Monday, December 12, 2005

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?