and Geiser—isolated. Yet each new detail also makes us doubt our earlier conclusions. The ninth section suggests Geiser is old, as he describes his guests as youngish. Perhaps his age, then, is why his hand trembles, rather than his worry, or perhaps the shak­ing comes a combination of the two. Only much later can we piece his situation together: 73, a widow, Geiser was an entrepreneur of some sort who retired in this village, where he now sits out a long series of storms. And each new piece of evi­dence leads to more questions. We never feel we know as much as we need to know. How great is the possibility of a flood or landslide? How realistic or exagger­ated are Geiser’s fears? We don’t get definite answers. And when we find out Geiser is distraught enough to attempt what for him is a dangerous climb to safety over a nearby pass, to throw a salamander in the fire, to cook his cat because a power out­age has spoiled his food, yet who also, since these decisions are supposedly made for his survival, ignores his daughter’s phone calls and does not respond to people who knock at his door to help—we are either shocked, because we didn’t see this behavior coming, or not surprised at all because we saw it all along. Either way, we may not be satisfied the narrator has prepared us. Why is he holding out?

Still, as little guidance as we get from the narrator, we are always aware of his presence. He can not only observe but also present Geiser’s thoughts in indirect statement: “Geiser wonders whether there would still be a God if there were no longer a human brain, which cannot accept the idea of a creation without a creator” (9). And he has a distinctive voice, one that can formulate the generalization in the opening section about Geiser’s specific desire to be safe. Perhaps it is the voice of a narrator who is trying to be objective, and thus withholds comments and lets the facts speak for themselves. Or we may sense a wry detachment from a character the narrator at best finds curious. If we read a hint of sarcasm in the first sentence, we might decide that it may be normal to worry about storms, but not to the point that no rain or thunder can be heard. That “Geiser has time to spare,” if we hear a voice with this attitude, might suggest he is a person who does not know how to fill his spare time, and this idleness might lead to his excessive worry. That the village might be buried “for all time” could be read as a heavily sarcastic remark, pointed at Geiser’s boundless fear. Either way, the narrator distances us from Geiser, and we feel we have been given a specimen for some study, though one whose line of inquiry is less than clear. As with Mann’s narrator and his subject, Aschenbach, we have a narrator who knows his character and his condition too well and who sees the inevitable fall. If he doesn’t tell us more, it might be because he would only be stating the obvious (and of course doing so would kill suspense in the plot).

But he is also a narrator who corrects himself. A few pages later we find out “It is not true, incidentally, that no horns are sounding in the valley. . .”(11). Is the road out after all? Perhaps the narrator merely describes earlier reports, and here sets the record straight. Yet so many simple facts which the narrator should have the omniscience to know are often left uncertain, and this uncertainty cannot be attributed to ironic distance. Our attitude about Geiser’s extreme behavior depends on how we interpret the evidence, but I’m not sure we have been given enough by the narrator to reach a definite conclusion about Geiser’s sanity, much less know exactly why he does what he does. More importantly, the narrator, even by impli­cation, does not ascertain what he should know and what we most need to know, the degree of danger that might come from the storms. If there is a high probability of a landslide, and there is much evidence to suggest some probability, then Geiser’s fear, perhaps even his behavior, is not as excessive as we might think. The reason why the narrator doesn’t tell us is because he does not know any more than Geiser what to expect. In fact, the narrator does not tell us anything about his char­acter that Geiser himself does not know. We question the narrator’s apparent omniscience and realize we have to reassess his relationship with Geiser.

Ultimately, we have to decide who is speaking and how. In the fourth section the assessment of the postal clerk as a person “who ought to know” if there has been a landslide, but doesn’t because she is too occupied “in her usual care-laden fashion” with day-to-day matters, might be read as another wry remark from the narrator, yet these words seem out of character for him. However we read him, he seems too distant to concern himself with what would to him be trivial—but would not be to Geiser. And as we settle down in the narrative, we realize that we are told nothing that Geiser has not directly seen or thought about. Again, we have to backtrack and reassess what we’ve been told, but when we do, we understand that though he’s not mentioned in this section, he is the one who goes to the village to find out what has happened. And as we get to know Geiser and increasingly doubt the authority of the narrator, we realize that not only the assessment of the villagers but also many of the actual words are Geiser’s. The context, belatedly, makes this clear. What is suggested in the first two pages is made manifest in the following pages: Geiser is quite worried about the storms and is trying to calculate possible damage. The villagers, however, not only don’t seem especially concerned but can’t even get the facts straight, which, in Geiser’s mind, they “ought” to be able to do. He won’t get any help from people who, perhaps, put too much trust in the state and canton, none of whom are aware “that the whole mountain could begin to slide, burying the village for all time,” Geiser’s concern and probably Geiser’s words. The voice that corrects itself is, of course, Geiser’s, and when we realize this, we begin to wonder where the narrator himself stands.


Free Indirect Discourse

The method that allows a character’s words to appear in a third person narra­tive is free indirect discourse, which will take a bit of explanation. A narrator has several ways to present the words and thoughts of his characters, which range from direct presentation of their words through quotation—dialogue for speech, inte­rior monologue for their thoughts—through indirect quotation, as exemplified in the sentence quoted above (“Geiser wonders. . .”), where specific details of a char­acter’s speech are presented, but not his exact words, and through summary, where both the details and the words become subsumed into a general report. An author’s choices here depend on the degree he wants to directly represent his character’s words (mimesis) or have his narrator report them (diegesis)(McHale 258-59). Somewhere between direct and indirect quotation lies a nether realm theorists have assigned to free indirect discourse, which uses characters’ actual words but frames them in the grammar of the narration, as shown in the following example from Dos Passos’ novel, 1919:

She almost fainted when he started to make love to her. No, no, she couldn’t just now, but tomorrow she’d drink in spite of the pledge she’d signed with the N.E.R. and shoot the moon. (qtd. in and slightly altered by McHale: 250)

The sentence keeps the past tense and third person (“she” instead of “I”) of the narrative, but in presenting her speech, it not only follows her syntax, as we might imagine it were this a direct quotation (the interjectional construction “No, no”), but also uses her specific words, her diction and colloquial expressions (“shoot the moon”). The advantage such a technique offers is that it maintains the immediacy and spontaneity of speech—we are aware of a character’s actual words and feel we actually experience them—yet also allows the author to move almost seamlessly between character and narrator to report actions and fill in background. An author could, of course, accomplish the same ends by mixing narrative summary and direct quotations, but free indirect discourse is more fluid and more economical, and certainly less awkward than the alternative of having a character report the all the needed background in his speech. The same advantage would apply to render­ing consciousness, where free indirect discourse takes the place of interior mono­logue, extensive use of which can be awkward and unrealistic. Free indirect discourse offers another benefit: since a character may have limited understanding, an author can move freely—even imperceptibly—back to the narrative voice to fill in what we need to know.

Free indirect discourse in its specific meaning applies only to a character’s actual thoughts or speech as they occur, as in the example above (Cohn uses the term “narrated monologue” to make this distinction). An author can set up a nar­rative in ways that help us distinguish the different discourses, as in the following example from Flaubert:

A quarter of an hour later he had a longing to go into the coach yard, as if by chance. Would he perhaps see her again?

“What’s the use?” he said to himself. (qtd. in Cohn: 135)

Narrative summary in the first sentence is followed by free indirect discourse in the second and direct quotation in the third, a pattern Flaubert often uses whose repe­tition helps us know which type of discourse is being used and identify who is speaking(135). There is also a more general sense of the term, where the narrative might use a character’s idiom even though no actual speech may be involved and grammatical indicators are less distinct, which occurs in the Joyce example cited above. And the more subtly and the more loosely the technique is used, the more difficult it becomes to know who is talking, narrator or character, or decide how we should take the words. Closeness brings ambiguity.


Voice in Frisch/Complications

In Holocene, it is difficult not only to know who is speaking but even determine what kind of discourse is being used. With a few exceptions, the entire narrative is set in the present tense, so there is not the indicator of a shift of tense, as in the Flaubert and Dos Passos examples. As occurs in the first pages, many sections report Geiser’s behavior without mentioning him, so there isn’t the indicator of shift in personal pronoun as well. The fragmented nature of the narrative also con­tributes to the ambiguity of discourse. Consider the following examples, which exist as separate, consecutive sections:

Today is Wednesday.

(Or is it Thursday?) (9)

By itself, the first could simply be narrative summary, made independently of Geiser’s words, but the second section makes us realize Geiser’s confusion is involved, so both could be free indirect discourse. Then again, one or both could be free direct discourse, where the narrative uses a character’s exact words without using the conventional quotation marks to distinguish them as such. (Parentheses probably mark an actual thought in the second.) And again, we lack the indicators of shifts in tense and person. More baffling is this section, where there is not even a verb to mark a tense:

No knowledge without memory. (6)

Geiser here is concerned about losing his memory, specifically, as mentioned in the preceding section, with his inability to recall how to draw the golden section. This sentence could be free direct discourse, presenting his actual thought, his own con­clusion about the implications of losing one’s memory. Or it could be free indirect discourse, a presentation of that thought. Or, if we haven’t yet abandoned the authority of the narrator, it might be some gnomic statement the narrator makes himself not only about Geiser’s condition, but about people in general.

A narrator’s ability to step back and view events in other places and times also helps distinguish voices. Here, however, as in the Joyce example, despite appear­ances otherwise, the narrator stays entirely not only within Geiser’s angle of vision but sees only when Geiser actually sees. Everything in the narrative is grounded in the actual time and place of Geiser’s experience. In the section on the first page that begins “The news in the village is conflicting,” it looks as if the narrator has left the house to report on another scene, or, once we realize Geiser’s involvement, that the narrator is giving us a flashback of what Geiser does at an earlier time. Neither is the case. The context of the entire narrative tells us as much. There are few sections that deal with other places and times at this length, and to give the narrator free­dom and omniscience here and not elsewhere would be technically odd and incon­sistent. Instead, Geiser is actually remembering, in the actual time and place of the narrative, at night inside his house, an earlier trip to the village and his talk with the postal clerk and others, and does so now because he is worried about the storm and is comparing his view with theirs, which is too vague and inconclusive to help him with his present concern, a fear made greater, perhaps, by the late hour. The pre­sentness and actuality of this memory is made clear when the narrator says “Nobody in the village thinks the day, or perhaps the night, will come. . .” (my italics). The night is this night, the night the story begins. The use of the present tense in describing the clerk’s treatment of parcels (“which she places unhurriedly on the scales and then franks”) suggests that Geiser now has this image before him in memory and is reexperiencing it.

The influence of Geiser’s language on the passage indicates free indirect dis­course, at least in the general sense, and we see the advantages of such a technique. A kind of psychological realism is maintained here: memories can have a specific nature and influence us in specific ways, even though we don’t actually go through the process of recalling all the details they might contain. And by having the nar­rator report on the memory, Frisch can present these details without violating this effect yet still maintain the actuality, the presentness of the memory in the mind of the character. There are technical advantages as well. The narrator can present the memory without resorting to extensive inquit formulas (“Geiser thought about. . .”; “He remembered when he. . .”), which would be awkward, or making the entire section an interior monologue, a technique Frisch has decided not to use, at least directly, and which would be unrealistic and odd anyway. A similar case can be made for the longish sections that describe his trip to Iceland and his Matterhorn climb, where many details are presented which are not necessarily actually recalled. But note the difference between this kind of reported memory and a flashback. The latter, even if it only reports details without comment, could present a different Geiser, a younger one, and provide some point of reference, a basis for comparison with the present Geiser. The reported memory, since conditioned by his present state of mind, will not allow this perspective—unless, of course, a character can look back objectively on his life.

Perhaps what is most odd about the narrative is that, except possibly for the few handwritten notes, themselves largely summaries of what he has read, and a few sentences that might be free direct discourse, there is no direct voicing of Geiser’s speech or his thoughts, odd because if we stay this close to a character, we expect him to speak up once in a while, if not out loud, at least to himself. Hearing his actual words might not only help us get fix on who he is and how he speaks, but also set up a pattern of discourse, as in the Flaubert example, giving us a better sense of which words might be his when presented in free indirect discourse, and thus separate him from the narrator. It is not even easy to tell when he is actually thinking. There are few indirect statements to indicate mental activity. Most sen­tences report perceptions or thoughts by themselves, without using a pronoun to identify Geiser. And frequently the narrator uses the indefinite personal pronoun “one,” as in this example:

A summer guest from Germany, a professor of astronomy, knows a lot about the sun and, if asked, is not unwilling to talk about it, even to a lay­man. Afterward one clears the cups away, grateful for the short visit. (15)

The conditional “if” leaves us wondering if Geiser asks today or not, though he probably does, given his pressing concerns about meteorology and the influence the sun might have on the weather. The use of “one” makes it sound as if the nar­rator is describing some generalized situation to raise some truism about people in general, even though this is a specific, actual event and the “one” is Geiser. Even where we are certain what Geiser is doing, the narration blurs his presence.

