Thursday, July 30, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Gusev: Setting the outer limits

This week, we'll start a writing seminar on Anton Chekhov's short story "Gusev." First, a grateful nod to Eric Puchner, with whom I studied this story in a class called "Fiction that Breaks the Mold." The course title pretty much explains it--we read stories that broke various supposed rules from fiction workshops. "Gusev" breaks at least two that I can think of off the top of my head: no point-of-view shifts, and no dreams /delirium / visions. But of course these are two of my very favorite things to do in fiction. And Chekhov, the master of masters, has given us permission!

However, if your story's going to break the rules, it's important to signal that from the get-go. In other words, if you're going to the outer limits, we have to see you way out there, at least briefly, right at the beginning. Otherwise your later rule-breaking tends to feel more like a trick, or a sudden genre shift. I'm not saying don't try it the other way, only that I have tried it, and have not, thus far, succeeded. So this is a sort of rule about how to break rules.

"Gusev" is going to open out in some really amazing ways at the end. So how does Chekhov set us up for that? By expanding and contracting the story's boundaries at the beginning, reserving the right to play with them throughout, as he sees fit.

IT was getting dark; it would soon be night.

Gusev, a discharged soldier, sat up in his hammock and said in an undertone:

"I say, Pavel Ivanitch. A soldier at Sutchan told me: while they were sailing a big fish came into collision with their ship and stove a hole in it."

The nondescript individual whom he was addressing, and whom everyone in the ship's hospital called Pavel Ivanitch, was silent, as though he had not heard.

And again a stillness followed... The wind frolicked with the rigging, the screw throbbed, the waves lashed, the hammocks creaked, but the ear had long ago become accustomed to these sounds, and it seemed that everything around was asleep and silent. It was dreary. The three invalids—two soldiers and a sailor—who had been playing cards all the day were asleep and talking in their dreams.

It seemed as though the ship were beginning to rock. The hammock slowly rose and fell under Gusev, as though it were heaving a sigh, and this was repeated once, twice, three times.... Something crashed on to the floor with a clang: it must have been a jug falling down.

"The wind has broken loose from its chain..." said Gusev, listening.

This time Pavel Ivanitch cleared his throat and answered irritably:

"One minute a vessel's running into a fish, the next, the wind's breaking loose from its chain. Is the wind a beast that it can break loose from its chain?"

"That's how christened folk talk."

"They are as ignorant as you are then. They say all sorts of things. One must keep a head on one's shoulders and use one's reason. You are a senseless creature."

Pavel Ivanitch was subject to sea-sickness. When the sea was rough he was usually ill-humoured, and the merest trifle would make him irritable. And in Gusev's opinion there was absolutely nothing to be vexed about. What was there strange or wonderful, for instance, in the fish or in the wind's breaking loose from its chain? Suppose the fish were as big as a mountain and its back were as hard as a sturgeon: and in the same way, supposing that away yonder at the end of the world there stood great stone walls and the fierce winds were chained up to the walls... if they had not broken loose, why did they tear about all over the sea like maniacs, and struggle to escape like dogs? If they were not chained up, what did become of them when it was calm?

Gusev pondered for a long time about fishes as big as a mountain and stout, rusty chains, then he began to feel dull and thought of his native place to which he was returning after five years' service in the East. He pictured an immense pond covered with snow.... On one side of the pond the red-brick building of the potteries with a tall chimney and clouds of black smoke; on the other side—a village.... His brother Alexey comes out in a sledge from the fifth yard from the end; behind him sits his little son Vanka in big felt over-boots, and his little girl Akulka, also in big felt boots. Alexey has been drinking, Vanka is laughing, Akulka's face he could not see, she had muffled herself up.

"You never know, he'll get the children frozen..." thought Gusev. "Lord send them sense and judgment that they may honour their father and mother and not be wiser than their parents."

"They want re-soleing," a delirious sailor says in a bass voice. "Yes, yes!"

Gusev's thoughts break off, and instead of a pond there suddenly appears apropos of nothing a huge bull's head without eyes, and the horse and sledge are not driving along, but are whirling round and round in a cloud of smoke. But still he was glad he had seen his own folks. He held his breath from delight, shudders ran all over him, and his fingers twitched.

"The Lord let us meet again," he muttered feverishly, but he at once opened his eyes and sought in the darkness for water.

He drank and lay back, and again the sledge was moving, then again the bull's head without eyes, smoke, clouds.... And so on till daybreak.

