Thursday, March 30, 2006

Doing the Math, Revisited

After yesterday's post about the first lines of Karl Iagnemma's story, "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction," I went back and reread the whole thing. It had been a couple of years, and I had forgotten how good it is.

Structurally, the story is fascinating. Iagnemma weaves two primary story lines around a third minor thread. The first primary line is the narrator's story of his love for Alexandra, the promiscuous daughter of the narrator's ex-advisor. The second primary line concerns the history of Slaney, the town in which the story is set; in particular, it is the story of The Swede, who founded the town in 1906. The minor thread is about the narrator's ex-advisor, and his doomed love for an undergraduate. I've titled this "Doing the Math, Revisited" because the narrator is a mathematician who tries to understand love with formulae and Venn diagrams.

Usually, multi-threaded stories segregate the threads with clear section breaks. Iagnemma starts off that way: the first section (four pages) is almost entirely related to the first thread. The next section is, at first, about The Swede, but then he brings in the ex-advisor thread and returns to the narrator's thread. But then Iagnemma jumps back to The Swede for a paragraph, with no transition, no section break, and no explanation, then back to the narrator. This pattern repeats for a while, paragraph by paragraph, and then, at the end of the third section, we get a paragraph that cuts from The Swede's thread to the narrator's thread in mid-paragraph, again with no transition whatsoever. This intermingling of stories intensifies. For example, we have this paragraph:
They found ore in the hills around Slaney in 1926--not the glittery hematite they were seeing in Ishpeming, but a muddy blue sludge that assayed at sixty percent iron. Overnight, Slaney was reborn: the front glass of Dan Gunn's saloon was replaced and the floor replanked, Hugh Grogan's place on Thomas Street was scrubbed down and reopened. The Swede awoke from a month-long bender, his handwriting looser and less optimistic. Strange to see trains unloading again. Excitement even at the meat market; ore, they say, is everywhere. No chicken for nine months. My ex-adviser, one chilly April Sunday in the TechInfo office, explained that his ex-wife had taken out a restraining order, and if he called her one more time, he would be arrested. It took me two months to realize that chicken was the Swede's code word for intercourse.
What's that sentence about the ex-adviser doing in there? And that's the way it continues, more and more overlapping, until the final pages when all three threads are resolved. The amazing thing is that it works, and never, for me at least, becomes confusing.

The other amazing thing about this story's structure is that it is told almost entirely in summary; in 24 pages, the only certifiable scene is at the end, three pages long. I didn't bother to chart this one. That it works is testament to Iagnemma's skill. But it also underscores the difference between summary and abstraction. Scene is, by definition, concrete. Summary can be concrete or abstract. Some writers, reciting the old "show don't tell" rule, think that anything in a scene is showing and anything in summary is telling. Not true. Showing is accomplished with concrete details, perceptible to the senses, whether in summary or scene. Telling is committed when the writer falls back on abstraction.