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Archive for August, 2010

Three selections from the Read to Write Books session Love & Other Emotions prompted several questions: What is a love story? How is its telling affected by choice of narrator? What does a reader hope to experience in reading a love story? How does an author get under the skin of his or her characters to convey sensuality? How much is enough when writing sex scenes? How can the state of being in love be made believable on the page?

Jasmine, Atonement, and Lolita are interesting for what they do differently, as well as for what they do similarly. In traditional love stories (formulaic perhaps, but fulfilling our expectations), boy meets girl, girl meets boy, they fall in love, overcome obstacles, and, depending on whether it’s a comedy or tragedy, live happily ever after or not.

Authors Bharati Mukherjee, Ian McEwan, and Vladimir Nabokov dodge the formulaic story arc by employing unusual narrative structures and by framing the essential love stories within social, political, moral, and legal contexts, not merely for plot purposes, but to heighten the contrast with “normality” and thus lay bare that normal and complex emotion of “love.”

As unique as these love stories are, however, the basics elements remain: two people, desire, obstacles, and endings that deny or fulfill the relationship.

Lesson: Start with unlikely matchmaking that resists easy fulfillment 

Jasmine: Conflicts of culture and life experience

In Mukherjee’s Jasmine, the heroine, born in Punjab, transforms from a traditionally-raised Indian girl named Jyoti, to a wife called “Jasmine” by her modern-minded Indian husband, Prakash, to a refugee called “Jazzy” by a woman who befriends her in America, to an au pair dubbed “Jase” by Taylor, the father of the girl she cares for in New York, to a woman known as “Jane,” who lives with a disabled Iowan farmer twice her age. Told in first person, her love story begins with Prakash, whom she marries at fifteen, and ends with Taylor, for whom she abandons her Iowa life at twenty-four.

As a young girl in India, Jasmine receives a prophecy that she will be widowed and exiled, but doesn’t want to accept it…

“What happened?” my sister shrieked as they sponged the bleeding star on my forehead with the wetted ends of their veils. “Now your face is scarred for life? Who will the family even find you a husband?”

“It’s not a scar,” I shouted, “it’s my third eye.”…”Now I’m a sage.”

Prakash is murdered. He had wanted them to go to America; so to honor him, Jasmine makes the trip. No longer an innocent girl, her experiences in America as a new immigrant scar her emotionally, but she still desires dreams of love and family.

The love I felt for Taylor that first day had nothing to do with sex. I fell in love with his world, its ease, its careless confidence and graceful self-absorption. I wanted to become the person they thought they saw: humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate. Not illegal, not murderer, not widowed, raped, destitute, fearful. In Flushing, I had lived defensively in the midst of documented rectitude. I did not want to live legally if it also meant living like a refugee.

Atonement: Conflicts of class

In McEwan’s Atonement, Cecilia and Robbie fall in love. She is the daughter of upper-class parents; he is their maid’s son. They had been playmates in childhood, and Cecilia’s father paid for his education. Their love relationship might have been accepted in spite of their conflicting social status, but Robbie’s low birth makes it easier for a false accusation to stick and keep the lovers apart. But before the accusation, before they realize they’re in love, they must melt their own resistance to one another. Several points of view and forward-backward play of timeline add to this novel’s dramatic impact. In the passages below, we are in Cecilia’s consciousness.

But her childhood friend and university acquaintance, Robbie Turner, was on his knees, weeding along a rugosa hedge, and she did not feel like getting into conversation with him. Or at least, not now. Since coming down, landscape gardening had become his last craze but one. Now there was talk of medical college, which after a literature degree seemed rather pretentious. And presumptuous too, since it was her father who would have to pay.

Three pages later, less resistance…

And there was Robbie, who exasperated her with his affectation of distance, and his grand plans which he would only discuss with her father. They had known each other since they were seven, she and Robbie, and it bothered her that they were awkward when they talked. Even though she felt it was largely his fault — could his first have gone to this head? — she knew this was something she must clear up before she thought of leaving.

Next page, even less resistance…

…. she wondered about going out to Robbie. It would save her from running upstairs. But she felt uncomfortable and hot, and would have liked to check her appearance in the large gilt mirror above the fireplace. But if he turned round — he was standing with his back to the house, smoking — he would see right into the room.

Lolita: Conflicts of human character and morals

Nabokov’s Lolita is Humbert Humbert’s case history—his pseudonymous memoir, a defense, and an apology in his own words for his love affair with Lolita, his “stepdaughter” and a child at the time the relationship commenced. Laced with double entendres and word play, the book is a feast of prose. Whether read as a tragicomedy, a metaphor for totalitarianism, confessions of a pervert, or psychology of a nymphet, this classic novel immortalized two iconic characters — Humbert Humbert and Lolita.