Chekhov contrasts the hideous confinement of the ship's sick bay to Gusev's flights of imagination--and then delirium. That's nothing new, in and of itself. We've all seen trapped characters, like prisoners, dreaming of fanciful escapes, but they're generally not rendered with such efficiency. Gusev's visions are short and compact, reeled in by sounds from the ship's hold or by other visions. Different levels of reality interrupt each other; the boundaries of the story shift rapidly. We begin to wonder what really is possible here.

Another factor is Pavel Ivanitch, who criticizes Gusev's figurative language: "One minute a vessel's running into a fish, the next, the wind's breaking loose from its chain. Is the wind a beast that it can break loose from its chain?" Gusev's metaphor about the wind is lovely, yet Chekhov has another character (a literary critic?) undercut it right off the bat. One would expect the author to side with the artistic soul, the maker of figures, and he would seem to do so here as well. But we're not quite certain. The fact that we go into Gusev's head to hear him defending his choice of words suggests his figure of speech is debatable. Pavel Ivanitch introduces just a hint of doubt about the artistic enterprise as a whole, including the author's intentions. Where's the author going with his own images and figures? What's the point of it, especially under such dire circumstances as these? Is imagination really a form of freedom, as one gathers from more conventional stories, or something else--perhaps something sinister?

Despite its title, the question this story asks is not what will happen to Gusev. In fact we learn fairly quickly how ill he is, and that he will not live. The question is, what will happen to his vision? Which is the real world, Gusev's or Pavel Ivanitch's? Or is there another world entirely? That's a huge question, and Chekhov allows himself to address it by claiming a huge amount of territory for himself in the beginning. He makes that claim matter-of-factly, always bringing us back to the actual setting in the ship's hold, the two sick men arguing. The confined setting keeps us from getting the different worlds confused--always a risk in attempting a story like this.

The lesson here is to ground your beginning by having a concrete place to return to. Then you can foray out, at least briefly, as far as you eventually plan to go.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Recipes for tomato season

From SFGate. Can't wait till ours are ripe...I want to try roasting.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Winnie's Ending, Part 2

I think this will be our last week on The Secret Agent. Up until this point, I've been feeling like it is an almost perfect book. I've been thinking--maybe if I just rewrite the story and set it in Cleveland or Redwood City, and change all the names...why make all this extra work for myself by thinking up my own plots and characters? Besides, this book is public domain... the very end, Winnie's demise does not seem quite right. I actually don't know why, so I'm going to frame this whole post as a question--is the problem me, or is it Conrad? (And if you don't have time to read this whole thing, you might as well assume it's me.)

One very cool aspect of Winnie is that she's a kind of analog of the Professor. Although Winnie is good and the Professor evil, both are black-box characters. They're impenetrable. About Winnie, we're told repeatedly that she believes things do not bear very much "looking into." She is incurious. And, as Conrad explains, "Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation,—a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious." Winnie's mysteriousness helps build the terrific suspense in the scene after she learns that her husband has killed her brother. But at the very end, Conrad is forced to reveal some other qualities of Winnie's character, in order, it seems, to wrap up the novel. These qualities turn out to be strangely disappointing, at least to me. Maybe because any revelation destroys Winnie's mysteriousness, which was so appealing in the first place.

First, Winnie stabs and kills Verloc. As a plot point this is melodramatic, a tad Gothic, and predictable. But it's redeemed by Conrad's dark humor.

He saw partly on the ceiling and partly on the wall the moving shadow of an arm with a clenched hand holding a carving knife. It flickered up and down. Its movements were leisurely. They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to recognise the limb and the weapon.

They were leisurely enough for him to take in the full meaning of the portent, and to taste the flavour of death rising in his gorge. His wife had gone raving mad—murdering mad. They were leisurely enough for the first paralysing effect of this discovery to pass away before a resolute determination to come out victorious from the ghastly struggle with that armed lunatic. They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to elaborate a plan of defence involving a dash behind the table, and the felling of the woman to the ground with a heavy wooden chair. But they were not leisurely enough to allow Mr Verloc the time to move either hand or foot. The knife was already planted in his breast. It met no resistance on its way. Hazard has such accuracies. Into that plunging blow, delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms. Mr Verloc, the Secret Agent, turning slightly on his side with the force of the blow, expired without stirring a limb, in the muttered sound of the word “Don’t” by way of protest.

Verloc is indolent, even after death:

After listening for some time Mrs Verloc lowered her gaze deliberately on her husband’s body. Its attitude of repose was so home-like and familiar that she could do so without feeling embarrassed by any pronounced novelty in the phenomena of her home life. Mr Verloc was taking his habitual ease. He looked comfortable.

