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“Short Shorts: Sudden Fiction” by Nancy Margulies brings to mind in the very best way those colorful foam Magic Grow bathtub toys that begin as little gel capsules. When my son was small, we’d drop a capsule into the warm water and watch it miraculously birth a lion or giraffe, elephant or dinosaur within minutes. Even knowing the science—a dry sponge squeezed tightly into a small space will expand exponentially when wet—didn’t make it less amazing and fun. What Nancy Margulies brings forth in stories quickly inspired by one-word, emailed prompts is similarly marvelous. Her “Short Shorts” expand vividly and unpredictably on the page.

On first reading the book, I assumed that these crisp, visual, and emotionally charged stories had evolved through revision for publication from the author’s initial “free writes” sent as replies to her writing group’s prompts. When I learned that these published versions were drafted in twelve minutes or less and not reworked, I was impressed and mystified. How does she do it?

Lesson: Choose precise details 

This author is gifted in making us see. From the opening in “Preparing to Meet My Birth Mother”—”…as cherry blossom explode off their branches, wrapping around houses like so many pink scarves”—to the final entry “Not Here” on page 53 (yes, it’s a short book) —“As people paint Hitler mustaches on the image of our President…”—Margulies uses images to establish emotional tone, define character, create scenes, and extend meaning beyond the poetic prose. The prompt for the first story is “mother.” The character tells us she “should be packing instead of watching” the cherry blossoms out the window. She then steps through the imagined packing, telescoping the twenty-nine years missing from life with her birth mother through bursts of autobiography and could-have-beens. She sums up her first short marriage to LeRoy Pratt in these eight one-syllable words: “He won races. I wore a pit pass.”

Throughout the book, there are these “magic grow” details that encapsulate a relationship or era of a character’s life. These gems could be dropped into the warm bath of imagination and expanded into longer works of fiction, but they serve this short form beautifully and economically.

Lesson: Deliver meaning through form

“Strip Poker,” a scant page of story prompted by the word “layers,” is a confession by a girl that she’s been raped. Margulies devotes four brief paragraphs to layering her character from childhood through teenage years with skirts, shorts, slips tucked into shorts, and a bra stuffed with toilet paper, only to strip her bare in one final sentence. “Turns out she was wrong” is the narrator’s response to her mother’s belief that no one would have the patience to rape a girl so layered by clothes. We don’t know when the rape happened or any hint of the perpetrator, but the horror lingers in those final five words which ravish the girl’s modesty and innocence, along with the belief in a wise mother who could keep her safe.

The story “Backwards” (prompt “backwards”) is a witty and pithy unraveling from the narrator’s gentle present time through past generations spiked by family tragedy, dislocation, and finally to a pre-literate time when the ancestors “told stories that were passed down then forgotten” leaving the rest of this story “anybody’s guess.” The remaining inches of blank page loom large with possibilities.

Lesson: Try it!

Prompts can inspire writing at any stage of mastery. Whether working alone or in a supportive group, writers can discover more about their characters, their stories, and themselves through random prompts and timed exercises. The prompts used by Margulies in this book are Mother, Dream, Time, Mask, Adventure, Photo, Short, Imagine, Missed, Morning, Layers, High School, Backwards, Secrets, Clutter, Regret, Goals, New Job, Sun, News, Wanting a Child, Sacred, Boyfriend, Yellow, Last Words, Crush, Committed, Late Night, Candy, Wanting, Who I Was, Photo, Assertive, Pause, Independence, Ocean, Songs, Fitting In, Memory, and Garden.

Choose a word. Allow twelve minutes or less to write. Dig deep. Have fun. Risk revealing what you have never before revealed. Surprise yourself. Intrigue your readers. Email the story to your own address or to fellow writers. If you’re like me you’ll end up with a notebook full of promising free writes, any of which might produce a publishable story upon considered revision. If you’ve mastered the short form as Margulies has, then you’ll soon be working on your new collection. Watch for “Sudden Friction: Stories That Rub You the Wrong Way” to see what emerges next from this author.

Here I am writing a review of The Gathering by Anne Enright. Here is the story briefly: Veronica Hegarty’s brother dies from a suicide drowning. She travels from Ireland to England to claim his body, arranges its return to Ireland, and gathers her many surviving siblings to their mother for the memorial service. While doing so, she travels into the past—her own, her grandmother Ada’s—to reveal a dark detail of sexual abuse she witnessed long ago involving her brother and an older man, a friend of her grandmother’s.

This book thrusts its enormous and hugely loving emotional reach through generations, across relationships—sibling to sibling, daughter to parents, granddaughter to grandparents, mother to children, wife to husband.

Lesson: Use clear “gatekeepers” to frame time shifts and emotional range. 