Gentlemen of the jury! I cannot swear that certain motions pertaining to the business in hand—if I may coin an expression—had not drifted across my mind before. My mind had not retained them in any logical form or in any relation to definitely recollected occasions; but I cannot swear—let me repeat—that I had not toyed with them (to rig up yet another expression), in my dimness of thought, in my darkness of passion. There may have been times—there must have been times, if I know my Humbert—when I had brought up for detached inspection the idea of marrying a mature widow (say, Charlotte Haze) with not one relative left in the wide gray world, merely in order to have my way with her child (Lo, Lola, Lolita).

We’re 114 pages into the book when Humbert, finally alone with Lolita, would have his way with her, it would seem, but while driving Lo away from summer camp, Humbert meets her come-on with resistance of his own, prolonging his cat-and-mouse game. Lolita doesn’t yet know of her mother’s death and enjoys acting in a way she knows her mother would disapprove.

“Say, wouldn’t Mother be absolutely mad if she found out we were lovers?”

“Good Lord, Lo, let us not talk that way.”

“But we are lovers, aren’t we?

“Not that I know of. I think we are going to have some more rain. Don’t you want to tell me of those little pranksof yours in camp?”

“You talk like a book, Dad.”

“What have you been up to? I insist you tell me.”

“Are you easily shocked?”

“No. Go on.”

“Let us turn into a secluded lane and I’ll tell you.”

“Lo, I must seriously ask you not to play the fool. Well?’ 

Lesson: Pile on obstacles to hinder the love relationship

Jasmine: Just as she finally finds happiness with Taylor and his daughter, Jasmine’s past catches up with her.

He was walking me now, half-pulling me, back to the cement benches that lined the mall. I could feel Duff reaching for my hand. I wanted to talk, but my throat had sealed. I couldn’t get my breath, it was like asthma.

We were standing by the traffic light at Ninety-sixth Street, at the bottom of Riverside Drive’s longest hill. “Tell me what’s wrong, for god’s sake. can I get you anything?”

“That was the man who killed my husband,” I said, between long gasps. “He knows…he knows me. He know I’m here.”

She leaves New York for Iowa, and another round of obstacles builds, or has built, because by the time we read the above scene, we’re familiar with her midwestern life. As Jane—unmarried, pregnant, stepmother/older sister to seventeen-year-old refugee Du, helpmate in the role of wife and love to disabled farmer Bud—, she lives a life infused with modern and old-world values. It is in many ways a parody of a life she might have led in India, had she been dutifully wed to a kind older man not of her choosing and become the caretaker of his family. Bud loves her completely; she’s fond of him, but not in love with him. The book’s narrative structure—events and timeline chopped up into a curry—makes the story more compelling than if it had been delivered chronologically.

Atonement: Misperceptions and false accusation by Briony, Cecilia’s sister, lead to Robbie’s arrest.

Briony, an aspiring 13-year-old writer, succumbs to her dangerous imagination and diverts the lovers’ path from happiness. The passage below is from her point of view.

The handcuffs were in full view but Robbie did not appear ashamed or even aware of them as he faced Cecilia and listened gravely to what she was saying. The impassive policemen looked on. If she was delivering the bitter indictment Robbie deserved to hear, it did not show on his face. Though Cecilia was facing away from her, Briony thought she was speaking with very little animation. Her accusations would be all the more powerful for being muttered. They had moved closer, and now Robbie spoke briefly, and half raised his locked hands and let them fall. She touched them with her own, and fingered his lapel, and then gripped it and shook it gently. It seeemed a kindly gesture and Briony was touched by her sister’s capacity for forgiveness, if this was what it was.

Lolita: Humbert’s secret plans are nearly thwarted by a man who  later become Humbert’s nemesis when the man takes Lolita for his own playmate.

Humbert is on the hotel porch, eager to get back to his room where he’s left Lolita after giving her sleeping pills. As he’s imagining how their effect will allow him to fulfill his fantasies with her, he hears a voice from the dark porch.

“Where the devil did you get her?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: the weather is getting better.”

“Seems so.”

“Who’s the lassie?”

“My daughter.”

“You lie—she’s not.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: July was hot. Where’s her mother?”

“Dead.”

“I see. Sorry. By the way, why don’t you two lunch with me tomorrow. That dreadful crowd will be gone by then.”

“We’ll be gone too. Good night.”

Lesson: Use sensuous language to render “love” scenes that are natural but not ordinary 

Jasmine: Her story is charged by restraint: every mention of touch sizzles. 