But then Conrad undercuts Winnie's role as righteous avenger:

It had been an obscurely prompted blow. The blood trickling on the floor off the handle of the knife had turned it into an extremely plain case of murder. Mrs Verloc, who always refrained from looking deep into things, was compelled to look into the very bottom of this thing. She saw there no haunting face, no reproachful shade, no vision of remorse, no sort of ideal conception. She saw there an object. That object was the gallows. Mrs Verloc was afraid of the gallows.

She was terrified of them ideally. Having never set eyes on that last argument of men’s justice except in illustrative woodcuts to a certain type of tales, she first saw them erect against a black and stormy background, festooned with chains and human bones, circled about by birds that peck at dead men’s eyes. This was frightful enough, but Mrs Verloc, though not a well-informed woman, had a sufficient knowledge of the institutions of her country to know that gallows are no longer erected romantically on the banks of dismal rivers or on wind-swept headlands, but in the yards of jails. There within four high walls, as if into a pit, at dawn of day, the murderer was brought out to be executed, with a horrible quietness and, as the reports in the newspapers always said, “in the presence of the authorities.” With her eyes staring on the floor, her nostrils quivering with anguish and shame, she imagined herself all alone amongst a lot of strange gentlemen in silk hats who were calmly proceeding about the business of hanging her by the neck. That—never! Never! And how was it done? The impossibility of imagining the details of such quiet execution added something maddening to her abstract terror. The newspapers never gave any details except one, but that one with some affectation was always there at the end of a meagre report. Mrs Verloc remembered its nature. It came with a cruel burning pain into her head, as if the words “The drop given was fourteen feet” had been scratched on her brain with a hot needle. “The drop given was fourteen feet.”

I certainly believe she'd be afraid of the gallows. I also believe she'd be unhinged at this point. But for the rest of the novel, Winnie is driven solely by her fear of hanging. It's that fear that throws her into Ossipon's oily, unhelpful arms: "'You will save me, Tom,' she broke out, recoiling, but still keeping her hold on him by the two lapels of his damp coat. “Save me. Hide me. Don’t let them have me. You must kill me first. I couldn’t do it myself—I couldn’t, I couldn’t—not even for what I am afraid of.'" Too afraid for his own skin, Ossipon eventually ditches her, and she throws herself--as we learn from another conversation between Ossipon and the Professor--from the cross-channel boat.

I don't know. Winnie's ending is exciting; it's believable from a psychological standpoint. It almost seems like a cliche, though, like something out of "popular publications"--which, then again, could be intentional. I guess I somehow expected more from Winnie. Maybe I was taken in by her mysteriousness, combined with the one unmistakeable quality she had: her love for Stevie. Not that I want her to be perfect, a symbol of decency, or fearless. Maybe it makes sense that all the sudden chaos of her life would coalesce into this one, driving terror--which is a very realistic one. But I miss the black-box Winnie, the one who might have done something more unexpected, or inexplicable, in the face of all this horror. Instead, she just becomes part of it.

I guess we can't have two black boxes at the end; and, as I've said before, the Professor plays that role.

And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

Anyway, I'm so in awe of this book that I keep thinking I must be missing the real truth to be found in Winnie's last hours. Maybe her inability to rise to some kind of heroism is that truth. I'm still not sure why I want something else for her. Could it be that her?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One more thing about Cleveland...

It wasn't the Cuyahoga River that caught fire. It was the stuff floating on top of the river. So there.

Denial rocks on

This wire story is a tad depressing. It describes the lineup for a concert at Madison Square Garden, celebrating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25th anniversary. Nowhere is it even mentioned that the Hall itself is in (shhh...) Cleveland. As far as I know, since the museum's inception the induction ceremonies have always been held in New York. Because celebrities cannot possibly be asked to go to (shhh....) Cleveland. In fact their names should not even appear in the same article as...that word.

Look, I've (mostly) gotten over my Cleveland defensiveness. (Where are you from? Well, a suburb of Cleveland and it's not so bad there's a great orchestra and lots of trees and we don't all wear white socks and eat sausages...) I live in the Bay Area for good reason. Also, I went to the Rock Hall once and found it bombastic, staid, and tedious. But I have to wonder if the people who worked so hard to bring the museum to Cleveland ever suspected that it would prove yet another source of humiliation for the city. Instead of raising Cleveland's profile, it slaps it down, over and over, as every mention of the museum means deliberately not saying where it is. It's almost absurd.

