Friday, August 12, 2011


"This [story] goes back to the letter Susan Morrow's first husband Edward sent her last September. He had written a book, a novel, and would she like to read it?  Susan was shocked because...she hadn't heard from Edward in twenty years."

Two paragraphs later:  "Take your time, he said, scribble a few words, whatever pops into your head.  Signed,'Your old Edward still remembering.'"

First line, next paragraph:  "The signature irritated her. It reminded her of too much and threatened the peace she had made with her past."

This is all on the first page, the opening paragraphs of Austin Wright's novel, Tony and Susan. You are looking at all the tiny hooks and barbs he has embedded in these few paragraphs.  Why should you care about a woman who gets a manuscript from an ex-husband she has not seen for twenty years?  You care because your past reading tells you the manuscript will have to be even more enticing than the letter and its effect on Susan Morrow, whom you scarcely know.  But wait a minute:  the manuscript was sent in September and here it is, the day after Christmas.  Questions already.  Why has she waited so long to say anything about it?

Next page.  The day the package and letter arrive, "She had a sneaky feeling that put her on guard, so that when her real husband Arnold came in that night, she announced boldly:  I heard from Edward today.

"Edward who?

"Oh, Arnold.

"Oh, Edward.  Well.  What does that old bastard have to say for himself?"

Watch Arnold, you tell yourself.

And sure enough, here it is, the day after Christmas, and Arnold is off at a convention.

Whatever it is you suspect Arnold of doing at the convention, you are watching Susan like a hawk now because with Arnold out of the house, she now has three days to read the manuscript.

You cannot quote statistics on divorce, but you are in that curious way of negative effect, more convinced of Susan's dramatic presence because she has been married before.  When you discover that this is also Arnold's second marriage, you are even more convinced of the authenticity of Susan and Arnold.  So you know about "that old bastard" Edward.  He was married some years back to Susan, who is now married to Arnold, who was also married.

But now you're coming back to the title, which is Tony and Susan.  Who is Tony?  First you have to learn that Arnold is a hot shot heart surgeon, so he has enough income among other things to keep his ex wife in a private sanitarium for the rest of her life because she is quite psychotic and delusional; no way can she live on the "outside."  So okay,this reminds you of the first Mrs. Rochester of "Reader, I married him" fame, a reminder that makes you all the more antsy about Arnold because you never thought much of Rochester in the first place, and if Jane hadn't loved him--

What's going on here?

What's going on is, you're hooked on Austin Wright's deft unfolding of narrative and you haven't even met Tony yet.  Not only that, Austin Wright was able to present much of this information with a remarkable shortage of "tells."  The information appeared to come right out of the story itself, from the characters, from the narrative as opposed to the intrusions of the author, strewing information about as though it were some poison to kill off the gophers in the garden.

You haven't met Tony yet and of course by now you're primed to do so--because you know something.  What you know is that Tony is going to be even more an occasion of intrigue and suspense than Susan.  Again you fall back on your reading to date to ratify these assumptions.  You are in effect a magician of performance level, on a busman's holiday, watching another magician performing an illusion you already know is not magic, merely a coordinated effort that gives the appearance of magic.  Story is not real effect, it is the coordinated illusion of effect.

So Susan starts reading Edward's manuscript, that begins, "There was this man Tony Hastings, his wife, Laura, and his daughter Helen, traveling east at night on the Interstate in northern Pennsylvania."

In its way, it reminds you of Twelfth Night.  Here is a woman who is not real, getting a manuscript from her first husband, whose name is Tony, which has to mean he is the Tony in the title.

You already saw what Austin Wright did with the opening paragraphs of Susan, so now we get Tony, his wife, aura, and their daughter, Helen.  Illusions, right? Yeah, but watch the fuck out, Tony.

"They [Tony, Laura, and Helen] were starting their vacation, going to their summer cottage in Maine.  They were driving at night because they had been slow starting and had been further delayed having to get a new tire along the way.  It was Helen's idea, when they got back into the car after dinner, somewhere in eastern Ohio.  'Let's not look for a motel,' she said, 'let's drive all night.'

"'Do you mean that?' Tony Hastings said.

"'Sure, why not?'"

How is it you know they will not reach Maine?  How is it that the illusion has you?

There are may be three or four basic story templates.  Someone setting out on a journey.  A stranger or outsider showing up in our midst.  A story within a story.

Tony and Susan has all three.

1 comment:

Storm Dweller said...

This is one of those occasions that I, some distance away, feel that I have just had the privilege of sitting in the front row of one of your classes to watch you emphatically deliver a lecture on the literary anatomy of a story. Were I sitting in the first row of a lecture hall, I would have had the same reaction as I have to reading this... I would have been hanging on every word.