I’m a pretty big believer in letting the subconscious have its way in fiction and poetry. Originality, insight, interesting plot twists, arresting metaphors and stunning turns of phrase seem to spring better from the blithe lunatic that broods in back than from the tense paranoiac eyeing customers in front. Yet if the product of the pen is to resonate with other minds, something must often be done to smooth out debilitating idiosyncrasies, to make the language and action legible to the last extent, to make the experience meaningful and worthwhile for the tense paranoiacs manning other shops.
To the end of improving as a revisor, I’ve decided to pick on “Look at Me“, a story I wrote in 2006, six years ago as of this writing. The incident that inspired it occurred two years earlier, I believe, on a visit from Taiwan to Canada with my wife, first child (then about nine months old) and mother-in-law. I’ve chronicled early experiences with the story here and here and critiqued it here and here, and rereading those four posts, I’m tempted to throw my hands up and declare “It is what it is and if no one wants to publish it, so be it.” But that would be damning myself in my progress as a writer and storyteller. No, I must face the pain and get the gain.
I’ve already made a few fresh notes in my creative writing journal, and I’ll get to them in a minute or two, but first I’d like to review a few gems from the posts alluded to above. From “Looking for Trouble“, we have this account:
So I’ve been showing “Look at Me” around. Had a couple of colleagues read it. Had a few students read it.
Two of the students thought it was weird. Senior high school students. Males. One student asked a lot of vocabulary questions. Junior high school student. Female. One student said the style took getting used to, so the story should be in a set, and that the opening had led him to expect a longer and somewhat different story. Pharmaceutical chemist. Age close to fifty. Male.
Both colleagues said they liked it. They sounded sincere. They were able to discuss it at length, indicating that it certainly hadn’t bored them: they were willing to spend some time on it. Mystery Colleague Number One, who took a break from Chinese study to look my story over, suggested the reference to Mount Longevity and its simian denizens needed support earlier in the story, that “where my wife comes from, where we live” in the second paragraph should be phrased more directly to something like “in Taiwan”. He also felt that the sentences read a bit choppily. Age in mid-thirties. Male.
Mystery Colleague Number Two, who paused in his progress out the door after the last class to look my story over, suggested the “cinematic flashbacks” between Victoria and Taiwan needed clarification. Age in early fifties. Male.
My mother, who read it yesterday during an MSN chat, said it was well-written but dark, too dark for her tastes. No hope. No light. Ironic, since I originally planned to improve on reality by having the protagonist interact with the girls and bring some sort of redemption. I am not as pessimistic about human nature as some of my stories and poems may suggest.
I myself, after rereading it a few times, couldn’t help feeling that it read a bit pretentiously, amateurishly.
Right then. Let’s summarise or at least tease out the criticisms.
Senior high school students, male: weird.
Junior high school student, female: vocabulary.
Pharmaceutical chemist, late 40s: unfamiliar style (better in set), opening suggests longer and different story.
The British, Americans and Canadians
English teacher, 30s: support Mount Longevity reference earlier, name Taiwan.
English teacher, early 50s: clarify flashbacks between Victoria and Taiwan.
Mother, early 60s: well written, dark (no hope, no light).
Author, 42: pretentious, amateurish.
Based on the list, I think it is safe to say that I am my own harshest critic, at least verbally–and in this instance. Dismissing the first two criticisms as culture- and language-related in ways that do not concern us in this case, the second-to-last criticism as a matter of personal taste and the last criticism as chronic acute humility, we are left with five points to consider:
an opening that promises a different length and type of story
a reference that would benefit from earlier support
a location better named than alluded to
I am frankly uncertain what the first and last mean. The pharmaceutical chemist’s notion of style may include voice and tense, and the present tense first person plural narrator is definitely unusual; I am considering changing it to conventional past tense first or third person singular–and yet experience tells me to leave it as is: the lunatic in the back has reasons for both voice and tense, unclear to me now but promising to have significance. There is a sort of feverish, floating airiness to what I would call the style, perhaps due to what I would now call the “cubist” juxtaposition of time and place in consciousness (“flashbacks” in one colleague’s parlance). Interestingly, I only began to think about “cubing the consciousness” of the narrator the other day, long after writing it and having entirely forgotten the use I’d made of references to Maple Ridge and Taiwan. And there is my answer. Voice and tense facilitate the slicing and re-angling of thought, thought which guides and explains the action.
