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.