February 20, 2014

Backstory and Flashback in Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies

Novels based on well-known historical events and personages must dwell in the interstices of history. They must fill in what we don’t know. This is the historical novelist’s burden and her privilege. In Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in a trilogy that is shaping up to be this young century’s first masterpiece of historical fiction, the interstices are filled in by Thomas Cromwell, a highly engaging and well-wrought literary character who was the subject of an earlier post.

It struck me, as I greedily devoured Bring Up the Bodies, that much of the genius of these novels comes to us through Cromwell’s backstory. Mantel’s protagonist is compelling not only because he’s a bold man of action; it’s because he’s a thinker, a dreamer who spends many a late night running over his colorful past. Mantel gives us access to Cromwell’s rich inner life, which contributes greatly to the sense we get of full immersion in the historical period – and gives us insight, more broadly, into what it means to be human. 

As we discussed in a previous post, this is exactly the kind of thing literature can do better than any other medium. In a sense, Cromwell’s backstory in these novels is his character, and Cromwell’s character is what makes these novels great. For a writer, that seems like something worth exploring.

By coincidence, at the same time I was reading Bring Up the Bodies I chanced upon an essay on backstory by a brilliant young novelist named Eleanor Henderson in Poets & Writers magazine. In her highly insightful piece Henderson points out, among other things, that backstory provides characters with “the weight of history, the magic of motivation.” She makes a useful distinction between backstory (summary), and flashback (scene).

In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel uses both backstory and flashback to excellent effect. In the second chapter, after a relatively inconsequential scene at Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell’s city house, we experience a refreshing plunge into the protagonist’s lively brain:

“But look: we have sat here too long! Let’s be up and out into the gardens of Austin Friars, Master Secretary’s pride; he wants the plants he saw flowering abroad, he wants better fruit, so he nags the ambassadors to send him shoots and cuttings in the diplomatic bag. The keen young clerks stand by, ready to break a code, and all that tumbles out is a root-ball, still pulsing with life after a journey through the straits of Dover.
            He wants tender things to live, young men to thrive. So he has built a tennis court, a gift to Richard and Gregory and all the young men of his house . . . In Italy, when he was a servant in Frescobaldi’s household, the boys would go out in the hot evening and play games in the street. It was tennis of a kind, a jeu de paume, no racquets but just the hand . . . ”

Did you note the subtlety of the transition here? The mention of “plants he saw flowering abroad;” the connection between his new tennis court and the games he played as a young man in Italy; and the correspondence between himself as a servant in Frescobaldi’s household and “all the young men of his house”? 

This strikes me as a very artful way – a kind of slipping back and forth between the present and the past – to prepare for the leap into full-fledged backstory. And Mantel is careful to do it in a way that is organic to the narrative, avoiding the kind of contrived feeling, all-too-convenient info dump that can mar backstory in lesser fiction.

Mantel’s exit from this episode of backstory is even more impressive. Cromwell reflects briefly on the centrality to his life of what we moderns would call “mentorship,” which leads him from Frescobaldi to his more recent master, Cardinal Wolsey, whose tragic fall was the subject of the first book of Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall:

“ . . . a good master gives more than he takes and his benevolence guides you through your life. Think of Wolsey. To his inner ear, the Cardinal speaks. He says, I saw you, Crumb, when you were at Elvetham: scratching your balls in the dawn and wondering at the violence of the king’s whims. If he wants a new wife, fix him one. I didn’t, and I am dead.”

In just a few pages, then, Mantel has taken us on vertiginous journey back in time, ending the excursion with a comment that suddenly lays bare the central motivation powering the novel’s plot. Do you see this? The backstory here is far from gratuitous. Mantel is using it not just as cross-hatching, to shade in the texture of a character, but as a bold black line to trace the underlying architecture of the narrative itself.

One more example. Here’s the entry:

“He had met an old knight once, in Venice . . . ”

The knight leads him on a cascading memory-tour of a day and a night in Venice, from summarized backstory to dramatized flashback, and a visit to a church, where a watchman shows the young Cromwell some new Giorgione frescoes by torchlight. Afterwards he catches a wistful glimpse of an “expensive whore” whose fleeting beauty echoes that of a half-formed goddess painted in the frescoes, and an ominous vision of the shadows in a Venetian square.

