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vividly, with loving detail lavished on both the condition of Charley’s bedroom (“among piles of smoky clothes, outdated magazines, and empty bottles”) and of her drunk (“The room spun and dipped around her”), disorderly, and disoriented body to which a cigarette butt clings.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