“Upon this Rock”: The Insider-Outsider Parallel

(Nonfictional) Techniques tracked:
-Positioning yourself-as-narrator as inside vs. outside the group you’re reporting on
-Using objects to communicate the above inside vs. outside status (the RV, guitars, mountain lion)
-Piquing reader’s interest in the subject with your own personal experience of it (and deferring this)
-Using immediate present-day journey (acute tension) to communicate magnitude of a (parallel) past journey (chronic tension)
-Creating a parallel structure that’s disrupted to demonstrate narrator/character’s change

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In “Upon This Rock,” the opening essay of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead, the narrator does not reveal that he himself was once a member of the group he’s purporting to describe until roughly midway through, a revelation that makes the reader recalibrate the narrator’s interest in the subject matter: it’s a turning point where we realize all of this stuff is a lot more personal and emotional for him than he’s been letting on.

He begins by describing his assignment like it was just another job he’d taken on according to the will of someone else: “…stir in statistics, paycheck.” The job happens to be writing about a Christian rock festival, and he describes how, wanting to get more of an insider perspective (contrary to the blasé tone of the opening paragraph), he attempts to solicit fans into joining him for the trip by posting a request on a web forum. But all the responses are basically that his request is creepy, until eventually his post is removed altogether. He winds up going to a different Christian festival (called “Creation”) than originally planned, alone, in a gigantic RV that is the only available vehicle left to rent in the area, and which comes close to killing many people at Creation when someone tries to direct him up a too-steep hill and it starts to slide backward. He’s saved by a group of Christian men that get him to the hilltop and then tell him there’s an empty field down below that the guides have been too stupid to let people camp in. The narrator requests to join their group:

“Why don’t you guys stop by my trailer and get me on your way?” I said. “I’ll be in that totally empty field.”

Note how the narrator is simultaneously trying to infiltrate while isolating himself physically. He winds up spending most of the remainder of the fest with this group, but before they come get him, we get an aside describing the plot of the novel Silenced from the Left Behind series: in the absence of Christianity, a “death cult” is taking over the U.S. population, a group that sounds, to the narrator, very much itself like Evangelical Christianity. When the guys do come get him, he asks how many non-Christians they think are at the fest, and they say that in a hundred thousand, there must be a few. The narrator observes there is absolutely no animosity among these hordes, which, as a veteran of large public events, he finds surprising and impressive.

Then, they reach the stage:

As we came around the corner, I saw the stage, from off to the side. And the crowd on the hill that faced the stage. Their bodies rose till they merged with the dark. “Holy crap,” I said.

Ritter waved his arm like an impresario. He said, “This, my friend, is Creation.”

The narrator then briefly describes why he will not describe the music itself, since its sole uncomplicated purpose is “to play something proven to please … while praising Jesus Christ.” Thematically, this piece is much more about the journey than the destination.

That night, one of narrator’s new friends’ party brings over a pair of “Jews for Jesus” to their site, who inform one of them that he’s going to hell for having tattoos. The narrator winds up having a long discussion with the group about their beliefs:

…they gradually got the sense that I found them exotic (though it was more than that). Slowly, their talk became an ecstasy of self-definition.

We’re approaching the turning point of the essay here: we don’t yet know what the “more than that” is that the narrator is parenthetically referring to here; we, too, thus far, have thought that his fascination with the group stems from exactly what he said outside of the parentheses—they are exotic, unfamiliar to him, because he is an outsider to their group. That is what he’s led us to believe, at least.

He describes more of their conversation, aspects of which reveal very divergent sides to the men:

“And anyway,” he added, “I gave all that to God—all that anger and stuff. He took it away.”

God in His wisdom had left him enough to get by on. Earlier in the evening, the guys had roughed up Pee Wee a little and tied him to a tree with ratchet straps.

An official comes to investigate the screams, and the men tease him.

I admit that these tales of the West Virginia guys’ occasional truculence might appear to gainsay what I claimed earlier about “not one word spoken in anger,” et cetera. But it was playful.

After that the group operates with “impunity,” and the narrator describes how some of them play instruments before he says:

We passed around the acoustic.

It happens so swiftly you might not have even noticed it: the narrator has just been subsumed into the group. It turns out he knows some songs that could pass for Christian, like Bob Marley:

When I finished, Bub said, “Man, that’s really Christian. It really is.” Darius made me teach it to him; he said he would take it home and “do it at worship.”

Here, very close to the turning point, it still seems like the narrator’s knowledge of something that could be interpreted as Christian and included in a Christian community is just a coincidence.

The narrator is alone when the turning point comes:

I got my drink and drifted slowly toward where I thought they’d be standing.

And let’s not forget the rich sensory rendering of this important moment:

Lack of food, my filthiness, impending sunstroke: these were ganging up on me. Plus the air down here smelled faintly of poo. There were a lot of blazing-hot portable toilets wafting miasma whenever the doors were opened.

Note the word choice here: things are “ganging up on me”—language that reinforces his isolation. He sees a band playing that it turns out he knows:

The straw slipped from my mouth. “Oh, shit, it’s Petra.”

Then, we jump cut to 1988. We get the whole story of how the narrator, for a period as a teen, came to embrace Evangelical Christianity and then abandon it. This is a turning point because it’s a revelation that changes everything. The narrator has worked hard to establish himself as an outsider to the group thus far, while being pushed incrementally closer to insider status as we’ve gone along. Now, at the center of the essay, we get an account of when he was all the way on the inside. We don’t feel it’s too sneaky that he hasn’t revealed his Christian past yet (at least this reader doesn’t) because this, seeing Petra in the present day, feels like a natural place for him to remember this period of his past, since, as we’ll learn as the story of it unfolds, getting an opportunity to meet this particular band when he was a teenager is what led him to realize he had doubts about the church and to ultimately leave it. The fact that the narrator doesn’t declare his Christian past at the essay’s outset feels a natural manifestation of his shame and emotional turmoil surrounding it. Looking back, you can feel that he knows the trip will bring up difficult things for him, but it’s like he avoids dealing with them until he’s confronted with them directly, which is something a lot of us readers will be able to identify with. So we forgive him for not revealing this up front, and the fact that he hasn’t revealed it until now itself reveals his vulnerability, making us sympathize with him.

Once his Christian past is revealed, all his past actions are thrown into a different light. Take his aforementioned reading of Silenced, during which he notes:

Adherents meet in “cell groups” (nice touch: a bit of old commie lingo); they enlist the young and hunger for global hegemony while striving to hasten the end of the world.

When we get to the turning point flashback unfolding the story of his Christian past, we learn that he, too, met in “cell groups.” His reading of the Silenced death cults that are supposed to be a product of the absence of Christianity as themselves Christian demonstrates the extent of his own conflicted attitude about the religion, which is, in fact, what it turns out this whole essay is about.

The narrator ends up leaving the church when he’s supposed to talk with the members of Petra about Jesus after their show, and in the room where he’s supposed to meet them, he finds two mute boys who won’t respond to him:

This was my opening. They were either rapt or mentally damaged in some way, and whichever it was, Christ called on me now to lay down my testimony.

The sentences wouldn’t form. I flipped though the list of dogmas, searching for one I didn’t essentially think was crap, and came up with nothing.

There could have ensued a nauseating silence, but I acted with an odd decisiveness to end the whole experience. I asked them if they wanted to leave—it was an all but rhetorical question—and said I did, too. We walked out together.

