Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mean December Wind

The opening sentence of this first page puts us in capable hands:

"They came to us with the mean December wind, three cars in all." The cunning juxtaposition of a personified wind (picture a cartoon character with furrowed brow, puffy ruddy cheeks, quivering jowls) with those three matter-of-fact cars, is unsettling, as it's meant to be. It thrusts us into the psyche of the narrator, a child whose home on Christmas Eve receives an uninvited visitor—not by Santa with his brimming sleigh of gifts, but the grim reaper who comes for his mother.

Several things account for the effectiveness of this opening. For one, it appeals immediately and thoroughly to the senses. First, we have that "mean" wind; we don't need to be told that it's cold, or harsh, that it lashes cheeks and draws tears. Next, we are treated to the ominous rumbles of those approaching cars, "their exhausts reverberating off mounds of snow, then the moaning of their engines." Note the choice of words: "muffled rumble," "moaning"—sounds that connote the mother's dying breaths and moans of agony during her death throes. Drawn by the "moaning" of those engines, the narrator rushes into the living room where he "[pulls] the drapery back." I can feel those heavy drapes parting under the influence of small hands as the boy "[presses his] nose to the pane." What the narrator sees through that icy pane is no longer the benign world known to him the day before, but a world transformed by death.

According to the boy's father, the cars hold "relatives coming to pay their respects." And though the boy may not say so, or even know it, we feel that for him those three cars with their ominous rumblings stand for death itself.

Is it a stretch to assume that the breath with which he fogs the glass is as fleeting as the oval of fog itself? And that the dust he tastes on his lips is the dust from which we're all born, and to which death will return us all—and sooner than any of us care to think? I think not.

The narrative's retrospective approach is likewise well-handled. The story is set in the now fairly distant past—1956—long before many if not most of today's readers were born. And yet it opens with a sensual immediacy that brings the past into the present, that makes it as real to us as our own breaths and sensations. By the time we learn that "It was the day after Christmas, 1956," we are already there, inhabiting that past as though it were ours.

And that's crucial, since, whether or nor we admit it, ultimately the only stories that matter are those we inhabit personally, not just with our minds, but with our senses. The fiction writer's job (or that of any storyteller, where the stories are real or imagined) isn't to report experience, but to create it. And experience is processed in the mind by way of the senses.

Here, the author skillfully tucks exposition into narrative: "Watching the cars approach I wondered . . ." Though background information if supplied ("It was the day after Christmas, 1956 . . ."), we are never once lifted out of the scene, out of the psyche of the boy whose nose is pressed to the cold window as he peers out at those arriving cars. Like a sponge, the vividly rendered moment soaks up all background exposition introduced into it. We are never once removed from the scene, or from the psyche of the boy whose experience we share.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tanks & Miracles

Displaced by the Soviet Union's invasion of 1968, a young man and his Czech family relocate to Canada, to fulfill "the promise of yet another new life" there. That's one way to sum up the material in this first page of what I assume is a memoir.

But slipping out from under the treads of Soviet tanks is only one of many "miracles" that the narrator has either witnessed or benefited from directly in his life. I put "miracles" in quotation marks, since here they are conflated with other things, with magic and with prayers, and hence the term's meaning is broadened to include everything from surviving an invasion by some 2000 Warsaw pact tanks, to the "miracles" of marriage, childbirth, and "cranky old men seeing their tumors disappear overnight."

This expansive definition of miracles makes for a good attitude toward life (though the cynic in me can't resist wondering what prayers are answered by the existence of tanks and tumors in the first place). Whether it makes for a good memoir opening is doubtful.

Clearly, the narrator has a story to tell. Indeed, he seems to have a grab-bag of stories, surviving Brezhnev's tanks being one of many. He has also survived another displacement, that of his father (whom his mother "sent packing") by her "new man, the Doctor Professor." This domestic restructuring happened eight months before those Soviet tanks rumbled into town, causing the already unstable ground under the narrator's feet to tremble that much harder. From Bratislava he and his family escaped to Vienna, and from there to Toronto—on a plane which, we're told, "did not crash"—in itself, according to the narrator, another miracle.

In selecting "miracles" as his theme, and then defining them so loosely, the author casts such a wide net over his material that it's hard to say what, exactly, this memoir is about, other than the narrator's very eventful life in general—which, however eventful, isn't a fit subject for a memoir, but instead launches this project into the territory of autobiography. Not a good thing.

While an autobiography is essentially a first-person account of someone's life, a memoir has a thematic focus to which the memoirist's history s subordinated. The key to a good memoir, as someone once told me, is that it's not about the memoirist, but about something that the memoirist has experienced first hand—an ordeal or challenge (Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Swimming to Antarctica, by Lynn Cox), or a relationship (Tobias' Wolff's This Boy's Life, Jeanette Wall's The Glass Castle), or life in a particular time and place (Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, This House of Sky, Ivan Doig), or a revolution (Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-Li Jiang), or a spiritual crisis or journey (Practicing Resurrection, by Nora Gallagher, Dan Barker's Godless).

Unless you're already a public figure, or known for some other reason, it's questionable whether anyone will want to read your life story; anyway they would need a reason to read it. The memoir form supplies that reason by treating the author's biography as the well from which a particular story is drawn, and not asking readers to drink the whole well dry.

Here, with this first page, the author suggests many intriguing tales, but unless he draws his thematic net tighter and narrows his focus, he'll drown himself— and his readers— in autobiography. Which would be a shame, since not only does this author obviously have a story to tell, he has estimable gifts of language and voice with which to tell it:
Our father had been laughter, but mainly absence. The stepfather was rules and rigidity. The new regime together was marked by clenched teeth on all our parts. My mother was, I think, happier than she had been, but not when all four of us were together; then she was tears and apologies.
This is good writing. It only needs to serve an equally good purpose, and that purpose should be not to illuminate a whole life, but a particular experience—in this case, I think, how the "miracle" of survival, while it holds out the promise of "yet another life," also subjects its benefactors to further, and sometimes even greater, perils.

As for which portion of his eventful life best illuminates that theme, the author must decide, and cast the rest of his life into the background where it belongs.

Friday, November 12, 2010

An Arrow into the Heart of a Story

Ideally, the first words of a work of fiction should point like an arrow to the heart of the story—not, necessarily, to the middle or the climax, but to any point within the story, including the very beginning, otherwise known as the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is what propels a character or characters out of their status quo routine and into that terrible thing that all writers must sooner or later grapple with: a plot. But to qualify as a plot, events needn't be sensational, or even all that dramatic: they simply need to be out of the ordinary; to depart from routine. Otherwise, no circumstances exist by which to put that routine into perspective so it can be properly appreciated. The characters and circumstances merely exist; they lie inert on the page.

Which is pretty much what happens here in this otherwise very nicely written first page. Roused from her early morning sleep by the sound of a hammer striking wood ("thunk, thunk, thunk"), the narrator walks into the bedroom of her forty-eight year old brother. But as we discover via a very lovingly rendered description, this is no ordinary forty-eight year old:
. . . he sits on the floor, cross-legged, with his back to the door. Above his ears that protrude a little too prominently from his head, his short brown hair is sticking up in several places. Not a gray hair in sight for him.Sometimes when I see my brother’s innocent joy, it is easy to forget that he’s a forty-eight year-old man. A two by four board is across his legs. His right hand grips the top of the hammer to gain more control.He only moves the lower part of his arm as he taps on the wood. Yes, he is trying to be quiet for my sake.
By way of this careful, sensitive description, the author avoids stating what soon becomes obvious to the reader: that the brother is mentally handicapped. This judicious description, which broadens to include the brother's room, takes up the rest of the first page, and never ceases to be wisely and carefully observed, down to the structure the brother has assembled from his Lincoln Logs, "shaped like a square, missing the bottom rung on one side, so it leans to the right."

The trouble with all this carefully wrought description is that it lacks that crucial arrow. What it says essentially is "I have a retarded brother." Note the passive verb. What it doesn't say is "Something happened" or better still: "Something is going to happen." The thing "happening" here is, or seems to be, a meticulously described routine: the brother playing with his hammer and nails. In a word, this opening is static.

Here is what I would ask the author: what is the inciting incident, the event that propels these characters out of their routine? At what point in the story, as written, are the words "One day," or their equivalent, stated or implied? Begin there, and let the status quo emerge in the context of extraordinary events so it won't be static, so it has something to play against.