Veronica’s life becomes unmoored by Liam’s death and by her memory of the incident from their past. Her journey through time and places could be as chaotic for the reader as it is for her, but Enright gives Veronica the good sense—she is the organized sibling, after all— to orient us with each shift of time and emotional focus.

Here are Enright’s “gatekeepers”—first lines for the first several chapters—that orient the reader to each chapter:

 1. I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

2. Some days I don’t remember my mother.

3. The seeds of my brother’s death were sewn many years ago.

4. I ring the bereavement people in Brighton and Hove from Mammy’s phone in the hall, and they give me the number of an undertaker who, very nicely, takes my credit card details while I have it handy.

5. Here is my grandfather, Charlie Spillane, driving up O’Connell Street towards his future wife in the Belvedere Hotel.

6. This is how I live my life since Liam died.

7. But let that wait. Let the poor chicken wait awhile. Here I am on the Brighton line, on my way to collect my brother’s body, or view it, or say hello to it, or goodbye or whatever you do to a body you once loved.

8. When I was eight and Liam was nearly nine, we were sent with our little sister, Kitty, to stay with Ada in Broadstone.

9. The man beside me on the train to Brighton lifts his pelvis slightly, and settle it back down.

10. Here’s Ada and Charlie in bed a year later.

11. I was opening the car door for the girls one day before Liam died and, as it swung past, I saw my reflection in the window.

12. Bad news for Bea and my mother and all the vultures who will flock to 4 Griffith Way for the wake—which is that there will be another ten days at least to wait before they can feast on Liam’s poor corpse, because of the paperwork involved.

13. When I was in college, I decided that Ada had been a prostitute—the way you do.

14. I think of her when I do the dishes.

Enright’s powerful and disturbing emotional material tumbles in Veronica’s mind, but the gatekeepers keep readers grounded when they enter the chapter as to time, place, and emotional territory explored.

Memory can be elusive to the narrator—where did it happen, when?—but readers don’t want to be confused by the where and when of the story. A clear narrative structure is not only kind to the reader, it also helps the author deliver her punch. The more emotional the material, the simpler the transition exposition can be, so that the emotional narrative or scenes rise like shark fins on a calm surface.

Lesson: Use all the senses to crescendo emotional material.

Enright writes from the body and uses all the senses. Sex is a theme throughout the story — good and bad, loving and illicit. The sensuality of children, their innocence, is played against what Veronica, now a grown woman, views in hindsight and what we, as adult readers, also glean in her storytelling.

Page 98:

Here’s me at the age of three, with my ear pressed against the beige tin cliff of her washing machine…

Here’s me eating Ada’s rubber bathing hat whose famous yellow flowers appeared in my nappy the next day. Though, of course it must have been Kitty’s nappy—hardly mine.

Here’s me, definitely, pulling the bathing cap over my face. I lick the salty inside of it, until it seals me up—the smell of Ada’s hair in the sea.

Page 101:

Ada’s little garden was probably just a yard, but we thought it an exciting place, with crab apples and nettles: the door to the garage was sometimes open and sometimes bolted, and the fat that you never knew if Mr Nugent was in there only added to the interest.

 I just used to slide up and down the upholstery, or squirm across the nice rows of stitching, and talk in a grand voice to whoever was driving, whether or not he was actually there.

 On a Friday he came round to the front door to know, and he always had sweets for the children. He wore a hat, which he doffed when Ada opened the door. It was many years before I wondered at the formality of this arrangement, or what was going on.

The themes of love, loss, sex, betrayal, and forgiveness reverberate across the years. The mysteries of the body and the heart befuddle the child and the woman Veronica has become, perhaps as they befuddled Ada, a woman of a different time, more repressed by her era than Veronica is by hers. Yet the freedoms of a more openly sexual era don’t make it easier for Veronica, a modern woman, to sort out her emotions.

Lesson: Use the tangible body to contrast with a psychological, emotional state.

Veronica veers back and forth from past to present and to and from her brother’s death and her own disintegration— her marriage to Tom, her sense of self. Enright plays Veronica’s fragile state of mind against tangible flesh and domestic objects.

Page 133:

I can not feel the weight of my body on the bed. I can not feel the line of my skin along the sheet. I am swinging an inch or so off the mattress, and I do not believe in myself—in the way I breath or turn—and I do not believe in Tom beside me: that he is alive (sometimes I wake to find him dead, only to wake again). Or that he loves me.

 …I wake to a livid tumescence on his prone body; a purple thing on the verge of decay. Tom is flung wide on his back, asleep like a dead saint, or a child.

 …And I turn around again and gather the covers about me, as the thing my husband is fucking in his sleep slowly recedes. A thing that might be me…Or it might not be me.

This is a setup for the abuse scene Veronica witnessed as a child and which appears in the book ten pages later. It also sets her more adrift.

