Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Borrowed Fire: In praise of "brain fever"

Ivan is my favorite character in The Brothers Karamazov. He's the author-insert, the tormented intellectual who makes up stories, and as such is Dostoevsky's portal into alternate realities. Margaret Atwood uses a tormented author-character in The Blind Assassin to tell a science-fiction story within a larger, realistic novel. In a similar way, Dostoevsky uses Ivan to give us metaphysical fables, which are juxtaposed with the "real story." Ivan has already brought us "The Grand Inquisitor," which is more than we could ask of any character. Now, after an extended and rather wearying visit with Dmitri, Ivan's back.

And he is better than ever, for he has come down with a case of that wonderful nineteenth-century disease, "brain fever." The symptoms of this illness always, conveniently, are exactly what the author needs them to be. I say that's a good thing. Not to pick on Ian McEwan or Richard Powers again--but what the hell--I think there's a potential loss when a writer builds a character around a specific diagnosis of mental illness. In McEwan's Saturday and Enduring Love, and in Powers's Echo Maker, I sense that diagnosis takes the place of character. It's as if diagnosis itself drives the story; I picture the authors scouring a detailed list of symptoms, seeing what else has to be covered. Now, I hugely admire both of these authors, and I am certain my suspicion of their meticulous research can be partly explained by my own laziness. But this clinical style of novel, while interesting and valuable in itself, does not so easily leap into the metaphysical, which is where I, personally, like to end up.*

Whereas Dostoevsky, or more precisely his narrator, gives himself carte blanche to do with Ivan's brain fever what he will:

I am not a doctor, but yet I feel that the moment has come when I must inevitably give the reader some account of the nature of Ivan's illness. Anticipating events I can say at least one thing: he was at that moment on the very eve of an attack of brain fever. Though his health had long been affected, it had offered a stubborn resistance to the fever which in the end gained complete mastery over it. Though I know nothing of medicine, I venture to hazard the suggestion that he really had perhaps, by a terrible effort of will, succeeded in delaying the attack for a time, hoping, of course, to check it completely. He knew that he was unwell, but he loathed the thought of being ill at that fatal time, at the approaching crisis in his life, when he needed to have all his wits about him, to say what he had to say boldly and resolutely and “to justify himself to himself.”

He had, however, consulted the new doctor, who had been brought from Moscow by a fantastic notion of Katerina Ivanovna's to which I have referred already. After listening to him and examining him the doctor came to the conclusion that he was actually suffering from some disorder of the brain, and was not at all surprised by an admission which Ivan had reluctantly made him. “Hallucinations are quite likely in your condition,” the doctor opined, “though it would be better to verify them ... you must take steps at once, without a moment's delay, or things will go badly with you.” But Ivan did not follow this judicious advice and did not take to his bed to be nursed. “I am walking about, so I am strong enough, if I drop, it'll be different then, any one may nurse me who likes,” he decided, dismissing the subject.

Perhaps fortunately for Dostoevsky, the MRI and psychopharmacology had not been invented, so illnesses of the brain did seem more existential--or as special connections to God or the devil. (Dostoevsky's own epilepsy allowed him to think of himself as a kind of seer, although he well knew it was an illness too.) Still, I see no reason why our technologies should bind us. A few disclaimers, admitted conjectures, a "new" but unseen doctor who predicts "hallucinations," and you're good to go. Is Ivan schizophrenic? Does he have a tumor? It doesn't matter. Better not to know, because the real suggestion is that Ivan has driven himself mad, by trying to understand God intellectually. It's this intellectual madness, rather than any plausible illness, that has given us "The Grand Inquisitor," and now, Ivan's fascinating conversation with Satan himself--who both is, and is not, a figment of Ivan's imagination.

The whole conversation with the devil as a "poor relation"--dapper but shabby on closer inspection--probably requires a post of its own. For now, I'll leave you with this suggestion: in fiction, there's nothing wrong with making up your own mental illnesses. Your story might even suggest to you the type of illness it requires.