Routine cannot be dramatized.
It is antithetical to drama. And that's true even if the routine is unusual or exotic, like having a mentally handicapped brother, or disarming land mines, or carrying water for elephants in a circus.

An exercise to help writers discover whether they are writing routine: see if the words "as usual," "normally," or "always" can be inserted in the prose. If so, the answer is yes.

A Self-Conscious Queen

In the dressing room of the "Lipstick Lounge," the Lady Javana "straighten[s] her wig" and "dab[s] lipstick from her teeth." Lady Javana, we're informed, is neither a man nor a woman, nor "a boy in a dress" nor "a female impersonator" ("what female wears glitter on her eyelids, pink beehives and six-inch heels?"—Quite a few do, as a matter of fact, but never mind).

No, in her own overdetermined estimation, Lady Javana is a queen. I've italicized the word since the author goes to such great lengths to emphasize it.

Which points to what I feel is wrong with this opening. Rather than present us with a character, instead the bulk of this first page is taken up with a series of terms and metaphors by which Javana either identifies his/her self, or that he/she refutes. What starts out promisingly as an evocative, concrete scene ("She had to plaster down those eyebrows with the glue stick, beat her face with the powder, chisel new features . . . with foundation and blush") in which the particular (drag queen putting on makeup) stands for the general, breaks down into an exercise in denotation, such that, by the end of the page, what we've read feels more like a jacket blurb than a scene.

It's a shame, since the writing is strong:
Lady Javana—who spent most of her days as Joseph Ryan Gainer, library assistant—hated the tired metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly, but could not dispute its relevance. Because the holometabolism of the butterfly was a complex transition. It was sticky, confusing and savage.
As prose this can't be faulted, but the issue here isn't so much whether or not the metaphor of the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly aptly conveys the experience of a drag queen. The metaphor may or may not be apt; but the harping on it here conveys a self-consciousness that would seem to apply more to the author's fascination with his subject than to the character in question. Though hatched from its "self-mutilating" chrysalis, this butterfly never takes flight: like a lepidopterist's specimen, it's been pinned to the page and pasted with labels.

Butterflies don't go around self-consciously inventorying their butterfly-ness. Nor do readers of fiction especially want labels, and if they do want them they prefer their own. Nor do readers want judgments imposed by the author on a character or by characters on themselves. What readers want is experience evoked concretely through action, dialogue, or through a character's internal responses to particular events, challenges and situations—illuminated, perhaps, by a sympathetic or worldly narrator, and possibly by the character's own reflections, but not sewn up and boiled down into shrunken headed judgments and epithets.

Here, the only behavior exhibited aside from the application of lipstick and eye-glitter is the character's self-conscious pursuit of a label for him/herself. Even accepting that this pursuit is real—that is, belonging to the character and not to an author overly fixated on the presumed novelty of his subject—still, it's hard to imagine such self-conscious soul-searching taking place, as suggested here, on a regular basis for any duration. Surely this queen doesn't spend his/her days (or nights) mulling over what to call himself? If so, one wants to say to him/her, "Get over it, already." Perhaps folded somewhere into the meat of the story such reflections wouldn't be so out-of-place. But as an opening gambit they misfire.

What's sacrificed here for the sake of a story about someone "being a queen," is a better story about a man—a librarian—who just happens to be one.

Drive-by Girl

A woman fresh out of a mixed-bag relationship is harassed by the specter of her ex-lover as she goes about her routine chores.

This opening scene finds Dana taking the long way to her supermarket to avoid the school where Jerry teaches, and where he's known to remain long after the last bell on behalf of his students, "correcting papers, offering extra help, and throwing baskets in the gym." One gets the feeling that Jerry's solicitous nature did not extend to his relationship with Dana—a suspicion confirmed later at the Stop & Shop deli counter, where Jerry's ghost berates her for buying mashed potatoes to go with her rotisserie chicken.

The technique employed here is interior monologue, also sometimes referred to as stream-of-consciousness after the term coined by psychologist William James. But while the stream-of-consciousness technique tends to encompass narratives as a whole (such that descriptions, setting, dialogue, and actions are all conveyed, as it were, by the flowing stream), interior monologue functions as a distinct device within a traditional narrative—as in the given scene, where Dana's thoughts enhance the narrative, but don't subsume it.

Compare with this passage from the most famous stream-of-conscious narrative of them all:
... Mulveys was the first when I was in bed that morning and Mrs Rubio brought it in with the coffee she stood there standing when I asked her to hand me and I pointing at them I couldnt think of the word a hairpin to open it with ah horquilla disobliging old thing and it staring her in the face with her switch of false hair on her and vain about her appearance ugly as she was near 80 or a loo her face a mass of wrinkles with all her religion domineering because she never could get over the Atlantic fleet coming in half the ships of the world and the Union Jack flying with all her carabineros because 4 drunken English sailors took all the rock from them and because I didnt run into mass often enough in Santa Maria to please her with her shawl up on her except when there was a marriage on with all her miracles of the saints and her black blessed virgin with the silver dress ...
With this sort of stream-of-consciousness, the author relinquishes—or appears to relinquish— control of the narrative to the mind of his protagonist. In fact that "loss of control" is entirely and cunningly contrived to give the appearance of spontaneity and randomness, much as the drips and spatters on a Jackson Pollack appear to be random and spontaneous (they aren't).

With interior monologue the author never quite lets go of the reins. In the given example the narrator (as distinct from the protagonist) remains behind the wheel, as it were, telling us, between forays into his character's thoughts, how, having choked back the bile inspired by a vision of Jerry shooting hoop with his charges, Dana "took a left and another left, heading toward the Stop and Shop." The narrator goes on to explain that in shopping Dana "is all business, plucking apples, bananas, strawberries, and raspberries—expensive, but she deserved them." Note how with that "but she deserved it" we are dunked, however briefly, into the protagonist's subjective stream, back into her interior monologue. That she plucks apples and strawberries is an objective fact; that she deserves them is purely her subjective opinion, a taste of interior monologue.

This subtle mixture of objective authorial narration and a character's subjective perspective goes by its own names. Called close third person by some and free indirect style by others, it lets narrators move seamlessly between objective reporting ("Dana wheeled her cart over to the deli counter") and a character's thoughts ("Oh, mashed potatoes."), to where at times one can barely distinguish the two ("she planned to enjoy these mashed potatoes").

The virtue of this technique (aside from dispensing with all the "she thought"s and "it struck her that"s), is that it flavors the whole narrative with a character's feelings—as a sliced onion, left next to the butter in the refrigerator, flavors the butter with onion. Yet unlike the aggressive stream-of-consciousness technique, it gives authors full control over the degree of objectivity.

In this opening the free direct style is well-employed, though one might quibble that if Dana's brain is indeed "working overtime" to avoid picturing Jerry in his classroom, that hard work hasn't paid off well, as we are treated to the very images she's intent on avoiding. Better perhaps to have her inadvertently drive by the school, having neglected to take an alternative route, and thus the image of Jerry gyrating on the basketball court with his charges will be both better motivated and inadvertent.

It seems to me, too, that if indeed Dana is haunted by Jerry, better use might be made of his specter, who ought to be right there in the driver's seat beside her, telling her to change lanes and use the turning signal and that she almost cut that curb. The supermarket scene likewise feels stingy. Why not have Jerry's take on more than mashed potatoes? Why not see him micro-managing Dana's shopping list? Though he may not be there physically, Jerry is a character in this scene—or should be. Under the influence of Jerry's ghost she might hesitate to drop that quart of mashed potatoes into her cart—and then defy him. Surely that beats telling us that this is what Dana would not have done in the past.

However skillfully or seamlessly rendered, a character's inner thoughts are no substitute for actions.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Substance Abuser's Wife

In choosing her subject, it's not a bad idea for the memoirist to imagine that many others in her audience have undergone the same or a similar experience, and to write with that in mind. Any assumption to the contrary may prove fatal.

Here, the subject is living with a substance abuser, and the substance is cocaine. Assuming no shortage of coke addicts in the world, one may also assume a proximate number of used and abused significant others to go with them. The theme, in other words, is familiar, so much so that there are even organizations like Al-alon and Cocaine Anonymous devoted to it. True, not all spouses, lovers, and other co-victims of substance abuse have written or intend to write their memoirs. But for better or worse more than a few of them have, or will.

