Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Arc of the Covenant

1. No, not that ark nor, indeed, that covenant.

2. This covenant is the one between the storyteller and the receiver of the story. You know--writer and reader.

3. The basic thrust of this covenant is that the teller is going somehow to entertain the reader and perhaps in the bargain give the reader the opportunity to learn something.

4. A secondary thrust of this covenant is the one word inscribed on the metaphoric stone tablets of this covenant: SURPRISE. The teller shall somehow surprise the reader in the act of surprising him.

5. This is a digression, but not by much. It is alright for the writer to be surprised within the process.

6. Until recent years, for the sake of convenience, say the beginning of this century, story traveled in an orbit many teachers and critics and, indeed, reviewers referred to as plot. They did so because the orbit was more or less a regular path. Just as solar and lunar eclipses could be predicted, the surprise in narrative orbit could also be predicted as coming a beat or two after the denouement. Oribt relates to the game we play with dominoes in which the tiles are stacked vertically so that when one is tipped, its forward motion causes it to topple its neighbor, which in turn causes that domino to topple the next. Thus could an editor or teacher explain to a writer that a particular story did not cohere because of the space between the dominos or dramatic beats.

7. Now the orbit is broken into a smaller segment, referred to by a generation of teachers, critics, and reviewers as arc. No, not the river in France, rather a segment of a curve, or to put it another way, the path taken by the modern story from the moment it is first observed by the reader to the point where the text stops.

8. There are few more iconic and illustrations than Tobias Wolff's short story, Bullet in the Brain, to illustrate the point of how the short story has evolved from orbital to ellipse or arc. In it, Anders, the focal point--not necessarily a protagonist but rather a point of focus--enters a bank at precisely the wrong time. Said bank is about to be--no, is now being robbed.

"Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers, anyway, Anders--a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed."

Not likable, that Anders.

9. What happens next is a model of removing the passage of time from the narrative; it informs the rest of the narrative and the sense of the narrative removing itself from the conventional orbit yet delivering the elliptical punch in the gut we have culturally come to require.

10."Keep your big mouth shut!" the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. "One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat. Got it?"

The tellers nodded.

"Oh, bravo," Anders said. "Dead meat."

Even less to like in Anders, which is the hinge of the story, the turning point as we go from thinking Anders a consumate ass and wishing him ill to the point of seeing him as something altogether different.

11. In 1902, Joyce published Dubliners, a collection which forever changed the arc taken by the short story. Paving the way for EMH, to be sure.

12. That was then. Now there is Wolff.

13. And a way of looking beyond plot to such words as design or pattern. Even pointillism. Doppler effect. (I like the potential of that for dealing with where and how the short story is going.

14. Imagine a story beginning with a person such as Anders, complaining bitterly about how dark it is in here and someone wondering if the darkness is a result of the bill not being paid or a power outage.

15. Dylan Thomas. "Do not go gentle into that good-night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light..."


x said...

Taking a blogging break. Not likely to return. Actually dismantling my blog, one post at a time. Just wanted to thank you for everything. If I return to writing, it will be a different kind altogether. You have my email.

R.L. Bourges said...

1.Just read the story. Best I've read since...can't say. Can't compare it to anything. Could sit here reading it for the next three hours.
2. It's all in the distance between the speed of the bullet and that of the synaptic lightning, isn't it though? The living part, I mean.
3."... Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself." Or: therein lies the truth about Mr. Anders.
4. We should all be so lucky as to exit on a final high note of elation.
5. Thank you for this story.

Lori Witzel said...

Just read that Tobias Wolff story, and now I need no coffee to wake up.

Damn fine. Thanks, as ever. You've sure got teaching chops, but you knew that.

Unknown said...

All right. I have been searching the net to find a place to read "Bullet in the Brain" just to see if the arc you're talking about is similar to what I have come to call the "freeze-frame" method. The method of course that I have been using in my own short stories, where I draw incredible focus into a moment in a person's thoughts and feelings about their angst, or a dilemma. I did however find, "Hunters in the Snow" as an e-book, so I will take the time to read that here this afternoon.