Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Fiction in Truth: serialpodcast.org

SONY DSCIn analyzing stories, “verisimilitude” refers to likelihood. But what of reality and “the facts”—does verisimilitude still apply?

I’ve been listening to the podcast called “Serial” and mulling over that question.

If you haven’t tuned in, host Sarah Koenig is investigating the 1999 trial of Adnan Syed, in prison for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his high school classmate and former girlfriend. Each week, Koenig reveals what she’s discovered and examines holes in the case and pursues leads. More, we learn her process, how her thinking evolves toward knowing Syed’s guilt or innocence.

That is, we’re led to believe we may ultimately know. Koenig says we encounter the story as she does, that her search is ongoing, not packaging conclusions she’s reached and won’t share. The website posted a photo of her producing the next episode to assure us she’s in middle of it, not finished.

Withholding information is key to suspense. Being coy appeals to readers (and listeners) because unsatisfied needs are enticing. This podcast owes much to the serialization of novels by Dickens and others. Americans stood at the docks for the next installment of Dickens’ latest opus. They couldn’t wait to discover what was next. Each episode of Serial includes a “cliffhanger” of sorts too. I’m always anxious to learn more.

If I’m honest, however, the cliffhangers irk me a little. Being an able storyteller and effective guide, Dickens knew where he was going. What Dickens’ eager readers called “discoveries” were really “inventions,” integral and vital to his narrative. His suspense was designed, and his readers trusted he’d manage information to enhance enjoyment. The answer would out, delightfully.

I’m enjoying Serial (very much), yet I’m also bothered. Verisimilitude explains why. My misgivings aren’t simply Syed being actually wrongly or rightly accused. I’m well past squeamishness over using fictional technique to present fact. Every history selects and emphasizes information to create coherence, perspective, and drama. Yes, Syed is fodder, and maybe it’s not nice to say so, but I know I’m being entertained and accept it.

My misgivings arise from Koenig, whom I like (very much) but—I’m sorry—distrust as I don’t Dickens. The subtlest form of verisimilitude resides in a narrative’s construction. Obvious technique announces, “Hey, this is artifice” and ruins the story. The difference between artfulness and manipulation is intention. Once a tale becomes purely a tale, the teller’s sincerity appears unlikely, and the narrative’s style supplants its substance.

At times, I feel there’s something exploitive about presenting Koenig’s story as it goes along. Suddenly I focus on her rumination about Syed’s guilt rather than facts. If she were Dickens, Koenig would finish her investigation then masterfully cut it into digestible and suspenseful parts. Instead, she deliberately and repeatedly says, “I just don’t know if he did it or not” even as doubt amasses. She re-stirs and re-stirs troublesome evidence that, if not settled entirely, has been addressed exhaustively. When a team of expert retrial lawyers unanimously question Syed’s guilt, Koenig persists, “I don’t know.”

I guess she must. Her “big fat problems” can’t go away. She relies on them to create theater and emphasize her role as director. Regretfully (because I love the idea of this podcast) her indecision causes me to question what’s foremost, a satisfying conclusion—in this case, Truth—or engineering pathos.

I doubt her more than Syed.

At the end of the sixth episode, she recalls Syed asking why she was interested in “Doing all this.” Her answer, that she thinks he’s a really nice guy convicted of murder, produces an odd moment perfect for radio. We hear Syed pause and say, “Yeah. Oh, but you don’t really know me.” To Koenig, it’s confusing and chilling, as if he’s confessing something. To me, it reveals skepticism matching my own. He explains he’d prefer someone open to disputing the facts, and I guess that’s what I want too—more faith she’s truly on the case.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Charles Dickens, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Fiction, Fiction writing, Meditations, Modern Life, Persuasion, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

15 Specious Novel Openings

Psyche-and-Cupid-300x200A colleague sent me a list of famous opening lines from stories and novels—some usual suspects like “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and some I didn’t know, like “It was the day my grandmother exploded” (Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road, 1992) and “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” (Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond, 1956). That last one, my colleague pointed out, was the only dialogue in “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.”

I’ve been ill this week and haven’t the concentration or will to write much, so I’m posting 15 opening lines for imaginary fiction. I’ve also supplied pretend titles and years to reflect styles of the time, and, yes, one uses dialogue. If you read a lot, you may recognize I’m parroting writers I’ve encountered.

