Monday, August 1, 2011

Sibling Revelry

 When you get to thinking about an opening scene for a short story or novel, either your own or someone else's, you get into an immediate and active argument between your writing self and your editorial self.

No question about it,your writing self is the older of the two, big brother, as it were.  The consequences of this sibling rivalry result in the big brother thinking he knows more because he's been around longer, thus the nudges, tweaks, and occasional insults.  The editorial self is easy to spot.  Shorter, younger, he's had to become scrappy in order to hold his own.  He takes a smug pride in being able to cause the writing self to make a public fool of himself.  Nothing funnier than a self-confessed expert being caused to take a pratfall or nosedive.

The writing self wants to start stories with some kind of ironic confession from one or more characters, the opening tropes of Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier for an example, or the splendid set-up paragraph of John Phillips's one and only novel, The Second Happiest Day, for another example.  Mind you, both of these exert an immediate destabilization on the narrative; each is a true hooker.

But the editorial self is big on the dramatized destabilization incident, wants to keep big brother--the writing self--out of the story, begrudging him even this tiny bit of rhetorical play.

Waiting this morning for Jerry Freedman to show up for breakfast at the outdoor cafe you've begun to frequent near your lodgings, you noticed two men in their late forties, engaged in an animated conversation.  As you sometimes do in such cases, you took sides, largely from irritation at the voice of one of the men.  You cast him as the chairman of a department of literature.  The one you favored became someone who'd applied for a teaching spot for a specialty in the historical novel of the nineteenth century, which would allow you Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, certainly Melville, and Hugo. Not to forget Twain.  Your character would also take on the twentieth century, which would allow you Dreiser and Crane.  Of course you'd thrown in Cather, Wharton, Mitchell, and Grace Metalious, she of Peyton Place.  Your character's main thesis would be to come at each with a Marxist interpretation.

Your story would begin with the chairman concluding he could not hire your favorite character because the Marxist and Feminist approaches to criticism were so repugnant to him.

This is all in the background, because the two men have scarcely had time to share one exchange of dialogue the reader could hear when they are set upon by a third man, perhaps early forties, who, from his behavior and demeanor, is clearly overwrought.  The intruder accuses the applicant of having embarked on a passionate and demonstrative affair with his wife.  At first the intruder demands, then quickly tries to shift to a more civil negotiation, asking the applicant to please break off the affair so that the accuser can set about saving his marriage.

The applicant is at first bewildered then attempts to convince the accuser that he has made a mistake--he is not engaged in an affair with the man's wife--he does not even know the man's wife.

After some lengthy argument, the accuser finally appears convinced, asks for, then begins to beg for the applicant's pardon, pressing round after round of apology on him.  Once again, the applicant reassures him, deftly avoiding the accuser's attempts to pay for the breakfast the applicant and the department head are in the process of eating.

After seeing the accuser off, and being presented by the waitress with a large box of brioche and croissant as a gift from the accuser, the applicant is stunned to learn that the chairman is impressed with his performances, and is reversing his decision not to hire him.  "She must be an amazing and captivating woman,"  the chairman says.

"You were sitting right here,"  the applicant says.  "Surely you can't believe I know his wife."

"A masterful performance.  I can see you're someone who will have no trouble engaging his students."

The editorial you loves such opportunities to tweak the writing you.  Loves it.

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