Saturday

First Person, Present Tense: Robert Bausch’s Far As the Eye Can See

For the first three quarters of this colorful novel of the American West, I was completely immersed. The book is set in the years leading up to Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, and it tells a vivid and gripping story. The reluctant hero is good company. He interacts with many sympathetic and/or interesting characters. Bausch creates a fully realized novelistic landscape that comes alive in rare and impressive ways. 

Far As the Eye Can See was the one book that I’d brought on a long trip to Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia, and I’d expected it to last me the whole time. But early in the trip, I started flying through it. I really didn’t want to put it down—and I only did so in order to savor it and make it last.

At a specific point around three quarters of the way through the book, Bausch made an unfortunate choice having to do with the mode of narration. When the story finally caught up with the events that had been narrated in the prologue, he switched the first-person voice from the past to the present tense. 

This may seem an inconsequential decision, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the way the author thought of it at the time, but for me this minor shift in perspective was a major problem. Suddenly the book went from an effortless to a more difficult to read. The guiding consciousness that had been so natural and fluid before now felt stilted and off-putting. I had increasing trouble suspending my disbelief, and from the point where the POV shifted to the end of the book I was continually thrown out of the story. What happened?

Admittedly, I may have succumbed to the hypercritical mood that sometimes overtakes a writer who reads. Nevertheless, I think it will be illuminating to try to identify what I was reacting to by looking at a few sample passages. The first is from the present-tense prologue:

“The path is thick with brush and patches of thicket full of thorns and dry, twisted branches, but it’s a path, and way beyond the two knobs of hill in front of me, I see him coming along on foot. A dark, thin shadow that might be a Indian or not. I can't tell. For my money, a soldier’s just as dangerous as a Indian.”

The second passage is in the past tense, which begins with chapter one and continues unabated throughout the first three quarters of the book:

“After I killed my first Indian, Theo bade me ride in front of the lead wagon with Big Tree every day, so I guess you could say I become a part of the wagon train because I killed a man and proved I could be useful.”

To me, this mode of narration feels natural, and—once the reader is accustomed to the quirky diction of Bausch’s unlettered first person narrator—appropriately transparent. In other words, it does what a good narrative POV should do, fading into the background so we can focus on the story.

The third passage is from the final quarter of the book, after the sudden shift back to the present tense:

“We stay completely still most of that day. I don’t think I sleep more than a half hour or so, and when the sun begins to drop behind the high hills behind us, we start off again. We move slow and quiet most of the night.”

In the prologue, the present tense was a good fit. The protagonist narrated a single event in exacting moment-to-moment detail. We were new to the world of the story. The characters as yet had no future and no past, so the immediacy of a perspective focused entirely on the present felt right. None of this was the case in the final quarter of the book, so the present tense began to feel strained and unnatural. The easy transparency of the narrative voice had been sacrificed. And for what?

Bausch’s rationale in switching to the present tense for the last quarter of the book is not entirely clear to me. Perhaps it was to delineate for himself and for the reader that the timeline of the story had now caught up to the prologue—but why be so obvious about it? The reader is smart enough to figure out the story’s timeline on his own; he doesn’t need it underlined and put in bold type. And the sudden and permanent switch had the unfortunate effect of interrupting a perfectly fluid reading experience. 

I believe that we can begin to see the reasons for this sensation in the third passage quoted above. Note that we are no longer focused on a moment-by-moment experience. Time is passing in a more typically novelistic way – sometimes faster, sometimes slower, with all the “leaping and crowding” required to tell a story on the large canvas. The story now has its own accumulated memory, an implied retrospective vantage point that is, of course, impossible to gain in the present tense. Perhaps we feel cheated that that implied retrospective vision has gone missing. Perhaps we get a subconscious feeling that the author is ducking something. And to me, chapter after chapter of present tense narration is just, well, awkward.

My takeaway from this reading experience is that present tense ought to be used sparingly. For scenes of moment-to-moment immediacy, for moments of special intensity, when what we might call “narrative memory” has yet to be established, it can work well. But it doesn’t seem to be the right perspective for filling the more abundant canvas of a larger novelistic story. And it’s probably not a good idea to switch horses midstream arbitrarily, without a clear and pressing need to do so.