Here goes:

1. He found nowhere to sit, which annoyed him, and the hammering conversation, laughter, synthpop, and his third gin and tonic compounded the headache that met him at the door. (Silverhair, 1985)

2. Sydney put his hat on the shelf in the coat closet and called his wife’s name. (Sydney Burroughs, 1938)

3. She wiped the blood from her finger onto her cheek and giggled. (Polly, 1971)

4. When Henry Stanbury cleared the mist within the carriage window with his ungloved hand, he discovered another layer of grey without, a city half-hidden in fog, and a few drifting souls making and breathing the steam of reluctant dawn. (Castle Palace, 1862)

5. The last thing to worry about, I’ve discovered, is finding something to eat. (The Farrier’s Promise, 2004)

6. There was a mole to begin with, but that was enough. (The Medical Expert, 1925)

7. I could have told you my brother lied about our parents and all the good they did for strangers because I grew up in the same house and watched them every morning put on masks and become strangers themselves. (Glad Is Your Reward, 1956)

8. “You must understand, lapshichka,” Grandpa would say, “no woman thinks first of the circus.” (The Beaten Road, 1978)

9. The noontime sun slanting through the jail window reached just his foot, and he dipped his toes into and out of the light considering (with no success) when in his drunk wandering he’d taken his shoe off. (The Coopers, 1948)

10. Our house blazed all night to neighbors’ oohs and aahs. (Miranda, 1996)

11. The screen door snapped shut behind him, and he turned to face a kitchen scene including Theodora Roos retching in the sink, her children spooning Alpha Bits into their maws, and Theodora’s husband Kenny reading or, more properly, shouting from a letter announcing the failure of their appeal and the imminent evaporation of all their hopes for a substantial settlement. (The Passage of Night Planes, 1966)

12. The bay stilled as the sun fell, and the city’s lights shone on its surface like jewels in gunmetal. (Pyroglyph, 1986)

13. Those well familiar with the affair counted it as indeed fortunate more damage to young Crosswick’s reputation did not accrue from his misstep, but Frederick Crosswick was not finished yet. (A Spring in Mercia, 1896)

14. I wasn’t there, but when I was twelve a boy named Otto who lived just down the block died when he fell from a tree and onto his bicycle. (Ithaca, 2009)

15. Every book begins by announcing itself—think of the blast of the ship horn and it’s done. (When the Moon Droops, trans. from Italian, 1989)

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Going Long: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

o-THE-GOLDFINCH-900Tolstoy and Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, masters of the long novel, have a rival in Donna Tartt, author most recently of The Goldfinch. Reviewing her work, critics call it “Dickensian,” and with good reason. She’s just as ambitious, just as intent on immersing a reader in her narrative.

Finishing a long novel sometimes produces a sort of post-partum depression. If the characters are companionable and the scenery engrossing, the next day may feel a little flat, as if excitement just departed and gray routine took its place. Tartt, however, seems after something a little different.

People say form follows function, but perhaps the opposite is just as true. The effect of a form often arises from that form. Unlike movies, novels (any novel but longer ones particularly) aren’t intended to be consumed in a single sitting, and thus a moving story haunts a reader between encounters. The reason students should write about books in present tense, their teachers explain, is that whatever a reader discusses is still happening, right now, between the book’s covers. The reader my wander off, but the book has its own life. It’s easy to believe fiction continues even when no one watches.

With long novels, form governs a reader’s response even more vividly. Dickens’ painstaking attention to minutiae fills his fiction with shadowy corners and unopened but real rooms. His subtle presentation of even the most minor characters leaves them lingering in a reader’s imagination even when they’re offstage. As different as his worlds are—and they grow more different year by year—they seem actual, complete.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt demonstrates similar ambitions. Theo Decker, narrator of the novel, moves from New York, to Vegas, back to New York, and on to Antwerp, and each place has idiosyncratic light and space, odd smells and colors, distinctive possessions and detritus. Characters, in all senses of the word, populate these peculiar places. Theo Decker may hold the center, but the characters winging in orbit around him are powerful influences too. His friend Boris is particularly well-drawn, as a reader may never really believe he’s gone even though he exits the story, seemingly for good, multiple times.

