I think I was twenty-three at the time, having a ginger ale with Kaylie Jones and Nick Mamatas, talking about my favorite books. We went through the list: The Death of Artemio Cruz, Rosa, Rules of Attraction, Notes from Underground, The Great Gatsby, Tell Me a Riddle, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A Moveable Feast, Portnoy’s Complaint. Mamatas picked up on the theme throughout. It seemed I preferred narratives that had, what he called, “alienated monologues.” After some thought, I realized he was probably right. Not all the books used the techniques, but a fair share of them did. I think what draws me to them is those unique voices, how the the writers create a person out of nothing but words, and they still fascinate me, which is what makes “Here is a Place to Be” by Joseph Graham such a disappointment.
I don’t remember where I read it, maybe Gardner’s Art of Fiction, but there was a comparison of two different first lines from Melville. One was a novel that wasn’t very successful or good, according to the author; the other was from Moby Dick. The lines showcased the importance of establishing a strong voice from the get-go, as Ishamel does in one, simple sentence, compared to the other, which takes several lines to convey almost nothing. “Here is a Place to Be” falls into the latter category: “Todd holds me under.”
I’ll admit that this sentence introduces a problem, an urgent one for the character, but it’s the kind of problem we often find in bad prologues to bad genre novels. It’s meant to create excitement and concern, but how can the reader feel for something he or she knows so little about? Who is being held under water? How did they get here? Why? These questions are raised, but their answers are so delayed, it’s a struggle to reach them. It doesn’t make the story more interesting because we’re not invested. Instead, it feels dishonest, a cheap trick to capture our attention. And what’s worse is that the following sentences fail to clarify much of anything, choosing to focus on the immediate details of the protagonist’s surroundings, descriptions of the water and the muscles of Todd’s forearm like “snakes slithering beneath his skin.” I will give the author credit though. It’s good imagery which befits Todd’s character. It is a shame then that more of that craftsmanship didn’t spill over to the rest of the story.
The body of the narrative is the protagonist’s psuedo-stream-of-consciousness thoughts as he dies in the unknown body of water, where we get a full taste of that “alienated monologue,” and the results are disappointing at best.
The first thing that stands out is the style. It lacks variety. Most of the sentences are around the same length with the average size of about fifteen words long. There are, of course, a few sentences on the beefy side, but on the whole, they mostly look and sound the same. Even in construction the style seems one note. Graham seems only capable of writing typical noun-verb clauses and tries to use conjunctions or fragments to vary the rhythms (though there are a total of three imperatives early on). Graham writes:
I am in the business of forgetting. I am in the business of creating. Todd tells us our whole lives are a work of plagiarism, all of it is derivative. He tells us that there are two ways to make a difference in this world. He says one way just happens to be a whole lot easier than the other. He has us all read Oliver Twist, as if we are his students, his children. He tells us that he is our Fagin. I never read the book so I have no idea what he means.
The repetition and use of parataxis here doesn’t enhance but detracts. Aren’t there other forms of sentences, other rhetorical techniques at your disposal? So why use only one? Now, the case could be made that the prose is meant to feel deadening, as a reflection of the character’s state of mind, and I’ll grant you that. However, I don’t know that anaphora and repotia is the best way to do it. Those first two sentences are meant to be read to together as the reader should notice the repetition, yet Graham uses a period over a colon, which seems like a mistake, making the prose disjointed and cumbersome. Wouldn’t that do a better job establishing their connection? I know it seems nitpicky, but these things are important. They’re the invisible part of writing, what lulls the reader into the fictive dream as they unconsciously process the story’s theme. Here, the style is impeding that process.
Furthermore–and this is far less excusable–the story seems purposely vague. I understand that this is a character study, a portrait of Todd and his little cult of personality, but just because it’s using an irregular form does not mean shouldn’t be crafted for clarity or unity. The details of the narrator’s life in the cult lacks specificity of its events, focusing instead on the insignificant.
We whisper about his age sometimes. We think he is about forty. He’s got this violent grin, and the minute he meets anyone he can tell exactly what they want and how much they are willing to give in return. He plays jangly pop songs on his electric guitar, flakes of blue paint chipping away from the body of the guitar as he twists and swivels his feet around the compound, singing, a high-pitched squeal. He tells us that he found the guitar in a dumpster behind a church. The guitar is missing two strings now and I remember when he showed me the bodies of the two boys in the back of his trunk. Deep, red lines circling their throats, pale skin. He squeezed my shoulder when I was on my knees vomiting into the toilet. He told me there were only four strings left on the guitar.
Graham is more interested in local color than rendering an accurate and comprehendible idea. When you’re writing in such a limited form, why bother with lengthy descriptions? Furthermore, this cult is so ill-defined. Why exactly does Todd kill these kids? What’s his master plan? We’re really not given the right information here. If the point of the piece is draw Todd as a person, why isn’t he depicted as little more than a slightly benevolent psychopath? Or is it show the types of people who can succumb to such “safety,” like the narrator? Worst of all, the story doesn’t answer any of the questions it raises.
Even the ending is ellipitical and forced. As the narrator drowns, he says, “for the first time in a long time I feel clean.” Why exactly? Because his suffering is over? Because he has graduated as a “Lost Boy”? And what’s with the Oliver Twist reference? Is that supposed to enhance our reading of the text, some insigificant allusion, put there to parallel a similar situation without any of the context to clarify?
This story is a frustrating one to say the least, and I wouldn’t say that’s a good thing. The characters aren’t well-developed here, and the narrative seems needlessly framed by the narrator’s death. Sure, you might say that people are ultimately unknowable, but fiction attempts it nonetheless. The problem with this one is that it doesn’t bother to try.
I was introduced to Spartan via Twitter. I’m not sure how exactly, but I’m glad I was. The magazine’s aesthetic is clean and sparse, both in prose and in design. It’s clear the editors want to put the stories at the fore, and that’s an approach that is much appreciated, not too mention rarer than ever.
One of the stories I read was “Going, Going” by Anton Rose. It’s a slice-of-life, maybe a little over one-thousand words, and for the most part, it’s flash fiction done well. I know I’ve been critical of the form in the past, but this story reminds me that there are people who recognize the strengths of the form, like Rose. The problem with most flash fiction is that it often serves as a good opening to a much fuller and richer story that’s buried beneath a pile of description and exposition and typically forces profoundity onto the unprofound. Most writers of flash fiction subvert the elements of fiction not out of necessity but out of ignorance as they present their trite moments of reflection. “Going, Going,” however, largely succeeds in proving my bias wrong.
At first, it seems as though it’s one man’s struggle with cancer, but quickly, it devolves (in a good way) into something else entirely, tapping into magic realism and surrealist traditions. The twist is a unique one that surprises as much as it excites.
The structure too is pretty smart. Rather than dwell on one scene for its entirety, Rose chooses to use a series of snapshots to depict the enormity of his nameless protagonist’s situation, and though there’s no real sense of cause and effect as they bleed one scene to another, there’s still an overall sense of progression.
Rose’s primary conceit, the loss of hair and appendages, serves as the ticking bomb of the story, creating a sense of dread in the reader as the protagonist nears closer and closer to nothingness.
The prose has a Kafkaesque flair to it, not necessarily in the length of sentences or the complexity of their construction, but the flatness with which the narration presents the character’s situation.
He was sitting on the toilet one afternoon when he felt an itch at the tips of his toes. He pulled his feet out of his socks and shoes so he could scratch them, but his toes weren’t there anymore. He checked his socks, but they were empty.
