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Thursday, October 28, 2010

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.

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