Monday, August 11, 2014

I Thought You Said Your Story Doesn't Bite

When you lose your concentration while composing, you often resort to a trick that reminds you of a Peter Sellers joke.  The set-up for the joke has Sellers in his role as the absent-minded, woefully inept Inspector Clouseau, now standing on a street corner, observing a small, unleashed dog.  A stranger approaches, asks Clouseau, "Does your doggy bite?"

Clouseau is emphatic.  "No."  Whereupon the stranger stoops to pet the dog, now sniffing at Clouseau;s trousers.  Seeing the stranger approach to pet him, the dog promptly bites the stranger's hand.

The stranger confronts Clouseau.  "I thought you said your dog doesn't bite."

To which Clouseau replies, "That's not my doggy."

Your trick for regaining your concentration is to begin describing things about the setting, or the characters, or their responses, or a combination of all these.  This is tempting; all these have some measure of connection to the story at hand.  

There is one significant problem with this approach:  "Some measure of connection" is a considerable distance from "a direct bearing on the story."  This leaves unanswered questions about description, such as "What, then, is a description with a direct bearing on the story.  A favored example is the opening paragraph in Jonathan Lethem's excellent novel, Motherless Brooklyn, which at first seems an ominous, even off-putting description, "Context is everything.  Dress me up and see.  I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster."

This is Lionel Essrog, the protagonist, speaking directly to us, breaking the fourth wall between character and audience, addressing us in direct, descriptive terms.  The next line, the fourth sentence, gives us the necessary information.  "I've got Tourette's."  Then, he goes on to explain (describe) it.  "My mouth won't quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone."

You could make the argument that these opening sentences of Lethem's first paragraph are pure tell, in opposition to the admonition often heard, "Show, don't tell."  You could make that argument, but instead you will make the argument that this opening paragraph must have been written a hundred or so times to have such a visceral effect and to bring the character of Lionel Essrog on stage.

You could go on to say that these sentences and the ones that follow all have relevant use and payoff in subsequent chapters, and you can as well say we're not given Lionel's name until page 7.  In what will at first blush seem like a digression, you can also say that the author shows Lionel's job as a private detective, but--and this is truly an important exception--the author does not remind us of a tradition that quintessential private detective-turned-mystery-writer, Dashiell Hammett, introduced into the American detective narration.

After years of writing on-the-job-reports for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Hammett introduced his iconic character, The Continental Op, writing stories as though detective reports to the agency.

Even if this description/information is arcane, it is as relevant as Jonathan Lethem's use of narrative in Motherless Brooklyn, published on the cusp of the last century and this newer one.  Narrative has evolved along with the way humanity has evolved, and in relationship to composition, printing, and publishing evolution. 

A reader who reads purely for pleasure, with no intent of critical theory or dissection and deconstruction as a writer would dissect or deconstruct, would be on some level aware of the evolving conventions manifest in the modern story.  A contemporary reader would have no trouble with Motherless Brooklyn, its author, or its protagonist.  "Oh, yes,  a private detective with Tourette's.  Bet he gets into some trouble because of that."

Indeed, he does.  Lionel Essrog warned us of that in the first paragraph.

Your point here is how your own love of detail and its description have often led you to pet the dog that was not Clouseau's.  You were bitten by one of the things that can and does hold a story down.

Yes, yes, you know; Donna Tartt's latest, The Goldfinch, has won the Pulitzer Prize, has been compared to Charles Dickens, has sold thousands upon thousands of copies.  But you couldn't finish it, thinking of it instead as The Albatross,  a lovely bird, more lofty in ways than the goldfinch, but known also as a kind of dead weight, referred to in metaphor for a burden.

action verbs

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