There’s an uncanny aura to everything, as the reader is denied access to the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. We are left to our own devices and wonder if the character is disturbed by his metamorphosis as much as we are.
The nameless protagonist seems purposeful too. I think Rose wanted him to be a everyman-type character, one whose situation is relatable to anyone, a physical manifestation of the human condition. Rarely, does the protagonist react with horror or shock but, instead, with bemused indifference, recognizing the inevitablity of his fate, even as he watches others around him disappear:
A couple of days later he was sitting in the clinic again. The guy who normally sat to his right wasn’t there. Hadn’t been there for a while, now he thought about it. He tried to remember the man’s name, but he couldn’t bring it to mind. He only saw the chair, empty.
It’s a beautiful piece, even if a bit depressing, executed with a subtle grace. And even though it’s short, it still abides the governing laws of story. It has the structural elements we expect from fiction and succeeds in using them: It just uses a unique form to express them–which I think is what we should all strive for as writers. Experimentation is important, but it should never come at the cost of the story. They are one and the same, a part of a whole that must be manipulated as a choice, not a mistake.
Unfortunately, this story isn’t perfect, but few rarely are. The last scene feels like a missed oppurtunity, where the protagonist strips in the park and “melts” in the sunlight. I’m not sure what to make of it. There’s a sense of acceptance in the description, but we never had any real resistance earlier, making the character’s transformation seem dishonest and not earned. Furthermore, I think that last scene probably should have been the story’s fullest, rather than its most slight, and I’d probably attribute that to the story’s lack of interior. The narration is so distant throughout, and this is a place where that change would be justified and appropriate. It would enhance the overall thematic argument. I’m not saying that I don’t like the subtlety of the story–in fact, it’s one of its strengths–but sometimes that subtlety makes things more opaque than clear.
So other than those two minor flaws, this is a very good short story and well worth your time. And most importantly, it reminds us that there are writers who still partake in the tradition, even as they actively revolt against it.
It seems that the loudest voices in our most important communities are the ones who value hyperbole and polemism more than naunce and reason. They choose not to elaborate or explain. They believe their points are self-evident and beyond reproach, protected by the type of progressivism we all aspire to. That is not to say there aren’t any reasonable, intelligent people who deal with these issues. (If you need an example of thoughtful conversation, listen to Our National Conversation About Our Conversations About Race Podcast.) But anymore, the outrageous stand out, and when you look at their arguments, it becomes clear that they’d rather claim something to be true than prove it.
I was recently introduced to one of our latest cultural debates by Roxane Gay, editor of Pank, from Twitter. She wrote: “That NY Times article on Serena’s body is so misguided and racist and utter trash.” Now, obviously, Twitter isn’t a great space for proving arguments, but very few people have taken a greater space online or in print to explain. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I like I need evidence to be convinced, not empty claims. Again, most of the outcry has come from Twitter, but there have been a few that have eeked out that look exclusively at the article.
Maybe we should begin with the article in question, “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition” by Ben Rothenberg. Let’s put it under the microscope and look for racism and sexism, since it should be pretty easy to find.
The article begins with a description of how Serena Williams blends into the crowd: long sleeves. This first line doesn’t do a good job of making Williams an “other”–at least racially. (It doesn’t even bother to mention her race or the race of any other players for that matter.) The implication here isn’t that her body is all that different. If she can hide who she is by hiding her arms, shouldn’t that raise a question: Is her physique being portrayed as that “manly” or “masculine”? That seems unlikely. What is being suggested is her definition is “masculine,” according to other players, not the author. And if we approach this in a biological sense, instead of an emotional one, we can begin to understand what is the “problem”: musclarity.
Let’s be honest, women are afraid of muscles for the most part. If you were to go to any gym, you’ll find almost all the women working out on the treadmill or maybe doing some bodyweight exercises. And if you ask them why, they’ll respond that they don’t want to get “big,” that they want to “stay a woman.” People think that touching a weight turns you into a bodybuilder, that by benching or deadlifting, you’ll look like Ms. Olympia. People tend to forget that those people eat a lot more than any of us ever will and pop steroids like they’re fucking smarties.
One of the most quoted lines in the article is “Williams…has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.”
That does create a binary, I will admit that, but not the one people are so quick to offer. It’s sugesting that the reason why Serena Williams is so good at tennis is that she has the musclarity to be good, and there’s a reason her competitors can’t keep up. They think, like most women in the gym, that muscles equal masculine.
Take a look at the following quote for further evidence:
“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
Radwanska, who struggled this year before a run to the Wimbledon semifinals, said that any gain in muscle could hurt her trademark speed and finesse, but she also acknowledged that how she looked mattered to her.
“Of course I care about that as well, because I’m a girl,” Radwanska said. “But I also have the genes where I don’t know what I have to do to get bigger, because it’s just not going anywhere.”
Look at the contrast between the first paragraph here and the second. Notice anything? In the first paragraph, Radwanska’s coach explains that “she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.” What follows immediately is a rebuke of such a statement. Radwanska wasn’t as good as she could have been because she worried about her appearance. That’s a pretty good use of juxatoposition, I’d say. Of course, this does validate some of those arguments for this idea that Williams is more “masculine.” However, the next few paragraphs puts that idea in question.
For many, perceived ideal feminine body type can seem at odds with the best physique for tennis success. Andrea Petkovic, a German ranked 14th, said she particularly loathed seeing pictures of herself hitting two-handed backhands, when her arm muscles appear the most bulging.
“I just feel unfeminine,” she said. “I don’t know — it’s probably that I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecurities that every woman has, I think. I definitely have them and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body. Women, when we grow up we’ve been judged more, our physicality is judged more, and it makes us self-conscious.”
This section presents this masculine/feminine binary as a sophmoric belief. For one, it holds players back. And two, players, like Petkovic, recognize the absurdity of it. She’s too concerned with what others will think to win.
She even says, “I feel like there are 80 million people in Germany who think I’m a bodybuilder. Then, when they see me in person, they think I’m O.K.”
Again, this is a mistake people are making, confusing definition with masculinity. Yes, men have less essential fat on their bodies than women. That we cannot debate. But defining body fat percentage as a masculine/feminine idea seems counterproductive and unfair, which is how the public–and many of the players–see it.
The following paragraph even goes on to show the problems with such a distinction.
Williams, 33, who has appeared on the cover of Vogue, is regarded as symbol of beauty by many women. But she has also been gawked at and mocked throughout her career, and she said growing confident and secure in her build was a long process.
First, let’s recognize that the article explains that their are people who find Williams to be both beautiful and ugly–but Williams is “confident and secure,” regardless of the haters. If anything, this article is shaping up to have a theme of acceptance and empowerment than one that is racist and/or sexist.
The author even writes that “Not all players have achieved Williams’s self-acceptance.” The argument emerging is clear: The reason Wiliams is great is because she accepts who she is and, more importantly, does whatever is necessary to improve.
There are even a couple of quotes that further that argument: “‘The way Serena wears her body type I think is perfect,’ Shriver said. ‘I think it’s wonderful, her pride.’” Or: ““I actually like looking strong,” Watson said. “I find strong, fit women a lot more attractive than lanky no-shape ones.” Or: “‘Right now I’m a tennis player, so I’m going to do everything I can to be the best tennis player that I can be,’” said Wozniacki, who was featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue last year. ‘If that means that I need to add a little muscle to my legs or my butt or whatever, then that’s what I’m going to do. I can be a model after I finish.’” Or: “‘If I’m getting bigger, then I’m getting bigger,’” Bacsinszky, 26, said, adding, ‘I know if it’s for my sport, and the good of my forehand and my backhand and my serve, then I will do it.’”
