Monday, April 12, 2010

"Ted, your emotions are all locked away," Cindy said. Ted nodded. "That's why you love me so much, Cindy."

I think one of the things we want our stories to do is to make an emotional connection. We want the reader to feel something, for our words to shape an emotional experience for them. We want to bring this emotiveness into our text. We talk about emotions, explain the feelings of characters, use emotive language and metaphor... and yet sometimes it is the absence of these things that creates the strongest emotional connection.

I recently read Imre Kertesz's Detective Story, and it's a slim and terrifying little novel. It's powerful, and yet part of its power is in its starkness. There's a detachment in the writing (that fits the first person narrator) which sets up the action very clearly. It's spare, with little description, little in the language to emote. It's the story of a South American government agent who is now in prison for torturing people under a now defunct regime. He relates a case of a father and son who were brought in for questioning.

The narrator is distant... and yet the story shimmers with emotion and feeling under the surface. It is that very distance, that sparcity, that allows this. The simpleness of actions set out clearly. Words, movements. Freed from the clutter they glow with meaning. There's an intensity to this, a sense of vividness, a flash of colour in a barren scene.

It's the use of white space not just in text, but in the story itself. Much of the subjective is stripped away, the wash of meaning imbued by the impressions of characters, by the narrator, by the writer. It is objective storytelling, in some senses, with the story pared down to its most basic. Words and actions. And their isolation brightens rather than dims their impact.

I've also read (Nobel Winner) Kertesz's brilliant Fatelessness, and it had a similar restrained power. It's a story of the holocaust, of a boy in the death camps. It, too, is told at a remove, and yet the horrors of the experience are all the more horrifying for that removal. There is no explanation of the actions, only the actions themselves, starkly revealed. Here the story must stand on its own feet, naked and unadorned. It must hold itself up, an orphaned boy in the selection line. No one will help that boy.

Certainly this is not the only way to tell a powerful story, and yet I find it interesting. The simplicity of it. I realize some of my other favourites embrace this technique. Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, many of the stories of Cormac McCarthy. Though much of McCarthy's descriptive language is lush and extraordinary, the story itself is sparely told. You rarely, if ever, see inside the character's heads. Actions are simple and carefully delineated. He makes little attempt to interpret his characters for the reader, little attempt to decipher their words and actions.

Does anyone else have any favourites like this? Or, conversely, what are the stories that strike you profoundly, and how do they create their emotional impact?


JustineDell said...

"You rarely, if ever, see inside the character's heads."

Wow, I don't believe I've ever read a story like this. I'm certain the reading experience would be different. I'll put these on my reading list.


Elaine AM Smith said...

Not a book - the movie Closet Land with Alan Rickman and Madeline Stowe. The most profound thing I've ever seen. It taught me that you only see the aspects of a person's character they let you see.

Matthew Rush said...

Thanks for sharing this Ink. I just read The Road and totally agree.

The plot and even sometimes - to a slightly less degree - the description is incredibly sparse. And yet the prose it at times so beautiful and evocative and at times so blatant, that you figure the rest of it out. Or at least felt like I did.

On the other hand when I read The Old Man and the Sea, in High School, I was bored to tears. I'll have to go back and read it again to see if I can get a different feeling for it.

Jana Hutcheson said...

Something to think about. Perhaps less can be more sometimes.

Susan Quinn said...

First person narrator, the most intimate of narrative choices, but held at a remove. Very interesting.

I can see having to hold a very powerful tale at arm's length, because it would just be too horrifying to live through it, in a personal sense.

But I think you have to be a master storyteller to do this well, and even then...I had similar issues with Old Man and the Sea - and I read it just recently. It requires the reader to bring a lot to the party - to interpret, pay close attention, to understand the unspoken/unwritten. In a way, maybe better suited for literary fiction, where the reader is expected to not just be told a story, but perhaps participate?

Just my 2 cents...

Mira said...

Very interesting post, Bryan, very thought-provoking. I wouldn't want to read something written like this - too stark and lonely for my taste - but I can appreciate the mastery it would take to write this well.

Funny. I wouldn't want to read this, but I wouldn't mind trying to write in this style. It would be quite a challenge.

I like your points here and agree with them.