Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Little More Means

The summer 2006 Zoetrope All-Story delivers "Nebraska," another David Means story. This story is as textually dense as anything you're likely to read. Nineteen paragraphs in 17 columns (two columns per page). The only dialogue is secondary (aka "reported") dialogue; i.e., the dialogue is related without quotation marks or paragraph breaks, as part of the narrative, perhaps as summary. Also, some of the sentences are extremely long, although Means resorts to liberal semi-colons in places to artificially extend the length. The next-to-last sentence in the story contains nine semi-colons, separating ten independent clauses. Why? It's not for the weak-stomached. Just looking at the long blocks of print can be daunting. But if you allow yourself to be sucked in, the lyrical, lush narrative rolls along with a pace and power that never lets up, and that is not often matched.

This is the story of a gang of self-styled revolutionaries who plan to rob an armored car. Things go awry. End of plot. Profluence is achieved in the same way it is achieved in any caper story. We read to see the crime committed, and to see if it will be successful. Although, in this story, we know almost immediately that the robbery has failed.

As unusual as this story is from a formal perspective, the first paragraph is a textbook example of how to begin:
Where else to begin but beneath the dining room table where she's hiding, dazed and alone, tormented by fear and loneliness, lost to time (it seems), most certainly to be forgotten? The annals of history won't record this lonely moment while the house cracks in the heat, aches high up in the rafters, snaps along the joists; the genuine linoleum in the kitchen glistens oily to the touch, the trees and grass sway in the wind off the river, and she hunches down beneath the table, where she at least feels safe, listening to the wind as it lifts through the trees to make hushed sound and then depletes itself so that a dog's bark, husky and dry, can arrive from far off, and then even farther away a soft hooting sound--someone calling--and then another dog, giving a sharper, more precise bark while she examines her knees, worn to white threads, and then extends her legs and says aloud as she touches her shins and ankles, You've got good long legs, fine, fine legs. She leans back and looks at the underside of the table, the battered legs and feet (Who left this grand artifact here?), and then, looking up, sees the words GRAND RAPIDS stenciled on the underside of one of the leaves.
In addition to establishing a tone of dread, the driving lyrical voice, and an omniscient pov with a metafictional overtone ("Where else to begin..."), this paragraph

  • gives us a character in trouble

  • establishes a mystery (why is she hiding under a table?)

  • creates a strong sense of setting, both interior and exterior (both local exterior--the river, the trees--and a geographical location (Nebraska, Grand Rapids))

  • provides additional sensory detail (the barking dogs, the creaking house, the underside of the table) that establish the tangibility of this world

  • Also, note how Means varies the psychic distance in these three sentences to give us a complete picture. With that first phrase, "Where else to begin," he establishes a point outside the story, above the fray, clearly looking back at the whole mess, and then quickly moves beneath the dining room table, in close physical proximity to this woman, then continues to a tight emotional proximity by revealing her emotions: alone, tormented, lost to time. Then he goes back, briefly to the long shot, to "the annals of history," then back to the house, the "genuine linoleum in the kitchen," then outside to the trees and grass, then back to the woman, under the table, and immediately back inside her head ("where she at least feels safe"). Then back outside to the wind and the barking dogs, then back to the woman looking at her legs, and finally to a place we haven't yet been, her consciousness, her thoughts ("You've got good long legs, fine, fine legs."). Note also the hierarchies observed: Means doesn't leap directly from the annals of history to the woman's thoughts. He progresses from layer to layer, from far to near a step at a time, as if he's twisting a zoom lens.

    I can't overemphasize the importance of varying the psychic distance, especially in the opening. As a teacher of mine says about the beginning of every story, "The reader has just arrived on this planet." Accordingly, he wants to look around and to know where he is, who these people are, and why he's been brought here. Difficult to accomplish with a single camera angle.