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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Curfew

There's a reason why few stories—and even fewer novels—are written using the second person point of view. It tires readers out. It says to them, in effect: here, you step into the protagonist's shoes; you play the role; you do what he/she does. Depending on who the character is, and what befalls them, readers may or may not want to play along. Even assuming that they're game, they may not be willing to play for hundreds of pages.

Which isn't to say that second person doesn't have its place. It's been used to great effect, more often in short stories, most notoriously by Loorie Moore in what may still be her most famous collection, Self-Help, wherein many stories take the form of how-to guides, to wit (from "How to Be a Writer"):
First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age--say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a doughnut. She'll say: 'How about emptying the dishwasher?'.
Note how easily the second person viewpoint lends itself to comedy—far more easily an willingly than it lends itself to tragedy, since though we balk at being forced to endure, say, a heroin addict's withdrawal symptoms or gang rape, we don't seem to mind being the butt of a joke or a buffoon.

At any rate, we don't mind for short intervals—say, the length of a short story. That said, the second person technique has proven extremely successful with longer forms—or anyway with one longer form, namely Jay McInerney's 1984 love letter to Yuppiedom, Bright Lights, Big City, which opens:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian marching powder.
In fact throughout the course of McInerney's book "you" go on to do a lot more Bolivian marching powder. Here, too, the overall effect is comic—though by the book's end the comedy has turned to pathos and arguably to self-pity (but then the self being pitied is, well, you).

Owing to the tortured metaphysical logic of second person narrations, we have, in a sense, ourselves to blame for whatever weaknesses endow their characters. We bear their burdens and their faults—and, to some extent at least, the faults of their authors. Call it guilt by association.

Then again many readers will cross their arms and say, "As a matter of fact, no, I am not in a nightclub talking to a girl with a bald head." And that will be that. In using the second person you throw a gauntlet to the reader. Supposing the reader doesn't pick it up?

In the given example "you" (a teenage boy) wait on the balcony of your parents' home to be picked-up by some friends for your "first-ever party." Just thinking of it "your heart beats fast," for you know it's not just a party that awaits you at the far end of that ride: it's a right of passage, an initiation. There will be "beer and liquor and girls." You almost can't believe it. It even seems to you, as you stand there waiting, that the likelihood of your actually achieving this milestone is about as great as that of "a snowstorm in San Antonio."

All this is well done; the author does indeed put us (or rather forces us into, for the second person is never quite voluntary) the psyche of an adolescent boy, a psyche beside itself with nervous erotic energy and anticipation. The details are convincingly precise, down to the grackles whose cries make a laugh track of the night—fittingly, for here, too, though there's drama, it's underscored by comedy. It makes for a strong opening to a story whose theme is the heady anxiety of adolescence—a story I, for one, wouldn't mind reading. Or playing the lead in.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Living With Lyle

A young woman runs into an old friend in a grocery store—at least she thinks he's an old friend. In fact the man Eleanor mistakes for "Lyle" is fresh out of prison, sent there for what crime we don't know. But rather than correct her, "Lyle" let's the mistake stand.

"I don't believe it," Eleanor responds. "After all these years . . . How insane is that?"

"More insane than you know," the narrator answers—and he means it.

This opening has a lot going for it, in fact it's hard to find fault with it. The first line thrusts us into the heart of the story, with the paragraph that follows setting the scene for the inciting incident—the unique event that wrests the character or characters out of their status quo and into something worthy of being called a story. Here, that unprecedented event is the meeting of not-Lyle and Eleanor, an encounter that turns on a case of mistaken identity. Not one but two lives are about to be derailed from their routines—or, in not-Lyle's case, from whatever passes for routine in the life of an ex-con fresh out of the slammer. The question now is what's going to happen with these two? It's the right question, the very question that will propel us through this narrative. Will he take advantage of her? Will she fall in love? Will she uncover his criminal past along with his deception? Is he a petty-thief, or a murderer? Will he love her in turn, or will he rob, beat, or kill her? Or combination of these things? The possibilities are, if not limitless, rich.

How would this story read from Eleanor's point of view? As a point-of-view character, pseudo-Lyle has his charms. But then he also knows he's an ex-con, just as he knows what sent him up the river in the first place. It will be much harder, and may require manipulation on the part of the author, to withhold his knowledge from the reader so as not to give a big part of the game away. If she manipulates too much, the author exposes herself to the charge of creating false suspense—suspense achieved artificially by withholding information from the reader that the character (or characters) are fully aware of. In that case it may be better to experience this relationship from the point-of-view of the character who's totally in the dark: Eleanor.

