Friday, December 9, 2016

Subtext: The Loose Flooring in Story

Subtext is the loose flooring in story; we know it is there because we have seen one or more characters step around it, have seen at least one character step down on it, causing a squeak. 

You'd think someone would put a halt to the squeak, but if they did, there would be no story, at least not in this particular case. The writer and the characters would have to conspire to find a new something to step around, whether that something is Uncle Frank's drinking problem, young Millie's increasing ventures into kleptomania, or some other elephant in some other room. Or some individual caught in the cycle of an enhanced tangle.

Subtext is, thus, story set against a particular background, the creaky floorboard, the scarcely concealed dead elephant, the one thing no one wants to talk about until Cousin Fred comes for a visit, notices it, and becomes the filter through which readers learn of its presence and its off-limits status. 

The best loose flooring comes in dramatic sequences, clear indications of who among the characters know of its presence. Now, when someone brings home a guest, we understand how the author has set us up to experience the consequences. Once we become aware of the loose flooring, our sense of anticipation is triggered into action. Who will make the mistake of asking? And how will "the others" respond?

One of the loose boards in the flooring of Arthur Miller's probe into the nature of the Great American dream in Death of a Salesman is the protagonist, Willy Loman's, inability to see things as they are. Before our eyes, we see the gap between his memory of what happened in the past and how the recalled events differed. 

Through subtext, we see Willy learning the shattering truth about the worth of his self-image, which leads to one of the most painful realizations of all, "A man's life is worth more when he is dead," and the terrible impact of the title.

Without subtext, the potential for complexity and richness of detail fall away like shed skins, leaving a semblance of story unencumbered by implication. In such stories, plot becomes little more than the arrival of unwanted packages arriving on the front porch or, as substitutes for a more layered surprise, rocks thrown or shots fired through the living room windows of the lead characters.

The atmosphere of thinness does not stop with event; it envelops the confrontations between characters in they way they talk and respond one to another. In vivid metaphor, we see  the two approaches to story confronting one another, the subtext-less version relying on threats of violence, raised voices, and outcomes that provoke no real insights except that as readers we have put in time and effort for little or no return.

With subtext in place and established, the squeaks from the loose boards radiate outward to everything, in particular the way the characters evade, lie, or put imaginative interpretations into play.

As a young boy, reading his way up through the available literature, you were absorbing subtext without seeing it as such or being able to articulate its consequences. But you certainly knew when Jim Hawkins was betrayed by Long John Silver in Treasure Island, and when Philip Lane, the even younger than Jim Hawkins protagonist of Graham Greene's short story, "The Basement Room," fell victim to the rampant subtexts of the adult world.

In both these cases, you understood without having a name to call it then that subtext could have a lifelong effect on a character's life. To a notable extent, you've been looking for subtext in your own, ever since.

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