Raised to deny her sexual and personal desires, Jasmine gradually discovers and learns to claim them.

Maybe Taylor was very fond of me. Even a little bit in love with me. But in love with me in a different way than he was in love with witty, confident Wylie. On the nights that he had time to help tuck Duff in bed—a ritual that Wylie’d cherished—he wanted me to stay in the darkened room to sit on my cot with him so he could lay one of his big pale hands on Duff’s and the other on mine and spin long bedtime stories about the muddles and mysteries of physics. On those nights, we—Duff, Taylor, and I—became a small, self-sufficient family, and I told myself, guiltily, that everything might really work out all right.

Atonement: A love scene in the library of Cecilia’s home carries the promise of the lovers’ desire through the rest of the novel.

Once Cecilia and Robbie release the resistance they feel for one another caused by their shared pasts and class differences, their passion mounts quickly. Secreted in the house away from dinners guests, they consummate their love only moments before they are discovered by Brionny. In McEwan’s prose, we discover the lovers’ passion along with them, as their familiarity gives way to a new intimacy and knowledge of what their bodies can do together and for one another. Writing about sex can be profane, mundane, erotic or sensual; it can be bodies making contact in sensible or awkward positions; it can elicit readers’ responses of “Been there, done that, read that,” or “Oh! This feels new, real.” McEwan’s writing brings readers into complicity with the lovers and sparks our shared desire for them to fulfill their longing. He avoids the expected bedroom scene and having the lovers voice the obligatory “I love you.”

Until that moment, there was still something ludicrous about having a familiar face so close to one’s own. They felt watched by their bemused childhood selves. But the contact of tongues, alive and slippery muscle, moist flesh on flesh, and the strange sound it drew from her, changed that. This sound seemed to enter him, pierce him down his length so that his whole body opened up and he was able to step out of himself and kiss her freely.

A page and a half of love making against the library shelves continues…

They held their breath before the membrane parted, and when it did she turned away quickly, but made no sound—it seemed to be a point of pride. They moved closer, deeper and then, for seconds on end, everything stopped. Instead of an ecstatic frenzy, there was stillness…

Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can every quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she had been the one to say them first.

More lovemaking against the shelves…then on page 130 Brionny walks in. The power of the love scene pierces and holds tension of unfulfilled desire through the remaining 221 pages.

Lolita: Lively, lyrical, comical prose describes a man’s lust for an underage girl.

Lolita may or may not know what Humbert is doing or where the line of propriety should be drawn, but Humbert knows and so does Nabokov. The author has fun with wordplay to show his character’s state of mind and physical condition as Humbert is titillated and brought to orgasm by the young girl “innocently” sitting on his lap.

She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in it innocent cotton frock.

Under my glancing finger tips I felt the minute hairs bristle ever so slightly along her shins. I lost myself in the pungent but healthy heat which like summer haze hung about little Haze. Let her stay, let her stay…As she strained to chuck the core of her abolished apple into the fender, her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom, shifted in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body.

The scene continues with a profusion of euphemisms:

…a delicious distension of my innermost roots

…With the deep hot sweetness thus established and well on its way to the ultimate convulsion.

…The corpuscles of Krause were entering the phase of frenzy. The least pressure would suffice to set all paradise loose.

…Suspended on the brink of that voluptuous abyss

…there seemed to be nothing to prevent my muscular thumb from reaching the hot hollow of her groin.

…and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.

Lesson: Satisfy the love story with an ending that delights, surprises, gratifies, thwarts, resolves, reveals, pains, thrills, punishes, repents or dishes up emotions in any of the myriad combinations experienced in real life.

Jasmine: This book is the only one of the three in which the lovers ride off into the sunset.

These are the last sentences of the book. Taylor has found Jasmine in Iowa and asks her to come with him and Duff to California. In choosing her freedom to go over any obligation to stay and help Bud, she makes a final break with tradition and fully embraces her new, all-American womanhood.

Then there is nothing I can do. Time will tell if I am a tornado, rubble-maker, arising from nowhere and disappearing into a cloud. I am out the door and in the potholed and rutted driveway, scrambling ahead of Taylor, greedy with wants and reckless from hope.

Atonement: Two different endings satisfy and thwart the reader’s hope that the lovers will finally be together.

This scene, witnessed by Briony, is from the first ending. It reiterates the frontal, upright bodily position of the lovers in the library. Cecilia and Robbie’s happiness seems possible, probable, all the more tender and magnificent for what they’ve endured, though the events that Briony set in motion have wounded them all.