He uses concretely located physical gestures—walking out of the room—to show us he’s leaving the abstract institution of the church. Now, he’s an outsider again.

Like stories in fiction, pieces in nonfiction often operate on the interplay between chronic (past) and acute (present) tension. The chronic tension for this narrator is that he was once in the church and left it. The acute tension is his trip to Creation, which will cause him to confront this past. His past with Christianity follows the trajectory of outsider-insider-outsider, and he presents his present journey to Creation in the same way, beginning with himself as an outsider, then being inside Creation, then being included in a group inside Creation, and then, as we’ll see, moving far enough out again to provide us an expansive view of himself as an outsider looking in for the essay’s conclusion.

Interestingly, even when the narrator is “in” Creation and closer to being part of the group, he’s still reinforced as an outsider—he notes all the looks he gets coming in with the gigantic, obtrusive RV:

They had a disconcerting way of stepping aside for the RV only when its front fender was just about to graze their backs. From my elevated vantage, it looked as if they were waiting just a tenth of a second too long, and that I was gently, forcibly parting them in slow motion.

There’s an outsider on the inside if ever there was one. This insider-as-outsider in the present narrative of his Creation trip mirrors the way he was an insider-as-outsider in his Christian past—even when he was a Christian, he never really felt part of the group, which is eventually why he had to leave.

The narrator concludes the flashback about his Christian past with:

Once you’ve known Him as a god, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won’t slacken.

And one has doubts about one’s doubts.

This is what Creation is bringing to the surface for him: the question of whether he really should have left the Church.

Returning to the present at Creation after the extended flashback, there are rumors of a mountain lion. The Jews for Jesus girls return and inform the group they’ll go to hell for eating cooked frog legs. Note the essay’s parallel structure here: these girls appeared right before and again right after the turning point flashback. They show that members of the group the narrator potentially feels condemned by are also themselves condemned and outsiders to other groups.

The narrator then has an emotional reaction to a man having a heart attack and dying at his feet in the crowd, hears Stephen Baldwin saying crazy things on a stage from his trailer, and rereads Silenced. Then he meets up with the guys, who show him a newspaper headline telling him the mountain lion is not believed to be a threat. It starts to rain and they all go in the narrator’s giant unused RV. The narrator has avoided showering so he wouldn’t have to use any of its complex systems (reinforcing it as a symbol of his isolation), but now it comes into cathartic use, enabling him to repay some of the hospitality the group has shown him. They play guitars together again (parallel structure, remember).

The narrator goes with the guys to Creation’s culminating ceremony—an enormous candlelight vigil—but, after one’s parting request that when he writes about them, he can say they’re crazy as long as he says that they love God, splits off for a lookout point where he can see the entire massive crowd. He recalls being part of such candle-lighting ceremonies when he was a Christian, and now thinks about his recent acquaintances (the candlelight recalling how their faces were illuminated by the campfire during their talks), and how they have the strength to believe in what he never could. He has returned, at the end here, to a firmly established outsider position relative to the group, but it’s a more connected, sympathetic outsider-ness than what he began with: this is the change that takes place in him in the present. Even though he’s an outsider, he’s gained a more meaningful perspective on, and thus admiration for, those on the inside. He seems to be at peace at the end, signified by the final line: “I left at dawn, while creation slept.” For the parallel structure, we might expect a description of the journey back to match the rather elaborate one we got on the way in (Prefaced by “What do I tell you about my voyage to Creation?”) and the breaking of that parallel here reinforces his peace: there was a struggle to get in, but there’s not one to get out.

-SCR

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A Quick Word on The Quiet American

Techniques tracked:
-narrative arc: it all builds to a (difficult) choice
-the misdirection of tension: presenting the outcome of the climactic choice up front

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And the word is: choice.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) begins with the narrator finding out that Pyle, the eponymous character and a (much younger) acquaintance of his, is dead. He’s greeted right after receiving this news by the woman who left him for Pyle, whom he has to tell about Pyle’s death. We then go into flashback, getting the story of how the narrator, a British war correspondent who makes it his goal to take no sides in the imperialist conflict he’s covering, gets to know Pyle, an American from Boston (Harvard grad) who works for the U.S. Embassy in Indochina (this is around 1952, when the French are trying to control the region). The narrator, Fowler, who is living (and ostensibly in love) with Phuong, a local Vietnamese woman, finds Pyle’s ideas about the native population and spreading democracy naive and ill-informed. Shortly after meeting Fowler’s lover Phuong at a dance, Pyle professes his love for her to Fowler, and his intent to try to marry her. (Fowler is unable to offer Phuong the security of marriage, because he’s married to a strict Catholic woman who won’t divorce him, though they’ve been estranged for years.) But when Pyle actually declares his intentions to Phuong herself–with Fowler as translator, since Pyle can’t speak French or Vietnamese–Phuong turns him down, remaining with Fowler.

After this, Pyle and Fowler wind up on an expedition to the outskirts of town together (during which Pyle demonstrates more of his trademark naivety). They run out of gas on the road back in after locals siphon the tank, and, with night falling, have to take refuge in a tower with a couple of scared guards who don’t speak their language. Fowler and Pyle have a deep philosophical and political conversation to pass the time, during which Pyle declares Phuong the most important thing in the world, more so even than the fate of countries. Their conversation is interrupted when the tower is attacked, and Fowler breaks his leg trying to escape. Pyle drags him across a rice field, out of harm’s way, Fowler, in excruciating pain, protesting all the while that he didn’t ask to be saved.

Fowler has requested a divorce again from his wife, but she turns him down. Fowler lies about this and tells Phuong there’s still a chance they can marry, a lie that Phuong and Pyle find out about and that eventually pushes Phuong into Pyle’s arms.

Fowler then finds out Pyle’s been involved in some local bombings, and that, based on the ideas in a textbook (by York Harding), he’s formed a force that will try to take action to spread democracy.

Intermittently we flash back to the present, in which the police interrogate Fowler about what he was doing the night of Pyle’s death. The scene of where Fowler is the moment Pyle dies is the climactic point we’re building to over the course of the the extended flashback, which is itself really the meat of the book, its main narrative arc. After a bomb of Pyle’s kills several dozen people, some locals offer Fowler the chance to put Pyle in harm’s way and help get rid of him. That is, he’s offered the chance to kill the man who’s killed several dozen and has the potential to kill many more, the man who’s also taken the woman he loves, and the man who’s saved his life. It’s a difficult decision, to say the least, and Fowler bitterly acknowledges that now he’s been forced to take sides in the conflict. He’s been forced to choose to let Pyle live or die, to be on his side or against him.

As we already know, Pyle is killed. The tension is not in whether the narrator’s decision in the climactic moment to go through with killing him leads to his actual death or not. Rather, the truly climactic scene is when we’re with the narrator in a restaurant the moment he knows Pyle must be being killed, though he still holds out the slimmest hope that he’s not in fact being killed, that he won’t have to be responsible for what he’s chosen to be responsible for.

