Friday, January 28, 2011

Character in Grace Paley's "Goodbye and Good Luck"

One area where the creative writing community is frequently at odds with literature and narrative theory students is the attitude toward characters. That characters aren't people is one of the tenets of contemporary literary criticism. Suzanne Keen writes: "your work will at some point or other be read by a critic who adheres to the principle that fictional characters should not be referred to as if they were human." (69). And she quotes at length from Richard Posner:

a critical difference between fictional characters and real people is that the evaluation of a fictional character is made within a framework created by the work of literature, and the framework is an artificial world rather than our real social world. ... We cannot say, without seeming ridiculous, that Pip is a better man than Achilles, or Leopold Bloom than Odysseus, because to make such comparisons requires ripping the characters out of their context and so destroying the aesthetic structure of which they are components.

This last quote made me laugh as it brought back a memory from my childhood. When I was in my early teens, I kept a running list of my favorite characters. These were mostly male but some female characters, and while I didn't specifically articulate their qualities I admired, I freely included anyone who I had a crush on, whom I wished I could meet in real life, whom I wanted to be or to be with. Every time I found a new character to love in a book or in a movie (I admitted exceptional movie characters to my list, even though I had a separate running list for my favorite movies.. also a separate list for my favorite ice skaters -- they, too, create very strong characters), I would consider where they fit on my list and reorder the ranks. The character who was never dislodged from the top was Sanya Grigoriev from "Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin (I blogged about this book recently). His compatriots on the list included the boy and girl heroes of Soviet literature, Timur and Zhenya from Alexander Gaidar's pioneer novels, Vasyek and Dinka from Oseeva's fiction; characters from foreign fiction -- Pip, ripped out from his "aesthetic structure" might have made the list at one point -- and D'Artagnan and Aramis were always there; characters from Russian classics, like Pechorin, Shtolz (a secondary character from "Oblomov"), Shubin (a minor character from Turgenev's "On the Eve.") As I grew older, I moved on from admiring the heroes and looked for characters who, I thought, weren't given justice by the author. Shubin, in my opinion, was a very charming and interestingly troubled young man -- Turgenev had undeservedly given him short shrift. I came very close to writing what I now know is called "fan fiction."

I'm not alone in this impulse -- to take characters outside of their textual constraints and force them to interact with other characters. I'm thinking of a Hollywood blockbuster, for example, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that pitted Sherlock Holmes against Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray, and Tom Sawyer. (Mostly men; original genres all quite different.) The impulse behind my childhood fantasies and this and similar movies might be "ridiculous" from the literary analysis point of view, but it's clearly a powerful one.

Ultimately though I do believe that characters belong to the text, are functions of the text, they manifest reality only insofar as reality is defined by the text -- while readers read both fictional characters and "real" people by the same (or closely related) process, comparing a number of verbal and non-verbal clues to create their own ideas (fictions) about them in their minds. Characters are different from people -- they are defined by fewer variables -- but the reading process is not altogether different from making a new friend. (I wonder if there are neuroscience studies out there testing this hypothesis. Do we use same or different parts of the brain, meeting somebody for the first time vs. reading a novel?)

One of the most revealing parts of Jim Shepard's workshop, was when he suddenly turned to one of the participants and asked her: "Imagine somebody said to you that your eyes shone like those of a wolfhound. How would that make you feel?" He stared at the woman intently, like he really meant it. We laughed, and then realized that the idea of testing lines of dialogue and flashy narrative phrases on a real situation is not a bad one. Words -- characters -- have power. To compare somebody's eyes to a wolfhound is a violent act. A narrator, using a phrase "her eyes shone like those of a wolfhound," expresses an attitude towards a character -- anger, perhaps, or revenge. The relationship between the narrator and the character is immediately circumscribed by this characterization.