As Cecilia gripped him tighter, he twisted his whole body away from her, and they seemed like wrestlers as she reached up and tried to turn his head toward her. But his face was tilted back, his lips retracted and teeth bared in a ghoulish parody of a smile. Now with two hands she was gripping his cheeks tightly, and with an effort she turned his face and drew it toward her own. At last he was looking into her eyes, but still she kept her grip on his cheeks. She pulled him closer, drawing him into her gaze, until their faces met and she kissed him lightly, lingeringly on the lips. With a tenderness that Briony remembered from years ago, waking in the night, Cecilia said, “Come back…Robbie, come back.”

Lolita: The story ends badly for Lolita and for Humbert.

Humbert is imprisoned for murdering Quilty, the man from the dark hotel porch who pursued Lolita and took her away from Humbert. He believes that he has vindicated Lolita by murdering Quilty. In prison, he writes his memoir to “save his soul,” saying he would sentence himself to thirty-five years for rape. As he writes the conclusion of his memoir, requesting it be published only after Lolita is no longer living, he thinks she is alive and well, married and mother of a child (though the reader knows from the foreward that Lolita died giving birth). Lolita has made it clear that she wants nothing to do with him, other than the money he can provide from her mother’s estate, but he can’t let go his obsession.

I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

Yes, he’s a creepy pedophile, but in his feelings for Lolita, he’s eloquent and persistent—Humbert Humbert—the poster boy for love eternal.

Lolita can be read also as a coming-to-age of postwar America and a profound, intricate wordplay of literary puns and extended metaphor. But it is the relationship between Humbert and Lolita that attracts and repels and stays in our memory.

Humbert’s love for Lolita is mired in delusion and illusion, elements which, to a degree, are contained in any passionate love. The memoir reveals the facts of Humbert’s fiction, leaving us to judge his obsessions and our own.

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The title of Lorrie Moore’s poignant, funny, short (148 pages), brilliant novel asks the question: Who will run the frog hospital?  The black and white frontispiece “illustration” by Nancy Mladenoff features two frogs sitting on a rock in the foreground, one with a splinted front leg, the other with a bandaged head. In the background, two preteen girls dressed in pants and shirts stand among trees whispering.

I like Mladenoff’s artwork, and when I first saw the frontispiece I wondered if she created it for the book or if Moore was inspired by an existing Mladenoff piece. According to a New York Times article, Lorrie Moore saw the painting in an exhibit, bought it, and incorporated it into her novel — title and all. 

In the book, the teenage character Sils, best friend of first-person narrator Berie Carr, paints a picture similar to Mladenoff’s, but in Sils’ version the whispering girls are dressed up as Cinderellas. According to Berie, the frogs looked like frogs who’d been kissed and kissed roughly, yet stayed frogs. What young American girl growing up in the 1950s and 60s (pre-MTV) didn’t want to be Cinderella, or be the Princess who turned the frog into a Prince with only a kiss? But this is real life, not a fairy tale.

The narrative travels back and forth between present day Paris circa early 1990s (the book was published in 1994), where 35ish Berie is with her husband, Daniel, and Berie’s girlhood in Horsehearts, New York, the summer of 1972 when she was 15 and worked with Sils at Storyland. In the summer story, Berie steals money to pay for an abortion for Sils, whom she idolizes; in the Paris story, Berie questions what is missing from her marriage. 

Lesson: Layer time like a club sandwich, then let the reader take a bite

Writers of memoir and narrative nonfiction, as well as novelists, can learn from Moore’s skillful handling of fictional time travel. Her opening lines—In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them—establish place and context for the present. The first paragraph’s last line—Me, I’m eating for a flashback—foreshadows the dip into the past that occurs on the third page. Moore handles present time in present tense, flashbacks in past tense. At times the prose roams with Berie’s musings—a woman at early middle age examining her life; at times it functions to orient us to time, place, and event.  

In the first six pages, Moore has Berie make several time shifts in the narrative:

From present: In Paris, we eat brains every night.

Back to childhood: When I was a child, I tried hard to split my voice.

Forward to the summer she was 15: Although no voice was ever plain in our house—not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that.

Back to more childhood: Everything in our house when I was young felt cloaked with foreignness, code, mood.

Forward to adulthood at a time previous to Paris: Later, when I was an adult, someone at a dinner party played me a recording of Asian monks who could indeed split their voices, create a shattered, choral sound that was like being oneself but also so many others.

Further forward to the present: Certainly “safe” is what I am now—or am supposed to be.

And back to the summer: The summer I was fifteen I worked at a place called storyland with my friend Silsby Chaussee, who all this is really about.