In the present moment, the tension after finding out that a character, Pyle, is dead, seems to arise from a whodunit type scenario; it seems we will get to be with the narrator as he uncovers the story behind Pyle’s death. What we don’t realize is that the narrator already knows the story. It would be a dramatic twist if the narrator had killed Pyle himself, and in the present he presents the police with an alibi that seems airtight, at first, at least. But the twist is really that this first-person narrator is indirectly (and thus somehow ironically directly) responsible for Pyle’s death, and he knows it all along. We don’t feel tricked with this reveal, as we might with a first-person narrator, because it makes organic sense that the narrator is suppressing it. He doesn’t want to admit responsibility, and the narrative is also one of his coming to terms with his own role and guilt. He eventually seems to…

In that climactic scene, then, while Pyle is offstage being murdered, Fowler is in a restaurant eating alone, while a professional acquaintance who dislikes him glares at him from across the room. This acquaintance, Grainger, eventually demands they talk outside, and Fowler, morally exhausted at this point, easily acquiesces. He thinks Grainger wants to fight him, but it turns out it’s Grainger’s son’s birthday, and he’s been overwhelmed with the need to tell someone about this son’s potentially life-threatening polio and that there’s no possibility he can get leave to go home. He can’t tell anyone he was in the restaurant with, because they were all French and couldn’t understand him. Fowler genuinely sympathizes here with a man he once disliked, offering an unexpected moment of catharsis.

In the present the police don’t bother Fowler anymore, and his wife unexpectedly grants permission for a divorce, so he can marry Phuong, and he gets a sort of happy ending.

-SCR

Jennifer Aniston and Narrative Spandrels

cinderella

Those employed teaching fiction-writing and literature usually have more strenuous criteria for what “works” than the mass populace, as generating such criteria is pretty much what we’re paid to do (varied as compensation might be). We read to engage, whereas the masses, more often than not—not to generalize too much—read to escape. In “Narrative Spandrels,” one of his craft essays on fiction-writing in The Half-Known World, Robert Boswell offers a perhaps belabored but, for me at least, useful metaphor for how objects in narratives can be used to provide emotional closure:

 …a story’s narrative is typically structured by scenes. The construction of any scene will generate by-products—a lamp that flickers, a passing stranger who comments on a main character’s shoes, an incontinent dog, a green light at the end of a dock, a stutter, a tattoo of a spider’s web, a pattern in the snow that makes the character think of pitted cheeks. These by-products come into existence to make the scene more vivid and complete, but they may ultimately determine the design of the narrative mosaic to such an extent that they will appear to be the primary units of structure.

He then goes on to describe Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” in which the cat the grandmother is hiding causes a car accident that leads to her and her family’s death at the hands of the Misfit. Boswell believes the cat entered the story as a by-product: “in the course of inventing the character and the initiating action, O’Connor stumbled upon this feline detail,” which winds up being the critical element that guides the story to its conclusion.

In his discussion of spandrels Boswell identifies the difference between scenes that “work” versus those that don’t—meaning those that are, to his mind, contrived. He uses, among other examples, a scene from the movie Picture Perfect (1997) as an example of the latter:

While he’s lying on her couch, she tells him about a watch she used to own that she had loved, a Cinderella watch. Much later in the film, she discovers that he has sent her a present—a Cinderella watch. This gift encourages her to realize that she really does love him. The watch is meant to function as a spandrel: something introduced early on in the context of a scene recurs in a manner that propels the outcome. The Cinderella watch, however, is very clearly NOT a spandrel; it is an obviously planted symbol. The watch does not initially come up as a by-product; rather, the scene has no purpose but to supply an opportunity for the conversation, which, in turn, has no purpose but to plant the idea of the watch in the viewer’s head. Any discriminating viewer recognizes this as a phony moment, and the watch’s return comes across as a ridiculous contrivance to forcibly compel closure.

One cannot believe the Cinderella watch is a by-product of the scene because the scene does nothing but introduce (and thereby POINT AT) the fact of the lost Cinderella watch.

Boswell may or may not be insulting the intelligence of rom-com viewers; at any rate, the Cinderella watch has been helpful for me to wrap my mind around this concept.

I will now attempt to redeem some of Jennifer Aniston’s literary panache via her more recent and dramatic movie Cake (2014). Is its eponymous symbol a spandrel? Aniston’s character, Claire, suffers from chronic pain after surviving a car accident that killed her son, and the movie begins shortly after the suicide of Nina, a woman from Claire’s support group. Claire starts seeing visions of Nina, who encourages Claire to kill herself. Late in the film, Claire has a vision of Nina bringing her a cake, which we learn in this scene is what Nina told the support group she wished she was capable of doing for her (still alive) son—bake him a birthday cake. Claire later ends up taking in a runaway whom she asks to bake her a cake (which the girl does before absconding with everything valuable she can get her hands on), and Claire gives the cake to Nina’s son for his birthday, along with a kite the kid mentioned to her in a previous scene, when Claire was riding in a car with him and the kid’s father, Nina’s husband. This offering is supposed to be cathartic for Claire, whose meanness and anger in the wake of the car accident has driven away so many people in her life. And yet, it has problems similar to the watch in Picture Perfect: the cake and the kite don’t really come up all that organically. It seems like the writers knew Claire needed to give Nina’s son something to close the arc of Claire’s emotional transition and worked backwards to put in the scenes planting what would be meaningful things to give the son. In the scene where Claire has the vision that introduces the cake, she’s in the hospital after trying to kill herself, a natural enough place to have a potentially redemptive vision, I suppose. But in the scene where the kid asks for the kite, they’re in the car driving to…nowhere that actually matters to the story. They’re just driving so the kid can ask for the kite.

But despite these shortcomings, and its being “a redemptive arc you could trace with your eyes shut,” Cake does at least one thing better than Picture Perfect: it makes use of a real spandrel in addition to its planted eponymous symbol. In scenes throughout the movie (not just the one where the kid asks for the kite), Claire rides in vehicles’ passenger seats that are reclined all the way so she can lie flat—otherwise the pain is too much for her to ride in a moving vehicle. The fact that there are many of these scenes prove that none of them exist for the sole purpose of showing her riding in this posture—they exist for other reasons, to show, say, how much her nanny is willing to do for her by taking her to Tijuana for pain pills, or for Nina’s kid to be able to tell her what he wants for his birthday. The character is in chronic pain, so it makes total, organic sense that she would need to lie down like that, while at the same time it provides a visceral visual demonstration of how her pain has sunk her below the levels of others’ normal lives. She can’t drive herself: she’s not in control of her own life anymore. At the very end, when Claire finally visits her son’s grave, she gets back into the car, her seat preset in the reclined position, as usual. She lies down, and her hand hovers over the handle that will raise it. For a second it looks like she’s not going to do it…but then she flips the switch and the seat jerks her upward, toward the camera, and then the shot cuts to the credits. Perhaps it sounds heavy-handed, but in the moment it’s perfectly natural and believable, and was, I think, the main reason this film managed to move me despite the much clumsier use of objects like the cake and a gigantic photo of the dead son her husband mounts on Claire’s living room wall.

Perhaps one way to think about symbols v. spandrels is that the former is trying to have your cake and eat it too, while the latter is simply eating cake when cake is available to eat.

cake

-SCR

Edward P. Jones’ “The First Day”: Looking at Looking

Techniques tracked:
-appealing to the senses
-turning sense appeal into plot
-looking at looking
-conflict, crisis, resolution

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Edward P. Jones’ “The First Day” is a deceptively simple story that provides us with the rich sensory experience of a little girl’s first day of school, or that which immediately precedes it. The arc of the story actually consists of her wardrobe preparations, then the registration process, and ends with the girl entering her classroom to officially start the school day. Of course, if the story consisted of her breezing through these preparations, it would merely be anecdote; we must hit some hitches for it to qualify as a “story.”

