December 02, 2009
Since we’re in holiday mode, you may be walking into a lot of rooms that you don’t ordinarily visit. I’ve been thinking about what’s most interesting to an autistic temperament like mine about such experiences: the background, the part that you don’t quite notice: the height of the ceiling, the quality of light, the footfall in the next room (Are there dishes clattering in the kitchen?), whether the room feels crowded or spacious, the ambience awkward…I’m-trying-to-be-a-good-host-but-I’m-not-quite-making-it, or, full-tilt, these are such cool people!
The background, like the quiet guest who you wonder about;…”Will he ever open his mouth…and if he does…what will come out?”…also seduces me in fiction.
I found “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a story in the November 30th New Yorker by Don DeLillo, indispensable. So buy the New Yorker, read the story…and I’m also reading James Wood’s take on Paul Auster for sure…and then throw the New Yorker out. Especially avoid all those cloy-infested cartoons…as bad as junk food. New Yorker cartoons will literally rot your teeth.
Two serious boys, as serious as I can imagine only freshman can be, are walking from dorms to class in a desolate, because wintry, setting somewhere in the boondocks. Stage set: the dorms and the classroom complex, built like a blockhouse, the “Cellblock”, are some distance away from each other so, fine, we can eavesdrop on the boys as they walk and talk.
I love that these guys talk for the sake of talking. Makes you wonder if they’re gay. Only wonder, mind you, they probably aren’t. They’re guy friends. They focus on an elderly man shuffling much ahead of them with his hands behind his back. I commend DeLillo that he makes the gent they notice several generations older than the boys. This helps make the oldster “the other.”
First person narrator and Todd, his school friend, debate the old guy’s coat meticulously. It’s a private contest between them. They debate the facts. What kind of coat is this guy wearing? They point at each other a lot while they talk and when they meet on campus. This is cute. This is also where in my reading I turned down the dial from gay to homoerotic adolescence.
I don’t know if these boys are going to be writers but they certainly talk with a mastery of detail that indicates that the first person narrator is a pro. Is his friend, Todd, also a Don DeLillo in the making? Nope. Todd’s a just-the-facts kind of guy. It’s the narrator who throws wild details into his arguments, making this conversational brew heady with subversive fictions. So fine, now you can tell these guys apart by their contrasting characters. Nice going, double D.
Of course you know that a duffel coat has toggles but I bet only 5% of the population could define “duffel coat” accurately in this way. Anorak? Define. Loden Coat? Parka? Define. These guys can. Defining atomic facts is part of their language contest.
The old guy being observed, in wintry weather, is not wearing gloves. If you write a superfluous detail into your story then shame on you. But this detail is telling. Why? Because it makes the old guy seem offbeat. And you don’t have to explain this detail in the end. It’s done its job already. It’s held your interest, forestalling the moment when you throw out The New Yorker.
I’m just in the first paragraphs and already “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is snowing gems of details. This is a master story.
I think if a writer has his boys walking to class then he should show the class. Why? Because not to de-energizes the narrative. You’re showing an action, walking to class. Why not show the class or do your students just walk into a blank wall somewhere past the page that you’re reading? Disagree?
There’s a break in the text and we’re in the class. When I read Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, I was impressed by how AH worked details of finance into his story by making them expressions of character.
Here DD has our guys attend a philosophy class. Let me tell you, concepts from the language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Frege and Russell saturate this text. Some Oxford dons could have a field day, if that’s what dons have, trying to look around their shoulder and grasp the escaping theory that’s running just out of sight of the reader. Atomic facts? Come on, DD! Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, battered from 5 plus readings, sits on my fucking desk.
Not that you’d notice this background, deftly introduced by depicting a class and by throwing out casual phrases, like “atomic facts”, that are really terms from mathematical logic, if you haven’t read Wittgenstein.
A beauty of this text: you don’t have to care! It’s part of what’s behind you in the room and you don’t have to turn around and notice if you don’t want to.
I could write a post about this story that’s longer than the story. I’ll stop here. Who’s the old guy? Read. You’ll find out plenty. But mostly, you’ll be satisfied with a full-course holiday meal of story.
Next time you enter a room as a guest, you may want to focus like a good autistic on the background of your party. Sensing what’s in the background is also part of writing or reading a great story.
But here’s some culinary advice, never forgot, from a philosophy professor that I had as a college freshman. At a feast, leave the table before you are full…while you are still hungry. If you’re the host, the writer, maybe you should snatch the plate away before your guest finishes the meal.
Is that what Delillo does in this story? You tell me.