my blog

Causation and Logic in Surrealism with Jon Scieszka

Written by  mglyde in 

When my son was born, I inherited one of my favorite childhood stories through what passes for a time capsule in my family: a dusty box forgotten in the back of my parent’s attic. 

It’s called THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE, written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Daniel Adel. My son is a year and a half old, and thus got bored about half way through (he’s just too young, yet) but reading the rest myself, I remembered why I loved it so much as a child. It’s surreal and ludicrous and horrifying, and clearly an early, if until-now unacknowledged, influence on my work. Many spoilers ahead, for those that worry about such things. 


With surrealism being my main stomping ground, sometimes I’m angsty about the entire concept of causation: the point of surreal narratives is to surprise and shock, to drive you where you don’t expect or wouldn’t dare to go. 

But recently, I’ve thought about causation while reading a few surreal books, like Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL and Samanta Schweblin’s FEVER DREAM, and I realized that I’ve been thinking about causation all wrong. In surrealism, or really in any form of non-realism that trends close to fairy tale, including most horror, causation absolutely is present, it’s just finicky. It’s distinct. 

To dig into exactly what causation (and a causal chain) looks like in surreal work, few examples are more illustrative than Scieszka and Adel’s 1994 fairy tale. 


Published in 1994, THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE is a re-imagining of the classic fairy tale called “The House that Jack Built” which essentially unites a bunch of nursery rhymes in one long causal chain beginning with this first page:

This is the Book that Jack wrote.

The text is paired with a 3-D painting of the the book that Jack wrote (which in fact matches the cover of the actual book”). The next pages read as follows, with similarly representative images: 

This is the picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote

This is the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote

This is the Cat, / That ate the Rat / That fell in the Picture/ That lay in the Book that Jack Wrote

To read about half the text and see the illustrations (which publisher’s weekly called “bizarre but virtuosic paintings that evoke Alice in Wonderland by way of Francis Bacon”) in action, you can use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon

That same publisher’s weekly review gives away the core structural feature of the book, that “a causal chain is steadily built.” And while it’s a fair enough statement, the reality of the book’s structure (and it’s causal chain) is much more complex. Our first step has to take the idea of building a causal chain and make it more specific. 


For starters, THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE is one of those rare stories that actually builds its causal chain backwards, although it’s not so clear at first. Also, I’d argue it’s much better than the other examples of backward-moving stories I’ve read (for the record: “Backward, O Time” by Damian Knight and “Currents” by Hannah Bottomy); by “better” I mean more satisfying and more willing to dedicate itself to the experiment.

In its conclusion, the Publisher’s Weekly review states that “Readers who require logic will be stymied; those who appreciate near Victorian oddities and Escher-like conundrums will tumble right in.” But here, perhaps, the reviewer is revealing a particular bias, because there is no shortage of logic in this surrealist fairy tale. On the third page, the causal chain begins: “This is the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the book that Jack wrote.” Notice the verb: “fell.” It prompts the question “Why did the rat fall?” We do not get the answer on the next page, where the Cat eats the Rat, but if we pay close attention to the illustration, we’ll notice that the book is no longer in the frame. How did the cat fall if it had been eaten? It’s this subtle ambiguity that keeps us from realizing, quite yet, that the plot moves backwards. But on the next page, we get our answer, perhaps if only through implication: “This is the dog,/That chased the Cat,/That ate the Rat,/That fell in the Picture/ That lay in the book that Jack wrote.”  

From here, it’s hard to know where the plot will go. It seems that the causal chain is complete–the Rat fell in the Picture when it dropped from the mouth of the Cat when the Dog chased it. This a little wibbly-wobblyness to the timeline here, a muddiness that becomes hard to parse if you think too hard. But if we look at this from a logic point of view, we can ask “Why did the Cat eat the Rat?” and the answer is clear: “Because that’s what Cats do.” It’s natural. And there’s a similar logic to “Why did the dog chase the cat?”

“Because that’s what Dogs do.” 

But when you turn the page, you find a different answer: the dog was afraid:

“This is the Cow sailing over the moon, / That spooked the Dog, / That chased the Cat, / That ate the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote.” 

This sort of twist marks the rest of the book, taking you deeper and deeper into its surreal causal chain: the Cow was tossed over the moon by a Baby; and a Pie that hit struck him, angering him enough to throw it; and the pie was thrown by a Pieman (of course) who was startled by an Egg (humpty dumpty, actually) falling off a wall, who was knocked out the window by a Mad Hatter who tripped on a rug that was frayed by a bug. 

Then, in an unbelievable (literally) twist, we see a Man in a tattered coat crush the bug, and then himself get crushed by the Book that Jack wrote, leaving us in exactly the place where we started. And, in fact, one of the key pleasures of the book is when you become smart enough to restart the book (as this ending gives you permission to do) and notice that the Man in the tattered coat (who by all contextual clues IS the titular “Jack”) was already crushed under the book, like a wicked witch, on the first page. 

So, as you can see, each page follows a specific kind of formula: introduce a character that creates a question, and then use the next page to answer that question but raise another. It really is a microcosm of story: constant movement and change, all linked in a causal chain (with some exceptions). 

But, for those paying attention, I think you’ll already have seen, the entire structure of the book relies on logic. In fact, I think there are actually four different kinds of logic at work here. This book tries to stretch your imagination back through each logic, starting in a comfortable place and going deeper into surrealism and absurdity as you progress. The logic forms are these: 

  1. Instinct/Natural Logic
  2. Fairytale Logic 
  3. Surreal Logic
  4. Absurd Logic

The first, natural logic, is embedded in the pages that introduce the mouse, the rat and the dog. These familiar creatures are given to us in these pages along with our most familiar form of logic: common sense, instinct, purely mechanical. This is, I think, the logic desired by the reviewer (although perhaps I am presumptuous) and that’s no surprise; it might easily be called “mainstream logic” today. It’s the closest a children’s book may ever come to the logic of a mathematical proof, with certain things as “given.” 

But at one time, that sort of logic was viewed with quite a bit of suspicion, when an older, fairy-tale logic layered the world in metaphors and stories and focused on how emotions led us astray. In the second section of the story, we find out that it’s fear that drives the dog to chase the cat, and anger the causes the baby to throw the cow, and shock that causes the Pieman to throw the pie. In this logic, instead of being driven by instinct, people are driven by their emotional states–they’re like children. This is often the logic of fairy tales (at least the Russian, with which I have the most familiarity): “Once upon a time, a poor villager named Ivan felt angry with his brother, so he locked him in cage” might be a fine start to a fairy tale, to a journey that will lead to an epic conclusion, where Ivan is crowned king after defeating a dragon. Except in our epic causal chain, an Egg falling off a wall gets a Cow tossed over the moon. 

Finally we come to the third logic, what I might call the surreal logic. These pages introduce the Egg, the Hatter, and the Bug. In this form of logic, things happen simply because something else happened, with very little sense at all. There’s a reflection of the first logic in it, in that it’s incredibly mechanical, but it’s hardly instinctual: why was humpty dumpty sitting on a window sill? Why was the hatter even walking down the hall to trip (the hall is a dead end by all counts)? Why would a bug be eating a rug, and how could it eat enough of it to fray the rug so completely? The answer to each is simply “because” with a shrug. But notice how, as much as it’s senseless, there’s still causation, and there’s still logic. And in some ways, just like the surrealism of Kafka, once you give it a little more though, this feels more real than the natural logic of the opening: because we often don’t really know people’s goals and motives. “Random events occurring randomly” is often our point of view perspective in life, especially when it comes to disaster. 

Finally we come to the final logic of the book: absurd logic. This is brought to life by the first two pages (the Man is already crushed by the Book! How did the Book open up on page 2 for the Rat to fall in?) and by the ending, where the Man squashes the bug and then is himself squashed by what appears to be his own book. This absurdism also, of course, frames the entire book, as on several pages (including the one where the Man squashes the Bug) we see a framed photo on the wall of the Man squashed by the Book! 

It seems to begin (as all absurdism does) with an appeal to a traditional sort of logic: just desserts, an eye for an eye. The bug gets quashed BECAUSE it frayed the rug–look at the mess it caused. And then the Man gets quashed, which seems a little strange for a moment, but then you realize it’s only fair, it’s only karma–until you notice the first page. 

If the man was killed by the book, before any of this happened, how could the cat have dropped the mouse in the picture in the first place. It’s enough to drive you a little batty. I thought I found my way out of the time loop labyrinth when I realized (duh) that instead of finding out why the Bug frayed the rug, we got the consequences of the Bug fraying the rug (getting quashed), which means we’re moving forward in time again. But it still doesn’t add up. You could, if you tried hard enough, find a convoluted way to but together a timeline. But you will never overcome one basic fact: when the Man quashes the bug, there’s a photo of the man, already quashed, hanging on the wall next to him. It’s absurd. It’s karma without justice, it’s cosmic punishment without care, it’s fate without gods. It’s a wild narrative of out of control emotions and tragedy caused by habit. No sense required. No cause even. For that’s the secret of absurdist logic–which we can only call post-modern–“Things Just Happen.” The Man crushed the bug not because of the rug, but because the bug was a bug, and the Man was bigger. And no justice was had when the Man was crushed by the Book: it was just a big book crushing a small man. In these final pages, this book obliterates its causal chain, turns the whole plot into a farce and dares you to read it all again. To memorize it and repeat it in your sleep, as I did as a small child. 


To the reviewer (whose review was absolutely lovely) I say: more logic? This book is brimming with, over flowing with logic. It’s just that it can’t seem to decide quite what kind of logic it likes the most. 

Although it’s surreal and surprising, its best surprises are delivered with a smooth transition and an almost “inevitable” feel, it surprises in the way it resolves the cause, rather than by feigning zero causation. 

At the same time, though, it does in the end make an argument for unknowable causes, in the surreal section, and for a lack of cause, in the ending.

But that shattering of its causal chain is earned, and that’s why it works. 

Earned is maybe too vague, though, when what I really mean is that the shattering of its causal chain is exciting. It’s a final twist that makes you want to read again, that rewards you for paying attention, that lets most of its story live in the more rational world of cause and effect so that when absurdity strikes it has impact and import. And it’s important that this book is in some ways trying to resolve a conflict between contemporary logic and the older logic of fairy tales, a logic we often consider childish today but is still fairly instinctual to most of us. A case can be made that we ignore fairy tale logic at our own peril. We’d be careless to ignore the way instincts can drive us, but also emotions, but also external disasters and just bad damned luck or the cosmic whims of the void. 

There’s also something else about the logic, and by extension, the causal chain of this book: it’s poignant but it’s also very simple. The answer is often plain, and even it’s most complex, most absurd twist, should have been obvious from the start. The Man’s feet always were poking out from the book. He was always going to be crushed. Perhaps this is a strange place to land when writing about a children’s book–and the horror of this book continually grows–but ultimately it must be viewed to some degree as an existentialist lesson about mortality. And it’s the lesson a lot of existential philosophers left us with: the one inevitable thing. We keep circling back to it, don’t we? 

Good a place as any to land. I suppose it’s now time to ask you what you think.

What do you think? Have you read this book? Have you recovered? Are there books from your childhood that have revealed themselves as influences later in life? 

Invisible vs. Conspicuous Prose with Octavia Butler and Ahmed Bouanani

Written by  mglyde in 

What does it mean to write invisible prose? Why might we want to write “visible” prose instead? Here, I’m taking a look at two excerpts that hopefully exemplify each method. 

Might as well come out right away and say that I’ve always felt skeptical about the advice that good prose is invisible prose. 

At its most shallow, that skepticism stems from my love of prose that leaps and surprises, that sings, that draws attention to itself. Some books, I only read because I love the strange way the sentences progress. 

But on a deeper level, my skeptical mind wonders “invisible for who?” and “to what end?” How can prose be invisible when the reader is still just reading words on a page? Is this drive toward invisibility giving up some powerful experiences that can only be gained through reading, experiences that set reading a book apart from watching a film? Maybe invisible prose is impossible, or highly contextual, or maybe it’s just short-hand for prose that meets every expectation of the reader, never surprising, the reading equivalent of the traditional three-camera shot through the fourth wall in a sitcom. Even then, the invisibility of the prose will rely on the readers just as much as the writers. 

I want to look at two examples, just to see.

What really got me going on the topic of invisible vs. visible prose was reading Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL, with it’s wonderful, challenging, endlessly complex prose. I started thinking about the common idiom in writing circles that “good prose is invisible prose” which I’ve never really agreed with, but I also began to wonder what exactly “invisible” meant when it came to prose, as I suggested above. 

So I returned to a page in Vandermeer’s WONDERBOOK that I’ve often referred to, a diagram on “Approaches to Style” on pages 62 and 63. He separates prose into 4 vague styles listed in order from simplest to most complex, with example authors and examples of authors who wedge in between these styles. The first is Minimal / Stark (think Raymond Carver or Brian Evenson). The second is Invisible, paired with the even more cringey word “Normal” (at least the book puts it in quotes, but at that point why not have the good sense to instead use the word “lean”) which lists Daphne Du Maurier, Joe Haldeman, Mary Doria Russel, Karin Tidbeck, and Kurt Vonnegut. I own books by three of those writers, but I did not find Tidbeck’s prose at all invisible, and I had no interest in looking at Vonnegut. But Butler, I thought, was an interesting option, so I’m going to take a look at my copy of PARABLE OF THE SOWER. The third style is called Muscular / Conspicuous with examples of Kelly Link and Ursula Le’guin, and I think that Bouanani likely fits well in this category, although THE HOSPITAL probably does jump into the fourth category in places. The fourth is called Lush / Ornate and includes Tanith Lee and Angela Carter, with China Mieville as a clear transition writer from Muscular to Lush.

Both THE HOSPITAL and PARABLE OF THE SOWER are excellent, and you should read them.  

That said, we don’t need to know much about the stories themselves to jump into looking at their prose, so let’s just move along. 

Here are two short excerpts, first Bulter and then Bouanani. 

From THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Bulter — Chapter 2 near Opening
     Crazy to live without a wall to protect you. Even in Robledo, most of the street poor–squatters, winos, junkies, homeless people in general–are dangerous. They’re desperate or crazy or both. That’s enough to make anyone dangerous. 
     Worse for me, they often have things wrong with them. They cut off each other’s ears, arms, legs. They carry untreated diseases and festering wounds. They have no money to spend on water to wash with so even the unwounded have sores. They don’t get enough to eat so they’re malnourished–or they eat bad food and poison themselves. As I rode, I tried not to look around at them, but I couldn’t help seeing–collecting–some of their general misery. 
     I can take a lot of pain without falling apart. I’ve had to learn to do that. But it was hard, today, to keep pedaling and keep up with the others when just about everyone I saw made me feel worse and worse. 
     My father glanced back at me every now and then. He tells me, “You can beat this thing. You don’t have to give in to it.” He has always pretended, or perhaps believed, that my hyperempathy syndrome was something I could shake off and forget about. The sharing isn’t real, after all. It isn’t some magic or ESP that allows me to share the pain or the pleasure of other people. It’s delusional. Even I admit that. My brother Keith used to pretend to be hurt just to trick me into sharing his supposed pain. Once he used red ink as fake blood to make me bleed. I was eleven then, and I still bled through the skin when I saw someone else bleeding. I couldn’t help doing it, and I always worried that it would give me away to people outside the family. 

From THE HOSPITAL by Ahmed Bouanani — Page 48
I didn’t leave my bed this morning. While the bottle of serum emptied drop by drop into my veins, instead of gazing at the ceiling–and imagining living, elusive figures in the stains that bear witness to past winters, or taking an interest in the carousel of flies whirling without end around the naked light bulb that’s shut off inexorably every night at nine o’clock, plunging us into a semi-darkness that illuminates sorrowful landscapes along which my body drifts in search of a merciful memory that will protect me from dissolution–I reread these pages without recognizing my handwriting, and then understand that my hope of remaining intact was like that of a drop of salt in the ocean. The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre fungi in the imagination. At all hours I am caught between vertigo and delerium. Every day I feel my memory heal over its scabs; I am reduced to a skeletal being, unappetizing even to the crows and vultures that I sense circling around me in my nightmares. I’m going to have to get used to living with my companions of misfortune in this world no stranger than any other, where, on occasion, despite my best efforts, the silence resuscitates painful seasons. And my companions? Mostly they no longer have any reason to leave, lost as they are in the density of their dreams. Whereas, I feel as if I came here for the day, two weeks, or a century ago, and forgot to leave. Where would I go? To another time, beyond the hospital walls, somewhere that I had a name, an occupation, a reason to exist. Today, my name is a number, I occupy rumpled blue pajamas, a member of a melancholic and joyful brotherhood that hasn’t asked any questions for a long time. I’m not confessing, and I don’t claim to describe things that I know nothing about. I’m not trying to relieve my conscience the way you relieve your bowels or your bladder, I don’t flatter myself, for the most part I don’t pretend that my shit doesn’t stink, so, if you’re waiting for me to start whining, to spin infantile flights of fancy about my people and our dark ages, then hurry up and pawn me off on your usual middlemen and let’s be done with it.

First, because I’m still not totally sure what either of these things mean, let’s start with a definition of invisible prose and visible (conspicuous) prose. These are the definitions given in WONDERBOOK. 

Invisible prose: “The ‘baseline’ approach common to much fiction, especially in commercial modes, picks its spots with balance in scene/summary and judicious use of sensory detail. Immersive reading is usually the goal. Few long sentences. Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘mediocrity.’ “

Let’s go through the first definition little by little with Butler’s prose in mind. Invisible prose is called the “baseline” approach in “commercial modes,” but it’s hard to know what is meant by commercial modes. Certainly, Butler is trying to write in a more-or-less commercial genre, Science Fiction, and the book does have some structural similarities to other popular works of the day. When it comes to “balance in scene/summary,” I’m not sure we’re seeing that here, and I would say that PARABLE, at least, has just as much summary (if not more) as THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, even though Le’Guin is categorized as a Conspicuous stylist. There is, in the Butler excerpt, certainly a judicious use of sensory detail–the details or specific and spread throughout very well. The sentences are also of a fairly average length. So maybe we’ll say 3 out of 4? 

The last bit gets me: “Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘mediocrity.’ ” 

Maybe I have trouble thinking of Butler’s prose as “invisible” because she’s clearly a talented stylist. Maybe my biases are making me think that “good” writing can’t be “invisible” writing.  

I want to say more about this excerpt, but let’s take a look at the definition of Conspicuous prose, first. 

Conspicuous prose: “Sentence structures tend to be more complex and summary/half-scene is employed in a more layered way, with time perhaps more easily manipulated as a result. Character POVs may be differentiated as much by style as content. Ample use of extended metaphor and sensory detail. Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘too clever’ or ‘lost the thread.’ “

Is this an impartial definition or a personal attack? Historically, I have often received the “lost the thread” feedback, as a writer who waffles between Stark, Evenson-like prose and Conspicuous, Le’Guin like prose. Even at its worst, I don’t think Bouanani’s prose ever loses the thread. 

Also, all throughout the book, he uses summary and half-scene to speed through or slow down time, and he just lathers on the juicy sensory details and extended metaphors like no one I’ve ever read before. THE HOSPITAL never changes POV, but the characters all have quite different voices in dialogue (although clearly you can’t see that in this moment). 

So much for definitions. 

There’s one obvious feature of what we might call “invisible” prose that seems to be missing from the WONDERBOOK definition, and that’s a general use of short words and common vocabulary. Butler certainly has that over Bouanani, especially if we compare the Butler’s line, “Crazy to live without a wall to protect you” with the functionally similar line by Bouanani, “The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre fungi in the imagination.” Both of these lines serve to explain the state of the contemporary world of the novel, and they do so in a relatively pithy way. But there is a much grander diction in the Bouanani line, whereas Butler’s line feels almost colloquial with its use of “Crazy.” 

Even beyond the grander diction, Bouanani is clearly intentional in his use of conspicuous prose. His prose is very complex, using compound phrases, participial phrases, even a few gerunds. But what makes Bouanani’s intentions so clear is the interruption smacked into the middle of the second sentence. It’s long and windy (and wonderful) but definitely makes the sentence harder to follow. It seems to be trying to stretch your mind thin and mush you up, evoking the feeling of the character. The sentence structures in THE HOSPITAL, even in this one excerpt, are not just more complex than Butler’s, they’re doing a lot of weird stuff trying to evoke the story physically.

But that brings me to another point: Butler’s prose seems to go out of its way to achieve a certain level of predictability. The paragraphing intentionally groups sentences that are directly and obviously related to each other, almost to the point of having an introductory and concluding sentence in each one. Interruptions are short and the first interruption seems to setup and emphasize the final words of the sentence “are dangerous.” This prose, it seems, is intended to read easily. And it does read far easier than Bouanani’s massive pillar of a paragraph. 

So one of two things must be true so far: 

Either 1) It’s much harder to identify Invisible prose than it is to identify Conspicuous prose. 
Or 2) Butler is not an excellent example of Invisible prose. 

Or, well, 3) Maybe “invisible” really is in the eyes of the beholder and doesn’t actually exist at all, in any generalize-able sense. 

At this point, I have to resist running to my bookshelf for more examples. My blog post will balloon, will strangle itself in a web of whiplash sentences that tangle. I will never find the thread. 

Maybe one more example of invisible prose. NO. 
Maybe an example of Stark or of Lush prose, just to round out the categories. 


But where do we go from here? I think I’ve gone as far as I can into what “invisible” means and what “visible” prose looks like. While I’m still a little unclear on “invisible,” I can admit that Butler’s prose is simpler, easier to read, certainly calls less attention to itself than Bouanani’s. But is it really invisibility she’s after? 

Maybe it is. 

That’s a good segue into why. WHY. 

Why even attempt to write “invisible” prose? I want to find something Butler’s own words as explanation, but my searching has turned up little–except that she believed in good stories, compellingly told. Perhaps that lines up with part of the definition of “invisible” prose in WONDERBOOK, particularly that “Immersive reading is usually the goal.” She wanted readers to be immersed in her world, and to be able to easily understand her works. 

That’s a laudable goal, I’d say, whether or not I think prose can actually be invisible in any sense. 

There’s not much more I can say than that. 

But let me ask you. What is invisible prose? Do you have any of your own favorite examples you turn to? Or any favorite examples of what you’d consider Conspicuous prose? Why do you write either of the two? 


Relating Hallucinatory Imagery with Ahmed Bouanani

Written by  mglyde in 

So, I just started reading Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL, which was recently released in English, translated from a uniquely-Moroccan dialect of French. This novella is wonderful, mesmerizing, strange, and moving–it begins with the words “When I walked into the hospital, I must have still been alive.” And it leaps immediately and confidently into an absurdist fairy tale. 

At the age of fifteen, I ate a steak at some dime-a-dozen restaurant on a date with a girl who is now a woman and my wife, and later that night I came down with a dreadful case of food poisoning. First the fever and the sweat and shaking. Then a pointless heaving and gasping, my body trying to eliminate the source of its distress. Staying home from school the next day, as my symptoms continued, I had the house to myself. Unable to sleep, unable to eat, likely also suffering from some kind of anemic episode (caused by a then-undiagnosed chronic illness), I wandered the two story home, the three bedrooms, the kitchen tile cold against my feet, simultaneously sure that I was not a man but a space–a space filled with fast-moving lights that blasted across my distance like shooting stars, but brighter and multi-chromatic. Blues and reds and greens. They smashed into each other and they exploded! Each bursting bright and sending my body reeling at the white light. With every explosion, I felt physical pain. Pain that was all-too real. Brought on by hallucinations? Or just working in tandem with them? 

I write a lot about characters experiencing altered states of consciousness and I read about it a lot too. I love characters who wander in a stupor, who see the world in a twisted light, who experience hallucinations as a matter of course. It’s a constant struggle to orchestrate these moments in a way that is not only compelling but also relatable and discernible. I watch other authors, sometimes very skilled, very experienced authors, struggle similarly. 

And then there’s Bouanani. 

In this story, a man who is vaguely ill leaves his city and enters a hospital, where he interacts with other patients and rapidly deteriorates. Clearly, even explicitly, he is doomed to remain at the hospital for eternity. The story operates, on some level, as a parable, speaking about certain kinds of men and their experiences in an ostensibly post-colonial Morocco. It’s also a lengthy thought-experiment about reality and perception. On its surface, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale about the author’s experience in a Moroccan hospital while being treated for Tuberculosis. 

Although it took about ten pages to really capture me, THE HOSPITAL by Ahmed Bouanani now has me thoroughly enthralled. In part this is because the translator did a wonderful job–the prose is unbelievably beautiful. I can only assume that the original text is as wonderfully sonorous and precise. It includes this sentence: 

“One doesn’t enter a sleeping man’s brain with impunity, not unless you’re a brave head louse or a moonbeam.”


Now, I haven’t yet finished the book, so I can’t speak much to the plot. So far, most of it the book has just explored the depths of the narrator’s delusions and the general routine around the hospital. But Bouanani makes it fascinating. And, anyway, I never expected it to go anywhere plot-wise, because of it’s genre. It’s written in a similar vein as Kafka’s THE TRIAL (but with much more polish, power, and skill), and Camus’ THE STRANGER, an absurdist tale that relates its absurdity and moves on. Thus the brevity of it. 

But man, does it relate its narrator’s hallucinations in such a compelling and powerful and digestable way (that is, when Bouanani aims for compelling and powerful and digestable). Just a note, for clarity: Rover and Guzzler are both other patients. 

Here’s an example of what I mean, from page 69:

I sink into the bed as if it were a viscous trough. My body, trapped between two slopes, doesn’t move. I can’t turn onto either side or the pains will return. In an effort to amuse myself, while I wait for sleep, I often localize each ache and assign an individual color to it. The shooting pain gnawing at my right side is a deep crimson; the one on my left, turquoise blue; the twinges budding in the hollows of my armpits are alternately yellow, pale green, India red, ocher, purple, and indigo; the areas that endure multiple syringe injections each morning are monochromatic landscapes, one single color in infinitely varying tones. Over time, I transform into an immeasurable palate unabsorbed by the night. I glow bright as a star, I rise above the room to a place where I can barely hear my companions’ breathing or snoring, I gently flatten myself against the cold ceiling, turn around so that I can look down upon the beds; the void that grows between the ground and trough. I sink into my memories in search of my youthful corpse. All I need for the past to shed its shroud, to slip on the rags of my six-year-old self, is a whiff of Brazilian coffee, a tune from a music box, or a fine drizzle falling in bright sunlight like at a jackal’s wedding. But there are not scents anywhere, no scents of childhood, no scents of once abundant fruits (mulberries, carob pods, pomegranates, black night-shade berries), of wild flowers, of the sacred plants from our stories (thyme, basil, henna, laurel). Where can I find, even in my dreams, a field of poppies and ripe cornstalks gently shaken by an autumn wind? Rover emerges from a silent thunderstorm. He laughs and slaps his thighs: “You want to know if the ocean is nearby? Nothing could be easier! You follow this path of cacti until you reach palm trees, you turn left and you start down a dusty trail, which leads to the head doctor’s residence. It’s a large windowless villa surrounded by fir trees. If by extraordinary chance his guard dog doesn’t rip off your leg or ass cheek, then that can only mean one thing: there’s no longer a head doctor at this hospital. You keep tearing down the hill, and you’ll arrive at the edge of a fifty-foot cliff. Then you can, if you insist, go for a nice little dip!” Guzzler appears in his turn, shoving Rover, who crumbles like dried clay: “You think that people like us can afford the luxury of memories, a past with clean diapers, notebooks, a pencil case, and a backpack? I was barely out of my mother’s vagina when my childhood went up in smoke. My old man broke so many rods over my skull that it was impossible for me to get through primary school; I became an apprentice tailor, an assistant repairman of every machine ever created, I even secretly married a widow so I could have cigarettes and pocket money like a proper daddy’s boy. Then, after an eternity of unemployment and begging, I started the back-and-forth hospital cycle . . . So what do you call childhood or adolescence? A fancy Sunday suit, that’s What!” Meanwhile, Rover has pulled himself back together, piece by piece. He coughs, vomits blood, laughs and wipes his eyes. Guzzler hands him a Marlboro, and suggests “Try and get yourself some good hash!” He turns to me: “Do you want Rover dead?” 
     “Then don’t ever stop him from lying! Lies have become second nature to him. Did he already tell you the story about the old fool who chopped up everyone in his bathhouse? You haven’t heard anything yet. Go head, Rover, how does it go again, the one about the guy who buys Al-Buraq at the Medina flea market? Not a two-bit engraving, mind you, but the real thing, the Prophet’s steed, go on, tell him.”
     “Come on, Guzzler, another time. Can’t you see that our friend is already asleep? Leave him be.” 

