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.

The Elements of “Housekeeping”

Earth, water, air, and fire bind the alchemy that is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. From the opening mention of the sod house where narrator Ruth’s grandfather grew up, the story is grounded in home and place and the departure from it. Ruth’s mother and Aunt Sylvie grew up in Fingerbone, Idaho, in a house put down “in this unlikely place” by the grandfather, who died when his train derailed into a lake from a bridge. The lake and bridge figure prominently in the bleak terrain and in the story — Ruth’s mother also plunged into the lake in a car and with intention.

Ruth and her sister Lucille come to live in their grandmother’s house in Fingerbone, where they’re raised by the grandmother, then by the grandmother’s sisters-in-law, and finally by Aunt Sylvie, who is ill-suited for housekeeping and child-rearing. The girls’ longing for family and their survival instincts make them inseparable, until they must choose between very different ways of “housekeeping.”  

Lesson: Give the weather of place a thematic role in your story

The many character introductions in the first several pages make a difficult entry into this novel. There are the girls Ruth and Lucille, a grandmother named “Sylvia,” the aunt “Sylvie,” sisters-in-law Nona and Lily, the grandfather, Ruth and Lucille’s dead mother Helen and estranged father, a friend Bernice who loaned Helen the car she drove into the lake, and more. Stay with it, patient reader. The complex family structure underpins the theme, as does the landscape and house itself. It’s a story about keeping and losing house and home and family.

As the novel progresses, the initial tangle of relationships unravels and is lost. Lucille leaves Ruth and Aunt Sylvie for a more conventional upbringing with her home economics teacher. Ruth and Aunt Sylvie escape Fingerbone to avoid legal action that could separate them. The elements, which have treated them harshly, become their allies and constant companions. They burn the house and don’t refute a news item that they’ve drowned in the lake. They ride trains, elusive and uprooted.

These passages show how elements shape character and story:

Wind  Ruth’s grandmother was a good mother and housekeeper. 

Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind. (p.12)

Snow  Ruth’s great-aunts are nervous and uncomfortable in their care-taking role.

Sometimes the sun would be warm enough to send a thick sheet of snow sliding off the roof, and sometimes the fir trees would shrug, and the snow would fall with surprisingly loud and earthly thuds, which would terrify my great-aunts. It was by grace of this dark and devastating weather that we were able to go very often to the lake to skate, for Lily and Nona knew that our house would fall, and hoped that we at least might be spared when it did, if only to die of pneumonia. (p.33)

Sun  Sylvie is at first a ray of hope for Ruth and Lucille.

The week after Sylvie arrived, Fingerbone had three days of brilliant sunshine and four of balmy rain. (p.60)

Air  But Sylvie doesn’t become the constant mother the girls desire.

The furtive closing of a door is a sound the wind can make a dozen times in an hour. A flow of damp air from the lake can make any house feel empty. Such dread is always mirrored upon the dread that inheres in things. For example, when Sylvie looked over the bridge she must have seen herself in the water at the foot of the trestle. But as surely as we tried to stay awake to know for certain whether she sang, or wept, or left the house, we fell asleep and dreamed that she did. (p.83)

Light  Sylvie’s strange ways intrigue the girls. They’ve learned to fend for themselves, but they crave security. Lucille eventually turns away from her aunt’s transient nature, but when Sylvie takes Ruth out on the lake in a stolen boat one night, Ruth is compelled as much as repelled by that free spirit. 

“The sun’s coming up,” [Sylvie] said. The sky above Fingerbone was a floral yellow. A few spindled clouds smoldered and glowed a most unfiery pink. And then the sun flung a long shaft over the mountain, and another, like a long-legged insect bracing itself out of its chrysalis, and then it showed above the black crest, bristly and red and improbable. In an hour it would be the ordinary sun, spreading modest and impersonal light on an ordinary world, and that thought relieved me. Sylvie continued to pull, strongly and slowly. (p.147)

Fire & wind  Sylvie and Ruth undertake a major house cleaning to impress the town people and sheriff who see Sylvie as unfit to care for Ruth. Even after Sylvie’s scheme fails, they continue to put the house in order, burning debris which has accumulated since Sylvie arrived.