But in that case the author faces another challenge: namely, how to plausibly render a case of mistaken identity from the viewpoint of the person making the mistake. Will we be treated to Eleanore's perspective after she has already survived her experience—such that, as she begins the tale, she knows it is one of mistaken identity? If made such a choice would result in a great loss of tension and suspense. For a start we'll know she survives to tell the tale.

Hmm, maybe our author had the right idea: maybe it's better to stick to his viewpoint.

You see the sort of decisions writers wrestle with. There are no absolute or easy solutions. In the end, it may be best to rely on gut instincts. Here, so far at least, those instincts seem to be paying off.

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.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Suspense: False & Real

In works by inexperienced authors suspense tends take one of two forms. The first kind of suspense, the good kind, raises questions like the following:
  1. What will happen to X when Y happens?
  2. How will Character X solve Problem Y?
  3. How will X respond to Y?
  4. and so on.
With the second type of suspense, what I call "False Suspense," the questions raised in the reader tend to fall along the following lines:
  1. Who is X?
  2. What is Y?
  3. Where is this?
  4. What's going on?
  5. What in blazes am I reading, and
  6. Why am I reading it?
Both kinds of suspense create tension in the reader, but in the first case the tension created in desirable. Though eager to arrive at answers to the questions raised, the reader of a narrative that generates true suspense is willing to be teased, knowing that the answers will come in due time, and confident that when they do come they'll be satisfying and worth the wait. And while waiting for answers to genuine suspense questions, readers are provided with enough answers to inhabit the world of the story, to fully appreciate and experience its characters, settings, events, moods and themes.

With false suspense many if not all of the virtues of true suspense are sacrificed. Instead readers are treated to the extremely circumscribed and dubious thrill of wondering, for instance, in what part of the world a scene is taking place, and in what year, and who are the characters involved, what are their names, how old are they, how are they related to each other? Such questions are rotten fruits of the practice of withholding information: denying readers access to basic facts perfectly well known both to the writer and his or her characters.

That practice is hard at work in the opening scene of this novel, in which a woman named Janice watches a man cross a street toward her. From his "stuttering gait" to "the too-short sleeves of his tightly buttoned jacket exposing his bony wrists" to the "inches of vivid red sock above each dusty shoe" the man is carefully and vividly rendered. Though syntactically awkward in places ("she saw relief flood his face when he saw her in the corner"), on the whole the prose is solid, the actions—albeit laced with melodrama—duly observed.

And yet because the scene raises and answers the wrong questions, because its author is bent on false rather than real suspense, it falls flat. Instead of asking, "Who is this strange, raggedy man walking toward the protagonist?" (a false suspense question, since the protagonist knows perfectly well who it is) we should be asking, "Why has this woman not seen her brother for so long? Why does he look like a bum? Why is he shuddering? And what brings them together now, after so many years?" These genuine questions—questions the answers to which may justify the rest of the novel—are undermined by that one question, "Who is he?"—a question with no relevance to the situation at hand: and one no sooner answered than the scene ends, as if it had nothing better to accomplish.

Why do writers generate false suspense? For several reasons. First, because in reading works by other authors they confuse real suspense with a general state of confusion, or because in reading such works, even by celebrated authors, they encounter the same false suspense: i.e. Steven King does it, so why can't I? But a third explanation is the most likely: they lack sufficient confidence in the ability of their material to generate its own, authentic suspense, so they give it a leg up by capriciously withholding something here and there—in this case, the fact that the man crossing the street toward the woman is her brother.

Unfortunately, often this third explanation points to a deeper problem, namely the reason why authors lack confidence in a story's ability to generate authentic suspense: they don't yet know, or aren't sure, where their stories are going, or if they have a story to tell.

In this case I'm willing to give the author the benefit of any doubt. In fact I'm sure that Janice and Luke have had an intriguing past, and are headed for an even more intriguing future. I just wish their creator were as confident as I am.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Year of 14 Jobs

One of the hallmarks of good writing is its power to suggest. This is true not only for poetry and fiction, but for works of nonfiction, too, for essays and memoirs, even sometimes for journalism. Conclusive statements may or may not always convince us. But when authors provide readers with the raw, visceral evidence from which such conclusions may be drawn, allowing us to reach them on our own, then the conclusions are a lot harder to argue with, since the only person we have to argue with is ourselves.

