disheveled realism

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Since some weird texts are on queue for blogging i offer here a quick detour into Wolff as an antidote. i idly opened up to the title story of this collection in my ratty copy of Norton’s Short Fiction from the 80s the other night, and ended up reading the whole thing.

So i like avant-garde or unconventional writing, bc whenever i tried to write fiction that’s where my instincts seemed to go (even though i was a high schooler and had no idea what i was doing). i wasnt well received at teen writing workshops, offering depressing and minimalist suburban non-narratives about depressed people with empty lives (i was a Raymond Carver fan back then too), when everyone else had colorful sci-fi and fantasy, although the main reason was that they were no good.

But i like realism too, or at least im impressed by it, and feel a pang of guilt for not trying to read more of it. For all the indoctrination in philosophy i had in college about the illusions of naturalism and the bourgeois ideology it couches, lyrical realism with its storytelling — character, action, landscape, tone — its keen observations, and its balance between “realistic” events and destiny, still takes a lot of workmanship to pull off, even when the result is junk. i read sf when i just want entertainment, and the high concepts are fun, but a lot of the time the dialog and characterization does little except drive the plot, and the development of themes or characters are as mechanical as a hollywood screenplay.

The extract here is an unassuming scene — two women in a long car ride — but it’s an example of characterization vividly handled through complex dialog. You learn early on that dialog in fiction isn’t like real speech — the gutturals and thin rambling dont read well. Dialog in fiction is more heightened and direct. But then if you really want sophisticated realist dialog, you have to do what TW does here and take it to the next level. Beyond having the characters say what they mean in a direct fashion or convey the information that moves the plot along, you then craft their lines so the reader starts thinking “What is she not saying? What does she really want from the other woman? And then what does this betray about the woman speaking?”

Here our pov character Mary, a history professor, is getting a ride to a promising job interview at a college in upstate New York from Louise. As the scene plays out you get the feeling Louise is doing Mary this favor bc she wants things from her old colleague — nothing dramatic or anything, just some reassurance, the way we might launch conversations to fish out what we want to hear about ourselves from our friends. But then you also get a sense that Louise is concealing something from the way she deflects some of Mary’s concerns. There’s the rhythm to consider also: like the second attribution to a long line from Louise; it may be redundant, but it serves to convey the pause Louise makes at that moment. There’s also the way that, while the lines are direct, the two women dont necessarily always directly respond to each other’s lines. And there are small details like the forest at night and the deer in the road, rendered in spartan sentences and an active voice (lights that make the darkness seem greater, as opposed to seeming to make them etc). Every choice seems well-considered, like the semi-colon in the last line, which lets the following clause pop right in, the way a rationalizing thought for a choice you dont really like would. It’s a slightly less dirty realism than Carver. The kind of “effortless” prose that takes a lot of labor to produce.

So here we go: a mini master class with two women in a car.

“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” by Tobias Wolff

She read about the area with a strange sense of familiarity, as if the land and its history were already known to her. And when her plane left Portland and climbed easily into the clouds, Mary felt like she was going home. The feeling stayed with her, growing stronger when they landed. She tried to describe it to Louise as they left the airport at Syracruse and drove toward the college, an hour or so away. “It’s like deja vu,” she said.

Deja vu is a hoax,” Louise said. “It’s just a chemical imbalance of some kind.”

“Maybe so,” Mary said, “but I still have the sensation.”

“Don’t get serious on me,” Louise said. “That’s not your long suit. Just be your funny, wisecracking old self. Tell me now — honestly — how do I look?”

It was night, too dark to see Louise’s face well, but in the airport she had seemed gaunt and pale and intense. She reminded Mary of a description in the book she’d been reading, of how Iroquois warriors gave themselves visions by fasting. She had that kind of look about her. But she wouldn’t want to hear that. “You look wonderful,” Mary said.

“There’s a reason,” Louise said. “I’ve taken a lover. My concentration has improved, my energy level is up, and I’ve lost ten pounds. I’m also getting some color in my cheeks, though that could be the weather. I recommend the experience highly. But you probably disapprove.”

Mary didn’t know what to say. She said that she was sure Louise knew best, but that didn’t seem to be enough. “Marriage is a great institution,” she added, “but who wants to live in an institution?”

Louise groaned. “I know you,” she said, “and I know that right now you’re thinking ‘But what about Ted? What about the children?’ The fact is, Mary, they aren’t taking well at all. Ted has become a nag.” She handed Mary her purse. “Be a good girl and light me a cigarette, will you? I know I told you I quit, but this whole thing has been very hard on me, very hard, I’m afraid I’ve started again.”

They were in the hills now, heading north on a narrow road. Tall trees arched above them. As they topped a rise Mary saw the forest all around, deep black under the plum-colored sky. There were a few lights and these made the darkness seem even greater.

“Ted has succeeded in completely alienating the children from me,” Louise was saying. “There is no reasoning with any of them. In fact, they refuse to discuss the matter at all, which is very ironical because over the years I have tried to instill in them a willingness to see things from the other person’s point of view. If they could just meet Jonathan I know they would feel differently. But they won’t hear of it. Jonathan,” she said, “is my lover.”

“I see,” Mary said, and nodded.

Coming around a curve they caught two deer in the headlights. Their eyes lit up and their hindquarters tensed; Mary could see them trembling as the car went by. “Deer,” she said.

“I don’t know,” Louise said, “I just don’t know. I do my best and it never seems to be enough. But that’s enough about me — let’s talk about you. What did you think of my latest book?” She squawked and beat her palms on the steering wheel. “God, I love that joke,” she said. “Seriously, though, what about you? It must have been a real shockeroo when good old Brandon folded.”

“It was hard. Things haven’t been good but they’ll be a lot better if I get this job.”

“At least you have work,” Louise said. “You should look at it from the bright side.”

“I try.”

“You seem so gloomy. I hope you’re not worrying about the interview, or the class. Worrying won’t do you a bit of good. Be happy.”

“Class? What class?”

“The class you’re supposed to give tomorrow, after the interview. Didn’t I tell you? Mea culpa, hon, mea maxima culpa. I’ve been uncharacteristically forgetful lately.”

“But what will I do?”

“Relax,” Louise said. “Just pick a subject and wing it.”

“Wing it?”

“You know, open your mouth and see what comes out. Extemporize.”

“But I always work form a prepared lecture.”

Louise sighed. “All right. I’ll tell you what. Last year I wrote an article on the Marshall Plan that I got bored with and never published. You can read that.”

Parroting what Louise had written seemed wrong to Mary, at first; then it occurred to her that she had been doing the same kind of thing for many years, and that this was not the time to get scruples. “Thanks,” she said, “I appreciate it.”


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