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Monday, September 14, 2009

Letter from Tehran

I like the active solidity of this opening passage—though I wonder if the author may have an even better card to play. “The letter came on a Friday.” But by stating emotions outright before readers have any reason to feel them, the last sentence undermines the effect, and that “fearful submission imprisoning my brain” feels forced, awkward, and sentimental; the emotional content feels unearned. To simply say, “I feel as if I never left Iran” is probably ominous enough without forcing more sentiment that the situation—so far—can support.

With no indication of setting in the first paragraph, the second paragraph comes as a disorienting surprise. We are standing in the middle of a road—and have been, presumably, from the novel’s first sentence. And since we are outdoors, there must be weather. It is a certain time of day. Morning? Foggy? Dark? Cold? A blistering sunny summer day? Not a clue. Yet the weather is there; it exists. How can it not be a part of this character’s experience?

With the sentence, “How dare they write to me after all these years when nothing in that world can matter to me again, when I have found peace far away from them?” emotions race ahead of action/experience. Let actions speak; rather than state broad emotional responses, provide context. Who is “they”? Writing after how much time? Provide context, and we will fill in the emotional response. Part of that same context is expressed by: “my weekly drive down to Wintun Hills to cash my pension check, to buy groceries and flowers for the cemetery. “Establish this as context, the routine shattered by the event of receiving this letter. Here, no routine is established. I said elsewhere that most attempts to dramatize routine in fiction are doomed. But you can write a dramatic scene where an event takes place that undermines routine. In fact that is the essence of drama: shattered status-quo.

Here, in the paragraph following the letter, I begin to suspect that the letter reading scene is a framing device for what has led up to this moment, that the real story will take us back to those events that precipitated this scene. Given that suspicion, it occurs to me that the letter here serves perfectly in and by itself as prologue: the important thing here is what the letters says, its contents, and not the sentimentally stated or even the implied response or the scene that goes with it. Instead, why not just give us the letter—we can imagine that it has been received, opened, and read. Then, next chapter: “I once read that a person can escape reality but not memory. And it is true....”

Then go on to tell of those events precipitated by the letter.

The letter is not only the heart of this scene; it is the scene. The rest can be cut.

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