Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Need to Know -- Alice Munro's "Runaway"

"Runaway," the title story in one of Alice Munro's short story collections (and originally published in The New Yorker), illustrates one of her favorite tricks: teasing the reader by withholding information that is known to the narrator.

This is a standard technique for creating profluence, even though you will see objections to its use. The narrative refers to an important event without disclosing the nature of the event, or refers to a death without disclosing the nature of the death or the identity of the victim, and so on. The reader wants to know what happened, or who died, and so on, and reads to find out. The objection is that it's an authorial trick, introduced specifically for the purpose of keeping the reader engaged, rather than a mystery that arises naturally from the story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it is just annoying.

In "Runaway," a young wife (Carla) listens from her barn as a car passes on the road. She's afraid it might be Sylvia:

If it was somebody coming to see them, the car would be slowing down by now. But still Carla hoped. Let it not be her.

So, naturally, we ask, "Why? Why not her?" But Alice refuses to tell us until later. Much later.

And even when she does reveal the answer, the revelation is teased out. We learn that the young wife's husband (Clark) plans to blackmail Sylvia:

Shortly afterward, Clark said, “We could’ve made him pay.”

Carla knew at once what he was talking about, but she took it as a joke.

“Too late now,” she said. “You can’t pay once you’re dead.”

“He can’t. She could.”

“She’s gone to Greece.”

“She’s not going to stay in Greece.”

“She didn’t know,” Carla said more soberly. “She didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“I didn’t say she did.”

“She doesn’t have a clue about it.”

“We could fix that.”

Carla said, “No. No.”

Clark went on as if she hadn’t spoken.

“We could say we’re going to sue. People get money for stuff like that all the time.”

“How could you do that? You can’t sue a dead person.”

“Threaten to go to the papers. Big-time poet. The papers would eat it up. All we have to do is threaten and she’d cave in. How much are we going to ask for?”

“You’re just fantasizing,” Carla said. “You’re joking.”

“No. Actually, I’m not.”

And we're screaming, what the heck is it?

Finally, we learn that it is a sexual advance supposedly made by Sylvia's husband toward Carla.

But Alice isn't finished with us yet. She goes for the hat trick. Carla's pet goat has been missing from the beginning of the story. In the middle of a late night confrontation between Clark and Sylvia, the goat reappears, ghost-like, from the fog. The next day, Clark tells Carla all about his conversation with Sylvia, but never mentions the goat. Neither does the narrator mention the goat. We are left to shout, What About the Goat???

Not until the story's conclusion is this question answered, and in a chilling manner.

The bottom line: you might object to this technique; it might make you feel manipulated. But the story is impossible to put down.

Monday, December 12, 2005

"Twenty Grand" : Perhaps Not So Grand

"Twenty Grand," by Rebecca Curtis, is this week's offering from The New Yorker. Ms. Curtis, a professor at the University of Kansas, has constructed a fair, but not great, story about a family with financial troubles. The mother of this family carries a coin, an old Armenian coin which belonged to her mother, and which she spends at a toll booth because she cannot find a quarter. She has to get through the toll booth to go see her husband at the Air National Guard base where he works, so that she can get $15 from him to buy groceries. Irony of ironies, it turns out the old coin was worth, ahem, twenty grand.

Although fairly entertaining, this story is riddled with flaws.

It begins:

On December 13, 1979, when my mother was thirty years old, she lost an old Armenian coin. That winter was cold, and she had been sleeping with my sister and me on a foldout couch in the living room to save on heat. We lived on a cleared ledge, a natural shelf, on a mountain high above a lake.

There is a disorienting shift in psychic distance here that could have easily been avoided. The first sentence is fine: remote, although first person. In the next sentence, however, we plunge into the family's living room, onto their sofa, into their shared bed. And in the next sentence, we are yanked back outside, high above a lake. This sequence is confusing because the first reference to the ledge leads us to think that the ledge is in the living room. How much simpler and clearer to simply reverse the order of those sentences.

Next, to get my pet peeve out of the way, this story lacks an inherent narrative arc. We are told right away that the mother lost the old coin, but there is nothing to suggest where the story goes from there... and in fact, that event is more of an ending than a beginning. The only profluence generated by the loss of the coin is to make us ask "So?" And it is a rare reader (more rare than an Armenian coin) who will happily pursue that question.

Worse than that are the logical holes that follow, and the implausible behavior of the characters. It turns out the husband knew of the coin's value before it was lost, but didn't tell his wife because he was afraid she'd sell it and spend the proceeds. No. That's ridiculous. Were he so paranoid, he would have wrested it from her and sold it himself.

