Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chemistry

In most rational systems, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, no more but certainly no less; it is a balanced equation.  Add such elements as imagination, intuition, transference, displacement, and such lovely, thought-provoking emotions as revenge or control or even vindication, and as rationality scurries out the doors and windows, story enters like commandos on a moonless-night raid.

Many memorable stories have such recognizable elements as gritty characters, crackling dialogue, stunning surprises, and plausible reversals.  They may even contain brisk narrative, vivid description, bone-aching suspense, but it is more likely they are in fact memorable stories because they have an undefinable chemistry than because they have any of the technical elements or any of the motions mentioned.  Even thrown in a few more bits of technique such as point-of-view, description, pacing; these additions still do not account for the memorability as much as the inherent chemistry accounts for it.

This is not a revelation for you; in fact, you've been thinking, teaching, and writing about this phenomenon for some years.  The revelation is the time you spent ignoring chemistry, all the while marveling at the deftness with which your favorite writers knew how to conjure up the very chemistry you were at such pains to ignore.

Water, or perhaps you should say formulas under the bridge.  By happenstance, perhaps even by chemistry, you happened upon a favored short story by another writer that is also among the favored short stories of yet another writer.  To be more specific, You keep coming back to Tobias Wolff's short story, "In the Garden of American Martyrs," which you find to be electric, stunning, emotionally satisfying.  The "other" writer who is fond of the story is a close friend of Wolff, fellow name of Tom Boyle.  As each of you discovers the fondness for the story, there is a bond of chemistry between you to the point where Boyle is impressed for reasons you'd not thought of, namely that Wolff's strength is with the memoir.  But, you venture, he can still turn out the occasional wonder of a short story.  Look at "Bullet in the Brain."

It's as though, Boyle theorizes, Wolff gets his short fiction from places none of the rest of us look.

Chemistry, you venture.

Chemistry, Boyle says.

Even more so than the novel, which you adore, the short story bends light, time, and emotion, refracting them through unanticipated prisms.  To get the proper bending or chemistry or magic, you have to know where to look for the spare prism, which you hold up to the light, thinking to catch images in much the same manner Schrodinger sent his theoretical cat off on its theoretical journey.  Schrodinger's  Cat is pure theoretical physics, hypothesizing potential behavior.  On that level, it is nearly meaningless to you, yet as story or drama, it remains in your mind, brought up from time to time as a conversation that may have been going well for you begins to turn away from your vision of how the universe of persons works.

When a work in progress works, which is to say comes together, there is a moment of Cosmic Sigh in which the work recognizes itself, then sets forth to be in the imagination of all those who have bumbled across it.

So much time is spent working on achieving the technique necessary to take a bumbling step, a lurch more than a confident stride forward.

A bumble may result directly in abject failure.  Conversely, in attempting to regain the momentary loss of balance, the stumbler may have made a noteworthy discovery.  A confident step forward invariably seems mannered, controlled; it is a one-way ticket to causing the strider to become the object of humor.

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