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:
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.
“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.
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:
2 (React) to the “unguarded” stars and Borne’s injury
Reaction: 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.
Dilemma: What are stars? Rachel teaches Borne about stars while the trauma of the attack finally hits her (she cries)
Decision: none–interrupted by the stars starting to go black–
3 (React) to Mord and the stars and Borne’s injury
Reaction: 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.”
Reaction: Borne forms himself into a bunch of spikes that track Mord’s flight
Dilemma: Why does Mord let his proxies hurt people?
Exposition: Rachel and Wick have made Mord a boogeyman for Borne
Decision: 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?