And there've been very good books about drug abuse, both from the point of view of the abuser, and from that of someone emotionally attached to him or her. Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book plunges us into the mind—and even the philosophy—or a heroin junkie living on a gravel scow in New York harbor. Presented to us as a novel in the form of a journal, it begins:
My scow is tied up in the canal at Flushing, N.Y., alongside the landing stage of the Mac Asphalt and Construction Corporation. It is now just after five in the afternoon. Today at this time it is still afternoon, and the sun, striking the cinderblocks of the main building of the works, has turned them pink. The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted.

Half an hour ago I gave myself a fix.
Turning from heroin to its older cousin, opium, there have been memoirs going all the way back to De Quincy, whose Confessions of an English Opium Eater is the first and most famous. Novel with Cocaine, set in Moscow on the eve of the Russian revolution, does for that time and place about what Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City did for Manhattan and cocaine in the late 1980's. As for narratives about or by people living with abusive family members, there's been no shortage of those, either. Jeanette Wall's Glass Castle is a recent example. In it she chronicles (among many other things) growing up with an eccentric mother and alcoholic father. It opens:
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.
Right from the start each of the books I've quoted offers to us something above or beyond substance abuse or its direct or collateral consequences. Trocchi gives us the atmosphere of the New York waterfront, with its deserted motor cranes and sun-spackled cinderblocks, while Wall juxtaposes, to heartbreaking effect, party-going yuppie with dumpster-diving Mom.

Which leads to the next good question for the memoirist to ask herself: What can I bring to my familiar subject that no one has brought to it before? How will it be different not only in its particulars, but essentially—substantially, stylistically, and/or structurally, so that readers won't have read anything quite like it?

The first page under discussion here calls no attention to its style, nor does it break any formal ground. And yet by means of her italicized opening paragraph the author does answer, or tries to, the question: what can I bring to my familiar subject that no one has brought to it before? She does so by front-loading her story with a nod to the recent Bosnian war where, we are told, she met her future, coke-snorting husband. Like many an italicized opening, this one is meant to grab our attention, and does. But it's the war in Sarajevo that grabs it, not the husband, or cocaine abuse, and the scene in Roman type that follows it (and that is itself a teaser—the author plunging us in media res into the ostensible heart of her story), comes as a let-down. We start with a Balkan war, and end up—or rather begin again—sitting on a stateside toilet rifling a man's wallet, one that, incidentally, has nothing special in or about it.

In other respects the italicized first paragraph is distracting. For one thing it lacks focus, wanting at once to be "in a war zone" in Sarajevo and in a "pretty Connecticut suburb"; to be married and divorced; to plunge us into a dark past but also to revel in the "precious peace" of the present tense. The author wants it all ways, in few words. Or she's not sure what she wants. Nor is the reader.

Like the italicized paragraph preceding it, the scene, though quite well written beyond the first stuttering paragraph, is a red herring. So we return again to the thorny question: what does this memoir really have to offer? What will it be about other than living with a drug addict? Because just as most of us are better off not having to live with drug addicts, we can also live without more memoirs about doing—or having done—so.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Memoir, or Autobiography?

Ask four people the difference between a memoir and an autobiography and odds are you'll get four different answers. For Gore Vidal a memoir is "how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history." Will Rogers put it this way, "Memoir means when you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad ones you did do." Ian Jack, writing in the Guardian, boils the difference down to that between telling (autobiography) and showing (memoir).

Nor do dictionaries shed much light on the matter. According to the Oxford English, an autobiography is "the writing of one's own history; the story of one's life written by himself," while a memoir is "a person's written account of incidents in his own life, the persons whom he has known, and the transactions or movements in which he has been concerned; an autobiographical record."

For me the difference is mainly one of audience and intention. Autobiographies are penned by the famous or infamous for an audience interested to hear their life stories; memoirs are written by the relatively obscure or by those who have merely brushed up against fame, with the intent of treating a specific broader theme or issue with which the author is intimately and by personal experience acquainted, but which is not purely personal.

Which is a long way of saying that a memoir is about something other than the life of its author. If you're Dolly Parton or Bono, you write your autobiography. If you're somebody like me, and feel so inclined, you write a memoir.

Memoirist Nora Gallagher sums up more succinctly still the secret to writing good memoirs. "It's not about you." When, in Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy writes about losing half her jaw to cancer and the ramifications of being permanently disfigured, she's not merely talking of her own personal ordeal; she speaks to any and all of us who've ever been self-conscious of our looks or suffered rejection or endured physical torment and pain, or who've been torn between who we are, and what we wish to be—in her case, someone with a whole face and not one torn in two by cancer. Singularly horrible though her experience may be, still, there's much in it that we can all relate to. And it's the relatable part that is her book's true and worthy subject.

The first page here is from the memoir of a pilot. The most famous example of the genre (if it can be called that) is Wind, Sand, and Stars, by Saint-Exupery. Here is how Saint-Exupery opens his memoir:
In 1926 I was enrolled as a student airline pilot by the Lactécoère Company, the predecessors of Aéropostale (now Air France) in the operation of the line between Toulouse, in southwestern France, and Dakar, in French West Africa. I was learning the craft, undergoing an apprenticeship served by all young pilots before they were allowed to carry the mails. We took ships up on trial spins, made meek little hops between Toulouse and Perpignan, and had dreary lessons in meteorology in the freezing hangar. We lived in fear of the mountains of Spain, over which we had yet to fly, and in awe of our elders.
Note how quickly the focus here switches from the narrator to his fellow pilots in the aggregate ("It's not about you."). From this opening paragraph on Saint-Exupery's book will of course be about him, but it will mostly be about pilots, flying, the mail service, the poetry of land as seen from the air . . .

By contrast, judging by its opening paragraph, the memoir being considered here, though quite well-written, is strictly personal. And that's the problem. The author has put his best foot forward, so he thinks, and its an autobiographical foot. It begs the question: what's in it for the reader? Why should a perfect stranger care that so-and-so was offered a job at TWA—a company that doesn't even exist anymore? How relatable is that?

From there the narrator treats us to the intricacies of the probationary period —but this, too, is treated not historically, or even nostalgically (by way of saying how things were different back then), but personally: this is what happened in my case, to me, at my airline. Fascinating? Yes, assuming that the reader has a personal reason to be fascinated—if she happens to have known the author, for instance. Otherwise, in spite of the good prose, I'm afraid this won't fly.

But solutions may be at hand. One might be to follow Saint-Exupery's example and switch the focus to the aggregate over the individual, to make this a memoir about flying for the airlines back then—not one man's story, but the story of an industry in its relatively glamorous days.

Dead Baby Stories

In his famous introduction to "The Nigger of the Narcissus," Joseph Conrad describes his task as a fiction writer thus: ". . . to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, above all, to make you see." He might have added to make you sweat, as this opening does in more ways than one.

Fiction writers, our job isn't to teach or preach morality, decipher cryptic codes, deliver good or bad news by way of spiritual bromides or doomsday messages, or to explain the meaning of life. It isn't even to "tell" stories. It's to render experience, not to explain what happened to Goldilocks when she awoke to the three bears, but to put us in her shoes and let us see (hear, feel) for ourselves.

We harvest experience through the senses: sight, taste, sound, feeling, smell. Add the subjective organ of imagination and the rationalizing intellect, and you've got the deluxe suite of sensory equipment. This opening scene, where a young husband and wife argue over whether or not to engage a yard worker, appeals aggressively to an array of senses.

While the first, single-line paragraph rather coyly telegraphs events to come, the second embeds us firmly in a muggy summer day “with the air so sodden that, even before noon . . . perspiration had pooled itchily at the elastic of my boxer shorts.” File this under Too Much Information, if you like, but it’s information that gets us where we live, namely in our skins, making us want to wiggle out from under our own moist undergarments, or anyway inviting us to squirm a bit at the thought of moisture accumulating there. It’s disgusting—and meant to be. This discomfort is all in keeping with a scene that has the narrator cringing—not only under the influence of sweaty underwear, but at the wrong end of a discourse on lawn maintenance that has evolved into a referendum on his masculinity.

More senses are stroked in rapid succession: the "balding patch" of a lawn, the "dry words" of a question, the yardman's truck blasting "weird staccato rhythms," its "tangy, fretless bass thump[ing] off the sides of trees and the singer's high-pitched yowl flutter[ing] up in the tall branches." The only senses left wanting here are taste and smell, but that's okay: one doesn't write fiction by the numbers.