*I do not think this is the case with Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen's wonderful novel, which, like The Echo Maker, deals with Capgras Syndrome: the belief that other people are imposters. While Galchen, a medical doctor, understands the syndrome thoroughly, her touch with it is lighter, more lyrical. Her interest in the illness is primarily aesthetic and existential, and not so much in the plot entanglements such a condition might lead to.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Life lessons from Shaun of the Dead

I could have gone my whole life without seeing Shaun of the Dead. Alas, I will now never know what that life would have been like.

In this life, though, I have had a chance to reflect on certain lessons presented in the film, which are particularly applicable to those of us writing novels. Q: How do you write a novel? A: Be a zombie.

Now, your traditional zombie, as I have discussed elsewhere, is slow. But slowness, and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, is his weapon. His quarry--i.e. the humans--underestimate him, believing they can spend long minutes staring at him in astonishment and still sprint away in plenty of time. Or the extra time may entice them (as in Shaun's case) into hatching over-elaborate plans that don't work. The zombie's slowness represents his relentlessness. You can shoot him; you can tear his arm off. He keeps coming. He takes his time because he knows, in the end, he will get there. You see? Slow is just fine. Slow is better, even.

It is also true that zombies tend to move in packs, and to multiply, which are keys to their success. As novelists, we can view these packs as the invaluable support we receive from our fellow writers, and our desire to gather in classes and conferences and writing groups. Yet it is also important to note that the individual zombie is not overly concerned with the doings of his peers. For example, some of them may zoom ahead. Perhaps they are those newfangled fast zombies, or maybe they are simply better zombies. It does not matter. Similarly, other zombies fall behind, have their brains destroyed, and so forth. The zombie feels bad when this sort of thing happens. He is not heartless. Still, he keeps moving forward.

So, you see what I'm getting at? Moving forward. Keep. Moving. Forward.

A question remains as to how zombies become this relentless in the first place. It appears that zombie-hood confers a sort of automatic lobotomy. For our purposes, this may be where the drugs come in.

(TC: we are both thinking of zombies today...strange...)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Alice McDermott on whatever you can get away with

In my never-ending quest for reassurance from famous writers, I came across this 2000 article by Alice McDermott in the AWP Writer's Chronicle. Here's one reassuring bit:

For the first half of the composition of each of my novels I have been consumed by a sense of not knowing what I'm doing, and for the second half I have been consumed by the certainty that I know exactly what I am doing and should not be doing it.

Check, and check.

McDermott turns out to be one of those writing teachers who says writing can't be taught. What she's really saying, though, is that writing can't be taught *directly.* She's right, I think, on this count:

[O]ne of the most subtly disconcerting things a writer can say to a student goes something like this, "John Cheever [or Updike or Chekhov or Flannery O'Connor, or Munro or James or whoever] did exactly what you're attempting here in a story called." That slow burn you can detect behind the student's enthusiastic nod as she diligently copies down a title is, I believe, the one true indication of a real writer, a real writer who even as she obediently copies down the suggested reading is thinking, No one has ever done exactly what I'm attempting to do here, you stupid ass.

Not that I am ready to claim the mantle of "real writer" by any means--but more and more, I feel this resistance to models as such. Yet I'm reading widely and voraciously, looking for...well, inspiration is too hackneyed a term; more like some glancing blow that shakes up a locked-up portion of my mind--or heart, I should probably say. When I'm reading, I'm not so much thinking, I could create a scene or character like that--as, Oh, this is possible; therefore this other thing (that I want to do) could also be possible.

That sense of possibility is the point of McDermott's article. The bulk of the piece is taken up with a sort-of reading of Nabokov's Bend Sinister, not as a model to follow, but an example of what can be done in fiction. (First of all, thank you, Alice McDermott, simply for not presenting us with yet another Raymond Carver story, whose brilliance we are assumed to already recognize and desire to emulate.) Nabokov, McDermott points out, breaks pretty much every rule beginning writers think they know. Which means, of course, there are no rules. Except for one. Pivoting off a quote from Nabokov describing what the novel was "about," McDermott says:

The plot moves, turns, develops, not in order to accommodate the author's cleverness (and there is much cleverness in contemporary fiction), but to reveal, to record, the beating of Krug's loving heart. [....]