Lesson: Follow Chekhov’s advice.

An often-quoted piece of advice from Anton Chekhov applies here.”If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Substitute “penis.” His advice also concerns the economy of story elements put them there for a reason and make good use of them.

Enright prefigures the abuse scene Veronica witnessed as a child with a perfectly legitimate and ordinary bedroom scene featuring Tom’s “cock so purple and dense it was a burden to him.” (Page 133)

We have that image in our mind when, in the next chapter, the child Veronica happens upon Mr Nugent and Liam, in Ada’s good front room.

Page 143:

What struck me was the strangeness of what I saw, when I opened the door. It was as if Mr Nugent’s penis, which was sticking straight out of his flies, had grown strangely, and flowered at the tip to produce the large and unwieldy shape of a boy, that boy being my brother Liam, who, I finally saw, was not an extension of the man’s member, set down mysteriously on the ground in front of him, but a shocked (of course he was shocked, I had opened the door) boy of nine, and the member not even that, but the boy’s bare forearm, that made a abridge of flesh between himself and Mr Nugent.

As an adult, Veronica questions her memory. What did she really see? But readers see the penis—an echo of Tom’s erect and spousal, but this one erect and terrible—a threat to the young Liam. Neither he nor Veronica, at the time, understands the harm. We readers do understand. We know the difference between right and wrong, between a man naked with his wife in a casual bedroom scene and a man exposing himself to a young boy. Veronica, the young girl, could not have given us the vivid description of Mr Nugent’s penis that she gave of Tom’s. It would have been crude and inappropriate within her narrative. The unadorned description “so purple and dense” from the woman Veronica’s bedroom contrasts with the “flowered at the tip” from the child Veronica’s memory of her intrusion into her grandmother’s “good room.” There’s another contrast—not such a “good” room, after all.

Like Chekhov’s gun, the penis is a necessary element. It’s better to describe it before the crime, because in the heat of the moment, can we trust our eyes? And even if we could, the description would impede the crime scene, especially if we want doubt about what was witnessed to linger in the mind of a key character or the mind of the reader.

Lesson: Reveal emotions through the body.

We know bodies. We each have one. Usually our bodies know before we consciously understand what is wrong, what is right, and what our emotional state is. Enright gifts Veronica with body awareness, and Veronica lets us read her body along with her. We discover her emotional state as she does.

Page 244:

I have been so much touched these last few days. I cross my legs over the memory of the ex we had the night of the wake. Or he had. And wait for the Mass to begin. Everyone wants a bit of me. And it has nothing to do with what I might want, or what my body might want, whatever that might be—God knows it is a long time since I knew. There I am, sitting on a church bench in my own meat: pawed, used, loved, and very lonely.

I won’t tell here how the story ends. Veronica’s memory of Liam’s abuse appears halfway through the book. It’s the trigger for her bodily and emotional journey through time and space.

But even if you know how the book ends, you’ll want to read it again and again for the Enright’s exquisite and profound sensory gathering of emotions.

Pre-publication reviews for A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins promise a great debut novel—”brainy, bright, brilliantly observant about the way we live now, brilliantly inventive, incandescent with humor and insight, astonishing, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over-kind of novel”—and the book doesn’t disappoint. I agree with author Charles Baxter’s jacket blurb that the “haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”

It’s lodged in mine. But is it the story or character that haunt? Those strands weave together in any good fiction. In this book there are two main characters‚ Neill Jr (the first-person narrator) and “drbas” (Dr. Bassett, Neill Sr), and two story lines that lace tightly, inextricably and, yes, brilliantly, for a fast, enjoyable read. The laudable invention of the book is Dr. Bassett, whose role in the story is as a computer being groomed for artificial intelligence. He has been programmed with the diaries that the human Dr. Bassett kept while alive. The book’s most haunting aspect, to this reader, is how the “drbas” character lives beyond the page.

Lesson: Grow affection for characters by revealing their vulnerabilities

The narrator (Neill Jr) is flawed. He confirms this on page one by comparing himself to an upstairs neighbor, a hermit who is carted out of the apartment building by paramedics. Though Neill wouldn’t trade places with Fred, he isn’t living a much more colorful or enviable life. He is thirty-six, divorced, commutes two hours a day to his job at Amiante Systems—a linguistic computer project (Neill has no computer science background), and “without self-pity” follows an uneventful bachelor’s routine of daily rituals. He states that “[n]ot everyone’s life will be a great love story,” but in that statement lies the promise that this book just might tell his. He is waiting for something to fill him, and we feel his huge hole. He has room to grow.

Drbas is also flawed. He was flawed as a man, husband, and father who committed suicide, and also leaves much to be desired as a computer linguistics program. He’s awkward, inarticulate, full of clichés and platitudes, and emotionally distant. He has room to grow.

