Stripping and Structure

I just finished up a hectic two-week stretch–hectic in academically relativistic terms, of course, since it’s summer and I more or less lurched into an abyss of inactivity.  When I am at my very best (as a producer of things, not necessarily as a human being), I tend to obey two inward edicts:  I impose order on my world and I get stuff done as it comes.  I tend to be good at scheming, layering short-, medium-, and long-term prospects competently, and I can be a bulldozer of human efficacy when the stars are right, tackling task after task without all the usual hems, pauses, and deviations from my working script.  Working as an administrator, however, made my planning and my doing habits much more contingent, since the shape of my days was dependent on what happened in the department and how I might effectively minister to it.  The return to my more natural ordering and doing habits has accordingly been gradual, certainly more gradual than I’d like.

If you’re like me–I don’t get to say that often, but I think most writers are in this wise–you may need to clear a little space to get stuff done.  (The inverse is more often true:  when one is attempting to postpone writing, one suddenly finds stuff to do–clothes to wash, bills to pay, and other guiltless diversions.)  In my case, at least for the sake of this summer, I needed to get back on my own time clock.  That’s the space I needed to get myself sorted.  I updated my home computer, and delays, returns, and resendings made the purchase a six-week affair; I made arrangements to get my deck stained, and a series of rainy days obliged the crew to postpone the job again and again; I contracted for some long-overdue landscaping, and what I thought was going to be a quick-hitting job turned into a ten-day affair.  That’s not meant to sound like kvetching, since the painters and the landscapers did fantastic work and the delays were all beyond their control.  Until they were finished, however, I had to change the shape of my days in order to accommodate them.  Now that they are done, all the space in time is mine again.  I can do some ordering of my own.

One of the real pleasures of getting the landscaping done was seeing my yard stripped down to its bare bones.  (Hiring out for landscaping made me feel terribly bourgeois, since all the work they did is work I might have tackled myself, but what took them ten days would have taken me till October, and I would not have been half as thorough.)  The yard I inherited when I purchased my house had been overrun. The former owners had, it seems, tried to cultivate various plants in various places with no real method, and the owner before that (if reports from my neighbors are true) simply trusted to Nature itself to sort things out:  whatever fell from the heavens and found purchase in the soil was allowed to live where it landed.  There were some lovely peculiarities as a result, but there was also some stunted, smothered flora that had settled in spots where it had no chance to thrive.

landscaping three

The picture above?  That’s what the crew uncovered when it waded through a sea of weeds. There was an herb garden below the weeping cherry at one point in time, but wild growth had choked it out.  I’ve got it mulched for the moment, and next spring I can turn those existing beds to some new purpose.  And that, in effect, is my dual-purpose metaphor for the day, one that stands in for both the writing life and writing itself.

David Wong over at Cracked recently wrote a nicely incisive article about the wide gulf that can grow between wishing and doing.  The things we want to change and the things we want to accomplish typically hinge on the quality of our wanting:  is it sufficient to drive us to map out an actionable plan, to spur us to reapportion the time and energy we would otherwise devote to other pleasures and priorities, to spur us to work to bring the wished-for thing to its fruition, step by step and inch by inch?  It sounds like the rhetoric of motivational posters, but it’s fundamentally true.  The competing rhetoric (and my own “need for space in time,” as described above, is a fine specimen) encourages us to spin our wheels, to surge forward when some deferrable condition is met or when inspiration strikes at last.   Life is livable as it is, and we’re pretty okay right where we are.

The blanket of weeds that covered up that garden was the work of time, as was all the labor that drew it back.  And that labor was not mine–it occurred because I was willing to pay a price in order to free up time, time that I might turn to purposes suited to my abilities and wishes.  I some ways I’ve begun to work toward those purposes, setting in motion a couple of existential initiative and building momentum step by necessary step.  The writing I need to undertake, however, still finds me deferring, dithering, and begging off.  What the aforementioned clearing of space has achieved, however, is a determined draining of the Pool of Excuses.  I could fill it with more, of course, but doing so would now take conscious and conspicuous effort.  I’ve effectively changed the nature of the conversations I can have with myself, and I’ve also obliged myself to think critically about the things I want and how I might go about acquiring and achieving them.