Friday

Fiction’s Inner Landscape: Clues about Writing Irresistible Interiority from The Journals of John Cheever


Fiction continues to thrive as an art form because its dramas play out in the singular realm of the human imagination, where the exterior and interior worlds meet. Novels and stories are imaginative interfaces. Together, the author and the reader create a living landscape that is more complete, immersive, and charged with meaning than the expensively produced moving images on even the most high fidelity flat screen. But how does a writer go about triggering this magical act of co-creation? The answer, in part, is that we allow readers to experience the exterior world from inside a particular character. This concept is known as interiority.

The unique quality of the novel that allows us to become immersed in another human mind is central to its value and its popularity. Perhaps in part because we are denied it in everyday life, we crave the experience of accompanying a consciousness that is not our own as it confronts antagonists, goes on journeys, yearns, searches, reacts, muses, reflects, falls in love, and deals with the stress and emotional difficulties associated with good storytelling. In fiction it’s not the external plot (though external plot is of course essential), but the inner landscape that truly matters. This inner landscape is something novels do better than any other medium, and the reason they will never be fully supplanted by movies or TV or video games.

But why is the inner landscape so irresistible to us? And how can we as fiction writers make it more so?

To look for answers, I turned to one of the most inexplicably propulsive books of unplotted, unstructured narrative I’ve ever read: The Journals of John Cheever. This is a 400 page book with no plot per se, and no arc or dramatic need in the traditional sense either, other than the day-by-day, moment-by-moment struggle of one human being to come to terms with himself and the world. And yet you can’t put it down. Cheever’s inward-looking journal entries are so vivid, so charged with meaning, and so entertaining to read that they are immediately, irresistibly addictive, like heroin or Fritos corn chips. For these reasons, The Journals seems a fitting place to attempt to isolate the factors that make interiority irresistible, even in the absence of an underlying narrative infrastructure.

I’ve compiled a list of several qualities of Cheever’s interiority that work in concert to make it intrinsically interesting and pleasurable to read. There may be more (and if you notice them, please point them out), but here are several of the qualities I was able to isolate:

1. It expresses a deeply held yearning for the descriptive Lost World (domaine perdu) that is a key aspect of immersive fiction:

And with my mouth tasting of old wine, and with this gray sky, I find it so hard not to be incredulous in recalling the wonderful hours and days in the mountains, the cleanliness, P. coming back to the house with her flowers, the breadth of the view, swimming in cold water, making love under a thin roof; and I think now of the months that I have longed to write a story that will be fine, that will be singing, that will have all kinds of lights and pleasures.

2. The writing is lyrical, rhythmic, interesting, and insightful. It’s chock full of defamiliarized imagery and keen observations about human nature, such as this one taken from Cheever’s extensive time in Rome:

After lunch I walk in the streets and observe how the facial traits of the people differ from the massive and weary countenances of the emperors and their wives. It may be no accident that much of the Roman portrait statuary we see in America reminds us of Americans.

3. The vivid sensory description that pervades the book is often flavored by undertones of dread:

The early-morning air is moist, and mingling with the sweet fragrance of the earth is the smell of smoke, frying fish, and the slack river water. It is no wonder that we are stirred by this show of light and color; it is the plain difference between sanity and horror.

4. Sometimes the dread is closer to the surface. In these places it feels intentional, as if Cheever is deliberately trying to gin up suspense, in preparation for, or perhaps as a kind of musical practice for, writing fiction. Elsewhere I’ve called this “shadow description.” 

What the travel books don’t mention is the sense of danger experienced by the visitor to Rome. Driving back into the city after a long weekend you see at the gates of the Campo Verano a long line of hearses . . . You ask one of the drivers what the occasion is and he says it is the epidemic. He makes the sign of the cross and moves slowly forward to the gates . . . The floodlights aimed at the monument, the yellow clouds of a big-city fog. You park your car and lock the ignition switch, the steering wheel, and all the doors, since car thefts go on every night in this quarter.

5. Finally, and most importantly, I believe, Cheever’s interiority often expresses conflicting feelings:

In an upper-class gathering I suddenly think of myself as a pariah—a small and dirty fraud, a deserved outcast, spiritual and sexual impostor, a loathsome thing. Then I take a deep breath, stand up straight, and the loathsome image falls away. I am no better and no worse than the other members of the gathering. Indeed, I am myself. It is like a pleasant taste on the tongue.