“If I ever need to vanish, he says, this is where I shall do it.”

And here’s the exit:

“But that was long ago and in another country. Now Rafe Sadler is here with a message: he must return suddenly to Greenwich, to this raw morning, the rain just holding off . . . It is the king, Rafe says. It is Henry, he is dead.”

The wistful flashback to Cromwell’s youth may seem irrelevant, but it has an important function. The glimpses of late night in Venice, the fresco and the beautiful goddess and the expensive whore, the shades of longing and mystery, provide a pause, a caesura, a last look back before the events of what Eleanor Henderson calls “frontstory” close their iron fingers around our necks and propel us helplessly forward. 

The descriptive prose in the flashback is filled with ominous tension, not direct foreshadowing, but what I’ve referred to in a previous post as “shadow description.” Thus it prepares our subconscious minds to receive the shock of Henry’s death (which, spoiler alert, turns out to be a false alarm). And this is quite important because, in a good novel, an event this big can’t just arrive out of the blue.

We won’t go into it here, but there are numerous other examples of beautifully executed backstory in Bring Up the Bodies. Some of it is merely to get the work done of reminding the reader of what's already happened so he’ll be prepared for what is to come. But in Mantel’s hands, backstory and flashback are never clunky mechanistic exigencies; they’re lively brushstrokes on the irresistible canvas of the story itself.


For more analysis of Hilary Mantel’s genius for characterization, click here. For more on the craft of writing historical fiction, click here and here

January 30, 2014

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and James Wood’s New Yorker Review: The Folly of Pugilistic Literary Criticism

After encountering James Wood’s scathing review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in The New Yorker (October 21, 2013), I almost took the novel off my to-read list. Thank the gods I didn’t. Upon finishing this well written and deeply affecting novel, I returned to Wood’s review and found it spiteful, gratuitous, and, most of all, dead wrong.

Before I elaborate, one caveat. So far I’ve tried to keep the focus of this blog tightly on craft analysis, because I believe that’s the critical reading practice that is most useful for a writer of fiction. I do occasionally review books on Goodreads, but, as this post will indicate, in general I think it’s bad karma for novelists to trash the work of other novelists. I found it particularly frustrating to reread Wood’s review, and in the interest of fairness and of promoting the wellbeing of fiction writers generally, I think such an unjustified takedown deserves a public response.

In Wood’s own words:
““The Goldfinch” (Little, Brown), is a virtual baby: it clutches and releases the most fantastical toys. Its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature.”
There is so much amiss with this statement that I hardly know where to begin. First of all, what’s wrong with children’s literature? Secondly, this story of death and grief and drug abuse and the solace of beautiful objects in the face of the existential vacuum is not “a virtual baby” – it's a sophisticated, sincere, and highly affecting novel for an adult audience, one of the best I’ve read in the last few years. It’s the kind of novel you don’t want to put down; the kind of novel you’re sad to finish; the kind of novel that stays with you.  If “clutches and releases fantastical toys” is Wood’s way of pointing out that The Goldfinch has an incident-filled plot, then I suppose he’s right, but why, exactly, is that a problem? In the first paragraph of his review Wood has thus laid down two questionable personal biases he assumes his readers share: 1) that children’s literature in its entirety is second-rate art, and 2) that fictional narratives where big things happen may be dismissed categorically as “fantastical,” i.e., not “serious.”

Later, Wood writes that in Tartt’s novel, “The point is not the disclosure of a meaningful reality but the management of a continuous artifice . . . ” 

Excuse me, but what does the critic think fiction is, exactly – even in quieter, more “realistic” novels – if not “the management of a continuous artifice”?  Was Wood just having a bad day? Or did he sit down to his task harboring a deep-seated animosity that not only prevented him from relaxing and enjoying the ride, but badly clouded his literary judgment?

