Tinkering with Time

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.


A Place to Grow: Mapping Maycomb

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. 

Expectations in “To The Lighthouse”

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.

Quarrel in “The Human Stain”

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.

Seeing & Feeling in “Waiting for the Barbarians”

The visual is proof. We say “I see,” meaning “I understand.” We say “Show me,” intending “Then I’ll believe.” An artist’s job — writer or painter — is to make visible and felt using the medium of the craft: words or pigment. As a writer and painter, I am interested in how images gather meaning for the artist/writer and the audience/readers. I wonder how the mind and heart “see” the image, absorb and reflect emotion. A novel accumulates, as does a painting, a felt form in the process of being created.

Lesson: Draw it to explore it

Putting pencil to paper, an artist sees what is before her — let’s say an apple — and learns about it by drawing it. She knows what apples look like, knows their taste, but must see each new apple with fresh eyes and open mind if she wants the drawing to come alive on the paper. By drawing the fruit, she goes deeper into an understanding of the form and characteristics of the particular apple, which then will more truly represent the universe of apples than would a generic drawing.

Writers must do the same with words if they want their prose not only to be distinctive but to be distinctively resonant with the particular story they are telling.

In Waiting for the Barbarians, an allegory of oppression, J.M. Coetzee places us in the mind’s eye of the narrator — a Magistrate in a remote, colonial outpost. Coetzee could have told us that the Magistrate is out of touch with, even carelessly ignorant of, new developments in the governing cities of the Empire and could have foreshadowed, with larger brushstrokes, the brutality to come. Instead, he draws for us observed detail from within the sensibility of the “I” who begins losing his innocence with this first observation. And in doing so, Coetzee sets the theme of “blindness” that reiterates throughout the story.

The book opens with these lines: I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. “They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun,” he says. “You would find them useful out here in the desert. They save one from squinting all the time. One has fewer headaches. Look.” He touches the corners of his eyes lightly. “No wrinkles.” He replaces the glasses. It is true. He has the skin of a younger man. “At home everyone wears them.”

We soon learn that the “I” is the Magistrate and the man with the sunglasses is Colonel Joll, who has arrived under “emergency powers,” embodying the oppression of the Empire, with plans to push back or eliminate the “barbarians” from the territory. But in this opening scene, we are only observing and questioning, along with the narrator, much like an artist seeing sunglasses for the first time, trying to draw them, to see how they fit the face, to wonder if the wearer is blind, and know that he’s not because he doesn’t stumble and his eyes are alert, moving, behind the discs.

Another observed detail — the man’s lack of wrinkles, youthful skin — also establishes character and intent. He is vain and superior. His arrival brings harsh consequences but he has no intention of suffering them. He wishes to be spared even a headache.

Lesson: Detail what needs to be seen for the story to gather meaning

Waiting for the Barbarians explores the ability and willingness to see or not. The “seeing” goes beyond observing to witness, knowing, and having empathy for pain, truth, justice, and injustice. The Magistrate befriends a girl—a “barbarian”—who has been nearly blinded by torture. He mumbles to her:

“Nothing is worse than what we can imagine.”  He wants to say, “Tell me, don’t make a mystery of it. Pain is only pain.” But he can’t speak.

Eventually, she reveals the torture that nearly blinded her— “a kind of fork with only two teeth… put into coals till it was hot…” “They did not burn me. They said they would burn my eyes out, but they did not. The man brought it very close to my face and made me look at it. They held my eyelids open. But I had nothing to tell them. That was all. That was when the damage came. After that I could not see properly any more. There was a blue in the middle of everything I looked at; I could only see around the edges. It is difficult to explain. But now it is getting better. The left eye is getting better. That is all.” 

The girl haunts the Magistrate’s dreams. Here again, we see and discover along with the Magistrate, whose dream Coetzee draws vividly with all the senses.