There's also something intrinsically frightening about a scene that with its first sentence invokes dead babies only to present us soon thereafter with a couple whose own one-year old lies dozing nearby in her stroller. If this isn't ominous, it should be. Dead baby stories are the one thing the parents of an infant daughter certainly don't want to hear. Not only does the yard worker (whose impending arrival casts a shadow over the scene like Hickey's in "The Iceman Cometh") bring tales of infant death in the bed of his pickup truck; he nearly brings the genuine article by almost running over the baby carriage.

It's too bad this is written in first person; it loses some of the edge it would otherwise have. By his mere comic presence he baffoonish narrator assures us nothing truly tragic will follow. Were this in third person, the gain in terror would more than make up for any sacrificed humor.

That said, one remains reluctant to discover just how central the "dead baby" trope is to what's coming, and more afraid still to discover that it may turn out to be more than a trope. Which, of course, is what will keep us readers, born rubberneckers that we are, reading.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Up in a Tree

From up in a dogwood tree a young girl watches her mother weed a garden, while down on the ground below her less tree-worthy friend Peggy watches. This opening scene from a story evoking a young girl's world, with its grudgingly shared awarenesses and insights ("I sighed, because how to climb a tree was so simple—you just did it—but I knew I would have to show her how, again.") puts me in mind of Dan Pope's delightful 2003 novel, In the Cherry Tree—and not just because of the tree, but because that book, too, does a beautiful job of rendering childhood on the verge of adolescence.

Pope's novel opens thus:
Summer days began without a plan. You got up. You had a bowl of cereal. You went outside. A lawn mower hummed. Ducks passed overhead in perfect V formation like World War Two bombers. A dog barked, and another dog barked back. Somebody was hammering nails into a roof. Somebody was bouncing a basketball three streets away. You heard the echo, not the sound itself. A cat crept across the grass an disappeared beneath a hedge. It was hot. The sun was strong. The crickets made a seething noise. A sprinkler came on and made a quiet rain sound when the water hit the grass and then a louder rain sound when the water hit the street.
The effectiveness of Pope's rendering is achieved in large part through a style that leans heavily on blunt declarative sentences ("You got up") that echo the thudding rhythms of a grade school primer ("See Jane run"). Through such artless sentences his fictional world—one readers of post-Baby Boomer vintage will recognize immediately—declares itself to us with the stark immediacy of a series of street signs: "Caution: Children at Play." No time for fancy wordplay or syntactical pyrotechnics here, only what is—or was: a world experienced almost exclusively through the senses by characters who, because they are still largely children, are natural sensualists.

Less brilliantly, the given opening page achieves a like effect. The writing, though not as stylistically pointed or original, is assured; there are few wasted words, and the sentence offer syntactical variety without self-conscious effort. ("Landing was almost as good as climbing a different kind of scary.") One can quibble that the verb "to be" is overused—and not, as Dan Brown overuses it, intentionally for its plodding, blunt-instrument rhythms, but simply through oversight. But that's a nit-pick.

I do question opening with a snatch of disembodied dialogue, a tactic that I almost always find disagreeable, as it intends by way of withholding context to catch readers by surprise and momentarily disorient them, and it does. But to what end? I have no idea who is speaking, nor does the first paragraph answer the question. I must read on to the next paragraph to even discover the presence of another character, and beyond that to discover who has spoken. Would it not be as good or better to say up front, "From down on the ground Peggy shouted up to me, 'Do you like your mom?'"?

The question is important, as it points to what appears to lie at the heart of this opening and very probably of the story itself: a question of mothers and their relationships to their daughters, and specifically of the tree-climbing narrator's relationship with her mom. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that the story opens with the protagonist having gained the perspective offered by height. I'm reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne's brilliant sketch, "Sights from a Steeple," which begins, "So! I have climbed high, and my reward is small." Being high up off the ground may give us perspective, but it also cuts us off, alienates us, turns us into lonesome gods.

The question lights up this otherwise nicely rendered but rudimentary scene with implications that all may not be sunshine and dogwood pedals on Covewood Drive: that there are issues here that this story intends to unearth. I would keep reading.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

That First Glimpse

If plot is the backbone of fiction, that which gives fiction its structure and movement, then scenes are plot's vertebrae. A concatenation of causally related scenes add up to a plot. But beyond their technical function, scenes are what we're most likely to remember about a work of fiction; at the very least, they are what we're most likely to discuss with others. Remember that scene in (fill in title) where (fill in event) happens?

Think of a particular novel or story and what you remember most about it, and odds are you'll remember a scene. I'm thinking of Catch-22, of the scene where Yossarian rips open wounded Snowden's flak vest and the "secret" he's been keeping spills out of him in the form of a heap of shredded intestines. Or the scene in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion where Hank Stamper tries to save his lumberjack brother from drowning by breathing air into his mouth under water. Or the scene in Anna Karenina where Vronsky rips his shirt open.

Of all the scenes in fiction, none play a more crucial role than "First Glimpse" scenes—scenes were key characters see each other for the very first time. Here, too, examples spring to mind, like this one of Ishmael's first glimpse of Ahab:
He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has over-runningly wasted all of the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness . . . His bone-leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship's ever pitching prow.
Another first glimpse, this one from Zorba the Greek:
. . . the stranger opened the door [of the cafe] with a determined thrust of his arm. He passed between the tables with a rapid, springy step, and stopped in front of me.

"Traveling?" he asked. "Where to? Trusting to providence?"

"I’m making for Crete. Why do you ask?"

"Taking me with you?"

I looked at him carefully. He had hollow cheeks, a strong jaw, prominent cheekbones, curly gray hair, bright, piercing eyes.

"Why? What should I do with you?

He shrugged his shoulders. "Why! Why!" he exclaimed with disdain."Can’t a man do anything without a why? Just like that, because he wants to? Well, take me, shall we say, as a cook. I can make soups you’ve never heard or thought of. . ."
And another—from Elizabeth Smart's novel (extended prose poem?) By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, where the first glimpse is of the wife of the man with whom the narrator is hopelessly in love as she de-boards a bus:

But then it is her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers to reassure me that the bus has not disgorged disaster: her madonna eyes, soft as the newly-born, trusted as the untempted.
The first glimpse scene offered by this author's first page presents us with Ewan, a fellow student at the narrator's university "in a small town in Illinois." About Ewan by the end of this first page we know very little; that he is a fellow student we can only assume, since we're not told as much; in fact we're hardly told anything. We don't know what he looks like, or how he walks, or—when he speaks—how he speaks. We're told that he's a "guy"—something we can surmise from his name, and that at some point he will "latch on" to the narrator: but that point exists in the future, and has no bearing here.

If Ewan emerges as a character it's through his dialogue. "Are you for or against Pro-Choice, Lilli?" he asks the narrator one afternoon as she sits at the counter of her favorite coffee shop. If these aren't Ewan's first words to her, they're close to being so; anyway they successfully evoke a man who, to put it nicely, has little patience for decorum. Those less generous would call him tactless.

If only we could see Ewan as clearly as we hear him, the way we see Zorba strut into that cafe. Since Ewan's words are what characterize him, my inclination would be to lead off with his in your face inquiry, and take it from there.

As for the first paragraph, I'd cut it. It indulges the author with a gratuitous wish that her novel were a movie—and not just any movie, but one directed by Gus van Sant. But this fantasy gives nothing to readers: in fact it discourages them. Not only is the wish doomed; it's the wrong wish to hold out to lovers of fiction. If the novelist is really so intent on Gus van Sant and Matt Dillon, she should be writing a screenplay.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Curfew

There's a reason why few stories—and even fewer novels—are written using the second person point of view. It tires readers out. It says to them, in effect: here, you step into the protagonist's shoes; you play the role; you do what he/she does. Depending on who the character is, and what befalls them, readers may or may not want to play along. Even assuming that they're game, they may not be willing to play for hundreds of pages.