Rachel, a twenty-year-old woman Neill meets at a hostel, is also vulnerable. A spiritual seeker involved with the cult of “Pure Encounters” when they meet, she becomes his love interest and adds unpredictability (always a benefit for good fiction) to his staid life. She has room to grow.

All this room to grow gives readers room to grow their affection for the characters. To the end, we’re rooting for them to claim the potential the story suggests they deserve.

Lesson: Make characters memorable through their relationships with other characters 

Drbas is only a computer, but through Dr. Bassett’s diaries with which he’s been programmed and Neill’s daily interactions with him, he gains a real presence in Neill’s life and in the story. In fact, he seems to take on a life of his own to the extent that Neill confides in him about his new girlfriend and also looks to him for insight and closure on their father/son relationship.

Neill is evolving his own presence as a man who is able to inhabit a full, adult life. He is becoming a person who can better negotiate his fear of being in a relationship, of being disappointed, of giving and receiving unconditional love—whether with a parent or a mate.

Rachel can never meet the real Dr. Bassett, long dead at the time of the story, but Neil juxtaposes them in the narrative. “Rachel’s eyes were crystalline green and bright, but here they’re dark and dull, the color of old limes. Her skin is waxy white; a broad brush of young blood runs from cheek to jaw. Blood, as my father once, said, is both vital and mortal. He was a physician, after all.”

Lesson: Infuse the writing with sensory material to bring your characters come alive

Hutchins follows beautifully the cardinal rule of fiction writing and engages all the senses. He uses sensory material economically, such as when introducing in the first paragraph the fact that Neill has been married by having him say “my ex-wife used to complain about the smell” of Fred’s cigarette smoking. He uses it pointedly, singling Rachel out from the two girls he meets at the hostel.”The girls are lightly dressed, as if we’re hitting the clubs in Miami: short skirts with Ugg boots, tube tops skintight and grimacing. They shiver. The blonde, Rachel—the more handsome but less cute of the two—reddens and speckles from the gusting cold.” He uses it to set a tone at work with Livorno, his eccentric boss: “The rhythmic ting-tock-ting-tock of Livorno’s practice putts comes to a stop.”

Neill craves the human touch. Drbas and Rachel represent the extremes of that desire. He never felt enough affection from his father while Dr. Bassett was alive, and the computer falls short in that department. But Rachel is fully fleshed. “I put my hand under the heavy band of her sweatshirt and help her take it off, feeling the ridges of her ribs. A clavichord, a scallop shell. Her deodorant smells warmly of cloves.”

Lesson: It’s okay to have your characters live “happily ever after”

No spoilers here. I won’t give away the plot such as it is—more than to say that the charm of this story is greatly how these characters grow on us and the affection we feel for them. This is a human and hard-wired character-driven story with many lessons for the writer and a few hours of pure enjoyment for the reader.

Are you confused about writer’s “rules”? As soon as you glean a new rule from a book on writing craft or hear it from a teacher, you find an exception in a novel you’re enjoying?

We’ve all heard the admonition: “Keep flashbacks to a minimum.” Yet, time and again, I find books replete with them. Hmmm. To flashback or not to flashback? What’s a writer to do? I’m no longer confused about that “rule.” It is intended to make writing more manageable and, as with other rules, it was made to be broken.

Case in point: Paul Harding’s Tinkers. It’s mostly a flashback within the consciousness of George, a dying man, and dips even further back to George’s father’s life. The novel won the 2010 Pulitzer not because it follows the “rule,” but because it so imaginatively breaks it.

Lesson: Keep time for the reader

When I first read Tinkers, I was disoriented before I finished page three. George is dying. His house is collapsing around him, plaster falling on his head. Women are in the kitchen, men in the yard, but no one comes to George’s rescue. It made no sense. I began again with page one and realized that the author couldn’t have been more clear. The first sentence reads: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” (That’s a helpful gatekeeper. See the Gatekeepers & Story Seeds category in this blog for others.)

Somehow I’d missed “hallucinate” on the first read, or missed understanding its implications. I’d been in a hurry. I slowed my pace and read the opening again. Hmmm. George is going to die in eight days. He’s in a hospital bed in his own living room. No cliffhangers here. He’s ill and is going to die at home. I like character-driven fiction and don’t need complicated plots, so I kept reading, carried forward by the percussive prose detailing George’s hallucinations. (Harding used to be a drummer in a rock band. He says he writes by ear, by rhythm, and it shows.)