He contained all of that in one paragraph! And it makes total sense! Of course you would want one long extended hallucinatory moment to be constrained within one fictive logical unit. Duh! 

I think it’s easy to understate the importance of paragraphs as a unifying force. Even when I wasn’t sure that the narrator was still hallucinating (in that middle bit where he returns to his “trough”), I was pretty confident he was still hallucinating, because no new paragraph

That has to be it. There were not really any other signs. 

Another something I notice, right off the bat: these two hallucinations don’t really go in the order I would have put them in. It goes from pretty abstract to pretty mundane, and that’s interesting in itself. Like Bouanani intentionally wanted us to wonder if he was still hallucinating or not–while subtly giving us a clue that he was still hallucinating. In the end, though, is he? I’m living for this ambiguity. 

One last final moment before really diving in; one final moment to celebrate the metaphors and adjectives just in this one paragraph. No future simile will ever be as evocative as “I sink into the bed as if it were a viscous trough.” Not for the rest of my whole life. As the narrator transforms himself into a painter’s palette, I’m so struck by the detail and specificity of the injuries and the colors: not brown, ochre; not just green, but pale green; twinges versus shooting pains versus the dull aches evoked by “syringe injections” which exist not in an area or on a stretch of muscle but on a landscape. And, finally, Rover, who “crumbles like clay” when pushed. Beautiful. 

But now, down to brass tacks. 

There’s one really key insight in this nugget of story for me. This hallucinatory scene is a complete scene, and it begins with the character setting a goal, or at least a plan, a way to “amuse” himself until he falls asleep. We can even, to a certain degree, outline it using Swain’s methodology for scenes. 

Goal: to get to sleep
Conflict: he’s in too much pain, so he labels all the pain with colors; but then he dissociates and has to fight to return to his bed; finally, either he hallucinates an argument, or dreams it, or his friends are in the room (and are only peppered with hallucinations). Either way, it’s keeping him from restful sleep. 
Resolution: his friends go, and based on evidence from the next segment, he appears to sleep. 

This being said, my point is that Bouanani makes this such a compelling, engaging hallucination because it’s structured around desire and a plan that’s been justified to us with a certain kind of logic. Labeling his body with colors is just the narrator’s way of distracting himself–it’s one of the things that’s we take for granted. But that distraction goes to far and he is distracted to the point of dissociation but it’s a logical step, in part because we are already aware of the narrator’s propensity to do this, but also because in the labeling of his pain, he’s evoked such a psychedelic image of himself as a colorful, cosmic landscape, that we’re just waiting for it to escalate. He sets up an expectation that it will. 

Expectations built by a character stating and enacting what seems to be a habitual method for dealing with his pain!

And he just takes his time to first build the psychedelic image, then drive it deeper into the narrator’s (and our) psyche, and then expand it out to the whole room. 

How deceptively, wonderfully simple.  

And Bouanani continues this tactic even as his narrator spreads out across the ceiling: he seeks some sensation to plunge him into memory, to further distract himself. But this effort is thwarted by the appearance of Rover, who tries to guide him to the ocean but just captures too much attention. And then Guzzler comes and de-rails the entire conversation. 

This moment, too, is anchored in desire. It’s a desire to get away from it, a desire to get to sleep, to his past, to his dreams. The hallucination is the obstacle that stands in the way of the narrator finding his peace. That’s what makes it so compelling. That’s what grounds it, too. 

But that’s not the only thing grounding it. The other thing is the dialogue itself–it’s a sound on the page, it’s imagery–and the detail being described in the dialogue. Both Rover and Guzzler speak in such concrete and specific terms that it’s easy to overlook the strangeness, the hallucinatory nature of the interaction. 

Let’s stop here. Brevity can be wonderful, especially after a couple of long posts the last few weeks. In summary, Bouanani seems to be using two key techniques: 

1. Ground the hallucinatory moment in desire and conflict, give it a “logic”
2. Ground the hallucinatory moment in specific, detailed nouns 

These two things work in tandem to really evoke these moments and to relate them in an interesting way. 

When you want to write a moment that’s hallucinatory, what examples in literature or film do you turn to as a guide? What do you think about, as you put the scene together?

Exploring Emotional Depth with Jeff Vandermeer

In this series taking a look at Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE, we continue by taking a look at how Vandermeer builds complex emotional moments. Lots of spoilers for the first half of the book below. 

Recently, I read a new book on writing. This is actually a rare event for me, nowadays, and I only approached it to help myself re-orient for longer work. I wanted something that covered the standard-fare logic of novel writers in a concise way, and Kate Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL did the trick. One concept she covered, though, was something I had never encountered in detail before, and I think originated in the work of Dwight Swain. This was the distinction between a Scene and a Sequel. 

This terminology is a little confusing I think, but it’s attempting to show two different moments in fiction that look like this. 

A Scene is a moment in which a character has a goal, fights to overcome obstacles and in the end either succeeds or fails. 

A Sequel is a moment in which a character reacts to some external event, fights through a dilemma of some kind, and then decides what to do next, theoretically setting up a new goal scene. 

This concept strikes me as useful but limited and oversimplified. I’ll probably do a full analysis of it at some later date, taking a look at a few novels. But one thing I noticed while reading after learning this concept, is that books I enjoy tend to heavily favor sequels, which slow the pace, and the sequel is usually used to build out complex, layered emotional reactions. How do authors go about creating these layered reactions? 

The basic premise is this: A scavenger (Rachel) in a post-apocalyptic city full of strange, artificial creatures, discovers a piece of biotech (Borne), and raises him in her home with her drug-dealing boyfriend (Wick). Much of the plot is dedicated to figuring out what Borne is and describing his development from a little sea anemone, to a child, to a super powerful guy. The city is more-or-less ruled by a giant flying bear (Mord), with the Company, who created Mord and once ruled the city, in tattered subservience to him. The only rival to Mord’s dominion seems to be the mysterious Magician. We follow Rachel, Borne and Wick through several great changes in the city as they attempt to navigate this roughshod world. 

At its core, this novel is built from layered examinations of emotional reactions to change. Rachel reacts to epic changes in the city, to changes in Borne, to changes in Wick and in herself. There are one thousand moments of deep, layered emotional reaction that are truly wonderful, and we’re going to look just at one. 

First, let’s take a look at a sequel on page 106. In this scene, Rachel reacts to an attack by what the novel calls a Proxy. Proxies are a bear-like biotech that goes around murdering people in the city, who take their likeness from the much-larger Mord. To protect them from the attack, Borne pretended to be a rock while hiding Rachel inside. This scenes takes place just after that. As you might expect, this is a longer scene, but also a beautiful one: 

In the old world, when I emerged with my parents from secret rooms or tunnels or caves or closets, we knew what we were returning to–the same place we had left, as dangerous or as safe as before. We had hidden so we could remain in that world, were saying we believed in that world no matter what. Because we had no choice. Because there was no better or worse world, there was just the place we came out into. 
     But when I emerged from Borne, out onto the rooftop again, I did not feel the same way. We had waited until Borne told me the Mord proxies had truly gone and all that remained below were the kinds of scavengers that would scatter at our approach. The cast-off biotech that could move, well or not so well, that came out nocturnal. 
     We had waited until nightfall, even then, and so when I stood outside of Borne the world had changed in more than one sense. It was not just that Borne had shielded me rather than the other way around. It was not the change in the sky. 
     Pieces of Borne had been torn from him by the Mord proxy in its suspicion. These pieces had bounced like rock, settled on the rooftop like rock, but now quivered and flexed like hands opening and closing, reformed as Borne flesh. 
     The Borne that faced me was, even in that dim light, scarred and misshapen. He had returned to his normal size and shape, the one that looked like an upside-down vase, that combined attributes of a squid and a sea anemone, but he had a slumped, subdued quality that I’d never seen in him before. 
     I winced to see that his left side was fissured and purpling-black and the ring of eyes, darkly luminous, circled his body in a haphazard way, like a rotting carnival ride one loose bolt away from spinning off into the crowd. He had a smell like turpentine and rotting fish sticks and moldy bandages. 
     “I’m sorry, Borne,” I said, feeling shaky. “I shouldn’t have brought you out here.” 
     Somehow they had known. Somehow they had known where we would be–but which ones? The ferals or the proxies? I was unwilling to accept that this had been just coincidence or bad luck. And also tumbling through my mind, an awful sense of responsibility: that if Borne hadn’t moved out, if Borne hadn’t pretended to be more like an adult, I might not have taken the chance. 
     “It is okay,” Borne said. “I need to learn. I need to know.”
     “But not by being hurt.” 
     “It’s not being hurt that hurts,” Borne said. 
     Borne might be alien to me, he might have more senses, he might do things no human could do . . . but I thought I understood what he was saying. (Although, did I, really?) He knew now that he could be harmed. He knew now that he was vulnerable. No joy would be the same for Borne. No playfulness, either. Because behind it would be this certain knowledge: that he could die. 
     “I’m tired, Rachel,” Borne said. “I need not to move for a while.”
     “That’s okay,” I said, and it was. If we had to make this rooftop our home for a few hours, I was prepared to do it. 
     It had cooled as the sun disappeared and the stars came out across an unusually cloudless sky. We were silent for a long time, and I made no move to go downstairs to recon. Borne needed my attention but I also think we both dreaded going downstairs. Neither of us wanted to experience the aftermath up close, even in the dark. But Borne was also looking up at the stars, all of his attention drawn there. 
     Borne was reaching out a tentative tentacle, as if to touch the stars. 
     He must have known he couldn’t, but I still said, “You can’t touch them!” 
     “Why not? Are they hot?” 
     “Yes, they are. But that’s not why. They’re very, very far away.” 
     “But my arms are so long, Rachel. My arms can be as long as I want.” 
     “That might be so, but . . .” I trailed off when I realized Borne was joking. He had a little tell when he joked–or it was actually a big tell. Some of his eyes would drift to the left, a particular cluster. He couldn’t control that. 
     “Diabolical,” he said, still captivated by what lay above. “Diabolical. Deadly. Delirious. Deep.” Four new words he’d been trying out. Except he had not learned “diabolical” from me, and I felt a twinge. Some book, some other source. 
     A normal night sky, but I was attuned to Borne in that moment and I saw it from his eyes–like a rush or an onslaught. Because as far as I knew, he had never seen the night sky so unguarded before–glimpses, maybe, from the Balcony cliffs at dusk or in his books. So many stars, so little light from the city to disguise them. It was just like I remembered it from our island sanctuary so long ago. Walking down the beach and not needing a flashlight because the stars were so strong. 
     A glittering reef of stars, spread out phosphorescent, and each one might have life on it, planets revolving around them. There might even be people like us, looking up at the night sky. It was what my mother said sometimes–to be mindful that the universe beyond still existed, that we did not know what lived there, and it might be terrible to reconcile ourselves to knowing so little of it, but that didn’t mean it stopped existing. There was something else beyond all of this, that would never know us or our struggles, never care, and that it would go on without us. My mother had found that idea comforting. 
     Borne’s many eyes became stars as he watched them, and his skin turned the color of velvety night, until he was just a Borne shaped reflection. So many eyestalks arose from him that his body flattened away to nothing, into an irregular pool of flesh across most of the roof, the edge lapping up against my boots. I could still see how he had been injured, because he looked like a circle that had had a bite taken out of it. Each eyestalk ended in three-dimensional representation of a star, and the stars clustered until he was a field of stars rising from the rooftop, forming nebulae and galaxies, and a few fireflies like meteorites across the depth and breadth of him. 
     “It’s beautiful,” he said, from across the star field of his body. “It’s beautiful.” 
     For once what he thought of as beautiful really was beautiful. It was as if we had become closer even as he exhibited more alien attributes, but I quashed that with an instant of wariness. Was he truly without guile? Wasn’t this repetition because of my reaction about the polluted river? But even if I suspected “beautiful” was just making conversation or in some other way for my benefit, I knew that he’d taken this form to begin to heal, that there was something comforting about it, something that had helped him. 
     “What are they?” Borne asked. “Are they . . . lights like in the Balcony Cliffs? Or . . . electrical lights? Who turned them on?” So whatever he’d seen in books hadn’t explained stars. At all. 
     “No one turned them on,” I said, realizing after I’d said it that I’d just discounted thousands of years of religion. But it was too late to turn back. 
     “No one?”
     “We’re on a world,” I told him, not knowing what gaps existed from his reading. “We’re on a world that revolves around a star, which is a giant ball of fire. So enormous that if it weren’t so distant we would all be dead–burned up. We call it the sun–and the sun is what you thought wasn’t nice when it shone so bright on you the other day. But all of those points of light above are also suns, even farther away, and they all have worlds, too.” 
     My eyesight had gotten blurry telling Borne this, the aftershock of our ordeal hitting me. 
     “All of them? Every single one? But that’s like hundreds.” 
     “Thousands. Maybe millions.” 
     Across the star fields of Borne’s body there coalesced one great sun in the center, also atop a stalk. Heretical was his astronomy at this point. He’d become metaphorical or metaphysical or just silly. 
     “But that’s incredible,” Borne said, quietly. “That’s amazing. That’s devastating.” 
     Then something began to blot out the stars, to turn that glittering, shining brilliance into a great and final darkness. 
     “And what is that?” Borne asked, as if it was something normal, something else he didn’t know about yet, and he trusted me to tell him, to let him know what to think about it. 
     I was speechless, because for an instant I thought the world was ending, that fate had conspired to put us on that roof to watch the end of . . . everything.  
     Then I realized what we were seeing, and I couldn’t help a stifled chuckle. Oh, this was rich! Because it was the end of the world. 
     “What’s so funny, Rachel?” An edge to that voice as Borne withdrew from the edge of my toes, drew himself up into his normal form, still sagging, still wounded. 
     “That’s Mord,” I said. 
     Yes, it was Mord–floating and diving across the night sky, high up, so huge that even from a distance he blotted out the stars. Across the night sky the giant bear Mord glided, seething, and we could hear faint rasps and roaring from the stratosphere, the chocking gasps of his rage. Snuffing out first this constellation then that one, his form as it occluded the stars making me aware of them again. His was the greater darkness, and although I feared him and hated him and despised him, Mord was still, in that moment, the purest reflection of the city. 
     “Moooooordddddddddd,” Borne said in a kind of hissing way, and I saw even in the reflected light that every inch of Borne’s unscarred surface had become sharp, jagged, pointed like spears and spikes, and the eyes now revolving tracked Mord’s obliterating progress like gun emplacements tracking aircraft. Strafed Mord’s position with analytics and calculations and trajectories. 
     “He’s very far away,” I said, in a soothing tone. “He can’t hurt you.” Neither statement was entirely true. 
     “That is what you mean by Mord proxy,” Borne said, “This is the source.” 
     “They are his children.”
     “In a way, yes.” 
     “Why would he let his children do that to other children?” 
     I didn’t have a good answer for him, but I was sure that Borne had an idea of what he was looking at. We had turned Mord into the boogieman in his imagination, the monster under the bed. Don’t go outside, don’t do this, don’t do that because: Mord. But now Borne had been mauled by one of Mord’s emissaries, and he was trying to understand Mord. The real Mord. 
     Mord continued to dip and glide and wheel and drop across the sky like a god. 
     “Mord is beautiful,” Borne said with disdain. “Mord is strong. Mord is not nice.” From his tone, I believe Borne was beginning to parody his own innocence. 
     “Mostly not nice. Remember the not-nice part. Avoid him.” 
     “He kills the stars,” Borne said. “He kills the stars and brings darkness.” 
     “The stars all come back, though.” 
     “But not the people down below.” 
     You killed four of them yourself, back at the Balcony Cliffs, I wanted to say. But didn’t.