For that reason, I think, I have seen more regular appearances from Bulldozing Bill, whose penchant for doing what needs to be done without complaint or complication is a good omen.  The success of the coming semester, however–and of 2015, which will involve eight months of summer and sabbatical–will depend on the return of the Overlord of Ordering.  I’ve made the space as inviting as I can, and I’ve robbed him of his usual excuses.  Now I just have to keep an eye out for his arrival.

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On Earnestness

About two weeks ago I canceled cable, for I had gazed too long into the abyss.  When I purchased the cable expand-o-pack last summer, I had uplifting cultural intentions:  I planned to watch Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Orphan Black, and a few other highbrowish, critically-acclaimed offerings I would otherwise be unable to see.  At year’s end, however, I considered my viewing habits and realized I had only achieved upliftoff once, in bingeing on the excellent Penny Dreadful.  Most of my viewing life was spent trawling the upper HD reaches (Showtime, HBO, and Cinemax) during the evening hours, which proved to be a barren wasteland of programmatic repetition.  For reasons I cannot fully fathom, they seem to show the same movies at the same hour every single day (few channels proved more disheartening than BBC America, which involved in my experience nothing but a steady succession of Star Trek, Top Gear, and Gordon Ramsay mini-marathons), so rather than choosing a film I would wish to watch, I usually found myself defaulting to the least obnoxious available option (normally a movie on IFC, as it turns out, and not one of the heavy-hitting premiums).  I seldom watch live sports (save for the World Cup), and network TV holds little charm for me (since I didn’t get in on the ground floor of any of the better serialized dramas).  I gave my vegetative needs a long think and decided that cable had to go.

I plan, of course, to improve my reading and writing habits, using the hours I’ve liberated for more nourishing fare, but right now I’m working my way through the two-for-a-dollar B horror movies at the local Family Video.  I am only a man, and I have sordid needs.  For reasons requiring more paragraphs than I intend to write, B movie fare–at least of a certain, earnest kind–hits a sweet spot for me.  When the attempt is made sincerely, a good B movie lands right at the intersection of heart and artistry:  it makes the most of its means and the abilities of its writers, directors, and performers, stretching the budget (of both funds and talent) as far as it can go.  The good ones mean it; the bad ones don’t.

Alas, the bad ones outnumber the good by a ratio of about 5:1.  I tend to do more research than is strictly necessary to avoid the worst of them (I’ll identify two or three movies that look promising, then come home and check reviews to see if they bear the hallmarks of a mercenary offering), but some symptoms are easy to spot. They usually feature a fancy DVD case, often depicting a sexualized or spectacular scene that is not actually depicted in the movie; they highlight the presence of a recognizable horror luminary, even if that performer is in the movie for two minutes (see:  Tiffany Shepis in Axeman at Cutter’s Creek, Danielle Harris in Camp Dread, and the like) or has nothing at all to do with the plot and is merely a face a renter might recognize (see The Bates Haunting, which features two guys from Jackass in what are allegedly comedic bits); they run well shy of the typical 90 minutes, and the scant content is padded by traveling scenes, dialogue that’s not at all germane to the plot, or plain old gratuitous nudity.  What pains me about the cash-grabby sorts of B movies is that there’s almost always some element that works.  The Bates Haunting involves some idiotic plotting, but Zachary Fletcher, who plays Junior Bates, gives a riveting performance; Axeman at Cutter’s Creek features some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard but has solid practical effects.  At day’s end, however, one leaves these films feeling as though a line was crossed–that at some point the director or producer or studio performed some calculation, determined that there was enough lurid material for a trailer, and decided that was good enough to make back the investment.

The kicker is that the issue is a systemic one–it’s just the way business is done–and complicity in that system does not necessarily speak to mercenary attitudes.  Tiffany Shepis mailed in her Axeman cameo, to my thinking, but she also produced the far more ambitious The Prometheus Project; Danielle Harris’s role in Camp Dread is purely incidental (she delivers a few lines of exposition and takes off, probs to cash her paycheck), but she’s also directed the earnest and interesting Among Friends.  When faced with the economic realities of the genre, I suspect that earnest offerings actually have to clear higher hurdles:  not only do they have to feature enough obvious hooks to be produced and released, they also have to realize the creative vision of the folks making them.  That’s a hard balance to strike, I think, which makes seeing it struck so rewarding.

Earnestness is, of course, a slippery commodity, but it seems to emerge as a palpable sense of commitment, the impression that all of the participants have bought in to a project and are equally invested in seeing it artfully realized.  If there are faults–and there often will be faults–they are not matters of indolence or indifference.  They reached for the brass ring but simply could not get a good grip.  Given more time and funding they might have fixed the flaws and made better movies, but they tried to make the best movie they could within the constraints they faced.