Whatever Wood’s state of mind, it caused him to write an unfair and thoroughly misleading review, which is a shame given the outsized cultural megaphone he wields as a writer for The New Yorker. He goes on to open a spigot of critical invective with a fervor that can only be explained, in my view, by the influence of unexamined and irrational emotions such as jealousy, envy, or simple mean-spiritedness. He accuses Tartt of melodramatic plotting, of “wildly uneven sequences” and “overwriting and excitable flailing,” and gives faint praise to Tartt’s skills “in the field of magical misdirection,” by which he appears to mean her ability to grab the reader’s attention and not relinquish it until the end of the story – a most rare and admirable novelistic skill in my view, but one which Wood airily dismisses as “practiced evasion” and “the prestidigitator’s ace of spades.” Such criticism is easy to dole out, but I wonder, is Wood himself even remotely capable of making that kind of magic happen?

I think it’s only fair that a critic should keep the focus on the book he finds in front of him, not on some counter-factual chimera of a book he would like to read. And yet, regrettably, the latter is exactly what Wood does:
“. . . I kept trying to imagine a different novel, stripped of its unreasonable raison d’etre and its childish sweets, a more rigorous fiction entitled, perhaps, not “The Goldfinch” but just “Theo Decker.””
Well, Mr. Wood, that sounds like a familiar novel. If you’re fond of rigor and lack of sweetness, you have many shelves of contemporary fiction to choose from. In the meantime, I assume Donna Tartt isn’t losing sleep over the lost possibilities. This reader certainly isn’t. 

Wood points out that Tartt’s dialog occasionally slips into a weirdly Anglophilic diction, and there is a loss of momentum about three quarters of the way into the book as Tartt sets up her riveting final sequence. Sure, The Goldfinch has its flaws, some of them annoying. But so does War and Peace. So do Moby-Dick and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The reason The Goldfinch is unusually good is because it’s unusually ambitious. It tells a big, dark story in a way that is irresistibly page-turning, and by the end of the novel the reader is not only entertained, but enriched:
“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
So if you haven’t read The Goldfinch, please don’t let James Wood’s ugly takedown discourage you, as I almost did. And to Wood himself, I would direct this little piece of wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

January 2, 2014

A Triumph Over Chaos: The Remarkable Story-World of John Cheever

Short fiction is a difficult genre, not only for writers but for readers. Entering a new story-world is like lowering yourself into cold water. It’s uncomfortable. It takes effort. With a novel, you only have to do it once and you are transported for hours, days, and weeks. That time is much more limited with a short story; you must settle for a sense of exhilaration, a frisson of pleasure or dread, or at the very least a somewhat modified outlook on your day. Most people don’t take the plunge. 

I love short stories, but even with the best of them I find there’s usually an element of holding my nose to swallow the healthy medicine. This is true even with great masters of the form, like Hemingway or Denis Johnson or Alice Munro or Flannery O’Connor. So when the seven-hundred page brick of The Stories of John Cheever landed on my bedside bureau, I eyed it with some trepidation. I’ll just sample it, I thought. Read a few stories to familiarize myself with the work of a famous American mid-twentieth century writer. Keep it in the stack for a few months, dip in and out. 

Well, that’s not what happened. I devoured the book from the front cover to the back, which means, I believe, that I’ve now read just about every piece of short fiction in Mr. Cheever’s oeuvre. And I’m here to tell you: it’s a hell of an oeuvre. Some stories are better than others, but there are no dogs. I found them to be like potato chips. You can’t eat just one. Once you start, you have to finish the whole bag. And at no point did I experience that feeling of boredom, of virtuous martyrdom in the cause of Art, that I get from too much short fiction. 