The children are playing in the snow again. In their midst, with her back to me, is the hooded figure of the girl. At moments, as I struggle towards her, she is obliterated from sight behind the curtain of falling snow. My feet sink so deep that I can barely lift them…Now I begin to see what the girl is doing. She is building a fort of snow, a walled town which I recognize in every detail: the battlements with the four watchtowers, the gate with the porter’s hut beside it, the streets and houses, the great square with the barracks compound in one corner. And here is the very spot where I stand! But the square is empty, the whole town is white and mute and empty. I point to the middle of the square.  “You must put people there!” I want to say. No sound comes from my mouth, in which my tongue lies frozen like a fish. Yet she responds. She sits up on her knees and turn her hooded face towards me. I fear, at this last instant, that she will be a disappointment, that the face she will present to me will be obtuse, slick, like an internal organ not meant to live in the light. But no, she is herself, herself as I have never seen her, a smiling child, the light sparkling on her teeth and glancing from her jet-back. eyes. “So this is what it is to see!” I say to myself. I want to speak to her through my clumsy frozen muzzle. “How do you do all that fine work with your hands in mittens?”

Lesson: Use point of view to make visual

The Magistrate is imprisoned for fraternizing with the “barbarians.” In the prison yard, he tries to stop a flogging and is badly beaten. Now a witness and reporter of his own torture, he gives the reader a play-by-play:

I can hear the blow coming and turn to meet it. It catches me full across the face. “I am blind!” I think, staggering back into the blackness that instantly falls. I swallow blood; something blooms across my face, starting as a rosy warmth, turning to fiery agony…What I wanted to say next I cannot remember. A miracle of creation—I pursue the thought but it eludes me like a wisp of smoke. It occurs to me that we crush insects beneath our feet, miracles of creation too, beetles, worms, cockroaches, ants, in their various ways….As I am hustled, a man at each elbow, back through the murmuring crowd to my cell, I even find myself smiling.”

He is taken again from his cell, brutalized and hung in front of a crowd, and continues reporting:

“…the rope is now so tight that I am strangled, speechless. The blood hammers in my ears…” Enduring what he perceives to be his death, he begins to “float back and forth in an arc a foot above the ground like a great old moth with its wings pinched together, roaring, shouting.”

The Magistrate is tortured and ridiculed, but is not killed. In the end, having lived through a horror beyond imagining, he becomes almost a non-person, invisible. He is left alive, discarded. He begins to reenter life, to accept his bodily needs and complaints, to explore beyond the gate of the outpost. He witnesses Colonel Joll, defeated in a disastrous attempt to conquer the “barbarians” on their own turf.

With nowhere else to go, the Magistrate stays on in the outpost, his personal knowledge of pain incorporated into his body and soul. The horror is no longer in his imagination, and thus less terrifying. It has become a thing — like a meal, like the rats that proliferate. It has lost its grip. He wants to leave behind a record, to “abandon the locutions of a civil servant with literary ambitions and begin to tell the truth,” but discovers that he is no closer to understanding. The torture has relived him of his imagined and unimaginable fears. The writing has given him a kind of power over the pain, for that is what writers do — capture experience and bring it under control for examination. But truth remains elusive.

He reports: “There has been something staring me in the face, and still I do not see it.”

Lesson: Use the visual to strengthen theme

In this visually rich and heart-rending tale, we readers are called to “see” who the “barbarians” truly are and where, in each of us, resides the ability to witness truth, pain, justice and injustice and make meaning from it.

Three Love Stories: Jasmine, Atonement, Lolita

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?”


“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.

Where does the singing go?

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.

Traveling through Time & Minds

William Styron’s novel Lie Down in Darkness begins and ends the day of a funeral. Between those pages, readers travel back and forth in time, in and out of the consciousness of many characters. All this shifting is done with few chapter breaks: only seven divide the book. Styron handles time and consciousness masterfully. His techniques compress flashbacks from many years into a day’s time frame and expand his characters’ emotional investigations during this one day to 382 pages. 

Lesson: Compress and expand time by giving readers time “touchpoints” 

The narrative begins in the morning through a second-person point-of-view which pulls readers intimately into the journey on a southbound train destined for Port Warwick, Virginia. Then you settle back in your set, your face feeling unwashed and swollen from the intermittent sleep you got sitting up the night before and your gums sore from too many cigarettes…

A train heading north (perhaps the same one returning?) carries the reader away that night at the end of the book.