Last night I watched Bloody Homecoming, for example, which felt about as B as B movies can get.  It features a cast of unknowns and a dozen plot contrivances (pro tip:  if you need to escape a killer and have an unobstructed route back to the crowded gymnasium from which you came, take it), but from the get-go it becomes clear that the film intends to be a character-driven mystery.  Everyone, even the peripheral characters, has a history or a future the director takes pains to introduce, which strikes me as a creditable attempt to correct one of the problems that so often plagues bad horror movies–the appeal of a high body count, which often comes at the cost of characterization.  The catch, however, is that the gestures used to flesh out the victims-to-be are a little on the awkward side.  In the space of one Homecoming dance on character confesses his love for another (and she ruefully, belatedly requites it); one comes out of the closet; one announces her pregnancy; and one laments the necessity of caring for her ailing mother after graduation, which will surely upend all her dreams.  The manner (the pregnant woman arrives at the dance with her pregnancy test in hand) and the timing (the Homecoming queen confesses her fears for the future just moments before being crowned on stage) of these revelations, however, leaves much to be desired.  What Bloody Homecoming attempts is, to my thinking, a good and desirable thing ill-managed; it just warranted a subtler touch.  The plot involves some genuine surprises, and the pacing was fine and the characters interesting.  Though the work of development might have been managed more deftly, one never gets the sense that the writer is stinting in his efforts to make each character vital, to give the viewers reasons to care for them.

The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond is another good, earnest offering, though it, too, has some conspicuous issues.  The plot involves some archaic language and poetry, and I’m not entirely sure that the writer has the ear for them.  The plotting itself is quite clever, however, and it even calls into question the nature of that language.  The movie makes excellent use of its location, the effects are quite good, and the central prop–an ancient game–is fully and intelligently realized.  My chief issue is with the performances of the actors, but it seems clear to me that all of them were giving their all.  The script involved some quick escalations of temper, which might have been one source of difficulty, but a few performers struggled in shifting from mood to mood.  The film features two actresses (recognizable as the crazy babysitters from Grindhouse) who seemed out of their element in the social interactions early in the film but who fared far better when things got gory; another actor (also the executive producer of the film) trended in the opposite direction, though he was a little stiff in most of the interactive contexts.  All three, however, clearly understood what their roles involved and were doing their best to satisfy the needs of each moment.  That’s more than can be said of many actors in major productions, some of whom live on as cautionary tales and punch lines long after the credits roll.

What I’m getting at, or trying to get at, is the complexity and inherent difficulty of the narrative enterprise.  B horror movies always strike me as an especially interesting vehicle for storytelling, in part because the intended effects are generally accepted and in part because the constraints are so significant.  A big budget normally buys star power and a margin for error:  given $15 million (The Woman in Black), $17 million (Evil Dead 2013), or $20 million (The Conjuring), a director can make a lot of mistakes and still earn back the requisite return on investment.  Realizing a creative vision with a much, much smaller budget–$1 million in the case of You’re Next, for example, $750,000 in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, or far, far less in the movies I’ve mentioned–requires significant ingenuity and entails significant risks.  The latter case is not unlike that of an author trying to usher her first novel into print:  she’ll need to persuade publishing houses that she’s a good risk, that they’ll get a substantial return on their investment, and that she’ll get the work done by the deadlines they assign–all without materially undermining or compromising her vision of the story she wants to tell.  It’s a heady bit of business to imagine, since we know the commercial considerations and the needs of the narrative won’t always (or often) be easy to reconcile.

And let’s not even think about how complex this might get if she sells the film rights to her story down the road.

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On Friday I found myself with precisely two hours and fifteen minutes of leisure time, so I opted to watch The Avengers once again.  I quite liked the movie the first time around, when I saw it in the theater, but it lacked a bit of the pizzazz that characterized the first Thor.  What delighted me about Branagh’s treatment of Loki in that film was the deep gamesmanship, the long cons he was running.  He gets great mileage out of a few timely lies, and all of his actions and decisions ultimately boil down to a handful of accessible motives.  In The Avengers the motive mechanics seem a little chancier–while Loki’s schemes almost result in the annihilation of S.H.I.E.L.D., he seems principally invested in breaking apart a team that has not yet formed.  Many of the principals (Thor, Captain America, and others) agree that Loki’s easy capture simply doesn’t pass the smell test, but his ultimate agency in that gambit is contingent and fortunate.  Hiddleston’s performance still conveys the same complex interiority, and one feels there are layers behind layers to be excavated (especially in terms of his relationship with his alien allies), but the sudden escalation in the third act of the movie ultimately leaves those motives undisclosed.

