Monday, March 06, 2006

Life is a Trench, My Friends

This week's New Yorker story, "The Trench," by Erri DeLuca, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, stands in crisp contrast to last week's entry, "The Bone Game," by Charles D'Ambrosio. "The Trench" is as simple as D'Ambrosio's story was complex. It is the first-person tale of a man digging a tunnel. That's it. There is no backstory; there is no parallel thread. Not a single character is given a name, other than the narrator's nickname (Italy).

This story works because it has what I have referred to in past blog entries as a "Built-in Narrative Arc." Contrary to what one commenter claimed, this is not the same as plot, although in a story that has such an arc, the plot will grow around it like a vine. A Built-in Narrative Arc is a primary story element that suggests a certain timeline, the end of which is known as soon as the element is introduced. This foreknowledge can be integral to the element, e.g., pregnancy (see "The Best Year of My Life," by Paul Theroux). Ignoring abortion and miscarriage, we know that pregnancy in humans lasts about nine months, and it suggests a certain sequence of events. The reader knows, in this general sense, where the story is going, and reads to reach that target.

A built-in arc can also be established by the introduction of a clearly defined, concrete, objective goal, such as in this story, "The Trench." The narrator's objective is to dig a tunnel, or trench, from a house in Paris to the sewer pipe that runs beneath the street, so that the house's plumbing can be connected.

Will he reach the pipe? The boss has refused to take time to reinforce the trench walls. Will they collapse on the narrator? Will he go mad from digging, alone in the darkness, day after day? We read on to find out.

It's easy to read this allegorically, or as a metaphor for Life: a struggle in isolation, within the narrow tunnel of our own lives... a struggle in which we ignore the constancy of death in order to pursue our meager hopes (in this narrator's case, he is hoping for the smell of raw sewage, and when he finally smells it, it is like the "perfume of victory" to him).

Having said all that, it's probably good that this story is very short: 2,243 words. A suitable length. Even though the story is compelling, I'm not sure how much longer I would have lasted underground.