The book’s sixth paragraph gives the first time touchpoint — At precisely eleven o’clock on a weekday morning in August of 1945″—to establish the time frame for the day. This and only a few other dates mentioned throughout serve as references for the constant shifting, which takes readers again and again into the past and returns them again and again to the present moment — the impending funeral and the coming together of the characters and their fate.

Lesson: Give present time constancy through one character

On the third page of text, right before that first time touchpoint is given, the reader is deposited at the station platform …you climb off the train onto the station dock to a welcoming “Oh, there he is!”, but neither that greeter, nor you the passenger, plays a role in this story. Immediately, the point-of-view shifts to omniscient — we see Milton Loftis arrive with Dolly Bonner and a Negro named Ella Swan.

Ella turns out to be the one character most in charge of herself: she knows how to find happiness through her faith. She is caretaker of the Loftis family and a witness to their demise. Styron uses her to good effect at the end, delivering the reader from the tragic story to her perceived hopefulness. Her rapture may be due to the theatrics of a baptizing evangelist, but at least she’s able to keep from drowning in the sorrows around her. Other characters — Milton, his daughters Peyton and the disabled Maudie (both dead in the present day, though we meet them in flashbacks), his wife Helen, his long-time mistress Dolly, and Peyton’s husband, Harry — don’t fare so well.

Ella’s presence bookends the novel — she’s at the platform when the train arrives carrying Peyton’s coffin, and we find ourselves in her consciousness at the end of the day, when she attends a baptism given by Daddy Faith. Her need for redemption is great and, as opposed to her employers, her acceptance of a power greater than herself readily given.

Lesson: Use a sensory reference to weave past & present 

The train whistling through this Southern town provides another reference point. You hear a whistle while you’re on the train: …you look out once more at the late summer landscape and the low, sorrowful beauty of tideland streams winding through marshes full of small, darting, frightened noises and glistening and dead silent at noon, except for a whistle, far off, and a distant rumble on the rails.

We hear a shipyard whistle through Helen’s consciousness: Now, gently drowsing, she remembers the whistle blowing. It surrounds space, time, sleepy summer evenings many years ago: a remote sad wail involving sleep and memory and somehow love. They’d fight on summer nights because it was hot and Maudie cried and the ice-box made a dripping noise, and because the whistle blew. But they loved each other, and the whistle—now it’s a part of sleep and darkness, things that happened long ago: a wild, lost wail, like the voice of love, passing through the darkened room and softly wailing, passing out of the sphere of sound itself and hearing.

We hear a whistle at the baptism, when the train roar intrudes into Ella’s consciousness and passes into omniscience: Another blast from the whistle, a roar, a gigantic sound; and it seemed to soar into the dusk beyond and above them forever, with a noise, perhaps, like the clatter of the opening of everlasting gates and doors — passed swiftly on — toward Richmond, the North, the oncoming night.

Lesson: Choose a reference that serves the story thematically

When the train rumbles into view, it could be a sign of Jesus himself, proving the unrelenting forward motion of time, leaving in its clatter and roar memories of lives wasted. La Ruth, Ella’s unsophisticated, unschooled daughter sums it up: “I don’t know, comin’ around to think’ about all dat time an’ ev’ything, po’ Peyton, po’ little Peyton. Gone! Gone!” When readers exit with the train going north into “the oncoming night,” it’s implied, at some moment in life’s journey, that we too will lie down in darkness.

Lesson: Use sensory information to spark or bridge consciousness

As implied by the title, this is not a light-hearted novel. The first dark recess entered is within Milton. From the bustling platform and its surroundings, the reader is drawn into a conversation between Milton, Ella, and Dolly, where we learn that Helen has not come with  him today although he’s begged her saying: “It’s our daughter, our daughter, not just mine. How can you expect me to endure…” The self-serving Dolly entreats him to provide reassurance of her role in the drama, but he hadn’t heard her and, furthermore, his mind was too occupied with his own bewildering sorrow.

