September 16, 2010

Extreme States and False Constructions

What I’m Reading Today: More Adderall Diaries.

The techniques in fiction for portraying extreme states are fascinating. By extreme states, I mean, high emotion or dying or sleep or sex or the influence of drugs.

Certainly one way they can be written is “straight,” with a strong omniscient narrator telling you what’s going on. Examples: The Great Gatsby, Victorian novels, Dickens, Tolkien, children’s books. The narrator is a reasonable fellow and he or she explains that this character is overwrought. We’re not so much in the poor character’s point of view as observing from heaven. Though antiquated, this is an interesting affect on a number of levels. It gives the reader breathing room. We feel above the fray, and there’s room for humor. It’s a very comforting and comfortable place to be, and I guess this is probably why it’s a good approach for children’s books.

A step closer is third-person limited. It’s sort of a nice compromise between the claustrophobic first person and the distant omniscient. This is a popular choice these days. Of course, it can have varying degrees of proximity and be just as close and claustrophobic and immersed as first-person. But you get a little more latitude than first person. (Though third-person limited and first person is actually a lot closer, in my mind, than a lot of people think.)

The reader can be way in there in first person, another popular choice. It often feels more immediate for the writer, I think, though it might be harder to separate yourself on craft questions. I think a lot of people favor first person for extreme experiences nowadays.

Then there’s the question of past tense vs. present tense. Past tense, being the tense of choice for the Victorians, feels like it has more emotional distance, while we in the internet age are more used to present tense. (Some people object to present tense because it’s a false construction, but I would argue that all tenses and POVs are false constructions.) First person and present tense often go together, and for extreme experiences and train-of-thought subjectivity it works well.

All these, though, are false constructions. No one can be omniscient. No one can know another person’s subjectivity; hence, third person is false. First person may seem the most genuine, but in order to make it the most effective for the reader, it’s less like someone talking and closer to third-person craftwise. Past tense fells natural for a lot of people, but like all forms it concatenates and metaphorizes (is that a word?). No one could write in present tense: you can’t sit there having something happen to you and be writing about it at the same time.

But I’m getting off track a little. In craft terms, there’s all kinds of things you can do to show extreme states. If your character dies, the end of your story is kind of set in first person and you can talk about it more easily in third person ~ in first person, in theory, the person’s subjectivity would be cut off (unless you’re talking from the afterlife ala The Lovely Bones). You can also alter your very sentence structure and punctuation and choice of words to reflect the altered state. It’s one effect to talk about an altered state in straightforward conventional structure and quite another to disregard all convention to try to convey the feeling. The transition to that state is tricky too. It can’t be too abrupt.

These effects are hard to talk about and hard to achieve but when they’re done well, they’re out of the park.

Questions of the Day:  I immediately think of Denis Johnson’s fabulous craft effects.  Stephen Elliot’s effects in the memoir The Adderall Diaries is interesting and compelling - combining newspaper reporting style with extreme states. Who do you think writes really good extreme states?

3 comments: said...

Okay, I'm going to cheat on your question of the day and ask a question of my own, if I may! Can you tell me more about what really does it for you about Dennis Johnson's work? I'm continually hearing other writers sing his praises, but I find reading his work quite dull indeed. Forcing myself to finish Already Dead was...rough. I'd love it if someone could articulate what's going on there that I'm missing.

Tamara said...

Great question, Kelly! Articulating these kinds of things are so hard. I’ve only read Jesus’ Son and am not familiar with Already Dead.

One thing that I really like is how we get a matter-of-fact voice telling the story of often horrible things. (I’m reading Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries, which functions much the same way.) “This happened and this happened.” You get drawn in, like you were sitting on a barstool next to this guy and he’s telling you a story. But then over the course of many of his stories you realize the narrator Fuckhead really is a fuckhead. He’s unrealiable and unlikable and even reprehensible sometimes. But he also has a sensitivity under there that is implied by his actions. We’re never really in his head, but we get it Raymond Carver-esque from the dialog and actions. As readers, we’re torn between our identification with him and the things he’s done.

Next is his language! It’s so poetic, and in a phrase he can just nail something. I don’t have my copy of Jesus’ son here with me and the text isn’t online that I can see. But I just remember throughout it thinking, Wow! What a great line. Yes, that’s it exactly.

He also has this very low-key humor, as in Emergency:

Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in, led by Georgie.

I hope you didn’t do that to him,” Nurse said.

“My wife did it,” the man said. …

“Who brought you in?” Nurse said.

“Nobody. I just walked down. It’s only three blocks,” the man said.

He’s very much like Raymond Carver and Earnest Hemingway in that everything going on between people is so subtle. It’s a style that matches the sort of Western understated sparity I grew up with.

Maybe try Jesus’ Son?

Thanks, Kelly!

Tamara said...

(You have a blog too! Am checking it out. :-) )