Advice to writers then: without that heart at the center of your fiction, advice can't help you. If it is there, then no one, no one, can-or needs to-tell you how to write your stories.

It seems the advice we most need is how to write with heart--with our hearts, to put it ever so sappily, because no one else's can do the job for us. No writing class can teach us how to do that. I suspect we can only learn this indirectly, by immersing ourselves in other stories that have heart. We can recognize how we feel when we're reading them, and see if our own work makes us feel the same way. In fact, writing with heart is painful and scary. As Nabokov puts it, we're delving into the "torture an immense tenderness is subject to," and that tenderness is really our own. No wonder we need reassurance, and still need our teachers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Making children interesting

Dostoevsky's portrait of Kolya Krassotkin in The Brothers Karamazov offers a clinic in creating a smart and complex young person. Child characters, especially if they're minor characters, are often little more than allegories of adult hopes and fears, rather than individuals in their own right. Dostoevsky himself is given to sentimentalizing children, for instance by having them die slowly while bathed in an angelic light (a la Evangeline in Uncle Tom's Cabin). In fact, our acquaintance with Kolya comes about through this very circumstance, the dying being handled by Ilusha, whom we've met earlier.

Dostoevsky spends a great deal of time revealing the extremes of Kolya's character, because, at thirteen (nearly fourteen, as Kolya insists on pointing out), his soul is in the balance. Kolya is intelligent, and that means he's at great risk. Dostoevsky doesn't worry much about the fate of unintelligent people; they are bound to be either holy innocents or brutes. However, the smart can get themselves into serious trouble, and do serious damage, if their intellect outstrips or stifles their spiritual development.

Kolya is a convincing adolescent because he has embraced adult concerns (religion, politics) with all the enthusiasm of the new convert. But he is (pardon the anachronism; I just can't let it go) like a novice driver behind the wheel of a Ferrari. His mind is a powerful engine, which he doesn't have the faintest idea how to control, and so he's constantly crashing. He tricks a peasant into killing his own goose to prove a theory; he lies on railroad tracks and lets a train pass over him (fainting in the process, but developing a reputation as a "desperate character"); he finds and hides a stray dog--Ilusha's lost dog--for a month, in order to train the dog and surprise Ilusha. Kolya's training methods border on cruel, as does his notion that it's better to wait and surprise Ilusha, rather than just give him the dog back as soon as he finds him.* In all cases, Kolya's theories on the superiority of the intellect (especially his own) distort his good, or at least benign, intentions. But Kolya's goodness still comes through: he really does want to make Ilusha feel better, and he does, though at some cost to all concerned.

For this reason--the goodness showing through the cracks--Kolya attracts the attention of Alyosha, who functions as a true angel for the boy. Alyosha's at his most appealing in his interactions with Kolya, which shows us another benefit of creating complex children as characters: they allow your adults to show more interesting sides of themselves as well.

As Kolya recognizes, Alyosha treats him as an adult, which is what an intelligent child desires, and deserves, above all. And by this means, Alyosha gently makes Kolya aware of his errors:

“What do you think the doctor will say to him?” Kolya asked quickly. “What a repulsive mug, though, hasn't he? I can't endure medicine!”

“Ilusha is dying. I think that's certain,” answered Alyosha, mournfully.

“They are rogues! Medicine's a fraud! I am glad to have made your acquaintance, though, Karamazov. I wanted to know you for a long time. I am only sorry we meet in such sad circumstances.”

Kolya had a great inclination to say something even warmer and more demonstrative, but he felt ill at ease. Alyosha noticed this, smiled, and pressed his hand.

“I've long learned to respect you as a rare person,” Kolya muttered again, faltering and uncertain. “I have heard you are a mystic and have been in the monastery. I know you are a mystic, but ... that hasn't put me off. Contact with real life will cure you.... It's always so with characters like yours.”

“What do you mean by mystic? Cure me of what?” Alyosha was rather astonished.