We’re brought slowly out of Milton’s innermost thoughts through a description of his face —become slack with grief —to a flourish of gray in his hair and the fact that he had rarely worn a hat.

When we surface, Ella is waiting on the platform with a hint of information–Peyton’s on the train—and though we don’t know yet that the train carries her coffin, from the weeping we know it doesn’t bode well for Peyton. Dolly tries to silence Ella and, during that silence as Milton watches two redcaps hauling, we’re taken again into Milton’s agony — because he loved his daughter more than anything — and the thought which suddenly struck him—that of meeting her this morning, silent, invisible within a coffin — filled him with  horror. (So now we know.)

Lesson: Trigger flashbacks through thought trains that link to present events

We see the train approaching through Milton’s consciousness—he’s imagining the train is on the outskirts of the town passing the Negro shacks—and his plaintive “Ah, my God” is answered by Ella, still weeping and asking for Jesus’ blessing. Milton turns away and we tunnel into another deep place within him, a memory of a conversation with his father thirty years previous. We glimpse Milton’s bleek childhood — his ghost of  a mother and a father who told him: “Your first duty remember, son, is always to yourself.” (Poor man. Milton seems doomed to self-indulgence from the start.)

Lesson: Introduce one character through another’s consciousness

By the middle of page fifteen we have learned of Milton’s marriage to Helen (even that joyous occasion was stained by news of his childhood friend’s death) and we’ve heard the ominous sound of his bride Helen’s laughter shattering the air like falling glass.

That introduction to Helen is through Milton’s consciousness via flashback, but our first journey into her consciousness begins with the funeral director’s visit to her home. Mr. Casper overhears the conversation between Milton and Helen, the one we’ve already been partially appraised of — Helen refusing to go to the station. Milton and Helen’s exchange ends in argument and a closed door. Casper remains downstairs waiting as we go with Helen behind the door to her room. The house is an important element to her character and within the marriage conflict.

Lesson: Create an environment full of memory triggers to develop and connect characters

Helen’s room is a sensory-rich world of sun, soft breeze, and holly leaves rustling, but suddenly the house is filled with wicked heat, like that which escapes from an oven door. A screen door slams, the hearse pullls away. Noises and the noise of silence menace her; the unmade bed betrays her sense of propriety (Ella has fallen short on the job today). In Helen’s muddled mind, we jump from her realization — I was a mother for twentythree years. This is the first day that I have awakened knowing that I am a mother no longer— to newspaper events (the bombing of Japan) to her mirror image to memories of Milton telling her of Peyton’s death to his grieving to Helen’s awareness of her own sickness to a memory of Peyton as a child — the happy life, a hundred years ago.

Within that remembered scene—with the shipyard whistle, mentioned above—Helen remembers attending to her disabled daughter, Maudie, and the whistle’s lost wail, like the voice of love brings her consciousness back to the recent scene of Milton’s sorrow and his drunken request the previous evening to stay the night even if it’s your [Helen’s] house. We’ve learned a lot about Helen, her abilities as a mother, her marriage to Milton, and his financial dependence on her, all in flashback.

Helen is fragile, despairing, almost ephemeral, yet two mentions of Ella serve to ground Helen’s unstable world in the time and space of domestic reality: the bed escaped Ella’s notice, but the previous evening after being told of Peyton’s death, Ella finds time amid lamentations and wails to gather up the kitchen debris and take the garbage for her pigs. This woman, as opposed to Helen, does not have the luxury of spending too much time wallowing in grief.

Lesson: Know when enough is enough: offer relief, a time out, a way out

Other characters are dipped into: the do-good minister, the conniving Dolly, Peyton’s suffering husband. They each provide other glimpses of the main trio of Milton, Helen, and Peyton and offer segues into and out of them. Beautiful Peyton’s dark recesses, perhaps the blackest of them all, are not revealed until near book’s end when we travel with her into memories of her courtships, marriage, and infidelities and join her on her suicidal day.

