More Quiet Than You Can Imagine

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As I mentioned in my last post, in the mid to late-1970s I was a bit of an itinerant creative writing teacher. I worked for the Virginia Poets-in-the-Schools program and traveled from school district to school district, teaching creative writing to elementary, middle, and high school students.

I also held teaching and writing residencies during the summers at the Richmond Humanities Center, and Norfolk’s Center Theater. I was so busy that I actually managed to make something approaching a living. For the Norfolk Theater, I taught adult classes, nursing home residents and inmates at the Norfolk jail. I also wrote a few longish prose poems that the theater’s resident dance troupe would perform (these pieces, “Silence,” “Shadow,” and “The Distance,” eventually made their way into my short story collection, The Art of the Knock).

The classes at the nursing home didn’t start out too well. I made the mistake of using some of the exercises I’d honed in my teaching to middle and high school students, like the “verbal dueling” form I discussed in my previous post. There I stood, a twenty-something young man enthusiastically pitching magical transformations to a group of elderly people. One man grumbled that this was “kid stuff,” and everyone else in the room nodded in agreement.

What to do?

I knew that the poet Kenneth Koch had written a book about teaching writing in a nursing home, I Never Told Anybody, and I belatedly searched out a copy, in the hopes that I could redeem myself in the next class meeting, only a week away. Finally paging through the book, I came upon a section titled “Quiet,” and I thought I’d give this a try. Old people liked quiet, right?

Today, in my last few hours as a 63 year old (I’m on the cusp of being the subject of a Beatles song!), I think, Quiet? Anything but!

And sure enough, the initial reaction to the Quiet assignment wasn’t promising. Luckily, a single line in one of the examples Koch gave from one of his nursing home students stood out:

The quietest time I ever remember in my life
Was when they took off my leg.

Here was a quiet that had nothing to do with a peaceful sunset. This memory had some teeth in it. And only then did my elderly students dig in. I wish I could find the examples of their writing now, but apparently they’ve been lost in one of too many moves in the past. But I do remember one poem that spoke of a man’s nearly drowning, seeing the bubbles of his breath reaching up to the water’s surface that he couldn’t yet reach. It was a powerful moment, a perfect blend of quiet and drama. And it opened up a host of varied memories in the other students, because quiet, as it turned out, has many different flavors.

I’d managed to salvage that class, so I wondered if this exercise might transfer to different types of students. I was also leading a writing workshop with prisoners at the Norfolk City Jail.

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I decided to give it a try and discovered another kind of quiet, in this unsettling student poem:

The quietest moment that I can remember
was when I first arrived in Vietnam
and stepped from inside the plane. It seemed
as though all the bombing stopped, and the
killing ceased, the workers who were building
the remaining parts of the airstrip stopped their
work. It seemed as though someone dropped
a needle among the haystack of dead bodies
and I heard it as it fell through the air.

–Ellery P.,
Norfolk City Jail

This writing exercise soon developed legs. Even young people, of course, host powerful memories (Flannery O’Connor would certainly agree), so the following fall I brought my inmate and nursing home students’ examples to the high schools I traveled to.

It was 2:17 in the morning
when the next door neighbor
had a stroke.
My mother went over there—
there was no sound
of their watchdog barking
because of her entrance in the yard.
She forced open the back door and
the watchdog was silently
lying in the corner.

–Laura Travis
Manchester High School, Virginia

What impresses me most about this poem is that it isn’t the student’s own memory, but a story that had been told to her by her mother. And yet it seems remembered, the image of the normally threatening guard dog transformed into a quiet, mourning pet becoming the writer’s own.

I discovered that there was nearly no end to the types of quiet that could be conjured from memory, as in this poem of temporary quiet and its jarring end:

The quietest moment I can remember is when I fell off a roof.
The moment my foot left it all time slowed down then stopped.
I was floating down to the ground, all was quiet.
When I hit the ground the peace was broken like a glass.

–André Baskins
Matoaca High School, Virginia

And this last poem achingly combines external joy with internal sadness:

When I was small, I became very sick.
I had to stay home from school and couldn’t see any of my friends.
As I looked out my window, I saw all the other kids in my neighborhood,
next door playing a game I liked.
They were all yelling and making a lot of noise.
They were having fun.
But from up in my window, looking down upon this scene, inside I felt
very quiet.