What can Cleveland do? Even being represented by Dennis Kucinich is not enough to make it hip...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Winnie's Ending, Part One

Another writing seminar on Conrad's The Secret Agent. I said last time that there's only one big event in the story, which is the explosion of the bomb. That's not precisely true. At the very end, after discovering Stevie's death and Verloc's role in it, Winnie kills him and then commits suicide. In an ordinary novel, this plot--a secret agent accidentally kills his mentally disabled brother-in-law by making him plant a bomb; when his wife finds out she goes mad, killing both him and herself--would be the main source of drama. But in this novel, these events are oddly anticlimactic. In the case of Winnie's demise, I also think they're just a little off, the only possibly false notes in this great story. But more about that next time.

To me, the most compelling drama of the whole book occurs just after Chief Inspector Heat has left the Verloc's home. Winnie now knows what happened to her brother, and she knows her husband caused it. Conrad slows the pace of the story to a crawl, as Winnie, over the course of many pages, sits in shock and Verloc tries to prod her out of it.

Mr Verloc walked behind the counter of the shop. His intention was not to overwhelm his wife with bitter reproaches. Mr Verloc felt no bitterness. The unexpected march of events had converted him to the doctrine of fatalism. Nothing could be helped now. He said:

“I didn’t mean any harm to come to the boy.”

Mrs Verloc shuddered at the sound of her husband’s voice. She did not uncover her face. The trusted secret agent of the late Baron Stott-Wartenheim looked at her for a time with a heavy, persistent, undiscerning glance. The torn evening paper was lying at her feet. It could not have told her much. Mr Verloc felt the need of talking to his wife.

“It’s that damned Heat—eh?” he said. “He upset you. He’s a brute, blurting it out like this to a woman. I made myself ill thinking how to break it to you. I sat for hours in the little parlour of Cheshire Cheese thinking over the best way. You understand I never meant any harm to come to that boy.”

Mr Verloc, the Secret Agent, was speaking the truth. It was his marital affection that had received the greatest shock from the premature explosion. He added:

“I didn’t feel particularly gay sitting there and thinking of you.”

He observed another slight shudder of his wife, which affected his sensibility. As she persisted in hiding her face in her hands, he thought he had better leave her alone for a while. On this delicate impulse Mr Verloc withdrew into the parlour again, where the gas jet purred like a contented cat. Mrs Verloc’s wifely forethought had left the cold beef on the table with carving knife and fork and half a loaf of bread for Mr Verloc’s supper. He noticed all these things now for the first time, and cutting himself a piece of bread and meat, began to eat.

There's something so ordinary about this scene. A not-so-bright husband has screwed up and now he's cajoling his angry wife to forgive him. He just wants it all to be over so things can go back to normal. Verloc goes so far as to make a few concessions to her anger; he displays and actually possesses a limited sympathy for her feelings. He is careful not to "overwhelm" her. Then, like an ordinary, not-so-bright husband, he slumps into self-pity. This is kind of Winnie's fault in a way, isn't it? Not completely, but kind of? Just before this passage, Verloc reminds himself that she's the one who sewed the address label into Stevie's coat, which is how the police identified his remains--"What did she mean by it? Spare him the trouble of keeping an anxious eye on Stevie? Most likely she had meant well. Only she ought to have told him of the precaution she had taken." Verloc magnanimously tries to forgive his wife's oversight. Then he blames her for making him feel bad at the Cheshire Cheese. This is some severe gallows humor, but it is funny. That's because Conrad takes the time to observe every nuance of the couple's interaction, which arises not just from the moment, but from their whole history together. You can imagine a similar one-sided conversation has happened many times before, over much more minor issues.

The impasse goes on and on.

“You might look at a fellow,” he observed after waiting a while.

As if forced through the hands covering Mrs Verloc’s face the answer came, deadened, almost pitiful.

“I don’t want to look at you as long as I live.”

“Eh? What!” Mr Verloc was merely startled by the superficial and literal meaning of this declaration. It was obviously unreasonable, the mere cry of exaggerated grief. He threw over it the mantle of his marital indulgence. The mind of Mr Verloc lacked profundity. Under the mistaken impression that the value of individuals consists in what they are in themselves, he could not possibly comprehend the value of Stevie in the eyes of Mrs Verloc. She was taking it confoundedly hard, he thought to himself. It was all the fault of that damned Heat. What did he want to upset the woman for? But she mustn’t be allowed, for her own good, to carry on so till she got quite beside herself.

“Look here! You can’t sit like this in the shop,” he said with affected severity, in which there was some real annoyance; for urgent practical matters must be talked over if they had to sit up all night. “Somebody might come in at any minute,” he added, and waited again. No effect was produced, and the idea of the finality of death occurred to Mr Verloc during the pause. He changed his tone. “Come. This won’t bring him back,” he said gently, feeling ready to take her in his arms and press her to his breast, where impatience and compassion dwelt side by side. But except for a short shudder Mrs Verloc remained apparently unaffected by the force of that terrible truism. It was Mr Verloc himself who was moved. He was moved in his simplicity to urge moderation by asserting the claims of his own personality.