Styron’s beautiful, intricate prose keeps us engaged even as the main characters repel one another. The minor characters do offer a bit of relief in this dark tale, however the Loftis’ self-indulgence and self-destruction is relentless.

After the funeral where Milton has tried to strangle Helen, seeming to obliterate (do you think?) any slight hope there might have been that the couple could reunite through mutual grief, we drop into Ella’s consciousness at the baptism and hear the train whistling north. By now, this reader was ready to hop it and leave the Loftis family behind.

Getting Away with It

Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is not a who-done-it. The page turning mastery here is in putting readers squarely in the criminal mind of Tom Ripley, setting up the unbelievable risks he takes, and convincing us at each turn that he’s sure to get caught in his lies, as we watch him get away with it all.

I can’t compare Highsmith’s techniques to other writers of mysteries and thrillers, because I rarely read them. I don’t find the writing as rich and engaging in these genres as I do in more literary fiction. But Highsmith is one of the best in her field, and by studying how her plot and tension points pay off, we can apply what we learn to other fiction, as well as to thrillers.

Lesson: Foreshadow from the get-go

In the opening scene, Tom Ripley is walking fast, dodging someone. He’s a man with a questionable past, questionable intentions. He slips into a bar. Tom saw the man make a gesture of postponement to the barman, and come around the bar towards him. Here it was! Tom stared at him, paralysed. They couldn’t give you more than ten years, Tom thought. Maybe fifteeen, but with good conduct—In the instant the man’s lips parted to speak, Tom had a pang of desperate, agonized regret.

A criminal so quick to regret? Maybe he’s not such a bad guy. He’s had a tough go in life, and uses his considerable talents and charm to get what he can without working as hard as someone from his background usually must. The dodging and the pang are foreshadowing of action and of character.

When wealthy Herbert Greenleaf asks Tom to go to Europe, all expenses paid, to encourage his son Dickie to return to America, Tom jumps at the chance. This first case of mistaken identity foreshadows the identity theft to come. Tom is not the close friend to Dickie that Mr. Greenleaf assumes.

Lesson: It takes more than plot to engage readers—let them have tension!

Tom kills Dickie in order to become him, and then, through a turn of events, must become Tom again in order to inherit the dead Dickie’s trust fund money. That’s the plot, which Highsmith unfolds at a fast clip. Tom’s chameleon nature and his ability to bluff his way through every situation keeps him ahead of his pursuers.

What keep us engaged as readers is the tension between knowing, along with Tom, what he intends to do and wondering how he could possibly succeed without being discovered. Highsmith asks us to suspend our disbelief again and again —particularly in scenes such as one in which an investigator who questioned Tom posing as Dickie now questions Tom as himself. She accomplishes this by bringing the reader along with Tom’s anticipations and giving him heedless confidence in his brazen plan. [The tenente] was staring at Tom’s hands. Or at least Tom imagined that he was staring at his hands. Tom had his own ring on again, but did the tenente possibly notice some resemblance? Tom boldly thrust his hand forward to the ashtray and put out his cigarette.

The tenente and his assistant are fooled and don’t see Tom’s resemblance to himself when he pretended to be Dickie. Rather than being relieved and grateful, Tom is arrogant. He could have flown—like a bird, out of the window, with spread arms! The idiots! All around the thing and never guessing it! Never guessing that Dickie was running from the forgery questions because he wasn’t Dickie Greenleaf in the first place! The one thing they were bright about was that Dickie Greenleaf might have killed Freddie Miles. But Dickie Greenleaf was dead, dead, deader than a doornail and he, Tom Ripley was safe!  

For how long we don’t know, but Tom keeps upping the stakes, taking bolder and bolder moves in a master scheme to gain the trust fund of the man he murdered. Surely, we think, he can’t get away with it.