Tinkers is a meditation on life, love, and family. A rich vein of controlled emotion—love and loss—connects the stories of son and father. George’s imagination buries him in wreckage—ceiling, plumbing, old coats from the attic—and his dying days blur his present and past life with that of his father, Howard, an epileptic who abandoned his family when George was a boy. With all the hallucinations and dream-like states of consciousness, the double story line could become a blur, but Harding points the way. Throughout the book, he orients us with clear prose: “Noon found him momentarily alone…” “Nearly seventy years before George died, his father, Howard Aaron Crosby drove a wagon…” “One hundred and sixty-eight hours before he died, he snaked into the basement window…” “One afternoon, in the spring before his death, George…” “George was dehydrated ninety-six hours before he died…” “Eight-four hours before he died…” “George woke for the last time forty-eight hours before he died…

Lesson: Play with time & consciousness

Harding’s time-keeping device ticks down the days, hours, and minutes of George’s life and propels the story forward. The narrative moves easily between George’s hallucinations and his father’s non-linear mind. These opening sentences of three successive paragraphs demonstrate how we’re carried into George’s consciousness, to Howard’s, and back to George’s with direct transitions: “George could dig and pour the concrete basement …” “The stubbornness of some of the country women with whom Howard came into contact…” “George bought a broken clock…”

If the story was more linear and the consciousness of the two men less dreamy and other-worldly, these transitions would feel too structured and obvious. It is by contrast that they work so well to establish the book’s rhythm, the zig-zagging between the men’s lives. As the novel progresses, the identifiers are less specific, yet they are particular to remembered time and place. The story lines weave in and out from page 11 until 66, then Howard’s story takes over. George appears as a boy in Howard’s section. On page 157, adult George comes back in, and his last days are interwoven with Howard’s history until the book’s end. “The last thing George Washington Crosby remembered as he died was Christmas dinner, 1953…” By this time George had the family who will figure in his dying days—the wife and children who at book’s beginning gathered around to care for him. The remembered Christmas was the last time George saw Howard, who made an unexpected visit, kept the car running outside, and didn’t stay for dinner. George’s memory of Howard’s departure merges with his final thought. Their parting, past and present, collides in one word: “Goodbye.”

Lesson: Make all elements serve the story

George repairs clocks, and clocks appear throughout as the days wind down. Howard was a tinker—a seller and repairer of things. His wagon of household and miscellaneous items juxtaposes with the stuff of George’s attic—life’s detritus falling upon him. A clock repair manual and astronomy, man-made (houses, clocks) and natural worlds (woods, weather) characterize the son and father. Because George grew up with an unpredictable father, he sought predictability as an adult. What can be counted on more than a clock, especially if one knows how to keep it ticking?

Thought that he was a clock was like a clock was like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits. But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me. But to himself? Who knows? And so it is not he who was like a clock but me.

Tinkers is held together by a sense of chaos and repair, things falling apart and being mended: clocks, pots, and emotions. It is a hymn to the firmament of life and death, the unfathomable dimensions of the heart and the real, intricate workings of daily life. Tick tock.

I keep coming back to this book. The jacket flap reads: “One of the best-loved classics since its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than twenty languages and sold over thirty million copies worldwide.” That was 1995. A more recent statistic says forty million in fifty years. There are many reasons readership for To Kill a Mockingbird has never died.

I’ve written about the book’s lovable narrator, Scout, and about its symmetry, but what also draws me in time and again is “place.” Maycomb is based on Harper Lee’s own Monroeville, Alabama. Her familiarity with the real small town informs the fictional. But what makes Maycomb even more believable is the way it contains the story.

Lesson: Locate your place with expansive geographic context & intimate human scale

We’re all familiar with the dimensional opening of a movie: earth spins, bird’s eye view dives through clouds, hones in on North America, the vast landscape becoming hills, trees, streets, houses, zooms onto a front porch to a paper a boy has just thrown. What would take minute to view in film requires time for us to read the first few pages of Lee’s novel, but we receive a similar cinematic sense: picture Simon Finch paddling up the Alabama (p. 3), zoom out to the Battle of Hastings, Cornwall, England, back “across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens”…”a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens…Finch’s Landing…Maycomb, some twenty miles east of Finch’s Landing,” zoom in to Atticus’s office, the courthouse, hat rack, spittoon. Wide angle again to the Maycomb streets, people ambling across the square, to the main residential street, move in close up to home, the kitchen, the Finch family’s nearsighted cook, Calpurnia (p. 6).

This telescoping technique works to set the story in context and bring it into focus to commence action.

Lesson: Give your story boundaries to push against

As the story begins, Scout is obedient: When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house two doors to the north of us, and the Radley Place three doors to the south. We were never tempted to break them. The Radley Place was inhabited by an unknown entity the mere description of whom was enough to make us behave for days on end; Mrs. Dubose was plain hell. That was the summer Dill came to us.