“Oh, God and all the rest of it.”

“What, don't you believe in God?”

“Oh, I've nothing against God. Of course, God is only a hypothesis, but ... I admit that He is needed ... for the order of the universe and all that ... and that if there were no God He would have to be invented,” added Kolya, beginning to blush. He suddenly fancied that Alyosha might think he was trying to show off his knowledge and to prove that he was “grown up.” “I haven't the slightest desire to show off my knowledge to him,” Kolya thought indignantly. And all of a sudden he felt horribly annoyed.

“I must confess I can't endure entering on such discussions,” he said with a final air. “It's possible for one who doesn't believe in God to love mankind, don't you think so? Voltaire didn't believe in God and loved mankind?” (“I am at it again,” he thought to himself.)

“Voltaire believed in God, though not very much, I think, and I don't think he loved mankind very much either,” said Alyosha quietly, gently, and quite naturally, as though he were talking to some one of his own age, or even older. Kolya was particularly struck by Alyosha's apparent diffidence about his opinion of Voltaire. He seemed to be leaving the question for him, little Kolya, to settle.

“Have you read Voltaire?” Alyosha finished.

“No, not to say read.... But I've read Candide in the Russian translation ... in an absurd, grotesque, old translation ... (At it again! again!)”

Kolya's pomposity is obnoxious and funny at the same time; and his flustered self-awareness makes us care about him. With Alyosha's help, we forgive his blunders and feel genuine hope for his future.

So, in creating child characters, it might help to think of the child as a person at a crossroads. At stake is the kind of adult he or she will become. The child is trying on adult ideas and ways, playing dress-up, only the game is serious. The child lacks whatever adults possess that enables us to wear our grown-up costumes more successfully...which raises the question, what is that quality, exactly? Is that quality always desirable? In Kolya's case, through the conversation with Alyosha, we learn that empathy--which requires, according to Dostoevsky, belief in God--is the key to a meaningful life. Many adults don't have empathy, and Alyosha is determined to cultivate it in Kolya. Alyosha is like an author developing Kolya's character, acknowledging his cruel and awkward tendencies while drawing out his humanity. We, as authors, could try doing the same.

*I am still not a hundred percent certain that this dog is in fact Ilusha's lost dog. Because Ilusha's ill and also wracked with guilt--he thinks he killed his dog by tricking him into swallowing a pin (a stunt Smerdyakov, the villain, taught him)--Kolya may only be fooling him with a different dog. Either way, Kolya is doing a nice thing for Ilusha, but in an unintentionally mean way.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The drugs they took

Lapham's Quarterly lists some classic works of literature and the substances that fueled them.

Folks aren't into laudanum the way they used to be. The name has a nice, ruined-gentility ring to it--as do its alternative names, opium tincture and thebaic tincture. I can't think of the last time I had a tincture of anything. It would have to be ingested while wearing lace cuffs and reclining on a fainting couch...which, come to think of it, does not preclude writing on a laptop.

(H/T the Daily Dish.)

Literary appreciation

In several classes I've taught, I've made a point of deriding the term "literary appreciation." My view of "appreciation" has been that it resembles checking a box. You have to take a class to do it correctly, but once you're done with the class, you've done the job. OK, I've appreciated Ulysses; now what? Appreciation seems like a form of "tolerance," a nod toward a particular piece of art's right to exist (which one might have denied before the appreciation set in), and a general sense of its value (to others, if not to oneself). The term also seems directed more at the appreciator than the thing being appreciated. One wishes to be a person who appreciates Ulysses, so one takes a class and is certified as such.

I can't say whether I've taken an appreciation course myself--is the usual required Great Books course for freshman an appreciation course? Or is this more of a university-extension thing, a back-of-the-NYT-book-review-CD-series thing--meaning it's a kind of leisure activity, though a more high-minded one than most? Have I been teaching appreciation all along, and not known it?