–Kim Hawkins,
Charlottesville High School, Virginia

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Those early teaching days of mine certainly focused my respect for the art of pedagogy, and above all for its unpredictable discoveries. My idea of “quiet” until then had been fairly ordinary—soothing silence, mostly. But my students taught me more than I taught them. They gave me something to take out of the classroom: a sense that the world offered layer upon unsuspected layer, if one only chose to look or listen.

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August 25th, 2015 by admin

Oh You Doll

Recently I came upon a startling video of a Japanese woman’s quest to fill her nearly deserted town with life-size dolls that represent the hundreds of people who used to live there. “When I make dolls of dead people,” she says, “I think of them when they were alive and healthy.”

For example, the town’s school closed down two years ago for lack of students, and she has re-inhabited it with pupils and teachers.

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It’s what you might call an outsider art project, but on a vast scale, creepy and poignant, a town haunted by silent figures of memory. This video of the artist, commenting on her life and work, blends sweet with unsettling.

Valley of Dolls from Fritz Schumann on Vimeo.

But why should this touching short film be so haunting, why do those dolls attract us in such a discomforting way? I’m reminded of one of my favorite essays, “Some Reflections on Dolls,” by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which he writes about an exhibition of wax dolls of the artist Lotte Pritzel.

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Lotte Pritzel in her workshop

Rilke remarks on the sadness of dolls that have no children in their lives. Or, rather, that dolls have no lives without children: “It was their habit, during the day, to be lived unwearyingly with energies not their own.”

And because dolls have no energies of their own, they can give us nothing back but what we invent of them. A doll is “the horribly foreign body on which we had wasted our purest ardor; as the externally painted watery corpse, which floated and swam on the floor-tides of our affection.” Dolls are like us, and yet they are nothing like us. Perhaps this accounts for our disquiet. As Rilke observes, “One is confronted and almost overwhelmed by their waxen nature.”

In some ways, they are like fictional characters still in the process of being fully imagined. We struggle to invent them, to give them the breath of believability. The hard work of imagining and revising our characters can give us the intimacy of a relationship, and, with luck, this intimacy extends to a reader.

As with all intimacies, though, something may go wrong. In my short story “I Dreamt about You Last Night,” (published in The Art of the Knock), Turley, the main character, returns home one day to discover that his wife has left him and their daughter, and she has also left behind her scrawls, painted on the walls, of all the lies he ever told her. In the wake of her abandonment, the daughter searches for attention elsewhere: “Julie turned to her largest and favorite doll, sitting on a chair opposite them. Its grave, porcelain face seemed to listen as Julie quietly asked it for help in the same coaxing tones she used whenever she wanted something from her mother.”

Distracted by his own grief and trying to reassure her, Turley lies idly to his daughter that the doll will indeed talk to her someday. A mistake, because before too long he finds the doll in pieces, the victim of his daughter’s rage at her doll’s stubborn silence. In shame, he takes the doll to a repair shop tricked out as a “Doll Hospital” (these places actually exist).

“The woman took the doll from the box. Its dress was badly torn and the ends of the limbs were jagged remains of ceramic hands and feet. She examined the porcelain head, with its punched-in, loose left eye. “This may be a difficult job,” the woman said. She pulled off the mohair wig, revealing the hollow skull of the doll, and she poked her fingers inside to manipulate the glass eye from behind. Turley found this almost impossible to watch.”

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Despite the repair, things will not go well for this doll.

To my surprise, I realized that dolls of all sorts make appearances in my fiction. How odd, to uncover a thread in my work that was always part of the weave. My novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, starts when a mother begins a game of pretending to be someone else, anyone else, to her young children. But the mother’s private performances become a dangerous descent into multiple otherhood and, too soon, she is lost to them.

The narrator of the novel, Michael, one day finds himself in class watching a slide show his fussy and over-prepared teacher has stuffed with any kind of information about whales, including photos of a Yuquot Northwest Coast Indian shrine devoted to attracting whales. What at first appears to be a crowd of people in one slide proves to be something else in the next slide:

“We were inside the shrine, and now came another surprise: those people were life-size wooden statues, their torsos stiff, their hands and feet stumps. Their openmouthed, flat faces seemed to be shouting out a warning at the approach of trespassers.”