Uh oh. Tension is established immediately through “place.” The kids will be tempted to stray beyond the imposed neighborhood boundaries. Scout describes the nearby  terror in animate detail: The Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house. Walking south, one faced its porch; the sidewalk turned and ran beside the lot. The house was low, was once white with a deep front porch and green shutters, but had long ago darkened to the color of the slate-gray yard around it. Rainrotted shingles drooped over the eaves of the veranda; oak trees kept the sun away. The remains of a picket drunkenly guarded the front yard—a “swept” yard that was never swept—where johnson grass and rabbit-tobacco grew in abundance. Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom.

For decades, literature students and devoted readers have physically or mentally mapped Maycomb, drawing the jutting curve of the Radley house south of the Finch’s and the schoolyard beyond, penciling the route to town past Mrs. Dubose’s house north to the courthouse and office which claims Atticus daily. The setup comes into play again and again as the kids venture beyond the comfort zone. As they test the limits, they grow older and wiser, more aware of the larger, less safe world beyond their home. In the course of the three years of the book, they will not only intrude into the terrifying territory of Boo Radley’s yard, to the town unaccompanied at night, and to a courtroom trial without permission, but they’ll gain vivid impressions of harsh places: the treacherous Ewell’s property and a far-away prison from which Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused by Ewell of raping Ewell’s daughter and unjustly convicted, tries to escape.

Lesson: Know your locale and employ detail consistently to enrich and fulfill the story

Near story’s end, when Jem and Scout are on their way in the dark to the school Halloween pageant, they pass by the Radley place and Scout trips on a root in the road. They  enter the school yard and Scout asks, “How do you know we’re at, Jem?” He replies, “I can tell we’re under the big oak because we’re passin’ through a cool spot. Careful now, and don’t fall again.”  The big oak has been a constant in the story, symbolic of Boo Radley’s presence. After the pageant on their return home, Jem and Scout sense they’re being followed. Scout, in her ham costume, is unable to see anything, but the details inform her and set up tension. She narrates: I felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak.

There’s a scuffle, Jem is hurt and carried home by someone, and Scout makes her way in what remains of her ham costume. In the end, after it’s revealed that Ewell had tried to attack the children and Boo saved them, Scout offers Boo her arm to escort him home. She walks with him, fearless, all the way to his front porch—only a short stroll from her house but a far distance from where she was when the story began. 

An Alice Walker poem begins, “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”  How differently Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse would admonish us. “Expect everything,” she might say. “Live richly on expectation.”

Lesson: Contrast your characters’ outlooks

In Mrs. Ramsay’s world, tomorrow will always be fine, even if it’s storming today. “And even if it isn’t fine tomorrow, it will be another day.” The matriarch enriches those around her with her optimism. Her young son, hearing her promise that he may go tomorrow to the lighthouse, endows a picture of a refrigerator he is cutting from a catalog “with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.”

Mr. Ramsay dampens the enthusiasm, saying, “But it won’t be fine.”  A houseguest reiterates, “No going to the Lighthouse, James.” Mrs. Ramsay counters the men’s harshness, saying to James, “Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing.” She recognizes her son’s passion for going to the lighthouse, recognizes the satisfaction that comes with anticipating, with always having something on the horizon to look forward to, plan for, and imagine.

Lesson: Enrich your characters with complex character

Expectation is the core of Mrs. Ramsay’s being. Matriarch of the large summer home full of her family and guests, she expects her children and companions to possess good manners and good natures and be pleasant conversationalists; she expects happiness for those she loves. In “The Window,” the first long third of the three-part novel, one day elapses. It is a summer day by the sea, one appearing to be much like many others that summer and all the summers before and many to come for the Ramsays; that is, if Mrs. Ramsay can keep hope alive, but there are signs that she can’t do this, not even for herself. At dinner, a wave of dissatisfaction submerges her own optimism: she wonders what she’s done with her life; she has no affection for her husband; she can’t perceive beauty anywhere. We see Mrs. Ramsay through the eyes of Lily Briscoe, a painter and friend of the family. “How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote.”

The first lines from Alice Walker’s poem, “Expect Nothing,” might characterize more readily Lily’s philosophy. As a single woman artist, employed in housekeeping for her father, she lives, however frugally, on the generosity of her friends and on her own resources, not the least of which is her enthusiasm for capturing her on her canvas some sense of the grandeur or fine essence of the world and life around. Lily’s thoughts on how to live might resonate with another line from Walker’s poem, “Wish for nothing larger than your own small heart or greater than a star.”  She is modest in her expectations of material things and in what her station in life might bring—not a large home, brood of children, fine drapery, dinner parties, nor servants.  But her artist’s heart is ambitious: if she could, she would paint a masterpiece.

“She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odd to maintain her courage; to say: ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see,’ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”

She would capture the seascape, the lighthouse in the distance, and the family in its glory—especially Mrs. Ramsay’s expansiveness—if she could do justice to her vision of beauty. Many painters come to the seashore to paint the lighthouse, but Lily does not want to be one of the many who imitate all the others, nor follow the newest fashion. She seeks her own vision; the expression of it eludes her.