Which isn't to say that second person doesn't have its place. It's been used to great effect, more often in short stories, most notoriously by Loorie Moore in what may still be her most famous collection, Self-Help, wherein many stories take the form of how-to guides, to wit (from "How to Be a Writer"):
First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age--say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a doughnut. She'll say: 'How about emptying the dishwasher?'.
Note how easily the second person viewpoint lends itself to comedy—far more easily an willingly than it lends itself to tragedy, since though we balk at being forced to endure, say, a heroin addict's withdrawal symptoms or gang rape, we don't seem to mind being the butt of a joke or a buffoon.

At any rate, we don't mind for short intervals—say, the length of a short story. That said, the second person technique has proven extremely successful with longer forms—or anyway with one longer form, namely Jay McInerney's 1984 love letter to Yuppiedom, Bright Lights, Big City, which opens:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian marching powder.
In fact throughout the course of McInerney's book "you" go on to do a lot more Bolivian marching powder. Here, too, the overall effect is comic—though by the book's end the comedy has turned to pathos and arguably to self-pity (but then the self being pitied is, well, you).

Owing to the tortured metaphysical logic of second person narrations, we have, in a sense, ourselves to blame for whatever weaknesses endow their characters. We bear their burdens and their faults—and, to some extent at least, the faults of their authors. Call it guilt by association.

Then again many readers will cross their arms and say, "As a matter of fact, no, I am not in a nightclub talking to a girl with a bald head." And that will be that. In using the second person you throw a gauntlet to the reader. Supposing the reader doesn't pick it up?

In the given example "you" (a teenage boy) wait on the balcony of your parents' home to be picked-up by some friends for your "first-ever party." Just thinking of it "your heart beats fast," for you know it's not just a party that awaits you at the far end of that ride: it's a right of passage, an initiation. There will be "beer and liquor and girls." You almost can't believe it. It even seems to you, as you stand there waiting, that the likelihood of your actually achieving this milestone is about as great as that of "a snowstorm in San Antonio."

All this is well done; the author does indeed put us (or rather forces us into, for the second person is never quite voluntary) the psyche of an adolescent boy, a psyche beside itself with nervous erotic energy and anticipation. The details are convincingly precise, down to the grackles whose cries make a laugh track of the night—fittingly, for here, too, though there's drama, it's underscored by comedy. It makes for a strong opening to a story whose theme is the heady anxiety of adolescence—a story I, for one, wouldn't mind reading. Or playing the lead in.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Living With Lyle

A young woman runs into an old friend in a grocery store—at least she thinks he's an old friend. In fact the man Eleanor mistakes for "Lyle" is fresh out of prison, sent there for what crime we don't know. But rather than correct her, "Lyle" let's the mistake stand.

"I don't believe it," Eleanor responds. "After all these years . . . How insane is that?"

"More insane than you know," the narrator answers—and he means it.

This opening has a lot going for it, in fact it's hard to find fault with it. The first line thrusts us into the heart of the story, with the paragraph that follows setting the scene for the inciting incident—the unique event that wrests the character or characters out of their status quo and into something worthy of being called a story. Here, that unprecedented event is the meeting of not-Lyle and Eleanor, an encounter that turns on a case of mistaken identity. Not one but two lives are about to be derailed from their routines—or, in not-Lyle's case, from whatever passes for routine in the life of an ex-con fresh out of the slammer. The question now is what's going to happen with these two? It's the right question, the very question that will propel us through this narrative. Will he take advantage of her? Will she fall in love? Will she uncover his criminal past along with his deception? Is he a petty-thief, or a murderer? Will he love her in turn, or will he rob, beat, or kill her? Or combination of these things? The possibilities are, if not limitless, rich.

How would this story read from Eleanor's point of view? As a point-of-view character, pseudo-Lyle has his charms. But then he also knows he's an ex-con, just as he knows what sent him up the river in the first place. It will be much harder, and may require manipulation on the part of the author, to withhold his knowledge from the reader so as not to give a big part of the game away. If she manipulates too much, the author exposes herself to the charge of creating false suspense—suspense achieved artificially by withholding information from the reader that the character (or characters) are fully aware of. In that case it may be better to experience this relationship from the point-of-view of the character who's totally in the dark: Eleanor.

But in that case the author faces another challenge: namely, how to plausibly render a case of mistaken identity from the viewpoint of the person making the mistake. Will we be treated to Eleanore's perspective after she has already survived her experience—such that, as she begins the tale, she knows it is one of mistaken identity? If made such a choice would result in a great loss of tension and suspense. For a start we'll know she survives to tell the tale.

Hmm, maybe our author had the right idea: maybe it's better to stick to his viewpoint.

You see the sort of decisions writers wrestle with. There are no absolute or easy solutions. In the end, it may be best to rely on gut instincts. Here, so far at least, those instincts seem to be paying off.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Flying With Father

In Latin there's a phrase for it: in media res. It means "in the middle of things," and it's where many authors like to begin their books. By starting "in the middle of things," authors avoid the long and potentially tedious expositional climb to exciting scenes and dramatic events, while at the same time plunging readers headlong into a story's central issues, themes, and conflicts. By starting in medias res, they front-load their tales with action and suspense.

But when starting in medias res, it's important to choose a moment or scene that not only gains a reader's attention, but is relevant to the work as a whole, providing a tantalizing glimpse of what's to come, while also raising the right questions—namely, those questions which the book as a whole exists to answer. An opening that's sensational but with only a tangential or tenuous relationship to the book's overall theme may pull in readers, but it may also lead them to disappointment and, possibly, frustration and resentment.

The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff's brilliant memoir about his con-artist father, opens not in the middle but toward the end, with Wolff learning of his father's death. While Wolff and his family are summering in Narragansett, a telephone rings. The telephone belongs to a friend on whose "shaded terrace" Wolff is relaxing, "sitting in an overstuffed wicker chair . . . glancing at sailboats beating out to Block Island . . . smelling roses and fresh cut grass" and drinking rum "with tonic and lime." His soon-to-be four year old son Nicholas is with his mother-in-law, out for a ride in her black Ford sedan. Nicholas' little brother Justin is with his mother at the beach. "It was almost possible to disbelieve in death that day," Wolff writes, "to put out of mind a son's unbuckled seat belt and the power of surf at the water's edge." The opening continues:
In my memory now, as in some melodrama, I hear the phone ring, but I didn't hear it then. The phone in that house seemed always to be ringing. My wife's brother-in-law John was called to the telephone . . . John returned . . . As I stared down the terrace at him, Kay and her children quit talking, and John's cheeks began to dance. I looked at the widow Kay, she looked away, and I knew what I knew. I walked down that terrace to learn which of my boys was dead.
In fact neither of Wolff's sons has died. The bad news has to do with his father. "Your father is dead," John tells him. To which Wolff replies, "Thank God." That "Thank God" is what Wolff's book exists to explain. That "Thank God" frames the tale that follows, puts it into context, while at the same time raising a pertinent question: why, on learning of his father's death, would a man say "Thank God?" Had one of Wolff's sons indeed died, it would still have made for a powerful prologue, but one for a different memoir.

Here, in this memoir of a woman whose father was a pilot, we open with her in her father's plane as it accelerates down a grassy runway. The airplane's wheels strike a pothole, and the narrator's skull is bashed against an instrument panel. Too late to abort takeoff, the father lofts his injured daughter into the sky while her mother "wipe[s] away the blood" from the "long, deep gash to [her] head which would need six stitches." Since Mom is a nurse, she tends her child's wound with expert calm,"scrunching up her dress and press[ing] it firmly" into the gash.

All of this is described well, and it is certainly dramatic. Yet the scene is at best gratuitous, and at worst misleading, since it conveys nothing essential about the father or his relationship to his daughter (nor does it illustrate his piloting skills, since anyone can hit a pothole). What's best demonstrated here is the mother's nursing skills, yet my sense is that these are not central to the memoir. Ultimately, because it fails to point to the crux of the story, this opening scene feels anecdotal—a curious event, but not an exemplary one.