Chomp! By now, we’re eager to bite into the story, and we savor this tidbit of information. We hang in there with Berie as she concocts her layered childhood tale, because we assume that she will make sense out of these memories, and that they will have a bearing on the other story—the one in Paris with her husband.  

Lesson: Set a place from which readers can travel through time and to which they can return

Moore now keeps Berie focused on the summer of 1972 story for 41 pages, with several darts forward and backward.

A quick reference forward to another of Berie’s teenage friends: Ten years later Randi would have a nervous breakdown selling Mary kay Cosmetics…

A long view back, a reminder that the narrator is speaking from the present time: I was invaded by Sils, who lives now in my vanished girlhood, a place to return to at night, in a fat sleep, during which she is there, standing long-armed and balanced on stones in the swamp stream, stone in the cemetery, stones in the gravelly road out back.

A short jump forward from 1972: Once, when I was nineteen, I gave my father a Father’s Day card meant for uncles and neighbors.

A bigger jump forward, referring to her father: Years later, however, I grew angry; taking inventory of all he’d said and done, I came to think of him, bitterly, as a kind of Nazi.

Back to 1972: Sils was not really in love with her boyfriend, Mike, I was sure of it.

A long jump forward: Later, as an adult, when I was wonderfully used to long, important conversations in restaurants or bars—books, love, politics, science—talk that licked about like a flame…

Back to 1972 and Sils: Almost sixteen, she was the sort of fifteen-year-old who looked twenty.

Further back: Years before, when we were eleven, we’d already begun our myriad personal rituals of assertion and disguise.

A leap forward: Decades later, in my one lone year of Housewife’s Bathrobe Disease, my husband at work but not me…

Back to 1972: I knew that morning, my mother dropping me off in front of Storyland, and me glimpsing Sils arriving at the same time with Mike…

A shift to present, where Berie stays for two pages: Sometimes with Daniel I argue about the sixties.

A jump back to 1972 for 21 pages: It was on a Tuesday, my day off, that I planned to show Sils the money.

A chapter break to the present: There is a joke about a middle-aged woman who happens upon a frog in the woods.

Lesson: When readers have devoured half the main narrative, dish out the other story line.

Moore’s book is not formula fiction of any kind that I know of, yet it is a perfectly balanced story. Just as we’re getting nervous that Berie’s theft will be discovered, Moore clears away Horsehearts ’72 and serves a big helping of Berie in Paris.
It’s the halfway point in the novel—from page 69 to 85. Berie is paired with Daniel, and with her friend Marguerite, a half-American, half-French painter. Berie has a crush on Marguerite, who reminds her of what perhaps Sils would be, could have been.

Within this section, Berie bridges the two places in her mind: From Horsehearts to Paris, I think, staring at the ceiling. Has anyone even put those two places in the same thought before? She has, of course. She’s the same person who’s experienced both places, but she feels the disconnect between the child Berie and the adult, and that’s also what this story is really all about.

Lesson: Finish the first story and bring the past up to present

In the next 57 pages, Berie returns in her memory to the summer story and recounts getting busted at Storyland, being shipped off to camp and boarding school, and losing contact with Sils. Ten years after graduating from college, she attends a class reunion in Horsehearts and sees Sils, but chemistry they had, the closeness, the magic of their girlhood has disappeared.

In the last chapter, Berie is in Paris with Daniel, who is wrestling with his heart. He’s asked for her patience. She tells herself: I will wait until I just can’t wait anymore.

Lesson: Capture a moment in time that readers can take with them in their own hearts far beyond the story

Long ago Berie and Sils had tweezed BBs out of frogs that the neighborhood boys shot in the swamps of Horsehearts, nursing and bandaging them, but rescuing few. When they became teenagers and turned their attention the boys, the girls stopped trying to save the frogs. 

Long ago, Berie had tried to split her voice. She and Sils loved to sing, wherever and whenever. At story’s end, Berie relives a moment during an April afternoon in the 10th grade, rehearsing with the Girls’ Choir and Sils in the gymnasium. It is one of the most beautiful paragraphs that I’ve ever read, and one that exemplifies why we read fiction and memoir—for the writer’s ability to capture in words something as grand as life’s meaning in all its glory, love, and loss. Good writing holds in time moments that speak universally to the human spirit and would otherwise escape us. I won’t quote the long paragraph here; you can read the book (I hope you do!). Here is the last sentence: Though sometimes in my brain I go back to that afternoon, to relive it, sail up there again toward the acoustic panels, the basketball hoops, and the old oak clock, the careful harmonies set loose from our voices so pure and exact and light we wondered later, packing up to leave, how high and fast and far they had gone.

The question of who will run the frog hospital remains unanswered.

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