Quotes like those certainly draw a line, and that line is clearly in favor of acceptance and improvement.
The article even ends with an appreciation of strong, musclar arms, the very thing Williams was hiding from the article’s outset:
Eugenie Bouchard, who was often dubbed “the next Maria Sharapova” as she ascended the rankings last year, said she hoped to gain more strength and muscle as her results have fallen off.
“If I start to see it, I’ll be happy,” Bouchard said. “If it’s what you need to lift trophies, who cares what you look like?”
That too me sounds pretty empowering. And even though it’s journalism, meant to only give the facts, there seems to be a sense of narrative, an artisty to the construction. It abides the laws of good fiction as much as it does good essays.
So what are the counter arguments?
In “Women’s Sports and Sexism: Isn’t Serena Williams Winning Wimbledon Enough?” by Teresa Jusino, there isn’t too much evidence presented, only a gut feeling, a sense of what the reader feels rather than what is on the page.
The article starts by injecting as much charged language as possible,. The article suggests that the very premise of “Tennis’s Top Women” “pits women in a field against each other,” which is “misogynist,” and “operates under the false assumption that only men can be muscular, and so muscular women are ‘masculine’ aberrations deserving of scrutiny.”
I think this misses the point entirely. First, what is narrative without conflict? Boring. And so what if women are “pitted against each other,” isn’t that the whole point of women’s tennis? Is the comparison of physiques now an affront to women? Isn’t that what people do, whether we admit it or not? We’re going to look at things we like more than things we do not. This seems like a over-simplistic assumption, at best. Furthermore, the article is presenting other people’s false assumptions. Some players believe that muscularity is inherently masculine, as shown in the quotes by some of the players, but whether Williams believes that or not is not the point: She accepts who she is. She is happy with her physique. It is defined not by others, but by her ability and confidence. Even better, where does the article say, explicitly that this is the case, that it is starting with this assumption? Or is Jusino injecting her own personal bias into her reading?
Soon after, Jusino states:
The very idea of this article is steeped in sexism. It would be one thing if you were interviewing a female tennis player and the issue of body image came up in conversation. It’s quite another to make that the story and ask female athletes at the top of their games whether or not they like “looking muscular;” [sic] covering it as if this is a timely story and a new trend in sports. NEWS FLASH: Women are judged on their bodies wherever they fucking go. They don’t need news stories to reinforce that.
This statement is problematic for a number reasons. First, it assumes there’s a context within which discussing body image is appropriate for journalism, and that an entire story devoted to the issue is not that context. Two, that because women are judged on their bodies, we don’t need additional reportage that confirms that women are judged on their bodies. That seems like a very unwise statement to make. Just because a story confirms something that bothers us doesn’t mean that we should never report it. Isn’t that a bt more meta than the typical fashion/gossip magazine perspective? But that’s problem when people, presumably, don’t read all the way through or closely enough.
“Tennis’s Top Women” presents a very Joycean argument, where “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” And Rothenberg is letting the players make his argument for him.
But this is the age we live in. Critics read their own biases into texts and repurpose them in order to further their own cause, regardless whether their argument about the text is valid or not. They see things that they want to see. I’m about as liberal as they come, but this kind of approach really turns me off. I can sympathize with those who see things the other way because the most important voices in our field tend to be the most irrational and illogical. As critics, we should make it our utmost priority to mine texts for what is being communicated. I’m not saying we need to go back to the days of the artist as sole interpreter of the text, but we do need to start casting off the chains of these cultural critical lenses. They’ve done a lot of good–there’s no doubt–but when we start to criticize a text for what’s unsaid as much as what is said, we start to alienate the very people we agree with.
“Cardboard Graceland” evidences many of the problems found in trendy short fiction. It’s replete with pop culture references and has an aimless plot that owes as much to its form as it does to its unclear direction and lack of narrative drive. Even the story’s first line isn’t all that appealing or interesting. Yes, it creates a problem for the character, but the conflict is buried, lost under the wave of description. Furthermore, Fogarty doesn’t use the basement in any meaningful way. He could let it serve double-duty to make the setting an extension of the character, to represent something about the narrator, but the prose is so flat and lifeless that any metaphorical parallels can’t be drawn by the reader. Just look at the following lines, where he writes: “I found a can of gold paint on sale and took it to a couple of the walls. Tacked up some of my old records and my velvet Elvis. Made it feel like home.” Moreover, the use of fragments here serves no discernible purpose. Why that over a comma? Maybe that last sentence could stand as is to emphasize the narrator’s “home,” but tacking up records does not require careful scrutiny on the part of the reader. It is a careless and unnecessary choice that seems thoughtless at best.
The narrator then tells us his proudest accomplishment: He found a bunch of cardboard boxes outside a mall and turned them into Graceland. This reeks of the typical quirk wedged into bad fiction. The reason why it doesn’t work is because it doesn’t have any baring on the narrative or the theme (whatever that may be). When you look at examples of absurd quests, in the Pynchon sense of the phrase, the author typically uses the absurdity in a way that demonstrate the futility of the the protagonist’s, and by extension our, goals. Here, instead, it serves only as useless exposition, which the author can’t seem to give enough of. This seems to be a constant throughout the story too.
It isn’t until paragraph nine that we actually get a sense of plot, something besides the expositional onslaught. In paragraph ten, we get a real scene, but this seems rushed rather than the dramatic crux of everything we’ve read so far:
So this afternoon I trimmed my burns and pulled on the jumpsuit and I went to the Boardwalk. It’d been raining. The air was hot and humid and I was sweating and the wet shorted one of my amps, cut out the sound halfway through my entrance music. I tried to do my big karate kick, but the seams on my suit split under the arms and I had to stop. There weren’t many people out except for some teenagers, surf kids probably, and they stopped whatever they were doing to watch and laugh. I’ve got a wireless mic that lets me roam a bit and work the crowd and since they were my only crowd I tried to banter. Asked where they were from. They laughed and one of them called me a fat old loser and another one called me the worst Elvis he’d ever seen. Tall blonde kid with a backwards baseball cap said I was a faggot with bitch tits.
Forgarty shows his narrator failing, which I will say we would expect at this point considering what we’ve heard prior, but there’s no real weight to it because we’ve never seen the narrator try before. We’re told that his “Hound Dog” is better than Elvis’s, but we aren’t shown it. Wouldn’t it have been better to start with his “success,” even a glimpse of it, so when the fall comes, we can be a bit more empathetic?
By the story’s end, the narrator “dies” just like Elvis, but there’s no sense of closure or finality to it. It feels as though the story just stops, and the writer is unsure why. Furthermore, what feeling should the reader walk away with? Is this a genius who the world doesn’t appreciate or a washed-up never-was? The narrator certainly doesn’t give us any indication of what he is. And I don’t think that enhances the story either. Sure, we could debate what the narrator was or was not, but without some direction from the narrative, we’re left to wonder if the problem is with the world or with the narrator.
One last thing, “Cardboard Graceland” has a structure that is unusual—to be polite about it. It’s a series of descriptions that leads to a climax and resolution, but the rest of its building blocks are largely absent. What events led to the narrator’s final performance? We know he’s a fat Elvis now, but we don’t know what makes him decide to give it one last go. We need some kind of inciting incident to chart his course. In short, there’s a lack of causality that makes the story as a whole seem frustrating rather than enlightening. So really, why should a reader spend his or her time on this story when there are so many more out there?
