Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Pound of Life, Sliced Thin, Please

slice of life--a relatively plotless stream of incident from a segment of a character's daily routine; a term used with varying degrees of sarcasm to describe a collection of scenes that may or may not be a short story; a dramatic narrative of any length.

Earth and ocean scientists frequently take core samplings of terrain under, variously, polar caps, oceans, and soil strata to examine the processes of sedimentation, weather, pollen/seed density, etc. Similarly, some writers, perhaps in the process of building a background on a character, take a sampling of a day or year in the life of that character. You could pursue an argument with some weight that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a slice of life; to be sure, it is a purposeful if highly romanticized one, said purpose substituting for a plot. It is beyond argument that the sequel, involving Sawyer's great chum, Huckleberry Finn, is not a slice of life but rather a plotted adventure, thus slice of life can be defined as a core sampling of life, being examined.

Instead of a denouement or negotiated settlement investigated in much twenty-first century narrative, slice of life depends on a single, evoked feeling, whether that feeling produces laughter, sadness, remorse, or nostalgia. Under close investigation, James Joyce's monumental core sampling, Ulysses, is slice of life writ large, its scrupulously close following of The Odyssey in no way a tie-in to a conventional plot. Another case for argument: Alexander McCall Smith's The Ladies Number 1 Detective Agency treads closely along the verges between slice of life and an actual plot. True enough, Mma Ramatsowe is given something to solve, but is it really a problem or more of an enigma?

Thus the resident enigma of the slice of life narrative: is it a story--or not? Writers aiming their narrative sights on a readership with more specific genre tastes will do well to consider McCall Smith's approach to narrative rather than the sometimes bewildering visions of Donald Barthelme or the short fiction of Raymond Carver as edited by Gordon Lish.

In slice of life as in the tightly plotted works of Harlan Coben and Lee Child, the ball is always in the writer's court, which is to say the senses of satisfaction and completion reside within the author and let the reader rather than the devil take the hindmost.

The writer at some point must arrive at an individual template for what a story is, then compose to the integrity of that template. To encourage the writer to think this point through, this question: Is Tobias Wolff's "A Bullet in the Brain" a short story or a slice of life?

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