What most makes separation of voices difficult is that the narrator uses no lan­guage that Geiser would not use himself. Even though we may not know exactly when he speaks or what he says, we can infer the types of words he would use once we get to know him. The sparseness of the language—there are few descriptive adjectives, and most of these are neutral, indicating only physical properties or measurement—the neutral coloring of tone, the concrete images, and the crisp, sharp phrasing of the sentences are consistent with what we know about the char­acter and his situation. He prefers “factual books” (10) over novels. By profession, which though not specified is obviously a tech­nical one, Geiser would be given to such terse, formulaic expressions and he would attempt to be objective in his descriptions, as guided by his scientific outlook. As an admirer of the explorer Captain Scott, he is independent and self-reliant, not self-absorbed or given to emotional effusion. And his age would bring a laconism that comes from so many years of dealing with expecta­tions and disappoint­ments, as well as from a sense of what lies ahead. We feel the presence of a mind trying to establish personal and intellec­tual control and be directed by the possibilities such control might offer.

And whatever conclusions the narrator might reach with this language, Geiser would reach also, because he is aware of his condition to an extent. He realizes that his posture as Geiser the imperiled explorer is unwarranted when he does not send a letter to his daughter because “there are sentences in it that sound like Captain Scott in his tent”(20). Geiser finds solace in the thought that “At any rate, one knows afterward that one is not crazy: other people have also noticed that it keeps on raining” (16), but also shows recognition that his behavior may be less than rational, and perhaps senses what is to come. The narrator does not say anything Geiser would not say, or think anything he would not think. If Geiser wrote this story, he would say it exactly the way this narrator has.

While the dry, detached tone of the narrative might distance us from Geiser, sympathy—ours or anyone else’s—is not an emotion he would allow. If we feel distant from Geiser, it is because Geiser is distant from himself. It would not be out of character for him to be removed from his thoughts or even think about himself in the third person, as if about someone else. Thus sentences such as:

Geiser has time to spare. (3)

Geiser is a widower. (37)

Geiser is still wearing his hat. (57)

Geiser wants no visitors. (93)

Geiser is not a newt. (97)

could be read as free indirect discourse in the strict sense, a presentation of his actual, specific thoughts. Geiser is making observations about himself and voicing them with the same wry detachment we might first have attributed to the narrator. Or for that matter, they might be free direct discourse: he is actually saying these to himself—or out loud, for all we know—referring to himself as “Geiser.” A case could even be made that almost the entire narrative is free indirect discourse in the specific sense—only his actual thoughts are present. Or, more likely, that it uses only free indirect discourse in the general sense—his type of thought and language colors the narrative, without there being any indication of actual thought or speech. We have no way of telling. The ambiguity about discourse itself prevents the per­spective a separation of narrative and figural voices might offer.

Though we may not always know where he is, we do have, as in Mann, an overt narrator who speaks in a separate voice, and speaks with authority, but it is an authority without content, as he says nothing beyond what Geiser himself knows. The narrator, who, of course, is not Geiser, is still a doubling of Geiser’s conscious­ness and exists as a kind of ghost who hovers bodiless over the corporeal character. But once we cast appearances aside, we see that the narrator, though overt, really functions more like an effaced narrator, like Joyce’s, who, with the help of free indi­rect discourse is fused with his character and presents him without comment or even clear hints. And as with Stephen in Portrait, we see the development, or at least an attempt towards development of a Point of View, contained by and contin­gent to some degree upon the character Geiser. It would be a mistake, however, to think of the covert narration as controlled by some kind of hidden person—it is with reluctance I refer to him as “him” or “who”—who hides behind the scenes and manipulates images and words while the overt narrator walks the stage and speaks. Only gradually—if at all—do we realize how the narrative works, so care­fully and subtly has Frisch crafted the narrative voice. Like many effects in fiction, his depends on our not noticing it.

Yet still unlike Joyce’s narrator, at least in effect, because an effaced narrator can present emotions when a character is not in a state to voice them. In Holocene, we don’t even get amplification of these emotions, not even where they should be most strong: Geiser’s struggle with the climb over the pass, his feelings when he abandons this escape—and especially when he goes haywire and roasts his cat, which only gets a brief, bare report. The narrator only presents Geiser’s conscious­ness, and does not go deeper to express some unconscious substratum because it is Geiser’s consciousness, shaped by his scientific outlook that controls what is pre­sented. Nor can the narrator imply conclusions where Geiser cannot: he can only show the pieces as Geiser scatters them. The only fear expressed is the fear Geiser feels is justified: if he decides he is in danger, he would feel a measure of fear is in order to determine a course of action. Any other play of emotion would serve no purpose. And if Geiser does not attempt to analyze himself, it is because he may not know how or, more likely, because he might question the kinds of introspection that place more emphasis on emotions than reason.

To be sure, we are made aware of his emotions and how they affect him, beyond their pragmatic value, but in the only way his rational mind would allow, through concrete things and their physical description, the images of memory and perception covertly planted in the narration. But again, the narrator can only present them, not embellish them or pull them together. Early in the novel, he watches the vines and roses in his garden “being torn to shreds”(8) by the rain, and later he imagines a fallen tree on the slope he is contemplating climbing, “its smashed crown pointing” the “black roots spread out in the air” (13). While these details might give Geiser useful external evidence in determining the possibility of greater destruction, they make us wonder about the emotional condition of the man who perceives them, who must imagine himself ripped to shreds, emotionally, perhaps even physically if he steps out. The black roots suggest a darkness within, a despair he barely recognizes and cannot control.

This oblique expression of his emotional state is evident between pages 41 and 53, a passage where it would most seem the narrator has left the scene—and Geiser—to fill in background, but hasn’t. Page 41 gives a string of reports on rain outside the window, made morning to night, almost on the hour. Geiser has been watching the rain constantly, in a frame of mind we can only guess at, but obvi­ously he is quite concerned. Next a long scene on winter, introduced by the sentence, “At least it is not snowing.” The immediate relevance of this seeming non sequitur is that were it now winter, all this rain would be snow and Geiser would have an avalanche to worry over as well if he stayed through the next season. After all, he is in the Alps. And thoughts of snow and avalanches recall his earlier reading about the area’s past, the relentless glacial activity in the Ice Age. Thus the later section on Iceland, where he once visited, is also anticipated. Echoed perhaps as well is Geiser’s self-image as Captain Scott, a solitary arctic explorer.

Then follows a longish description of the valley in winter. The color black is used in each specific description, in all but four of the next eighteen sentences—black footprints in the snow, black asphalt, black birds, and so on—and in the other four there is a “dirty gray,” “silvery gray,” and “bracken brown”—dark or neutral shades. Coffee in the last of the eighteen might suggest black as well. And snow is grimy in the next sentence, a ravine in shadow. This passage is another reported memory, whose details, while he may not be actually recalling them, are determined by his present state of mind and whose impact he now feels. The blackness that briefly appears earlier here explodes, and his mood must be very dark indeed. This memory, its blackness might be motivated by the time—it is after eleven, perhaps much later. He is again spending another night worrying and when he goes to the window now, all he can see is the night. We realize what Geiser may not, that he is disturbed, perhaps to the point of pathology. He does make some qualification at the end of this section when he realizes that the glaciers, after all, are “in retreat,” but in the summation “All in all, a green valley,” after all the blackness, the color green bursts out like a vain ray of hope, too quick, too brief to last. We sense not optimism, but a rapid mood swing, a sign of instability. And just as Geiser struggles to contain his darker fears with reason, the rational control exerted on the narrative struggles with stream of conscious, barely allowed to emerge.

The next day gets only a brief two sections, where the possibility of the sun coming out is pitted against the sound of water rushing again in the ravine. And in the next section he contemplates if not prepares for his escape: a train schedule is cut out and posted on the wall. Then the next six pages have many short sections, again seemingly out of the scene, describing the advantages and disadvantages of the valley, all trivial (and often comic). At best it is a picturesque place, but then again, there’s not much to be said for it—“A valley with no Baedeker stars,” as is noted in one section. We realize that Geiser is not just thinking about his immedi­ate future, but the rest of his life and what it might be worth. Loneliness is not an emotion the stoic Geiser would allow, but he must sense his isolation in a valley where he feels out of place, an isolation intensified by the storms. Basel, the desti­nation of his escape plan, is not only where his daughter lives but also where he grew up. Perhaps it is time to return. And, at his age, he must be aware of his approaching death. Winter is our last season. That “Erosion is a slow process” (48) offers some consolation: whatever may happen in the valley might not happen suddenly, as he fears. But erosion happens nonetheless, and its effects are irreversi­ble. Geiser must also be aware of his own possible erosion, physical and mental, which throughout the novel is paralleled with that caused by the storms, and while both types of erosion usually occur gradually, his, at his age, can also happen as suddenly as a flood or landslide. These sections and the next, dealing with Iceland, are probably set at night, when he is most prone to despair. The long section on Iceland—another reported memory, of a trip he made some time ago—can only describe the sterility of the land. Here, the memory is again motivated by his fear of danger and echoes what he has been learning from the texts he has cut out and taped to the wall. What has happened in Iceland once occurred in the Alps and will eventually happen again. Nature once was, still is, and will forever be indifferent to man, to Geiser in particular. But there is also the suggestion, even if Geiser doesn’t see it, that his own life is just as barren now—and perhaps has always been that way, for reasons he may glimpse but not admit. All the images in these pages, in their coldness, their sterility, and their blackness are too extreme, too exaggerated for his immediate or even distant concerns. We see cracks in the rational mind and sense that his breakdown, already anticipated, might be imminent. Later, after his hike, when his behavior is most bizarre, the narrative, like Geiser, is silent because the reasoning machine has broken down and can’t find the words to speak.

While Geiser’s consciousness determines the narrative, we become aware of its limitations and realize the only way we can come to any kind of assessment of Geiser is by going outside it. And the narrative, the way it is constructed, impels us to make some kind of assessment of Geiser and his odd behavior. In so many ways we are put at a distance from Geiser that screams to be closed. The authoritative character of the overt narrator, however much this is only a matter of appearance, puts us at a psychological if not moral remove. And discovering the narrator is no different from Geiser only makes us wonder more why Geiser doesn’t see what is so obvious to us. Frisch probably avoided interior monologue to reinforce this dis­tance, as hearing Geiser’s actual words might lead to a familiarity that would com­promise it. Perhaps, too, Geiser not only is not disposed to talking to himself, he might also lack the confidence or ability to do so, which would present another aspect of his psychological distress. The covert narration, however, in its focus on Geiser and its fusion with him through free indirect discourse, brings us close enough to him to want some kind of accounting for all the details embedded in it of his extreme behavior. The fragmentary nature of the narrative itself, along with gaps it creates, perhaps suggesting a fragmented mind, posits the need for a whole­ness that a conclusion might bring—


Point of View/point of view

But how can we reach any definite conclusion? The novel pushes us only in a vague direction towards some kind of assessment, but does not give us the means to make one or even know what kind of assessment is in order. We aren’t even given enough hints to understand what is happening to Geiser, much less decide how we should take him. Should we feel sympathetic with him, pity him, or view him from some ironic distance? We can’t even get an answer to the question that most cries for one: Is this guy crazy or not? The tone is so sparse it could be read in several ways, whether we ascribe it to Geiser or the narrator. The terse, bare words could come from someone too resigned to say more, or one who is simply being stoic. Or they could be the words of someone who does care about his life and life in general, perhaps too much, and does not want to spoil this hope with false and exaggerated expectation. The overt narrator has no authority, and the strict adher­ence to Geiser’s point of view, unreliable itself, allows no other. The use of an effaced narrator and free indirect discourse does not necessarily preclude coher­ence. In fact, as Cohn notes, “narrated monologues themselves tend to commit the narrator to attitudes of sympathy or irony: “Precisely because they cast the lan­guage of a subjective mind into the grammar of objective narration, they amplify emotional notes, but also throw into ironic relief all false notes struck by a figural mind”(117). But, as she explains, this kind of emotive shaping depends on an implied context, and in Holocene, there isn’t one provided by the narration. It’s hard to determine a false note in music that has no determinable key. The point of view is so fixed on Geiser’s consciousness that covert narration is not given the power to direct by implication. We can’t even get the point of view of other voices—of other characters. We question the competence of the villagers, and almost everyone else has left town. The novel provides an apt image that might describe the narrative. Geiser is out in his yard one morning. The rain has lifted but left a dense fog:

Field glasses are no use at all in times like these, one screws them this way and that without being able to find any sharp outline to bring into focus; all they do is make the mist thicker. (7)

We have the tools for focusing—a narrator fixed on Geiser’s point of view—but we don’t have anywhere to focus through his eyes, his mind. Like Geiser, we’re in a fog, and without guidance, a place to focus, we are forced to weigh the evidence ourselves.

What can we conclude?