Next, once he learns that the coin has been lost, they return to the tollbooth and offer to repurchase it from the tolltaker. However, the tolltaker refuses, saying that she recognized the coin and its value, and it now belongs to her. Excuse me? This takes place in New England; how many tolltakers in this region happen to be numismatists familiar with Armenian currency? Ridiculous.

While the parents are arguing with the tolltaker, a scene that can't take more than five minutes, their children (including the narrator) are "rescued" from their car, just a few yards away, by a well meaning but easily duped older couple and spirited away to the police department. Again, ridiculous. Not to mention the disregard of POV that allows the narrator to observe the conversation between her parents and the tolltaker while she and her sister are nowhere nearby.

And so it goes. Perhaps there's something more profound here than meets the eye; perhaps the narrator is unreliable. But I don't think so.

According to Boyle

I've been reading a lot of T.C. Boyle lately, prompted by his 12/05/05 publication of "La Conchita" in The New Yorker. I picked up a collection over the weekend that contains many of his older pieces that I've never seen, including "Drowning," published in 1971.

With Boyle, you don't get cheated out of a story. Nearly all of his short fiction pieces can be used as illustrations of the power of the built-in narrative arc: a story element, established early in the text, that promises a certain duration, a tangible event that the reader can look forward to, and that serves to keep the reader reading, which is, after all, what it's all about.

"Drowning" is an interesting study in this regard. It's a strange, nihilistic little story, described by someone as "cruel". A beautiful and vain girl is sunbathing in an isolated spot on the beach. She strips. A swimmer swims out into the surf. A socially disfigured and very fat young man stumbles upon the naked girl and rapes her. Two fishermen chase him away... and then they rape her. The swimmer drowns. The fat man gets away.

Sounds horrible. And it is: not horribly written, but horrible to behold, something Gardner might have labeled "immoral fiction" because of its embrace of desolation and meaninglessness. I doubt that Mr. Boyle is especially proud of this story today, even though he has written many stories (including Chicxulub, written about previously) that reflect on the hopelessness of our situation.

But from a craft perspective, how in the world could Boyle create a narrative arc from these disjointed and dismal events?

He cheats. Yet, it works, and here's what he does. He begins the story with this sentence:

"In this story, someone will drown."

He doesn't reveal who or why, except to suggest that it will be random. Voila, narrative arc. We read to see who drowns, and how.

Some readers want to see metaphors the way occultists want to see ghosts, and for those people I suppose that the literal drowning of the swimmer is a metaphor for the repeated rape of the girl. Sure, why not. So you're left wondering, who drowned?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Meaning of Devastation: Chicxulub and T.C. Boyle

Here's why T.Coraghessan Boyle deserves your admiration, nay, your love: because he confronts topics and scenes that scare other writers goofy, and turns them into beautiful little things. He teaches us how to stare into the abyss of melodrama and not be afraid.

"Chicxulub," published in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, is a great example. In this first-person story, the narrator and his wife get a call late at night telling them that their teenage daughter has been in an accident. She was hit by a car, is in surgery, condition unknown. After a frantic rush to the hospital, interminable waiting, stress-induced behavior, etc., they find that the girl is dead.*

As they say, this is every parent's nightmare. If your goal is to write a story that adequately captures this nightmare, that describes how the parents feel, how would you approach it?

Most writers would never try, because moments of extreme emotion are, in reality, all pretty much the same. Weeping, screaming, denial, bargaining, guilt. And some writers who do try something like this wind up with a scene full of obligatory ohmygods. Which might be realistic and gutwrenching, but doesn't really make for good or interesting fiction. So most writers try to deal instead with the aftermath, where the central event is long over, or happens to a minor character, or is wrapped in a frame, or all of the above. (Even Boyle does this sometimes.)

But in this story Mr. Boyle does not resort to aftermath, and other than some stress-induced rudeness as the parents try to find out their daughter's condition, there is no off-the-shelf emoting.

Instead, I imagine ol' T.C. asking himself: what it would feel like? And the simple, everyday answer is this: it would be devastating. But whereas you or I might write, "It was devastating" or "They were devastated", Boyle takes a somewhat more effective approach: he interleaves the story of the girl and her parents with a narrative about asteroids that have struck the earth, including the eponymous Chicxulub, a six-mile wide rock that created a crater 120 miles wide and wiped out 75% of all life on earth. He explains that once in every 300,000 years an asteroid strike will be of a sufficient magnitude to cast the planet into darkness for a year, during which no plants will grow, no crops will be harvested. That, you see, is devastation. And that is how you will feel if your daughter is killed.

*But they also find that the dead girl is not their daughter, but a younger friend to whom their daughter had loaned her driver's license.