In this opening passage from a memoir-in-progress about a year in a woman's life, everything is stated, and little if anything is implied. We are told, among other things, that during the course of that year she held fourteen jobs:
Some wild women may have 14 lovers in a year. More introspective types may read 14 books or see 14 movies annually. Some fun-loving women might purchase 14 swimming suits (my friend Dottie owned 18), swim in 14 different swimming pools, or scream through 14 roller coaster rides. In 1969, I held a total of 14 different part-time jobs ...
The last sentence here ("In 1969, I held a total of 14 different jobs") states the memoir's central subject, which the passage as a whole puts into perspective, or tries to, with its series of obsessed women. At the same time the passage highlights the uniqueness of its subject: how many people do you know, male or female, who in the course of one year have held fourteen different jobs? On the whole the paragraph is well-written. It has the cumulative power of many such parallel constructions ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". . . ). And it offers us something irresistible: an eccentric, struggling heroine.

Yet somehow the passage, and the opening as a whole, fails. The author seems less intent on dramatizing her material than on positioning and arguing for it, telling us not just what she has to offer, but why we should care. Because in a year other people may have fourteen lovers or fourteen books or fourteen bathing suits. But other people don't have fourteen lovers. Which may or may not be true (you see how easy it is to argue with such statements?). And even if it's true, do jobs compare with lovers—let alone with books and bathing suits? But even accepting the logic of the argument, it remains to be seen whether that argument justifies a memoir.

But analogies aren't the point; the point is, or should be, that in a given year a young woman held fourteen jobs.

That point, or something like it, provided Charles Bukowski with the subject of Factotum, his second novel. It follows Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, from one dreary, degrading, menial job to the next after he has been rated 4-F by the armed services and thereby exempted from serving in World War II. The novel consists of 87 brief passages or chapters, and an equal number of crappy jobs. The first passage begins:
I arrived in New Orleans in the rain at 5 o'clock in the morning. I sat around in the station for a while but the people depressed me so I took my suitcase and went out in the rain and began walking. I didn't know where the rooming houses were, where the poor section was.

I had a cardboard suitcase that was falling apart. It had once been black but the black coating had peeled off and yellow cardboard was exposed. I had tried to solve that by putting black shoepolish over the exposed cardboard. As I walked along in the rain the shoepolish on the suitcase ran and unwittingly I rubbed black streaks on both legs of my pants as I switched the suitcase from hand to hand.
So begins Bukowski/Chinaski's descent into the underworld of unemployment, with him cast to the very lowest circle, that of the unemployable. Note how, in opening his novel, Bukowski states nothing. He doesn't announce his intended theme, let alone make a case for it. Nor is there any intent to force perspective on us before we've been presented with any matter (scenes, events, experiences) to put into perspective. Instead what we get here is the matter itself: a down-at-the-heels guy in search of a rooming house in the rain, whose search will soon turn to one for gainful employment. Meanwhile his luck, like the black shoe polish on his suitcase, is already draining into the gutters.

My suggestion to the author of this memoir is that she begin similarly, with concrete matter rather than with abstract statements. In due time we will learn that her fourteen jobs "lasted anywhere from one day . . . to a few months," just as we will learn that the memoirist "wasn't like some of the other girls [she] knew at school who worked at the local drugstore." Such facts are best learned through experience. And the proper goal of the memoirist, no less than that of the novelist, isn't to present information, but to render experience.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

An Opening at Odds With Itself

Within the eight lines of its first paragraph, this opening scene presents readers with a melange of no less than ten metaphors for the narrator’s frustrated desire to belong fully to something, to “fit in.” The writing is passionate, poetic, full of spit and vinegar—but what is it for?

“If I could see myself plainly,” the narrator laments at the inception of this hyperextended metaphor, then proceeds to describe her spiritual condition in terms of a nut in a bolt, a knife blade, a cliff’s edge (overlooking flames), an empty skull, and something that “circles.” Having thereby exhausted nearly every available metaphor, she throws her hands in the air, declares the whole affair Kafkaesque, tosses two more metaphors our way (one reptilian, one insectine), and then abandons the whole metaphoric charade in favor of “normal, everyday” thoughts. Some readers may wish that she'd done so sooner. Whatever else it achieves, this opening paragraph convinces us, if we needed convincing, that, indeed, the narrator cannot see herself clearly.