There is, I think, a dual challenge in representing any deep scheme, and deep scheming is a fairly common currency in many popular cultural productions.  The first challenge is endowing the schemers with higher-order intellectual capacities without making them utterly inaccessible–giving the Lecters, Lokis, Moriartys, and Morgan le Fays of world their characteristic gifts while making their motives and machinations legible to most readers.  The second is, I think, a necessary extension:  offering other characters in the piece enough evidence and/or motivation to arrive at the wrong conclusions for very good reasons without making them seem like gullible lunkheads.  The case-making efforts of those figures often stands in for the reader’s own reckoning, which makes for fairly finicky work.  One has to assign them enough intellectual credit to puzzle out a probabilistic solution to whatever enigma the schemer has engineered (or, like the Avengers, to arrive at a right assessment of the evidence without being entirely sure of the ploy in play), but one must also make their inability to see the bigger scheme (one revealed when even more evidence comes to light, or when people with different, discrete informational sets at last collaborate) forgivable.  It’s a tough balance to strike, doubly difficult to strike concisely, and trebly difficult to manage in a manner that satisfies the reader.  As a reader I’m ready and willing to be deceived (and, as a result, delighted and surprised) by some twist I didn’t anticipate because I had fingered the wrong suspect or failed to assign enough weight to a plausible motive.  I’m less willing to let characters and their creators slide if the brilliant scheme of the evil genius hinges on dumb luck, or if her motive is mere madness, or if the heroes and heroines neglect to pursue manifest leads that any amateur sleuth would follow as a matter of course.

The longer the fiction, alas, the more complex the challenge gets.  Readers of short fiction can usually handle a good 175° twist after 5,000 words, and most viewers can stand the shock of an astonishing revelation 75 minutes in to a 90-minute flick.  When the clues and corresponding deductions are stirred in to the midst of some 80,000 words, however, the pressure to strike the right balance increases.  It’s a matter I mull over a little too often in my idle time, as I’m working out the kinks of sundry plots and possibilities in my mind’s eye.  Ultimately the only way to know if the contrivances and connivings work is to commit them to pixels and submit them to the scrutiny of other eyes and minds.  The starting, as always, is the hardest part.

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The 8% Solution

During the past week I drifted a bit, but I also verged on productivity.  Though I did not actually tackle any of the major enterprises I have in mind, I did grease the gears a bit by returning to some older projects with fresh eyes.  I spent a little time revising two short stories, trying to trim them down about 10% in length apiece.  I find that to be pleasurably challenging, since it encourages Bill of the Future to reconsider what Bill of Yore thought was indispensable for the telling of a given tale.  This occasion led to a bite-sized epiphany: while I tend to be fairly efficient when it comes to dialogue and description, I think I’ve come to recognize a penchant for prolixity in narrative accounts of actions and motivation.

In some ways I think both are forgivable, albeit in their own problematic ways.  In one story, for example, a character is surprised awake and, in her haste to leap from bed, tangles herself in her sheets and falls.  It’s by no means an unprecedented act; I’ve done it myself.  Detailing it, however, took me perhaps an eight-line paragraph–that’s more than murderous in the midst of an action-packed scene.  At the time of the first draft I suspect I wanted to emphasize the positions of bodies in space, to account for the consequences of the spill, the injuries and the delays that attended it.  Those cues (in one reckoning of the text, at least) seem fairly important for establishing a time frame in which the activities going on in another room might simultaneously unfold. Fresh reading, however, suggested to me that slowing momentum (and wasting words) at that juncture was the greater sin.  I accordingly lopped off about four lines, making the action move more briskly.