Nick Gregorio’s “Goings-Ons and Happenstance” really shouldn’t be as good as it is. A story like this, with an opening like that, could have quickly veered into Lifetime territory. That’s not to say that the first line isn’t a good hook—it introduces the conflict, gives the protagonist a problem, and pulls in the reader, so it is—but how many terrible stories open with such a situation? But fortunately, Gregorio’s care and grace as a writer shines through his prose and avoids any sense of trite sentimentality. It’s obvious in the way he melds memories of the incident into memories of the nameless protagonist’s life, slyly introducing exposition without dumping on the reader. He writes:
[S]he couldn’t remember if she’d ever noticed how pock-marked those flat cheeks of his were. Craggy and white, it reminded her of when she was a teenager, of what her own bare ass must have looked like pressed against the passenger window as she and her friends drove past movie theater marquees
The use of juxtaposition here, to contrast what she thought she knew with what she does know, creates an aura of uncertainty, a feeling of conflict even when doing something as simple as giving backstory to the reader. It’s the hallmark of genuine talent. Most writers fail to recognize that exposition is boring. It should parceled out and delivered naturally, typically with something else that pushes the narrative forward.
Even Gregorio’s use of summary is thoughtful. Instead of simply telling us that the protagonist is in a bad place or that she feels lost, he shows us with a meaningful string of snapshots:
She said, “Never thought of it that way,” sitting at the dinner table, staring at the food she hadn’t touched, at the phone that was spinning on its own axis as it vibrated from the calls she wasn’t picking up. The sound it made on the table reminded her of the garage door opening, of his coming home from work. But the front door never opened. And she sat there until she went and curled herself up on the couch.
In the morning, Friday, she counted Jim’s missed calls. She waited until lunch to listen to his voicemails. They were composed at first, almost professional.
Gregorio’s style here is also important to note. Rarely is there a wasted word. There are some occasions were the language could be a better little, like when he writes “Before then she’d never seen what his ass looked like in that set of circumstances,” which probably could have been shortened to just “in that circumstance,” but overall, his minimalism, both in language and in scene, is one of his strengths as a writer. He uses understatement effectively as well, with lines like, “she’d watched for a minute. Not because she was turned on, that would’ve been ridiculous.” The writer clearly has a sense of humor. Even his use of fragments is careful and considerate. A lot of writers litter the page with fragments because they think it creates a certain “flow,” but often times, it makes the writing monotonous and stale. They aren’t giving enough attention to why, but Gregorio uses his fragments judiciously, punctuating certain lines to highlight something important. (Besides, if a writer uses the same effect over and over, that effect will eventually lose its significance through overuse alone.) When he writes, “Then she remembered having his hand down her pants in that lot. Years ago,” the fragment emphasizes that lost past, drawing a line between the then and the now. We as readers understand the protagonist’s trajectory in the scene before it even happens. We recognize, through style, that this won’t be a friendly meaning. She’s not going to embrace Jim with open arms, and all of that is communicated with the smart use of a period.
Typically, a story like this, one that opens with the affair in progress, sets up a journey, and in the Lifetime movie-of-the-week, the scorned wife would go on a journey of discovery and get her groove back. But Gregorio does well to avoid that. He subverts our expectations and establishes a greater sense of realism. After she shits on Jim, our protagonist tries to create a new, unmarried identity. She chooses a variety of names for her online dating profiles, Meredith, Laurel, and Ellie. Each name comes attached with its own personality, something for our protagonist to try on. It is her first attempt at becoming a person without Jim, an sense of selfdom that is not defined by marriage. She’s taking steps towards an identity of her own. Notice that this is a conscious choice of the author. Since his protagonist doesn’t have a name throughout the story, he makes that choice more meaningful by introducing this opportunity to her. Furthermore, the symbolism here is subtle and powerful, the kind of thing you’d miss if you weren’t paying close attention. It’s implicit, visibly invisible. We feel it: We don’t see it.
The story’s midpoint is particularly engaging, Meredith’s date with David. This is the protagonist’s highest high since the inciting incident, and it’s one that comes across in a natural and realistic manner. She flirts with him and quickly takes him home. She engages in hot, aggressive sex that makes David slightly uncomfortable. But it’s also a form of punishment, one that the protagonist thinks she needs. Gregorio uses the protagonist’s desire for pain as penance for “cheating.” Even though she wants to escape that identity she shares with Jim, she is bound to it more than she knows. This, of course, sets the stage for the story’s lowest low.
Because of her guilt, she gets back together with Jim, thinking that the two of them are now even. Things seem to be on the rebound with the two them however, and maybe there’s a chance at a happy ending after all. The story, at this point, has completely divorced itself from the cliché. We don’t expect the protagonist to go back to her husband. He’s a piece of shit. But she does, because she thinks she must. And it’s all set up in the prior scene. Even though it’s not what we want for her, her choice makes sense based on the events with David. It’s the only logical choice, which leads to the third-act twist, showdown, and resolution.
When David finally arrives at the house, he’s confronted by Jim. The protagonist doesn’t even have the courage to go to the door. She can only observe as David pleads to speak with her. And due to her use of a pseudonym, one that just happened to be on the couple’s list of baby names, this creates some confusion for David and Jim.
David said, “There is no Meredith. Is there?”
Her husband answered his question, said, “Not that I know of. I suppose there won’t ever be, now.”
The use of dialogue here is brilliant, symbolic as it is realistic. It’s just a simple conversation, one that clears up a misunderstanding, but it also serves another, actually two more, purposes. One, it highlights that our protagonist will never find that new identity, never know who she is without Jim, and two, that this couple will never have a baby. That’s pretty good for two lines.
The story ends with the protagonist’s sexual epiphany:
They fumbled with each other’s clothes. She thought it felt like the first time she’d ever been undressed by another person. Awkward and strange. And alien. So they took off their own clothes, folded them, placed them into piles next to the bed on their respective sides.
She laid on her back while he propped himself up over her. He did his routine. Her mouth, her neck, her nipples. Then his face was between her legs.
And it stayed there.
She felt nothing.
She said, “This isn’t working.”
He stood up. She saw that nothing was happening for him either. He said, “Want me to use my fingers?”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
Naked, staring at the ceiling, they laid next to each other until he answered a phone call from work, said he had to write an email.
She got up, dressed herself, and went to the kitchen to clean up the mess they left from dinner.
In this final scene, Jim is completely oblivious, and the protagonist recognizes that she is doomed. They’re not the people they thought they were—aliens, as Gregorio puts it. But we’re left with a feeling that the protagonist is trapped now. She like Eveline, had an opportunity for escape, but since she is so fettered to tradition, that escape will never come. She knows and we know what is right for her, that she needs to be that independent person she was trying to be, but being that independent person is harder than it seems. It’s not about logic: It’s a matter of feeling. And that’s a Joycean touch that more writers should aspire to.
It’s always been a part of our nature to notice patterns and assign them meaning. Take the constellations, for example. People looked up at the night’s sky and saw shapes and figures in the random order of the stars, and with one stroke, they connected the dots to reflect their own understanding of the world. It was one of humanity’s first attempts at art.