My first step, when I want to write about a novel, and I’m not sure what to write about, is to re-read and outline it. I’ve used a lot of different methods to outline, but for BORNE, I used the Scene/Sequel distinction I discovered in Weiland’s book, refering to these as (Goal) scenes and (React) scenes, because the language is clearer, and because I did change up the idea a little to suit my own purposes (it makes no sense to me, for instance, to see a scene as separate if it takes place at the same setting with the same characters and no line break, just because the goal ends). This outline was quite useful, but limited, as you can see below in my outline of this scene: 

(React) to attack of Mord Proxies (pg 106 – 112)
Reaction: Rachel thinks about coming out of caves as a kid; ready to wait in secret until nightfall; to watch the stars; track how Borne has changed & show his reactions; Borne mimics the stars & galaxies, he thinks they’re beautiful; cry while explaining stars and planets to Borne. 
Dilemma: trying to explain stars to Borne; apologizing to him; Borne needs to heel; tries to understand Mord. 
Decision: Not much of one. Borne decides Mord is not nice. 

As you can see, getting the scene to fit into this outline requires the removal of a lot of richness, and the stirring around of elements. That’s fine for the purposes of outlining after the fact, as a reader, and I’d bet it would be helpful when outlining after the fact as a writer, too, before revising. It’s fine for getting a high level overview of the story. But a lot is lost in translation. To be fair, many of Vandermeer’s shorter scenes cut much closer to the proper breakdown, and some wonderful scenes fit perfectly. But for our purposes here, a more detailed outline is probably necessary: 

1 (React) to Borne’s injury
     Reaction: To remember how it felt when she emerged from hiding with her parents (always the same world) and connect that with her feeling emerging from Borne (a different world in several ways); go over Borne’s injuries with detailed description 
     Dilemma: How responsible is Rachel for Borne’s injuries? Why did the attack happen? How should Borne learn about the violence of the city? 
     Decision: Borne needs to not move for a while. Rachel decides to “make this rooftop their home” for a few hours. 
2 (React) to the “unguarded” stars and Borne’s injury
Borne tries to reach out and touch them; Rachel stops him, almost panicked, remembers the stars of her past, and experiences the stars like Borne must “like a rush or an onslaught.” Borne transforms himself into a little solar system. 
What are stars? Rachel teaches Borne about stars while the trauma of the attack finally hits her (she cries)
none–interrupted by the stars starting to go black–
3 (React) to Mord and the stars and Borne’s injury
Mord asks what the mass in front of the stars is; Rachel at first speechless, thinking the world is ending, then realizes she’s seeing Mord and laughs, “because it was the end of the world.” 
     –describe Mord and his blocking out the stars–
Borne forms himself into a bunch of spikes that track Mord’s flight
Why does Mord let his proxies hurt people? 
Rachel and Wick have made Mord a boogeyman for Borne
Mord is not nice–Borne decides, and Rachel reaffirms. 

 A closing thought from Rachel: Mord might kill people, but so does Borne. 

With this new outline, we find a really common strategy that Vandermeer uses in Borne: he creates a series of nested reactions, each one built on the last. 

So why not consider each of these three reactions as a separate scene? 

Because they are tied together in time and because they are tied together, most importantly, on an emotional level. All three off these is a step further in Borne and Rachel reacting to the attack, to Borne’s injuries. In the first arc, we find Rachel reacting to Borne’s injuries, placing blame on herself; in the second, we can see Borne contemplating “the vastness of the universe” and his own mortality through the stars; in the third, we can see him coming to terms with why it’s bad to kill and to hurt with Mord, his boogeyman, as the central focus, in a way that will be very important later. 

What I notice first about how these reactions are nested: each one is tied to some physical, external element of the narrative. First, Borne’s injuries; then the stars; and lastly Mord, flying by. That physical element acts as an important touchstone for the development of each arc, creating the surface level subject of Rachel and Borne’s dialogue and giving the narration some change in the setting to describe. 

I think the choice of these physical touchstones is vital. 

For starters, the easiest, most obvious touchstone is Borne’s injuries. This is clearly what Rachel would focus on, because they make acute the stakes of Rachel bringing Borne outside. This is what any normal person would notice first and feel strongly about; this is the logical thing for them to debate in the “dilemma” part of the scene. But it also has the chance to be the most melodramatic, so after the apology, Vandermeer has the conversation sizzle out. We can make sense of the conversation ending: Rachel feels guilty, and knows nothing she can say or do will make it better. Rachel introduces the idea that Borne will, through this attack, gain a sense of his own mortality.

But then the stars intrude.

The choice of stars is interesting; in part because the attack Rachel is reacting to happened during the day, meaning that if Vandermeer wants to view the stars, he needs them to wait until nightfall, which they do. When we hear the conversation about the stars, it feels like getting away from thinking about the attack and nearly dying (lowering the tension, to a degree), and I think it is, in a way, but really only through abstraction. We can see, in the way that Borne spreads himself out and transforms himself into the night sky, that Borne is getting some pleasure from contemplating the universe, but as soon as he says “That’s amazing. That’s devastating” we get a glimpse at the nuance of this moment.

We can see how he’s connecting the universe to his own new-found sense of mortality (this is of course an association with a long history in world literature), and how we have not actually stopped reacting to the attack. But Vandermeer does not stop at “devastating,” he makes the connection explicit by wrapping around to Mord. Tension roars back. 

Mord flying, blotting out the stars, is perfect. 

It wraps the conversation back around to the proxies, making it quite clear that they never really stopped talking about the attack, and but it doesn’t quite leave the universe, since Mord is in the sky. 

Rachel’s reaction to Mord rings true, also. She’s afraid at first, of some abstract end of the universe, but when the real danger makes itself clear, she just laughs. Partly because Mord actually is laughable, but also because he does, for her, represent the end of the world, a symbol of the city. We can see in this that she’s turned to nihilism of a kind, even without a prolonged discussion of why she reacts this way. Borne then tries to understand Mord, the way he now understands stars, and this discussion is much shorter, because Rachel knows little about Mord. In this moment, though, I think it’s clear that when Borne tries to understand Mord, what he’s thinking about is himself, his own mortality, the possibility that Mord could kill him. 

They come together to the conclusion that Mord is “not nice,” and Rachel means it on a literal level, but Borne comes to a broader conclusion: killing is not nice. Here Borne is reflecting on his own actions, the people he’s “absorbed,” and Rachel picks up on this, as we see in the final line. 

That also leads well into another point I want to make. A lot of the time when I write, I treat emotions and reactions as something that happens in isolation, inside the character. This scenes does a lot to counteract that, because so much of the emotional depth spawns not from direct thoughts (although some of it does) but instead from the interplay between the external touchstones and the conversation around them. A lot of it comes from the way these two characters dance around what they really should say: “Someday, both of us will die. Maybe everyone.” Instead, Borne tries to distract himself and Rachel, but ends up circling back around, constantly on the edge of acknowledging their mortality. So much more emotional depth is possible in this scene because it starts as two characters interacting. 

The last question, I suppose, is how do you go about building this sort of scene? 

Knowing a little about Vandermeer’s process, it’s likely that this scene occurred to him at least in part through introspection. He has a rather organic method, but he does a lot of revision, too, so it’s likely that some element of this was introduced, cut back, or changed to make the scene work. 

Other than that, it’s a hard question to answer. This scene is stunning. It relies on a lot of built-up meaning behind the symbolism of Mord in the book, and deep-rooted real world symbolism that connects the sky with death, which Vandermeer makes explicit on the page. That takes a lot of thought and a layered understanding of what you want the scene to accomplish. It takes a consciousness about what objects are taking on resonance in your work and what objects already have resonance in the real world. It takes sharp revision efforts. 

If you’re working on a scene in which a character reacts deeply to some event in the narrative, how would you go about anchoring that process? How would you proceed? Do you have any examples you return to in reading?

How to Write Arguments with Jeff Vandermeer

It’s taken a long time to figure out what I wanted to talk about RE: BORNE. There’s so much of interest in this book, such a wonderful mix of experimental and traditional elements and approaches. In this series taking a look at Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE, we’ll start by discussing how Vandermeer approaches character arguments. Lots of spoilers for the first half of the book below. 

For me, writing arguments has always been difficult. I’ve tended to just avoid them, wherever possible, but that means that tensions bubbling under the surface never end up paying off! But when I started trying to bring them to the fore, it constantly felt like I was falling prey to melodrama, and I’d leave the page feeling sick. 

So how do you avoid this? How can you write an argument that works, that evokes real arguments, and moves the story forward? 

Although Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE is easily one of my favorite novels, my relationship with it is a little messy. Like the book itself, I’d say. It’s a rewarding read, if you can make it to the end, and there’s a lot of good to learn from it, despite its flaws (which I’ll get into in a later post, likely). It’s a bold, strange, experimental kind of SciFi that just feels different from anythings else I’ve read, from the gritty prose to the sweeping braided narrative that combines the personal and the epic. 

The basic premise is this: A scavenger (Rachel) in a post-apocalyptic city full of strange, artificial creatures, discovers a piece of biotech (Borne), and raises him in her home with her drug-dealing boyfriend (Wick). Much of the plot is dedicated to figuring out what Borne is and describing his development from a little sea anemone, to a child, to a super powerful guy. The city is more-or-less ruled by a giant flying bear (Mord), with the Company, who created Mord and once ruled the city, in tattered subservience to him. The only rival to Mord’s dominion seems to be the mysterious Magician. We follow Rachel, Borne and Wick through several great changes in the city as they attempt to navigate this roughshod world. 

Most arguments in this story take place between Rachel and Wick, because their relationship is central to the real plot of the story. This give us a wealth of examples, but I’ll be primarily looking at two. One toward the front of the story, which is a good example of most of the arguments in the book, and one about half way through, which is a sort of pivotal moment (and full of spoilers). 


Example 1. (Pg 49-50): Wick wants Rachel to give him Borne, so he can tear him apart and figure out what he is. 
     In the morning, with Mord and the weight of Mord just a bad dream, Wick tried again. 
     “I can do it in a gentle way,” he said, but that didn’t reassure me. “I can return him the way he is now.” 
     His weight went taut against my back. 
     “I shouldn’t have to ask. You should know it’s the best thing.”
     “It’s not.”
     “You know something’s not right, Rachel.” Now he was almost shouting. 
     Like most men, Wick could not help terror about one thing erupting as anger about something else. So I said nothing. 
     But he wouldn’t let up. “Give me Borne,” he said. 
     I refused to turn to look at him. 
     “You need to give him to me, so we know what he is. He lives here, among us, and you protect him in a way that’s unnatural. This thing you know nothing about.” 
     “He may be influencing you using biochemicals,” Wick said. “You may not know your own mind.”
     I laughed at that, even though it could be true. 
     “You have no right, Rachel,” he said, and there was a wounded quality to the word right.
     “Tell me about your time at the Company.” I was tired of talking, just tired period. “Tell me all about your weird telescope.” 
     But he had nothing to say about his telescope. He had nothing else to say at all, and neither did I. We both new that one word more and either I would leave his bed or he would ask me to leave.

