Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Payoff

Every--repeat, every--dramatic narrative concludes with an action or presentation of the verge of an impending action, either of which tips the scales in a result that produces an emotional effect.  You feel the thunk of it in your gut, as you often do after reading a short story by Deborah Eisenberg or Louise Erdrich, or William Trevor.  You know something has happened or will happen to persons you know, now that you think about it, as well as you knew your high school chums and even, yes, even some of your university chums.

You know and you have some concern because none of these writers is likely to be translated into Hallmark cards; rather each of them depicts plausible endings, momentary conclusions in on-going lives--because each of their characters has a life off the page, so far as you are concerned.  You would be more likely to call one of them and say hey, let's meet for a coffee or drinks than you would high school classmates or university chums.  Not that you have anything against these, to be sure, but rather you are impressed at how close you get to individuals who are dredged up from the imaginations of these superb writers, dipped in a bit of batter, then tossed on the page to get crinkly done.

In the longer form fiction, the emotional effect is articulated in greater detail, a killer is brought to justice, separated lovers reunite, the bond between then different and more durable; a deadlocked jury finally reaches a verdict, a tyrant recognizes the error of his ways then vows to change his ways.  Shorter fiction has a less conclusive effect, often deliberately vague as a reflection of how inconclusive and episodic mush of life is.  In a true sense, the short story makes life seem less a series of episodes.

Over the lifespan of long and short forms, beginnings have undergone more significant change than middles or endings, being more disposed now to begin in medias res than in their eighteenth or nineteenth century forbears.  The notable example of The Iliad, composed more or less in the year 850 BCE, comes to mind as an exception to the tendency, along with the wonder more writers did not see the potential for such beginnings.  Middles have more or less gone their own way, allowing variously for shifts in narrative voice, jumps ahead or to the rear in story line, and introductions of subplots or themes.  Endings have grown more tentative, as if in direct relation to the complexity of life, the Balkanization of states, institutions, organizations.  Nevertheless, we do want some sense that a story has come to as much of an end as it can get without appearing to tack on another story.  Many stories thus end with a significant death, not particularly the death of a front rank character as, say Charles Ryder, the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, but of Lord Marchmain, a distant second-tier personage.  Doesn't hurt that Ryder's marriage has come to an end, either; there is a sense of the vital events having taken place, the chips fallen where they did.  And of course with Gatsby dead, there is nothing left but a brief valedictory from Nick Carraway, the narrator.  Even though it is a bit much to put The Sun Also Rises in the same shelf as Brideshead and Gatsby, there is to be sure that requisite emotional thump when Jake Barnes, reflecting on Bret Ashley's subjunctive scenario, gives her famous soliloquy.  And not to forget James Joyce's major work, Ulysses, which does belong in the same shelf; Molly's soliloquy leaves us with a gut wrench.

Payoff is what we read for.  It is emotional information melded with an opening of the senses, an awareness of some part of life.  Payoff is what we work at and hope for in life; it is what we read for when we read; it is the private dance Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire do in our minds when we set forth to get a story down, perhaps to be performed as the Homeric tales were, perhaps as a joke to be told among a group of friends, perhaps as a poem or short story or long-form work that would not leave us alone until we got it in a way we thought was right.  Now we can close our eyes and see our words and their effects, come to life like Rogers and Astaire, endlessly lithe, supple, beautiful, radiating the sense that whatever happens in life or story, there is music and dance to take us up and cast us as lithe, supple, and beautiful as they.

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