It seemed to me that it would be worthwhile to ponder some of the reasons why. I marked this passage from “O Youth and Beauty:”
Then it is a summer night, a wonderful summer night. The passengers on the eight-fifteen see Shady Hill – if they notice it at all – in a bath of placid golden light. The noise of the train is muffled in the heavy foliage, and the long car windows look like a string of lighted aquarium tanks before they flicker out of sight. Up on the hill, the ladies say to one other, “Smell the grass! Smell the trees!” The Farquarsons are giving another party, and Harry has hung a sign, WHISKEY GULCH, from the rose arbor, and is wearing a chef’s white hat and an apron. His guests are still drinking, and the smoke from his meat fire rises, on this windless evening, straight up into the trees.
And this one, from “The Trouble of Marcie Flint:”
Then I thought about other places where I would like to be – Nantucket, with only a handful of people left and the sailing fleet depleted and the dunes casting, as they never do in the summer, a dark shadow over the bathing beach. And I thought about the Vineyard and the farina-colored bluffs and the purple autumn sea and the stillness in which you might hear, from way out in the Sound, the rasp of a block on a traveler as a sailboard came about.
In these passages you can get an idea of the flavor of Cheever’s prose and the acuity of his descriptive powers. But they only hint at the totality of the world he creates. It’s not a particular place, though the fictional wealthy suburb of Shady Hill is a frequent scene of action (but so are Manhattan, Nantucket and Rome). Yes, the focus is on a certain privileged class, and it’s true that in some ways wealthy people are inherently fascinating as subjects. But it’s more than that. Cheever takes the familiar mid-century, upper middle class milieu of eastern America and turns it into something irresistible. It seems to me that Cheever is the closest thing America has to a direct literary descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Many of Cheever’s characters are not admirable, but most are at least engaging in their originality and specificity. But it’s not so much the characters as the settings that keep us reading. The stories are permeated by the fragrances of a lost world, tragically beautiful and comically ugly. It’s a world both comfortable and exotic, both familiar and fascinatingly strange. Consider this passage from “The Seaside Houses:”
Fishing in the spring woods, you step on a clump of wild mint and the fragrance released is like the essence of that day. Walking on the Palatine, bored with antiquities and life in general, you see an owl fly out of the ruins of the palace of Septimus Severus and suddenly that day, that raffish and noisy city all make sense. Lying in bed, you draw on your cigarette and the red glow lights an arm, a breast, and a thigh around which the world seems to revolve. 
How Cheever managed to create such a fully realized and endlessly compelling story-world does, I must admit, remain a bit elusive for me. But I suspect the author himself knew exactly what he was doing. Here’s a hint of it from “The Death of Justina:”
Fiction is an art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice . .
More than anything, then, Cheever’s stories represent a triumph over chaos. They reassure us that our own world is not an empty place. Hidden within it are secret treasures of order and beauty, and the stories teach us how to use our perceptions and emotional intelligence to uncover them. And in the end story-world remains for us to return to, like a summer lake or a refreshing suburban swimming pool. No grimacing adjustment is required as we immerse ourselves in the water of the next story. 

December 8, 2013

Excruciating Dramatic Tension in a Short Fiction Masterpiece: Paul Bowles' "A Distant Episode"

Upon finishing The Sheltering Sky, I was reluctant to leave Bowles’ deeply engaging northern Africa behind, so I read his story, “A Distant Episode,” thinking I would take advantage of the opportunity to contemplate the differences between short stories and novels.  It was a good call, I believe, because the story is a reprisal of a plot line present in the novel: a traumatized foreigner is captured by sinister nomads and transported into an exotic desert world, losing her/his identity for a long period, only to recover it momentarily as part of a final plunge into complete insanity and/or despair. 

A happy little fugue Bowles liked to play out! But to get to the point, the striking difference between the short story and the novel is, not surprisingly, character development.   In “A Distant Episode,” the protagonist (the “Professor”) is sketched only in outline—we never find out what he looks like, and we know very little about him other than that he is a linguist, that his scientific bent allows him to feel that he can maintain an amused distance from the culture he’s in, and that he sometimes behaves impulsively.  Although these tidbits of character are important, the story takes on an admirable breakneck momentum that has little to do with character, and everything to do with pure narrative tension, or dramatic conflict.  How does Bowles do it?

The story begins with the Professor’s return to the small desert town of Ain Tadouirt, where long ago he formed a friendship with a café keeper.
Now facing the flaming sky in the west, and now facing the sharp mountains, the car followed the dusty trail down the canyons into air which began to smell of other things besides the endless ozone of the heights: orange blossoms, pepper, sun-baked excrement, burning olive oil, rotten fruit.
Although the passage does contain hints of something amiss (sun-baked excrement, burning oil, rotten fruit? Hmmm) its most important accomplishment is to place the reader in the scene with concrete sensory detail. 