This is the most common form that Rachel and Wick’s arguments take. This is one of the first fully fleshed arguments in the book (there are a few attempts to start one earlier, rapidly cut off) and all of these do the work of setting up that later, more explosive argument. 

What interests me here is how this argument is restrained but allowed to flourish because of a diversity of tactics. In previous attempts to get Borne from Rachel, Wick was too lenient, too unwilling to confront her; here, he’s very direct, and comes at it using rational, persuasion tactics. We know, though, that it’s undergirded with paranoia, with maybe understandable fear. Meanwhile, Rachel is sticking her ground, not really engaging with the actual arguments Wick is making, and looking for an opening to change the subject, which she does later, to the effect of stopping the conversation.  It’s Rachel’s refusal to engage that cuts off the argument before it can get too dramatic, that keeps it controlled as we continue to build up context for the big fight. 

But another thing of note is how Rachel is shown to be hyper-aware of Wick’s motivations and feelings. She tells us that his shouting (which seems to come out of nowhere) is because of terror “about one thing.” This argument is rationalized to us just as soon as it needs to be. But also, once he starts really making his argument, she also acknowledges it as rational and possible.

Part of the brilliance of this fight is that we’re learning a lot about Rachel and Wick, and we have Rachel’s sense of self-awareness to thank. Without the editorializing she does, this scene would feel chaotic and confusing, and we wouldn’t know exactly how to evaluate each of these characters. 

That said, let’s move on to the more complex, and harder to pull off, Example 2, the major blowup later in the story. 

Example 2 (p126 – 130): The Magician has forced Wick into a deal that will open up their fortress/home (the Balcony Cliffs) to her soldiers. 
     Three years later, the Magician’s spirit had snuck right into the room with me, between me and Wick. She might also make her headquarters well to the west, in the ruined observatory, but she had found a way to make her influence felt from afar–because we were weak, because our supplies were running low and Wick could see no other way out. She had found a way in because she’d always been there. 
     Borne had gone quiet above us as our voices had gotten louder and Wick had gotten more defensive. 
     “We are not giving up the Balcony Cliffs,” I said. We were not giving up Borne, either. I was tired and drunk, drunk, drunk, but this I knew. 
     “We wouldn’t be giving them up,” Wick said, with little enthusiasm. “People would move in here, help us fortify it. We live here alone. How long do you think that can last?” 
     “It’s lasted pretty long already, Wick.”
     I crammed another minnow in my mouth. Probably my fifth. We were both acting like if we finished off every alcohol minnow in the land tonight we wouldn’t care. 
     “We’re lucky we held out this long.”
     “Why now? Tell me why she’s asking now?”
     “I think she is planning something big. I think her plans are almost set.” Wick’s voice had lowered to a whisper, as if the Magician were listening, which only made me madder. 
     “And how did she reach out? Did she capture you on one of your drug runs? Did she give you all kinds of promises you know she can’t keep? And if she did, how did you make it back here? Why didn’t she just hold on to you?”
     “The Magician’s not asking. The Magician’s telling. That’s what she does these days–tells people things, and people do them.”
     The Magician on one hill and Wick on the other, communicating via hand signals or semaphore. 
     “Who reached out, Wick? Her or you?” 
     He mumbled something, stood, wrapped his hands around the sides of his chair, tapped its legs against the floor a couple of times. 
     “He said he reached out Rachel,” Borne said helpfully from the ceiling. 
     “Borne, stay out of this!” we both shouted at him. 
     “But you said you didn’t hear him and I thought you’d want to know.” 
     “Go back to my apartment and I’ll come check to make sure you’re all right before you go to bed,” I said. 
     “Sure, Rachel. I can go back to your apartment.” 
     Borne sounded dejected, or maybe I just expected he would. Slowly, he slid down the wall, congealed into an upright Borne position, resuscitated his eyes, and left us. If there was a whiff of indignation spider fart left behind, I tried to ignore it, just as I tried to ignore putting Wick’s revelation before Borne’s injuries. 
     “I wanted nothing except to be left alone,” Wick said. “That’s all I wanted, all I’ve ever wanted.” 
     Familiar refrain. I’d never asked why he wanted to be left alone, though. That’s Wick, I always thought. Wick likes to be left alone.
     “It will destroy us, Wick. How can you trust her?”
     “How am I supposed to trust you?” he said. “You brought Borne in here. You won’t get rid of him. The proxies are getting worse–everything is getting worse. We have no choice.” 
     “You know what will happen to Borne when she takes over.”
     Wick shrugged, a shrug that said it wouldn’t be his problem then, and maybe he even hoped once Borne became someone else’s responsibility I would come to my senses, and we would be the “us” and Borne would be one of “them.” 
     “But that’s not even the worst thing, Wick, and you know it.” 
     Wick looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” 
     “The feral children I saw tonight are the same as the ones who attacked me here in Balcony Cliffs.” 
     “There are many terrible people in the city,” Wick said. “Lots of terrible people.” 
     “The ones tonight acted like a patrol, as if they were working for someone. Do you know who? I think you know who.” I wanted badly to say it. 
     “You should get some rest,” Wick said. “You should go to bed.” He wouldn’t look at me, even when I shoved myself in front of him. Yet it didn’t matter. the perverse thing was I knew Wick so well, and he knew me so well, that we both understood what I meant. It was almost the least of what we were conveying to each other in that moment. But still I pushed, because it had to be said out loud. 
     “That night the Magician’s people snuck in and attacked me. It wasn’t something random. They attached because the Magician was sending you a message–and you knew that, and you didn’t tell me.” 
     “I never knew,” Wick protested. “I never knew she would do that. Everything I did was so nothing would happen to you. Can you look me in the eye and say you think I wanted that to happen to you? No, never.” 
     “Wick, you withheld information. You were in trouble with her and you didn’t tell me.” To his credit, he wasn’t trying to deny it now. 
     “Would you have done anything different in my place?” Wick asked, shouting. “And would you have been extra-extra careful instead of extra-careful coming back that night? No and no. And we’d be in the same place right now. No matter what I did–unless I just handed over the Balcony Cliffs.” 
     “You didn’t trust me!” I shouted back. “You don’t fucking trust me.” 
     “It has nothing to do with trust,” Wick said, exasperated, pained. “Nothing at all to do with trust.” He said trust like it was a corrosion. 
     “If I had known, Wick, it would have helped. You would have been more open with me, you wouldn’t have seemed so closed off, secretive. Don’t you see that the Magician drove a wedge between us, that she wanted you to protect me from her demands? To cut you off from me?” 
     “You cut yourself off from me. You did that all on your own–by bringing Borne into our lives and not letting go of him. By clinging to him. You did that. You did that!” 
     “Did you know the Magician tried to recruit me three years ago?” I asked.       “Did you know that Wick? Of course you didn’t. I kept that from you because I didn’t wan the Magician to have more leverage over you than she already has!”
      A cry of frustration from Wick. “How in the name of fuck is that different than me trying to protect you by not telling you things? It’s not different at all! No difference! And I don’t even care!” 
     We were screaming at each other, pointing at each other, but we couldn’t stop.  
     “The difference is, Wick, you’re hiding other things from me. You’re hiding why the Magician has leverage over you in the first place. You’re hiding secrets in your apartment you think I don’t know about.” 
     That brought him up short, but then he realized I couldn’t know his secrets–i just had clues–because he’d been so careful.
     “I don’t have secrets!” he lied. “I don’t have any secrets you need to know about.”
     “You don’t have any secrets I need to know about,” I repeated. “Do you know how stupid that sounds? Well maybe in the morning you’ll remember some secrets I do need to know about. Like the fish project. Like a broken telescope or a metal box full of biotech. Like not ever telling me about your family. Maybe in them morning you’ll realize just how much I might need to know if we’re goin to live together.” 
     Wick got up, started furiously stirring the crap in his swimming pool with a long piece of wood, his back to me. 
     “Isn’t there somewhere else you need to be? Someone else you need to be with?” Accusing, stabbing, but also hurt. I could tell he was hurt, too. 
     We were locked into these positions from the beginning. Wick trying to shield me and do the right thing, conflicted about what that meant . . . and me naive enough to think I could believe in Wick and Borne at the same time. Corrupted by that. Both of us aware, from the remote position looking down on ourselves, that regret, guilt and even arguing distracted us from getting on with the business of trying to survive. 
     I stalked out, intending to join Borne like I’d promised. 

First things first: I’m not sure this scene avoided melodrama.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word. You could argue that it’s not melodrama if it works, or if it develops the characters well. Kind of a “know it when I see it” defense. But these characters are literally screaming at each other and, according to the narration, pointing at each other! There’s a lot of drunken “well did you know THIS?” and “It’s all your faults!” in more specific language. 
It’s possible, reading it out of context, that it reads as melodramatic to you. But it didn’t when reading the novel itself, and that’s perhaps one insightful lesson: out of context, almost any blow-out argument is going to feel melodramatic.

If this were on page one of the novel, it would feel melodramatic.

This scene avoids melodrama only because it is built from the massive quilt of context that comes before it. We’ve been waiting for this blow out for some time; it feel inevitable. The dangers of Borne and the Magician and Wick’s secret past have all been built up in complex, powerful, intrusive ways and this is the point in the story where all of those come to a head.

One interpretation could certainly be that, although the argument is melodramatic, we forgive that because we want the argument to happen at this point. 

And maybe that’s all there is to it. 

But that’s not the only thing here that seems intended to save the argument. Part of the effort seems to be to convince you that these characters (especially Rachel) can act this way toward each other. 

This effort begins with a fun prop: alcohol. Rachel and Wick are “drunk, drunk, drunk” and we all know how drunk people are, don’t we. That primes them for this fight, taking away all their silly inhibitions and making it more believable that they would engage with each other in this childish way. I think it’s easy to underestimate the work this simple trick is doing in the scene. 

For the rest of this analysis, I think it’ll be good to have a point by point outline of sorts as to how this fight proceeds. 

1- Start out with a relatively logical discussion about what it will mean to share the Balcony Cliffs with the Magician and whether that is an actual option.
2-Wick points out they were lucky to live there alone even this long, and that prompts Rachel to enter investigation mode.
3- Why did the Magician reach out now? (Wick answers simply)
4-How did the magician reach out for the ask? (Wick dodges this question)
5-Wick’s dodge prompts an accusatory question: Who reached out, Wick or the Magician? (Wick answers, quietly, Borne clarifies his answer) 
6-They kick out Borne together, unified front here. 
7-Rachel starts accusing in Earnest: “How can you trust her?” 
8-Wick hits back “How can I trust you?” This brings Borne into the conversation. 
9-After a few more back and forths, Rachel brings up that the kids who attacked her earlier were likely the Magician’s soldiers (they laid her up for weeks, hurting her very badly) and suggests that Wick knew the Magician would come for her. 
10-here Wick starts to disengage, try to escape the fight. 
11-Biggest, most dramatic accusation: You didn’t trust me, and it got me hurt. Wick’s secrets are a danger to Rachel, his secret past, his secret present, etc. 
12-Wick moves to protect his secrets (his top motive, really) 
13- We end with an insightful paragraph, a bit of editorializing about the fight that acknowledges Wick’s feelings and how they align with and differ from Rachel’s. 

This is a super complex scene and there’s a lot of great stuff here. But notice how the argument starts in a very logical, bandying back and forth place, and it stays there a while. It has an almost journalistic logic (Why? How? Who?) during the whole first half, prompted by Rachel. Borne’s intrusion then gives us a momentary break from the drama, and his kicking out marks the big turning point in the fight–after this they become freer to accuse, to be dramatic.

This makes a ton of sense, from an emotional intelligence point of view. Once the child is out of the room, they feel more free to be childish and mean themselves. 
Also, at this point, other elements start to get folded into the argument. This is not just an argument about the Magician anymore. Their whole lives get folded in and all their anxieties, first Borne, then the attack Rachel suffered, and then Wick’s secretive past (arguably these are the 3 most important elements driving the plot). This argument takes a lot of space and energy, but it’s doing a TON of work to tie together disparate elements, even creating a causal chain that didn’t exist before. This must be part of how the scene gets away with such a heated argument. 

Once the argument gets to Wick’s secrets, he tries instantly to disengage. It’s very sudden, and it puts a lot of emphasis on Wick’s secrets in a way that will create a lot of suspense later on. But it also switches Rachel and Wick’s roles from the previous argument, with Rachel pushing the argument and Wick refusing to look at him. This shows how they both have their specific drives, their limits. 

Finally, and I think this is incredibly important: we get a moment of self-reflection, in which Rachel acknowledges Wick’s feelings and shows how they are similar or different to hers. She knows why this fight happened, can rationalize it, and thus rationalizes it for us. This little moment of self-awareness almost certainly saves this scene, because it gets us into the mind of the characters, helps us to explicitly understand it. It also foreshadows a later development. 

There’s a lot going on in this scene. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve almost certainly noticed something I haven’t. Let me know in the comments. 
Do you have a scene you return to as a touchstone example of an argument in fiction? How does that writer manage the argument so that it’s dramatic without becoming farcical? How do you approach this stuff in your own work? 

Dramatic Shifts in Mood with Franz Kafka

Written by  mglyde in 

Just to be clear up front: I would not recommend you read The Trial by Franz Kafka–more on that below–but I think there are a couple interesting lessons to be taken from it anyway. Here, I want to take a look at one Kafka’s greatest strengths in all of his fiction: his ability to overturn his characters, to accomplish believable and powerful shifts in mood in just a few paragraphs. 

How do you believably and concisely accomplish huge shifts in character mood? These shifts in mood are necessary to turn a character-driven story in a new direction, but they can be hard to pull off. Here’s a look at one way you might accomplish this. 

The first thing I noticed about Franz Kafka’s The Trial is how undeniably contemporary it reads, on a structural level. The paragraphs and scenes proceed in much the same way most well-crafted books do today. But I can’t recommend anyone actually read it, because the second thing I noticed is there is a disturbing amount of misogyny that threads through much of it–worse, even, than other work I’ve read from the post-WWI time period. This juxtaposition of modern scene structure and unapologetic misogyny might be intellectually interesting for scholars, but it’s off-putting enough to engender a mild case of whiplash. 