But the real purpose served by this opening and others like it that I encounter often in novice works may be even more basic. Stated by means of another serial metaphor, it’s to get the author’s pen rolling, to blow some warmth onto the icy blank page, to get the narrative blood flowing. Others less charitably inclined may call it “throat clearing.” In any case, it should probably be cut: all of it. It's there for the author, not for the reader.

The real beginning starts with Matti inspecting a piece of restaurant china at an event, a birthday lunch. Perhaps she’s an event planner of some kind. We don’t know, but she has a vested professional interest in the affair at hand and its dinnerware. To be sure she is dressed to the hilt in her Allendi suit that “glow[s] in [its] shadows as if her body was lit by a lamp inside it”—making me wonder how much it glows in its shadowless regions.

Here the writing is comprehensible and much more effective. Still, we don’t quite know what’s going on; we can only guess. And some information provided seems misplaced. Do we really need to know that, before she married, Matti worked as a buyer for a restaurant supply wholesaler? Maybe, but within the context of so much more that remains unknown, that bit of information seems more coy than generous, more tease than enlightenment. Most readers would prefer to know who Matti is and what she’s doing, rather than who she was and what she did.

In the final paragraph again the author seems to throw his hands in the air (“Oh, God, her life is full of fucking clichés)—a comment that doesn’t seem to attach itself to anything, unless birthday lunches are a cliché, or Allendi suits, or certain types of restaurant china. But my guess is that the charge of “cliché” is a preemptive strike by the author against her own material, as if by the end of this first page she’s grown disenchanted, and declares defeat even before the first battle lines have been drawn. In each of the two sections that pattern is more or less repeated, with the author undertaking a bold initiative, then questioning it, then renouncing her kingdom before the reader has even had time to engage in hostilities. The author is her own worst critic.

All this may result from jumping into the writing prematurely, without proper preparation (like knowing, for instance, what the story is about), thus ending up like the actor in his nightmare, naked on the stage with no script.

The Season of White Flies

The first part of this opening of a novel confronts us with a host of negations bound by tortured syntax. Briefly, it tells us what the narrator, an only child, will (or won’t: see below) inherit from her (Italian?) farmer father.

For all its twists and tangles it’s an alluring passage, attractively written, with Biblically incantatory rhythms out of the Song of Solomon. Indeed, the set-piece passage, which serves more as an appetizer to the story at hand than as the main course, reads like a prose poem. Not the wheel of dried figs kept in the drawer next to the sink, not the crema in the morning made on the old stove parked on a dirt floor in a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet, not the . . . The temptation to keep quoting is strong; the words having the tug and energy of a strong tide. Like most good songs they seduce by their rhythms even when their meanings are difficult or obscure. Poets can get away with that, I suppose.

Then again, as Ezra Pound once said, “Poetry to be good poetry should be at least as well written as good prose.” (Pound also said “No verse libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” He said many good things, this poet who was tried for treason during WWII and kept for 25 days in a steel cage.) Based on Pound’s dictum one may take issue with this opening passage, since—though it succeeds as prose-poetry, fails at the level of prose. It fails for being at best unclear, at worst contradictory. Is the narrator inventorying those things that she feels “already belong” to her, or those that will not?

There is more than a bit of confusion at work here especially in the opening paragraph’s final clauses, which take us back to the same war that had Ezra spouting anti-Semitism on the airwaves, when the narrator’s father “chased songbirds down with a slingshot”—birds that “he learned to cook and what he cooked, they all ate”—"they" referring, presumably, to his family, and to the narrator (“it was his home and I, his daughter and that land”)—though on the other hand it strikes me that the narrator has yet to be born, that these are not her own memories but communal ones of her father, passed down to her by others. And thus the steps “from the soles of [her] father’s bare feet”—those of the boy with the slingshot—trod a path through the woods that in turn recalls. . . the father’s feet! This bit of poetic feedback gives way somehow to one of a grandmother's “worried lungs” sending or shooting up their “soil” along with her sighs. By soil we may infer catarrh or something more sinister—chunks of the lungs themselves. It’s not at all clear, and I for one lack confidence that the confusion is mine and not the author’s. Of Wagner’s music Mark Train once quipped, “It’s not as bad as it sounds.” Of this passage I would say it’s not as good as it sounds—and it sounds very good. Its sweet music and sharp imagery are undone by sloppy syntax.