Anyway, I've recently come to think of "appreciation" in the sense of gratitude, as in, I appreciate your help. This occurred to me in thinking further about Beautiful Children and why it has stuck with me, despite my strong resistance to pretty much every aspect of the novel. I've found I'm grateful for the way the book challenged me, how it worked to overcome my suspicions of its subject matter and style. I feel I've become more open to the world in some small but significant way from having read it.

I guess what I'm saying is that I most appreciate--am most grateful for--books that make me more open. That's hard work for a book to do, much harder than confirming my preexisting beliefs and desires. The risk is much greater that I'll put the book down; but if I don't, it becomes a true friend.

So were I to teach "appreciation" now, I would present it as a way of seeking openness through art, and being grateful when it happens.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The "pretend novel" notebook

This week's post on Brothers Karamazov will be delayed, due to a spate of paying work, plus our upcoming trip to Yosemite (only two days, alas). In the meantime, I will provide this brief nugget of writing advice, courtesy of Ian McEwan.

At City Arts earlier this week, an audience member asked him about his process for writing Atonement. He said the process was basically slow, intermittent, and confusing, which is reassuring, given how tightly interwoven the finished novel seems. But he also mentioned that most of his novels begin in a journal, where he writes paragraphs or pages for novels that may never be written. In these beginnings, he tells himself he's just pretending to start a novel, just playing. Atonement began with a few paragraphs about a young woman in a country house, a gardener whom she both desires and wishes would go away, and an expensive vase being broken. McEwan didn't do anything with the story for some time, but the images kept coming back to him. Later he began to see the scene through the eyes of a child (the future Briony) who misinterprets it. That shift in point of view opened the story up and enabled it to continue.

I like the idea of a "pretend" notebook. The paragraphs could end up being flash fiction, short stories, or novels--or they could be nothing at all. The point, as always, is to take the pressure off, and begin your work with play.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Beautiful Children

My piece on Charles Bock's Beautiful Children is up at The Rumpus.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Irrationality in fiction

This week, I have learned from The Brothers Karamazov that literary characters can behave irrationally. This is another post in which I state the obvious with a sense of great discovery.

Well, it's kind of a discovery to me, because I realized I've had this notion in my head that characters must be "logically consistent." I think I took that to mean they must be logical, period. I'm not saying that in my relatively brief career, I've set a bunch of Spocks loose on the imaginary world. But I have shied away from having characters do things that seem inexplicable. My worry has been that I would be using an inexplicable action by a character to further the plot. That would be a valid worry, if the action does not make sense for the character, if I'm imposing that action on the character from outside. However, an action that's inexplicable to all other characters, and maybe even to the character himself, is not only permissible, but sometimes critical to the story.

Here is a case in point. Dmitri has been arrested for his father's murder and is being interrogated. He looks guilty as hell--what with the history of rage at his father, the romantic triangle, his appearance shortly after the murder drenched in blood, etc. Also he's really bad at explaining himself, and still kind of drunk after a night of throwing around a large sum of money--the exact amount, it appears, that was stolen from his murdered father.

Dmitri has an explanation for all these things, including where he got the money. But he's reluctant to explain the money, because he's ashamed of having borrowed / stolen it from the aggressively saintly Katerina Ivanovna, his former fiancee. Eventually, though, desperation to save himself from prison wins out, and he tells his questioners that of the full sum he'd borrowed from her, he took half, tied it in a rag, and hung it around his neck. Dmitri attempts to spell out his reasoning:

"...Perhaps it really is incomprehensible. You see, attend to what I say. I appropriate three thousand entrusted to my honor, I spend it on a spree, say I spend it all, and next morning I go to her and say, ‘Katya, I've done wrong, I've squandered your three thousand,’ well, is that right? No, it's not right—it's dishonest and cowardly, I'm a beast, with no more self-control than a beast, that's so, isn't it? But still I'm not a thief? Not a downright thief, you'll admit! I squandered it, but I didn't steal it. Now a second, rather more favorable alternative: follow me carefully, or I may get confused again—my head's going round—and so, for the second alternative: I spend here only fifteen hundred out of the three thousand, that is, only half. Next day I go and take that half to her: ‘Katya, take this fifteen hundred from me, I'm a low beast, and an untrustworthy scoundrel, for I've wasted half the money, and I shall waste this, too, so keep me from temptation!’ Well, what of that alternative? I should be a beast and a scoundrel, and whatever you like; but not a thief, not altogether a thief, or I should not have brought back what was left, but have kept that, too. She would see at once that since I brought back half, I should pay back what I'd spent, that I should never give up trying to, that I should work to get it and pay it back. So in that case I should be a scoundrel, but not a thief, you may say what you like, not a thief!”

