Thursday, January 10, 2013

When One of Your Teen-age Characters Wants to Borrow the Car

You first became aware of the concept when you were of an age where you took most things as you saw them, neither questioning them nor associating them with other things.

As a former President of the United States once said in relationship to himself and nuance, you didn't do nuance; things were either or, black hats and white hats.  Your favorite novel at the time was Ivanhoe.  Sir Wilfrid was white, the Norman baron, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, was black.

Fortunately for you, Mark Twain was beginning to take effect, which meant that although you continued to read Sir Walter Scott for a time, Twain's animus toward him began to gain traction.

Along came something you were assigned to read, Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, which at first took on the qualities of black hat, bad-guy stuff in your mind because the characters were so palpable in their lack of being real.  You wanted characters who knew they were real.  You wanted to know where you stood.  So, okay, Six Characters tipped you off balance.  The characters came to real life while you were reading them.  Spoiler:  You have been off balance ever since.  Shall we say age fourteen?  Perhaps fifteen.  Characters confronting an author or, as in the case of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, an author surrogate, representing a major dramatic clash.

Jean-Paul Sartre did the same thing to an extent in his play, No Exit,which you had to read through two or three times before the politics wore off and the realness of the characters took over, but better two or three re-readings than not ever arriving at the transformational "there" of characters moving from abstractions to real.

There are any number of cases where writers have written themselves into their narratives.  Dare you mention Sal Paradise as an example?  Or what about W. Somerset Maugham writing himself in as Ashenden?  But what about characters turning on or confronting their creator, such as Pirandello did?

Vonnegut approached the issue with the creation of his amanuensis, Kilgore Trout, leaving the door open for some writer wondering if the combination of Vonnegut and Trout were some internal equivalent of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison.  Imaginative and delicious as this concept is, it does not reach the Pirandello state of things nor indeed the skilled vision of the Norwegian thriller writer, Karin Fossum, in Broken.

A middle-aged woman, living alone (all right, she has a cat), wakes up in the middle of the night from an uneasy sleep to discover a strange man in her bedroom.  This portion of the narrative is in first person, its immediate beginning setting the stage:

"I see them in the porch light.

"A long line of people waits on the drive outside my house; on closer inspection they turn out to be a mixture of the old and the young, men, women and children."

Thus does Fossum begin, tantalizing us with the information that the man in her bedroom had once been in that line, in the second position,but has jumped his place and made his way into her home.

The woman is a writer.  The individuals in the line are characters, all of whom have a burning desire to have their story told.  The writer can do only so much--a book a year.

Turns out, she--the writer--is not much better off emotionally than the man in her room.  She has greater perspective, but she needs a number of chemical enhancements, cigarettes, and a bottle or burgundy to get her through the day and through the night.  She listens to the character, agrees to let him skip his place, then takes him on, resulting in his story rendered in third person and hers in the first, while she is attempting to give him a story worth keeping, all the while coping with his incessant visits to her home, interrupting him at work.

Karin Fossum has done the seemingly impossible, causing you to continue turning pages in this novel instead of pursuing one of her Inspector Sejer mysteries.  The character--you hesitate to say protagonist--in Broken is so far from likable that you continue reading ahead after having skipped back a number of times to see how Fossum got you to care.  You do.  You care to the point where you see some of the basic dramatic tools, as articulated some many years back by that monumental classifier, Aristotle.

As you read farther along in Broken, you're reminded of the splendid auto-didact, Joel Chandler Harris, who embodied relevant elements from Aristotle's Poetics, using animals as characters who mixed with the humans and their regional dialect in Tales of Uncle Remus.  The set up for Broken is no less ingenious than the exploits of B'rer Rabbit and B'rer Fox; the alchemy is apparent when all these individuals come to life.

Why should you continue reading about a character you know is invented?  Of the many possible reasons, one is as insistent as the school kid you were, sitting in the first row, waving your hand to be called on because you knew the answer.  In this case, the reason you continue reading is because you care.  You care to the point where the manipulative strings of authorial presence vanish.  How is this major trick accomplished?  A minimal style of presentation and the constant sense of confrontation, within the characters and from the presentation of other characters who bear conflicting agendas.

Whether it was her larger intention or not, Fossum brings vivid dramatization to the relationship between writer and character, the conversations that must be had and--at least so far as you are concerned--the awareness that the character is a greater control freak than you.  Even though you can and often do block out a chapter or so, then send it rushing to the delete can, characters can talk you into or out of things that will cause downstream complications you could not have foreseen.

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