We might decide that the consciousness—Geiser’s—that controls the narrative presents the major conflict of the novel and perhaps demonstrates the trap Geiser has put himself in. We sense that reason has turned into rationalization, a covering up of inner turmoil instead of a recognition and treatment of it. This rational out­look, coupled with his independence, has led to his cutting himself from what he most needs, the help and support of other people. Geiser recognizes this himself to some extent, but only after much physical and psychological distress. After aban­doning his escape, after suffering a stroke and the fall it causes, after throwing a salamander in the fire—which he must have hated because it reminded him of his own inhumanity (“Geiser is not a newt”)—after roasting the cat, Geiser, at the end of his rope, is saved by another, the one his brother lowers when they get trapped during their Matterhorn climb. This long section is another reported memory, motivated by Geiser’s immediate need for help, perhaps by his recognition of the essential need for relationships with other people. And this memory helps him recall what he has forgotten earlier, the names of his grandchildren, and what he has ignored all along, that his daughter is affectionate. And while we’re at it, we might question his abandoning the beliefs of other people, their religion—he falls asleep at the shrine—or their diversions, their novels. In a curiously parenthetical, nicely ironic comment in a work of fiction, he thinks:

(Novels are no use at all on days like these, they deal with people and their relationships, with themselves and others, fathers and mothers and daugh­ters or sons, lovers, etc., with individual souls, usually unhappy ones, with society, etc. as if the place for these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time.) (8)

But how secure can we be with such a conclusion and does the text support it? His isolation is not self-imposed: many retire to quaint villages, and he certainly did not cause the death of his wife, the only real company he might have had. His daughter understandably treats him as a child at the end, given his state when she finally comes, but we don’t know what his relationship with her is or what it would be like if he returned to Basel—or if she wants him to. And we don’t have any evi­dence that his life in his former home would be any better than what he has now. His distance from the villagers and their habitual ways is understandable and does not come from arrogance. In fact, if we criticize him for turning his back on other people, how much are we speaking from some habit ourselves we haven’t ques­tioned? One can be miserable with other people as well. Geiser at the end of the novel does stay in the village, for reasons not given, and while he may be setting himself up for isolation again, we have no way of knowing that he has not made the best choice he can make, given his options.

Or, if we deduce some kind of personality disorder, how confident can we be with our diagnosis? That his behavior is odd goes without saying, but is it the result of some underlying psychological defect or just a temporary aberration, not indicative of who he is? Even senility is not certain, as we all forget things when we are upset. A case could be made that his actions, however bizarre, are understand­able, given the circumstances. Several weeks of rain are enough to unnerve the best of us, especially if we live alone, if our neighbors are leaving, if our yard shows signs of damage, if our power goes off and spoils our food, which will be hard to replace when the villagers are hoarding, if our means of escape are closed, a single highway, which may go out at any time, if our means of communication with the outside world are periodically cut, our telephones, our TVs—and especially if we are 73 years old. Instead of pitying him, we might admire him for his stamina, his heroic resolve. Our assessment of Geiser ultimately depends on the issue the narrator cannot resolve—how imminent the danger is and how great might it be. Geiser’s evidence is not conclusive, but it does offer cause for alarm. There is, after all, the possibility that while not right this time, he might be the next, and when the land­slide comes, we applaud him for his prescience.

And the evidence Geiser gathers from his observations are to an extent cor­roborated by the texts he cuts out and tapes on the wall. These texts add another dimension to the narrative. Here we have overt narration with authority, with the twist that these voices come from actual sources, bringing a kind of realism to the novel. The reports from these authorities are not promising, as they tell about mas­sive, destructive floods, avalanches, and landslides in the area over the canton’s history, many within the last hundred years or so, recent enough to suggest possi­bilities, although too old to give any indication of what might happen in the near future. (It is curious, however, that Geiser does not consult meteorological reports from a newspaper or radio.) The report from all time is utterly bleak. The forces that created the Ice Age, that covered the valley with glaciers, that killed off the dinosaurs and will probably dispatch with man as well are still in motion, and in the long view, one has no cause for hope at all—but then this evidence is not useful at all, and we question Geiser’s sense of proportion. Scale is part of Geiser’s prob­lem: small cracks in his garden, loom large; salamanders stalk the house like dinosaurs. But our assessment of Geiser most depends on how we interpret what he is doing, and if we aren’t blinded by the habits of day-to-day living, we see much more is involved than his immediate safety.

The texts themselves, like the rest of narrative, are motivated by Geiser’s con­sciousness, appearing as they occur to him or he finds them, and we see these only when he reads or summarizes them and posts them on the wall. The collection of notes, as it gathers, must look to us like the rest of Geiser’s behavior, random and scattered. Yet there are patterns to them which suggest if not a wholeness, at least a movement, a groping towards wholeness. Consider the following series of hand­written notes (40), which I will analyze in turn:

The cells making up the human body, including the brain consist mainly of water

Water in the form of rain has preoccupied him throughout. Geiser is also wor­ried about his mental faculties, memory in particular, and since water is an unstable substance, some change, some deterioration can only be expected. If Geiser is contemplating his ultimate worth as a human being—not an unusual activity at a time of crisis—the thought that our minds are made of water is not uplifting. And if, as he wonders earlier, there may not be a God “if there were no longer a human brain, which cannot accept the idea of a creation without a creator,” whatever larger reality there might be to offer spiritual support could go as well.

The earth is not a perfect sphere

A desire for absolute perfection may be irrational on Geiser’s part, but the opposite, absolute mutability, hardly offers a source of strength, as imperfection suggests instability as well. Echoed here is his wish that “the earth for all [be] time earth”(8). Throughout the novel, he tries to find something that is stable and cer­tain, a lifeboat he can trust, some firm truth to latch onto. Earlier in the novel, having failed at building pagodas, he tries to remember how to construct the golden section, which not only is built upon the unalterable principles of geometry, but also suggests order and proportion. Perhaps the earth is incapable of these in any degree.

There has never been an earthquake in Ticino

At least there is not this to worry about, even if the earth is imperfect. As always, Geiser weighs the evidence.

Fish do not sleep

Geiser has not been sleeping well himself, which must concern him and which may account for his behavior later, as he should be exhausted. Also fish live in water, with all that it implies—is this why they do not sleep? And if Geiser sees himself as a fish, surrounded by water, his earlier thought about metamorphosis is reinforced. He fears he is turning into something less than human—but perhaps, humans, who are mostly water, as less than human anyway, who, if they keep their eyes open, only see and swim in unstable water.

The sum total of energy is constant

Another absolute truth, though not a reassuring one, as it does not preclude violent change in maintaining this constancy.

Human beings are the only living creatures with an awareness of history

At least there is this which distinguishes Geiser, who has been consulting the books, and other men from other animals—but this awareness only applies when their memory is intact. After all, “No knowledge without memory.” And what has this history produced of value, say, in Ticino, a place with no Baedeker stars?

Snakes have no hearing

Is Geiser hard of hearing, thus by extension, a kind of snake? In a figurative sense, he is if he is losing his memory. Or at least Geiser, who can hear thunder and rain, has proof he is a man and not a reptile, a stay against his fear of meta­morphosis.

3/4 of the earth’s surface is water

Water again, globally.

Europe and America move two centimeters away from each other every year, while entire continents (Atlantis) have already disappeared

Nature does not rest, and the effects of the earth’s imperfection can be devastating.

Since when have words existed?

Words are our way of expressing our awareness, but then there was a time before us, when there were no words. What was true then, and has it changed? What does it have to do with our words? With the words Geiser finds in the texts? With the words he indirectly voices in the narrative?

The universe is expanding

The forces of nature were here before us, still are present, and will be ever on the move, once we are gone. The notes move from the mind to the universe, from microcosm to the cosmos, and there is a logic not wholly psychological that joins them. What Geiser is contemplating is not just his own existence but what authori­ties—scientists, theologians, and philosophers—have attempted to define, what man is and how he stands in relationship to the universe, what his place is in some larger scheme. Holocene, of course, is not some kind of philosophical tract dis­guised as a novel. Rather, it is a story about a particular character’s experience, and his experience—the personal crisis posed by the storms—forces him to contem­plate larger matters. What kind of a world is it that could let happen to him what he fears might happen? The violence of the storms and the violence they inflict on his thoughts lead him explore abstract issues and look for connections.

Geiser, not a scientist or a philosopher, has to turn to the authorities. And if as we read we do question the authority of the narrator and Geiser’s competence, then all more reason to find someone who has it. Like Geiser, we read the texts and look for answers as well. The way the narration is constructed invites us to this larger speculation in several ways. Even though Geiser selects the texts and though we might question his motives for cutting them out, having them isolated in the nar­rative and quoted gives them an independence that encourages us to consider them in their own right, regardless of what we think about Geiser. Within the narrative proper, the construction of statements without reference to Geiser (“No knowledge without memory”), along with the uncertainty of who says them, also makes us consider them on own merits. But then again, when we realize that Geiser influ­ences and is involved in these statements, then his words gain some philosophical weight. What Cohn describes as the effects of extensive use of free indirect dis­course in Broch’s novel Death of Virgil also applies to Holocene: “The near-continuous employment of the technique in its most emphatic form, inducing a radical fusion of narrating and figural voices, leads third-person narration to the frontiers where it borders at once on lyric poetry and philosophic dis­course”(126). Lyric, because we are aware of the individual who thinks and how his thoughts make him feel, philosophic, because of what he thinks and the import his thoughts carry.

The language itself—again, Geiser’s language—through it’s attempts at preci­sion, its direct syntax, and carefully measured tone suggest the language of abstract discourse. The voice is the voice of a mind which tries to state only what can be said with certainty and exclude all that cannot. Even the short sections, seen in a differ­ent light, suggest complete, isolated perceptions, as if propositions in some treatise. Compare the opening sections of the novel with:

1           The world is everything that is the case.

1.1        The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11      The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

1.12      For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.

1.13      The facts in logical space are the world. (31)

I note here that if Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus were a novel—I am intrigued by the use of first person in the book—and these words were spoken by a character named Ludwig Wittgenstein, say, during a severe storm, we might be inclined to think he was crazy. Wittgenstein’s work, of course, is organized and systematic, Geiser’s scattered and fragmented, but then again, they are dealing with different subjects. Where Wittgenstein tries to construct a world based on the certainties of logic and words, Geiser is concerned with the certainties of things which exist in the physical world and of perceptions and emotions, which can gauge and determine the temper of whatever touch he has with whatever lies beyond him. He’s an exis­tentialist, not a logical positivist. The real nature of his study becomes apparent in his catalogue of thunder:

The twelve-volume encyclopedia Der Grosse Brockhaus explains what causes lightning and distinguishes streak lightning, ball lightning, bead lightning, etc., but there is little to be learned about thunder; yet in the course of a single night, unable to sleep, one can distinguish at least nine types of thunder:


The simple thunder crack.


Stuttering or tottering thunder: this usually comes after a lengthy silence, spreads across the whole valley, and can go on for minutes on end.


Echo thunder: shrill as a hammer striking on loose metal and setting up a whirring, fluttering echo which is louder than the peal itself.


Roll or bump thunder: relatively unfrightening, for it is reminiscent of rolling barrels bumping against one another. (5)

Geiser is listening to the thunder and thinking about past thunder as well as thun­der in the abstract, trying to make rational classification. And again he is weighing the evidence: based on the sounds, how dangerous is this series of storms? Possibly a great deal so, possibly not. The evidence is inconclusive, and he has no way of knowing what will happen next. His study here, how­ever, is only indirectly related to the threat. I doubt thunder is an appropriate subject for scientific study, and if it were, it would be related more to atmos­pheric con­ditions and causes, not types of sounds, and discussed in quantitative terms, not metaphorical. Rain, landslides, and lightning inflict damage, not noise. What he is really con­ducting is a phe­nomenological study of his fear, which sound does influence, and its causes and effects. Not nature, but man’s perception of and relation­ship to it is the subject of Geiser’s thoughts and of the novel as a whole.

Geiser, of course, is not a philosopher, but it is as valid to call him one as it is a lunatic (and we might decide there is some relationship between the two). If Geiser does not find any way to bring the texts or his observations together into some coherent, explicit understanding, it is in part because he has limited abilities to do so. After all, “Man remains an amateur” (60). But our criticism here would not be of what he is attempting but that his efforts are incomplete and sketchy. Still, if there are any ideas that can explain whatever it is that is going on out there, an average man should be able to comprehend them to some degree, and whether he fully understands them or not, his life will be influenced by the forces they try to explain—and he will feel these forces in palpable ways. And in many ways, the nar­rative encourages us to take Geiser as an average person, as one of us. The slow and incomplete development of Geiser’s character forces us to create some kind of abstract person to absorb the information as it comes, and this abstract person could be anyone—thus everyone. The frequent use of the impersonal pronoun “one” has a similar effect. And unless we judge too quickly, we realize that Geiser, aside from his age, is no different from most of us. We simply don’t know enough about him to make any solid personality assessment. The suppression of details that might help us get a better fix on his personality cannot be attributed to denial. If Geiser had some essential flaw, it would still appear obliquely in the text and we would feel the tension of his repression. Rather, Frisch has not given these details because they are not essential to what he is doing. He has deliberately created an ambiguous—and prototypical— character. Geiser is everyman, man in the Holocene.

Then again, Geiser may be better equipped than many of us for this inquiry. He is capable of grasping abstract concepts, and his resolve keeps him from shying away from where they might lead. Also, his age brings him closer to what the younger among us can for the time being ignore, our mortality and what causes it. And his isolation, caused by his retirement in the valley and exacerbated by the storm, means that he will not have anything to distract him in his inquiry. If we reject the thread of his thoughts—and ignore reading the texts on the wall—what is our justification? We are turning our backs on the only real authority in the novel, but replacing it with what? We may simply be responding from reflex, like the vil­lagers, caught up in what we expect to read about in novels—about “people and their relationships, with themselves and others, fathers and mothers and daugh­ters or sons, lovers, etc., with individual souls, usually unhappy ones, with society”—to see anything larger.