The second part of the opening crash-lands us into pure summary exposition about the father's impoverished Ugandan past. Might it not be better to choose an opening scene wherein somehow that past intrudes on the present: where, for instance, the father flies his daughter over the land of his birth? By such means one can have action, drama, exposition, and relevance all at once.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Suspense: False & Real

In works by inexperienced authors suspense tends take one of two forms. The first kind of suspense, the good kind, raises questions like the following:
  1. What will happen to X when Y happens?
  2. How will Character X solve Problem Y?
  3. How will X respond to Y?
  4. and so on.
With the second type of suspense, what I call "False Suspense," the questions raised in the reader tend to fall along the following lines:
  1. Who is X?
  2. What is Y?
  3. Where is this?
  4. What's going on?
  5. What in blazes am I reading, and
  6. Why am I reading it?
Both kinds of suspense create tension in the reader, but in the first case the tension created in desirable. Though eager to arrive at answers to the questions raised, the reader of a narrative that generates true suspense is willing to be teased, knowing that the answers will come in due time, and confident that when they do come they'll be satisfying and worth the wait. And while waiting for answers to genuine suspense questions, readers are provided with enough answers to inhabit the world of the story, to fully appreciate and experience its characters, settings, events, moods and themes.

With false suspense many if not all of the virtues of true suspense are sacrificed. Instead readers are treated to the extremely circumscribed and dubious thrill of wondering, for instance, in what part of the world a scene is taking place, and in what year, and who are the characters involved, what are their names, how old are they, how are they related to each other? Such questions are rotten fruits of the practice of withholding information: denying readers access to basic facts perfectly well known both to the writer and his or her characters.

That practice is hard at work in the opening scene of this novel, in which a woman named Janice watches a man cross a street toward her. From his "stuttering gait" to "the too-short sleeves of his tightly buttoned jacket exposing his bony wrists" to the "inches of vivid red sock above each dusty shoe" the man is carefully and vividly rendered. Though syntactically awkward in places ("she saw relief flood his face when he saw her in the corner"), on the whole the prose is solid, the actions—albeit laced with melodrama—duly observed.

And yet because the scene raises and answers the wrong questions, because its author is bent on false rather than real suspense, it falls flat. Instead of asking, "Who is this strange, raggedy man walking toward the protagonist?" (a false suspense question, since the protagonist knows perfectly well who it is) we should be asking, "Why has this woman not seen her brother for so long? Why does he look like a bum? Why is he shuddering? And what brings them together now, after so many years?" These genuine questions—questions the answers to which may justify the rest of the novel—are undermined by that one question, "Who is he?"—a question with no relevance to the situation at hand: and one no sooner answered than the scene ends, as if it had nothing better to accomplish.

Why do writers generate false suspense? For several reasons. First, because in reading works by other authors they confuse real suspense with a general state of confusion, or because in reading such works, even by celebrated authors, they encounter the same false suspense: i.e. Steven King does it, so why can't I? But a third explanation is the most likely: they lack sufficient confidence in the ability of their material to generate its own, authentic suspense, so they give it a leg up by capriciously withholding something here and there—in this case, the fact that the man crossing the street toward the woman is her brother.

Unfortunately, often this third explanation points to a deeper problem, namely the reason why authors lack confidence in a story's ability to generate authentic suspense: they don't yet know, or aren't sure, where their stories are going, or if they have a story to tell.

In this case I'm willing to give the author the benefit of any doubt. In fact I'm sure that Janice and Luke have had an intriguing past, and are headed for an even more intriguing future. I just wish their creator were as confident as I am.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Year of 14 Jobs

One of the hallmarks of good writing is its power to suggest. This is true not only for poetry and fiction, but for works of nonfiction, too, for essays and memoirs, even sometimes for journalism. Conclusive statements may or may not always convince us. But when authors provide readers with the raw, visceral evidence from which such conclusions may be drawn, allowing us to reach them on our own, then the conclusions are a lot harder to argue with, since the only person we have to argue with is ourselves.

In this opening passage from a memoir-in-progress about a year in a woman's life, everything is stated, and little if anything is implied. We are told, among other things, that during the course of that year she held fourteen jobs:
Some wild women may have 14 lovers in a year. More introspective types may read 14 books or see 14 movies annually. Some fun-loving women might purchase 14 swimming suits (my friend Dottie owned 18), swim in 14 different swimming pools, or scream through 14 roller coaster rides. In 1969, I held a total of 14 different part-time jobs ...
The last sentence here ("In 1969, I held a total of 14 different jobs") states the memoir's central subject, which the passage as a whole puts into perspective, or tries to, with its series of obsessed women. At the same time the passage highlights the uniqueness of its subject: how many people do you know, male or female, who in the course of one year have held fourteen different jobs? On the whole the paragraph is well-written. It has the cumulative power of many such parallel constructions ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". . . ). And it offers us something irresistible: an eccentric, struggling heroine.

Yet somehow the passage, and the opening as a whole, fails. The author seems less intent on dramatizing her material than on positioning and arguing for it, telling us not just what she has to offer, but why we should care. Because in a year other people may have fourteen lovers or fourteen books or fourteen bathing suits. But other people don't have fourteen lovers. Which may or may not be true (you see how easy it is to argue with such statements?). And even if it's true, do jobs compare with lovers—let alone with books and bathing suits? But even accepting the logic of the argument, it remains to be seen whether that argument justifies a memoir.

But analogies aren't the point; the point is, or should be, that in a given year a young woman held fourteen jobs.

That point, or something like it, provided Charles Bukowski with the subject of Factotum, his second novel. It follows Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, from one dreary, degrading, menial job to the next after he has been rated 4-F by the armed services and thereby exempted from serving in World War II. The novel consists of 87 brief passages or chapters, and an equal number of crappy jobs. The first passage begins:
I arrived in New Orleans in the rain at 5 o'clock in the morning. I sat around in the station for a while but the people depressed me so I took my suitcase and went out in the rain and began walking. I didn't know where the rooming houses were, where the poor section was.

I had a cardboard suitcase that was falling apart. It had once been black but the black coating had peeled off and yellow cardboard was exposed. I had tried to solve that by putting black shoepolish over the exposed cardboard. As I walked along in the rain the shoepolish on the suitcase ran and unwittingly I rubbed black streaks on both legs of my pants as I switched the suitcase from hand to hand.
So begins Bukowski/Chinaski's descent into the underworld of unemployment, with him cast to the very lowest circle, that of the unemployable. Note how, in opening his novel, Bukowski states nothing. He doesn't announce his intended theme, let alone make a case for it. Nor is there any intent to force perspective on us before we've been presented with any matter (scenes, events, experiences) to put into perspective. Instead what we get here is the matter itself: a down-at-the-heels guy in search of a rooming house in the rain, whose search will soon turn to one for gainful employment. Meanwhile his luck, like the black shoe polish on his suitcase, is already draining into the gutters.

My suggestion to the author of this memoir is that she begin similarly, with concrete matter rather than with abstract statements. In due time we will learn that her fourteen jobs "lasted anywhere from one day . . . to a few months," just as we will learn that the memoirist "wasn't like some of the other girls [she] knew at school who worked at the local drugstore." Such facts are best learned through experience. And the proper goal of the memoirist, no less than that of the novelist, isn't to present information, but to render experience.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

An Opening at Odds With Itself

Within the eight lines of its first paragraph, this opening scene presents readers with a melange of no less than ten metaphors for the narrator’s frustrated desire to belong fully to something, to “fit in.” The writing is passionate, poetic, full of spit and vinegar—but what is it for?

“If I could see myself plainly,” the narrator laments at the inception of this hyperextended metaphor, then proceeds to describe her spiritual condition in terms of a nut in a bolt, a knife blade, a cliff’s edge (overlooking flames), an empty skull, and something that “circles.” Having thereby exhausted nearly every available metaphor, she throws her hands in the air, declares the whole affair Kafkaesque, tosses two more metaphors our way (one reptilian, one insectine), and then abandons the whole metaphoric charade in favor of “normal, everyday” thoughts. Some readers may wish that she'd done so sooner. Whatever else it achieves, this opening paragraph convinces us, if we needed convincing, that, indeed, the narrator cannot see herself clearly.

But the real purpose served by this opening and others like it that I encounter often in novice works may be even more basic. Stated by means of another serial metaphor, it’s to get the author’s pen rolling, to blow some warmth onto the icy blank page, to get the narrative blood flowing. Others less charitably inclined may call it “throat clearing.” In any case, it should probably be cut: all of it. It's there for the author, not for the reader.

The real beginning starts with Matti inspecting a piece of restaurant china at an event, a birthday lunch. Perhaps she’s an event planner of some kind. We don’t know, but she has a vested professional interest in the affair at hand and its dinnerware. To be sure she is dressed to the hilt in her Allendi suit that “glow[s] in [its] shadows as if her body was lit by a lamp inside it”—making me wonder how much it glows in its shadowless regions.

