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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.

1 comment:

  1. Peter, thank you so much for your insighful input into what has needed [for me] some solid direction. Absolutly terrific and I appreciate your consideration.

    By way of note, the memoir is about various flying escapades with my father [this being the first I remember] and the relationship we form through flying.

    I will take this away and work on it!

    Cheers, Angela.