Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Vision Quest

Pick a statement with an innocuous payoff, say, "Oh, how nice," or the even more simplistic, "Lovely."  Put such statements into the toolkit of a writer with a fine sense of nuance, and you might find yourself looking at a dramatic situation where a character says one or both these statements.  Chances are huge that at least fifty percent of the audience will understand the irony by which is meant the exact opposites of "Oh, how nice," or "Lovely."

Irony works that way.  A good chunk of the audience or readership understand the payoff intent, which is anything but "Oh, how nice."  The writer who understands such things is also thinking on the percentage of the audience who do not get the intended irony, who take it in its full, literal sense.  Who would say or think "Oh, how nice" under such circumstances as the author has presented?  Who would respond to a disaster or setback with what appears to be admiration?

Dramatists, short story writers, and novelists go to great lengths to wrap a coil of intrigue and pressure around the armature of a character and that character's dearest goals, causing a particular relationship between the reader and the author.  In your own reading experiences, the gone-but-not-forgotten English storyteller, W. Somerset Maugham, was one of the great twentieth century authorial presences, stepping to the stage to tell us a story, often one with an ironic bite, leaving us to rush to the library or bookstore for more of his work.  

He was our storyteller, even though he seemed to embody the suave urbanity of the upper-tier Englishman.  We trusted him.  It was Maugham, potentially world weary and cynical, wishing to regale us with tales of fascinating individuals we could only hope to meet on some social level.

But what of a writer such as Maugham's contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, who was known to take irony to  a slippery plateau on which most readers were not as comfortable as they had been with Maugham.  There seemed to be a suspicious entity lurking behind every paragraph, causing the reader to wonder if Waugh had not somehow conspired against the reader.

Evelyn Waugh was by no means the first writer to play with irony and exaggeration.  A scant generation before Waugh was the embodiment of ironic thrust, Samuel L. Clemens.  Nor was the estimable Mr. Clemens alone in his ironic manipulations; he seemed, in fact, to have been born into the midst of a generation of them, notably Artemus Ward, William Wright, and David Ross Locke, who wrote as Petroleum V. Nasby.  Even these nineteenth century ironists owed a debt reaching back some hundreds of years to Geoffrey Chaucer, who, not content with making fun of the knighthood, the clergy, and the common working man, also took himself on in The Canterbury Tales, and was shouted down because of the quality of his poetry.

The matter at hand here is that fine concoction known as satire, where the irony is exaggerated to a point where the reader joins the party, which is something you've always been willing to do as a reader, and something you hope to cause the reader to do when you are telling the story through one or more of your characters.

Have there been times when you were taken in by the exaggeration of satire?  Absolutely, to the point where, thinking to marry someone other than the person you ultimately married, you were well along to being hired by the same institution Evelyn Waugh took on in The Loved One.  Your job, had you been hired, would have had you writing secular prayers, eulogies, scholarly papers on cemetery design and importance, and leading panel discussions on full interment versus cremation.  You were also considered to be "on loan" to a pet cemetery.  The apparent deal breaker to your being hired was the fact of your having read and enjoyed The Loved One.

Over the years, as you consider satire and the forms of exaggeration that go with it, you've had frequent cause to wonder how many times you were taken it by a work that was meant as a satire.  Your gullibility has always been a source of concern for you.  How quick are you to bite?  How often do you fail to see through the cascades of well-organized exaggeration?

On a tip from a well-meaning professor, you systematically went through the works of America's first Nobel Laureate in Literature, Sinclair Lewis, watching to see how he built his narrative platforms. Your early impression was that Lewis, for all his genius, was not a satirist, rather a man with an articulated view, which meant he did not have to watch how far he pushed his exaggerations.  In fact, you could ask, were his visions exaggerations?

Years later, you learned from one of your dearest friends, who spent some memorable times as Lewis' secretary, that your vision of Lewis had merit.  From this, you learned what a gift it is for any man or woman who wishes to write to arrive at a vision and voice that has the feel and plausibility of a specific reality, whether ironic or idyllic.


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