We had created symbols, an object meant to represent something else. It’s been a western tradition ever since. Just look at the book of Genesis and the story of man’s fall from grace. When Eve commits the world’s first sin–disobeying the word of God–it is not just through action but by taking something physical. Gods orders could have been simpler: “Don’t ignore me.” Or: “Don’t go over there.” But it is the eating of the apple that gets her and Adam in trouble. The apple is a manifestation of that sin. And thanks to the Bible’s enormous influence, apples tend to represent sin throughout the western world. But every text, every work of art, has its own internal logic, symbols bound to them, things that stand in for something else.
One of the best places to turn for this is The Great Gatsby. Throughout the novel, at different lulls in the story, Nick Carraway observes Gatsby standing out on the dock, gazing across the bay at the green light that radiates from Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s home. The green light is a symbol among symbols. First, notice the choice of color. Green is the color of money for one but, also, jealousy–as in he is “green with envy.” That’s no accident on Fitzgerald’s part either. The light itself represents Gatsby’s great longing for the life he could have had with Daisy, a life Tom has and he wants. Part of what prevents that from happening is that Gatsby isn’t old money: He’s a bootlegger. That’s not the kind of man, according to society’s standards, can marry a woman like Daisy. And all of that is communicated with a simple green light.
Symbols are great because they prevent us from ever veering into the melodramatic, from being too “on the nose.” They say what characters cannot say or express. Some are more highlighted than others, of course.
In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway sets the story in a train station to show the differing paths the couples may take, whether they choose to keep the baby or abort it, as well as whether the couple will stay together or fall apart. However, it’s far more subtle than Fitzgerald’s use of symbolism in The Great Gatsby. It’s almost a throw away line. But it’s there, under the surface.
T. S. Eliot, in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” presents the idea of the objective correlative.
“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
This, I believe, broadens our definition of symbolism, and though not quite exactly the same, is helpful in understanding the possibilities of literature. Eliot’s point is that all the elements of story can represent the emotion of the narrative. An object can stand in for jealousy or longing, love or loss, choice or consequence, but so too can it be applied to setting, scenes, structure, plot, dialogue, so on and so forth. We tend to think of symbols as only one part of the narrative, that they exist as symbols themselves, but everything in a story is symbolic. It stands in for something else. Even words themselves are symbols. What does anger look like? Depends on who you ask. What does madness look like? Each case is individual. Even something as simple as a table has different shapes and sizes.
This is what we call signifiers and signifieds. The signifer is what represents the object; the signified is the object itself. As Kenneth Burke once wrote, “Man is the symbol-wielding animal.” It’s a part of our nature. We were born to do it. So keep an eye out for how the elements of a story reflect the heart of it–its theme. It may enhance your understanding of the text, or when done thoughtlessly, it may give you a reason to close it.
My first semester as a grad student, everyone thought I was a douche, and to be fair, they still do but one with whom they don’t mind having a drink and sharing their lives. Back then, however, I was the odd man out. For one, I was the youngest of my cohort. Furthermore, I was probably the most prentenious of the bunch by far. But the thing that bothered my peers the most was that I seemingly had read everything. That’s no mere boast, mind you. My knowledge of the classics was so extensive that when my instructors quizzed us on the openings of great stories and novels, I easily had the high score that day. Kaylie Jones even made a joke of it, when I confessed that I hadn’t read a story by de Maupassant: She said, “Wait, there’s something you haven’t read.” After class, my peers asked me where I had gone for undergrad–did I go to some special prep school? To their surprise, their was nothing fancy about my upbringing or my education. My parents weren’t wealthy. I worked throughout college at UPS. I had graduated from a public high school with little distinction and a public university with even less. So how did I, at twenty-two, read more of the canon than writers who were my age in triplicate?
The short answer is simple: the internet.
When I was in high school, I hated reading. It’s a miracle that I passed at all, since I did everything I could to avoid completing an assigned text. I can honestly say that I finished a handful of books over the course of my secondary education. What was the point? TV was twice as fast and a hell of a lot less boring. Besides, what use would it serve me? I was going to be a nuclear physicist.
The only thing I could choke down was poetry. It was short, which was nice, but the other thing about it was its play with language. I’ve always had a ear for music, for the beauty of sounds, naturally-attuned for euphony. I just liked the way some words sounded next to others. I liked it so much I began to write poetry myself. My friends would remark how any time they saw me I had a pen and paper in hand, furiously scribbling. And that love of poetry followed me to college, and so did my love of movies and philosophy. My love of physics, however, did not.
If there was one thing I didn’t like, it was studying, and in order to succeed in my science courses, I was expected to memorize all manners of formulas. But where was the critical thinking, the application of ideas, the innovation? Physics and calculus didn’t offer any of that, so I guess that’s why I failed both. But it didn’t phase me all that much. It was a chance for me to discover what I really wanted. I didn’t want to have a career where I plugged numbers into a calculator and charted a graph: I wanted something meaningful. I wanted a job that didn’t feel like work, that came naturally, because if I did have to study, I’d never graduate.
I thought about the things I was good at, the things I did well, the ones people had said I did better than most. In tenth grade, I remembered, my English teacher said I should major in creative writing. At the time, I thought he was full of shit. But then I realized, he wasn’t the only one. In fact, as early as fifth grade, people were saying I had a way with words. It was theme that kept reoccuring, and I kept ignoring. But if I was going to be a writer, how would I learn to get better?
The answer was obvious: I had to read.
At first, I picked up books others had recommended, like Fight Club, or ones by poets I had enjoyed, like Sylvia Plath. It was during this time that I realized that reading wasn’t such a chore; in fact, it was a lot like watching a movie. It had all the things I liked about Star Wars or Back to the Future, the only difference was that I had to imagine it. I also learned that writing sentences was pretty damn similar to writing poetry. It didn’t take long for me to exhaust the few books my friends had loaned me. Worse still, I had no where to start. How would I know where to start on my own?
My talk with the librarian proved fruitless. Most of my classes were general education courses, and none of the teachers seemed particularly helpful. Then the idea occurred to me. I was pretty good on the computer. I had used it to enhance my knowledge of music and film. I had torrented hundreds of classic albums and films–from a list I complied by spending hours every night on Wikipedia. (My instructors over the years are probably having a mild heart attack at this moment.) The site had been invaluable to me. They had articles on the history of film, notes on significant achievements in the artform, even little footnotes that led me further down the rabbithole. Why couldn’t–or bet yet, shouldn’t–I use this tool to help with my new goal?
So I did. I sorted through page after page, clicking on links and footnotes, following the thread as far as it would go. I checked out books from the library, and when I couldn’t get them for free, I gave up buying lunch to buy a book instead. I didn’t read books based on their description, only reputation alone. Many were very good books, like Notes from Underground or Blood Meridian; others were not so good, like The Bluest Eye or Home to Harlem. Regardless, every novel presented some new skill for me to learn or avoid. The good books showed me how to write with care, how to search for that one perfect word (le mot juste), to give as much attention to my prose as my characters, to set a scene. The bad books showed me what dreck looked like on the page and spurred me to try, because, I reasoned, if shit like that can get published, why can’t I?
Every few weeks, I would go through my supply and search the web for a new fix. I used the Time list, the Modern Library list. I read anything I got my hands on, and when I switched from physics to English, I had even more books to enjoy. My best semester introduced me to Crime and Punishment, Song of Solomon, Midnight’s Children, and The Death of Artemio Cruz from just one class. I got to the point where I was reading three or four books a week at least. Sometimes even, I’d put down one novel to pick another immediately.
I had become an addict.