Soon, however, the reader has stronger reasons to believe things aren’t exactly right.  The locals behave with barely masked hostility. The Professor, confident of his cultural understanding, chooses “airily” to ignore it. When the Professor blithely offers to pay a local man for some little boxes made of camel udders the story’s violent downward trajectory is set in motion.  An indication of the shift shows up almost immediately in Bowles’ landscape descriptions:
. . . the growing chorus of dogs that barked and howled as the moon rose higher into the sky . . . through a great rift in the wall the Professor saw the white endlessness, broken in the foreground by dark spots of oasis . . .
And then, as he walks with the udder-seller, it occurs to the Professor for the first time that he might be in danger:
The Professor thought: “He may cut my throat.  But his café—he would surely be found out.”
“Is it far?” he asked, casually.
“Are you tired?” countered the qaouaji.
“They are expecting me back at the Hotel Saharien,” he lied.
“You can’t be there and here,” said the qaouaji.
The Professor laughed.  He wondered if it sounded uneasy to the other.
“Have you owned Ramani’s café long?”
“I work here for a friend.”  The reply made the Professor more unhappy than he had imagined it would.
Dramatic tension surges into the story like a shot of adrenaline.  No longer can the reader believe that this is just a harmless travelogue.  Something is wrong, and the Professor knows it.  The tension reflected in the scenery (what I referred to in the George R.R. Martin posts as “Shadow description”) is cranked up. We smell the “sweet black odor of rotten meat.” The path is bordered on each side by high walls. There is no breeze and the palms are still, but you can hear running water behind the walls. There is the constant odor of human excrement.

A series of tension-ratcheting events ensues. The qaouaji warns the Professor to pick up some stones because there are dogs ahead. A dog attacks, and the qaouaji nails it with a stone, causing it to “scramble haphazardly about like an injured insect.”  The Professor goes back and forth in his mind about whether the qaouaji is going to do him violence. Finally, the qaouaji departs, and the Professor is relieved. 

But now he has a choice to make: Does he climb down the cliff to ask the Reguibat for camel-udder boxes, as the qaouaji seemed sure he would, or does he call it a day and head back to the Hotel Saharien?

Compulsively curious, he decides to descend the cliff.  That he’s made a fatal choice is illustrated by the following eerie passage:
Only the wind was left behind, above, to wander among the trees, to blow through the dusty streets of Ain Tadouirt, into the hall of the Grand Hotel Saharien, and under the door of his little room.
The beauty of this story is that the chain of events seems inevitable. Like the Professor, the reader is drawn from one occurrence to the next, as if by inexorable gravity. Bowles accomplishes a continual ratcheting-up effect, creating a sense of mounting dread using judiciously suggestive landscape descriptions interspersed with evidence of increasing hostility from the locals—hostility that becomes bald violence, and eventually leads to the Professor’s enslavement and unspeakable degradation. 

And the worst (or best) thing about it is that throughout the lead-up to story’s crisis, the Professor is not quite ignorant of what the reader strongly suspects is going to happen to him. Indeed, he seems drawn to his terrible fate like a moth to flame. 


For posts analyzing the art and craft of some of the other English language masters of short fiction, click here (Robert Stone), here (Ray Bradbury), here (Denis Johnson), here (Annie Proulx), here (Tobias Wolff), here (Rick Bass), here (Hemingway), here (Faulkner), and here (Joyce). 

November 15, 2013

A Riveting Ugliness: Point of View and Character Sympathy in Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky

I was so impressed with the compulsive readability of Paul Bowles’ fiction that I decided it would be worth writing a two-part post on his work. This first part will focus on his masterwork, the 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky is a gripping novel, extremely compelling as storytelling, though profoundly dark and disturbing. On one level it is a straightforward, chronological travel narrative. It is also, unmistakably, a psychologically terrifying exploration of human mortality.  Bowles is extremely skilled at creating and sustaining narrative tension, and his limpid, elegant language propels the reader into a story fraught with danger.  His landscape descriptions are second to none. He creates a profoundly vivid setting for the characters to move through and endows it with symbolic significance—sky imagery is at the center of the novel—without beating you over the head with it the way Conrad does in Heart of Darkness

After reading The Sheltering Sky I became obsessed with Bowles and immediately went out and rented the Bertolucci film, which in contrast to the novel (and all of Bowles’ stories) I emphatically do not recommend.  The film doesn’t work at all, in my opinion, because it simply reproduces the basic story line of the novel but does not — cannot —reproduce the interiority: the way the characters’ somewhat warped worldviews drive the story, and give it its elegant mounting tension and its disturbing psychological power.  