Then what does Geiser find out about himself—about man in the Holocene?

Man has always been conscious of the mystery surrounding his origin and development as a species, and an inexhaustible field of inquiry is opened to him by his ability to regard himself (the “subject”) in relation to the world in which he lives (the “object”)—see Philosophy. . . .

Since M. is unable to understand himself through insight, he has from earliest times tried to reach out toward the idea of a divine being (see Religion) or some other nonhuman presence, to which he equates himself while at the same time distinguishing himself from it: it may be an animal (see Totemism), the spirit of an ancestor (see Ancestor Worship), or some other alter ego (see Mask); in rationalistic times it might even be a machine. . . . (53)

If this source is right, and Geiser has found nothing in his other reading or his experience to contradict it, then all our attempts to give meaning to our place in the world are our own projections, illusions created by ourselves that are perhaps self-serving, and not revelations from some beyond. There is no relationship between “subject” and “object” beyond the effect physical forces of the object have on sub­jects. These forces make us appear and grow and age—and die and disappear. That’s it. We may look at nature and think about what we see, but we will get no response to our thoughts. As Geiser later notes, “only human beings can recognize catastrophes, provided they survive them; Nature recognizes no catastrophes”(79). If Geiser’s thoughts have lost proportion, it is because there is no frame of reference on a human scale. If Geiser cannot find any meaningful connections between the texts, it is because there aren’t any. We may need other people—and Geiser may have to recognize this need—but our relationships with others do not bring us closer to the world. And we may not have any stable or even real way to define or validate these needs. The Matterhorn memory about the help from his brother is balanced against but does not cancel out what he remembers from Iceland, the potential violence and absolute indifference of nature. The novel ends where it started. Geiser—man in the Holocene—is alone. If we feel distant from Geiser, it is because we are all isolated from the world and from each other. The way the narra­tive is built reflects this state. We are even isolated from our own selves, because, paradox­ically, the more Geiser looks at the contents of his mind, the less he feels they belong to him, and the closer we get to Geiser’s mind, the more we become aware of this distance.

So much of his behavior can be read as a struggle against this condition. He throws the salamander in the fire in rejection of an indifferent Nature that allowed dinosaurs to perish, as well as in rebellion against the fact of his own physical nature, that in many ways he is no different from reptiles. If he roasts his cat, it is because he decides his life is worth something and thus worth saving. We regret, of course, that he doesn’t ask for food from someone else first and are relieved he gives Kitty a decent burial—his line of reasoning has slipped—but we have to con­sider this act in the light of what he is up against. The absurdity of his behavior only underscores the Absurdity of his existence. But there is something if not heroic, at least honest in his attempts to come to terms with the void and our insignificance in face of it, with our eventual individual, even collective extinction. We might admire him, then, for his determined but futile struggle.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how strong or smart or sane Geiser is: no one has the strength or knowledge to stand up against the void. What Geiser can’t do, Frisch or his narrator can’t do either. No one can provide the perspective in which to view someone else’s behavior because no one can claim any authority to explain what does not exist. There is no definite point of view in the novel because there is no definite Point of View. Still there is the desire to push against whatever it is that surrounds us, and to find ways to talk about it, and even to write about it. Perhaps these efforts are the ones that most define us as humans and are the ones that are most worthwhile. Stiller, the protagonist of Frisch’s first novel, I’m Not Stiller, sees death—by suicide—as the only other alternative. He realizes that suicide itself is an illusion, and concludes “. . .I must fly in the confidence that the void itself will bear me up, that is to say a leap without wings, a leap into nothingness. . .into emptiness as the only reality which belongs to me, which can bear me up. . .”(68). That Geiser can look at himself and at the world from a distance posits another self that can look, perhaps the self that most matters, and while we may not be able to locate this self or place it in the world, we discover the inviolability of the fact this self exists—and sense the presence of something that pushes back against us. But we also real­ize this self is impermanent and will perish. Geiser must know, as Stiller does, that “In face of the fact of life and death there is nothing whatever to be said”(280). And what pushes back, we can’t know, much less put faith in: Stiller’s hope in the void has to be pitted against despair. We can only find ways to talk around what cannot be said, and when we write, if we write honestly and carefully, we construct narra­tives that do not violate the ineffable by having narrators or characters say more than they can say. As Frisch himself explains about his writing:

What is important is what cannot be said, the white space between the words. The words themselves always express the incidentals, which is not what we really mean. What we are really concerned with can only, at best, be written about, and that means, quite literally, we write around it. We encompass it. We make statements that never contain the whole true expe­rience: that cannot be described. All the statements can do is to encircle it, as tightly and closely as possible: the true, the inexpressible experience emerges at best as the tension between these statements. (Sketchbook 1946-1949 25)

He compares himself to a sculptor, who can only carefully chip away at the stone but not see what he creates. Language is his chisel, which “works by bringing the area of blankness in the things that can be said as close as possible to the central mystery, the living element.” It is Geiser’s partial apprehension of this mystery which makes him as a character more than an oddity in a case study, and it is our apprehension of the mystery through Geiser that makes Holocene a profound and disturbing work. Like Geiser, we are moved, we are frightened, and then confused and perhaps exhausted, but at the end, we can only draw quiet.

Wittgenstein’s work, after so many pages of sentences that turn into formulas of symbolic logic, comes to same conclusion:

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who under­stands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

7      Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (89)

Here we realize Wittgenstein is a novelist after all.

—Gary Garvin.


Works Cited

Cohn, Dorritt. Transparent Minds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Friedman, Norman. “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” The Theory of the Novel. Ed. Philip Stevick. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Frisch, Max. I’m Not Stiller. Trans. Michael Bullock. New York: Vintage, 1958.

———. Man in the Holocene. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

———. Sketchbook 1946-1949. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

McHale, Brian. “Free Indirect Discourse: A Survey of Recent Accounts.” PTL 3: 249-288.

Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Stevick, Philip. The Theory of the Novel. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. C. K. Ogden. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.



Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.



Aug 192010

Jason DeYoung

It’s a pleasure to offer here this shocking and deeply comic little story by my former student and recent VCFA graduate Jason DeYoung (above with his son Harrison). “Mariska’s Tongue” was originally published in Gargoyle, No. 53 (2008).  It reads like a cross between a segment from The Twilight Zone and something Donald Barthelme or Julio Cortazar could have written. Chief among its charms is the evidence herein of a deeply disturbed mind at work (would that we could all find our inner cannibal and let it out on the page).



When I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to have it.  Tongue. When the waiter came to fill my water glass, I asked him what kind of tongue was it. “Human,” he said. I believe I gasped a little like some expectation had been fulfilled.  I was not nonplus, however.  The waiter had answered curtly, and when he picked up my water glass, he parried my eyes, and I sensed he didn’t want to give any explanation for this item.

In general, on a menu the indelicate items appear below what are the best things at the restaurant, maybe in the lower left column or tucked in among more mundane, unsatisfying things—squash salad, yuck. There is a rule I have: Order what the restaurant specializes in.  For instance, if it’s a steakhouse, order steak.  I do not stray from this rule, typically.

Everything conspired against ordering the tongue, the listing for which occupied a section of the menu that fully conveyed that it wasn’t the restaurant’s specialty.  The tongue dish wasn’t cheap either at $25.00 a serving, and I was short on cash.

Looking up, I saw that the waiter was still filling my water goblet; the dark hair on his rock-colored fingers looked like hunched, over-fed horseflies, and his eyes were narrowed on the goblet’s sliver-clear rim.  “Do you recommend the tongue?” I asked, when he was finished pouring.  “For some,” he said.  He was terse and respectful.  He turned on his heels and limped back into the kitchen.

I looked again at the un-dramatic listing for tongue, and then put my menu down and sipped a little of the ice-water.  How could I not take this opportunity to have human tongue?  My god, what would it be like, taste like? What would it be served with?  I looked back to the menu.  It would come with a side tomato salad and wild rice.

When the waiter returned and asked if I was ready to order, I said, “I’ll have the tongue.”

“And how would you like it cooked, sir?”

“How do you suggest?”

“It is very lean meat.  I would said medium rare, for you.”

“For me?”


“What does that mean?  For me?”

“With respect, you do not seem to be the type to eat his meats cooked at a rare temperature.”

I smirked at the waiter, and asked him how he knew I didn’t eat rare meat, thinking he would give some observation about me, something keen and complimentary, something I’d secretly cultivated about myself but that no one else had picked up on or said anything to me about.

He tapped his nose with the ball end of his pen and gave an overly familiar smile: “You are a tourist, sir.  I can smell a tourist.”

What gall! “I live here, in the city, the same as you,” I stammered.

“Very well. Rare tongue,” he said, without missing a beat, without a hint of reproach.  He was obviously practiced at giving obsequious responses to petulant outrages.

“No, no.  I do not eat my meats rare. I want it medium rare. I’m not a tourist.”

“Of course.” He limped back to the kitchen.

I sat there stewing, wondering if I should just leave. I furious over the waiter’s presumptuous attitude, and how he’d said tourist like it was an insult.  It was true, in a way.  I’d just moved here from a stay in Russia.  I’d just broken it off with this curly-headed, overweight Russian woman I’d been with since my second year out of college.  Though she was much older than I, she wanted me to marry her, but she had terrible habits that I couldn’t stand, such as that she plucked her gray pubes and collected them on the dark tile sink counter as if she was planning some wig or weaving.  I’d say, “Mariska, what the hell!  You think there’s some hair fairy for the middle-aged?  What’cha gonna do when you got a whole gray bush?”  She’d say, “I do not und’rstand you ‘Merry-cans.”  Then she’d come over and rub my head and press her sweat-moist jelly body to mind.  I liked her.  She was generous and loving.  But have you ever seen a collection of glossy gray pubes plucked from a soft bed of blond hair?

The waiter returned finally, his face much swarthier than I remembered, my meal plated in the dishes he carried.  He sat the plate and bowl down without care, but not without decency—they didn’t rattle as they settled. There before me was a heat-swollen, grilled tongue that sizzled and smell wonderfully, nestled within tan long-grain wild rice with a side tomato salad.

I tried to put Mariska out my head.  But she was there now, she was on my mind, and though I don’t know why, the tongue reminded me of her all the more.  Its length, its readiness, its presences was too much like Mariska.  In some grime outpost of my imagination, I thought of it as Mariska’s tongue.

I stared at it, a long, un-sliced meaty tongue.  Its sizzles subsided.  I needed a moment, so I started with the tomato salad and then nibbled on the wild rice around it.  But I was starting to have difficultly bringing myself to look at it. A human tongue.  No, no: a human’s tongue. Right there on my plate. Sanctioned by the restaurant, and by the state, I suppose.  I looked around at the other patrons in the restaurant.  I didn’t see another serving of tongue on anyone’s plate.  They all had companions, and they all looked contented.  As I scanned the room, I saw only one other person alone, and he sat two tables across from me.  He had a jowly toad’s face, and winked knowingly at me as I noted his meal.

I stopped looking around and finished my side dishes. I even sopped up the oil and vinegar in the bottom of the salad bowl with bread before I took a long glance at what I thought of as Mariska’s tongue.  It took on the stale, wizened appearance of something you’d want to flush.  It just made me think more about that jolly gal who loved me, and who I knew would take me back without a second thought.

I’d left her, I thought at the time, like an outlaw.  On the night of our first anniversary, we went to a Turkish restaurant and ordered everything we desired on the menu.  We ate our feast with the speed and intemperance of trough-fed pigs.  Afterward we went home for a bread pudding I’d made earlier that day.  As she kissed the back of my neck and swore her love, I stirred together a simple syrup to go on top of the bread pudding.  We test tasted the syrup many times.  She giggles, “You have stuff on you face.”  “Your,” I corrected, and let her lick the syrup from my cheek. As she moved back, I caught an unflattering glance of her.  Her face looked beaded in blemishes and jaundiced. I stepped back.  She was a crone in the poor Russian lighting. She giggled. I hurried her through dessert, making her drink as much imported Cognac as I force down her throat.  She could hold her liquor, and it just made her more randy.  The drunker she got the more clearly her flaws presented themselves to me—every stray hair, every small blemish, all of the imperfections coalescing into something utterly grotesque that unpleasantly spread across a glowing face-palette of ruddy flesh. Before she got a chance to force me to bed, I slipped into the kitchen, tucked the un-tallied rubles she kept hidden in a container in the refrigerator into my satchel, and bolted for the apartment door, all the while she was refreshing herself for me.  I ran practically stark mad across the winter grey courtyard of her Soviet-era apartment building under the gloom of the midnight sun.

“Is there something wrong, sir?”  I look up and there was that laconic and insulting waiter, hanging over me like a gawking spectator.  I could see the dirty black hairs that jutted out of each dark nostril like the soot-covered bristles of a chimney sweep’s broom.

“How can you serve this kinda thing?”

“It is what you requested, is it not?”

“Aren’t there laws against serving human flesh?”

“Not in this country, sir.”

“What about natural laws?  What about the laws of decency or respect.”  Sweet, plump Mariska, welcoming and jovial, weighed heavily on my mind.

“Please sir, temper your voice.”

“Fuck my voice. You served me a human tongue!”  The other patrons now looked up.