I’ve been teaching college for three years now, and in that time, I’ve managed to have quite a few students who have made me proud. More rare, however, have been those who chose to write, who have that yearning, that boundless ambition to press pen to page. They often come to me for advice, and I think, they’re often disappointed with what I have to say. They say, I have an idea for a story. It’s about this guy who…. They give me every piece of it, scene by scene, and ask me what I think. Typically, I like it. Then I give them the bad news: Where are the pages? Usually, they shrug and say they keep throwing them out. I’m quick to remind them that they’ve produced fine writing in the past, and they will contnue to do so. All they have to do is write it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad, because it’s a draft. There’s plenty of time to fix it. The words aren’t static, fixed there forever: They can be changed. Then they say, What about Hemingway–how can I ever compare to him?
Try, I say, just try.
The writing you never do is writing that you can never assess, that you can never know the true worth of. My former students who want to write take it for granted that their heroes struggled themselves. Hemingway rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-four times before he was happy with it. And I doubt that Hemingway learned his craft in a vacuum. He studied the masters; he emulated them–as did everyone else.
Ben Franklin famously taught himself to read and write. For him, those two things went hand-in-hand. The man himself, more or less, invented the American style. But he didn’t do so in a day. It took years of practice. His method was simple: He found a piece of writing he thought was particularly impressive (for him this was The Spectator), tried to memorize it as best he could, and then wrote out those sentences and paragraphs. After he finished, he would look at his work and then the original and compare. Sometimes, he discovered he had improved the style; other times, he discovered he hadn’t. But that learning process was enormously important in his growth as a writer. He learned what good writers did and then did them himself. His case is not unique as I’ve said already. Hunter S. Thompson copied pages of The Great Gatsby just to know what it felt like to type out Fitzgerald’s prose.
As children, we do this instinctually. We mimic the sounds and phrases of our parents and those around us. We learn the language by copying the way others use it. The same goes for writing. A lot of it comes through osmosis. By seeing the same things over and over again, we adopt those choices as our own. But there’s more a young writer can do, and it requires something we so rarely give: careful and considerate thought.
If we passively read, there’s only so much we can learn; however, if we look at a sentence and ask why, we begin to strive towards something greater. Every word, every mark of punctuation, every paragraph break, the order of the sentences, their length, their construction–all of these things are a choice, whether we recognize it or not.
Emerson demonstrates it best: “First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write.”
This sentence alone is a testament to his genius. Look at the sentence above. We’ll skip the diction choices and focus solely on punctuation. Emerson could have written it like this: “First we eat, then we beget. First we read, then we write.” Or he could have done this: “First we eat. Then we beget. First we read. Then we write.”
The two latter examples don’t have the same, and I hate to use the word because it’s so ill-defined, flow. They just don’t sound right. Why?
Emerson’s sentence is perfection because the construction draws a parallel. It serves as an analogy: Eating is to reading as begetting (procreating, making babies) is to writing. Had he choosen one of the alternatives, that connection would have been lessened or even lost. The order of the words are the same in both clauses, separated by a semi-colon. Can that be copied or imitated? Of course, it can. Emerson doesn’t own the copyright to that structure. It’s free to use as you like–and so is the rest of the canon.
Everything is a technique. It’s just a matter of trying it out for yourself, or as T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal.”
People tend to forget the age we live in and the resources available to us. As far as access to knowledge goes, this is the best time to be alive. There’s a whole world of information on the internet just begging us to look at it. Project Gutenberg hosts just about every novel in existence that is out of copyright. Wikipedia is a pretty damn good encyclopedia. Sparknotes and Shmoop are there to help us understand those difficult texts. And the best part is that they’re all available for free. If you wanted to read through the works of Homer in the past, like say in 1300s, you had better be rich or have access to a serious library, since books had to be produced by hand. Or If you wanted to read every one of Shakespeare’s plays, in say 1900, you better get your butt to the bookstore and have some cash on hand, because even though his work had been out of copyright and could be printed for free by anyone, the only way you could get it was in hard copy. Furthermore, good luck getting anyone to explain it to you back in the day. Unless you knew some slick literature professor, you were on your own. Now, you don’t even have to leave the bathroom for all that and more.
It’s amazing that we have all these devices in arm’s reach at any given moment, and we don’t even bother to log off Facebook or Instagram for a minute to see what else is out there. It’s no wonder people call us entitled. We don’t seem to realize the power we hold in the palms of our hands.
I did, but I’m the exception, not the rule–not that I’m anything special. And don’t think I’m discounting the legion of educators I’ve had in my life. Without them, I am nothing. But I didn’t expect to be spoon-fed the rest of my life either. I knew there would be a time when I would have to step out on my own, and I committed myself to it. The question, then, is obvious: Will you?
Truth be told, I’m not very familiar with the work of either Matthew Doffus or The Buffalo Almanack. The most I could find about the former was a poem he had published in Barrelhouse, and as for the latter, the most I can say is that I submitted to them once in the past. But that’s about all I know, and frankly, I prefer to keep it that way–at least, for now. I can’t even tell you how much the magazine awards the winner of their Inkslinger contest. But I’m trying to stay purposely ignorant, with as few biases as possible, and bring you an honest critique of the story.
“Shadowboxing” follows the life, career, and death of artist Sara Frye as seen through the eyes of her sister Anita. The story deals with themes of mental illness, youth, and artistic integrity. The most obvious and abundant strength of the story is the prose. For example, when the older sister Anita, visits Sara after her first suicide attempt, Doffus writes:
Back at the hospital, she flapped her bandaged arms at me and called me Auntie, as though nothing unusual had transpired. Dark circles ringed her eyes like bruises, and her normally pale skin looked translucent. She’d lost weight: her collarbones and sternum stood out beneath her gown. Her blond hair, shoulder-length when she’d colored it with markers years earlier, had been hacked into a lopsided bowl cut that called attention to her pointy ears.
The prose has a clarity and beauty that is rare even among literary writers. Although a simple description, Doffus seeks out le mot juste and paints a striking image in the fewest words possible. Furthermore, the sentences, aside from being lean and muscular, don’t necessarily draw attention to themselves. He’s not attempting to push his sentences to the breaking point or trying to be as elliptical as possible. Neither choice seems particularly important to the author, not that I think that those moves would improve the story. As I said, his prose is simple–but recognize that it isn’t simplistic. Just because most sentences are variations of the typical noun-verb construction does not limit the writing. It still has a clear and distinct rhythm and never once does it feel like a chore to move from sentence to sentence. Doffus adds enough variety with introductory prepositional phrases, complex, compound, compound-complex sentences, and appositives that his prose has a momentum that beckons the reader to read on. His descriptions are probably the best part of the story.
Surprisingly, the peripheral characters are well-developed too. Lines like, when Sara marries a fellow artist and brings him home to the family, “For the rest of [Anita and Sara’s parents] lives, they couldn’t understand Ravi’s stuffy, conservative suits were an artist’s affectation, not a sign that he was a member of the Nation of Islam” tell us a lot about the the parents without wasting the reader’s time. And though Sara seems little more than a manic-pixie dream girl taken to her logical end (which I will get to later), Anita, our narrator, is particularly interesting, as the first thing we learn about her after her sister’s death is that Ravi tells her not to make the suicide about Anita. However, this idea never seems to be followed up. In fact, this missed opportunity leads to the story’s overall problem: the structure and story itself.