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Yuquot whalers’ shrine

These statues are wooden images of dead whale hunters, and their open mouths are believed to sing songs that can attract whales and cause them to drift too close to shore. Michael can’t get enough of this slide, although he is still unsure what excites him until the next slide:

“Now another slide filled the screen: a close-up of maybe half a dozen statues, their identical, plaintive expressions so much like . . . my mother’s own unhappy features that last terrible day. I blinked back tears at the thought, yet still I couldn’t look away from that wall of faces. And then I knew why: they could easily be Mother’s hidden characters. I longed to hear them sing out keening songs like whales, songs filled with secrets that I would finally understand.”

Finally, my story, “The Pose” (published in Interior Design), is devoted to a husband and wife who, nearing an emotionally estranged endgame in their relationship, begin to relearn how to communicate with each other through a strange figure in the closet that is constructed out of clothes hangers. The husband, Richard, a tinkerer and inventor, is trying to design an “all-purpose clothes hanger.” But when his wife Isabel first discovers this figure, it is still in process:

“Before her sways a peculiar construction of clothes hangers, elaborately fit together into the full-sized outline of a person. But this flat thing doesn’t have a face, only a wire circle for a head, and from its top the hanger hook rises like a question mark.”

Its incompleteness disturbs her, and she can’t help adding her own touches to the figure.

“It’s really just a cartoonish outline. Why would anyone want to fit clothes over something that looks so awkward? Isabel reaches out for one of the wire hands, examines the clumsiness of the circular palm and broad fingers. With some strain she manages to bend a metal curve into a recognizable thumb. Then she squeezes the rest into tapered fingers and goads the palm into an oval. She places her own hand against the cool wire outline: it’s a comfortable fit. Isabel stands up and moves back. Those thighs are too thin, the shoulders too squarish. Gripping the cold metal, she begins to press and pull.”

Before long, Isabel and Richard collaborate separately on the figure, dressing it in the clothes she once wore during their early courtship, the clothes she wore when he first undressed her.

What a fertile landscape dolls offer us, they are mirrors that reflect ourselves, but only if we want them to. And their coming alive ignites something in us, allows us to nurse a present hurt or nurture a budding future self, or reclaim a missing piece of the past. But because these dolls or doll-like figures come alive from without and not from within themselves, they can too easily be abandoned, and then their similarity to us is no longer a comfort, but instead an unsettling mask that fools no one.

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The poet and Nobel laureate Wistawa Szymborska captures this alienation well when, in her slyly exhilarating collection of book reviews, Nonrequired Reading, she writes of visiting a wax museum: “That macabre facsimile of life, the rosy cheeks, the half-smiles, the eyelashes, the mustaches, the glassy eyes behind your back, all that dolled-up deadness, maudlin and pretentious—now that was frightening. I felt sick and had to go out for some fresh air.”

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Perhaps what is most wrong about the wax face of Prince Charles above is that his expression is following no previous expression, and isn’t leading to another. Our faces are never fixed and are always reacting, revealing, hiding. In fiction, we have to bring the fresh air in and ascribe an inner life to our nascent characters that sets their thoughts in motion throughout the course of a story, we try to do our best to write them out of their masks and make the unblinking eyes blink, encourage the frozen mouth to speak, and put enough of us inside them so that, unlike dolls, they will come alive–for us, and for others.

*

Related posts you might enjoy:
The Secret History of Objects.
You Got to Take Care of Your People

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November 6th, 2014 by admin

The Secret History of Objects

I have long felt there is no such thing as an inanimate object. In our homes, for instance, we surround ourselves with things, and those things are there for a reason: some quality about them has caused us to choose them. A piece of driftwood, placed on a shelf, may have been collected during a memorable day by the shore, and so now that simple twist of wood is animated—the mere sight of it can bring back a significant moment in time.