Lesson: Give your characters a relationship to time

Art is made of expectation, of keeping hope—or the vision inspired by it—alive.  Vision is the ability to see within oneself and beyond oneself. With that ability, the artist connects deeply to the world and creates a tangible expression that lasts beyond a lifetime. Mrs. Ramsay has the ability to connect, but her expressions are ephemeral: conversation, her giving nature, caring for her household and friends, love.

The thousand forces, which plague both Mrs. Ramsay and Lily, include the ravages of time. In the first section the reader is transported from one character’s consciousness to another, in the short second section, “Time Passes,” the deserted summerhouse and its caretaker bear witness to the family’s fate: ten years pass, Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children die. With Woolf, time is fluid, and she is a master at controlling it for the reader. She makes a moment within a character’s thought expand far beyond the clock’s measure, and makes years of time compress to a moment.

Lesson: Develop character arcs in ways that are consistent with what is set up early in the story for each character

In the third section, “The Lighthouse,” Lily has returned with Mr. Ramsay and the younger children, including James, who, in spite of his mother’s promise, has never been to the lighthouse. It’s a beautiful day and Lily, feeling like a stranger to the familiar summer place, cannot rouse emotions over the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew, even though she loved them.

The book’s color palette evokes light and fog; the rhythm suggests the ocean’s ebbs and tides. The story is carried on opposing currents of tangible and intangible, order and chaos, masculine and feminine, structured and ephemeral. These currents ripple through Lily. There are the predictable elements that lend order to the day and seasons: architecture—the solid summerhouse, the obelisk of lighthouse, domestic tasks, clock, and calendar. There are the unpredictable and more volatile forces of weather, fate, emotions, and artistic intent. In attempting to depict the lighthouse, Lily has struggled to find her artistic voice; as a woman artist, she has struggled to define herself in the social landscape. “Life is a work of art,” she says, but still she attempts to secure a moment in paint.

Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam set out across the waves to the lighthouse; Lily remains on shore with her easel. For sixteen-year-old James, the trip cannot possibly meet his expectations, which are entwined with memories of his mother and her promise. There are two lighthouses: the one seen from across the bay and the stark tower close-up. But the journey for him becomes not as much about reaching the lighthouse as winning praise, long withheld, from his father. Finally, when they land on the rock where the lighthouse perches, Mr. Ramsay has exclaimed to James, “Well done!”

Lesson: Use symbol and metaphor to show fulfillment

Across the bay, Lily paints the scene. She had attempted the same scene a decade ago, but “there had been a problem about a foreground.” As she paints a fresh canvas, she is overwhelmed by emotion and cries for Mrs. Ramsay, for life itself, “so short…so inexplicable,” and for a vision of beauty that Mrs. Ramsay represented (and, as well, perhaps, because of Lily’s own demons mentioned above). She notices that the lighthouse “had melted away into a blue haze, and the effort of looking at it and the effort of thinking of him landing there, which both seemed to be one and the same effort, had stretched her body and mind to the utmost.”  She is thinking of Mr. Ramsay, to whom Mrs. Ramsay had devoted her life, and of a confused “rapture of sympathy”the glow, the rhapsody, the self-surrender she had seen on so many women’s faces (on Mrs. Ramsay’s, for instance).” Lily had tried to give Mr. Ramsay that glow earlier in the morning, feeling perhaps that she owed it to Mrs. Ramsay, or to him, or to some unfilled promise of her own womanhood.

Finally, Lily feels, more than sees through the fog, that the boat has reached its destination; finally Mr. Ramsay has fulfilled Mrs. Ramsay’s promise to James. “He has landed,” she said aloud. “It is finished.”

Released from expectation, she regards her picture, “all its greens and blues…its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter?” The canvas blurs and in an instant she sees clearly, then draws a line in the center. She puts down her brush in satisfaction, surprised, perhaps, at the results before her, and thinks, “I have had my vision.”

In the seascape of greens and blues on her canvas, she has made the lighthouse appear with one single stroke, a stroke whose full effort has taken her lifetime.

Fiction is conflict. Someone versus someone or something. Professor Coleman Silk, Philip Roth’s central character in “The Human Stain,” lectures his students: “You know how European literature begins? With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” He reads aloud the opening lines of The Iliad. “‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Begin where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father.”

Roth’s narrator, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, begins with one of Coleman’s secrets, telling us that Coleman “confided to me that at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.”