Here the writing is comprehensible and much more effective. Still, we don’t quite know what’s going on; we can only guess. And some information provided seems misplaced. Do we really need to know that, before she married, Matti worked as a buyer for a restaurant supply wholesaler? Maybe, but within the context of so much more that remains unknown, that bit of information seems more coy than generous, more tease than enlightenment. Most readers would prefer to know who Matti is and what she’s doing, rather than who she was and what she did.

In the final paragraph again the author seems to throw his hands in the air (“Oh, God, her life is full of fucking clichés)—a comment that doesn’t seem to attach itself to anything, unless birthday lunches are a cliché, or Allendi suits, or certain types of restaurant china. But my guess is that the charge of “cliché” is a preemptive strike by the author against her own material, as if by the end of this first page she’s grown disenchanted, and declares defeat even before the first battle lines have been drawn. In each of the two sections that pattern is more or less repeated, with the author undertaking a bold initiative, then questioning it, then renouncing her kingdom before the reader has even had time to engage in hostilities. The author is her own worst critic.

All this may result from jumping into the writing prematurely, without proper preparation (like knowing, for instance, what the story is about), thus ending up like the actor in his nightmare, naked on the stage with no script.

The Season of White Flies

The first part of this opening of a novel confronts us with a host of negations bound by tortured syntax. Briefly, it tells us what the narrator, an only child, will (or won’t: see below) inherit from her (Italian?) farmer father.

For all its twists and tangles it’s an alluring passage, attractively written, with Biblically incantatory rhythms out of the Song of Solomon. Indeed, the set-piece passage, which serves more as an appetizer to the story at hand than as the main course, reads like a prose poem. Not the wheel of dried figs kept in the drawer next to the sink, not the crema in the morning made on the old stove parked on a dirt floor in a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet, not the . . . The temptation to keep quoting is strong; the words having the tug and energy of a strong tide. Like most good songs they seduce by their rhythms even when their meanings are difficult or obscure. Poets can get away with that, I suppose.

Then again, as Ezra Pound once said, “Poetry to be good poetry should be at least as well written as good prose.” (Pound also said “No verse libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” He said many good things, this poet who was tried for treason during WWII and kept for 25 days in a steel cage.) Based on Pound’s dictum one may take issue with this opening passage, since—though it succeeds as prose-poetry, fails at the level of prose. It fails for being at best unclear, at worst contradictory. Is the narrator inventorying those things that she feels “already belong” to her, or those that will not?

There is more than a bit of confusion at work here especially in the opening paragraph’s final clauses, which take us back to the same war that had Ezra spouting anti-Semitism on the airwaves, when the narrator’s father “chased songbirds down with a slingshot”—birds that “he learned to cook and what he cooked, they all ate”—"they" referring, presumably, to his family, and to the narrator (“it was his home and I, his daughter and that land”)—though on the other hand it strikes me that the narrator has yet to be born, that these are not her own memories but communal ones of her father, passed down to her by others. And thus the steps “from the soles of [her] father’s bare feet”—those of the boy with the slingshot—trod a path through the woods that in turn recalls. . . the father’s feet! This bit of poetic feedback gives way somehow to one of a grandmother's “worried lungs” sending or shooting up their “soil” along with her sighs. By soil we may infer catarrh or something more sinister—chunks of the lungs themselves. It’s not at all clear, and I for one lack confidence that the confusion is mine and not the author’s. Of Wagner’s music Mark Train once quipped, “It’s not as bad as it sounds.” Of this passage I would say it’s not as good as it sounds—and it sounds very good. Its sweet music and sharp imagery are undone by sloppy syntax.

The second section of this opening is similarly compelling, and similarly challenged. Here the image is the singular one of a bed groaning under the weight of books that have displaced a romantic partner. The books are being gathered by the stack and, for reasons unspecified, weighed. Apparently, they have accumulated in the wake of a dissolved love affair or union. But here too a disregard for literal meaning in the name of poetry creates confusion and disorder where none is called for.

The scene opens with the bed groaning with books. The words “It had happened again” point to a sudden, unanticipated event, where in fact the books have accumulated over time. The next, one-line paragraph (“I had forgotten this”) suggests that the narrator has come upon this scene from a distance of time or space. From there we move to a mini-flashback of life with Sam, the narrator’s partner, with whom the need to accumulate books was “undone.” But the rest of the paragraph belies this topic sentence, telling how “when [the books] formed a perilous body” the narrator began to gather them (“. . . as I used to when I was in graduate school”). Thus we have three beds full of books to grapple with: the one before Sam, the one after, and one back in graduate school. Question: which bed are we lying in here, now?

Come to think of it, syntax has something in common with bedclothes. Though the author makes the bed, we, his readers, must lie in it.

Discovering Jenny

While watching the evening news, a lawyer—Robert Leonard Singer, Esquire—learns of a woman found dead in her motel room, the apparent victim of a drug overdose. Authorities have yet to identify the victim, but Robert thinks he knows who she is. In fact he’s sure.

Her name is Jenny, and she disappeared a year before, “a year of feelings shut away like furniture crated in some dark, musty warehouse.” From this we infer that Robert and Jenny were close—involved in an intimate affair, perhaps, or a fling? At the next paragraph’s end we learn that Jenny was his wife.

Whatever relationship he had with Jenny, we know her disappearance—and now her apparent suicide—have both affected Robert deeply. Overcome by his emotions, or benumbed by them, he collapses onto his sofa, hugging its pillow “tightly” as the evening news murmurs on and the smell of leftover Thai takeout drifts his way from the dining table. Instead of attending to the dispositions in his briefcase, Robert drifts off to sleep. The page ends with him waking “to the chatter of a late night talk show” still in a torpid state and unable to work.

Though the events conveyed by this passage are sensational—a woman’s unexplained disappearance, the sudden discovery of her body in a motel room, her apparent drug-overdose suicide—the opening scene itself is as torpid as its main character. Robert listens to the evening news, lies down on his sofa, and goes to sleep. That’s an accurate if skeletal summary of the “action” here, such as it is. And though Robert’s descent into indolence is, presumably, triggered by grief, one gets the feeling—I do, anyway—that even on his best days Robert is not exactly a man of boldness and energy—witness the takeout cartons on his dinner table. He seems to have been depressed long before he switched on the television news. The news of his missing wife’s death plunges—though that may be too active a verb—him into a deeper indolence, one that, on the emotional altitude meter, drops him from something like two feet down to one and a half: not exactly an ear-popping descent.

But Robert’s emotional torpor goes beyond numbness into oblivion, to where, moments after learning of his wife’s death, having decided at some point to call the authorities and verify things, his thoughts wander to getting dressed for work in the morning, to tying “the tight Windsor knot on his tie and spend[ing] the day reviewing documents and dispositions.” From there his thoughts drift even further away, to a contemplation of his name, from which he has recently shed the “Junior” and replaced it with “Esquire.” But what in blazes has any of this to do with the shocking news of his wife’s dismal suicide? Nothing—which may be the point. We are witnessing the extent of Robert’s disconnect from his emotions. We're dealing with an unhinged personality, with a man losing, or having already lost, part of his sanity to grief.

But since Robert’s feelings—along with that measure of his sanity—were already “shut away like furniture . . . in a dark, smutty warehouse” what we're met with here is the spectacle of his musty, crated feelings sprouting a fresh layer of mold and mildew. And watching mold grow isn’t very exciting, even when the mold is fertilized by dramatic, sensational events.

Ordering Chaos

Among a fiction writer’s greatest challenges: how to evoke chaos while still making sense. The phrase “making sense” here is key, since ultimately the question boils down to whose sense is being rendered.

If the chaos confronting the reader is genuine chaos as experienced by the point-of-view character or characters—as opposed to an inadvertent, accidental, and hence inauthentic chaos arising from the author’s lack of command over his or her materials—then that chaos is welcomed, or anyway not entirely pointless.

In the given passage, one evening on his way home John Zambelli is rudely met by police officers who are, let us say, disinclined to ask questions first. In its particulars the scene is convincingly and vividly rendered. We are treated to the “rough hands” and “gruff voice” of Sergeant Molinski as he frisks his quarry, who lies prostrate across the paving stones of his front walkway. As the Sergeant works him over, a second officer, a woman named Dobbs, jabs her nightstick into John’s rib cage. Satisfied that Zambelli is unarmed and having duly blinded him with a flashlight, the officers learn his identity.

