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Saturday, September 4, 2010

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.


  1. Peter,

    Thank you for your comments. I find comments from unacquainted readers to be extremely helpful, especially in the beginning.

    You are exactly right with your observations in that Robert has had to live with uncertainty of his wife's whereabouts for a year, and now in his depression has hit bottom. He has an emotional disconnect; not seen on this first page--by day he is an active and aggressive attorney, but is a facade albeit a successful one; by night when home alone he withdraws into numbness. What he has needed was closure, which the news has provided, and the rest of the story is about his struggle to move on, to live and feel again.

    My question: is there enough here to motivate the reader to read on to see what comes next? Or is Robert's torpor too much?

  2. From your comment I gather that the news about Jenny frees Robert from his depression by giving closure to the situation that brought it about to begin with. But as the scene reads now Jenny's death does no such thing: it merely makes him more torpid, more depressed. This is the problem. Had you written or suggested that in hearing of her death Robert has what at first seems like a perverse response--a feeling of liberation, as if a burden has been lifted (you may want to read "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin as exemplary)--but then we realize that for him the news is a release. That would suggest dramatic movement rather than stasis and stagnation.

  3. Hi Anon-
    IMHO Robert's personality doesn't really come through here as something that grabs attention. He seems almost cynical about his wife's death, like he doesn't much care. The imagined surroundings (the bottle etc) are kind of stereotypical, as if he were thinking, "Okay, another addict bites the dust. So what?" So when he doesn't care, it doesn't make me, as a reader, care, either.

    The third para is also a little disjointed for me- too much backstory (almost an info dump) right at the beginning. You might consider a more seamless weave by providing the info about his name and profession a little less obviously and a lot more gradually.

    All just my opinion - I'm struggling too, so I'm not trying to sound like a know-it-all by any means. Let me know what you think of my opening (what Peter calls 'Chaos'), and the fix-up I put in the comments, if you have a chance. Thanks!

  4. I agree with the previous comments in that Robert's depression and/or lack of motivation to get anything done now that he is sure his wife is dead is something that appears to be a constant state that he has been in for quite some time.

    From this first page I gathered what his emotional state was like after his wife left him and now that his wife is dead, as well. He has clearly lost his sanity to grief, as Peter commented. Personally, I think it would be interesting to show the scene in which his wife leaves him. I'm guessing that scene will be included later when Robert is working through the grief, and hopefully it will because the reader needs to understand how Robert's personality has changed since the disappearance of his wife. In addition, I think there needs to be a definite change in Robert's emotional state after he learns his wife is dead - because it appears that he has as little motivation at the end of the story as he did when his wife disappeared.