Monday, June 21, 2010


The sooner a narrative or essay attacks a sensory defense or recognizes a sensory need such as curiosity, the more likely a reader will be tugged into the gambit. Make no mistake about it; getting the reader involved is a gambit.

If the language of the previous paragraph is redolent of chess and strategy, it signifies positive effect is being sent forth. Reader involvement--getting readers to care--is a chess game of a sort, with orchestrated opening moves, including the potential sacrifice--not of a pawn in an actual chess game but the revelation of a secret, the flash of surprise, the unanticipated discovery that changes everything. A hint of any of these is the equivalent of an opening gambit.

The defense is a sophisticated mixture of suspicion, negative interest (read lack of interest), not caring what happens to the players--after all, it is well known that they aren't real. But suppose that sensory defense is breached? Suppose the Reader forgets about plausibility long enough to form some kind of relationship with one or more of the characters.

Curiosity is a wedge to get the arms-locked-across the chest of suspicion out of the way. We want to find out more. Want to see how X behaves in Y situation which is coming up. Doesn't hurt that one or more characters can be vulnerable; once our watch out response kicks in for a particular character, we want to see if he or she can safely avoid the emotional trap awaiting, a trap we know is there because we are, after all, readers, which means we know something of consequence is going to spring forth on a character whom we either like or feel a certain arm's-length antipathy toward. Basically the good guy will be hit in the face with a wet squirrel, the sleazy guy will be invited inside for an iced tea.

Everything you could possibly want in a character to whom you give your heart is to be found in the protagonist of Daniel Woodrell's latest novel, Winter's Bone. Bree Dolly is a tough outer shell protecting a loving, caring interior. She wants to get out of her life in a remote corner of the Missouri Ozarks, where her father has gone missing, probably dead in one of his drug-dealing misadventures. Bree has her mother, who is in and out of dementia, to care for and two young siblings, who are close, by her reckoning, to fend for their mother and themselves, allowing her to fulfill her urgent desire to join the army, get a start on making a life of her own. But legalities step in, forcing her to set out in search of her father before she can break free of family ties. It is not enough to say that family ties dog her every step; Woodrell, an elegant and poetic writer, leads us shivering through the Ozark winter on a quest with some unexpected menace. She is remarkable and splendid, you think as you reread her exploits. Her humanity outshines her natural beauty. As she shows one of her siblings how to first hunt, then skin, then cook a squirrel, you are aware of never knowingly having eaten a squirrel. Dozens of them live in close enough proximity to you that you could, were you willing to take more matters into your own hands, experience eating a squirrel. You know that you would do so for her, a safe enough bargain given she is a character, but she is real enough a character that you fantasy her presence.

This fantasy element is key; all you characters must in fact be individuals you more than construct, you fantasy. Until you read other of Woodrell's books, you had never eaten a fried bologna sandwich although you have in your time eaten countless freshly sliced bologna sandwiches. Woodrell made the fried version sound interesting enough so that you bought the first bologna you have purchased in years, then fried it, then plunked the results between slices of bread, in one venture with sliced onion.

All right, here is the equation. You do the things you do because many of them are the acts you are willing to move out of fantasy and wonderment into actuality.

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