Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Mysterious Stranger

There's always something going on in the background, babies crying, dogs barking, a dropped garden hose spraying anyone who gets in its way, serious-looking individuals on the front porch, wanting to talk about God. This is the background against which stories are set, backgrounds made plausible by their implausibility.

Story doesn't exist in a vacuum, a fact we do well to remember because sometimes, when we are too focused, we tune out the sensuous materials that ratify the authenticity and plausibility of story. In real life, things can happen in vacuums, thanks to such social advancements as gated communities, restaurants with a modicum of sound proofing, homes instead of close apartments.

Marlow was always hearing things while interviewing clients or driving to assignations, smelling things in the hallways, catching refrains of anomalous songs from across the way; these things made Chandler's prose near eternal. He may have been dead for fifty years but the scents, sounds, sights linger in the hallways and dark streets of the L.A. Basin. His elevators creak, have the faint odor of someone having been sick; his automobiles growl, wheeze, exhibit internal rumbles. More than his metaphor and wry observation, his sense of a place attaches to his stories like a limpet grabbing onto the pilings of a pier.

An observation then: adjectives and adverbs are better spent describing the senses than the qualities of action. Story is more than individuals forced to walk the plank of plot, rather it is the atmosphere in which thinkable and unthinkable things play our their fizzle of light, matches struck in the dark, giving us a brief vision of the parts not dark, not hidden, but nevertheless not fully revealed.

Shakespeare was performed in the blackness of the theater without setting, without flats or scrolls of scenery and yet the text is filled with enough suggestion that the story emerges not only with its own collisions and near misses but with the acute sense of where everyone is and what's going on in the background. Even Beckett, that stern minimalist, has his characters dress inform us of a greater absurdity that the setting suggests.

An actor can steal a scene merely by focusing attention on a point somewhere on stage or off, regarding it with apparent curiosity. An actor can steal a scene by swatting an imaginary fly or mosquito. In the best of worlds, a character can steal a scene, certainly from the other characters present but as well from the author, which brings us close to the scare atmosphere of creative potential, an atmosphere ripe with its own sounds, sights, smells.

Stories with safety nets end up defeating the writer, causing the writer to think how easy it is to rely on artifice instead of risk.
A bunch of ham actors, standing around the scene, watching the Alpha Players do their things, wondering what movement can change the entire tenor, shifting from tragedy to the comedic, letting the dog of pathos out the door and into bathos. Suddenly the atmosphere is charged with the electricity of impending storm; suddenly the story is changed from safe and predictable to risky and revelatory. Where does it come from? The characters growing bored with the same old prospects, you becoming bored with the possibility of ending in sight.

The "it" comes from that secret packet we all carry about with us, the thing we may show on occasion to strangers, knowing we'll likely never see them again; the "it" is the thing we often feel the most uncomfortable about, the thing we don't want friends to know about us or perhaps the thing we want family or friends to think we're comfortable with.

What better strangers to show it to than readers.

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