There’s already some tension injected between past and present in the very first line:

On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother, she takes my hand and we set off down New Jersey Avenue to begin my very first day of school.

Though we might not realize it yet, the story has basically proclaimed itself in the first line: this will be the beginning of the narrator learning to be ashamed of her mother. The hitches that occur will somehow influence this shame, and after we go through the sensory experience of preparing for school—the smell of hair grease, the pinch of plaited hair, the look and feel of the special shoes and socks and underwear, the details richly observed as this is a special occasion and so they are all unusual, noteworthy—the hitches begin during the registration process. The first hitch is when they’re told the narrator can’t go to school at the one her mother always pointed out and declared her daughter would go to. The past enters the narrative here as the little girl recalls her mother pointing out the school:

For as many Sundays as I can remember, perhaps even Sundays when I was in her womb, my mother has pointed across I Street to Seaton as we come and go to Mt. Carmel. “You gonna go there and learn about the whole world.”

This memory shows not only that this particular location is important to the mother, but that the daughter has observed this importance. The mother has had a vision for her daughter’s future, and the daughter is aware that that vision is being challenged. The second hitch comes when the mother has to ask for help filling out the forms:

“This form. Would you mind helpin me fill it out?”

The woman still seems not to understand.

“I can’t read it. I don’t know how to read or write, and I’m askin you to help me.” My mother looks at me, then looks away. I know almost all of her looks, but this one is brand new to me. “Would you help me, then?”

Jones doesn’t explicitly tell us outright how the little girl’s view of her mother has changed, which would read something along the lines of, “Now I knew my mother couldn’t read.” Instead, the physical details the character observes, the new look, do this work. This character is very observant of looks; just a few sentences later we get:

My mother is now diseased, accord­ing to the girl’s eyes…

The story is about how the mother changes in the daughter’s eyes, and the daughter’s eyes change based on the other eyes she sees: the way she sees changes based on how she sees others seeing things (welcome to the world of peer pressure). Looks continue to be noted as the mother reprimands the daughter for staring at the girl who is staring at the mother who’s asked for help:

“Don’t stare,” my mother says to me. “You know better than that.”

But then, upon the mother’s being introduced to another woman:

She’s to be my teacher, she tells my mother. My mother stares.

Her violating her own dictum so shortly after uttering it shows us that her daughter can’t take everything her mother says at face value, which is exactly the lesson the daughter is learning here. As her child is about to be taken away, this mother’s either losing her self-possession or a hypocrite or both.

As they’re about to part ways, the daughter presses her mother’s lips together, part of a game they have, but the mother doesn’t play along like she usually does, signaling their impending separation: things will no longer be the way they used to. Then, the observation of a couple of critical sensory details occurs at the very end when the narrator’s finally left in the classroom:

I see where she has darned one of her socks the night before. Her shoes make loud sounds in the hall. She passes through the doors and I can still hear the loud sounds of her shoes. And even when the teacher turns me toward the classrooms and I hear what must be the singing and talking of all the children in the world, I can still hear my mother’s footsteps above it all.

At the end, simple physical description has evolved into a description of so much more. When the narrator observes that her mother’s socks are darned, she’s observing a literal seam that stands in for a figurative one: she sees the seams in her mother’s character, the weaknesses—i.e., her inability to read, which opens the door to the question of her other inabilities—that she was not aware of before. She’s specifically observing her mother’s flaws. “The first day” of the title on the surface refers to the first day of school, but is really the first day of something else as well, the first day of having a new understanding of her mother. But while the seeds for the shame from the opening line have been planted, they haven’t bloomed quite yet. That the sound of her mother’s steps is louder than the surrounding children’s voices demonstrates that the mother’s presence is still more powerful to the daughter than the impressions and opinions of her peers (that, or she’s embarrassed by how loud the shoes are). This conclusion doesn’t leave the daughter feeling sorry for her mother after learning her mother can’t read, but rather the opposite—it seems you could read it that she’s implicitly proud her mother has endured the embarrassment of having her weakness exposed for her sake. She’s learned plenty before the school day’s even started.

So, to sum up, the conflict that sets the story in motion is that the daughter needs to go to school. The crisis is that in the course of attempting to do so, the daughter learns her mother can’t read. The resolution is that she’ll go to school, with the implication being that she’ll learn to do what her mother couldn’t, and become ashamed of her mother for it.

-SCR

The Tales of Two Adams pt 3: The True Orphan Master’s Son

Techniques tracked:
-structure: division into Parts
-point of view: braiding the narrative threads of different perspectives
-plot model: snowball

orphanpic

As with his mentor Robert Olen Butler’s 1993 Pulitzer-winning Vietnamese-community-centered collection A Good Scent from A Strange Mountain, you might be tempted, based on The Orphan Master’s Son’s shockingly well-observed details and descriptions of North Korean life, to make assumptions about Adam Johnson’s ethnicity. Well, he’s white. So let’s examine another piece of fiction by a white guy. (Though if we piece together some apparently biographical info from his new collection–out today!–specifically “Interesting Facts,” Adam Johnson might have some Native American blood.)

Jun Do is the eponymous orphan master’s son; though we visit this orphanage at the novel’s opening, the narrative swiftly moves past this early time in Jun Do’s life and leaves the rest of the info we get about it to be recounted in memories. Jun Do enters the army and is trained as a “tunnel rat,” able to perform combat in the pitch blackness. The book’s first sequence that lingers in scene arrives when he is ordered to help kidnap Japanese people, with the first targets being practice for an opera singer the Dear Leader wants. During the course of this mission, Gil, an ambassador’s son, tries to defect, and Jun Do stops him. Eventually he’s reposted to a fishing boat, where he picks up foreign radio signals, which he believes is his reward. The fishing crew, at first wary, warms up to him when he lets them listen to the transmissions of a pair of women rowing around the world. Then, some Americans board their boat and take portraits of the Dear Leader. In what’s probably the book’s most prevalent theme, the captain says of the North Korean government:

“They only care about the story we’re going to tell, and that story will be useful to them or it won’t.”

They decide to exaggerate the Americans’ aggression to transform what they see as their disgrace into heroism. They succeed in fooling the officials, and the next time they go out, the crew makes Jun Do an official member, since earlier he almost gave himself away as a spy to the Americans. All fishermen have their wives tattooed on their chest, and so they ink Sun Moon, the national actress, on Jun Do’s; even though she’s married to the high-ranking Commander Ga, other countries won’t know who she is. This time out, the second mate defects, and Jun Do does not try to stop him. The story they have to come up with this time is that they were again attacked by the Americans and the second mate was tossed to the sharks; Jun Do sustains a bite to corroborate the story that he tried to save him, which the government, after a brutal interrogation, buys. He lives with the second mate’s wife until he recovers enough to be swept off to a delegation going to Texas to tell the story of what the Americans did to his crew. On the way back, they have to come up with a story about why the Americans refused to give back the “Dead Leader’s toy,” which will turn out to be a uranium detector, and so tell the interrogating government officials tales of the Americans treating them like garbage. Following the interrogation, Jun Do is taken to a prison mine, “and from this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do.” End Part I.