“But that is what you ordered.”

He had me there.  I had ordered it.  Just because it was available to me, I still had the choice not to order it.  But I loved the exotic.  Exotic.  Poor Mariska.  She was Russian, and I was not (I’d fuck a Martian).  I looked back down at the tongue.  It was dry now except for a thin layer submerged in its own bloodied juices.

“Sir,” —the waiter was unflappable, by now I’d be calling me all sorts of ugly names— “can I get you something else.  Perhaps a stiff drink?  A hamburger or a steak?”

“That drink sounds good.”

“Of course, and consider it on the house.”  He turned and limped toward the bar.  He left the dished tongue there in front of me.  I pushed it away.

But I won’t lie.  Across the table, out of my immediate reach, it seemed to attract me. I wanted it. I pulled it back and picked up my knife and fork. I steadied myself over it.  It was here, after all. There was no giving it back to the owner to have it reattached.  I closed my eyes.  Natural laws be damned.  Rebel, rebel: the outlaw moaned in my head.  And just then I felt a hand clap me on my back.  “You from out of town or something?”

I look up to see the man who’d winked at me making his way around to the chair at the opposite end of my table.  He sat down slowly—he spoke slowly.  “You don’t cut tongue,” he said with the grace of man who had never been hungry.  “That’s not how you eat it.  You take it in your hand.” He demonstrated by outstretching his fingers like he was holding a large invisible hotdog.  “You show it respect.  Someone will never speak again for your gullet’s pleasure.”  His broad, moonlike face smiled over the table at me. He was the type of man I admired, the kind who never seemed to suffer damp wrinkles in his shirts or a moment of uncertainty while making plans.  I did as he instructed. I picked up the char-stiffened meat; its tip hanging slightly wilted. “Yes, that’s right.”  The man gave me a proud smile. My god, his teeth were prefect.

Like a last kiss from a lover, I put the tip of the tongue in my mouth and tasted its juices.  Spiced and sweet.  The waiter arrived with my whiskey, as I was about to sink my teeth into the tongue.  He stood there with a slight smirk on his face peering at me.

What can I say?  I ate it.  Sweet Mariska on my mind the whole time.  The outlaw in my head singing a happy saloon song as every bite of that tongue was chewed and tongued by my own and pushed down my throat. As I ate it, the waiter told me that the best tongue comes from those in their twenties, after salvia had tenderized it, but before it toughens.  “Yet, generally, what is served here is of somewhat lower quality.”  I wouldn’t know the difference, I told him.

I got to know the waiter and the other patron a little. We made paced and protective conversation. The broad-faced man had traveled through Russia, too.  I told him a little about Mariska.  He said, “I do love the Russian woman.  Dirty in the sack, dirty in the kitchen.”

The waiter asked how the tongue was.

“It was very good.  It reminded me somewhat of skirt steak, but with a more workaday texture.  It was really quiet exciting to eat, however.”  Sated and enjoying myself, the guilt I felt over Mariska and eating human tongue had vanished. “I was a little surprised that I had difficulty eating it at first.”

“Most do. You shouldn’t worry so.  And I apologize about the ‘tourist’ remark.”

It was like we were old pals now.  I’d learned both their names and knew they were both unmarried, like myself.  “Would you like to see how we prepare tongue?” the waiter asked.

“Would I!”

They took me to the kitchen.  I considered this a rare treat, much like the tongue.

In the kitchen, a pair cooks dithered over stoves and prated to one another. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Their aquiline, heat-scarred faces were ruddy in the brightly lighted kitchen.  The waiter walked to a prep station in the rear of the kitchen and lifted what looked to be garden sheers.  He scrutinized their cleanliness.  He took a small sponge, rubbed out a spot on the tool, and then beckoned me to come closer.

“This is what we use to remove the tongue.”  He held aloft the large pair of cutters. “We have to make sure it is clean to avoid infection.  We’re not in the murder business, you know.”

“Intriguing,” I said. “So you remove the tongues, here, in the kitchen?”

“Yes, and this is what we use to hold the tongue.”

“Whoa.” It was a pair of pliers with imbedded spikes that sparkled like polished jewels.  He held both tools.  The cutters were in his right, the pliers in his left.

“If you like, I could demonstrate on you.”

“That’s okay.” Not taking him seriously in the least.

“But sir,” he came closer. “Someone gave up her tongue for you.”

“But I’m not that giving.”

“But she was.  And that is how it works.  You get tongue only if you give it.”  The waiter lunged toward me. “You tourists never know the rules!”

I ran for the door only to find the moon-faced man and the two ruddy-cheeked cooks standing in front of it.  “Out of my way!” was the last thing I said.

—Jason DeYoung


Aug 102010

Deficiencies of Desire:

Simply stated, we are creatures of desire.  Doug helped me focus this idea into my writing.  He told me that my characters should desire something, almost obsessively, and that someone (or something) should resist this desire.  Desire plus resistance creates a dramatic arc, which plays out again and again in a story, until the character either achieves her desire or fails in that quest.  Think of two characters locked in a closet and fighting it out, until one or the other either wins, loses or calls it a draw.  (This is DG’s image from his essay on SS structure.)  Subtext should echo from the central conflict to create unity in a story.   I’m not going to belabor the details of this.  Read the essay on short story structure or just spend tend minutes with DG and you’ll become acutely aware of it.

What I’m going to talk about, instead, were my particular problems applying this concept to my writing.  My desire deficiencies, as it were.

I kept running into a problem when I wrote: I  understood the concept of strong desires but I couldn’t seem to enact that concept on the page.  I submitted eight short stories last semester: six new ones and two revisions.  (This is fuzzy math: the total stories would be 7 because one story was brand new and revised once…this is why we write and don’t study calculus.)    I’m going to briefly summarize the desire lines in each to offer some idea of how it went.

One huge problem for me was finding desire motifs that were ‘story worthy.’  Hell, they often weren’t even scene worthy.  My first story involved a Navy pilot who was heading home after quitting flight school.  The main thing he desired, to quit flying and return to a simpler life, happened in backstory and memories.  In the front story, I had a lot of people standing around doing nothing, a lot of ruminating and anticipating.  The problem was that my character’s strongest desire had already been acted out and the drama was over.  Those careful NC readers will recognize this as a ‘bathtub’ story.

My second attempt wasn’t a whole lot better.  A married couple lost a baby late in the wife’s pregnancy. The husband desired to talk with his wife to repair the damage, but she wouldn’t open up about this tragedy.  There’s a slight improvement here, because at least the desire is apparent, but what happened on the page was a lot of ‘not talking.’  (Reminds me of that great line in Christopher Guest’s movie, Best in Show, when the woman says, “We can talk, or not talk, all night.”)  DG told me that not talking usually creates no drama, and that it takes a really experienced writer to pull it off.

By my third story, I hit upon an idea.  If my characters’ desires could be played out in historical settings, when wars raged, where the conditions of life beleaguered the characters, then survival itself could become a desire.  I wrote two stories set in various battles during WWII.   My most simple attempt involved sticking two soldiers in a foxhole during the siege of Leningrad.  These soldiers were fighting each other over a stolen pair of gloves.  They desired things intensely, like food, water, a pair of gloves, because conditions were so dire.  Of course DG shredded the story itself (though not the structure…a minor, though hard-fought victory) because historical fiction quickly descends into tired imagery.  Mention the Neva.  Mention the Hermitage.  Throw in a few Nazi’s and some snow, and voila, a Potemkin village of historical fiction.  Clearly, in order to create an effective story, I’d have to inhabit the place, not just pop in for a visit.  Hence the story did not work as written, but the desire motif was clarified.  The other historical story I wrote also had a strong desire component but suffered for other structural reasons.

In order to create strong desires in contemporary stories, my work became highly sexualized.  The remaining three stories all involved adultery, betrayal, or dangerous sexual behavior.  I basically  defaulted to one of the strongest desires humans feel.  (I suppose it could have been worse: I could have defaulted to stories about eating, sleeping or going to the bathroom!)  There was nothing wrong with using sex to play out desires, and it was kind of fun, but I began to realize that these stories were some of the lower fruit on the fiction tree.  It was hard to find ways to say new things.  They also ran another risk: titillating rather than exploring the human condition. But at least with sex, I had found a strong, comprehensible desire motif that allowed me to explore characters, plots, and themes which otherwise had been getting lost.

So what’s left?  I read a lot of stories that work without sex, without war, without betrayals of trust, but I still struggle to find ideas for my own writing.  I recently finished Robin Oliveira’s novel, My Name is Mary Sutter.  Her character desires to become a surgeon and that desire carries most of the novel.   (Though interestingly, much of that desire can only occur because the story is set during the American Civil War, when women couldn’t become surgeons.  Robin, however, fully inhabits the time period.  No Potemkin villages in Mary Sutter. )  Another favorite story of mine is Lorrie Moore’s “Dance In America,” which operates entirely without sex or violence and seems to replace a clear desire motif with a ‘life-force’ motif.  So it can be done.  My characters don’t have to be tying each other up to bedposts, cheating on their spouses or fighting a battle to enact desire.  But I haven’t found a balance yet.

Last point:  I often found the desire motifs worked for a page or two before I gave up on them and shifted into some other area.  This creates a huge problem for story unity.  Finding a central desire to carry the story remains one of the great challenges going forward.

I know there are many other types of stories that do not work directly off the desire/resistance model, but it was a useful tool.  It helped me generate dramatic action on the page.  It helped me push stories forward.

Up Next:  #2, Verbs, verbs, verbs.

-Rich Farrell

See earlier posts in this series beginning here.

Jul 262010

#4:  Use Caution When Exiting the Bathtub: Shy and Retiring Plot Problems.

Why is writing a good plot so difficult?  Shouldn’t crafting a solid plot be almost mechanical:  A leads to B which leads to C which ends with D?  But it never turns out this way for me.  My A leads to Q which turns into a 6.4, which leads back to J.  I’m not trying to be complicated, but it always seems that when I write, plot quickly gets away from me.

I found, perhaps through a twist of karma,  that even writing this blog post was elusive.

I tried half a dozen times to write this entry.  I worked on three drafts that compared plot to the game of golf.  All three attempts failed miserably.   I tried ignoring this post, hoping it would go away.  I spent an entire weekend watching DVDs of Mad Men to avoid thinking about it.  I’ve even considered switching topics.  Who would notice?  Why should I chronicle my personal struggle with something so basic in writing?

Most of my previous posts have come easily.  The lessons I learned seemed clear, the application straight forward (though not easy) and my posts on NC were quickly dispatched.

Not so with this topic.

I’m still lost on the elements of how to move a story forward.  I’m still trying to understand plot, and it seems to be the most basic, most elemental part of fiction writing.  Oh, I’ve read all the books and I’ve tried all the exercises.  I’ve not ignored it by any means.  I have books on master plots and I’ve read countless essays on structure and the importance of plot.  I worked with Glover, for crying out loud. Shouldn’t I get this by now?  Shouldn’t this be a lesson so deeply ingrained in my neocortex that stories just coming flying off the keyboard?  How the hell do I talk about this on Numero Cinq?

I suppose I should start with my own struggles.

From day one last semester, Doug hammered me on story movement.  The first two stories I submitted were bona fide ‘bathtub stories,’ a Gloverism which has driven me mad ever since I learned it.   I’ll let Doug’s words explain: A bathtub story is “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).” (Glover, “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise,” p. 166.)   Thankfully, none of my characters were ever actually in a bathtub, but they did mostly sit around thinking about events that happened off the page.  Lots of lyrical rumination but no drama.

Okay, that was easy enough to fix.  Make something happen.

By packet three, I had more or less remedied the bathtub issue, but then a new problem arose.  Now Doug told me to “stop PLANNING quite so much.”  He said that I seemed to have a more dramatic story, but that I had simply put my characters through their paces with the end in sight.  He urged me to be less structured with my plot.  Doug wrote, “I’d be even more pleased if I felt you letting go of the reins a little bit, surprising yourself, not seeing the ending before you get there.”

I began with over-written bathtub stories.  Then I planned, had more drama, but I over-planned.  Was this madness?  Was my advisor screwing with me, trying  intentionally to confuse me?  I didn’t know.  When I finally let go (in my last packet), the result was predictable: I drifted back into the bathtub model.  Too much backfill, not enough drama.

I submitted a revised version of a story for workshop this summer, the packet 3 story I had worked on with Doug, the first non-bathtub one.  The workshop participants told me they wanted more context, more backstory and depth.  They said I was going too fast.

To me, these are plot problems, pure and simple.  No matter how many times I sit down to write a story, I end up wandering off into digressions that aren’t useful, backstory that isn’t dramatic, or over-contemplative characters who sit around and do nothing.  Conversely, if I achieve a dramatic story, it becomes too thin, too quick, and the story glosses over the deeper, more salient points of character, setting, theme, etc.

What is the solution, I keep asking myself?  What balance of dramatic action and interior access will result in a well crafted story?

The conclusion I’ve reached in finally writing this blog post is that I still don’t know.  Perhaps that’s why I struggled for so long to write it.