On the other hand, the shape of a vase and its color might please us in ways that can’t quite be articulated, and yet we choose that vase over others in a store and then feature it on a table in the living room. An artist, of course, shaped this, and something of his or her aesthetic vision has echoed inside us. By choosing that vase we have entered into a relationship with it and, by extension, the artist who sculpted it.

In The Meaning of Things, authors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton speak of these relationships: “To understand what people are and what they might become, one must understand what goes on between people and things. What things are cherished, and why, should become part of our knowledge of human beings . . . Things also tell us who we are, not in words, but by embodying our intentions.”

From the beginning, my fiction has been entranced by and attracted to what things might tell us about ourselves. My 1979 short story, “Light Bulbs” (collected in The Art of the Knock: Stories), chronicled how an “empty nest” couple slowly developed relationships with the light bulbs in their home, as a substitute for their departed children:

“Father finds himself attracted to the sound of the bulbs as they go out—some with a kind of smoky burst, some with a faint, regretful pop. It’s as if they all had their own secret reasons for leaving. He also can’t avoid noticing the way the old bulbs fit into the palm of his hand like the warm head of an infant. Father keeps this to himself. He has begun to spend more of his time at night watching the lights and less with Mother at the bay window.”

You can read the entire story here (if you have a digital subscription to The New Yorker)

In 1997, while in preparation for a book tour for the paperback edition of my novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, I was interviewed by Richard Shea for the Princeton Packet’s Time Off magazine, and our conversation eventually wandered over to the subject of objects in my fiction:

Graham: “I’ve always believed that objects are part of our personalities. And in a lot of my stories objects are used as an element of characterization; what we most love, what we surround ourselves with are really projections of internal states.”

Shea: “Which is ironic, seeing that we live in a country where, often, too much value is placed on material things. But you seem to be talking about the other side of the coin.”

Graham: “I think that placing too much value on objects as mere objects is a dead end, yes. But if we take a look sometimes at the fact that those objects actually echo our inner states . . . “materialism” is almost a false issue. I’m in my study right now, and I’m looking around the room, and everything I’m looking at is human-generated. What that means is everything around me was initially thought of by somebody else, and then made into an object, which means, in some sense, that what we’re looking at is the physical representation of neuro-synaptic connections. We’re, like, in a mind; we’re inside a collective human mind of creation and invention. And that’s what we live in as human beings.”

In this interview I was ripping off, and rather inarticulately, one of my fictional characters: Josephine, the narrator of the title story of my collection Interior Design. Josephine is on a mission, as an interior designer, to expiate the sins of her father, a house developer who filled his model homes with ¾ sized furniture in order to fool his customers into thinking the rooms of the home they considered buying were much larger than they actually were. By contrast, Josephine works with her clients’ dreams, in order to design a more personalized home:

“It was those private designs that led me to the secret history of objects: they’re all the products of desire. The first chair didn’t just appear like some mushroom rising out of the floor. Instead, long ago, someone, somewhere, thought, “I’m tired,” and only then was a chair built, its wooden existence fitting the need. In the same way, the thought, “I’m cold,” conceived walls and a roof. We actually turn ourselves inside out, and find comfort in what we’ve imagined. If the guitar, the violin, the piano are extensions of us, created to give voice to our longings, then furniture is no less musical.”

In my novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, the narrator, Michael Kirby, falls in love in college with Kate, a young woman who is an aspiring artist. Yet Kate can only—will only—draw objects, never people. They seem alive to her, and Michael comes to realize that her drawings are a coded form of her hidden inner life. Frustrated by Kate’s emotional restraint, Michael manages to find a space where he can reach her, by asking her to draw his hand as if it—as if he—were an object.

I loved to sit beside Kate and watch her draw. Her fingers barely held the pencil—a light touch for such clarity—and her careful movements became a form of floating, a sign language somehow caught on paper. One evening, as Kate was about to begin another illustration, I placed my hand next to her notepad.

“Draw my hand?”

“Michael. You know . . . “

“It’s not a person,” I said, “it’s a hand. Quite an interesting piece of machinery, actually. C’mon, give it a try.”

Kate closed her eyes, sighed, and then looked down at my patient hand. Slowly, she began sketching the whorls of my knuckles, as if they were separate little whirlpools pulling her in. Next she drew those long-ridged bones that fanned from my wrist, and slowly the individual parts took hold of each other and grew fingers, took on the contours and shadows of flesh.