Part II begins one year later, and alternates between three points of view. We begin with the first-person perspective of an interrogator at Division 42, where Commander Ga’s being brought in for murdering Sun Moon and her children. The narrator’s unit’s job is to write “biographies” of the subjects who come in to get their full story, while their rival unit’s method is to torture mercilessly. The interrogator is convinced Ga is an impersonator, and that his story will be more important than any they’ve gotten. He asks Ga how he met Sun Moon, at which point we switch into the third-person perspective of “Commander Ga,” who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is Jun Do. After moving back and forth between the first person and the third person that’s filling in the things the first-person narrator wants but doesn’t get to know, we eventually braid in a third narrative thread in the voice of the loudspeaker that North Korean citizens are legally obliged to keep on in their homes. A prologue that subtly presents many of the elements that will appear in Part I (Sun Moon’s movies, rumors Sun Moon and Commander Ga aren’t in love, allegations of kidnapping the Japanese, and American sneak attacks on fishing boats, and a new opera singer) has been given in the speaker’s voice:

“CITIZENS, gather ’round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors—wherever your loudspeaker is located, turn up the volume!”

In Part II, the loudspeaker gives us the propagandized explanation of what happened to Sun Moon at the hands of Commander Ga, a different version running parallel to what we’re getting in Ga’s sections. The loudspeaker and Ga’s narrative at first act like stepping stones, one picking up where the other left off, but as we move along they start to overlap more, and we experience two different versions of the same events.

What the first-person narrator is obsessed with getting, in addition to the info of what ultimately happened to Sun Moon, is the biography of the person he’s convinced is impersonating Ga, since the real Ga’s personal history is public knowledge. That is, what he wants is everything the readers got access to in Part I, as well as what continues in “Ga”’s threads in Part II. Were he to succeed in constructing Ga’s biography (he won’t), it would look exactly like what the reader gets access to that he doesn’t. Part II is dedicated to revealing how Jun Do got from the prison to the interrogation bay, how he became Ga, and what happened to Sun Moon. Skipping over the period immediately following where we leave off in Part I is a nice strategy to create suspense. We want to know how Jun Do became Commander Ga as badly as the interrogator does.

We find out he escapes the prison when Commander Ga visits and tries his patented “man attack” (raping a guy to test whether he’s strong enough to resist) on Jun Do at the bottom of a mine at the prison. Ga is a tae kwon do champion, but when Jun Do, the trained tunnel rat, knocks the one lightbulb out, it’s over. Sun Moon initially thinks it’s a loyalty test when Jun Do turns up at her door telling her her husband is dead, but when the Dear Leader acknowledges Jun Do as being Ga (his impetus to do so being that Ga was one of the only people who ever disrespected him), Sun Moon has little choice but to accept him. They gradually become intimate initially not physically, but by sharing their stories. When Sun Moon sees Casablanca, a gift Jun Do returned with from Texas, she realizes what she’s been doing is not real acting, and vows to escape. Jun Do’s closeness to the Dear Leader provides the perfect opportunity to do so, as he helps him plan a welcome for the American delegation coming for one of the rowers from Part I, whom the Dear Leader has kidnapped. Jun Do succeeds in getting Sun Moon and her children on the American plane only by not going with them, by staying behind to both distract the Dear Leader and then bear the brunt of his punishment. Thus does “Commander Ga” wind up in Division 42.

Jun Do never divulges his story in full to the interrogator, who comes to believe that “Ga” killed Sun Moon and her kids out of love for her as the only way he could get them out of the pain of this tyrannical state. He’s so moved by this love, and by the emptiness in his own life it’s revealed, that he kills “Ga” and then himself by hooking them up to one of the torture machines, saving “Ga” from being killed publicly in the stadium by a giant branding iron that was originally designed as a mocking gift for the Americans.

Johson’s leap in time between Parts I and II allows him to get away with what is a fairly outlandish plot: a lowly prisoner kills and takes the place of a high-ranking official in an extremely repressive country and no one bats an eye. If Johnson had proceeded through Part II chronologically from Part I, Ga’s coming to the prison mine when he does could seem too much of a coincidence. Deferring the revelation of this episode makes us implicitly less likely to think this, since it seems like more time has passed than actually has. Not that this is all the groundwork Johnson does to pull off Jun Do becoming Ga. How Jun Do does this is our first-person interrogator’s second-most burning question. The most burning question is how did he get Sun Moon to love him. The answer to the second-most: Jun Do’s been prepared for this, brutally interrogated twice by now–he knows how to give people the story that they want, the one that’s useful to them, as the captain advised. The answer to the most: Sun Moon is the one person he doesn’t make up a story for, but is honest with. Eventually in reciprocation she tells him the story of how she was discovered and became the national actress. The only other person who knows this story is the Dear Leader. By sharing it with Jun Do, Sun Moon is putting them on equal footing.

When we ask, how did we get here, to Jun Do becoming Ga, and trace events back, as the structure of Part II inherently forces us to do, we see that the repression (and greed) of the state is basically what started all of this. How did Jun Do wind up in the prison mine in a position to kill Ga? Ga is there because he’s obsessed with finding uranium for nuclear arms, but Jun Do is there because he went to America and can’t be allowed to tell others what he’s seen, which would conflict with the official North Korean portrayal of Americans. He went to America because he was supposed to share the horrifying story of what the Americans did to him in order to shame and manipulate them into giving up something North Korea wanted (related to nuclear arms). He had a story to tell because he made one up, and he had to make one up because the second mate defected, and the second mate defected because the state is so repressive. The decisions Jun Do is forced to make under the state’s repression lead the state to lash out at him ever more aggressively. But the state’s repression is also exactly what enables Jun Do to defeat it—even if the state kills him in the end, he defeats it in successfully smuggling out Sun Moon, its national symbol of alleged purity. This is a happy ending in literary, not Hollywood terms. He manages to take from the Dear Leader at the same time what the Dear Leader has taken from him: the possibility of a life with Sun Moon. The Dear Leader has gotten a taste of his own medicine, and he opened up the door for himself to get it by the vengeful spectacle he felt the need to produce for the Americans; had he not fetl the need to humiliate them, had he not kidnapped an American in the first place, there would have been no opportunity for Sun Moon to escape. Most importantly, he’s seen that things can happen outside his control:

The Dear Leader stood alone, confused. He’d been halfway through a long book inscription. Even though he stared at the bloody spectacle, he seemed not to recognize an event that occurred without his authorization.

No coincidence he’s in the middle of a “book inscription” at this climactic moment when Jun Do sicks a dog on the official trying to get at the crate that’s about to shuttle Sun Moon and her children to their escape. The Dear Leader keeps control of the country by keeping control of its narrative (like claiming retirement consists of glamorous beach communities instead of prison mines), but thanks to Jun Do it slips from his grasp. The one in power is the one who controls the narrative, which is something else Jun Do wrests from the Dear Leader in the course of the book, via its structure. It doesn’t matter that the loudspeaker gets the last word, just like it doesn’t matter that Jun Do dies—this is what had to be sacrificed for the original source of power to be undermined. At the end of the day, Johnson’s theme is the power of story, and how story constitutes identity—both individual and national.

Johnson has said of Jun Do:

In fiction, a character like this is a blank slate, one without advocates or champions, a person for whom even the basic notions of love and bonding come as big discoveries. And, of course, in North Korea your primary relationship is with the state. Your loyalties must lie with the regime first and your family second, which makes an orphan of everyone to some degree, and the Kim regime the true orphan master.

And in Johnson’s narrative, the true orphan master gives birth to the seeds of its own destruction.

