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).
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.”
“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?