Monday, March 30, 2009

P is for Partner

partner--a co-worker or confidante with whom a protagonist can exchange ideas and background; a relationship between protagonist and antagonist suggestive of a dramatic symbiosis if not an actual partnership; a love-hate relationship between two characters.

One of the earlier partnerships, the master and the slave in Aristophanes The Frogs, sets the potential for dramatic symbiosis in motion. The lead player is Dionysus, accompanied by his slave, Xanthias, who is clearly the more pragmatic and gritty of the two. The major goal of the story is to repair the state of tragedy in drama. As Dorothy Gale would do some time later when she traveled to Oz for information from the wizard, Dionysus must travel to Hades to bring the great tragedian Euripides back from the dead. In discussing how to best begin their task, Dionysus and Xanthias engage in what has become known as the buddy system, reminiscent of the comedy teams who followed them over the milenia: Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Rowan and Martin, the Smothers Brothers, Burns and Allen.

Partnership of some sort in story is too much a convention to be considered merely an interesting coincidence; it was absolutely essential for Sherlock Holmes who, had he been allowed by Conan Doyle to go it alone, would not have got far, thanks to his attitude and tone. Captain Ahab could have ruminated to Starbuck about the way his life had been shattered by the great whale, but the story would have not achieved its stature without the actual presence of Moby-Dick, a partnership made in the hell of Ahab's psyche. Nor would Santiago, the protagonist of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, been complete with only the presence of Manolin, the young boy apprentice, or Santiago's friends who are mentioned but who do not appear in person. Santiago needed the huge marlin, arguably the biggest catch of his life, as a partner, just as Ahab needed the whale.

To extend the metaphor of partnership in yet another direction, imagine Macbeth as unmarried, a middle-aged soldier who'd focused entirely on his military career. With no Lady Macbeth in the story, several dimensions fall away, leaving the mere carcass of a powerful drama.

In the more modern setting of Boston, private investigator Patrick Kenzie and his girlfriend-partner Angie Gennaro provide a moving thematic thread to the investigation of an abducted four-year-old girl, moving Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone from being merely an intriguing puzzle, and into the landscape of deep moral inquiry.

The danger of not having a partner takes the writer directly into the murky landscape of one character on stage alone, having nowhere to go with dramatic information but the interior monologue, which often drags forth such weary tropes as How had it all begun? and What would she do now?

Such remarkable fiction as Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (in which the protagonist has Tourette's Syndrome), or Mark Haddon's The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time (where the fifteen-year-old protagonist suffers from severe autism and in a sense "communicates" with his favorite character, Sherlock Holmes) are notable exceptions, using the first-person point of view to move them beyond the need for a partner.

But here we are again, with Mark Schluter, the twenty-seven-year-old protagonist of Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, involved in a near-fatal accident that causes severe brain trauma, inducing the Capgrass Syndrome. Victims of this affliction tend to question the authenticity of those closest to him. Accordingly, a perfect partner for Schluter is his older sister, Karin, who gives up a good job to care for him, all the while aware that her brother does not believe she is really the person she claims to be.

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