Monday, June 11, 2012

The Juggler, Vain


 A brief-but-memorable essay in the Sunday (June 10,2012) New York Times Book Review by Graham Swift reminded you of how much you enjoy Swift’s fiction (Last Orders in particular).  You’ve yet to read his latest, but it is on your list.

Swift habitually takes a relatively small event as his armature, then wraps strands of complication and nuance about it, leaving us with some inescapable implications at the outcome, but a good many more that are by degrees ambiguous or unsettled.

You may as well be describing the sorts of things you undertake to write when you set forth in fiction, swimming away from the shore and all recognizable landmarks.  However accurate this observation is, you do not mean it to suggest you are near, even approaching Swift’s ease of bringing characters and situations to meaningful life, all of this somehow prologue to your admiration for the piece in The Times, which addressed one of the novelist’s most appreciated and, in your view, least appreciated tools.

You do go on about the way time is portrayed, linking timing to such things as pacing of event in story, use of deliberate slow-down in oral humor and/or acting performances, delivery of notes in any kind of musical performance, length of shutter speed in photography.

There are surely more examples; your reluctance to name them having more to do with a wish to avoid adding a laundry list element to these proceedings.  Skillful novelists such as Swift can encapsulate a generation within a single paragraph, make you feel you’ve met and understood the characters, imparted meaning and consequence to them. 

Such writers are also able to devote pages to a single moment without causing you the slightest sense of having been held captive longer than you wished, nor given you the slightest urge to begin skipping.

Your vision of a story, whether novel or the short form, has most of it, at least sixty percent of it, taking place in the immediate now.  Thicker works achieve their bulk from starting at a point where we are present, allowing us to follow one or more characters, even sets and ensembles of them well into the future, with little or no halting of activity to tell us what happened before the story began.

In Paul Theroux’s latest, The Lower River, we’ve been artfully made aware that the protagonist spent four years—the happiest years of his life—in Africa as a volunteer for The Peace Corps.  Within a simple turn of phrase less than a hundred pages in, we are told that something reminded Ellis Hook, the protagonist, of his time in Africa.  We are suddenly “back there,” with Hook, flashed back, if you will, to backstory, which surely has a direct connection to what will happen in present time.
The storyteller has time management as a tool in the fiction writer’s toolkit, extending, regressing, attenuating, compressing, taking us from one time zone to the next as though we were some pampered guest in a theme park, being given the A Ride under command performance conditions.

Such tropes as “That night…” or “Later that night…” or “Days later” usher us through the darkened scenery of story without a flashlight, seamless, comfortable, opening the door for even more grandiose time lapse narrative as, “For the next several years…” and the intriguing, “He did not begin to suspect…”

The passage of time is accomplished through the medium of the expert management and passage of each sentence; the need for dramatic information embedded in each one a part of the delicate surface tension of the entire concept of drama.  However simple and straightforward a given sentence may seem, however innocent, “Here, let me get that for you.”  the connection to the previous and forthcoming are fraught with the implications of the overall effect, the slow, deliberate accretion of emotional consequence growing more exquisite.

There is a good deal of dramatic information in a story, needing to be shoehorned into the equivalent of a half-size smaller shoe.  Fitting this information in the right place becomes a precarious task.  One way to address the task is through considerations of time.  Ahead?  In the past?  At the present moment? 

The late, much lamented for his absence, Digby Wolfe once told you an accomplished juggler could not hope to have more than eleven objects aloft at any given moment.  Whether or not this was factual, you are haunted with visions of eleven things out of hand, eleven objects and the consummate coordination necessary to transfer them to the next stage of their flight.  Sometimes, when you are in the midst of composition, you see yourself in your juggler impersonation.  A writer impersonating a juggler—what insanity and japery.  But if the process produces a story, you will have at least had a hand in it.

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