One of the great things I learned from Doug last semester was the importance of keeping the story’s present forward moving action dramatic.  Something has to be at stake in every scene.  Desire and resistance.  There has to be vertebrae for the story, a dramatic skeleton, as it were.   (Another great Gloverism is the “broken backed story,” in which a timid writer loses confidence in the central conflict and switches to another conflict…I’ve been guilty of this, too.) Without this underlying structure, the story can’t move.  Robert Olen Butler (among others) calls it ‘yearning’.

With this desire/resistance motif in place, the character returns again and again to situations in which the drama is played out.  When there is a resolution to this central conflict, the story is over.  It sounds and seems so simple, but the execution has continued to prove elusive.  I see how dramatic stories work  now, when I read, when I watch Mad Men, even when I begin to write a story, but somewhere along the way I still get lost.  They say the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  Well, there you go.  I have  plot problems.  Now someone give me a twelve step booklet to solve it.  I’ll yield the floor for a more eloquent explanation.

John Mortimer, an English writer, says this about plots:

Plots are essential, but plots are the hardest part; at any rate I find this to be so.  Everything else about writing can be done by turning up regularly on the empty page and starting the performance.  Plots are notoriously shy and retiring. With luck they may visit you in unexpected places, in the bath or while waiting in the doctor’s surgery.  Very often they stay away altogether and are always out in a meeting and don’t return your call. Then it’s no good sitting and waiting for them, you have to start writing, you have to begin to create characters.  And then, as a character begins to talk, or comes into conflict with another, the plot may start working; because it’s important that the characters perform the plot and the plot doesn’t manipulate the characters.  This process is a mysterious one and the most exciting part of writing fiction. (Mortimer, John.  “Plot Luck,” as found in The Agony and the Ego, ed. by Clare Boylan.)

Up Next:  What I Learned About Desire:  (The Return of Paris Hilton)

-Rich Farrell

See previous posts in this series beginning here.

Jul 122010

#5:  My Love Affair with Abstractions

-From Packet Letter One, Doug Glover to Rich Farrell, Feb. 7, 2010: “Over and over you deliver abstractions over concrete substantive details.  Abstraction in the form of generic verbs and actions, in the form of vague figurative language, abstraction in the form of disembodied voices.”


Let me be perfectly clear about this: abstractions are fun.  I’ve wallowed in them with a deranged delight. They’ve tempted me like the unencumbered enthusiasm of a nineteen year old girl lounging by a blue pool, drink in hand, asking me to rub suntan lotion on her lithe, brown shoulders.  I know nothing about this girl, only the shimmering veneer of her youthful body: her curves, her flowing hair, brown shoulders, perfect skin, nary a tan line to be seen.  She invites me closer.  I smell coconut on her skin.  She confuses me with her beauty, uncomplicated by reality.  She confuses me with brown shoulders.

I convince myself that abstractions are not simple-minded fantasies.  I tell myself that abstract writing is capable of rising to sublime heights, standing on the (untanned) shoulders of great writers, capable of lifting my stories to stratospheric altitudes on flights of faux literary fancy.  Wasn’t Joyce abstract?  Didn’t Virginia Woolf raise abstract imagery to an art form in some of her novels?  I tell myself so.  I tell myself that a lyrical voice hides in the mysterious tones of abstraction; by keeping the writing vague and out of focus, a poetic energy must murmur just beneath the muddled surface.  It must.  I tell myself that this nineteen year old girl by the pool might be a fucking genius; she might be Sylvia Plath in a string bikini.

We swim, Sylvia and I, joyously in the pool.  My sentences, paragraphs, scenes, even whole stories, splash in abstract language: sloppy verbs, unspecific images, overused pronouns. Who cares! I never once consider the consequences of our hedonistic little existences.  Goddamn it, abstractions are fun!

I love abstractions because of those glittering surfaces, because they sometimes sound so wonderful, so lyrical, so different than the tired prose of everyday, so different than the working-class language of my roots.  Abstractions must evince a broad intelligence, sure signs of good writing, of potential, of an emerging poetic voice.

But of course, abstractions delivered on very few of their promises.  In the end, my heart was broken.   Sylvia turned out to have leprosy.

In my first packet letter from Doug, he used the word ‘abstraction’ (or abstract) eight times to describe my writing.  Eight.  He wrote it six more times on the hardcopy of my story.  I challenge any of his new advisees to top my record.  Fourteen ‘abstractions’ in one packet.

My knee-jerk reaction (like all good lovers) was to initially defend this style.  I’d often been told that my stories were “over-written,” and I once took that to be a compliment.  It was not.

Eventually, reluctantly, I yielded to reality.  Doug beat me enough that I finally believed abstractions were mostly disembodied, confused, muddled, and potentially hazardous things.  They softened, perhaps even crippled, the backbone of a story.

I abused abstractions.  I know this now.  They were easy, safe, and uncomplicated.  They ginned up my limp stories.  Abstractions allowed me to throw weak things onto a page, then fluff them up with vague, foggy language, albeit pretty at times, curved and free of tan lines. I labored over the sound, the cadence of a sentence for days, narcissistically, often arriving at a relatively a good sentence, but one that did nothing to help the story, which withered away in a death rattle of cliché, ineptitude, or worse, utter nonsense.

Good  Abstractions vs. Bad Abstractions:

Good abstractions reach toward ineffable ideas.  Toward things the writer/reader wants to grasp but can’t.  Existential questions.  Big questions, with a capital B.  Why are we here?  What is love?  Etc.  Bad abstractions are feeble, lazy, and attempt to short-circuit the thought process by appearing flashy on the page without any substantive depth: the 19-year-old in a bikini with a killer tan.  Here is a good example of a bad abstraction, taken from one of my stories:

We don’t like the sun, his eyes say when they speak.  They tell him they want darkness, rest, and a release from the prison of sight.  It’s a tiresome, thankless job, they say, this constant work.

This was the opening paragraph.  My intent was to create an eerie mood, to take the reader quickly inside the character’s head, and to disorient the characterization.  My intent was to create a ‘good’ abstraction, but instead I have this.  Notice how none of the pronouns have antecedents.  The reader is immediately lost.  Who’s talking?  Who’s the ‘him’ in the story.  There is nothing precise in this opening.  It’s impossible to understand what the hell this even means.  Instead of disorienting the characterization, I put the disorientation in front of character.  All that’s left is a mess.

Of course, I understood what these things all meant, because I knew who was talking, what my own intentions were, and how they related to the rest of the story.  But none of this is conveyed to the reader.  Sadly, I repeated this pattern throughout.

In the Slovenia workshop, I submitted a story I drafted later in the semester.  One of the most frequent criticisms was that I didn’t go deep enough into the characters’ heads.   I’m pretty sure I began to excise my bad abstractions so much that I stopped looking towards the good ones, the ones readers and writers want to explore.

(Note:  Thanks to Gary & Doug for helping me clarify this point.)

Continue reading »

Jul 092010

The writer and his double



Shy in high school, perfect only in awareness of my imperfections, I was also too good a daughter, thus too unsure of myself, to put up much of a fight when my parents decided I should go to a girls school when col­lege time rolled around. Their reasons, echoes maybe of the way things once were done, these echoes themselves echoes of something else proba­bly not worth listening to, must have been related to the notion that a young woman needed a place of seclusion where she could develop patience, forbearance, and a sense of pro­priety before she entered the world then left it to get married, qualities that would help her wear the harness with grace.

They never said as much, of course, because silence was a South­ern quality, too, a way of preserving the purity, the ineffability of whatever it was that mat­tered in life after this whatever had been shaken by the Sixties, that dec­ade of noise, or so they must have felt, my father, who upheld morality by never doing anything wrong, who propped the sagging social structure by becoming a pillar of busi­ness, church, and family; my mother, who aggressively pursued her passive role as a mother and tacit keeper of vir­tue and all things beautiful, who did her part in the decline by wielding clubs—the bridge club, the garden club, and a cou­ple of clubs at First Pres.

I don’t know, however, what claim they had on the South, as their families didn’t go back that far or spread that wide when they came. We were middle class suburbanites like everyone else, and Dad had to scrape a bit to send my sister and me to a private school. Still, this was what I inherited and had to contend with, not an order, but its rigid outline, not a belonging, but its reflec­tion, a place in a posited universe that I only knew through the sign language of wistful sighs and stiff gestures, whose spheres resonated with the music of things that went unsaid.

But what can be said against what isn’t said? Protest would only bounce off the sheen of their beliefs. And even the usual complaints wouldn’t stick well, not by the time I was old enough to make them. They had already acquiesced to civil rights and put race behind them—amazing how easy it was for them to let it go. As for the femi­nine song and dance, it would have been hard to tell Mom she was oppressed in a home where she had the upper hand, harder yet when she left it to sell real estate, and impossible, years later, when she left Dad—none of which behavior con­tradicted her view of Southern women and marriage and motherhood, but somehow seemed to support it. So the only way I knew to rebel was be quiet myself, with silent denial against their blind acceptance, and show them fierce obedience—

Which I doubt they expected or even wanted. There was more to both of them, I know, and they did have private lives, but I didn’t see that much of these and ignored them whenever they appeared. I wouldn’t allow my parents what I couldn’t bear blossoming in me, blemishes of individuality, the signs of incompleteness. If I didn’t put up a fight, it was because I lacked the nerve. The changes, when they came, overwhelmed me without changing me into any­thing definite, much less different, so I was ready to cling to anything that would give my life a polished shape without rattling it more, even if my sheen came from wholesale rejection of something that didn’t exist. I grew up an abstraction in a world of abstractions.

And it’s as easy to think of them as reasonably happy in their lives as wretched and uptight. They were reserved, not repressed, and their silence, I suspect, was as much a way of keeping to themselves. Sometimes you have to nail down one part of your life in order to set the other parts free.

But really, they were somewhat modern people, who adapted where they had to. They never said that much of anything.

Maybe they just decided that what worked for my older sister should have been good enough for me. Marian turned out OK, or seems to have. At any rate, I doubt they gave their choice of where I should go to college much more thought beyond their fear of Chapel Hill. Here was what made me give in eas­ily: I was scared of the place, though not like my parents of getting knocked up or having happen to me any of the things unimagin­able to them that were hap­pening there, but of getting lost in the big university where everybody went.



The girls school, beyond its blank stare at the Blue Ridge Mountains, looked at nothing else, and was named after the nondescript wife of one of Vir­ginia’s statesmen—probably nondescript himself—but I never learned anything else about her because I refused to participate in the school’s hagiog­raphy. Mary was her first name—all prominent wives from the Southern past were called Mary—and Old Mary was the nickname we gave the school. With her name came the blessings of the Presbyterian religion, enshrined in a chapel that dominated the quad, a columned, stark building that had classical features but not propor­tions, which, without the steeple, could have passed for a bank. The quad itself, mod­eled, the school insisted, after Jefferson’s at UVA, only faintly imitated pater. Beyond the chapel, there were two lines of skinny brick buildings that once were dorms, in the middle, a pair of Greekish oddities, and at the other end a large space left vacant in honor of another building that burned down which, from the pictures, smacked of the plantation. Spreading from the quad, the buildings that came with the school’s growth into the twen­tieth century, newer construc­tions with poured con­crete columns which flirted with modernity and tradition without catch­ing either. Old Mary had been rav­ished by John Calvin. Yet she was what life had prepared me for, and just as much what I deserved, because I hadn’t taken any steps myself to escape the South, our past.

The new teachers at Old Mary, however, had. Veterans of the 60s, they launched a campaign on our Southern belleness that would have put Gen­eral Sherman to shame. They were blunt, grim women who expected us to take the business of being a woman seriously. In the regular classes they taught, civili­zation got axed or turned on its head, gender was restored to language, and our mysterious enclosing organ emerged the figure that contained the other fig­ures. The old burdens were replaced with heavier ones; the lightness of our fairer sex became charged with terrifying power. And even though it wasn’t required, we all felt compelled to take at least one course in their women’s studies from a fear and guilt we never knew before our mothers.

Ourselves, our bodies—who wants to be a woman when she grows up?

The old guard resisted the assault, but really followed suit by stepping their course work up, and the only confidence I had in high school but never cared about got shot to hell. I wasn’t as smart as I thought and soon was left behind. And it was hard to see what was liberating in the liberal arts. Their only pur­pose, at least in the way they were taught by all the profs, liberated or not, seemed to be to grind the world into a rigor and put us in our place. There was more to life than academics, I decided, but had nowhere else to turn, because aside from studying there was nothing else to do. Dorm life was dorm life, a tedious affair of communal grum­bling and private invasions. Allison, my roommate was everything I thought I was supposed to be, blond, soft-spoken, agreeable, and gentle—and, needless to say, absurdly pretty. I hated her, of course, but had to be careful of what I said because she was also deadly literal.

Yet at least I discovered, using her as a gauge against the others, that I, a girl among girls and only among girls, freed from the judging eyes of males, fit somewhere in the middle and thus was moderately attrac­tive—for all the good it did me there, because now I missed those stares. My hormones, quiet in high school, at Old Mary started screaming. Alli­son, however, had no trouble accommodating hers because soon she began spending weekends at Wash­ington and Lee with a guy she met there at a mixer. Never mind how easy it was to dismiss her for her naiveté or that the guy was a jerk or that it was impossible to imagine any kind of worthwhile product from the two of them together—I was insanely jeal­ous. Because if one can’t be anything in life, she might as well have some fireworks. And this was Allison’s worst offense, that Sunday night she’d return with a furtive, anxious look on her face that took her a few days to knead back into her usual pleasantness. Obviously they were hitting the sheets hard, but she wouldn’t let herself enjoy it.