The tale begins as Anita tells us that she had learned of her sister’s death via the internet. She says, “Like much of what was written about her, the post made up for a lack of facts with innuendo and attitude.” Yet, this idea never seems capitalized on either. There’s no real contrast of the woman the rest of the world sees and the one her sister sees, at least not in a meaningful way. Most of the story looks at things through Anita’s eyes, her private encounters with her sister. While we do have hints and reports of what the rest of the world thinks, like the French critic who labels her elfe terrible or the journalists asking questions about her at the end or the many awards and honors that Sara has been bestowed, there is an obvious missed opportunity here. If, from the outset, we’re promised a juxtaposition of who Sara was and who people thought she was in the Charles Foster Kane-mold, why is it we’re so often sidetracked? It seems like this part of Sara’s character isn’t fully realized, as though the writer didn’t know the answers himself. Yes, people think she’s brilliant and genius, but what else? That outside portrait of Sara is sorely lacking here. And Anita’s experience shows her as mostly irrational and crazy, but that, at least, has some depth to it because it is shown in scene.
Later on in the story, there’s a dispute between Ravi and Sara, an argument over a painting which he stole from her and passes off his own. This feels more like a distraction than anything else, a plot point arbitrarily thrown into the mix rather than thoughtfully considered. It might be possible to say that the theme of perception could be paralleled with Sara’s public/private image and Ravi’s theft, but again, the writer doesn’t really emphasize this. It feels as though the story doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a about who we are and who others think we are or is it about jealously in the artistic world (Sara’s second and successful suicide attempt comes after her estranged husband wins a MacArthur Grant)? Both of these ideas could have served as stories of their own, but here it only causes cognitive dissonance. Even Doffus’s choice of scenes and character interaction, while strikingly realistic, feel wedged into the story instead of arising naturally from a causal series of events. The first scene we get is of Sara as a child, when she gets a Polaroid camera. We get some nice summary, essentially a series of snapshots, that flesh out the character and show her eccentricities, but when the scene starts the conversation is banal and directionless.
Sara tells her sister about why she hangs her Polaroids with nails, “Thumb tacks won’t work…so I use nails.”
Anita replies, “How does Mother feel about this?”
“She made me promise not to hit my thumb…. Like I’d do that on purpose. That’s why they call them accidents.”
These first lines of dialogue should be of extreme importance, but instead, they only add to our confusion. If we fold them into the theme and overall plot, we have to ask, “Are we to question Sara’s death?” Was it an accident? Putting a gun in your mouth seems like a strange accident. Is it to show how Sara has changed by the story’s end? But I would argue Sara doesn’t undergo any change. She has superficial ones but not ones that matter. She’s a manic-pixie dream girl through and through from start to finish. There really isn’t any character here who makes a change, not even Anita. This is what I think does the story in. The prose is wonderful and the characters are interesting and their conversations and thoughts feel meaningful but that meaning is lost on the reader, presumably because the writer was just as unsure himself.
In short, though there are some nice things here and everything here feels cohesive and unified, it ultimately falls apart under careful scrutiny. It’s worth your time if you want a quick and enjoyable read, but overall, it’s a story that’s not worth the analysis because you’ll end up getting frustrated by the ill-defined themes and one-dimensional nature of the protagonist.
Depending who you talk to, you’ll either here one of two things when it comes to setting: “It’s not important” or “OMG! It’s TEH most important thing EVER!!!!111! It’s like a character!” I like to think it’s somewhere in the middle. More like, “It’s alright.” Alone, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Just think about some sci-fi or fantasy stories that begin with a whole bunch of world-building. Do you read it and enjoy it? Or do you toss that book away and find another that doesn’t waste your time? Most likely, you choose the latter. A wonderful sci-fi novel like Starship Troopers starts with the character and his/her problems and slowly introduces that vast universe. We need someone whose eyes we can see the world from, regardless of how similar or how different that setting is.
You see, setting is merely an extension of character and vice versa. It’s all human psychology. There are those wealthy people in the world who know little of the struggles of everyday people, who may suffer the stress of running a business, of raising their kids, of hosting a great dinner party, of having the nicest home on the block, of being able to afford the latest toy, but they don’t know hunger or homelessness, what it’s like to go to school and feel unsafe or wondering if this month’s check will clear in time to starve off eviction. We are all products of our environment, but we also help to shape them too. The world we are born into represents who we are as much we represent it. The wealthy man might not know what happens in other spheres, but he knows firmly what the people are like in his own. However, if you take him out of his bubble and subject him to another’s, suddenly, there’s the germ of change–for good or for bad. That experience causes him to look at his life and home differently. The clashing of cultures, people from different places interacting, is what helps us move forward as human beings. We recognize the threat of the other, the unknown, and either adapt or resist. The wealthy man, after his encounter with the working poor, might come back to his life with a renewed appreciation. He might return and wonder how such inequality exists. He might come back and decide that he’s entitled to what he has. He might walk in through the doors of his mansion and realize that those people he just saw are nothing more than scum who need to be eradicated. It’s all a matter of perspective and experience.
As I’ve said before, there are really only two kinds of stories that exist: Someone goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. When we look at plot this way, it demonstrates the value of setting. It is a harbinger of change. All it depends on is how small your bubble is. In the novel Norwegian Wood, the protagonist’s sphere of influence is his small town of Kobe–or maybe even smaller. It may be his close group of friends: him (Toru), Naoko, and Kizuki (Naoko’s boyfriend). But the novel takes place in bustling Toyko during the 1960s, when Toru finds himself a student in college and must struggle to fit into this new world. Toyko is vastly different, and with it come all kinds of strange characters, like Storm Trooper, Toru’s roommate who keeps their dorm spotless and wakes up at six AM to exercise. Toru finds this new place strange along with it’s inhabitants, but he also learns to adapt. Naoko, who also moved to Toyko, can’t and finds herself in a mental institution outside Kyoto in the mountains. This, coincidentally, is what drives the plot of the novel.
The beginning of Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is an excellent example. Just look at the first paragraph.
Her doctor had told Julian’s mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class at the Y. The reducing class was designed for working girls over fifty, who weighed from 165 to 200 pounds. His mother was one of the slimmer ones, but she said ladies did not tell their age or weight. She would not ride the buses by herself at night since they had been integrated, and because the reducing class was one of her few pleasures, necessary for her health, and free, she said Julian could at least put himself out to take her, considering all she did for him. Julian did not like to consider all she did for him, but every Wednesday night he braced himself and took her.
Julian and his mother come from a more suburban region in the south, but in order to get to the Y, they have to go into the city, where black people and white people have to interact. Travelling itself is a problem and is an extension of the greater conflict of the story: Julian’s mother’s racism. She is a product of the Old South, who sees the world in simpler terms. Julian is much more experienced and has seen other parts of life besides the plantation, but he’s no saint either. He uses his progressiveness as a dagger, something to twist in his mother’s side. He doesn’t want to make friends with black people because he values them as individuals, but because he hates his mother and what she stands for. The question, of course, is whether this story could take place anywhere else? The short answer is yes and no.
Yes, because racism and integration are not unique to America or the 1960s. This story could have easily taken place in South Africa at the end of apartheid. It could be reimagined with aliens–like a District 9. Those points of view would be the same regardless: They are not special in the realm of human experience. However, I also say no, because the American south of the 1960s has a different flavor than any other place in history. It is unique, and it shows in those characters. The things they say, the places they go, the things they think, the conflicts they encounter, are unique to that setting and that setting alone.
Themes are universal. How you demonstrate them is specific.
This is part two of my series on point of view. If you’d like to read the first post right here. So without further adieu, let’s get into to it.