“I admit that there is a certain distinction,” said the prosecutor, with a cold smile. “But it's strange that you see such a vital difference.”

This "amulet" is now gone and the money spent, so all that's left between Dmitri and prison is this explanation. And the prosecutor isn't buying. He thinks the explanation is "strange." It makes perfect sense to Dmitri, and for Dmitri as a character, but does not work for anyone else. Dmitri, to his despair, sees that clearly.

I'm reminded of Richard Price's Lush Life here (thanks to Ryanx for bringing this book up yesterday). That story, too, hinges on the main character's behaving irrationally at a critical moment, leading to his being accused of murder. As economists are also discovering--apparently with greater wonder even than mine--human beings do not always act in their own best interests. They freak out under stress; they make plans that seem logical at the time, but later seem incredibly weird and stupid. In both BK and Lush Life, these irrational acts drive the plot, because these stories are about human irrationality. (So is the economy.)

In other words, I have learned, it is OK if your plot is not a neat little puzzle made up of characters behaving sensibly. Your plot can be more like, I dunno, an industrial accident,* followed by urgent but incomplete clean-up efforts. For literary works, the latter is most likely preferable. But the accident has to come from a character or characters who are capable of having such accidents. You can't just dump irrationality all over your world from above.**

*Obviously I'm still hung up on DeLillo here.
**It's sort of funny that this is what DeLillo does with his "airborne toxic event." It is literally imposed from above. But it's also the data smog in people's systems, externalized as a plot device and parody of the author-as-God.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Lovely words from Colin Farrell

Colin Farrell--a name that, until now, did not automatically call the word "eloquence" to my mind--writes a beautiful piece about his gay brother.

This: "Hate is a disease. It is fear's messenger and it makes us do terrible things in a shadow of our better selves, of what we could be."

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

White Noise revisited

I finally replaced my lost copy of Don DeLillo's White Noise, which I lent to a friend, oh, fifteen years ago. (You know who you are, Friend.) I suppose one reason I did not replace it sooner was that I came to think of it as an artifact of the 80s. When I first read it, way back then, I was thrilled to discover that a mere fiction writer knew what the coolest literary critics knew, about simulacra, the omnipresence of television (television!) and data, and the bland toxicity of American life. Somehow that stuff no longer seems so compelling, though it's obvious that we now live amid white noise multiplied by a googol (get it?). We should probably be more alarmed.

Anyway, as I'm rereading the book, I do keep thinking 80s, 80s, 80s. But why should that past be any more off-putting than other eras? I read books from other decades and centuries without thinking of them as relics of their time. Is the problem that I have come to take all the book's concerns in stride? Was the 80s the last time it was even possible to notice media and other toxins as still potentially separate from daily existence? Have I surrendered to white noise?

And here I am, making more of it.

That said, I am really enjoying the book. It is funny as hell. And nobody does dialog quite like DeLillo. The writer's workshop guidelines on dialog are: Dialog is something characters do to each other. Dialog should do more than one thing at a time. Dialog should characterize. DeLillo follows these guidelines and violates them at the same time.

"It's going to rain tonight."
"It's raining now," I said.
"The radio said tonight."
"Look at the windshield," I said. "Is that rain or isn't it?"
"I'm only telling you what they said."

The conversation goes on in this vein, sounding very much like a real conversation, but also making the act of conversation itself seem absurd. The son resists his father's appeal to what seems to be an obvious reality, but not because of some problem in their relationship, as would be the case in a more conventional story. DeLillo is less interested in these characters as human beings than in their roles as walking containers of white noise. Everyone's brain is a porous, swirling mass of electrified sounds and imagery; there is only a slight variance in how this condition gets expressed.