Motivation is, I think, much harder to handle and manage.  While I’m not one to discount perversity–our human readiness to do the unexpected and/or unnecessary in response to some inward, inexplicable prompt–narrative fiction doesn’t create much space for it.  Few things are more maddening in films and books than folks acting on impulses that readers and viewers cannot fathom.  While we might lend mystique to characters in that way, for the most part folks do things for human reasons we can grasp.  Moreover, people tend to want things in very specific ways, for specific reasons, with specific intentions; a generic motive will seldom do.  We despise motivational shorthand, the simplification of desire, but there’s also a point when motive can seem labored, when too many beans have been spilled.  Discovering that balance is hard, at least for me, because it involves a delicate dance of sharing and withholding, of offering readers enough transparency to imagine why a character is doing what she’s doing without bogging the narrative down in a morass of motive forces that require paragraphs or pages to delineate.

With these themes in mind I watched the remake of Evil Dead, which I thought was rather well done from a motivational standpoint.  It includes a few elements I abhor–these days when I see a hysterical driver hop behind the wheel I fast forward to the inevitable crash, for hysterical drivers do not brake, they accelerate and swerve–but the central arc is very well done.  Evil Dead is in many ways enabled by the milieu, with the nearly-archetypal cabin in the woods serving as a staging ground for a gaggle of horrors.  The catch then, from a motivational standpoint, is a simple one:  what would possibly get five fetching folks to said cabin and persuade them to stay there when things get grim?  In 1981, the cabin in question was a spring break retreat, and it was warm and inviting enough to get the visitors to overstay their welcome.  In 2013, the cabin is of the sort that 92% of us would understandably abandon.  Efficiently explaining why these five folks belong to the elect 8% is one of the movie’s chief virtues.

Imagine, if you will, an unbelievably isolated cabin.  There will be no phone service, of course, and you will need a 4×4 with good ground clearance to traverse a waterway a few miles shy of the lot.  I’d venture to guess about 50% of us have already ruled ourselves out of this scenario; outdoorsy seclusion may not be our thing.

Imagine your arrival and attempted entry.  To your surprise, the lock has been forced–someone’s been inside.  Moreover, the place is in awful shape.  It’s not a tidy, rustic retreat by any means, but a filthy, weathered, neglected one.  Since we’ve already established that the 50% we’ve got left are the kind who might be inclined to rough it, let’s estimate 10% attrition, given these revelations.  I’d guess that a few folks who were on the fence at the prospect in the abstract, now faced with clear evidence that the place is neither inviting nor secure, might reasonably opt to bail.

Imagine making it through the first night.  The interior cleaned up quickly, after all, and there’s running water, those interlopers are long gone, and all things seem serviceable.  Except there’s a faint smell troubling one of your guests.  And a visit into the basement reveals its source: a chamber adorned with hanged cats arrayed around a charred support beam.  Oh, and there’s a huge bloodstain at the basement’s entrance covered by the carpet, by the way, and some evidence of occult activity down there, hanged cats notwithstanding.  And on the table at the back there’s something heavy and square, wrapped in plastic bags, bound in barbed wire.  Nothing major.

While the remaining 40% have already earned a lifetime supply of Scooby-Doo sleuthing points for opting to investigate the mysterious, foul stench in the poorly-lit basement with the half-rotten stairs, I think about 4 out of 5 humans would now agree it’s time to go.  The 8% intent on staying would need to have pretty compelling reasons to stick around.

Evil Dead makes use of a clever pretext–a drug intervention–to align its five characters with that highly-motivated 8%.  We have Mia, a heroin addict, her brother, his girlfriend, and two old friends.  The brother, David, harbors a deep guilt for having abandoned Mia as she cared for their dying, deranged mother during her last days; the two friends, Eric and Olivia, have taken part in a prior intervention, which saw Mia relapse well before she was able to dry out. They take great pains to explain to David why they’ll need to stick it out:  Mia has overdosed before, and they don’t think she’ll survive another.  They are thus not only committed to the isolation of the cabin provides but also determined to remain there as long as it takes, no matter how much Mia protests, no matter how odd her withdrawal symptoms and hallucinations seem to be.  That makes for a mighty fine motivational set.

As for Eric’s decision to open up the package bound in barbed wire, ignore all the clear warnings in plain English, and read The Forbidden Incantation that a prior reader has taken great pains to blot out?  That’s not motivated or contextualized quite as well.  Me, I blame the hippity-hop music and the video games.

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Finishing School

On Monday my term as chair of the English Department concluded. On Tuesday I tumbled into the abyss.

Because I am the life-affirming sort, I heartily recommend an occasional abyssal tumble.  It gives you license to use the adjective “abyssal,” which you will enjoy, and it also affords you the opportunity to gaze up at the peaks around you and see where you’d like to climb.  Climbing itself is seldom easy, but it’s always delightful in prospect.