Yet Tartt’s novel also renovates the form. Where Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, and especially Tolstoy, rely on essayistic passages to abstract the action and address broader concerns, Tartt never really leaves her action for long—at least, until the last few pages. In other authors’ work, these passages are a sort of respite for the reader, and Tartt offers little. She leaves her story in disarray. The burden of each moment’s concerns can create discomfort and enervation, itchiness akin to wearing a cast or sitting trapped in concert with a bad cough.

Dickens infuses characters with sweetness by placing them in dire but nonetheless hopeful contexts. Critics in his own time and since have justifiably accused him of sentimentality and bombast. Tartt seems intent on eluding his influence by denying nearly every character any lasting sweetness. Figures a reader might like—Theo’s unrequited love Pippa and his benefactors Hobie and Mrs. Barfour—are often ineffectual. Or they are victims of Theo’s relentless missteps or colored by cynical judgments. A reader may find it hard to encounter The Goldfinch without wanting to scratch… or come up for air.

Many contemporary authors test the lower limits of exposition, and novels like Gone Girl seem made to antagonize readers as well as attract them, often at the same time. Readers, it turns out, like watching traffic accidents too… the question is only how long. Like Gillian Flynn, Tartt tests readers’ patience, perhaps even their perseverance. Theo screws up on nearly every page and, if Tartt hopes his inherent goodness allies a reader to him—the decency beneath his theft, drug-use, apathy, denial, ignorance, and sometimes obsessive and aggravating grief—she also means to make liking him challenging. At the end of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or Bleak House, a reader takes big bites to reach a desired destination. By the end of Tartt’s novel a reader may want escape and relief, an end to an all-too-full meal.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Goldfinch, one spoiler is necessary: it will end well. Though developments lift a reader at times, they won’t offer hope as frequently as some readers might like. Tartt makes it quite easy to believe that, any moment now, the pudding can still turn to excrement, and the end is still hundreds of pages away.

Some readers will celebrate her innovation and achievement, but some will want a more comfortable and companionable narrative, a book more like the long novels they regret finishing. The Goldfinch isn’t that sort of long novel.

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On Being Dickensian

96h07/fion/3340/exp1576Others must know Dickens better than I do and must be better able to channel him, but I wouldn’t mind being called “Dickensian.” The term evokes, for me, a great and amassing gravitas akin to amber gathering antiquity in a golden orb and turning it crystal. Putting aside the man (because I’ve written about that before), his style entices, seduces, and embraces. It makes another sort of time and place entirely imaginary.

This time of year, I often reread A Christmas Carol and watch the words roll like loose cannon balls on the deck of a storm-beset ship. They head somewhere according to shifts of direction and pitch just the sea knows:

The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.

Dicken’s prose takes its time, rolling in and out of personification—the “gruff” bell, the tower “peeping,” its “teeth chattering in its frozen head” inside clouds—and then tumbling toward some other detail of the vast scene—those laborers who are “winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture.” The vision of the narration roves, staring at each detail with equal intensity, bringing all of it into intimate focus. The “sullenly congealed” ice is “misanthropic,” caught unawares. With Dickens, everything seems caught in a beam of peculiar light, revealing itself as if never seen.

Of course I know the story of A Christmas Carol well—seemingly everyone does—and, even if they didn’t, they might know its skeleton, the tale of a lost man, the heavy-handed turn toward sentimentality as, from the dark, some barely lit candle gutters. I imagine that’s what some writers despise about Dickens, his insistence on resolution, the sort that rescues hope from deep, really too interesting, cynicism. Those writers must sense Dickens at the wheel, gripping against the wind and turning his ship too deftly aright.

Last summer, I reread A Tale of Two Cities and felt what many unsympathetic readers must, that Dickens gets his characters into trouble only to get them out. He makes few, if any, truly, truly dangerous moves and only ones that later will seem as poised on promise as disaster.

I rejoice at the end of A Christmas Carol, but I also hear desperate self-assurance in it, Dickens consoling himself as much as us:

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Did Dickens hear ridicule as he wrote? Did he recognize the incredible reform and alteration in Scrooge stretching beyond the bounds of his creation? Did he sense laughter licking at him? Did he see what others might, the character’s turn is too complete, an evolution that must be anticipated to be actualized? Dickens says skeptics would “wrinkle up their eyes in grins” at Scrooge but that someone might like that as much as “the malady in other forms.” What forms? What malady? What did Dickens himself consider and experience? How did he wrinkle his own eyes, before setting them aright? Was this fabricated redemption actually “quite enough for him”?

