Friday, July 10, 2009

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.

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