-SCR

Brightness Falls: When Failure is a Happy Ending

Techniques tracked:
-Using historical events to shape your narrative
-Using multiple points of view to paint a fuller picture and induce more sympathy
-Using objects to divert melodrama

b falls

There’s something about Jay McInerney’s 1993 novel Brightness Falls (a sequel to his Bright Lights, Big City in spirit only) that feels like a trashy beach read despite the elegance of the prose. This may be my reluctant way of admitting I enjoyed it despite my conflicting feelings surrounding reading (yet again) about the struggles of privileged New Yorkers. But there’s more to this book than its shiny surface: scenes of flighty dinner and beach parties are part of a much more purposeful structure than they initially seem.

If you lived in NYC in the 1980s, your life was more than likely affected by one of two things: the stock market or HIV. Brightness Falls traces the fortunes of a couple affected by both, taking place over the course of the year culminating in the 1987 stock market crash. The plot centers on Russell and Corrine, married five years, as Russell attempts an ambitious hostile takeover of the publishing company he works for. Initially, Russell’s takeover attempt and the marriage look overwhelmingly promising, much like the market, until all three simultaneously dive bomb and crash. The marriage and Russell’s career having low points that so neatly coincide with each other is not a coincidence: it is precisely Russell’s focus on his career that has created the toxic distance in his marriage. McInerney uses a roving third person perspective that, as is often the case in thrillers, can jump into anyone’s thoughts with the beginning of a new chapter or scene, a choice that enables him to present the marriage from both Russell’s and Corrine’s (and third party/wheel old bff Jeff’s) perspectives, giving the reader a fully fleshed out portrait of all the misunderstandings that lead the marriage to its near-demise.

Before we get into this omniscience, the novel begins with a brief first-person prologue from the perspective of Jeff, good friend of both Russell and Corrine from college, presenting an episode we won’t actually get to until late in the novel. The novel’s first line is thus “The last time I saw Russell and Corrine together…” cluing us in that the novel’s structure is dictated by tracking when this couple is together versus apart. The structure is depicting the events leading up to a trial separation of their marriage (this is the climax, concurrent with the market crash), following which they will tentatively reunite and then ultimately recover (as will the market). At the beginning we see Russell at work at his publishing firm, discontent with his boss-mentor who started him there in an already strained relationship further pressed by Russell witnessing the married boss-mentor canoodling with his secretary (merely a foreshadowing to infidelity to come). His job in danger, he decides to take a risk, take advantage of the bull market, and take on seventy million dollars in debt in order to try to buy the publishing firm outright and run it himself. Meanwhile, his wife Corrine, a smalltime stockbroker who peddles junk bonds, quits drinking and withdraws from social life just as Russell gets sucked up to higher rungs.

As per Jeff’s outsider perspective of them as “America’s sweethearts,” in the beginning their marriage is depicted as stellar and standard, “a safe haven in a city that murdered marriages.” But the rift that forms in it is clear and simple: Corrine believes Russell’s hostile takeover is excessively ambitious and doesn’t really want him to go through with the deal. Though they both know this is true, neither says it outright and proceed as if it isn’t, tensions building. Over the months the deal is being worked out, Russell grows closer to his investment banker Trina, eventually giving in and sleeping with her (that Russell is seduced carnally by the embodiment of what’s seducing him financially is no coincidence). Corrine kicks him out just before he learns the financing on his side of the deal is falling through. Then his best friend Jeff, proving he’s more functional role than just providing an outside perspective and portrait of the wild single life Russell didn’t get to live, calls from the rehab they’ve stuck him in for heroin detox and confesses as part of his twelve steps that he’s, uh, slept with Corrine a few times.

Having failed in New York and with little hope for the marriage, Russell moves to L.A. to work in the movies. Jeff visits to ask forgiveness for his former antagonistic apology and further confesses that he’s always been in love with Corrine, prompting us to calculate that Corrine and Russell’s marriage is thus to some extent at the heart of Jeff’s heroin addiction. Russell is eventually reunited with Corrine at Jeff’s funeral after he dies of HIV, presumably contracted through needle use. Russell stays and they get back together.

On the surface this plot might sound soap-opera cheesy, beach-read trashy. Aside from the energy of the prose, McInerney redeems it through the shared points of view, which enables him to make both Russell and Corrine sympathetic (often this sympathy often comes from the other one being annoying). The sequence of Russell’s giving into cheating when Trina gets stuck having to share his hotel room is especially satisfying: “For months he’d imagined and rehearsed this encounter; now he drew back and looked for a reprieve from his desire at the very moment that its consummation had become inevitable.” One notices that this is a similar patter to the one Russell has followed in his career, madly pursuing the takeover and then becoming fearful once it looked like it might actually go through. He’s so drunk by the time they finally consummate, he has no memory of the actual transgression. Oh the irony: when he finally gives in to cheating he doesn’t even get to enjoy it (another thing that makes us sympathize with him even if we don’t want to admit it).

Corrine calls the hotel and there’s a Mrs. Calloway registered to the room in addition to Mr. Russell Calloway. Drawing conclusions, she winds up livid about Russell’s cheating with Trina before the cheating has actually taken place. Trina has shown up and registered herself as Mrs. Calloway without Russell’s knowledge: “Russell hadn’t asked Trina how she talked her way into the room; she was nothing if not resourceful.” Russell never knows how Corrine knows about the cheating. Shortly thereafter Russell (and the readers) learn of Corrinne’s past indiscretions, leveling the playing field: no one is blameless here. Corrine even defends Russell at one point:

Corrine had told her [mother] about calling Frankfurt and discovering another Mrs. Calloway registered to Russell’s room. Since arriving home she hadn’t divulged much, and she had yet to tell her mother about her recently revealed history with Jeff. Deeply remorseful and ashamed, she wanted only sympathy at the time. Jessie said, “I never pegged Russell as the type.”

“I wouldn’t say he was the type,” Corrine said, a note of defensiveness creeping into her voice as she straddled separate loyalties. “It just happened.”

That both are culpable in this marital collapse might indicate that the privileged are culpable in the market’s, which is occurring simultaneously.

At the nicely satisfying climax, Russell takes three calls in one afternoon, one from Trina informing him the financing for his deal has fallen through, one from his broker informing him of the massive losses he’s taken thanks to the stock market crash (further exacerbated by the heavy debt he’s carrying to buy the publishing company he’s failed to procure, meaning he’s taken “an eighty-percent loss on borrowed money”), and the third from a lawyer informing him Corrine has had all his assets frozen. The shit has hit the fan; the brightness has fallen—though not quite as far as it’s going to.

After Russell and Corrine are separated, Corrine’s mink coat is returned to Russell as per usual from its annual summertime storage, triggering a memory of when they got it shortly after they were married and couldn’t afford it (and “that was why they were going to”). Then Russell has his first conversation with Corrine after he’s learned she slept with Jeff, an event they briefly discuss directly before McInerney wisely slips into summary:

They talked for an hour. Frigid with scorn at first, Russell became angry; later, he cried. Corrine cried, too, and for a time they seemed to be trying to console each other, as if they were old friends who had suffered separate, unrelated tragedies.

“I have your mink,” he said at one point, when he couldn’t think of anything else.

“Keep it. Maybe you can sell it.”

“It’s yours.”

“I don’t want it. It suddenly seems like a ridiculous thing to have.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“I’m sorry. I just mean almost everything about my life has been so frivolous and stupid. A mink coat. Jesus. I don’t know, it’s like, what were we thinking of?”