First person is probably the most natural of all points of view and often establishes the most immediate sense of empathy. We instantly connect with the I on the page because we recognize this as a symbol for selfdom. It is an idea that we identify with because we are all the I of our own consciousness. Just look at the following passage from The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow:
“I am an American, Chicago-born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
“Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.”
Bellow choose first person in order to make friends with his reader. It’s a tactic that, if not prescribed to an interesting character, can often backfire. But luckily for Bellow, Augie March is one of the greatest characters in all of American Literature.
Of course, this should not be our sole consideration for choosing first person. Obviously, when you choose to transcribe a character’s dictation, you are limited in a number of ways:
- Your narrator can only know the things he or she knows through either experience or report.
- Your narrator always has to be a part of the action.
- Your narrator has a bias.
These three tenets are our essential guides when writing in first person. The first one is important because human beings cannot be outside themselves: They cannot know the thoughts and feelings of others truly. We can only give clues and details that suggest but not define the others around them. (Narrators who are mindreaders are often lazy and dishonest, because they can, at will, eliminate all subtext and uncertainty–and tension.) The second one is important because, if they are not involved, they can go fuck about elsewhere draining the story of its momentum; however, that does not mean the narrator has to be the protagonist. Just look at The Great Gatsby for an example of a first-person narrator who is peripheral to the action but still in observance of it. And lastly, your narrator must have a bias because we all have a bias. Some people use the term unreliable, but I’ve always avoided it because it sounds like the narrator should purposely mislead the reader. (Obviously, when you’re being willfully dishonest, you’re being a bad writer and an asshole.) But it’s more like your narrator has a blind-spot. We all have these. There are things about ourselves we don’t like to admit, things that we don’t even know are true. We are always, and at once, the person we think we are, the person others think we are, and the person we really are. Yet we can only show the one the narrator thinks he or she is. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Nick Carraway is one of the best examples of this.
He tells us his father told him to reserve his judgement about others, and it’s advice that Nick intends to follow. But as we read the book, we discover that Nick has a blind-spot: He judges everyone constantly. Keep in mind: He isn’t (and nor is Fitzgerald) lying or being purposely dishonest or hiding the truth. He’s a person with flaws, and it takes someone from the outside to expose them.
One last note about first person. Too often do we leave out that first-person does not solely mean I: It can also be we. One of the best examples of first-person plural can be found in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
“So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell.
“That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart–the one we believed would marry her–had deserted her.”
Here the same rules apply, but you as the writer now have access to the collective consciousness of multitudes. My only advice would be to give it a natural limit: a couple, a town, a city, a state, a country, a world, a universe. And even though it may seem all encompassing, there are still those outside of that group, those untouched minds who are intimately unknowable.
The second person has always been tricky. With the pronoun you, the writer is imposing on the reader, regardless of whether the character is the reader (like in If on a winter’s night a traveler…) or a character (like Artemio Cruz in the writing of Carlos Fuentes). We relate to the character because the you is us and probably makes it easier to identify with. We both the you and not the you.
Just take a look at this example from Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City:
You met her in Kansas City, where you had gone to work as a reporter after college. You had lived on both coasts and abroad; the heartland was until then a large blank. You felt that some kind of truth and American virtue lurked thereabouts, and as a writer you wanted to tap into it.
Notice that the you here relates to experiences you are unlikely to have had, and yet, you empathize regardless. The second person is the great unknown of fiction: Too many writers fear it–probably because they don’t understand it. Nonetheless, it is a powerful tool when used properly. It manifests itself best when used as a remnant of the cultural zeitgeist. There may be things that are unique to Bright Lights, Big City, things that only our protagonist has experienced, but overall, the novel is about the excess and excrement of the 1980s. If you were alive during that time (or read about it), you can empathize. You understand those feelings, that alienation. Note too that McInerney is responding to the same fears as Bret Easton Ellis but using a much different vehicle. Ellis wants to subject us to the completeness of selfdom, that sense that we (himself included) are what is wrong in the world–all through the use of I–but McInerney remains a distant judge. He puts us in that excess and sees himself (or his narrator) removed from it. The use of second person serves as a societal mirror. It exposes our flaws, and we can only cringe.
Third person is the most used of all our points of view and probably the least appreciated. Too often do people constrain it to one of three hard and fast modes: dramatic, limited, or omniscent. While these are helpful, I do not think we should limit ourselves in such a way. All fiction requires some combination of the three. One may be more stressed than the other, but it does not mean, as my composition II professor once said, that the writer “messed up.”
Maybe it is best that we start with definitions.
Dramatic: In this mode, the writer aims to show only what is happening. Think of it as a camera’s lense. We are never invited to explore the minds of any of the characters. We are to watch as if it is a movie.
Limited: Here, readers can access only the mind of the protagonist–(or a peripheral observer). To put it plainly, we can know but one character’s thoughts and feelings.
Omniscient: In this case, we explore the thoughts of all he characters–or at least, it is a possibility. We are granted entry to most characters minds.
While these distinctions are convenient, they are not necessarily true. David Jausse looks at it as a matter of long shots and x-rays. When writing third person, you have options when describing a scene. You can write it from the camera’s point of view and only show what is happening. This is especially true in a story like “Hills Like White Elephants.” But you may also go deeper. If a writer writes a scene in the limited form, it does not mean every line will be from the viewpoint character’s point of view, not every sentence will start “So-and-so watched other-character sit down.” It would just be “Other character sat down.” In other words, there will always be the “camera’s eye.”
Typically, and probably most logically, a scene should belong to one character. There should be someone with whom we empathize. We need a viewpoint we understand or can learn to understand. However, it does not mean that the next scene must be told from that point of view. It can be told from another. Just look at Tolstoy: He tells a scene from the point of view of a dog–a fucking dog! But there is no better example of the malleability of the third person point of view than Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” It is as close to perfect as it gets. Most of the story is told from an objective or dramatic point of view. Not once do we gain access to the characters’s thoughts and feelings, but towards the end, when Hemingway has exhausted his brillant dialogue, do we look into the mind of the American:
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads. “The train comes in five minutes,” she said.
“What did she say?” asked the girl.
“That the train is coming in five minutes.”
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.
“I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station,” the man
said. She smiled at him.
“All right. Then come back and we’ll finish the beer.”
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to
the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
“Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”
This entire scene, with the exception of one moment, is told in dramatic point of view. Everything that happens is what is said and done, but as Jausse points out, there is one moment when this story becomes the man’s. “They were all waiting reasonably for the train.” It is the adverb that tips us off. Look at the rest of the text. How many adverbs do you see above? Two. The idea that they are waiting reasonably is the protagonist’s, the American’s–not the narrator’s. (The other is that “the girl smiled brightly,” which may be the woman’s impression.)
Third person narration is about access. It’s about choosing where to go at the right time. Hemingway looks into the mind of the American because he wants us to see his frustration, his desire to make his girlfriend understand. The people are waiting “reasonably” in contrast to his girlfriend who is not “reasonable” about getting an abortion. Admittedly, if we didn’t see inside the American’s mind, we would still know what a fool he was, what a dick he was, but with this additional information, we get a slightly better understanding of him as a character and his bias. We’re meant to emphasize with him. However, we as readers have a bigger perspective than his. Therefore, we know what a fool he is. We can see his idiocy. That’s what makes it such a brilliant story.
Third person is all about choice. It is a matter of when to reveal what and how. It’s not about being dishonest or deceitful though: It’s about giving the reader the information he or she needs as soon as possible.
That concludes part two of this very long (time-wise) series of readings. I hope this all makes sense. I will see you next time.