The last several weeks have been relatively hellish from a Wandlessian standpoint.  Such a statement, of course, deserves qualification.  In one or two quarters all things are going exceedingly well; they are going, however, unexpectedly well.  My delight in these things is deep and undiminished, but in the Wandlessian realm–particularly when I am trying to enter a new phase of being and doing–the satisfaction of modest, reasonable expectations often becomes an oppressively significant term.  I need little incremental wins, products of my will and exertions, to pile up in order to build momentum.  To mix the bejillikers out of my climbing metaphor, happy accidents are akin to gusts in the sails, exhilarating as they help you along, but most progress is achieved at the oars, stroke by stroke, picking up speed as you go.  Since reasonable expectations are so often thwarted, however, it feels far more like rowing through dark, choppy waters against adverse winds.  You’re eager to proceed, but it becomes a struggle.

In the writing life, the business is somewhat more complicated still.  I have the good habit of starting fast, the bad habit of raising the blades of the oars and drifting a bit, and the terrible habit of tacking off in new directions whenever a fresh writing prospect fills the sails. Since I’m murdering metaphors today, it’s quite like the statistic for distance traveled posted for departing players when they substitute out in the World Cup–you realize that a given footballer has traveled eight or nine kilometers but hasn’t really gotten anywhere.  This is how one (namely me) ends up with folders full of ideas and half-finished drafts and manuscripts.  Concluding the climb (or the row, as the case may be) involves a sustained effort, progress through those choppy waters even when I’m tired, when it seems my sense of direction has betrayed me, or when I spot an enticing inlet along the way.

For that reason I’m going to conduct an experiment in the weeks ahead.  I’m going to take a little time in the coming week to organize ideas in terms of their readiness, I’m going to create a master list, and then I’m going to tick them off, one by one, not starting on the second project until a complete draft of the first is finished, and not turning to the third until the second is ready.  Is this a revolutionary notion?  Certainly not.  But it will be a very new manner of shaping my days and ways.

With my administrative days behind me, it seems like a fine time to ingrain new habits.  Let’s see where this one takes me.

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Of a Sudden

Because I am none too clever, I find myself overextended in what is allegedly the heart of my summer siesta.  Part of the pileup is explicable:  I’m teaching a class, managing the administrative business that arises at the end of the fiscal year, packing up my office, and taking part in the orientation of those students who’ll arrive in the fall.  Those symptoms that I might be stretching myself a little too thin, however, have only recently emerged.  Were I a wiser man I’d take a long afternoon nap to replenish my existential energy, but since I am not, I’ll try to map the convergence of several lines.

What has struck me in the midst of my recent reading and viewing is the suddenness with which critical narrative developments occur–and the readerly resistance that often attends those shifts.  Though she has known him for the better part of her life, Emma Woodhouse suddenly realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley and that no other should have him; though he has toiled over his creation with fervid devotion, Victor Frankenstein suddenly realizes that the thing he has made is an abomination.  Subsequent readings may persuade us that Austen and Shelley offer sufficient clues for us to anticipate these epiphanies, but the first time through they may well feel like cheats, somehow unrealistic, at once contrived and convenient.

My memory is not long, since I repress most events the moment they occur, but I’m sure I felt the same way the first time I read those books and many others.  While I get to reread as a professional pleasure, I vaguely recall balking at these sudden revolutions in thought and behavior. Modern me, however, is beginning to suspect that such narrative epiphanies may well be authentic representations of the way things work.  I’ve listened to the accounts of newlyweds and the eruption of their strange and sudden loves; I’ve read reports from sunk-cost speculators and their sudden yet belated recognition that it was too late to turn back from some doomed experiment or enterprise; I’ve seen folks maintain the innocence of their allies only to be suddenly stunned by unexpected admissions of guilt.  Without mulling over questions of human nature too expansively, I think it’s fair to say that our partial perspectives (perhaps aided and abetted by a propensity for self-absorption) may sometimes blind us to developments unfolding right before our eyes.   Resistance to those fictions that depict that blindness may speak to a resentment for an inevitable, unwelcome human phenomenon.

I say this, of course, as a critter currently facing a week packed with obligations, as a critter eager to make some preparations for the other side of the administrative finish line, and as a critter who wonders now–when it’s far too late to change his current course–how he got here and how he’s going to conjure up the time to get the needful stuff done, much less the wished-for business.  Alas, a better understanding of the symptoms is not often equivalent to a cure.