Let me pause and digress briefly to clarify this business of cubing. The Wikipedia article on Cubism explains that
In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.
What I wish to imitate and impart through the voice and tense of “Look at Me” is the experience of consciousness as it in fact occurs, a constant “slicing and re-angling”, as I said earlier, of past experience in response to present experience, something perhaps remotley akin to a Faulkner device described further down in the Wikipedia article: “narratives of the diverse experiences of 15 characters which, when taken together, produce a single cohesive body”, differing in being the accumulation and application of one character’s experience at a single point in a piece of very short fiction, something slightly similar to but “quite different from…free association…and…unconscious utterance”.
The pharmaceutical chemist’s remarks about the length and type of story we will leave for the moment, perhaps for ever. I can’t think what use to make of them. The confusion may be a side effect of cubing the consciousness–and not an entirely undesirable one, since consciousness extends long before and beyond the snippet of time and experience recounted in a story of any length. I should probably have dug deeper to discover whether the disparity represented dissonance or just false assumptions.
We are left, now, with “references” and “flashbacks”. I think my colleague’s problem with the Mount Longevity reference is that it is the only one not clearly set up in the first two paragraphs. This is, well, problematic, because each “cube” needs to fit its context, to be associated with something immediate in the narrative. The Maple Ridge cube is precipitated by the idea of being strangers in the current setting. The memories of hunting crayfish and diving headfirst into a swimming hole, although pertinent and referenced later, are germane to the moment where they are first inserted. The same is true for the motel cube, which springs from the clearly stated fact that the family is staying in a motel. References to monkeys or mountains at this point in the story would be jarringly out of place. There is nothing to spark them.
Yet it is true that there is a problem with the Mount Longevity cube. The cube fits the narrative exactly, but for readers unfamiliar with the geography of Kaohsiung City, there is a potential expository gap. One intriguing aspect of the objection is that it comes from a fellow expatriate and fiction writer, not from, say, my mother, who does not know Kaohsiung City and does not write fiction. Does that mean that the criticism can be dismissed as professional nit-picking? I don’t think so. The disconnect bothers me, too. The question is what I should do about it. Storytelling is always a ginger walk along a brittle, narrow ledge between the mass of thought and memory in the storyteller’s head and the capacity of the audience to spot and apprehend the fancy footwork employed to reach the next safe place.
Sometimes the glitches help. Sometimes they hurt. How does the average reader deal with a reference like the Mount Longevity one? Does he trip over it, so frustrated at the lack of stated geographical connection to the the earlier reference to Kaohsiung City that he cannot continue reading with any more enjoyment, or does he swiftly and accurately surmise that it belongs to the foreign geography mentioned in the first paragraph, accepting the missing details as consequences of limited access to a unified consciousness?
It is not insignificant, I think, that the three place names used in the story are all evocative. Victoria, of course, is named for a queen whose period of reign is associated with power and prudery and the concomitant secret (and not-so-secret) vices, among them sexual promiscuity and drug abuse (notably opium-based). Maple Ridge, whether you know the place or not, is a name which conjures up images of trees and mountainsides rather than street lamps and sidewalks. Mount Longevity, though not, perhaps, as sharply evocative as the feature’s other name, Monkey Mountain, does not sound quite North American or even English. To the initiated, it sounds distinctly Asian, if not specifically Chinese.
My main concern, then, based on the criticisms listed in “Looking for Trouble” is to somehow smooth the cube so that Mount Longevity is clearly and effortlessly linked in the reader’s mind to the place the narrator’s wife is from.
(c) Mark Penny 2012