The main characters in this novel are not pleasant people — not, probably, the type you’d want to have dinner with, much less accompany on a bus and train trek across the Sahara Desert.  Kit is jumpy and paranoid, hovering at the edge of psychosis.  Port is mean, jaded, selfish, and existentially depressed.  You would think a novel that spends as much time as this one does occupying the minds of such people — emphasizing their internal experiences and perceptions as the main field of action — would risk losing most of its readers in the first chapter.  But this reader, at least, had the opposite reaction.  Why?

Part of the answer is that Bowles’ narrative voice is compulsively readable.  His clear prose has an admirable way of propelling the reader forward from one scene to the next, like a strong river current carrying a canoe.  The other part of the answer is that his characters are riveting. This may seem to contradict the grim picture I painted above, but remember a reader’s “sympathy” (for lack of a better word) for a character does not necessarily hinge upon whether we like him—as in, would we invite him over for a beer—but on whether we understand him.

In The Sheltering Sky, the physical details of the main characters’ appearances are sparingly given, while those of the minor characters are more fully drawn.  Explored at length in this book, on the other hand, are the main characters’ personalities, quirks, and world views.  Much of this exploration is accomplished through interior monologue—often one character pondering another—which affords the reader a nuanced understanding of the characters and reinforces the verisimilitude of their actions and dialog throughout the rest of the book. 

While it will be a rare reader who shares Kit’s obsession with omens, we can understand her nebulous fear that things are constantly on the point of falling apart.  Similarly, while we may not share Port’s extreme alienation from the rest of humanity, we can understand his sense of being alone in the world.  The definitive fear shared by Kit and Port, of course, is one shared by us all at one time or another:
“You know what?” he said with great earnestness.  “I think we’re both afraid of the same thing.  And for the same reason.  We’ve never managed, either one of us, to get all the way into life.  We’re hanging on to the outside for all we’re worth, convinced we’re going to fall off at the next bump.  Isn’t that true?”
Once we understand what motivates the characters, whether or not we would like them in real life, we’re ready to follow them throughout the book.  At some level we empathize with them, and—maybe this is the most important thing—we feel we have gotten to know them, so we have a vested interest in following the story to its conclusion to see what happens to them, which we sense from the beginning is gonna be bad.

To some degree, particularly when the story is told from Port’s third person point of view, character sympathy is also driven by description.  The reader is captivated by the terrifying beauty of the desert landscape, and especially the sheltering sky itself, which seems ready to crack at any moment to let in the dark, awesome force waiting without. 

We can relate to Port’s terror, his sense of solitude and fear of death. Despite the fact that he wouldn’t be an ideal dinner guest, we’re pleased to experience northern Africa through his eyes, because his observations are acute.  And we’re right there with him, nodding sagely, when he launches into one of his thumbnail psychological sketches of the minor characters, which are as penetrating as they are ungenerous. 

Although Bowles possesses a strong, highly authoritative narrative voice, the success of The Sheltering Sky depends upon the reader remaining sympathetic to the point of view characters. The remarkable thing, given the nature of his characters, is that Bowles achieves it so perfectly. Though we may not like Port and Kit, we share their existential fears. Their outlook on the world is not only believable, but compelling and often beautiful. So we follow them into the terrifying depths of human experience: Port’s slow painful death, and Kit’s headlong plunge into a dark, exotic world of rape, slavery, and, ultimately, madness.  It's a harrowing, intense reading experience—a dark tour de force. 

* * *
In the next post, we'll take a close look at what I believe is one of the best (and most disturbing) short stories ever written, Paul Bowles' "A Distant Episode." 

