December 7, 2010

The Life of Objects

As I blow-dried my hair this morning, I began thinking about my blow dryer. I recently got a new one. It’s pretty slick ~ though it’s plastic, it’s silver and a deep purple, and it’s got this new thing, an ionizer? Not sure what that does. It may be one of those imaginary things that makes consumers feel better.

I bought a new hair dryer because my old one finally died. It was the first blow dryer I ever bought ~ in my teens ~ so that would’ve made it 25 years old. It had that charm of the first computers, in that it looked so new and exciting at the time (sleek and white, but sort of a bulbous at the same time) but now its design feels antiquated.

(It occurs to me that this new one is the last hair dryer I may ever own, and that it might outlive me.)

It was a faithful hair dryer. It always worked, and I could set it to blow cool air, something you can’t do with cheepo traveling ones or ones in hotel rooms. It didn’t have enough protection along the back, though, so every once in a while, if I wasn’t paying attention, it would yank out a hair, but it seemed sort of friendly that way. And when it quit, it made a loud noise, and that was that, life over.

It’s tempting to take that as a metaphor for life and expound on that, but instead I wanted to talk about the lives of things and eventually work my way around to fiction craft.

Objects have lives of their own, don’t they? They may not be mobile, but they get scars and show the wear and tear of life. They are born and die. One of my professors, Susan Frye, studies the Renaissance and specifically material culture, which is the stuff we leave behind, the artifacts of how we live. The reason she studies it is because many women of that time did not write. They may have been able to read but not write, or they may have not even read. So, in order to study them and their subjectivities, you need to look to other things, and one thing you can look at is the textiles they made ~ the embroidery, the clothes, the decorative hangings. One thing she talked about, too, was that a glove shows the imprint of a hand, which shows both the life of the wearer and the life of the glove.

Which is very interesting. There is a tension in our lives between our perceptions of the world and the actual physicality/life of the world. We go through our days taking whole swaths of the world for granted ~ it couldn’t be any other way, or we would get paralyzed, wouldn’t we? We could spend all day considering the orange juice we had for breakfast and perceiving it and being fascinated by it. Very zen. But we need to stereotype things so we can get on with life. We need quick judgments and to be able to take things for granted so we can get through our days. But there is a tension there, isn’t there. The world and each object in it have secret lives.

This makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Have you read it? The first half is a very lovely but conventional story, that of a large English family and the death of the mother, but the second half is this wonderful unspooling of the life of the summer house in which the family spent the first half, up until what’s left of the family comes back to finally make that trip in a boat to the lighthouse. When I first read it, I thought the second half should be cut, as I’m somewhat a conventionalist, but then I reconsidered. It’s absolutely fascinating, how VW shows the passing of time through the life of that house.

It makes me think that objects in stories need to be doing at least three things: 1) being authentic by being actual perceived things ~ not being general, having specific detail, and seeming to belong to that setting (this is whole idea that setting is a character unto itself), 2) being a reflection of the point of view character’s state of mind and perceptions, and 3) being reflective of the overall theme of the story. That’s a lot for the writer to handle, but in the best work, it rings throughout the story like a bell.

Specific examples that come to mind: I recently re-listened to the New Yorker podcasts of Joshua Ferris’s “The Dinner Party” (read by Monica Ali) and Frank O’Connor’s “The Man of the World” (read by Julian Barnes). OMG. The details of objects and actions are so fabulous. They are just right for the setting, the character’s perceptions, and what the story is about.

One great example in both is the use of light. In Ferris’s story, when the protagonist goes to the party that he and his wife were not invited to, he sees the flames of the fire that encompasses his vision ~ like he’s in hell ~ and then when he goes back home and into the bedroom where his wife is desperate, she flicks on the light just when he is looking at it ~ he literally sees the light, but it blinds him. And each of these lights has a particular character, as well as reflecting the overall theme. In O’Connor’s, a boy and a friend watch a neighbor couple as they get ready for bed, and just as the protagonist has a deep insight about religion the light in the neighbors’ window goes dark, and the character is literally cast into darkness.

I don’t think I’ve explicated this very well (I could write a whole paper one each), but you get the idea. Objects, things, setting, is such a very important part of craft.

Questions of the Day: How explicit is your use of objects? Is it something that just happens, or are you able to plan it? Which way is best? Or does it come about in revision?

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