The Journals of John Cheever is full of such conflicted interiority, which creates something known as “microtension.” To quote writer and craft expert Donald Maass: “When you create in your reader an unconscious apprehension, anxiety, worry, question, or uncertainty, then the reader will unconsciously seek to relieve that uneasiness. And there’s only one way to do that: read the next thing on the page.”

As Cheever knew very well, one of the best ways to create that “unconscious apprehension” is to portray the consciousness of a character with conflicting feelings. To restate Maass’s point above, conflicting feelings produce a sense of uneasiness in the reader, and a subconscious desire to relieve that apprehension by turning the pages. This is the mechanism that makes conflicting feelings a good way to sustain interest moment-by-moment in a story.

Consider one further example:

By lewdness I mean just that: raised petticoats in kitchens and back stairs and long afternoons in bed when the sheets smell like the lagoons of Venice; but if my hands tremble with desire they tremble likewise when I reach for the chalice on Sunday, and if lust makes me run and caper it is no stronger a force than that which brings me to my knees to say thanksgivings and litanies. What can this capricious skin be but a blessing?

We need to turn the page to find out how this character will resolve his roiling inner conflict. In part it’s because we want to learn what the experience of this other consciousness can teach us about resolving our own inner conflicts, and in part it is our helpless fascination as we watch a slow motion train wreck.

The Journals of John Cheever offers a fascinating peek into the private thoughts of a fellow human being. It is irresistible because it offers us a defamiliarized version of our own processing mechanism, in all its wisdom and its ignorance and its strange, conflicted beauty.

The main lesson I take out of all this is that when it comes to interiority, you must immerse yourself in the truest, deepest experience of your protagonist’s interior, and trust the reader to be mesmerized. Done right—and Cheever shows us how—it is a crucial and glorious aspect of the fiction writer’s craft.

Sunday

Vivid Characterization in Short Fiction: Norman Rush's Whites

The stories in Whites are impressive in their variety. While they’re all set in Botswana, they’re told from the point of view of characters with radically different perspectives: a young American graduate student, a white South African woman traveling across the desert with her husband and another couple, a Mokgalagadi tribesman, a middle-aged seductress, an aid worker, a timid dentist. Norman Rush is a master ventriloquist: he’s great with voices, inflections, and patterns of speech and thought. His point of view characters invite the reader to see the world from a new perspective, and for the most part they’re engaging enough to make it a pleasure to do so.

Rush doesn’t expend much ink on Bostswana’s physical environment. Most of the stories take place in the city, in houses, parks, and public buildings. He tends to stick close to his POV characters, only infrequently “zooming out” for a look at the broader landscape. He is quite interested, though, in the cultural setting, which tends to shape and define his characters, and in fact it is the skillfully rendered interplay between the characters and the culture, and the originality of the characters in general, that are the true strengths of this collection. A particularly impressive example is Moitse in “Alone in Africa.” Moitse drives the action in this great story, and the character revelations continue all the way down to the final line. 

Before Moitse shows up at his window, Frank the sex-hungry dentist is moping around his house in the upscale “official” section of the city, thinking about his life, his vacationing “varietist” wife, and African culture. Suddenly he sees a local girl through the kitchen window, standing furtively beside the door. We get a vague impression of sexuality, and a vague idea that she wants something.

As the story progresses, Moitse’s physical reality gradually becomes clearer, like a darkroom photograph.  This is a very neat effect, and you have to read the story to get a full appreciation for it. We find out that she’s barefoot, and we see her clothes, which demonstrate not only her poverty, but also her sexual appeal. In a wise display of restraint, Rush gives us Frank’s reaction:

She was beautiful.  He studied her in the grayish light.  She was beautiful.

Rush sketches in her background. She’s the eldest daughter of a poor family three houses down. Her mother is a hawker. We learn that she’s well into the age of sexual eligibility: she’s at least sixteen. We begin to get a sense of her personality and motivations.  She corrects him when he misspeaks in Setswana, yet she tells him her name in a barely audible voice.

After he struggles for awhile in Setswana, she addresses him in English.   “She was full of surprises,” Frank notes, but as we will discover, he doesn’t know the half of it.

