Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Tell-Tale Hurt

Early in the opening paragraph of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator asks us readers, "but why will you say that I am mad?"

Although packaged and presented as a horror story, "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a skillful presentation of a narrator unintentionally portraying irony.  The story is about a murder the narrator has committed.  Unlike the kidnapping and murder of Poe's other, even more famous short story, "A Cask of Amontillado," the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" has chosen a victim with no tangible connection; this was a killing for a much more impersonal motive. 

Fictional and actual profilers, psychologists who construct a profile of a murderer, could well argue Poe's unnamed narrator to be an extreme narcissist, one who chose a victim at random, then orchestrated the death in order to prove how impossible it would be to detect the killer.

The narrator does not protest innocence, rather instead, the narrator protests sanity.  "But why will you say that I am mad?"  The narrator is shrewd about not leaving a clue about gender.  There are reasons to argue the narrator of either gender.  Gender studies scholars (are you being ironic there or a step up from irony, which is sarcasm?) of today might wish to open the argumentative door of the narrator being transgender, if for no other reason than opening the door for equal opportunity, perhaps invoking the spirit of how race relations in this country have improved to the point where miscegenation is recognized and on its way toward accelerated acceptance.  Thus the recent acceptance of dramas in which African Americans, Latinos, and Asians are portrayed as antagonists, as criminal, as intrinsically evil.

Your grudging acknowledgment of Poe's prescience and considerable dramatic influences (in particular on the shortform narrative) is not enough to bring you into his corner as a fan, yet you still acknowledge his effect on how the more effective characters are influenced by the heavy hand of irony, of quirkiness, of that brooding and internally armored front-rank character so prevalent in today's more resonant fiction.

When dealing with the works of your students,your clients, and those sent to you by literary agents, your first impulse is to examine lead characters for niceness, which in this case means a sense of balance and equipoise bordering on consideration.

There are numerous tenure-track jobs in reality for individuals with consideration, persons who empathize and demonstrate either by direct knowledge or from instinct the basic tenets of The Social Contract.

In the work of beginning writers, characters are either too nice or too much representative not of individual traits but of some form of malice personified, evil incarnate, you might say, or at the lesser end of the scale, solipsistic, acolytes of Narcissus.

You like gritty, bothered, pestered, absorbed, obsessed characters, goal oriented to the point where they are easy to give off warning signs of zoning out on reality, focusing instead on some aspect of their goal, which is often curiosity.

Thus you are able to tell students, clients, and yourself for your own composing sessions, Who are they?  What do they want?  Why do they want it, whatever it may be, right now?  What are they willing to do to accomplish their desires?  In a world where the term "racial profiling" is as fraught with the potential for bigotry, you propose this new term, "character profiling," which should allow the profiler (and you) to see far enough into the future to understand how the character is apt to behave if and when the goal is reached, the heart's desire is achieved.

From this vantage point, you can begin to visualize closure beyond the one-size-fits-all endings of contemporary short stories and novels, then into a suggestible state of mind and heart where the energy of the story at hand has presented itself at least in vague presence.

Who knows how many times you've gone over Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado," looking for a template, only to discover it in terms more visible to you at the conclusion of James Thurber's remarkable and thematically similar short story, "The Cat-Bird Seat."  

There are more than generational differences between the writers and between the writers and you as reader here, nor is it possible to hold up Thurber as a paradigm of niceness and normality to Poe's quirky, troubled life.  The major difference is Thurber's frequent arrival at what can only be described as acute, memorable humor, while Poe rarely arrives there, but often arrives at a horror Thurber could not hope to approximate.

Humor is the exposure of sad, wrenching truths in the human condition.  Horror is the representation of the sad, wrenching anger and frustration individuals inflict on themselves, on others, and on animals.

Poe was not funny.  Thurber was.

Thurber was never horrific.  Poe was.

Both had excellent control over the way the characters behaved within their narratives and the effect such behavior was likely to have on their readers.

Neither was nice.  From things you have read about both, each tended to be unpleasant and reactive when taken in wine.

Each had access to that un-nice vision when composing.  But Poe was not funny.  Thurber was.

Congratulations.  You may  have just worked out why you prefer Thurber to Poe, and why you think it important for a writer to leave niceness outside the the work area when sitting to compose.

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