As Verloc shifts from one failed strategy to the next, Conrad tracks every movement of his mediocre mind and spirit. Again, this attention to nuance in the face of overwhelming horror seems ridiculous; it almost (or does, in my case) makes you laugh. But that attention is what makes this scene so powerful. After awhile, there's a brief physical interaction, as Verloc pulls Winnie out of her chair and then (I can't help finding this funny, too) takes her seat. But nothing much comes of that, not right away. Winnie establishes herself in the kitchen. Verloc keeps wheedling, complaining about what a pain in the ass his supervisors in the anarchist movement are. Again, so ordinary--what a crappy day I had at the office; pity me! His boss doesn't appreciate him: “There isn’t a murdering plot for the last eleven years that I hadn’t my finger in at the risk of my life. There’s scores of these revolutionists I’ve sent off, with their bombs in their blamed pockets, to get themselves caught on the frontier. The old Baron knew what I was worth to his country...”

Shortly after that, still getting nowhere, Verloc falls back on the tried-and-true ploy of the ages: "You go to bed now. What you want is a good cry." And still, still, Winnie gives him no satisfaction; she does not go to bed. The dance goes on. We start to see more and more of Winnie's point of view, however.

There were several reasons why this comfort was denied him. There was a physical obstacle: Mrs Verloc had no sufficient command over her voice. She did not see any alternative between screaming and silence, and instinctively she chose the silence. Winnie Verloc was temperamentally a silent person. And there was the paralysing atrocity of the thought which occupied her. Her cheeks were blanched, her lips ashy, her immobility amazing. And she thought without looking at Mr Verloc: “This man took the boy away to murder him. He took the boy away from his home to murder him. He took the boy away from me to murder him!”

Mrs Verloc’s whole being was racked by that inconclusive and maddening thought. It was in her veins, in her bones, in the roots of her hair. Mentally she assumed the biblical attitude of mourning—the covered face, the rent garments; the sound of wailing and lamentation filled her head. But her teeth were violently clenched, and her tearless eyes were hot with rage, because she was not a submissive creature. The protection she had extended over her brother had been in its origin of a fierce an indignant complexion. She had to love him with a militant love. She had battled for him—even against herself. His loss had the bitterness of defeat, with the anguish of a baffled passion. It was not an ordinary stroke of death. Moreover, it was not death that took Stevie from her. It was Mr Verloc who took him away. She had seen him. She had watched him, without raising a hand, take the boy away. And she had let him go, like—like a fool—a blind fool. Then after he had murdered the boy he came home to her. Just came home like any other man would come home to his wife. . . .

So Winnie, too, is struck by strange ordinariness of the scene. And it's adding to her shock.

I could go on and on about this scene, which does lead up to Winnie stabbing Verloc. The murder is quite a stunning set piece. After that, something seems to go slightly wrong in the denoument...but I'll save that for next time, I think.

Anyway, the lesson for today: know when to drag things out. And, just as important, know how. A great strategy, as we've seen throughout this book, is to overlay the ordinary on the awful. In particular, you can overlay an ordinary history (like the history of a so-so marriage) on a dreadful one-time event. The tension arises not just from wondering what Winnie's finally going to do, but from the emotional complexity that builds up in the characters, and the reader, as well.

No more tree

Sometime yesterday the neighbors took out the plum tree that I've been using to measure the passage of time. Now we have a lovely, unobstructed view of the carport, and no more white blossoms in March.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Creative writing and reading

I enjoyed Louis Menand's piece in the New Yorker last month about creative writing programs. And I think this letter, from the latest issue, is really onto something. We all know people who want to write but don't want to read ("I have to find my own voice!"), and we duly chastise them. But a good creative writing program, or class, will expect students to read published work from a wide variety of times and places. And if all the people currently pouring into MFA programs develop more receptive, meticulous, and patient reading practices as part of their training, that's good for everybody who cares about literature. The complaint about lots of literary journals is that "only writers read those"--if you publish there, you're not reaching some kind of pure, ideal reader who has no writing agenda of her own. I'd say what we really need is more readers who are also writers, even if they never publish, or want to publish, a word. To that end, literary studies courses and programs ought to include some creative writing.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The truth about writers

Via Wil Wheaton, of whose blog I'm pleasantly reminded every so often...yeah, it's true.