Maybe there are reasons Kafka requested this book be burned upon his death? An unfinished first draft, it certainly lacks the polish and astute observations of his short fiction. In short: if you want to read Kafka, go read “In the Penal Colony.” As for the handful of interesting tidbits from The Trial, I’ll try to cover them here, so you won’t have to go looking for them.  

One of Kafka’s most powerful abilities was his really deft sense of how a character’s relative position can change inside of a structure of power in sudden ways through subtle means. That’s what happens in the following excerpt (interestingly along with the most positive representation of any woman in the book. In this case, an unnamed woman). Up to this point, the protagonist, K., has been arrested by some mysterious court for no understandable reason, been to a hearing in which he gave a biting monologue, and has felt quite confident, even arrogant, faced with this trial. In this scene, he’s in the office of the court, trying to figure out when his next hearing is, and everything changes: 

K. didn’t bother with him and the others gathered there for long, especially when, more or less half-way down the corridor, he saw that it was possible to turn off through an opening without a door on the right. He checked with the usher that it was the right way, the usher nodded, and he took the turn. He found it annoying that he had to walk one or two steps in front of the usher all the time, it could well look, at least in this place, as if he were being taken under escort. K. kept waiting for the usher to catch up, but he immediately dropped back again. Finally, in order to put an end to his discomfort, K. said, ‘I’ve seen what things look like here, so now I’ll leave.’ ‘You haven’t seen everything,’ said the usher in non-committal tones. ‘I don’t want to see everything,’ said K., who was genuinely feeling tired, ‘I want to leave, how do I get to the way out?’ ‘You haven’t got lost already, have you?’ the usher asked in astonishment. ‘You go to the corner there then turn right along the corridor and the door’s straight ahead.’ ‘Come with me,’ said K, ‘and show me the way. There are so many ways here, I’ll take the wrong one.’ ‘It’s the only way,’ the usher said, his voice now starting to sound reproachful. ‘I can’t go back with you, I have to deliver my message. I’ve already lost a lot of time because of you.’ ‘Come with me,’ K. repeated more sharply, as if he’d finally caught the usher lying. ‘Don’t shout like that,’ the usher whispered, ‘there are offices everywhere here. If you don’t want to go back by yourself, come along with me, or wait here until I’ve delivered my message, then I’ll be happy to go back with you.’ ‘No, no,’ said K., ‘I’m not going to wait and you must come with me now, when one of the many wooden doors all around them opened, did he look at it. A young woman, presumably alerted by K.’s loud voice, came in and asked, ‘What is it you want, sir?’ In the distance behind her a man could also be seen approaching in the gloom. K. looked at the usher. He had said that no one would bother with K. and here were two people coming already; it wouldn’t take much and the whole staff would have noticed him and would be demanding an explanation for his presence there. the only understandable and acceptable one would be that he was a defendant and wanted to know the date of his next interrogation, but that was the very explanation he did not want to use, especially as it wasn’t true, since he’d only come out of curiosity or–and this was even less acceptable as an explanation–out of a desire to confirm that this court was just as repulsive on the inside as it was on the outside. And since it seemed that this assumption was correct, he didn’t want to penetrate any further. He felt constrained enough by what he had seen already and was in no state to face a senior official, who might appear from any of these doors. He wanted to leave, with the usher or, if needs be, without him.
          But the way he stood there in silence must have been striking, for the young woman and the usher were looking at him as if he were about to undergo some great metamorphosis in the very next minute which they didn’t want to miss. And in the doorway stood the man K. had earlier seen in the distance; he was holding on to the lintel of the lower door and rocking a little on the balls of his feet, like an impatient onlooker. But the young woman was the first to realize that the cause of K.’s behavior was a slight indisposition. She brought an armchair and asked him, ‘Won’t you sit down?’ K. immediately sat down and rested his elbows on the arms in order to support himself more securely. ‘You feel slightly dizzy, don’t you?’ she asked. Her face was quite close to him now, it had the severe expression some women have when they are young and at their most beautiful. ‘There’s no need to worry,’ she said, ‘it’s nothing unusual, almost everyone has an attack like that the first time they’re here. It is the first time you’ve been here, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t unusual, then. The sun burns down on the roof timbers and the hot wood makes it very close and stuffy. That makes it unsuitable as office space, despite all its other advantages. On days when it’s open to the public, and that’s almost every day, the air is hardly breathable. And when you remember that washing’s often hung out to dry here–we can’t entirely prohibit the tenants from doing so–you won’t be surprised you feel slightly sick. But eventually you get used to the air here. When you come the second or third time you’ll scarcely notice how oppressive it is. do you feel better now?’ K. didn’t reply, he felt too embarrassed, being at the mercy of these people because of this sudden faintness, and learning the cause of his feeling of nausea didn’t make him feel any better, in fact it made it a little worse. The young woman noticed this straight away, and in order to give K. some fresh air, picked up a pole with a hook on the end that was propped up against the wall and pushed open a little skylight just above K.’s head. But so much soot fell in that she had to close the skylight again immediately and clean the soot off K.’s hands with her handkercheif, since K. was too tired to do it himself. He would have liked to stay sitting there quietly until he was strong enough to leave, but that would have to be sooner rather than later, depending on how long people would look after him. And now, anyway, the young woman was saying, ‘You can’t stay here, we’re in the way,’–K. looked round questioningly to ask what he could be in the way of–‘I’ll take you to the sickroom, if you like.–Would you help me, please?’ she said to the man in the doorway. he immediately approached. But K. didn’t want to go to the sickroom, being taken farther was the last thing he wanted, the farther he went, the worse it must be. So he said, ‘I can walk,’ and stood up, though, having got used tot he comfortable chair, he was trembling. But then he couldn’t keep on his feet. ‘It’s no good,’ he said with a shake of the head and, sighing, sat down again. He remembered the usher, who, despite everything could easily have led him out, but he seemed to have gone long ago. K. looked between the young woman and the man, who were standing in front of him, but he couldn’t see the usher.
           ‘I think,’ said the man, who was elegantly dressed–his grey waistcoat ending int two sharp points was particularly striking–‘that this gentleman’s indisposition is caused by the atmosphere in here. In that case it would be best, and preferable for him, if we took him not to the sickroom but straight out of the offices.’ ‘You’re right,’ K. cried, so pleased that he spoke almost before the man had finished . . . (p52-54)

From here, the woman and the elegantly dressed gentleman help K. out of the offices–it’s a long, slow journey in which K. sees his mental and physical state deteriorate. When he gets outside, he immediately feels better, but this event will affect him for the rest of the plot. 

This entire chapter seems to exist essentially to knock K. down a peg, and to do so in a highly rigorous, convincing way. This is interesting in part because Kafka rarely puts in this much work to make things believable in the story and so much strangeness has already occurred–maybe he has some dedication to representing K. in a rigorous way, as his protagonist. 

The way I see it, there are 6 steps here that create a robust structure for us to witness the change. 

1. ” ‘I don’t want to see everything,’ said K., who was genuinely feeling tired, ‘I want to leave, how do I get to the way out?’ “

Here we see the first introduction to the idea that K. feels tired, but it’s subtle, delivered between a split line of dialogue so that we skim right over it. It’s characteristic of an line that an author might want to register in us without drawing too much attention to. A sort of foreshadowing, I suppose. The line quoted above leads into a very circular, confusing argument with the messenger during which K. is strangely obstinate. We’ve seen K. be stubborn before, so it tracks with his character in the moment, but it quickly becomes clear that something different is here–he rarely has shown the patience to bandy back and forth with anyone, usually bursting into a monologue of some kind. 

2. “But the way he stood there in silence must have been striking, for the young woman and the usher were looking at him as if he were about to undergo some great metamorphosis in the very next minute which they didn’t want to miss.”

This is a short step, comprising basically only this line, but it’s powerful–it creates a great sense of alienation that K. has hardly ever felt before (one that will return several times later in the plot) and hints that the woman and the messenger know something that K. does not, that they even have some information about him that he does not have. This is necessary set up for the next step. 

3. “‘You feel slightly dizzy, don’t you?’ she asked. Her face was quite close to him now, it had the severe expression some women have when they are young and at their most beautiful. ‘There’s no need to worry,’ she said, ‘it’s nothing unusual, almost everyone has an attack like that the first time they’re here.” 

The real gold of this moment, for me, is this step. It’s the pivotal step–in the sense of ‘most important’ but also in the sense of ‘where everything pivots.’ We realize now what’s going on: the very offices of the court are affecting K–the woman explains why in some detail. This level of detail is strange in the book, and it offers a rather high level of verisimilitude coming from someone else. She asks if he feels dizzy and he doesn’t need to respond–we know he does. We feel it instantly. It’s very interesting, to me, to see that the first real indication of K.’s inner state is delivered by another character. On top of being really very convincing–a roundabout way to show rather than tell the character’s emotions–it also props up Kafka’s major concern: shifts in power. This is the first time that K. realizes he’s in over his head; this woman he’s speaking to reads him like a book, she’s been through all this before, and knows exactly what’s going on. By comparison, K. is helpless. 

4. “K. didn’t reply, he felt too embarrassed, being at the mercy of these people because of this sudden faintness, and learning the cause of his feeling of nausea didn’t make him feel any better, in fact it made it a little worse.”

We get no audible reply from K.–that would ruing the effect. But we do get confirmation in the narration that, yeah, actually, he does feel faint, and nauseated, and he’s getting worse. It’s important that we get some facts to back up the woman’s assertion, especially in a story where people are constantly making claims that K. deems to be false; it’s important that he agrees on some level here. 

5. “So he said, ‘I can walk,’ and stood up, though, having got used tot he comfortable chair, he was trembling. But then he couldn’t keep on his feet. ‘It’s no good,’ he said with a shake of the head and, sighing, sat down again.”

Finally, we see the character change in action. He gets up, trembles, and gives up, too weak to even stand. We have never seen K. acquiesce this quickly. His character has been completely cut down, and we can see that the woman was right, of course–the air here is so oppressive, it can destroy the strongest of men. This is evidence of the strongest sort. 

6. ” ‘that this gentleman’s indisposition is caused by the atmosphere in here. In that case it would be best, and preferable for him, if we took him not to the sickroom but straight out of the offices.’ “

They then do exactly as this gentleman states. In an extended scene, they proceed back through the offices, shambling through, showing how weak K. continues to be. On the one hand, this feels maybe too long, and like overkill, but on the other-hand, it provides an incredible opportunity to deepen the change of character K. has gone through. Walking through these same halls, seeing the same sights, but viewing them with this new lens of acquiescence and pity, is deeply rewarding. It’s also deeply foreboding, because we see what K. will become–he passes several other defendants who are even more oppressed and despondent than him. We know that this will be K.’s fate, if he continues to visit the court. 

What’s most illuminating here, for me, is how the entire chapter is structured around one simple task: a change in mood. It’s clear that quite of bit of thought has been put into how to do that in a believable and dramatic way. It uses several elements of fiction, and a handful of techniques, to accomplish this effect, and it’s the most powerful moment in this short novel. 

What do you notice about this scene? Have you seen authors go through a similar process or give themselves a similar task for a chapter? If you have had to rapidly shift a character’s mood, how have you gone about it? 

Thanks for reading! 

Info Dumping with Ursula K Leguin

Written by  mglyde in 

Sometimes, info is necessary, and even when it’s not, sometimes it’s the point of a novel, on some deeper level. This is often true with the work of Ursula K. Leguin. 

Expository writing is disparaged largely because they are often boring and not done particularly well by new writers. They grind the plot to a halt and provide dry summaries of a world that should feel engaging and dynamic. But, as Kim Stanely Robinson said in an article on io9, info dumps are not just “necessary but mechanical and ugly,” they are “often necessary, crucial, beautiful and hard to categorize or even see.” 

If you’ve ever read any of Robinson’s work, his opinions on expository writing are hardly surprising. To the degree that she is a similar writer, it seems that Ursula LeGuin would likely share this opinion. The question is, how do some writers provide exposition so wonderfully? 

LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness exists almost entirely for the world itself–the book is designed with world exploration in mind, and focused almost entirely on giving a detailed account of the environment and peoples of this world. This is not always suspenseful (usually it is not) but it is often alarmingly beautiful, surprising and detailed. Here are two example passages, from much larger sections of writing, that I think show how an expository writer comes to love dumping info on us: 

1. From page 98, Chapter 8
During the month of Kus I lived on the Eastern coast in a Clan-Hearth called Gorinhering, a house-town-for-farm built up on a hill above the eternal fogs of the Hodomin Ocean. Some five hundred people lived there. Four thousand years ago I should have found their ancestors living in the same place, in the same kind of house. Along in those four millennia the electric engine was developed, radios and power looms and power vehicles and farm machinery and all the rest began to be used, and a Machine age got going, gradually, without any industrial revolution, without any revolution at all. Winter hasn’t achieved in thirty centuries what Terra once achieved in thirty decades. Neither has Winter ever paid the price that Terra paid. 
     Winter is an inimical world; its punishment for doing things wrong is sure and prompt: death from cold or death from hunger. No margin, no reprieve. A man can trust his luck, but a society can’t; and cultural change, like random mutation, may make things chancier. So they have gone very slowly. At any one point in their history a hasty observer would say that all technological progress and diffusion had ceased. Yet it never has. Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going. 
     I talked a lot with the old people of Gorinhereing, and also with the children. It was my first chance to see much of Gethenian children, for in Ehrenrang they are all in the private or public Hearths and Schools. A quarter to a third of the adult urban population is engaged full time in the nurture and education of the children. Here the clan looked after its own; nobody and everybody was responsible for them. They were a wild lot, chasing about over those fog-hidden hills and beaches. When I could round one up long enough to talk, I found them shy, proud and immensely trustful. 
     The parental instinct varies as widely on Gethen as anywhere. One can’t generalize. I never saw a Karhider hit a child. I have seen one speak very angrily to a child. Their tenderness toward their children struck me as being profound, effective, and almost wholly unpossessive. Only in that unposessiveness does it perhaps differ from what we call the “maternal” instinct. I suspect that the distinction between a maternal and paternal instinct is scarcely worth making; the parental instinct, the wish to protect, to further, is not a sex-linked characteristic. . . 