Sylvie brought newspapers from the shed and we balled them up and stuck them in among the magazines and lit them with matches, and after a little while the magazines began to swell and warp and to page themselves and finally to ascend the spiraling air. That was a pretty day…We could watch the heat from the fire pull and tease the air out of shape, stretching the fabric of dimension and repose with its furious ascending. The magazine pages went black, and the print and the dark parts of pictures turned silvery black. Weightless and filigreed, they spiraled to a giddy height, till some current caught them in the upper air, some high wind we could not feel assumed them. (p.199)

Wind  Ruth chooses transience with Sylvie and never sees Lucille again, but she imagines her in the old house, refurbished after the fire, or settled elsewhere. Ruth passes by her grandmother’s house on the train but never gets off, though she says she would like to see the people who live there.

“Seeing them would expel poor Lucille, who has, in my mind, waited there in a fury of righteousness, cleansing and polishing, all these years. She thinks she hears someone on the walk, and hurries to open the door, too eager to wait for the bell. It is the mailman, it is the wind, it is nothing at all. Sometimes she dreams that we come walking up the road in our billowing raincoats, hunched against the cold, talking together in words she cannot quite understand. (p.217)

Inhabiting Place ~ Of the Farm

In John Updike’s story Pigeon Feathers and short novel Of the Farm, an 80-acre farm plays a central role. The fictional place is based on Updike’s mother’s birthplace, a property near Plowville, Pennsylvania, where Updike moved with his family at the age of thirteen. The farm had been owned by Updike’s grandparents, sold by his grandfather when the family moved to Shillington (a town renamed Olinger in Updike’s stories), and repurchased by Updike’s mother. The author spent his formative teen years there, isolated and encouraged by his mother to write.

Lesson: Engage your fictional place in conflict, just as you do with characters, to make it come alive 

The fact that a fictional place is based on a real place is not reason enough to make readers believe it. In Updike’s work, the farm is an animate presence, consistent one story to the other. When I read Pigeon Feathers I developed loyalty to its cast of inhabitants, including a boy named David who is a stand-in for Updike. In Of the Farm, I initially felt as if the new inhabitants were imposters. The Updike stand-in here is a man named Joey, who visits the farm on a mission to help his mother and gain her acceptance of his new wife. In Pigeon Feathers, the farm and David’s relationship to it had been so convincing that I initially found myself wondering: What right did Joey have to use David’s home for his own childhood memories? But Joey stakes his claim.

This liveliness of place comes not just from Updike’s descriptions, such as this narration by Joey: We went up a sharp little rise and there, on the level crest where Schoelkopf’s weathered mailbox stood knee-deep in honeysuckle and poison ivy, its flopped lid like a hat being tipped, my wife first saw the farm. It comes also from giving the farm a role in the story; it’s a source of pleasure and pain, love and conflict.

In the Pigeon Feathers, there is friction between David’s parents over the farm and in Of the Farm, even though Joey’s father has died, the friction that had been between his parents lingers as a palpable force threatening Joey’s new marriage. Early in Of the Farm, Joey expresses his relationship with it: …whenever I returned, after no matter how great a gap of time, to this land, the acres flowed outward from me like a form of boasting. But he lives with the memories of conflict between his parents caused by the farm and considers this possibility: … my mother had undervalued and destroyed my father… had brought him to a farm which was in fact her giant lover, and had thus warped the sense of the masculine within me, her son.

When Joey mows the field, sweating in the hot sun, his technique is: to slice in one ecstatic straight thrust, up the middle and then to narrow the two halves, whittling now at one and now at the other, entertaining myself with flanking maneuvers acres wide and piecemeal mop-ups. His mother’s method is: to embrace the field, tracing its border and then on a slow square spiral closing in until one small central patch was left. Their differing styles with the tractor amplify their personal differences, as Joey describes: I imitated war, she love. In the end, our mowed fields looked the same, except that my mother’s would have more scraggly spots where she had lifted the cutter over a detected pheasant’s nest or had spared an especially vivid patch of wildflowers.