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Structure and Destruction

Still mining Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent for writing lessons--and this book is a gold mine. It's a beautiful model of both structure and point of view, two of my particular obsessions. While the novel never leaps into obvious experimentation (with stream-of-consciousness, for instance), there are numerous "hand-offs" of the POV from one character to another, and these shape the story in fascinating ways.

The apparent main event of the story--the detonation of the bomb--takes place relatively early. Not right at the beginning, nor at the peak of Freitag's triangle, but about a quarter of the way in. Also, the event is not shown to us directly, but reported, by two minor but structurally very important characters, the Professor and Comrade Ossipon. Both these characters will reappear at the end: one to close off this particular narrative, and one to keep the larger story going--the story about the impenetrable evil circulating among us. Ossipon's lust and cowardice serve to get Winnie to the train, then seal her fate as he abandons her. But the last lines of the novel belong to the Professor. He is the literal cause of everything, because he's the one who made the bomb that kills Stevie. He himself carries a bomb at all times, his hand wrapped around the detonator in his pocket. No one can stop him, because he has made it known that he's willing to blow himself up to take down anyone who threatens him. Here's how the novel ends:

And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

But back to the conversation between the Professor and Ossipon, which first brings Stevie's awful death to the reader's attention. We have come to this cafe with Ossipon--we're in his point of view when the conversation begins.

[The Professor] paused, tranquil, with that air of close, endless silence, then almost immediately went on. “You are not a bit better than the forces arrayed against you—than the police, for instance. The other day I came suddenly upon Chief Inspector Heat at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. He looked at me very steadily. But I did not look at him. Why should I give him more than a glance? He was thinking of many things—of his superiors, of his reputation, of the law courts, of his salary, of newspapers—of a hundred things. But I was thinking of my perfect detonator only. He meant nothing to me. He was as insignificant as—I can’t call to mind anything insignificant enough to compare him with—except Karl Yundt perhaps. Like to like. The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game; forms of idleness at bottom identical. He plays his little game—so do you propagandists. But I don’t play; I work fourteen hours a day, and go hungry sometimes. My experiments cost money now and again, and then I must do without food for a day or two. You’re looking at my beer. Yes. I have had two glasses already, and shall have another presently. This is a little holiday, and I celebrate it alone. Why not? I’ve the grit to work alone, quite alone, absolutely alone. I’ve worked alone for years.”

Ossipon’s face had turned dusky red.

“At the perfect detonator—eh?” he sneered, very low.

“Yes,” retorted the other. “It is a good definition. You couldn’t find anything half so precise to define the nature of your activity with all your committees and delegations. It is I who am the true propagandist.”

“We won’t discuss that point,” said Ossipon, with an air of rising above personal considerations. “I am afraid I’ll have to spoil your holiday for you, though. There’s a man blown up in Greenwich Park this morning.”

“How do you know?”

“They have been yelling the news in the streets since two o’clock. I bought the paper, and just ran in here. Then I saw you sitting at this table. I’ve got it in my pocket now.”

He pulled the newspaper out. It was a good-sized rosy sheet, as if flushed by the warmth of its own convictions, which were optimistic. He scanned the pages rapidly.

“Ah! Here it is. Bomb in Greenwich Park. There isn’t much so far. Half-past eleven. Foggy morning. Effects of explosion felt as far as Romney Road and Park Place. Enormous hole in the ground under a tree filled with smashed roots and broken branches. All round fragments of a man’s body blown to pieces. That’s all. The rest’s mere newspaper gup. No doubt a wicked attempt to blow up the Observatory, they say. H’m. That’s hardly credible.”

After a few more pages of mostly theoretical argument, we circle back to the explosion, and learn that Verloc is the one who acquired the bomb from the Professor. But once we know this, Conrad does not immediately send us back to the Verloc household, where we will later find a shaken Verloc and an as-yet-uninformed Winnie. Nor do we return to Ossipon, with whom we started this section. Instead, the Professor (as he does at the end) picks up the point of view and carries it out to the street.

Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditated confidently on his power, keeping his hand in the left pocket of his trousers, grasping lightly the india-rubber ball, the supreme guarantee of his sinister freedom; but after a while he became disagreeably affected by the sight of the roadway thronged with vehicles and of the pavement crowded with men and women.
As he walks along, we learn a bit about the Professor's past (his father was an itinerant preacher) and a bit more about his nihilism and deep loathing of humanity. Then the Professor encounters Chief Inspector Heat in an alley, and Heat questions him about the bombing. Another point of view handoff takes place in that alley, from the Professor to Heat.

It was in reality a chance meeting. Chief Inspector Heat had had a disagreeably busy day since his department received the first telegram from Greenwich a little before eleven in the morning.
Heat then carries the point of view to the hospital, where we see the grisly aftermath of Stevie's death. And still more handoffs take place after that.