Still, what the father, and also the son, really seek here is contact, in a world in which real contact seems impossible. They keep talking past each other; the son spins theories about why what we see before us may not be reality (and therefore not contactable), etc. The important thing, we begin to understand, is that they keep talking. Despite the fact that these characters are barely individuated, we can feel their human yearning for connection. DeLillo makes us sympathize not with individual characters, but with humanity as a whole--which is really cool, if you ask me.

I do love this new cover:

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Bona Fide Books poetry book contest

Bona Fide Books will award annually The Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize for an unpublished collection of poems. The winner will receive publication, ten copies, a $500 cash award, and a reading at Lake Tahoe. Prizes are awarded upon publication.

Submissions are open through August 31.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Using flash-forwards

For this week's dissection of The Brothers Karamazov, we'll at a move that seems to be happening more and more in the novel: the flash-forward. These flashes of the future--it's important that they are just momentary--seem related to the intensification of the murder mystery.

For example, after Dmitri is arrested for the murder of his father, the police interrogate him. Grushenka rushes into the room, begging that she be punished for her role in Dmitri's downfall:

“Judge us together!” Grushenka cried frantically, still kneeling. “Punish us together. I will go with him now, if it's to death!”

“Grusha, my life, my blood, my holy one!” Mitya fell on his knees beside her and held her tight in his arms. “Don't believe her,” he cried, “she's not guilty of anything, of any blood, of anything!”

He remembered afterwards that he was forcibly dragged away from her by several men, and that she was led out, and that when he recovered himself he was sitting at the table. Beside him and behind him stood the men with metal plates. Facing him on the other side of the table sat Nikolay Parfenovitch, the investigating lawyer. He kept persuading him to drink a little water out of a glass that stood on the table.

Our glimpse of the future amounts to a vague image of Dmitri looking back on the present. We don't know what he's doing at this future time, whether he's in prison, or free and settled with Grushenka--only that he's alive, and capable of remembering. We don't know how far in the future we are, either; it might only be a few minutes. We don't even know what Dmitri makes of this memory. Is he amused, remorseful, at peace? What is the point of this sudden shift in perspective?

While seeming to provide concrete information (Dmitri will not die, at least not in the next few moments), this move deepens the sense of mystery overall by raising all sorts of additional questions. It also reminds us that there's a narrative intelligence outside of Dmitri, who knows the future--the anonymous first-person narrator, who is more evident at some points than at others. Here he doesn't announce himself directly, but sort of ripples the curtain between us and the story, making us aware of that curtain at a moment of absorbing drama. The characters are engaged in intense dialog--and in dialog, characters can seem especially real and autonomous, as they speak in their own words, rather than being described by the author's. The flash-forward, however, makes them fictional characters once again, if only for a second. Perhaps the (also fictional) author-persona just can't resist making his power known; he's a terrible egoist in his way, and can't let these fakers run away with his tale. Or maybe we're learning that while Dmitri may not be doomed by this investigation, he's doomed in a larger way by his author-God--just as we all are.

Should we, as apprentice writers, attempt such flash-forwards? They clearly mess with your reader's ability to get lost in the story. However, I, for one, like the artificial effects it creates. (I call it "making my stories less publishable.") It's also a way of announcing--if you feel you need to--that your fiction is literary. When Joyce Carol Oates read her story "The Knife" at Stanford last fall, an audience member asked her why she'd employed a flash-forward during the scene in which the main character's life is being threatened. The flash-forward tells us everything is going to be (more or less) OK, which, to the questioner's mind, destroyed the suspense. With the breezy contempt for which Oates is celebrated, she explained that this was not a suspense story.

The flash-forward, if done well, frees you as the author to do other things with a conventional, if gripping, narrative. The question is whether you want to sacrifice that kind of hold on your reader in favor of other ambitions. We know that in the end, Dostoevsky really wants to talk about God, not bicker and argue about who killed who. There's a larger matter at stake than either Dmitri's or his father's life.