The second section of this opening is similarly compelling, and similarly challenged. Here the image is the singular one of a bed groaning under the weight of books that have displaced a romantic partner. The books are being gathered by the stack and, for reasons unspecified, weighed. Apparently, they have accumulated in the wake of a dissolved love affair or union. But here too a disregard for literal meaning in the name of poetry creates confusion and disorder where none is called for.

The scene opens with the bed groaning with books. The words “It had happened again” point to a sudden, unanticipated event, where in fact the books have accumulated over time. The next, one-line paragraph (“I had forgotten this”) suggests that the narrator has come upon this scene from a distance of time or space. From there we move to a mini-flashback of life with Sam, the narrator’s partner, with whom the need to accumulate books was “undone.” But the rest of the paragraph belies this topic sentence, telling how “when [the books] formed a perilous body” the narrator began to gather them (“. . . as I used to when I was in graduate school”). Thus we have three beds full of books to grapple with: the one before Sam, the one after, and one back in graduate school. Question: which bed are we lying in here, now?

Come to think of it, syntax has something in common with bedclothes. Though the author makes the bed, we, his readers, must lie in it.

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.

Ordering Chaos

Among a fiction writer’s greatest challenges: how to evoke chaos while still making sense. The phrase “making sense” here is key, since ultimately the question boils down to whose sense is being rendered.

If the chaos confronting the reader is genuine chaos as experienced by the point-of-view character or characters—as opposed to an inadvertent, accidental, and hence inauthentic chaos arising from the author’s lack of command over his or her materials—then that chaos is welcomed, or anyway not entirely pointless.

In the given passage, one evening on his way home John Zambelli is rudely met by police officers who are, let us say, disinclined to ask questions first. In its particulars the scene is convincingly and vividly rendered. We are treated to the “rough hands” and “gruff voice” of Sergeant Molinski as he frisks his quarry, who lies prostrate across the paving stones of his front walkway. As the Sergeant works him over, a second officer, a woman named Dobbs, jabs her nightstick into John’s rib cage. Satisfied that Zambelli is unarmed and having duly blinded him with a flashlight, the officers learn his identity.

All of this is presented clearly enough for me to furnish this summary. Yet in the passage as written there are small points of confusion. In the opening sentence, we are told “John’s hands searched for comfort in the familiar stones beneath him.” From this we reasonably conclude that he is either on all fours or lying flat on the stone path onto which he has presumably been shoved hard. Did John have a chance to see his assailants before they tackled him? Unclear. But a moment later, where the gruff voice says, “He’s clean,” we are told—from John’s point of view—that the voice comes from “behind him” and that it “belong[s] to the cop holding the nightstick.” It’s logical, then, to conclude that John has not only glimpsed his attackers, but is able to positively identify them as police officers. In fact he's already done so, since in the first paragraph he describes the object being jammed into him as a nightstick as opposed to an unidentified blunt object.

Two paragraphs later, after John has “rotated his body slowly” to confront the officer’s flashlight beam, Molinski “ease[s] onto the landing and click[s] off the flashlight”, allowing John his first real glimpse of the cop, whose “service cap . . . barely reached John’s shoulders.” For this to be so the Sergeant would have to be very short indeed, considering that John still lies or sits on the ground.

These are small issues in a scene that, for the most part, is neatly written. The disorientation that has John Zambelli experiencing the “familiar stones” of his front walkway as alien objects now that they touch his hands rather than his feet is nicely observed. But however well established, John’s viewpoint isn’t followed through consistently such that we see, feel, hear, and touch as John does; so that his confusion makes complete sense, so that we know, for instance, that he is standing and not sitting or lying when he compares his height with that of his attacker. It’s a very small issue, but small issues like it add up and give way to larger problems: namely a lack of sufficient immersion on the author’s part in her viewpoint characters' perspectives, and the attendant overall murkiness resulting thereof.

The difference between ordered and disordered chaos is one most readers may not notice, but they’ll still feel it. Since fiction’s goal is to convey experience, even a very slight mishandling of POV will result in an obscuring or dilution of the fictional experience. An orchestra needs a conductor. What’s being orchestrated in a work of fiction is the reader’s senses through those of her fictional character or characters. When POV is mishandled, the instruments keep playing their parts, but the symphony is discordant. If that analogy won’t do here’s another. Reading fiction in which the viewpoint isn’t perfectly handled is like kissing a beautiful person with bad breath. You still get the kiss, but it’s not the kiss that might have been.