All these handoffs create a deeply layered picture of the central event and the world in which it happens. They also build up a huge amount of suspense, as we begin to wonder how Winnie, who loves Stevie purely and fiercely, will learn of the news. The news itself is like a bomb being passed from one character to another. Winnie's discovery of the truth takes place at the peak of Freitag's triangle, the traditional climactic point of a story.

Jonathan Franzen says that as a novelist, one can find great "pleasure" in "discovering how little you need."

I kept trying to write scenes I knew I wanted - my tendency is to get incredibly elaborate and to give you thirty pages of back-story, and tie things together in eighteen different ways, go off on tangents - but I found that that stuff was getting in the way of what I really wanted.

The Secret Agent
is not an action-packed novel by any means. The explosion is the one big event, and it takes place off screen. Yet it's a rich and thrilling novel because of how the relationships among the characters are set up. The point-of-view handoffs--not just shifts--reveal these relationships, and also exploit them to create suspense.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Question of the day

Are Republicans really willing to let people die so insurance companies can live?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Female confessional writers

A danger to themselves and others? Amanda Fortini says No.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The horror, continued

No, I don't have anything better to do on the 4th of July than write about Sarah Palin. Yes, that is a sad state of affairs. It was less than a year ago that I sacrificed several days of my hard-earned vacation to scouring the Internet for any and all information about John McCain's new running mate. I am sure I did not shower or change clothes during that period. I don't recall whether I ate.

I now recognize that uncontrollable urge as nothing less than terror. I simply couldn't believe it. Was this country, as unhinged as it had become, going look itself in the eye and say up was down, ignorance was virtue, teen pregnancy was admirable--in fact, why not flush young Tiffany's box of condoms and tell her to go out and create her very own little blessing? It seemed so. But then a miracle happened. Enough people--just enough--said no. And after the election, when it seemed clear that this media-galvanized monster was not going to go away, I made some suggestion, like, maybe we should ignore her. Because, as an alien parasite from Star Trek, she feeds on strong emotions, both positive and negative. So our job (I thought) would be to ignore her and go about our business. Do not indicate, especially to the media, that we want any more news about her--don't buy magazines, don't click on links...and slowly, slowly, she would shrivel up and blow away, perhaps emitting a tiny, helium-voiced whimper as she fluttered into the empty cosmos.

Well, I tried. And since she's not in a position to do any immediate damage, except to the overall culture--which is already ruined--I have this to say. I believe she is planning to run for president. She is that grandiose, that delusional. She is pulling a Nixon, complete with the "you won't have me to kick around anymore" self-pity. She is Nixon in pantyhose, with all the horror that mental image stirs up (writhing swirls of squished, black leg hair, for instance). It may be that we are about to learn of a major scandal; and the fact that she did this news-dump on the Friday of a holiday weekend suggests something of that nature. But any scandal will just feed into the persecution complex that whips her supporters into a spittle-flinging frenzy.

On the other hand, perhaps it's wrong to abandon ridicule as a weapon. Yes, among certain people it will make her stronger. But it also seems that Tina Fey, almost single-handedly at first, kept Palin from getting elected. We did come very close to having this goon for our president. So what will work better, ignoring or mocking? It may seem funny now to think that she'd have a another real shot at the presidency, but we may not be laughing in four years. I remember (even though I was very! very! young at the time) people laughing hysterically at the idea of Reagan becoming president. It was even a joke on All in the Family, and elsewhere. So if laughter's the right tool to bring her down, then let's do it; but let's not laugh dismissively. Stay. on. Guard.

That is my patriotic post for July 4th.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Writing the Horror

Another week on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. This holiday weekend, my mind's on horror, as Conrad's obviously was throughout his career. Everybody remembers the famous last words of Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness"--"The horror! The horror!"--which, for many years now, I've been hearing in the voice of Marlon Brando playing Jabba the Hutt in Apocalypse Now. (Before that, it was the voice of my high-school English teacher, who embodied another kind of creepiness all her own.)

I read an article not too long ago--sadly, I have no idea where--that suggested horror was the closest genre to literary fiction. As I recall, that's because horror deals with the subconscious. It brings to light the forces which, in their more repressed forms, give literary writing its layers of nuance. Or maybe I'm making this up, but it makes sense to me at the moment.