Finally she set down her pencil. My hand lay twinned before us. I gave her no time to choose between them: I turned mine over, palm up. “Draw it again?” I asked.

She did, first extending the particular curves and intersections of the lines of my palm, though no palm yet existed on the page. She continued that seemingly chaotic crosshatching until they led to my fingerprints, where she stopped. After a long pause, she drew the outline of my hand, then gave dimension to all the rounded slopes that circled the center of my palm. Again she hesitated, staring at those five fingers and their empty faces. Meticulously she gave expression to the delicate, echoing curves of my prints, adding slight shadows that hinted of sadness and anger, subdued joy, the possibility of laughter.

When she was done I stared at my hand and its image: indeed, both seemed filled with conflicting emotions.

“Now touch it?” I whispered. Kate hesitated, then laughed quietly with a hint of resignation. She slid one long-nailed finger along the lines of my palm, just lightly touching my skin: now we were pencil and page. But before she could finish tracing me, my fingers reached up and held her hand. Neither of us moved. I pulled her gently toward me. Her eyes narrowed with pleasure, then closed as we settled and twisted on the carpet, and I let her imagine a private sketch of what we did together.

*

With two nonfiction projects recently completed and published, I am returning to fiction, to two novels long in progress (though I’m also chipping away at a new nonfiction project–I tend to write several books at one time), and for me that also means a return to objects, and to the invisible threads that connect them to us, and us to them. They are the outposts of our imagination, physical clues to the shape of our interior lives, each one a hard fact echoing a fluid, fleeting feeling.

Other craft posts of interest: “The Threads That Tie Us to Objects,” and “Oh You Doll.”

The Art of the Knock, How to Read an Unwritten Language and Interior Design are now available in the Dzanc Books contemporary fiction e-book reprint series.

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December 22nd, 2012 by admin

The Man Behind the Beard: Santa Confesses

The fall of 1974 wasn’t the best time for me, at least at first. The country was in deep recession, and in the past several months I’d been bouncing from one odd job to another: maintenance mechanic, newspaper truck driver, construction crew laborer, upholsterer’s apprentice, you name it. Then I took a job as a bartender in Tuckahoe, New York, in a mansion that had recently been converted into a dinner theater. The huge building had once been the home of Dutch Schultz, the 1930s gangster, and rumors flew among us about possible hidden passageways to ill-gotten loot. I should have been content with this gig, but in my second week I received word that I was a finalist for another job I’d applied for: a department store Santa. Why not? I thought, and went to the interview, where apparently some scrap of potential jolly peeked out of me, and I was offered one of the plum assignments: my own throne in the Saks Fifth Avenue department store in White Plains, New York. With only a little hesitation, I accepted. I was marking time anyway—in January I’d enter midyear into the graduate creative writing program at City College, where I’d eventually study with Frederick Tuten and Donald Barthelme—and I reasoned that I could always find work as a bartender. But how many opportunities would I have to play a Santa? Maybe I could get a story out of it.

Ten years later, in the fall of 1984 and on the eve of the release of my second book, The Art of the Knock: Stories, the editors at the Washington Post Sunday Magazine (who had recently published one of my short stories in their summer fiction issue) contacted me and asked if I had any holiday memories for an essay they might feature in the Christmas issue. Oh, I have a few, I’d replied.


Click cover to enlarge

The Man Behind the Beard: Confessions of a Department Store Santa

I sat nervously before a mirror in the employees’ dressing room of a large suburban department store: 23 years old and without a wrinkle, I was about to begin my first day as Santa Claus. It was the day after Thanksgiving, the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The week before I had been a mere bartender.

I started to dress by strapping a pillow around my waist with a length of rope which, when knotted, rubbed hard against my back. Then I pulled the baggy red pants up and around the pillow, and I tied the waist cord. Next came the jacket, also bulky. Finally, I fastened the wide black belt around my belly and put on the black boot fronts that fit over my shoes. Already I felt quite warm beneath the thick layers. I remembered when I had first dressed as Santa: in the employment agency I had stood sweating in the suit before the woman who interviewed me. She had cautiously asked me if I had ever flown in a helicopter before. “No,” I had said, somewhat surprised. “Well,” she had then asked, “would you mind flying in one?”