2. From page 243, Chapter 18
Around midday we would halt, and cut and set up a few blocks of ice for a protective wall if the wind was strong. We heated water to soak a cube of gichy-michy in, and drank the water hot, sometimes with a bit of sugar melted in it; harnessed up and went on. 
     We seldom talked while on the march or at lunch, for our lips were sore, and when one’s mouth was open the cold got inside, hurting teeth and throat and lungs; it was necessary to keep the mouth closed and breath through the nose, at least when the air was forty or fifty degrees below freezing. When it went on lower than that, the whole breathing process was further complicated by the paid freezing of one’s exhaled breath; if you didn’t look out your nostrils might freeze shut, and then to keep from suffocating you would grasp in a lungful of razors. 
     Under certain conditions our exhalations freezing instantly made a tiny cracking noise, like distant firecrackers, and a shower of crystals: each breath a snowstorm.

Call me a glutton, but let me take a moment to enjoy that last sentence again. It’s such a detailed and beautiful piece of writing, and so much attention seems to have been paid to it. The deep-in-your-throat breathiness of “exhalations” (instead of the all-in-your-mouth “breath”) and the way the cracking described by the sentence is also evoked by the repeated fire of the hard “c”s in cracking, firecrackers, and crystals. Sound is a key part of the pleasure of LeGuin’s expository writing, as we can see again in the first example, “death from cold or death from hunger,” that dramatic repetitive phrase also evoking “sure and prompt” with its use of quick, single syllable words. This expository writing isn’t just intellectual, it’s not just “info”–it’s also sensory. It’s in your head, sure, but it’s also pricking your skin, lighting your eyes, tap-tapping on your ear drums. 

That’s of course on the micro level of detail and exposition. We can zoom out as well and see how exposition is made more effective in Left Hand of Darkness by noting how the book itself was designed to deliver this exposition. Genly Ai, the narrator of much of the book and the main character, has an overarching goal of bringing the nations on this (to him) foreign planet, called Gethen or Winter, into a federated group of worlds called the Ekumen. His role is first to persuade, but also to learn, observe, collect data so another can try if he fails/dies. LeGuin has in this constructed created a natural, story reason for Genly to provide us with so much exposition, and she has also created stakes for the story. If Genly fails to notice some important detail, he dies. That much is quite clear, throughout, and made explicit in the very first chapter. We know that every detail Genly delivers to us is movement toward his goal, is ammunition for achieving his desire. That’s an important part of the structure of this novel, which is, depending on how you tag it, at least 1/2 up to arguably 9/10ths expository. 

Digging in a little closer to the technique used to deliver exposition, we can see that it’s almost always given to the reader on a plate of struggle. Most of the exposition in this novel comes during periods of travel, as can be seen in my second excerpt above, and involves the constant struggle with subarctic temperatures, huge mountains, narrow roads, and (truly) Ai’s impatience. The environment is a constant antagonist, and during the roughly 60 page voyage through the arctic north, we learn a lot about how to survive in and travel through icy, snowy terrain. That is the most expansive section of exposition in the novel, so it has the highest stakes and the hardest struggle, but we can also see a smaller scale version of this in the first excerpt. In this moment: “Here the clan looked after its own; nobody and everybody was responsible for them. They were a wild lot, chasing about over those fog-hidden hills and beaches. When I could round one up long enough to talk, I found them shy, proud and immensely trustful.” Notice how LeGuin sets up a struggle. The children are wild and hard to catch; this is a moment of struggle for Genly to learn about this world and attain his desire. He overcomes it quickly, by the next sentence, but LeGuin leaves us with an image of much time spent trying to capture a wild child. LeGuin keeps a constant eye for her character struggling, and will often spend time during long expository passages checking in on Genly–on how miserable, cold, uncomfortable, or afraid he is. The novel, very explicitly, forces Genly to struggle through all sorts of exposition. 

But of course, even with both of those structural factors in place (struggle and desire) the exposition could be dry and boring. But it isn’t. It sparks with life (most of the time), and it feels like LeGuin is deeply passionate about what she’s explaining. How does she do that? In part, it’s because she does feel quite passionately about the topics she’s explaining. Take, for instance, the description of child rearing at the village, and in Karhide in general. LeGuin was a stay at home mother who spent much of her early life caring for her children, to great personal sacrifice, struggling with her own mental health, and had a lot of strong opinions about our society’s failure in raising its children. But the real question is how she takes that passion and delivers it in the text. 

To me, it’s delivered through deep, intimate detail and especially through evoking sensations. LeGuin does not shy away from naming several examples of a phenomenon (“the electric engine was developed, radios and power looms and power vehicles and farm machinery”) or to pile on the adjectives (“I found them shy, proud and immensely trustful”) or from spending nearly 1/3rd of a page describing what it feels like just to breath in intensely cold weather. All of this is detailed, sensory and specific, to varying degrees, and it seems to speak to a person who’s just gotten a tad carried away with herself. It’s so packed with detail, it’s almost breathless, but it’s also hyper-focused. Like a cross-country runner bearing down on the finish line.

The details offered are also interesting usually because they are constantly delivered as something Genly notices because it’s different from how things are on his planet, Earth. And that’s a constant takeaway from LeGuin–the simple power of describing a world that is truly, deeply, and radically different from our own. 

To sum up, it seems important to start from a structural place where exposition is both necessary and believable, but also tied to struggle. At the same time, only write exposition because it’s something you care deeply about–that will help it come to life on the page. And when it fails to come to life, think about how you might get a little carried away. What details can you add? What sensory experiences can you deliver while also writing informative, expository writing? 

Do you have any favorite authors who use exposition exceptionally well, even in small doses? What are your strategies for approaching exposition in your writing? 

Thanks for reading! 

Emotion in Dialogue with Ursula K. LeGuin

Just as I’m re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I get the news. Ursula K. Le’Guin, a writer whose work has taught me more than maybe any other, has passed away. So I’m writing this as a tribute of sorts to her, for what little its worth. I’d like to start by taking a look at how she delivers emotion during dialogue. 

There’s a difficult balance to strike when we try to emote through fiction, but I have frequently pinballed between the extremes of melodrama and distant emotionlessness. The common advice for avoiding melodrama and evoking emotion is to show your character’s emotions instead of telling them.

Speaking from experience, taking this advice to its extreme leads to scenes that read as overly technical and distant, and makes it hard for readers to actually understand the emotion that the writer is trying to portray. 

LeGuin gives us a much more nuanced look at delivering emotions during dialogues.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a technical masterpiece. It manages to be a largely internal, introspective piece of fiction that still maintains a slow burning suspense for 300 pages. Its key selling point, for a lot of readers, is the deeply imagined world it explores, one that overturns and re-imagines some of Western society’s longest held institutional and social structures. 

It also has an interesting way of depicting the narrator’s emotions during dialogue, which can be seen in the following short excerpt. At this point in the story, we know that the narrator (Genly Ai) is a visitor from a distant planet (Earth) who often struggles to engage with a society he doesn’t understand. His key guide in this world is Estraven, the Prime Minister of this monarchy, and after two years, Estraven has finally invited Genly to his home for dinner. 

Pg12 – 15: “I’m sorry,” he was saying, “that I’ve had to forestall for so long this pleasure of having you in my house; and to that extent at least I’m glad there is no longer any question of patronage between us.” 
     I puzzled at this a while. He had certainly been my patron in court until now. Did he mean that the audience he had arranged for me with the king tomorrow had raised me to an equality with himself? “I don’t think I follow you,” I said. 
     At that, he was silent, evidently also puzzled. “Well, you understand,” he said at last, “being here . . . you understand that I am no longer acting on your behalf with the king of course.”
     He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself. Clearly there was a significance in his invitation and my acceptance of it which I had missed. But my blunder was in manners, his in morals. All I thought at first was that I had been right all along not to trust Estraven. He was not merely adroit and not merely powerful, he was faithless. All these months in Ehrenrang it had been he who listened to me, who answered my questions, sent physicians and engineers to verify the alienness of my physique and my ship, introduced me to people I needed to know, and gradually elevated me from my first year’s status as a highly imaginative monster to my present recognition as the mysterious Envoy, about to be received by the King. Now, having got me up on that dangerous eminence, he suddenly and cooly announced that he was withdrawing his support. 
    “You’ve led me to rely on you–“
    “It was ill done.”
    “Do you mean that, having arranged this audience, you haven’t spoken in favor of my mission to the king as you–” I had the sense to stop short of “promised.”
     “I can’t.” 
     I was very angry, but I met neither anger nor apology in him. 
     “Will you tell me why?”
     After a while he said, “Yes,” and then paused again. During the pause I began to think that an inept and undefended alien should not demand reasons from the prime minister of a kingdom, above all when he does not and perhaps never will understand the foundations of power and the workings of government in that kingdom. No doubt this was all a matter of shifgrethor–prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen. And if it was I would not understand it. 
     “Did you hear what the king said to me at the ceremony today?”
     Estraven leaned forward across the hearth, lifted the beer-jug out of the hot ashes and refilled my tankard. He said nothing more, so I amplified, “The king didn’t speak to you in my hearing.” 
     “Nor in mine,” said he. 
     I saw at last that I was missing another signal. Damning his effeminate deviousness, I said, “Are you trying to tell me, Lord Estraven, that you’re out of favor with the king?”
     I think he was angry then, but he said nothing that showed it, only, “I’m not trying to tell you anything Mr. Ai.”
     “By God, I wish you would.” 
     He looked at me curiously. “Well then, put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here.”
     And so you’re hurrying to join them, selling me out to save your skin, I thought, but there was no point in saying it. Estraven was a courtier, a politician, and I a fool to have trusted him. Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man. His inviting me to dinner showed that he thought I would accept his betrayal as easily as he committed it. Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty. So I brought myself to say, “I’m sorry that your kindness to me has made trouble for you.” Coals of fire. I enjoyed a flitting sense of moral superiority, but not for long; he was too incalculable. 

Begin with the final paragraph. That’s where all of Le’Guin’s work to this moment really pays off–the conversation after this point veers off in another direction, and this paragraph punctuates this short exchange. Quite powerfully, I’d say. It seems clear to me that what the character feels here is anger and betrayal. 

How is this passage accomplishing that? 

Clearly, LeGuin is telling, to a certain degree. She doesn’t say “I felt angry and betrayed” but she’s not quite showing anything–there isn’t a lot of sensory detail there. We don’t have a scene or even a physical action. What we do have is an interpretation of events delivered to us. Genly Ai interprets Estraven’s motives delivers them to us in a pithy, obviously angry speech. The feelings are more specific than vague adjectives such as “angry.” Instead of saying “I’m angry,” Ai says “Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty” revealing a clear break in values for our narrator.

Out of context, this paragraph could easily read as melodramatic. 

But it doesn’t, because of all the work that’s been done to build to this point to add context and weight to the relationship between these two characters. So what is the context? 

Let’s take a look at the context LeGuin adds in order. 

1. Before we even get to this conversation, we have a fairly drawn out section of the narrator wondering why he’s been invited to dinner only now, two years into his relationship with Estraven. This mystery is built up for several pages, until we feel the answer is so important that we need to know it. (And a note of genius here: the mystery is actually prolonged by the cultural differences and understandings between these characters). 

2. Ai interprets the way that Estraven is speaking in line with his fears (“He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself”). Because it is obviously interpretive, as readers we sense this may not be the answer–we have seen Ai misinterpret people several times already in this novel. 

3. Ai gives us a very specific, detailed breakdown of his relationship with Estraven. It shows how helpful Estraven has come to be, and why Ai has grown to trust him. Although it’s really told through summary, it’s evocative to a certain degree because of how specific it is. We get a mini montage, we come to understand that Estraven is Ai’s only help in this world. This important piece of context helps us understand Ai’s emotional motivations. 

4. Notice that most of the outward dialogue does not truly betray Ai’s emotional state. With the context, we can sense that he’s growing emotional in some way, but also it feels like he’s holding back. It’s important for him not to have some insane outward explosion of emotion–it would feel melodramatic. There are 2 key exceptions to this: 

This line: “You’ve led me to rely on you–” 
–This line shows the rising sense of betrayal. A less skilled writer might have grown off of this, but LeGuin squashes it immediately, not even allowing Ai to finish the sentence before Estraven apologizes. 

And finally, this line: “I’m sorry that your kindness to me had made trouble for you.” 
–LeGuin describes this as “coals of fire” which is an incredibly apt metaphor for the entire conversation. The conversation burns red with anger, but not like fire, in wild spurts, but subtly, controlled. This piece of dialogue is of course magnificent in part because it’s anger parading as an apology. This is Ai’s attempt to undercut Estraven’s face-saving techniques. 

You can probably guess the short answer to building emotion: context. When you want an emotional moment, it’s important for you to understand your character’s emotional motivation–why do they feel the way they feel in this moment? LeGuin here delivers that context through conflict and misunderstandings and through detailed, specific summary. It’s the history between these characters that opens up the emotional motivation of the character.

Adversarial Dialogue with Andrew Niccol

Written by  mglyde in 

Recently, I’ve been reading screenplays, because I’m writing one. As a learning activity for anyone who struggles with plot, visual writing or dialogue, reading and writing screenplays can be valuable. Screenplays offer fairly transferable skills, although they won’t offer any insight into introspection, complex sentence structure, or use of a wide buffet of senses (since you’re limited to sight and sound). 

Today I’m taking a look at dialogue in the movie Gattaca. 

Dialogue with conflict that feels believable, tense and “not dumb” can be hard for me. I avoid dialogue–I’ve written entire novels that have no more than a few dozen lines of dialogue. So I’ve been trying to round out my skills by focusing on this personal weakness. 