Mind and body were split, and raced apart but went nowhere at a time in my life and at a place where they were supposed to come together, leaving whatever was left of me, a girl not in waiting but just waiting, lonely and depressed. Yet depressed for no good reason, because all I learned about myself at Old Mary was that I was average, and if I were honest, above average in most respects. But then this was what most made me miserable and desperate, that I had nothing to be miserable and des­perate about.

I went for long walks in the hills, which didn’t help. From clearings, a sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which really were blue and genuinely mysterious, veiled by a mist too fine to reflect my moods or suggest any secrets or larger truths. And on a clear day in fall, the violence of the colors of turned leaves could take my breath away, making me wonder if humility might not be the only recourse there was in life.

Circumstances called for art, but it was just as much a time when a young woman was in need of an older man.



Mr. French wasn’t French and didn’t even look French. In fact, what­ever his name conjured up when I first heard it, it was hard to imagine anyone fur­ther from what I had in mind. I couldn’t even tell on which side of forty he stood.

That first day, just before Thanksgiving break, leaving the dorm feel­ing exposed as much by an unseasonable coldness as the thought of what I was doing, then walking delicately over rasping leaves, as if stepping on my brittle self, then enter­ing one of those old dorms on the quad, then seeing him, waiting, stand­ing the way he stood, not as if he were between resting or moving but had taken the position he meant to have, as if standing there or anywhere were something one could do, as if once one had decided to stand, one could stand there or anywhere forever, seeing him standing, waiting at one of two old uprights squeezed into the tiny room—this building had been turned into music rooms, I had decided to take piano lessons, and Mr. French was going to be my teacher.

It was a private arrangement, almost. Mr. French was not part of the regu­lar staff but hired from outside to come in. Music lessons, for some reason economic or academic, were not part of the curriculum, and I had to pay extra for them but received no grade or credit, which suited me fine because the way Old Mary thought about things or financed them was a large part of what I was trying to flee. The fact that I was taking lessons, though, would appear on my transcript. It was hard to get completely out from under her thumb.

Music was the obvious choice. Painting presented the problem of what to do with paintings, and I could only imagine making impossibly small minia­tures I could hide in a drawer in my dorm room, yet still have to throw away before I went home. Writing meant I’d need to seclude myself some­where, stay up late, and then have to account for my absence. In both I would have to take a course, which I’d have to explain to my parents as well. I couldn’t bear the thought of Mom and Dad discovering that I was taking some kind of stand, trying to do something with myself, or having everyone at school find I wasn’t.

Because in both I’d have to create a new person—the writer, the painter—I’d then have to conceal, but I didn’t know how long I could keep that act up and my life was schizo­phrenic enough as it was. And in both I’d have to fill blank paper with some­thing from that person, a chal­lenge as frightening as it was unthinkable, as I ran the risk of being shocked by that person or having her gross me out or, just as bad, liking her too much. Or I might feel compelled to create something from the New Woman, who would only bore me and every­one else to tears.

With music, however, the notes would be there on the page and I’d only have to follow them. Much as I shared everyone’s aversion, classical music was inevitable, but what we played in the dorms wasn’t doing any­thing for me except wearing ruts in my head. More importantly, classical music wouldn’t offend anyone or seem pretentious because everyone was also unanimous in their unflappable indifference to the stuff. At worst, I’d only look a little stuck up.

The piano I reached by process of elimination. Winds and brasses required doing odd, personal things with the mouth. Strings were too prissy and too exacting—I worried I’d forever be searching for the right note, running my hand up and down delicate necks that had no frets. Too many people were playing the guitar, and what they played was too hip or too folksy. And it had to be a solo instrument, because if I was going to wither away into nothingness, I could at least do it on my own terms. But I needed some support. A piano was tall, strong, yet neutral, and could stand on its own—

Or maybe it was the piano that came first in making my decision, and music and the rest followed. Rather the memory of a piano, the baby grand that sat in my grandmother’s unused parlor in that old house in backwoods North Carolina, the piano itself neglected, scratched and badly out of tune, whose yellowed keys stuck together when you pressed them down. Maybe the mem­ory, or maybe the thought of my mother and aunts who once played it, and the idea of what they once were and had forgotten, or of what they might have been. But more than the thought of sound, a memory of the silence of the unplayed piano I knew and the way this silence transformed the parlor, the ungainly house that attempted distinction and fell short, the little run-down town where my grandfather managed to buy up half of whatever there was to own, the town and its sleepy, run-down people, and the raw fields of exhausted cotton and hale tobacco and the cinder block and cor­rugated steel factories that took their place, and the uncertain hills and stands of rough pines sur­rounding, transformed these not into some kind of Southern conception of things, if there ever was one, but into an idea the South had missed, because in its silence there were the possibilities of unplayed music, possibilities my mother and her sisters had not grasped, and which had not been grasped by those who came before or followed them in the South or anywhere else, the possi­bilities of some harmony that could bring the heart and head together, then lift and take them somewhere else—

Or maybe I thought music would somehow help me find a good man.

Neither hope, if I ever had them, chimed loudly when I first stepped into that room and saw Mr. French. He had all the features that set me on edge in a man—a long, worried face; wiry, oily hair; slender, nervous fin­gers; and a body not lean but thin, with sharp angles everywhere. Yet somehow he pulled it off, holding these irritations together in a balance, which, like the inch of ash on his perpetually lit cigarette, never fell. This poise was what I saw the first day, the last day, and all the days between. However it wouldn’t be accurate to say he never changed, but rather that he had found a way to consistently and evenly avoid a sameness.

He wasted no time in showing me what to do and how, explaining with a calm, deep voice that surprised me the need for correct posture, the way to raise my arms, bend my wrists, and curl my fingers above the keys. Next he introduced me the C major scale.

“Most think the C major scale is the easiest,” he said. “No flats or sharps, no black keys to trip over. But it’s because it’s the easiest that it’s the hardest.”

There was probably a larger point in this, but he had a way of making comments and not following them up for several weeks, or sometimes not at all.

Then he asked me to do with the piano what, for all the desperation or desire or whatever it was that brought me there, I hadn’t yet considered doing—play it. I stared at the box, the box stared back. If there were desire, then I must have realized I not only wasn’t going to find love, I wouldn’t even get a loving instrument, because its keys had turned before me into steps of towering stairs. Trembling, I started climb­ing, not quite slipping my thumbs under and swinging my hands over in synch, my right hand groping anxiously towards the higher sounds of heaven, my left following no more surely from the bass notes of hell. And once I made it to the top, I raced both hands back down, skipping a few steps on the way, then quickly withdrew them. Embar­rassed as a kid, I contemplated leaving.

Mr. French, without wincing, sat at the other piano and played the scale himself with a clear, firm articulation of each note, as if he were demonstrating the proof of a theory, or just as resolutely destroying one. Then he got up, took my hands, touching them in a way they had never been touched before and haven’t since—as if they were my hands, as if they could do something, but just as much as if it didn’t matter whether they did anything or not—and placed them back over the keys, encour­aging me to try again.

Thus touched and somewhat reassured, I did, stumbling up and down the stairs for several minutes, and while I didn’t succeed in proving any­thing, I did manage to reduce my haste and fear. But then he shocked me again by having me start on an actual piece of music, from Bartok’s Mikrokosmos.

“It means small world,” he said, referring to the title. The Mikrokos­mos was a collection of six books of short pieces that drew from a variety of influences, classical and folk, East and West, which were designed to introduce beginning pianists to the various problems they might encoun­ter in modern music—thus the small world, created from the larger. The pieces in the later books, however, though still short, could be quite com­plex and were technically demanding, music in their own right. Several, he explained, were still played in recital.

 “In my opinion it is a personal statement, a set of positions that mat­tered to Bartok.”

And probably positions that mattered to Mr. French, whoever he was, wherever they might have put him, as he said this without emotion. He was well on the way to becoming inscrutable.

His reason for using the Mikrokosmos, however, was modest, to develop the skill of sight-reading. Bartok used intervals to which most were unaccus­tomed, thus the pieces forced beginners to pay attention to what was in the score rather than what they expected to hear.

“One has to see music to play it.”

Maybe a larger point in this as well, though he said it without convic­tion, as if he were only stating the obvious. Then he drew silent, which I assumed meant I was supposed to play. I put my hands where he showed me, then looked up at the page and fell into a daze.


The first note of the first piece of the first book, titled only with the digit 1, and all I had to do was press down my right thumb and left little finger at the same time I tapped my foot to keep the beat, hold them on C for two counts, then let up and go on to the next note. Yet when should I start my foot? How does one make the leap from silence to music? And would my thumb and fin­ger come down together at the right time, with my foot, the beat? How hard was I supposed to push, how quickly release? How would I know when exactly two beats had passed, not one and seven-eighths or two and a sixteenth? What was I supposed to think about or do with my fingers while I waited? How would I be able to go from this note to the next in smooth transition without a stutter that would disrupt the tempo, possibly wreck time itself for all time? How could I fill those two per­fectly shaped, inclined ovals with the mess of my imperfections, and if I ever got inside them, would I be able to get out again?

But there wasn’t that much to it—strictly five finger stuff, again in C major, so I didn’t have to hit the black keys or move my hands from where I glued them, and only about twenty seconds of half notes strung together in even steps, a lei­surely stroll up and down a little hill, then up and down again, with two whole notes to vary the rhythm and a break of a half rest in the middle. Once I got started, it only took a few tries to find my way and work out the mechanics. Yet it still wasn’t music, so I played the piece again, this time add­ing what I thought #1 yet lacked—


Here Mr. French winced, though did so without looking at me. He sat down at the other piano again, composed himself a moment, as if in prepara­tion for a lengthy, difficult work, and played #1 with the same care and delib­eration as before. I’m sure he only intended to show to me how it was supposed to be played, but it seemed to me the only purpose of this demon­stration was to surgically remove what I had tried to put in.

Lesson over, I left the music rooms, hearing nothing. Outside, the same scraggy ivy clinging to moldy brick; the same trees stripped as wholly as before, their leaves rotting on the ground in the same varying stages of decomposition; the same chapel whose spire pointed to the same indifferent, empty sky. Everything was exactly the way it was before, but was the same with an awful precision. Contempt is just a defense mecha­nism to protect ourselves: what familiarity really breeds is despair.

It wasn’t because I realized I was faced with the prospect of another disci­pline of dubious value, which, like my studies, would require long, hard work yet only reward me, at best, with some moderation of success. Nor did I honestly expect much more from the lessons than to get a respite from the bleak routine of school. Because at heart I am a realist, or have always tried to be one and always will. But realism needs some kind of flash, some flight to set it straight. What depressed me—and I know I wasn’t vamping—was that all I did was to try to turn the sterile little piece into music, and what Mr. French played didn’t sound like music.

Yet as I walked back through the cold, my hands felt warm.



Thanksgiving, then the last week of the quarter as well as the week of my second lesson, which I limped through as dutifully as I did my classes, then exams. Then a month home for Christmas break, and all I can remember is that I couldn’t wait until I got back. Certainly not to my classes, where I did no bet­ter or worse, or to the dorm, where I got along about as well. I might have said, had I seen it coming, to the heavy snow which fell in February and stayed on the ground several weeks, covering the campus, the hills, my spirits, seemingly all spirit with infinite white, releasing with its weightless oppression a mind­less freedom. After a few days, however, my elation subsided as I realized the snow either was too much or not enough of what there might be to hope for.

It couldn’t have been to my lessons, either, where I continued to crawl through more scales, a methods book, and more of those little Bartok pieces. Or to Mr. French, who remained as impassive and remote as ever. I did, how­ever, learn to adopt his demeanor, becoming cool and detached myself. In doing so, I was able to find not a rhythm, but at least a pattern that didn’t rub, which helped get me through my classes and move the time in tolerable chunks.

I didn’t know what I couldn’t wait to get back to, even while I was doing it, those late nights in April, with spring threatening, after several months of holding back, being cool, being detached, distancing myself from the desire, if it was a desire, that had taken me to Mr. French, the les­sons, distancing myself from any hope, any desire, yet in the process creating a reservoir that was filling with that which displaced what I was holding back, and this I held back, too, which being checked, caused the reservoir to fill even more, fill with what I now saw had been in Mr. French all along, whose tank was already full and brim­ming, full not with passion but with its nameless counterpart without which passion has no edge. And seeing this in him, I still held back, thus was more filled each lesson by the quick, light, gray passes between us charged with quiet untouching, firm unwanting. Even the thought that he was both source and partner in this exchange was all the more cause to be cool, stay detached, and increase the distance from desire, from where it might go and find release, more cause to think even less about the chance that he might one day realize his involvement and respond—

Not find release, because there wasn’t tension, a bottling up of emo­tion straining to be set free, rather a flexing of some elastic mood that could not be pressed or contained, but played itself in unfelt ease. Unfelt because if felt, there wouldn’t be the ease—

Not ease, because it wasn’t easy, and again not ease, because ease still brings awareness of release, of strain—

Because I didn’t know I was doing it, even after I had been doing it for sev­eral weeks, which is why, after studying,  I could cross the campus those late nights in April and go unhurriedly, unselfconsciously to the quad, stick a key in the door of one of those little rooms, open it and find waiting—

A piano.