By rejecting the mink coat Corrine is rejecting the marriage, a fact that is not lost on Russell. When they do rebuild their marriage, it will be from a foundation with different values.

What’s great about McInerney is that so many tidbits that seem to be rambling and drunk on their own prosaic elegance are, for the most part, serving a greater function. Even JD Salinger’s cameo—Corrine had lunch with him as an undergraduate, accepting the invitation to do so before realizing who he was—highlights how others read more into our stories than is there: both Russell and Jeff think something more happened at the lunch than did, and Corrine’s revelation of Salinger’s obsession with vitamins and the concrete bunker where he writes serves as the antithesis to the writer in Jeff’s mode of clichéd self-destruction.

Near the end, when Corrine is on her own and working at the mission one night, she is witness to the brutal police takedown of a shantytown; getting closer to the scene believing that it will get less ugly “if people like herself were on hand,” she herself becomes lumped with the group, is targeted by the cops and must run from them, helped by Ace, a homeless man who’s appeared throughout the book, first at the Calloways’ dinner party—the starting point serving as our it’s-all-downhill-from-here—as a hired doorman for the (he winds up trying to steal from them), then in scenes witnessing Jeff score heroin from the shantytown. Corrine is so trusting of Ace after he protects her during the near-riot that she lets him up to her apartment, where eventually he tries to force himself on her. She gets him to leave and doesn’t see him again, except once when he hovers outside her building, prompting her to call Jeff, but by the time he gets there Ace is gone, and Corrine never sees him again, hearing that “‘It was the AIDS got him,’” foreshadowing Jeff’s imminent death from the same disease. That someone from their privileged circle will die from the same disease as a homeless man shows that they are not outside the bubble of the city’s indifferent violence, that their privilege will not insulate them. Corrine and Russell’s marriage being implicated in Jeff’s heroin use perhaps implicates privilege itself as causing the violence in addition to demonstrating susceptibility to it.

Another good moment of recurring object use to remind us of how much has been lost over the course of this particular year, and of how Corrine and Russell’s failing marriage is merely a microcosm of the market/world at large, is the image we’re left with near the very end, when Russell and Corrine revisit their vacation spot in St. Barts. We saw them visit earlier in the novel, with the plot-functional purpose not just to show us how their striving for a privileged lifestyle, but to have Russell run into a woman he’s given his phone number to in the closest dalliance with cheating he’s had up to that point, all part of the narrative arc’s steady chipping away at his marital integrity. While they’re there, they also see the yacht of one of the richest men in the world, who’s rumored to live on board. When they return, the yacht resurfaces—almost:

Looking down at the water, she saw a ghostly shape against the dark green background of a reef, a huge blue lozenge on the sea floor, which appeared to be the hull of a large boat. Several buoys on the surface marked the location of the wreck. She tried to point it out to Russell, on the aisle seat, but by the time he looked out the tiny window they were over the ridge above the airstrip.

Later they heard the wreck Corrine had seen was J. P. Haddad’s yacht, lost in a big storm earlier in the winter, now eighty feet down. It had taken eight hours for it to sink. The crew had successfully reached shore, but some claimed that Haddad himself had gone down with the ship. Certainly no one knew his whereabouts. A voluble American told them, one night in a bar, that all the sea cocks had been opened, the intake tubes slashed. “You know,” the man confided, “he lost everything in the crash.” The blue hull was still out there under the water when they flew back to New York, and sometimes in later years the image would bob up into Corrine’s consciousness—when she first heard, more than a year later, about the collapse of Melman’s empire, for instance—an enigma somehow associated with the time of their lives, just as men in yellow ties conjured the preceding period.

McInerney excels at these little anecdotes that encapsulate the larger arc of some tragically ironic movement, as when Russell and Corrine visit Jeff in rehab and Russell chases down a patient who makes a dash for the road during a softball game and Jeff, the person Russell will not be able to save, mutters, “Another save for Calloway.” The fact that Corrine tries to point out the wreckage to Russell but doesn’t in time for him to see it replicates her earlier reticence and warnings about his publishing takeover, which will lead to the wreckage of their marriage. It’s also worth noting that Corrine quit her stockbroking job right before the crash hit, while the crash exacerbates Russell’s already heavy losses. At any rate, the point is McInerney understands how are mind latches on to images, how it can project one as emblematic of a period of time or that captures one critical moment, as with Corrine’s later recasting of the whale that winds up beached at a party at Melman’s summer house as the moment she understood everything would go wrong.

The title of the book comes from a Thomas Nashe poem (it was either from that or a Shakespeare monologue) read at Jeff’s funeral:

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

The meaning of the titular line, which Corrine remembers Russell once told her to “just think about” when she asked what it meant, suddenly comes to her upon hearing it in this context: everything beautiful fades. It is something she cannot be expected to understand without having experienced it herself. Her realization recalls her returning to her mother’s after leaving Russell:

The homing instinct that drew her here was accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction that made her resent the intended source of comfort.

Hearing the poem, she’s understanding that there is an “equal and opposite” reaction for everything that happens. What goes up must come down. One cannot help but think of financier Bernie Melman’s joke the morning after the crash: “Watch out for falling stockbrokers.” This image eerily foreshadows bodies falling from New York buildings in a different context…as we’ve seen in the above passage, though he remains on top through this particular skirmish, Melman’s own demise is also foretold.

The fact that Jeff’s funeral is what reunites Russell and Corrine literally—Russell returns to the city for it, stays with Corrine during it, and then just keeps staying with her—further underscores the need for Jeff to die for their marriage to continue: the man that was a threat to Russell, the man Corrine transgressed with whose transgression was worse for it being this particular man, as their connection was not just sexual but also emotional, is now out of the picture. Jeff’s death is the embodiment of the consequences of poor choices, and through his death Russell and Corrine narrowly escape total destruction by consequence of their choices. Their marriage is now, ironically, stronger as a consequence of their poor choices, for the trial it has undergone. Thus are they chastened and made more aware; they get a second chance.

In the end, this is a story of the privileged encountering failure and thus realizing how flimsy the veil of their privilege really is. Under this new shared knowledge, they’re able to start their marriage fresh. McInerney provides an ironic portrait of how a marriage becomes stronger by virtue of breaking. It is a metaphor we could only hope would hold for our country as well…

-SCR

The Tales of Two Adams pt 2: Haslett’s “Notes to My Biographer”

Techniques tracked:
narrator’s unreliability revealed through:
-external characters’ reactions
-evolution of narrator’s idea/obsession

bikepic

Adam Haslett’s “Notes to My Biographer” from his 2002 collection You Are Not A Stranger Here provides a prime specimen of an unreliable narrator. The story’s chronic tension is that the narrator has a mental illness that has driven him away from his family, particularly his son Graham, who has inherited his disease. We know none of this at the beginning, however, as the narrator is on his way to see Graham (the acute tension) for the first time in four years. Haslett builds some credibility for his narrator as an important, forceful, and intelligent man of influence by his intermittently listing the eponymous biographer’s notes (though perhaps those reading closely will pick up on something a little off about him). Haslett then undermines this credibility with the persistence and obsession with a new idea the narrator has immediately before he reunites with Graham:

…for a bicycle capable of storing the energy generated on the downward slope in a small battery and releasing it through a handlebar control when needed on the uphill —a potential gold mine…

The details of the idea initially further the credibility of the narrator’s intelligence; this new idea is also part of the acute tension that will put pressure on the reunion with Graham:

“I’ve invented a new bicycle,” I say but this seems to reach him like news of some fresh death.