Lesson: Embody theme in character

Coleman Silk has a past life. Secrecy is the heart of the novel. Conflict is the heartbeat. Roth gives to young Coleman boxing training and to the adult Dean Silk an academic life in which he’s unlikely to be found in a barroom brawl. Yet Coleman never drops the gloves. He’s been in fisticuffs since early adulthood, dodging what he believes to be the knock-out punch—the closely guarded Big Secret—that he threw at himself. 

Faunia Farley is not Coleman’s biggest secret. She’s of an age and social status that he believes would only further ravage his reputation, which has been pulverized by a misunderstanding due to a comment he made in class about two absent students. He asks, “Do they exist or are they spooks?” His father taught him to be precise with language; Coleman intends “spooks” to mean “ghosts, specters.” He’s never seen the students and, as his fate would have it, both are black. They set in motion accusations of racism and academic politics that lead to Coleman’s resignation and the grief, he believes, that causes his wife’s death.

Faunia, a victim and survivor of life’s misfortunes, also embodies conflict, but her struggles are no secret. Abused as a child by her stepfather, she ran from economic security to a hard-scrabble existence, marrying a man who beat her —Lester, her now ex-husband, a Vietnam vet who stalks her and Coleman. She carries the grief and guilt of losing her two young children in a fire—not her fault but certainly her negligence and the source of her internal strife. When she meets Coleman, she’s survived suicide attempts and is resigned to whatever comes her way—for now, the sex and companionship that Coleman offers.

Nathan Zuckerman is fighting battles, too. He’s impotent due to cancer surgery, unable to be helped by Viagra, which enables Coleman’s affair.

Every character in this story embodies conflict: Coleman’s associates on the faculty, his children, his birth family. Coleman’s greatest secret —thus his greatest quarrel with himself—resides with his birth family.

Lesson: Know when to parry, when to punch 

Through the writer Zuckerman, Roth masterfully controls the narrative. Zuckerman lets us know that he knows Coleman’s secret and then delays delivery. We’re given hints:

Sixteen pages in, we’re told that Coleman is a “small-nosed Jewish type with the facial heft in the jaw, one of those crimped-haired Jews of a light yellowish skin pigmentation who possess something of the ambiguous aura of the pale blacks who are sometimes taken for white.”

This seems like an odd bit of detail, but it flows in context with a narrative that from the first sentence offered abundant information: “It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena college for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.”  The gem about the affair aside, there are a lot of numbers: 1998, two, twenty-odd, sixteen more, seventy-one, thirty-four. Whew!

As writers and close readers we know that masterful authors make every word count. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Zuckerman, relating an incident from Coleman’s youth, refers to “the kind of obstacle that the Silks themselves had had to overcome to achieve all that distinguished them as a model Negro family.” Model Negro family? Wasn’t Coleman a white Jew? Well, apparently not. He’s lived a lie his entire adult life, denying his family and heritage in order to marry a white woman and be accepted into white academia. The lie has stained his life and even though the truth could save him from the accusations of racism, he doesn’t tell his wife. When she dies, his guilt at holding the lie is even greater. Perhaps the truth could have saved his career and her. But he’s lied to his children too. He’s backed into a corner, up against the ropes. His fear and shame have shadowed his life more than his genetics have darkened his complexion. His cowardice costs him, if not every round of his fight, certainly the match. 

Lesson: Offer a time out, if not resolution or victory

Things end badly for Coleman and Faunia, who die when her truck careens off the road into a lake. Zuckerman believes Lester is the cause of their death. The narrative we’re reading is the book Zuckerman is writing about Coleman’s life, telling truths that Coleman didn’t have the courage to tell. Zuckerman confronts the volatile Lester, who is ice-fishing on the above-mentioned lake. Zuckerman sees a broken, terrified, and terrifying man—the man he, Zuckerman, could have continued becoming and would become if he didn’t tell this story in a reliable, truthful way. His bout finishes without a winner or even a technical knockout. We don’t what will happen to Lester or to Zuckerman, who trails off…

“Just facing him, I could feel the terror of the auger—even with him already seated back on his bucket: the icy white of the lake encircling a tiny spot that was a man, the only human marker in all of nature, like the X of an illiterate’s signature on a sheet of paper. There it was, if not the whole story, the whole picture. Only rarely, at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that’s constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.”

Lesson: Layer contemporary events to add social dimension

Roth is a  “Great American Novelist.” His themes are grand and intricately linked to contemporary events. “The Human Stain” is the story of Coleman Silk and also the story of our nation in the late 1990s, our shame, and our secrets. In spite of desegregation, civil rights as evidenced by  laws on the books for decades, and the ability to identify the demons which possess America, whether PTSD, cancer, or Clinton’s “incontinent carnality” (Roth devotes passages to Bill and Monica), we Americans still struggle to get past race, religion, politics, tragedy, sanctimony, and whatever causes us to judge and fear, and prevents us from seeing ourselves in other human beings.

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