So I turned to screenplays, as a way to really focus in on dialogue. 

Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I love this movie. Slow to start, spending the first third in flashbacks, but with a tight emotional core and thematic resonance. And a surprisingly tense, suspenseful feel even during scenes of people sitting around talking to each other.

Be warned though: Jude Law absolutely outclasses every other actor in this movie. It’s embarrassing, really. 

What you need to know before you read the following excerpts is that the protagonist, referred to as Vincent in this portion of the screenplay, was born of a natural birth in a world of designer babies. He dreams of being an astronaut but Gattaca Aerospace only accepts the best of the best. In this scene he is looking for an elite designer-born person whose identity he can use to infiltrate Gattaca Aerospace. This is a very detailed process in a world that uses your blood, skin cells, hair, and saliva to verify your identity at every turn. 

Find screenshots of the screenplay below: 


Perhaps, in reading that excerpt, you tell me: liar! Those had very little suspense at all! 

And you’re right. But you’ve probably not seen the movie, or you don’t remember it. Most screenplays don’t end up matching the movie itself–there are so many other people in the process making changes. This screenplay turned up surprisingly close to the movie, but there are small differences that improve the story immensely. 

One of those is that in many of the early scenes, where Vincent says things like “Even with lifts I’m never that tall” and German says “There’s a way,” the director has switched the dialogue around, often without even changing the phrasing. So instead, the movie has Vincent offering to wear lifts and German saying “Even with lifts, your not that tall.” 

This is important for a bunch of reasons. For one, the script tells us that Vincent has all this drive, but at every moment of struggle, he offers to give up. It’s totally inconsistent with his character. Secondly, on a thematic level, the screenplay puts the doubt in Vincent’s mind, as if it’s not the world getting in his way, just himself–that really doesn’t jive with the theme expressed in the premise (A world where oppression exists along genetic lines). 

Third, and probably most importantly on a scene-by-scene, technical level, the original conversation in the dialogue makes it so that Vincent’s allies are always propping him up, supporting him. It made it seem like the world is friendly, welcoming to Vincent’s rise above his genetic circumstances, and it makes the scenes themselves super boring. 

In the screenplay, when Vincent says “I’ll never be that tall” it’s a concession, a white flag, even a subtle hint that the show won’t go on. 

In the movie, when it’s one of his allies who says “He’ll never be that tall” it’s a challenge for the protagonist to overcome. It’s a barrier, and it shows how pervasive the “anti-godborn” sentiment is in this world–even his friends doubt him. Because it’s just science. He’ll never overcome, and everyone knows it. 

This simple shift speaker of the line lends credence to the argument that dialogue should be a contest of wills, that every relationship should be adversarial. And it points to at least one potential form that adversarial relationships can take: doubt.

Eugene and German both want Vincent to succeed for their own reasons, but they can’t help but doubt that he can achieve it, and they can’t help but vocalize that doubt. All throughout the screenplay they’re telling him how what he wants isn’t just hard, it’s impossible. It’s the same message Vincent’s antagonists are giving him, the same one the world is giving him, and it’s that consistency that gives the dialogue substance, clarity, and suspense. 

We spend the entire movie thinking: maybe German is right when he says “even with lifts,” Vincent will never overcome his genes. 

Conveying Theme with Margaret Atwood

Written by  mglyde in 

Usually, I’m remiss to talk about theme. I worry that the discussion will start to dig into weird minutia and near-conspiratorial interpretations of “symbols” that can often come with amateur “literary criticism”–and, to be honest, even during my literature classes, whenever possible I’d swing from the “why” of literary criticism into the “how” that I try to cover on this blog, academically referred to as “craft criticism.” Now, it’s totally possible to have a craft discussion about theme, and that’s what I’m going to try to cover here, continuing on with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I reread for this study. 

There’s a lot of bad advice out there about theme. There’s this common piece of advice given at least in literary circles, that when a novel explores a topic, the writer shouldn’t seek to answer questions, but just to ask and explore certain questions. From my reading experiences, no piece of advice could be less realistic.

This common misconception connects in a lot of ways to the idea that themes should come across subtly in fiction. But no valuable thematically powerful book that I’ve ever encountered has been subtle. Consider some science-fictional examples: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Le’guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz, Pohl’s The Space Merchants, Butler’s Kindred or more recently LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom, and Okorafor’s Binti. All of these texts are excellent explorations of their themes. They vary in levels of nuance and complexity (with Pohl coming in at the bottom of the list in both) but none of them are subtle. It’s fairly obvious what “side” each comes down on in the debates on their topics. This is also true with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

So the goal here is to do some work to demystify how theme works, at least in science fiction, and get a better sense of how to convey themes to the reader. 

Not to tread the same ground here too much, I’ll at least mention that I highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in lyrical, sensible prose. It’s a really precise novel (sometimes too precise for my taste) and can, at key moments, really pack a major punch. 

You’ll need a basic sense of the premise at least to understand what’s going on here. On the off chance that any of you don’t have a sense of it already, here it is: The world is transitioning from the one that you and I know, to one that is dominated by an extreme, authoritarian version of Christianity due to a crisis caused by plummeting birth rates. Now women are separated into groups based on traditional female roles–the “Marthas” do cooking, cleaning, and general service work, the wives are older high-society women who are married to the higher-class men in the society, and final the “Handmaids” are women with “viable wombs” who are more or less treated like baby factories. The “Aunts” are older women who train the Handmaids, and they are the only women allowed to read. All the women wear highly constricting clothing meant to hide them from the gaze of men. The main character, whose new name is Offred, is a little over thirty years old, and before the crisis she was a comfortable middle class woman who was married and had a child. Now she’s a Handmaiden. 

How does Atwood manage to convey theme without getting bogged down in lecturing? In short: using comparisons. Lots and lots of comparisons. Every female character acts as a foil to Offred, showing different systems of beliefs and different paths that women take in this world.

These comparisons can be roughly divided into two different buckets. One compares characters, and the other compares time periods in the arc of society. Atwood really only uses two methods to deliver these comparisons–either they are delivered through introspection in dialogue (in a detailed, evocative way) or they are delivered by placing two similar scenes close together. 

For this post, we’ll just discuss the character foils, since they’re the majority of the novel and allow some excellent opportunities to show Atwood’s techniques.  

Offred’s mother, Ofglen, and Moira are presented as radical, liberatory feminists who constantly rebel in their own way–more active and stronger than Offred. Sarena Joy, who was part of the leadership that instated this regime, shows a greater level of authority and power, while also navigating the limits of her position. Meanwhile Cora, Rita, and Janine are women who’ve fully accepted their role and perform it, if not with passion, then at least dutifully. Finally, we have perhaps the most important foil, “Aunt” Lydia, the voice of the regime, who honestly believes the world of Gilead is a better one. 

In the following passage, we can see the comparison between Aunt Lydia and Offred being set up: 

I remember the rules [of U.S. society in the 80’s], rules that were never spelled out but that every women knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. 

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. Int eh days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it. (32-33)

We can actually see here how Atwood blends both the personal foil and the time-period comparison (and most of the time it’s pretty hard to splice them, really). And how both “sides” of the argument are being presented, to a degree. We can see how Offred gets the appeal of “freedom from” while also missing what she’s lost without “freedom to.” In this, we can almost feel like the anti-Gilead sentiments trying to be subtle, but this becomes less true as the story develops. 

We get this pattern in most of the comparisons–the comparison is made at the beginning of the novel, usually using dialogue or juxtaposing scenes (we get scenes of Moira in college making her feminist statements and Offred fighting back, thinking that Moira is too radical, for another instance). This is followed by development in the middle, too complex to cover in detail, but I’ll at least touch on how Aunt Lydia and Moira develop. 

In the middle of the novel, we see more of Moira and Offred agreeing, at least rhetorically. They converse more openly, and Offred seems genuinely more radical than in college, although in some ways she isn’t–what she seems to lack is the desire to take direct action. When Moria and Offred both end up at the Handmaid training center, Moira makes numerous attempts to escape (eventually successful, sort of) but Offred simply does as she’s told. 

We get a brief bit of introspection about Moira at the start of Chapter 28: 

They’ve given me a small electric fan, which helps in this humidity. It whirs on the floor, in the corner, its blades encased in grillework. If I were Moira, I’d know how to take it apart, reduce it to its cutting edges. I have no screwdriver, but if I were Moira I could do it without a screwdriver. I’m not Moira. (221)

Offred wants to act, as radically as anyone might in this case, forging a weapon from a fan, but she fells like she can’t

With the comparison to Aunt Lydia, you can see some further development in the two passages below, which are essentially talking about Offred’s mother and feminist activists like her, the first from Aunt Lydia’s POV, the second from Offred’s: 

Sometimes, though, the movie would be what Aunt Lydia called an Unwoman documentary. Imagine, said Aunt Lydia, wasting their time like that, when they should have been doing something useful. Back then, the unwomen were always wasting time. They were encouraged to do it. The government gave them money to do that very thing. Mind you, some of their ideas were sound enough, she went on, with the smug authority in her voice of one who is in a position to judge. We would have to condone some of their ideas, even today. Only some, mind you, she said coyly, raising her index finger, waggling it at us. But they were Godless, and that can make all the difference, don’t you agree? (153)

We see, in a video of these protesting “unwomen” the image of Offred’s mother, and that launches Offred into a flashback, culminating in this bit of introspection:

Sometimes she would cry. I was so lonely, she’d say. You have no idea how lonely I was. And I had friends, I was a lucky one, but I was lonely anyway.

I admired my mother in some ways, although thing between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once. 

I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But here is no point it it, this wanting. (156)

The more the comparison with Aunt Lydia develops, the more it becomes clear that Offred and Lydia do not see eye to eye, and that the narrative agrees with one more than the other–just based on the amount of time one voice gets compared to the other, even if you ignore tone. 

Also, a technique to notice here is that when characters begin pontificating, Atwood gives them objects and images that we can relate to. In this example with Offred’s mother, you can see that her mother is a stand-in for “all suffragettes” and their tactics, but in a way that is deeply personal to Offred. Simultaneously, we can imagine the footage being used as a jumping off point, and we can understand Offred’s emotions in reaction to seeing her mother. This gives the thematic content a sturdy, physical anchor. 

Offred usually views Aunt Lydia so distantly, a woman buried deep in her memories. It gets frustrating to see Lydia in her memories represented almost without direct comment. But when Aunt Lydia appears in the story physically, we finally get to the core of this comparison. We can see, in this moment, the resolution of the comparison: the end of the book dedicates itself largely to doing this. 

Offred sees Aunt Lydia on stage, and then:

I’ve begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit. The sun comes out, and the stage and its occupants light up like a Christmas creche. I can see wrinkles under Aunt Lydia’s eyes, the pallor of the seated women, the hairs on the rope in front of me on the grass, the blades of grass. There is a dandelion, right in front of me, the color of egg yolk. I feel hungry. The bell stops tolling. 

Aunt Lydia stands up, smooths down her skirt with both hands, and steps forward to the mike. “Good afternoon, ladies,” she says, and there is an instant and earsplitting feedback whine from the PA system. From among us, incredibly, there is laughter. It’s hard not to laugh, it’s the tension, and the look of irritation on Aunt Lydia’s face as she adjust the sound. This is supposed to be dignified.

“Good afternoon ladies,” she says again, her voice now tinny and flattened. It’s ladies instead of girls because of the wives. “I’m sure we are all aware of the unfortunate circumstances that bring us all here together on this beautiful morning, when I am certain we would all rather e doing something else, at least I speak for myself, but duty is a hard taskmaster, or may I say on this occasion taskmistress, and it is in the name of duty that we are here today.”

She goes on like this for some minutes, but I don’t listen. I’ve heard this speech, or one like it, often enough before: the same platitudes, the same slogans, the same phrases: the torch of the future, the cradle of the race, the task before us. It’s hard to believe there will not be polite clapping after this speech, and tea and cookies served on the lawn. 

That was the prologue, I think. Now she’ll get down to it. 

Aunt Lydia rummages in her pocket, produces a crumpled piece of paper. This she takes an undue length of time to unfold and scan. She’s rubbing our noses in it, letting us know exactly who she is, making us watch her as she silently reads, flaunting her prerogative. Obscene, I think. Let’s get this over with. (353)

We see Offred here, viewing and contemplating on Aunt Lydia, in real time, for the first and only time. We see that not only does Offred have major political and social disagreements with Aunt Lydia, she also sees Aunt Lydia as quite ridiculous. It’s not just that her views are bad, they’re laughably, obscenely wrong. 

We can compare that to the resolution with Moira, which I won’t quote since this post has expanded rapidly. What I will say, though, is that when Moira’s comparison is resolved we find that she hasn’t, ultimately, escaped at all–even if it seems it at first. In this scene, it feels almost like Offred has surpassed Moira, and it makes us question how radical she ever really was. But we aren’t really directed to think of Moira as ridiculous or obscene for her views, just that she’s ended up not really succeeding. 

That went on for a while, and could go on for a while longer. The last third of the novel or so, for instance, does this interesting move where the focus of comparison shifts from Offred and her female foils, to comparing three central male characters of the story. I’m not sure how I feel about this in a grander sense, because it seems to take focus away from the heart of the story, but these comparisons use similar tactics. 

As discussed, the external world of the story (its objects, people, and places) seems set up almost exclusively to inspire these comparisons. Also, the way information is revealed, the way scenes are ordered, and the way the plot moves seems shaped to allow the “contrast arc” to have really parallel form across timelines and characters–to allow Atwood to shift from establishing, to developing, to resolving. 

90% of the space in this novel is spent comparing and contrasting characters, events, places, philosophies. This post hardly scratches the surface. If you feel like some of the techniques here would be useful to you, definitely read the novel. There’s so much more you can take from it. 

Have you noticed any other techniques Atwood (or any author you’d like to talk about) uses to convey subject and judgement? Let me know.