The bicycle is nicely selected as the object that will eventually expose the extent of the narrator’s mania to us: it’s all downhill from here (though, as per the narrator’s invention, we hope this downhill energy might generate something useful). We get other hints that something is off with the narrator when he mentions he won’t be returning the SAAB he borrowed from a relative, and when he orders champagne with a credit card the delivery guy is “naïve enough to accept,” clues that seem to point to him being some kind of scam artist, though we might revise this theory when we read his summary of Graham’s discussion with him re: the bike idea:

Your-idea-is-fantasy-calm-down-it-will-be-the-ruin-of-you-medication-medication-medication.

The chronic tension has officially reared its ugly head.

At dinner, we get more cues that things with the narrator are awry, and that the bicycle is somehow manifesting this:

“You’ll be riding my bicycle in three years,” I tell her. She draws back as though I had thrown a rat on the carpet.

The narrator meticulously notes (as has been the case with his imaginary biographer) how long the food takes to arrive, his volubility with the wait staff upsetting Graham:

“Stop that!” Graham says. I’ve reached the end of my tether with his passivity and freely ignore him.

They are ostensibly talking about his behavior in the restaurant, but we get a sense that it is all of the behavior this one incident is indicative of that Graham wants his father to stop. The narrator’s “reaching the end of his tether” with Graham (and vice versa), but he still declares he wants Graham to go in with him on the bicycle idea.

At this point, the narrator begins to note that other people are watching him, which he attributes to their spying on him, trying to steal his idea.

As I speak, I notice that others in the restaurant are turning to listen as well. It’s usually out of the corner of my eye that I see it, and the people disguise it well, returning to their conversations in what they probably think is convincing pantomime. The Westinghouse reindeer pops to mind. How ingenious they were to plant him there in the diner I ate at each Friday morning, knowing my affection for the Christmas myth, determined to steal my intellectual property.

This is the point it becomes clear to the reader that people are really staring because the narrator sounds crazy. The specificity of the details here reveals that he pretty much is. The details in his descriptions of the bike idea so far have seemed those of a competent if cocky engineer, who has now taken a sharp turn into paranoia. That he’s fully convinced someone planted a “Westinghouse reindeer” in a diner to mess with him shows us unequivocally he’s unstable (even though this Westinghouse reindeer is mentioned in passing in the list of biographer’s notes near the beginning of the story, it doesn’t yet raise such a red flag–the narrator isn’t totally agitated at the beginning, and doesn’t sound crazy). That he has the same conviction about this that he has about the bike idea undermines our faith in the bike idea and the mind that created it. It still might sound like a good idea, but we understand now he’s delusional:

I know the restaurant’s lousy with mountain bike executives.

This turning point occurs roughly a third of the way through the story—the unequivocal revelation of his instability is hardly the climax.

When they leave the restaurant, the narrator is still trying to convince Graham to go in on his bike idea, while Graham shakes his head. Telling Graham he needs to use the bathroom, the narrator ducks into a luxury hotel and procures an expensive suite. Finding out what he’s done, Graham says he’s out of control and has to start taking his meds for the sake of the family, trying to explain to him that his being off them is why no relatives wants to see him anymore. At this point we’re getting a clearer picture of the problems the narrator’s mania and his refusal to manage it have caused in the past.

From Graham’s haggard tear-stained appearance after this speech, the narrator imagines him as a corpse (seeming to symbolize in some way that his son is dead to him now) and cajoles him into the suite, Graham insisting, “’We can’t stay here,’” a symbolic declaration that applies in the larger sense to where they are as father and son, with the father alienating everyone by taking no responsibility for his own mental health. Amid Graham’s insistence, the narrator lets what we now understand to be a rare slice of reality in, as he thinks of “the eviction notices in Baltimore, the collection agencies, the smell of the apartment.” He also has memories of Graham as a child asking him not to leave for his business trips—becoming symbolic of what Graham is asking him now, the crisis of the acute tension: not to take leave of his senses, to take his medication. Through this memory of a request not to leave, we understand that the narrator implicitly understands what Graham is asking of him in the present.

The narrator then asks his son what it’s like to be gay, which Graham responds to with a rant about thinking his father was dead. The narrator tries to cheer him up with promises of all the glory the bike invention will bring, but for the first time actually seems to hear how crazy he sounds:

All of a sudden I don’t believe it myself and I can hear my own voice in the room, hear its dry pitch, and I’ve lost my train of thought…

Which then devolves into memories of Graham, how Graham would watch him make designs and imitate them, how Graham was the only one who understood him in his “world of possible objects.” He thinks how he doesn’t know how to say goodbye, which we intuit now is why he’s made this trip in the first place. Graham reveals that he’s worried his lover will leave him like his mother left his father and so he always takes his own medication. Now we understand that the chronic tension isn’t just that the narrator isn’t taking care of himself, but that he’s passed the issue onto his son. The narrator asks:

“But the fire, Graham? What about the fire?”

With this question he pretty much lays bare his priorities, that the fire of inspiration is more important to him than his family. He then shows Graham a diagram for another new invention: a door with multiple knobs. The space previously filled by a bicycle—that of a new invention that expresses his mania—turns into a door, symbolizing that the path of the narrator’s life, his fire, is now at an end, and he’s ready for the exit. It seems safe to presume no one will be cramming any meds down this throat, no matter how much Graham pleas.

After Graham falls asleep, the narrator scrawls a last note to his biographer:

Though some may accuse me of neglect, I have been consistent with the advice I always gave my children: never finish anything that bores you. Unfortunately, some of my children bored me. Graham never did. Please confirm this with him. He is the only one that meant anything to me.

He leaves the note for Graham so he will see “the truth,” then leaves, and the last sight he sees is “the shimmering pier jut[ting] into the vast darkness of the ocean like a burning ship launched into the night.” He’s been making notes to his biographer specifically because he’s ready to leave. We understand now that the purpose of the story’s inciting incident and acute tension, his meeting with Graham, was to say goodbye to the only child he cared about, the only one who shared his affliction and therefore understood him. The notes to his biographer may be exaggerated, but through them, by the end, the narrator has managed to communicate the truth. The notes don’t just serve to construct and deconstruct the narrator’s credibility, but come to figure critically in the plot. Haslett has managed to make a narrator who at first seems like a cocky jerk into someone utterly sympathetic by the end through the tragedy of his love for his son originating from the very thing that ensures their separation (that is, his illness).

The restaurant scene with the narrator being rude to the wait staff and trying to send things back recalls John Cheever’s “Reunion,” in which a young narrator is excited to be reunited with his estranged father for an afternoon. Throughout the story his excitement wanes as his father’s rudeness increases and they have to keep switching restaurants. By the end, the father’s revealed as a complete jerk; the story is one of how his son comes to understand who his father really is. Here, Haslett seems to have appropriated that jerk-father and attempted to explain why he’s such a jerk, but goes even further, facilitating some underlying connection between the father and son, despite the fact that present circumstances dictate an inevitable separation. If Cheever’s story is about the day I realized my father was a jerk, then Haslett’s might be the story about the father himself coming to understand he’s a jerk. “Reunion”’s line “as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom” could be the epigraph for Haslett’s piece, were it from Graham’s point of view.

-SCR