Lesson: Give your character a complex psychology

The sympathy in Tom’s character comes from Tom’s childlike desire to be admired for being someone he’s not. Who hasn’t felt that way at some point? If Tom didn’t loathe himself so much, the reader might loathe him more. To Tom, money and position will garner love or substitute for the love he’s never had. Through his bold cleverness and some luck, Tom gets away with murder and theft. He even gets the blessing of Mr. Greenleaf, who ultimately believes Tom’s story that Dickie wanted Tom to have the money. But the self-doubt and self-loathing that inspires Tom toward crime, and the successful crime itself, are his nemesis.

Lesson: Create a loop—beginning to end—for story symmetry

At the end, Tom tries to shake the notions that he’s being followed. He’s escaped everything and everyone, and though richer, he has not come far from where he began, glancing over his shoulder. There is symmetry here, a roundness from beginning to end.

He sees police, is sure they’re after him, and heads toward a group of four. For a moment he seems resigned to being caught, and he seems relieved. No fuss, he thought, he’d just tell them himself who he was. There was a big newsstand behind the policemen, and he thought of buying a paper. Perhaps they would let him. The policemen stared back at him from over their folded arms as he approached them. They wore black uniforms with visored caps. Tom smiled at them faintly. One of them touched his cap and stepped aside. But the others did not close in. Now Tom was practically between two of them, right in front of the newsstand, and the policemen were staring forward again, paying no attention to him at all.

Tom can’t get away with it, after all. He can escape everyone but himself, a man painfully alone in the world. 

Trevor’s Masterful Control of Tension & Reveal

In the chilling short novel Felicia’s Journey, William Trevor sustains tension page after page through control of information slipped to the reader. When we meet the young Irish girl Felicia on page one, she’s sick. Perhaps her illness is caused by the motion of the ferry she’s on, but might she be pregnant? Trevor plants the suspicion.

Lesson: Let readers see the action and draw their own conclusions

Trevor doesn’t tell us she’s left home, he shows her sneaking away: Then she slipped out the back way to the Square, twenty-five minutes early for the 7:45 bus. All the time she was nervous in case her father or her brothers appeared, and when the bus started to move she squinted sideways out of the window, a hand held up to her face. She kept telling herself that they couldn’t know about the money yet, that they wouldn’t even have found the note she’d left, but none of that helped.

Through flashbacks in Felicia’s consciousness, more is revealed. There’s been a sexual relationship with a boy she met: His lips are moist when he kisses her again, and he closes his eyes when she does, in just the same moment, as if they are one. Felicia asks for help from a Miss Fury, who it was rumored had once been unwed and pregnant, but the narrative is unspecific. We only hear: [Felicia] let it all tumble out. 

Lesson: Play with doubt, but don’t take the reader for a fool  

If we read the jacket copy, we know Felicia is unmarried, pregnant, and penniless before we begin. But Trevor is such a master of delusion, that we may still have a shred of doubt by page 59 when Felicia’s father confronts her ( in her flashback )—Has Lysaght got you pregnant?She didn’t pretend otherwise. Finally she admits, as we’re ready for her to do, “There’s no doubt about it.”

Lesson: Triple the tension, triple the fun

Since the opening scene on the ferry, we’ve been accompanying Felicia on her journey to find Johnny Lysaght, the father of the baby. That alone might be enough tension for readers: Will she find him? Will he take her in or refuse her? Will she be able to return home?

Trevor ratchets it up with the introduction on page six of Mr. Hilditch, an odd duck at best. Mr. Hilditch’s hands are small, seeming not to belong to the rest of him: deft, delicate fingers that can insert a battery into a watch or tidily truss a chicken, this later a useful accomplishment, for of all things in the world Mr. Hilditch enjoys eating.

Should we assume that his talent with the chicken is not an admirable quality?

His bulk suggest a man careless of his own longevity, his smiling presence indicates an extrovert philosophy. But Mr Hilditch, in his lone moments, is often brought closer to other, darker, aspects of the depths that lie within him. When a smile no longer matters he can be a melancholy man.

The thrill is in knowing that he’s the bad guy and in guessing just how bad.