Joey’s mother is married to the farm. The only way she’ll leave it is through death. The mowing metaphor foreshadows the negotiated truce that the inevitable event will bring. He will inherit the farm—his mother’s farm—with all its history of sorrow and joy.

Lesson: Animate the landscape by putting it “in the body”

A masterful writer wouldn’t be content with the “vivid” descriptor in the above sentence, and Updike is masterful. He has Joey convey the liveliness of the wildflowers: Black-eyed susans, daisy fleabane, chicory, goldenrod, butter-and-eggs each flower of which was like a tiny dancer leaping, legs together—all of these scudded past the tractor wheels.

As with the writing of character, putting the landscape “in the body” makes the fictional place real and felt. As Joey mows on the tractor, his senses heighten to the landscape, now become erotic…Crickets sprang crackling away from the slow-turning wheels; butterflies loped and bobbed above the flattened grass as the hands of a mute concubine might examine, flutteringly, the corpse of her giant lover. The sun grew higher. The metal hood acquired a nimbus of heat waves that visually warped each stalk. The tractor body was flecked with foam and I, rocked back and forth on the iron seat shaped like a woman’s hips, alone in nature, as hidden under the glaring sky as at midnight, excited by destruction, weightless, discovered in myself a swelling which I idly permitted to stand, thinking of Peggy. My wife is a field.

Lesson: Orient the reader 

The action of Pigeon Feathers centers around the barn and house, while that of Of the Farm revolves around the field, garden, berry patches, and house. The same structures and natural elements appear in both the story and novel, but in different proportion. The fictional surroundings in both feel real and consistent.

As writers, we can map our fictional places or use other methods to discover and know these places well before or during the writing process. As readers, it’s not essential that we are able to map a place in order to believe it, but with Updike we could. Consistency of place—an author’s grasp of direction, scale, weather, light, landscape, landmarks, flora, fauna, architecture—orients readers and allows us to feel “at home” with the story.

Full-bodied Characters

Fiction invites us to experience other peoples’ lives. As writers and readers, we enter territories—geographic, physical, psychic—that would not otherwise be available to us. A believable character is a guide to another world. For the masterful writer and the fortunate reader, “real” characters inhabit lives of their own that extend past the time of writing and reading.

As writers, we know and invent more about our characters than we show or tell. We can develop histories, physical descriptions, and emotional baggage for our characters through lists, biographies, interviews, photos, scrapbooks. (More on these tools in another post.) To make our characters appear and seem “real,” we need to put ourselves in more than their shoes. We need to shape-shift into their bodies.

The figure below serves as a nudge to ground our writing in the senses and body of a character. Add your own action verbs and sensory verbs. Keep in mind the three guiding verbs for character-driven fiction: desire, choose, act.

Know Your Characters - Body, Mind & Soul

Ground writing in the body and senses


Let’s see how masterful authors do it…

Italo Calvino, Baron in the Trees 

Biagio describes Cosimo upon waking: In the morning, on the other hand, when the jackdaw croaked, from the bag would come a pair of clenched fists; the fists rose in the air and were followed by two arms slowly widening and stretching, and in the movement drawing out his yawning face, his shoulders with a gun slung over one and a powderhorn slung over another, his slightly bandy legs (they were beginning to lose their straightness from his habit of always moving on all fours or in a crouch). Out jumped these legs, they stretched too, and so, with a shake of the back and a scratch under his fur jacket, Cosimo, wakeful and fresh as a rose, was ready to begin his day.