(more…)

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December 10th, 2011 by admin

What’s Structure Got to Do with It?

More years ago than I like to count, when I was but a first year graduate student in creative writing, I came upon a slim volume in a bookstore titled Shakespearean Design, by Mark Rose. I pulled it off the shelf and gave it a glance, because I was taking a summer literature course on the Bard and soon found myself deep in a book that would influence me as a writer for the rest of my life.

Not many people know this, but Shakespeare never divided a single play into five acts. As Mark Rose notes, “In Shakespeare’s lifetime not one of his plays was published with any division of any kind.” And yet all his plays, as we know them today, go hummingly about their business from curtain rise and act one on through to act five and curtain close. These divisions were added to the plays many years after Shakespeare’s death.

So if our greatest playwright never tinkered with five acts (or any acts), what sort of structure did he use to shape his narratives—surely he didn’t simply scribble away?

It turns out he was influenced by late medieval and early renaissance diptych and triptych paintings. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, as an example of a triptych (click to enlarge),

and here’s an example of a diptych painting, by Hans Memling:

In both forms, the individual painting can stand alone, but is given greater meaning and context when seen as part of a series. And in his plays, Shakespeare used the diptych and triptych as his basic units of structure. Here’s a diagram Mark Rose has worked up for the opening of King Lear:

Here’s a classic triptych structure, with the brief prologue and epilogue framing a much larger scene in the middle. Notice how the first and third scenes have very nearly the same number of lines, creating an elegant symmetry, while their very briefness is juxtaposed with the large court scene, the one where Lear has a fit and divides his kingdom. Also, the prologue and epilogue are private scenes, where characters gossip or conspire, in contrast to the grand public spectacle of the middle scene.

Shakespeare was never one for cookie-cutter regularity, and was more than capable of interesting change-up when it came to framing scenes. This next diagram is from Othello:

Here Shakespeare uses an arch form to shape the narrative, two framing diptychs that surround a central scene. Again, notice the elegance of how the paired scenes (Iago and Othello; Othello alone/Iago alone) are nearly the same length. And it’s the center scene, Iago’s discovery of the handkerchief, which sets off the drama, the single act around which these two characters’ fates will revolve.

Rose’s beautifully written analysis is filled with smart diagrams like the two above, and reading through the book one gets a sense of the infinite possibilities of structure, how manipulating the placement of small units can lead to a greater whole. And once you’re clued into these Lego-like building principles, you can find them in many different art forms. The Fourth String Quartet by the 20th century composer Bela Bartok, for example, has a structure nearly identical to the opening of Othello:

The first and fifth movements share musical themes and material, as do the second and fourth movements, and the middle movement stands apart, its eerie musical material particular to itself. One could see this as a kind of rhyme scheme: ABCBA.

This arch form was an influence on the structure of my second book, The Art of The Knock, though I built mine out of seven sections. David Mitchell’s magisterial Cloud Atlas employs a grand version of the arch structure, which can be read as: ABCDE F EDCBA, an arch, but also an elaborate triptych.

We structure our fictions, and we also structure our memories. Sven Birkerts, in his marvelous book The Art of Time in Memoir, describes the “time frame” of Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception. Wolff begins his memoir with the sudden announcement by phone, as he’s vacationing in Narragansett, of his father’s death, then employs the bulk of the book to tell the narrative of his life with his father, and then ends with a return to the site of Narragansett. Another triptych.

Yet must structure always aspire to symmetry? Yann Martel’s first novel, Self, serves as an effective counter argument. The novel is comprised of only two chapters. The first is 329 pages long. Chapter two is a single page. It’s hard to imagine a more lop-sided diptych than this, but that final second chapter more than holds its own with its bulkier companion.

Did any of these writers have their structure set in mind from the beginning? Maybe. I like to think, though, that these various shapings come about through the writing. If conceived of too soon, a structural plan could easily turn constricting. But if an architecture arises from the thicket of writing’s multiple discoveries, then it gives shape to what might otherwise remain amorphous.

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February 23rd, 2011 by admin