Lesson: Work against expectations

We’re sure Mr Hilditch is up to no good. Again, the jacket copy has warned: [Felicia] meets up with the fat, fiftyish, unfailingly reasonable Mr. Hilditch, who is looking for a new friend to join the five other girls in Memory Lane. 

Memory Lane? The innocuous sound of the place terrifies and so does the mild-mannered Hilditch. 

On page 9, before Mr Hilditch has seen our wayward protagonist, we begin fearing for her. Just before midday on this Wednesday—a day that so far strikes Mr Hilditch as being in no way special apart from the promise of turkey pie—he makes his way to the kitchens in order to taste the lunchtime menu in full.

He’s not sharpening his knives, loading his gun, or reading child pornography. He’s just a factory lunchroom manager with food always on his mind and a pot of sinister on simmer.

Lesson: Drop crumbs of revelation and keep a few in your pocket

When Mr. Hilditch does meet Felicia, we understand only as much about him as Trevor allows: Being curious by nature, Mr. Hilditch wonders what her plastic bags contain….a careful man, [he] doesn’t wish to be seen with a girl on the factory premises. No one has observed their meeting, of that he is certain. No windows overlook the tarmacadam expanse; no one is, or has been about. He has never been seen in the company of a girl on the factory premises, nor anywhere in the immediate neighbourhood. Nothing like that on your own doorstep is the rule he has.

Nothing like what? It’s page 12 and we’re hooked. Our desire to turn the page depends as much or more on what Trevor doesn’t reveal as what he does.

Lesson: Alternate points of view

Trevor strings us along by alternating points of view between Felicia and Mr Hilditch, chapter by chapter or within chapters. At times it’s close third person, at other times it’s an observant narrator giving us the feeling that someone is watching Mr. Hilditch while he’s watching Felicia or someone is watching Felicia while she’s unaware of Mr. Hilditch waiting his turn to follow and entice her into his Memory Lane. The back and forth play gives Trevor the latitude to go into flashbacks with Felicia — what happened before her journey began — and to end a chapter on a cliffhanger and make us wait for a chapter or more to see what happens. Even better, the back and forth makes it possible for him to spin out delusion and tension until the very end.

On page 156, we’re in Felicia’s consciousness. She has become aware of the danger Mr Hilditch presents. She’s in his home and has found a piece of grate to use as a weapon. The chapter ends with this: She descends the unlit stairway, pausing every two or three steps to listen in case he has returned to the house. The metal bar makes a clatter on the tiles of the hall when it slips from her fingers. In a panic because she can’t find the latch of the hall door, she feels for  alight switch.

The next four chapters are Hilditch’s. It’s not until page 200 that we find out what happens to Hilditch and a few pages later what happened to Felicia. Because Trevor established the back and forth early on, we don’t feel manipulated. We stay with the story, trusting him to reveal all in his own time. 

Lesson: Use delusion to advantage

Mr Hilditch is not cooking on all four burners. His delusion becomes ours. We fear he’s killed Felicia, but then we’re not sure. We’re not sure that Hilditch knows or remembers what happened. His Memory Lane seems a blur to him as well as to us. We hear his thoughts about Felicia: There’s no place for her in his Memory Lane, because any moment she may walk in. We hope she escaped, but realize that he’s also unclear about the whereabouts of the other girls in Memory Lane. He seems to have had a blackout: The moment of each departure having been so painful that an unconscious part of him has erased the surrounding details.

Maybe our conclusion that he’s a murderer is wrong, maybe he’s just a strange man who has his way with girls and lets them go. We see through his eyes how Felicia disappeared into the fog, but did she escape? Maybe the fog is just another euphemism for death, a way for him not to deal with reality. His guilt and fear of being caught are making him increasingly delusional.

Lesson: Give your antagonist a dollop of humanity

And then there’s his relationship with his mother, no longer living, from which we learn through few specifics the reason for his off-balance predatory interest in girls. We may find Mr Hilditch despicable, but we gain a bit of compassion. This gives the story a new twist and keeps us engaged. We want to know about Felicia and now much more. Rather than flip to the end to see what happens to her, we keep reading, turning pages as Trevor intended.