Rachel Cusk, The Country Life  

Stella, the first-person narrator, suffers: I examined my arms, and to my dismay saw that they were  a furious red, cross-hatched with hundreds of thick, raised white lines, as if I had worms embedded beneath my skin. Crying out, I flung back the eiderdown… I scratched, tearing at my nightdress like a maniac, and then understood that I was going to lose control of myself if I continued in this fashion. I sat, hot and exhausted, on the corner of the bed, my head in my hands. My skin tingled and itched now that my fingers were not attending to it. I bridled my urge to scratch, forcing my hands into my mouth. My back felt unbearably hot. Around me the night was shrunken and dense, like the pupil of an eye contracted to a pinprick.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Readers (listeners) are in concert with Mrs. Ramsay: But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out f pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half and hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

The author Tim O’Brien gets inside his character Tim O’Brien: I remember the monotony. Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitoes. The sun and the heat and the endless paddies. Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach disorders. You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below, and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water, it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at important organs. You’d try to relax. You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go. Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad. And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.

Richard Yates, Doctor Jack-o’-lantern (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness)

Body language reveals Vincent Sabella’s trepidation at being a new kid in class in : He arrived early and sat in the back row — his spine very straight, his ankles crossed precisely under the desk and his hands folded on the very center of its top, as if symmetry might make him less conspicuous — and while the other children were filing in and settling down, he received a long, expressionless stare from each of them.

Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt

An illicit encounter elicits desire and implies what will happen next for Sophia: He presses her flush against the stone wall with his heavy, clothed body. Now he is running his hand along the inside of her thighs, splitting her legs apart, nestling his body between them. Sophia thinks she will lose her breath forever, will drown and not care, will always have this sensation of inner heat and outer cold. He cradles her against the quarry rock. She trembles in his arms. She knows what she will say and without hesitation. Yes.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway begins her day with senses heightened and flows to the reader a spectrum of color and fragrance: Ah yes—so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half-closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale—as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac—glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses! 

Loving The Country Life

Everything about Rachel Cusk’s The Country Life is at odds with the ease suggested by the book’s title. When protagonist Stella Benson flees her complications in London—job, parents, husband—for reasons she doesn’t disclose other than that she’s unhappy, she hopes life will be sweeter and simpler in the country. She’s wrong, delightfully so. Cusk starts the story at a fast clip and keeps the pace speeding like an arrow, sweeping the reader — breathless and clueless as Stella — into the romp. Stella can’t help herself from becoming ensnarled in predicaments from cheerfully uncomfortable to hilaroulsy life-threatening. Each day of her new country life sprouts opportunity for disasters. The reader sees them coming at the same time as Stella, or a moment before she does, which makes them doubly sportive.

Lesson: Give your character trouble and misery

Teachers and books on writing craft push us to give our characters trouble. Make them miserable! Put them in predicaments! Watch them squirm! I’ve always found this hard to do. I don’t like trouble; I prefer happiness. But happiness start to finish contains no transformation, no character arc. Early in my writing career, I  learned about the Greek masks of Comedy and Tragedy. A Comedy starts with misery, ends with happiness (or promise of.) A Tragedy starts with happiness, and ends with misery (or promise of.)  

The Country Life is a Comedy. Whatever Stella endured in her London life was bad enough to make her want to escape to an anticipated idyllic life in the country. But if Cusk handed Stella what she wanted, there would be no story. From the moment Stella steps foot in the country, she is plagued by sunburn, insect bites, tarred roads, allergies, heat — a myriad of problems. Her off-balance sense of self engenders pratfalls, thievery, near car-wrecks, pet abuse, and near-drowning. This woman lives on the edge. She flings, has flung, and will continue to fling herself at life, even after the story’s end. She’s a flinger. And we love her for it!

She’s propelled by opposite forces within — bravery and embarrassment (or desire to avoid it), meticulous obsession and recklessness. She intends well, but misses, and suffers the consequences of her actions. Hey—better her than us! The joy of this kind of book is in our believing that Stella will survive, maybe even triumph!, as we cheer her on from our comfortable reading spot.

