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

Friday, July 2, 2010

Clinic Caper

This scene of marital bliss set in the confines of a dermatologist's examination room feels more like something complete in and of itself than the opening of a longer work. If there's any doubt, the title of the piece seals it.

Not that there's anything wrong with telling a story in a page or two. In fact, anyone who can do so has my unqualified admiration. The trick, though, is to tell a story and not just relay an amusing anecdote.

An anecdote is a short narrative constructed around a unique, curious, and often provocative incident, one that typically reveals character through extreme circumstances and almost always with humor as its end. The term comes from the Greek word anekdota, meaning "unpublished"—an indeed, most anecdotes are relayed orally and not intended for nor worthy of the printed page except as illustrations serving some larger purpose—evoking, for instance, some facet of a character or characters. Served a la carte, anecdotes tend to be as ephemeral as they are amusing. They are garnishes or appetizers, not the main course.

Though quite nicely written, the opening scene here feels more anecdotal than it might were the emphasis less on the singular, curious, and provocative event in the clinic, and more on the two principle characters, Jim and his narrating wife. As it stands, I can imagine such a tale being told at a dinner party (a popular venue for anecdotes). The guests, who know this couple well—and who've also had their share of cocktails—are extremely amused, weeping with laughter. Their host is on a roll. When she gets to the part about the dermatologist's fiendish chair launching her husband through the stucco wall, I see them all doing spit takes with their wine into their Roquefort pear salads.

But literature isn't a dinner party, and the "guests" (unfamiliar readers) need something more than cocktails to wet their appetite for anecdotes. They need context. They need some sense of who these two are when not goofing around at the dermatological clinic. That sense—the very little of it that we get—is tucked into one sentence in the opening paragraph ("at the age of sixty-six and forty-one years of marital bliss, we saw no reason to occupy separate rooms"). We're told that they are an older, happily married couple, a statement the anecdote goes on to confirm. It does so charmingly and (except for the mishandling of internal quotation marks) with skill. It meets our expectations; nothing more. It neither suggests nor reveals anything more or less about the characters, who they are, or why we should care about them enough to want to keep reading.

And since the scene merely confirms what we've already been told—without a hint of irony or paradox or a shadow of doubt, I'm left unsatisfied. Again, at a dinner party I would be content to know that my hostess and her husband are lovely, happily married people: sure, it's probably not the whole story; in fact it may well be a total illusion. And yet what are dinner parties for if not to parade ourselves in front of our guests in our favorite masks?

If literature serves a purpose it's to tear those masks off--or at least let us peek through them and see the real lives underneath. Here, with this opening, I'm shown only the mask: a bright, smiling, charming one.

Supposing the shenanigans in the examination room were underscored by something grave? Supposing this routine visit to the dermatologist turned out to be anything but routine, that "everything" was not "all right"? The small blotchy growth on his shoulder? A stage-3 melanoma. Then this would be no mere anecdote, but revelatory of a devoted wife's courageous humor in the face of terror and tragedy.

The underscoring item needn't be something as grave as cancer, but it should carry us beyond anecdote.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Peter, for taking your time and critiquing so promptly. In fact, the story was just a one-page anecdote. I like to write short stories, but from now on, I'll only send the first page of a longer story--one in which I rip off my mask, because that's obviously what's holding me back. But with your help, I'll dig deeper. I'm printing out your comment so I can re-read it until it sinks in.
    Sincere thanks. Cheryl