October 20, 2013

Fiction's Inner Landscape: Point of View and Interiority in Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall

Jim Harrison has long held a prominent place on my shelf of great American writers. I love his affirmative and highly spiritual vision of nature’s place in humanity’s consciousness, and I love the wild beauty of his descriptive prose. One of the things he does best is portraying the thoughts and feelings of his characters: what some writers call “interiority.” Consider the following passage from “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” one of three novellas in Harrison’s excellent collection from the 1970s, Legends of the Fall:
It was while cooking dinner that a strange feeling came over him that gradually forced a radical change in his life. It was an ache just above his heart between his breastbone and throat; at first it alarmed him and he placed a hand on his breast and stared out past the sea-rose to where the ocean buried itself in the haze of dusk. The sharpness of low tide mixed with the roasting meat and he looked down at the meat and sighed “Oh, fuck it.” He was rather suddenly not much interested in past or future, or even his breaking heart that perhaps now felt the first itch of healing. But he didn’t know that and cared less. The sigh seized his backbone, rippling up his vertebrae to his brain which felt delicately peeled, cold and clean. The feeling was so abruptly powerful that he decided not to examine in for fear it would go away. 
To paraphrase the great Robert Stone, the point where a character’s exterior and interior journeys intersect is viable ground for literature. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it’s one of the things literature can do so much more effectively than film. 

A lot happens in these three novellas – violence, sex, death, epiphany – and experiencing it all from the point of view of Harrison’s intelligent, sensitive, observant, and highly original protagonists makes for a compelling reading experience.  From a technical perspective, I’m most impressed by the way Harrison’s characters experience emotions physically – something I’ve struggled with in my own writing.  It’s hard to get it as right as Harrison does in the first novella in the collection, “Revenge,” when the wounded protagonist finds out his kidnapped lover has spent a month in a whorehouse shot up with heroin:
Cochran was suddenly wet from head to toe.  He gazed at the green fertile valley and the brown mountains beyond.  He forgot to breathe and felt vertigo to the point that the car seemed to float.
Throughout Legends of the Fall, Harrison uses narrative summary to a much greater extent than scene, a stylistic choice I find interesting because it is both unusual and, here at least, quite effective. “Revenge” has a simple, direct story line: a man is badly beaten and his lover is mutilated and kidnapped.  The novella follows his quest for revenge and, he hopes, the lover’s rescue. There's no doubt that the success of this kind of narrative depends upon having a point of view protagonist with whom the reader is happy to spend time.

“It’s not necessary to know the man,” we’re told by the unnamed narrator, who isn’t shy about addressing the reader directly.  It’s not necessary to know him because he’s been wounded badly enough to completely alter the course of his life; in effect, as we later come to realize, he’s been reborn.  At this early stage, the story has already engaged us on both the emotional and the intellectual level because of what’s been left unsaid.  

On a basic emotional level, we’re curious to find out whether Cochran will live or die (E.M. Forster refers to this as “story”).  On a more intellectual plane, we want to know who beat him up and why. As in a murder mystery, we want motivation and whodunit (Forster refers to this as “plot.”). Another way to put the dual emotional/intellectual, story/plot nature of the narrative is to call it future/past.  We’re interested in what’s going to befall Cochran, but we’re also interested in the back-story: what factors conspired to bring him to the present circumstance?

Despite the narrator’s disclaimers about the unimportance of knowing anything about Cochran, owing to Harrison’s gift for interiority it doesn’t take long before we do know quite a bit about him—his past, something of his unique drives and ambitions, how he got into the present trouble. At the same time, we see that the slate has been wiped clean: the old Cochran is basically dead.  The new Cochran has a single, urgent, and easily understandable mission: revenge.  

For most of the novella, time passes in an orderly chronological fashion, interrupted occasionally by brief flashbacks in the form of memories, which serve to deepen our understanding of the main character, thereby generating greater sympathy. As in much of Harrison’s oeuvre, the main work of the narrative is accomplished not through action or dramatic scenes, but through interiority: the moment-by-moment unfolding of a protagonist’s evolving inner landscape. 

For a fiction writer, it seems to me, this is something very much worth noticing.