Maybe there were fantasies, scenes of body angles overcome by some inexorable yet intense physical geometry, images of parts exposed, joining in forceful, rapid rhythms, coming together in some improbable place—a dark, cramped practice room. Or in an undesirable place—a room in a seedy motel off campus, a seedier room in a tourist delight up in the hills. Or in some unimaginable place that only imagi­na­tion can create. But like dreams in which characters and settings shift without ever settling, these fanta­sies never found completion and I didn’t have them long. Because even now, with an imagination sufficiently cor­rupted by experience, the only scene I can suc­cessfully envision of Mr. French and me together is the one that actually occurred, of the two of us sitting in the light of day, one at each piano, going through a lesson. I can’t even remember his first name, though he insisted I use it, because I would never let him be anyone other than Mr. French, my piano teacher.

And maybe there were scenes of sitting at a piano, by myself, solo, in the single spot of light on a darkened stage before a hushed crowd waiting to be moved to unutterable appreciation for what my hands were about to pro­duce—but that was as far as those fantasies went, as I could never get them to play anything. Because it wasn’t the piano, either, since I gradu­ally came to realize what Mr. French must have seen from the outset, that as far as music was concerned, I was a lost cause.

Yet still I continued, trampling through more pieces—early English sonatinas I could never elevate to the least degree of stateliness, little Bach pieces which I gave an archness that wasn’t Baroque or Ger­man, Czerny stud­ies, those quick zippers of notes designed to develop facility and velocity that in my hands sounded like the desperate repetitive gestures of a lunatic—all of which Mr. French endured, all of which I still looked for­ward to, even though I never approached anything that might be called progress.

It would be difficult to explain the attraction to my lessons. Maybe there was relief in knowing that I was bad at something and could still keep going, or maybe in just knowing that in no unqualified terms I was bad. And it would be just as difficult to explain the change that occurred in me over the two years I took them, because I don’t think there was one, except that I grew deeply unattached to Mr. French and to the piano.

There were lessons within the lessons. He might drop one of his comments:

“The problem with Mahler is that he overextended his phrases.”

Mr. French, on music.

“Some blame Wagner for the Nazis. I blame the Nazis for the Nazis.”

His follow-up, made four or five lessons later. I wanted to believe he was Jewish, a refugee from refugees of flatulent eschatologies, the brutal nonsense these tend to shelter, but I don’t think he was.

Or, on a day I wasn’t prepared, he might play himself. Once, a Chopin Ballade he performed with a dispassion that sent shivers down my spine. Once Bartok’s “From the Diary of a Fly,” a piece in the last volume of the Mikro­kos­mos, a quick, complex, chromatic, almost atonal buzzing, which he played with a fervor that sent me into a flush.

“Woe, a cobweb—molto agitato e lamentoso!” Bartok’s gloss and tempo indication, said without mock agony.

Con gioialeggero. He escapes!” With real but measured joy.

“Bartok left Hungary when war broke out because the Aryan waltz turned his stomach,” he added when the piece was over. “But when he came over here, no one knew how to listen to him, so everyone hated his music. What’s the difference?” With regret, without resignation.

Or he might talk about his life, which was not going well. A shaky income from declining lessons, an uncertain position at a local high school where he was ignored. Not much chance, at his age, whatever it was, of starting another career.

I never learned enough about music to know how good he was, whether he was good but not quite good enough, or was good enough, but had a few bad breaks along the way that kept him from the concert halls and labels. What I do know now is that his looks weren’t smooth or catchy enough to stick on the cover of a CD.

A roof that leaked, a car on its last legs, a heart that sometimes skipped a beat. A son with leukemia. A wife and marriage that only got brief men­tion, about which, apparently, there wasn’t much more to be said.

These details he would drop matter-of-factly, without appeal for sym­pathy or pity, yet not with indifference or the coldness of stoic remove, but with the same engaged detachment that he gave to music. I sometimes wondered if he made all this up, just to put my own forced anxieties in context. Because the temptation is to say he was an angel sent to help me get my feet on the ground, or an inch above it. But the only statement I can make about Mr. French with any confidence is that as with me and my playing, as with his life, he did the best he could with what he got.

And at some point I learned I could get by without Mr. French and the piano. I became fairly serious about my studies, managing to hit the other side of B. Also I met a guy from UVA. Spring quarter of my sophomore year, I stopped practicing and missed half my lessons. Next fall I didn’t sign up and never touched the keys again.

But Bartok, but freshman year, but late at night, that chilly April, after I’d turn the key, open the door, hit the light, and see the piano waiting, after I positioned the bench and sat, already dizzy from the ethereal smells of a piano, the furniture polish outside, the shellac on felt hammers within, after I opened the lid and saw white keys and looked up and saw a black sky against the shadeless window, after I broke the silence of an oth­erwise empty room and began to practice his Mikrokos­mos—then it seemed that the world stopped spinning, or maybe that it had never started. Because after I made the stroll up and down the hills of #1, I entered a world of unexpected turns, never quite going where I thought I was going, becoming less sure of what I left behind.

Even in the next few pieces, still five fingers of easy C, the phrases did not follow predictable patterns. I’d go up where I thought I was supposed to go down, or have to linger on whole notes where I felt the urge to go on, run into rests where I could not make myself stop. Then came a syncopa­tion I couldn’t work out, then, in another piece, a sudden change in meter, a bar where Bartok put six quarter notes instead of four, as if such a shift were as natural as it was inevitable. Then the hands diverged and had to play different notes. In imita­tions that didn’t match neatly and ended in separate places. In counterpoints that joined tones which didn’t merge into a single sound but pulled apart, yet somehow belonged together in a way that questioned whether or not the har­mony which unites four bar­bers so easily was such a good idea.

In the months that followed, I made it through three of the six books, some hundred short works that pointed to other places, other times, other ways of thought, without straying from the small world of the Mikrokos­mos. Many based on Eastern European folk songs and dances, which didn’t make me want to dance or sing or wear a peasant frock, yet which didn’t preclude voice or motion and didn’t leave me naked. A pastorale that didn’t suggest the sounds of fields or shepherds, yet moved me to an unsettling peace. Some, titled with a technical phrase, approached lyrical calmness without turning me inward; others stayed this side of noise, where I began to feel at home. Medita­tions that could not be translated into words, a kind of thoughtless thinking. Pieces in Asian, Arabic modes that didn’t transport me to a mysterious East. Or in eccle­siastical modes that didn’t bring me to religion but made me want, at the same time, to assert and question belief. Even pieces in the traditional Western modes sounded different. If the major scales are happy and the minor sad, in Bartok’s work they were neither, but implied a mood not easily defined by moods, which could only exist in some indefinable region that lay between feeling and the formal ordering of his notes. And he used modes of his own invention that were enigmatic in the way they skirted both patness and super­natural levitation.

Still, I felt transported when I practiced, yet the only place the Mik­rokosmos took me was back into the Mikrokosmos, a world consistent with itself, where all the notes fit once I got used to the ways Bartok put them together. But his small world seemed large, large as much in what it posited as in what it avoided, and more solid than the real one. And around two or three in the morning I’d leave the room in whatever state is the opposite of a mystical trance though still has its focus and suspense. I would still be the same person as the one who, hours ago, went in that room to prac­tice. And I would still find the world, as I did the first day, exactly the same as it had been before. Yet it wasn’t a familiar world at all, or a world that led to despair. Because it seemed as if the real world and I had been stripped of what we had tried and could not hold, then torn apart and rebuilt, recreated into no more or less than what we were, though who or what this was—my revela­tion—was something I could never know. . . .



We keep going back and forth, Phil and I. Some months we talk about having a kid, others about getting a divorce. It’s not that we don’t care enough on the one hand, or that we do care on the other. Rather our problem is in making decisions and giving definition to our lives, but then vacillation is just another routine we picked up along the way. Lately, we’ve been leaning towards a kid, though tonight didn’t come close.

What the hell. Modern medicine says I have another five years, maybe with one of its miracles, even ten.

It is late and I cannot sleep; my husband is dead beside me. An account exec in a so-so agency, also an enlightened being who has some­thing to say about everything—who makes me miss Dad. But really, Phil’s a sweet guy. Another Southerner, another fugitive, too, who, like me, has learned that the only way to distinguish ourselves in New York is to put on the Southern shtick of gentle manners and sweet, sloppy talk. They love it here, and it’s helped open a door or two. Still, we both work too hard at jobs that don’t mean that much to us and we don’t have much to show for it, other than a hefty credit line and this bed the size of New Hampshire.

I’m in marketing, too—everything is marketing, and all God’s chillun’ got marketing. Graduation from Old Mary without honors; then the waiting list, then a place in grad school at Chapel Hill, eventually an MBA. Finally, after a run of lousy jobs, my flight north to a more so-so position than Phil’s in a more so-so agency where we’re all still reeling from our latest blunder, a rol­lerblade campaign in Yugo­slavia we launched just before the Serbs began shelling Sarajevo. Economic reform, youth, free­dom was our take, and Milosevic seemed like an OK guy.

My life has not been music.

We’ll manage to recover, however, or at least find a way to repackage our guilt. And there’s new hope, a fresh wind from the East: the boys in research say that China has gone capitalist whole hog, that it’s time to think cellular phones.

How quickly, how loudly our country lifts us in our dreams, how softly it cushions our fall and reabsorbs us.

It’s a small world.

I get up and open the blinds to find company, or at least some kind of presence. Out the window, night, city lights, and Manhattan noise. It’s a scary place to think about having a kid.

And Mozart—I hear Mozart. How is this possible?

Then I realize it’s my neighbor next door, a little Vietnamese girl who can’t be more than eight. A few weeks ago I saw her in the hall and com­plimented her on how much she had improved. She blushed, apologized, and turned away, perhaps because she thought she might be disturbing us, as well as was embarrassed to realize her practicing wasn’t private. Until this moment, she hasn’t played since.

That quiet, serious face—I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. Before I spoke to her she’d practice until late, and for the last month had been working on the same piece, playing it over and over again, hours on end with­out a break. There’s a perseverance here that borders on obsession, hers or someone else’s.

She may be the child of boat people, survivors of flimsy vessels, tropi­cal storms, looting, rape, and convictions, who encourage her to play in an attempt to hide the memory of these horrors. Then again, her family seems to do well enough—this is not a cheap building we live in—and she may as easily be the child of a pragmatist, one of those South Vietnamese generals who took the money and ran, who’s now having his daughter learn piano to dignify his corruption. Either way, music is poor dressing on the ugliness it might be try­ing to cover.

Of course it is possible neither is true, or that either circumstance, if true, has been washed out by so many years of life in the US that it no longer mat­ters. Or there may be something milder and simpler at stake, an Asian custom, that mania of losing themselves in a culture—the one before them now is ours—and doing so with a mechanical determination that misses the spirit, the point.


Besides, I’m treading on stereotypes, and her situation may be even sim­pler yet: she’s just a girl who for some reason has decided to play the piano, who, unlike me, is diligent and intends to stick it out. Whatever the case, she has taken my heart and I’ve wanted to speak again and somehow reach her—but what could I tell her, except not to make the mistakes I have made? That, and let her know there’s no salvation in perfection.

What she had been practicing all that time and is playing now is Mozart’s Sonata in C major, a.k.a. Sonata facile, a primer from another time when peo­ple sounded like they knew what they were saying. Those quick, clean runs of scales, the pedaling bass, the twittering trills, the drama of breathless departure from the tonic, the effortless return in reca­pitulation—formulas following the easeful logic of some well-oiled teleol­ogy. Lis­tening, I can see clear skies and lots of light, and hear lords and ladies holding glittering conversations as they walk on symmetrically laid paths, sauntering among the fountains, trimmed shrubs, and statues of cherubs in the garden behind the asylum for the reason­able and deranged hopeful.

Maybe I’m not being fair to Mozart.

Maybe I’m being too fair.

Back out the window. It is possible to imagine that the build­ings’ lights are stars and see in their clusters constellations, figures of beings from up on high who watch over us and every now and then toss down a word. Then again, it is possible to imagine anything—a Christmas tree, a base­ball score, a liquor bottle—and these are things we have done and I have seen. All it takes is flick­ing some switches.

Between the lights and me, the sounds of the random play of ecstasy, our working out all the possible per­mutations of money, sex, and violence.

There’s no end to the things we can create.

There’s no end to the things we can destroy with our creations.

Yet which way does irony fall? Is it the street noise that mocks the Mozart, or is Mozart the hoax the streets bought into, their noise abortive attempts to figure out how to play him?

But still she persists with that sonata. What I want to believe is that what I wish to hear is what I actually do hear, that she is playing the piece with deli­cacy and grace. There can’t be any harm in getting a few notes right. At any rate, it’s a relief to hear her practicing again.

Also, the slow movement is beautiful.

It’s a scary place to think about having a kid, but I suppose she should have a shot.

Now the urge to wake this slumbering brute and see if I can jumpstart him. Instead, however, I will stay up listening to Mozart. When she stops, maybe a tranquil sleepless night, to myself. It’s been a while..

—Gary Garvin


Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his short stories have also appeared in the minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.