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Abiding Silence

This week I’ll take advantage of a jaunty juxtaposition as a prompt for posting.  I’m in the thick of a summer seminar on Gothic literature, and in the coming week we’ll tackle both Frankenstein and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  That’s should make for a fairly frisky collision in terms of technique.

Frankenstein always strikes me as a wiggedy work, technically speaking.  On the one hand we have a framing narrative which, when put into practice, verges on the absurd.  At the outermost layer we have our friend Walton, who wishes to earn fame by making it to the Pole.  Within his story we have the reckoning of Victor Frankenstein, within Victor’s story we get a full biography of his creature, and within the creature’s own story we get the inset tale of the De Lacey clan.  That diegetic trickery is not terribly remarkable in itself, but it coexists with an epistolary device which is commonly used to convey the illusion of truth as well as a textual preoccupation with evidence, proof, and the facts of the matter.  In the trial of Justine Moritz, the trial of Victor, and the corroborating evidence offered to Walton (and a magistrate along the way) to substantiate the account, we see an investment in fact that is complicated (if not compromised) by the open admission of fictionality.  It makes for a festive read for that reason, among many others.

What often bogs me down in Frankenstein, however, are those extensive self-assessments offered by Walton, Frankenstein, and his creature.  Walton really, really wants a friend, and in lamenting the lack he must lay out all the admirable qualities that would warrant such an alliance; Frankenstein goes on for pages and pages about his noble ambitions and the hard hand fortune has dealt him, which yields a sizable quantity of narcissistic prose.  The creature, for his part, has to describe his education at the hands of heartless humans to account for what became of his inherent nobility.   There’s a great deal of philosophical tension in the novel–can the creature be trusted, or is he naturally malign?–but the long disquisitions on thoughts and feelings often remind me of the static quality of the story, how much of it is ultimately told from a ship’s cabin and a sickbed.

Edwin Drood is, for perhaps different reasons, guilty of a similar sin.  Dickens is writing a serial work, of course, so it seems necessary to forgive him some of the prose excesses that might pad his page count. The comic passages (from Deputy, Durdles, Sapsea, Twinkleton and others) yield a great deal of prose without adding much meaning.  I suppose the effect is ultimately a desirable one, as the novel repays careful reading:  a patient reader will learn that Deputy has seen quite a lot in Cloisterham, for instance, or that the drunken Durdles is sufficiently sober to notice peculiarities in John Jasper’s behavior, even though those hints are buried in the surrounding exposition and dialogue.  I expect I’ll hear a few complaints from students on Wednesday that the novel is quite labored, though its density is one of its pleasures.

Despite that apparent excess, however, I realize how effective and evocative Dickensian silences may be.  In the early going, for example, the reader earns great insight into the character of Crisparkle, who realizes he may have been wrong to conceal Neville Landless’s affection for Rosa Bud.  His readiness to give over his earlier silence and openly broach that subject (although the act is never narrated) anchors his virtue and redoubles the reader’s faith in his character–an important bit of anchorage, since his belief in Neville (and the reader’s faith in Crisparkle) is the cornerstone in the case for his innocence.  Dickens uses silence more suggestively in the case of Grewgious, who (in the space of a concise paragraph) conveys his affection for Rosa’s mother–and Rosa herself, it seems, by extension–with a heavy sigh at bedtime.  It’s one of the reader’s first intimations that he has an interior life and underlying motives, motives that complicate the mystery to a meaningful degree.  And of course we have a far more compelling silence at the heart of the novel, when Grewgious relates the broken engagement of Edwin and Rosa to Jasper, who–the novel implies–may have committed a wholly unnecessary murder to achieve his selfish, secret ends. Jasper falls into a fit, and Grewgious watches his collapse impassively.  At the end of Chapter XV he simply stands over Jasper, opening and closing his hands.  Although he says nothing and apparently seeks out the verger to revive Jasper, we know that Grewgious is astute and perceptive enough to process and interpret the fit as indicative, and that silence, too, is therefore revealing.  Of what?  Dickens did not live to tell.

I often struggle to strike a balance in my own writing, as it’s difficult to know when I’ve offered too few hints or when I’ve overexplained some trivial matter.  For that reason I find it especially helpful to see silences represented on the page, and to feel for myself the impact they can have.

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