All of this is presented clearly enough for me to furnish this summary. Yet in the passage as written there are small points of confusion. In the opening sentence, we are told “John’s hands searched for comfort in the familiar stones beneath him.” From this we reasonably conclude that he is either on all fours or lying flat on the stone path onto which he has presumably been shoved hard. Did John have a chance to see his assailants before they tackled him? Unclear. But a moment later, where the gruff voice says, “He’s clean,” we are told—from John’s point of view—that the voice comes from “behind him” and that it “belong[s] to the cop holding the nightstick.” It’s logical, then, to conclude that John has not only glimpsed his attackers, but is able to positively identify them as police officers. In fact he's already done so, since in the first paragraph he describes the object being jammed into him as a nightstick as opposed to an unidentified blunt object.

Two paragraphs later, after John has “rotated his body slowly” to confront the officer’s flashlight beam, Molinski “ease[s] onto the landing and click[s] off the flashlight”, allowing John his first real glimpse of the cop, whose “service cap . . . barely reached John’s shoulders.” For this to be so the Sergeant would have to be very short indeed, considering that John still lies or sits on the ground.

These are small issues in a scene that, for the most part, is neatly written. The disorientation that has John Zambelli experiencing the “familiar stones” of his front walkway as alien objects now that they touch his hands rather than his feet is nicely observed. But however well established, John’s viewpoint isn’t followed through consistently such that we see, feel, hear, and touch as John does; so that his confusion makes complete sense, so that we know, for instance, that he is standing and not sitting or lying when he compares his height with that of his attacker. It’s a very small issue, but small issues like it add up and give way to larger problems: namely a lack of sufficient immersion on the author’s part in her viewpoint characters' perspectives, and the attendant overall murkiness resulting thereof.

The difference between ordered and disordered chaos is one most readers may not notice, but they’ll still feel it. Since fiction’s goal is to convey experience, even a very slight mishandling of POV will result in an obscuring or dilution of the fictional experience. An orchestra needs a conductor. What’s being orchestrated in a work of fiction is the reader’s senses through those of her fictional character or characters. When POV is mishandled, the instruments keep playing their parts, but the symphony is discordant. If that analogy won’t do here’s another. Reading fiction in which the viewpoint isn’t perfectly handled is like kissing a beautiful person with bad breath. You still get the kiss, but it’s not the kiss that might have been.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Rude Awakening

Deep into her alcohol-ridden sleep, a woman is summoned by the ringing of her cell phone. Phone calls deep into the night rarely portend good things, and the given scene offers no exception. Here, via her sister, the phone delivers the news that the woman’s mother has died in an accident.

The scene is rendered vividly, with loving detail lavished on both the condition of Charley’s bedroom (“among piles of smoky clothes, outdated magazines, and empty bottles”) and of her drunk (“The room spun and dipped around her”), disorderly, and disoriented body to which a cigarette butt clings.

But some of the vividness here works against the material by violating the author’s presumed intent: that of rendering this moment from deep within the mental state of her protagonist. I’m reminded of some American movies where the director feels compelled to “caption” everything with broad gestures such that intelligent viewers feel insulted. Here, the caption reads “Rude Phone Awakening,” and the scene proceeds to see too it that we “get it”—and we do, but what we get is more clichéd than need be, while the inclusion of certain details is more intrusive than organic.

Since the scene is written in close third person, presumably we inhabit the protagonist’s viewpoint. But in the same opening paragraph that has Charley wondering if the ringing she hears is “the beats and thumps left in her head after another Saturday night downtown,” we’ve already been told that the ringing is that of her phone. Later in the same paragraph we learn that Charley’s bedmate has “slipped out,” but in her freshly awakened state Charley can’t know this, or she can know it only once her senses have provided her with that information. The attempt to evoke a character’s subjective state is in conflict with the author’s wish that we readers should understand exactly what is going on. The author wants it both ways, and risks achieving neither.

The same disconnect between author and heroine invests the next paragraph, where Charley answers the phone with words that belie her disoriented state—or has she just looked at the time on her cell phone? We don’t know, nor do we hear through Charley the voice at the other end of the phone. Her sister and she have not spoken for some time; but wouldn’t she still recognize the voice? At any rate, even in her hungover condition, she would find it familiar. (It also begs the question: what were the caller’s first words?).

Other details—like the piles of clothes and bottles in the bedroom and the mounds of cigarette ash—likewise seem more the product of overzealous art direction than of a character’s sensory experience (contrast the first invocation of “piles of smoky clothes” with the later rendering of the same clothes by the light of the phone’s flashing screen—what the character experiences).

In an effort to pump-up an inherently dramatic scene’s atmosphere, mood and drama, the author forsakes her protagonist’s viewpoint, sacrificing authenticity, and serving up a Hollywood version of her scene. Less would be more:

While reaching for the phone she knocked down her ashtray.

“Charley—it’s Lizzie.”

Her hands shook as she lit a cigarette. By the phone’s flashing screen she saw the piles of clothes next to her bed.

“What time is it?”

“Mom had an accident.”

The room spun and dipped. Charley could not remember the last time she spoke to her sister, or the last time she’d been so drunk.

“She didn’t make it,” Lizzie said.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Waiting for the Abbot

How do you generate drama or elicit any kind of interest—let alone excitement —from a scene the main action of which consists of a group of people sitting in chairs? That's the challenge that the author of this memoir presents himself with. The story takes place in Tibet, where the author, his wife, and two daughters are visiting one of the monasteries in the Kangra Valley, presumably on a pilgrimage. They are not alone. With them in the abbot's waiting room is the Dalai Lama's English translator, wearing a "full length brown Tibetan chuba," as well as a younger assistant, and a German "emissary," an older man in a pinstriped suit. They form a motley crew.

This is hardly the first narrative to open with a scene of people waiting. It's been done before, and to great effect. Norman Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, opens with a group of soldiers waiting, essentially, to face death. They're supposed to be sleeping, but
Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
To make for an engaging opening, a “waiting scene” need not hold such high stakes. In The Disenchanted, another novel written in the same period, author Bud Schulberg presents us with Shep Stearns, a young, callow writer seated in the antechamber of Hollywood mogul Victor Milgrim, who, at long last, has called him to a meeting to discuss his next project.
It’s the waiting, Shep was thinking. You wait to get inside the gate, you wait outside the great man’s office, you wait for your agent to make the deal, you wait for the assignment, you wait for instructions on how to write what they want you to write, and then, when you finish your treatment and turn it in, you wait for that unique contribution to art, the story conference.
The rest of the chapter takes us back to Shep’s arrival in Hollywood six months before, and through those events that have led him to Milgrim’s waiting room. Eleven pages of backstory later, Shep finally enters Milgrim’s office.

And yet those pages—and the long wait suggested by them—are full of dramatic tension, since they inform us of what Shep has gone through to arrive at this point, and also what’s at stake for him. The rest of Schulberg’s brilliant but forgotten novel tells of Shep’s gallant efforts to keep Manley Halliday, a once great but fallen author (based on Fitzgerald) sober through their collaboration on a screenplay for Love on Ice, a college musical. Needless to say, Shep fails, and the rest of the novel chronicles Halliday’s hilarious but ultimately tragic descent into drunkenness and death.

The structure in this well-written memoir opening is similar, with the first paragraphs describing the pilgrims awaiting their audience with the abbot. But here, rather than take us through a flashback recounting the purpose and tribulations of their journey to this greatly anticipated moment, instead we are presented with a fairly innocuous breakfast meeting with the same abbot “on the hotel terrace” the morning before, in which “over a cup of strong Indian chai” the abbot boasts of his long relationship with the Dalai Lama, while dismissing as “all the puja stuff”— “the burning of incense . . .the mantras and prayers . . . the salutations and prostrations . . . ”—in short, the trappings of Tibetan Buddhism that the narrator and his family have come to Tibet to appreciate and study.

A “waiting scene” depends on having something to wait for. Here, the flashback fairly obliterates any tensions or expectations we—and the protagonists—might have entertained with respect to the anticipated meeting with the abbot. It lets the air out of the balloon, so to speak, so there’s nothing left to wait for.

It might be better to lead with the first meeting with the abbot, with anxieties and expectations still running high and not already discharged.