Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Clinking the Wine Glass for Sound


Some of the many stories you read and enjoy depend on conflicts and consequences, which are then resolved by actions.  You see no story in the mere presence of some family feud.  There is, to be sure, resentment, what you might call bad blood, but no story yet.  The feud lingers in the background, until some event between specific members of the feuding families trigger a flare-up of the old history of animosity.

When the animosity fuels an event in present time, the story begins, which is to say the lingering, perhaps even smoldering concept is ignited.  You see nothing unusual about these circumstances or how they progress from landscape to concept to triggering device or what you have heard described as a destabilizing event.

Let’s get down to specifics, taking as armatures about which to wrap the accouterments of character.  Bill and Chuck, two white-bread names, equal slabs cut off the plank of ordinary, except for the fact that Bill, a pretty savvy computer tech, with six years of college, is from family A, and Chuck, a physical therapist with a degree in chiropractic, happens to be from family B.

Family A and B are the equivalent of the Grangefords and Shepperdsons out of Huckelberry Finn, the animosity between these modern equivalents as acrimonious as their counterparts which, you believe, Twain intended to be representative of the North and South in our Civil War.

Bill and Chuck not only work out at the same gym, they go for beer at the same tavern, which happens to be patronized by other members of the two families.  One day, when both Bill and Chuck are in the tavern, no matter how it happens, beer is splashed, landing on both Bill and Chuck.  Each apologizes to the other, no real harm done.  In fact, each is quick to signal to the bartender that the other is to have a fresh beer, paid for by his opposite.

This dynamic is witnessed by some elders from both families, who mutter among themselves.  This would not have ended so peacefully in the old days.  Family meant something then.  Family honor meant even more.  You get guys going to college, look what happens ; they make light of it.  Buy each other a beer and hey, no harm, no foul, right?

Soon, the brooding escalates.  Members from Family A and Family B are outside, mixing it up.  Bill and Chuck are watching from inside.  “Think we ought to join in?”  Bill asks.  “What I think,”  Chuck says, “is that we ought to have another beer.  Let them settle the old stuff.”

And they do.

Consequence and  resolution are acted out before us in a demonstration of generational differences.  The same circumstances could have several other permutations.

Such types of stories are often called plot-driven because they revolve about the armature of constant physical action and of a resolution grounded in some kind of defining action.

The “other” type of story follows the pattern of consequences up to a point, the point being ways in which the story is resolved. Stories such as Herman Melville’s Bartelby the Scrivener are often referred to as character-driven.  The reader cannot always guess the way the story will be resolved, the outcome seeming to resonate from or even within a character.  This is also true of Shirley Jackson’s disturbing short story, “The Lottery.”

Novels as diverse as Dennis Johnson’s Train Dreams, John Steinbeck’s aching Of Mice and Men, and Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News take us a step beyond action, allowing us to experience the effect of the action on one or more characters. 

We are in a real sense left at the mercy of our individual sense of empathy.  Directly after Jim tells Huck he doesn’t have to worry any longer about his father coming back after him, Huck gives us the resolution he will have to be dealing with, taking off for the Territory ahead of the rest, because he can’t stand it any more.  Huck’s hegira will not be from the grief of loss but the ever worse fear of what will happen to him if he stays.

Hearing Marlowe’s tactful lie to Kurtz’s fiancée at the conclusion of The Heart of Darkness is an aching, touching act, a kind of literary flicking the rim of a crystal wine glass, where each of us hears the resonant frequency only so long as we can bear it.

We learn over time to give what we think of as a close reading to the works we read earlier, seeing perhaps only the plot points then, now prepared to pay closer attention because now we’ve clinked a few glasses ourselves and been present at the clinking of others.  

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