Lesson: For a Comedy, make trouble comedic

We learn a valuable lesson from Cusk about dishing out trouble: To keep it comedic, spoon a dollop of black humor. Stella has no driver’s license, but chauffeurs her ward, Martin, to town. He’s a disabled teenager, wheelchair bound, for whom she’s been hired as a companion and helper. They make it to town—barely—to Martin’s school and need to get back home. In the parking lot, Martin encourages her (what teenager wouldn’t love the adrenalin rush of this illicit ride!), “You’re doing fine, Stel-la.” She protests, “I could get us both killed….What if I injured you?  You could be crippled for life.”

Lesson: Give trouble a purpose

Martin, a wise young man with family problems of his own, engages Stella in philosophical discussions that illumine her plight—we still aren’t sure, really, why she’s fled London.

[Stella speaking:] “I happen to believe that the search for happiness is often itself the greatest cause of unhappiness.” 

 But if you were happy, you wouldn’t be searching,” said Martin.

“I didn’t say I was. I was speaking generally. I think it is almost impossible to be happy and to know yourself to be so at one and the same time. People believe that happiness is a goal, as opposed merely to the absence of problems. Looking for happiness is like looking for love. How do you know when you’ve found it?”

“I always imagined they came together,” said Martin.

“Nonsense. Love makes people more miserable than anything else.”

Cusk could have told us more about the character’s early problems through exposition or had Stella narrate  her own back story. But this masterful author writes a character who give us her own evidence for comparison. We see the misery she encounters through her misguided choices and get a sense that whatever the misery was that she escaped from in London was, at least in part, of her own making.

Lesson: Mirror emotions in the physical

Love and all its complexities — the difficulties of loving and being loved—are what Stella is escaping from and discovering in The Country Life. But love is abstract. Insect bites, sunburn, dangerous roads and near drowning are not.

Cusk uses an old mirror found in the cottage where Stella lives as a prop, in standard literary and inventive ways, to show us Stella. Through her reflection, Stella reveals her interior thoughts to herself and us. Our heroine (or anti-heroine) is, at the same time, so self-absorbed and detached from herself physically and emotionally that she can barely function. Her descriptions have her at arm’s length to herself. “Sensing that I stood on the brink of an abyss of self-consciousness—a void into which I often fall, rendering me unable, even over several hours, to dress myself—I dug deeper into the cases and was surprised to find a summer dress I did not remember packing. It seemed imperative that having made this discovery I activate it immediately and with determination, before my first, faint protests…”  

As the story progresses, Stella becomes more real to herself and us, more present in her body, and more aware of herself in the grander scheme of life.

“I stood transfixed by the mirror, for some time, accustoming myself to this stranger of whose desires and motives I was not entirely sure.”

“Whatever cream it was that the creature had applied to my sunburn had worked wonders, for when I got up and looked in the wardrobe mirror I saw that the colour of my skin had completely altered from emrgency red to an attractive brown.”

““Before I could fend it off, the sight had filled me with a sense of my destitution….What surprised me was to realize how familiar this sight was. I had seen it on busy London pavements, amidst a throng of faces; one or two whose eyes looked out from their bodies as if from behind bars, as they paid for the crime of permitting their misfortunes to outweigh the space their flesh was entitled to occupy.

Stella’s arc transforms her from being armored and distant from herself to begin to being able to be close to at least one other person. She’s confronted herself in the mirror but still has trouble facing the choices she made in abandoning her past. Finally, someone from her former life chances to find her in the country and will be at the dinner table with Martin’s family, to whom Stella has lied and omitted truths. Martin advises her…“Everyone has to face things. It’s the only way.”  He helps her gather courage.

In the final scene, we don’t just glimpse her or see her reflection, we are in her skin “..presently I felt the warm clammy pressure of another hand, Martin’s, taking one of mine.”

A clammy hand may not be Stella’s idea of true happiness, but in the manner of a Comedy, the story promises happiness for this character at some point beyond the book’s ending.