Friday, August 7, 2009

Any spare change?

growth--the dramatic motion toward change inherent in a character, an institution, a place, or a thing; the need for a front-rank character in a novel to advance or retreat in relation to behavior and understanding.

Growth is accretion or erosion, the consequences of a character's participation in a longform story, the evolution or devolution of an organization or institution; it is tangible movement in a direction the reader will recognize, a movement to which some emotional weight is attached by the character who experiences it. In the longer dramatic narrative, characters have the time and the need to grow; this is, after all what is meant by development.

Characters change, come to realize, or at the very least are held hostage by their circumstances. Institutions change, arguably for the better or worst, depending on the characters involved in the institutions. The mythical town of Pluto, ND, so vivid with promise in the early pages of Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves, devolves toward the end of the novel as a virtual ghost town, while in the same narrative the principal characters age, grow away from or grow into other mind- and heart-sets, while the once thriving Pluto Historical Society, down to two members, disbands.

It is not so much that growth in a longer work must be particularized in detail as it must be recognized with some hint of what is to happen, allowing the reader to imagine (and argue) about the likely results. Shorter works do not have the convention or luxury of recording change; they instead play out on the characters being led to a brink and bade farewell, their intentions not readily known.

As the twenty-first century novel and short story gather traction and personality, it is almost unthinkable that their characters will, as many earlier novels and stories decreed, all live happily ever after but will instead be buffeted with the whims, uncertainties, and multifarious inducements of life as we have come to know it. Modern life has evolved to the unthinkable come to pass. Future life grows into the yet more unthinkable. If we are realistic, there will always be an elephant waiting for us somewhere, be it the living room, the Greyhound Bus station, the supermarket, or the already crowded landscape we like to think of as the soul.

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