I don't read a lot of horror fiction or watch horror movies.* I have, however, taught Stephen King's Misery, which I think is a fascinating book, partly because it's specifically about the conflict between genre and literary writing. But the book also has several, one feels perfunctory, eruptions of pure gore. One year I told my students they could skip these (giving them the page numbers in advance)--but then I wondered: had this been a bona fide "literary" book, would I have told them they could skip parts? No. But because I thought of this as a "genre" book, I considered the horror gratuitous; whereas in The Secret Agent, or in Tim OBrien's Vietnam stories, or any number of other works, the gore seems critically important. Yes, it's awful, but there's Lesson to be Learned from it. We must confront the monstrosity within human beings--whereas in King (say), the confrontation is a spectacle only. But how do you draw the line, really? I don't know. Especially in Misery, I sense King is winking at us throughout. Yep, this is mass-market horror, so here's your yuck sandwich--happy now? Well, are you?

All this (sorry) is leading up to the grisly scene of the blown-up body in The Secret Agent, which presents a clinic on horror writing. And yes, you can skip this if you want--but you are missing something:

A local constable in uniform cast a sidelong glance, and said, with stolid simplicity:

“He’s all there. Every bit of him. It was a job.”

He had been the first man on the spot after the explosion. He mentioned the fact again. He had seen something like a heavy flash of lightning in the fog. At that time he was standing at the door of the King William Street Lodge talking to the keeper. The concussion made him tingle all over. He ran between the trees towards the Observatory. “As fast as my legs would carry me,” he repeated twice.

Chief Inspector Heat, bending forward over the table in a gingerly and horrified manner, let him run on. The hospital porter and another man turned down the corners of the cloth, and stepped aside. The Chief Inspector’s eyes searched the gruesome detail of that heap of mixed things, which seemed to have been collected in shambles and rag shops.

“You used a shovel,” he remarked, observing a sprinkling of small gravel, tiny brown bits of bark, and particles of splintered wood as fine as needles.

“Had to in one place,” said the stolid constable. “I sent a keeper to fetch a spade. When he heard me scraping the ground with it he leaned his forehead against a tree, and was as sick as a dog.”

The Chief Inspector, stooping guardedly over the table, fought down the unpleasant sensation in his throat. The shattering violence of destruction which had made of that body a heap of nameless fragments affected his feelings with a sense of ruthless cruelty, though his reason told him the effect must have been as swift as a flash of lightning. The man, whoever he was, had died instantaneously; and yet it seemed impossible to believe that a human body could have reached that state of disintegration without passing through the pangs of inconceivable agony. No physiologist, and still less of a metaphysician, Chief Inspector Heat rose by the force of sympathy, which is a form of fear, above the vulgar conception of time. Instantaneous! He remembered all he had ever read in popular publications of long and terrifying dreams dreamed in the instant of waking; of the whole past life lived with frightful intensity by a drowning man as his doomed head bobs up, streaming, for the last time. The inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence beset Chief Inspector Heat till he evolved a horrible notion that ages of atrocious pain and mental torture could be contained between two successive winks of an eye. And meantime the Chief Inspector went on, peering at the table with a calm face and the slightly anxious attention of an indigent customer bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher’s shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner. All the time his trained faculties of an excellent investigator, who scorns no chance of information, followed the self-satisfied, disjointed loquacity of the constable.

Further gory details are, um, scattered over the next several pages. But the central image, I think, is here. It's the sound of the scraping shovel. In a way, it's an echo of the bell in Mr. Verloc's shop--a mundane sound that, in this story, becomes a Pavlovian cue to shudder. The horror is further set off by the "self-satisfied, disjointed loquacity of the constable,"which contrasts with Heat's metaphysical reflections--fueled, interestingly, by the pulp stories of his day.

So, for those of us who want, or need, to include some horror in our writing: Effective horror seems to involve ordinary objects, sounds, etc., becoming suddenly decontextualized and perverted. This is something Stephen King knows very well. But the scene above is not gratuitous for a couple of reasons. One, it induces the otherwise stolid Inpsector to reflect on universal human questions and fears. Two, we're already starting to gather (a strange word, but somehow right, in this context) who the dead man is; our mounting fear is not just for ourselves (jeez, I hope that never happens to me) but for him and the women who care for him. Like the concentric circles Stevie draws in the beginning, the explosion radiates outward, not just physically, but thematically, psychologically, and metaphysically. The fact that ordinary objects can change their meaning becomes a metaphysical concern, not just a trick to make us jumpy.

*Except right after my dad died, when I had this weird craving to watch horror films, even slasher films. I know of at least one other person who's had this experience. The urge left pretty quickly before I managed to get Friday the 13th et al from Netflix, which is probably just as well.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Short stories modeled on old masters

Via The Rumpus, this new short-story collection is consciously modeled on the work of "old masters." Inspiration for Borrowed Fire, perhaps?