And maybe that’s the answer to his elliptical prose. He is always approaching and retreating, trying to stay true and trying to satisfy. I love that in him, the friction under his movement—the dragging and the soaring, the hard stare and the light laugh.

When I was a ninth grader, my teacher assigned Great Expectations and I read it in a weekend, the longest book I’d devoured up until then. I remember putting it down Sunday night and regretting I’d never be able to read it again for the first time. I’ve reread Dickens—especially A Christmas Carol—many times since, but I’ve come no closer to the secret he’s keeping, whether he transcended the melancholy he hints and made more than fiction from redemption.

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Filed under Ambition, Charles Dickens, Christmas, Desire, Essays, Fiction writing, Hope, Meditations, Reading, Thoughts, Tributes, Voice, Writing

The Celebrity Artist

dickens-1861.jpgMost people reading celebrity news don’t regard it as real news. Stories about famous people falling off the wagon or feuding with exes or generally behaving badly are only interesting because the principles are well known.

Were they our sisters, brothers, parents, or friends, we might rush to help, but their stature can make us forget they are real human beings…when, really, everybody is.

I heard someone say celebrities are like Greek Gods, fallible and still divine. I’ve always felt sorry for the Greek gods. Celebrity isn’t pretty.

Take Charles Dickens. He was one of the first literary figures to deal with public interest in his life, and his life was troubled and sordid, far different from the sentimentality of his work. For instance:

  • Micawber, the David Copperfield character in debtor’s prison, arises from Dickens’ father John. Dickens lived in debtor’s prison for a time and worked throughout his life to extricate his profligate father from financial troubles.
  • Dickens’ first love, Maria Beadnell, couldn’t marry him because her family doubted his prospects, even though by the standards of any time, his fame was meteoric. After his first tour of the United States, he returned with coats worn threadbare at the elbows from admirers’ fawning.
  • His wife, Catherine Hogarth, bore him ten children, yet he later claimed he was never satisfied by their life together. He tried to reconnect with Beadnell but discovered she’d grown fat and old, and he took up with the much younger actress Ellen Ternan, separating from Catherine after she accidentally received an expensive bracelet he’d meant for Ellen.
  • In 1858, he published a non-denial-denial full of lacunae of his affair in a magazine he edited, Household Words, and effectively helped to kill the publication. He discovered, as many celebrities confirmed after him, the paradoxical effect of denials.
  • After his heyday, he became more famous for performing than writing, pulling in more income for his relentless and laborious reading circuit than for writing his new works, which many critics regarded as evidence of diminishing talent.
  • Late in Dickens’ life, Ellen, Ellen’s mother, and Dickens survived the Staplehurst rail crash that killed nearly everyone in the car forward of Dickens, and he ministered to many passengers as they died. He was never comfortable traveling again, and that moment started the physical decline that killed him at age 58.

We might know more about Dickens’ life, but his disillusionment with the public life led him to burn all of his personal correspondence in a bonfire at his home at Gad’s Hill in 1860. He continued the practice for the rest of his life, and though obviously we have little record of why, you can guess—he must have grown tired of people wanting more than his books. He must have been tired of living up to his novels’ warm and conciliatory conclusions.

His life was not all treacly domestic bliss.

I’m curious about his final hours, how he might have regarded the renown he’d earned. And I’m interested in his fans, their expectations and reactions. Did they forgive his peccadilloes for the sake of his art?

I doubt it. Often we demand a clarity and simplicity in public life that seldom exists in private. We approach the celebrated, even the celebrated artist, with an odd mixture of obsessive fascination and callous curiosity.

Dickens has been dead 140 years, and the prurient interest in the life has largely died away, replaced by the deification of the novelist. His rehabilitation isn’t unexpected, but I can’t help wondering, perversely, why we have such difficulty living with a Dickens—or any other public figure—between deity and devil.

Though I’m not an avid Dickens fan, it’s the later Dickens I enjoy most, the one who took to revising his work, who abandoned the literary factory system of his youth in favor of deliberative and moving prose. The Dickens of Oliver Twist and even David Copperfield tries to convince himself of something. The Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities struggles to believe nobility can persist in a deeply flawed world. Both are sentimental, but one evokes a backlash of cynicism in me and the other inspires a truer, more measured hope.

Could we have the later novels without the life?

We are too ready to judge the living and dead, too ready to apply standards that might be impossible in our life—or in any other.

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