Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Quantum Physics of Story

In his story, The Grandfather's Ram, Mark Twain set into motion a vision of dramatic technique worth tracking. The subtext is Twain as a reporter on The Territorial-Enterprise, that irreverent and thriving newspaper in the equally thriving and irreverent Virginia City, Nevada. Twain's pay depended on the number of stories he contributed, thus he is brought into the dramatic calculus with a quota. His critical eye for the unusual is known to a number of friends, associates, and those who may have served as the goat for his earlier humors, a fact that brings vulnerability into the picture. Twain, the trickster, is vulnerable to being taken in.

The set-up for the story is simple: there is a man, Jim Blaine, Twain is advised, who has a remarkable story about his grandfather's old ram that Twain must hear from the teller's mouth because he imparts the proper tone to the telling. The trouble is, the warning continues, the old man never tells the story until he has achieved the ideal state of drunkenness whereby his tongue and memory are both loosened up. Thus the bait is set; Twain is immediately intrigued, his interest piqued over a period of time until he is summoned one afternoon with the news that the old man, having achieved the proper degree of drunkenness, is about to set forth on his discourse.

Twain hunkers down to listen as the Jim Blaine begins " his situation was such that even the most fastidious could find
no fault with it--he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk--not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory. As I entered, he was sitting upon an empty powder-keg, with a clay pipe in one hand and the other raised to command silence. His face was round, red, and very serious..."

Blaine begins to speak "'I don't reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more
bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois--got him of a man by the name of Yates--Bill Yates--maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon--Baptist--and he was a rustler,too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west."

Now the hook is firmly set nearly everyone but Twain realizes what is about to happen. Garrulous old sort that he is, Blaine rambles about from point to point, person to person, his imagery taking him irrevocably away from any additional mention of the ram, ending with the mounting imagery of a man in a rug-weaving family falling into a loom, his mortal remains being woven into a width of four-ply broadloom that caused the poor wretch to have been buried in an eight-foot roll of carpeting. And on that note, Blaine nods off for the night, passed out in the middle of his ramble, leaving Twain to realize that he had been had.

The instructive thing Twain leaves us with the telling of this story is the notion of counterpoint. Within the texture of story, at least one other seemingly unrelated theme is introduced just as a sub-theme is introduced in music. More than likely, Twain had heard some old miner digress wildly on the theme of a grandfather's ram, saw the humor in it, and decided it was a story rather than a tale, a dimensional piece of narrative in which the counterpoint element was his own naivete as a narrator.

Twain has been in the grave nearly a hundred years. Nevertheless, a large portion of his material holds up well, delights and amuses because he mostly knew how to tell a story. There were times when he fell off the dramatist's platform, but mostly he told story and because it had counterpoint, the results hold us in its web.

Simplicity is a misunderstood element in storytelling, often being mistaken for what is linear, thin, not evocative in its subtext. When dealing with characters--people--motive, agenda, vulnerability, pomposity, accountability are all rushing around like atoms in a linear accelerator, not only waiting to collide but wanting to. Counterpoint is the writer's equivalent of the linear accelerator it is one of the unspoken keys to story at all levels.

2 comments:

Wild Iris said...

Let's not forget his sense of irony thrown into the mix as well.

Shelly Lowenkopf said...

Too true, WI he was a consumnate ironist, to the point, I think, where it got beyond him and he spoke a truth he didn't realize he was telling. Huck Finn probably took him beyond the borders of personal comfort. But he went.

And so, I might add, do you. Often.