The surprises continue to unfold, delightfully, throughout the rest of the story.  As they spend time together we learn more about Moitse’s physical appearance. She has perfect skin; her hair is worked back in tight ridges from her forehead. Her personality also continues to develop, through her actions and through Frank’s observations of her. She’s bold, brazen, lascivious, appealingly innocent and childlike. She’s forceful, decisive, and courageous. When Frank’s soup boils over she comes to the rescue, shifting the pot off the burner with her bare hands. 

Now we get a more detailed physical description:

She stood close to him, smiling. She was slightly unfresh.  Her nipples showed like bolt heads through the T-shirt cloth.  She went back to the table.  She had the usual high rump.  Her hem went up in back.  There were traces of mud on her ankles and a few smears of mud on the floor tiles.

Moitse is a real flesh-and-blood person to the reader now, no longer just a mysterious, beautiful waif.  Her physicality is coming into clear focus, but we still wonder—what’s she after?  Frank thinks she wants to exchange sex for money, but we’re not sure.  There’s a dual conflict to the story: what’s going to happen between Frank and Moitse, and what’s going to happen if Frank’s nosy, self-righteous, evangelical neighbor discovers her in the house. 

Moitse seems to appreciate the need to keep her voice down.  We’re starting to get the idea that, in addition to the qualities mentioned above, she’s both savvy and considerate. Frank returns to contemplating her appearance and decides she’s cat-faced.  Later, he sees her as a lynx, or a vixen.  Like these small predators, she’s also a neat eater, which Frank likes.  So she’s a predator, but a smart, careful one, and an attractive, diminutive one to boot.  This bodes well for the success of the liaison. At the kitchen sink, Moitse makes the first move:

This was it, then.  Her arms were around him.  She was strong.  She was brave to do this.  She was holding him so hard he had difficulty turning around to face her.

This passage captures her essence: bold and strong, but also maybe a little nervous.  Frank manages to steer her into the shower, which appears to be a novelty to her, though she is “some kind of veteran,” and in a hilarious turn lifts her leg to point her “mons” at him like some kind of sex talisman.  In the bedroom, she is bold, playful, sexually forward and obviously experienced, though also girlish and somehow innocent.  Frank retreats in panic, and when he comes back she’s straightened out his clothes and the sheets—she has a care-taking, motherly side—and lies there waiting with a wad of toilet paper in her hand: she’s a no-nonsense gal.  Frank is reassured. 

Everything’s all set to go when her sisters arrive and mess it up.  Moitse goes after them, hissing, still naked, and Frank can hear her outside beating them. 

Suddenly, disaster.  Frank sees his neighbor approaching the house with a flashlight.  The jig seems to be up.  Christie barges in, Frank thinks all is lost, and then:

It was brilliant.
Moitse, fully dressed, was sitting on a stool by the sink. She had a towel across her knees and the bowl of sugar peas on her lap.  Her sisters were on the floor, sitting facing her with their legs straight out.  They were watching her face fixedly.  She was showing them how to string peas . . . She was brilliant . . .She was hard.  Frank could tell she wasn’t giving anything away.  She was as hard as nails.  He was in good hands with her.  It was over.  She was being sharp back to Christie.  She was in charge.

Moitse is full of surprises, and Frank is charmed.  She’s like a character from the A-Team, someone you want as a friend but not as an enemy.  But she is “still a child.”  Frank shows everyone out and lies down on his bed.  He is relieved, yet sad and wistful about what could have been.  And then, in what has to be one of my favorite endings,

There was a scraping sound at the window above him, the sound of nails on the flyscreen.  He recognized it.  He sat up straight.  She was back.
            She was back.

*

In the course of the story the reader comes to know Moitse as bold and shy, sexually forward yet innocent as a child, aggressive, sharp-tongued, even violent, yet also caring, considerate, smart and neat. If Frank is a horny child, Moitse is a sexualized Cat in the Hat: persistent and unstoppable. She is unwashed yet dignified, dressed in rags yet beautiful, a lynx-like dynamo ripe with life’s passionate juices, sure of what she wants and not afraid to go after it. That’s a pretty interesting character brought to life in under twenty-eight pages.