On my friend Genine's recommendation, I've started reading Grace Paley's Collected Stories. The first in the book is "Goodbye and Good Luck." In it, Aunt Rosie is telling a story of her life to Lillie, her niece. The niece doesn't materialize as a character in the course of the story -- there's no description of her and she doesn't have any lines of dialogue -- she mostly functions as a listener, as somebody to whom Aunt Rosie is telling the story. And yet the few phrases Aunt Rosie addresses to her every so often do create a viable character. Let me illustrate by copying out a few of the phrases where Lillie is addressed directly:

Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don't notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary's ear for thirty years. Who's listening? Papa's in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. ...

Don't laugh, you ignorant girl. ...

In those days -- it looks to me like yesterday -- the youngest girls wore undergarments like Battle Creek, Michigan. To him it was a matter of seconds. Where did he practice, a Jewish boy? Nowadays I suppose it is easier, Lillie? My goodness, I ain't asking you nothing -- touchy, touchy ...

Well, by now you must know yourself, honey, whatever you do, life don't stop. It only sits a minute and dreams a dream. ...

So now, darling Lillie, tell this story to your mama from your young mouth. She don't listen to a word from me. ... Give me a kiss. After all, I watched you grow from a plain seed. So give me a couple wishes on my wedding day. A long and happy life. Many years of love. Hug Mama, tell her from Aunt Rosie, goodbye and good luck.

One reason these bits of dialogue function so effectively as characterization of Lillie is that aunt Rosie uses her as a mirror; in Rosie's eyes, Lillie is clearly a younger version of herself. If we don't know what Lillie looks like (and it's easy to picture her as a slimmer and even more pink-cheeked Rosie), we know what she must think of Aunt Rosie: she's eagerly listening to a rather long and elaborate story, and so she must by fascinated by Rosie, perhaps, admire her; but she's also capable of laughing at aunt Rosie, so she must also find her somewhat ridiculous. The little we know about Lillie turns out to be enough to create a complex, multifaceted character.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Time Capsule

In November, Dave and I received an email from with the following message: "Greetings from your past. In the fall of 2005, you agreed to receive this message, which has been preserved in the E-Mail Time Capsule." A message from ourselves was posted below, opening with this: "Don't forget - it's time to move out of London, people!!!!"

Neither Dave nor I remember the specific circumstances of us writing this message to ourselves, but the general context came very much alive when we opened the email. Forbes was running an interesting experiment, asking people to send messages to themselves into the future via the Internet, not knowing whether they will have the technology to deliver the messages after the time lapse. Would yahoo mail still be around? Would google? There were no obvious answers to these questions -- as there aren't now. The experiment is ongoing: people had an option of sending themselves messages 5, 10, or 20 years into the future. Dave and I can't remember, but it's very likely that we signed up for at least two out of three.

Here's a recent blog post on that provides background of their fascinating experiment. "We’re excited to see this strange thing is still working, because while it’s pretty simple to preserve a physical time capsule (dig hole, insert non-biodegradable container), the realities of digital preservation are surprisingly complicated."

As someone who conceives of herself almost exclusively in the present, I set great value in leaving messages for my future self. I've been a regular diarist since the age of 9; I store as many college notebooks, old manuscripts, and random scraps of paper as I possibly can without getting buried under the data; I have not only kept copies of every letter and greeting card I've ever received from friends and family members, but at one point even experimented with making carbon and photo copies of the letters I sent myself; same goes for digital communication -- I save everything I can. I'm the first to admit: most of this information is useless, a waste of storage space. When was the last time I have looked at the notes I kept from the Macroeconomics class I took as a sophomore at RIT? Probably three years ago, when we moved to our current apartment and I decided to "clean up," to throw away duplicates and drafts of papers I wrote at RIT, leaving only graded copies in storage. All of my folders from my SFSU days are still intact. Once, I spent an afternoon searching old email, trying to remember the exact year my grandmother died (how come I don't have this written down somewhere accessible?).

When forced to justify this behavior, I claim endless story potential contained in these folders. So far, I haven't written anything inspired by a single one of those scraps. (I have a separate filing system for old story ideas). But, save extraordinary circumstances, I can't imagine myself getting rid of this stuff. How else can I have know who I was before, five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago? By keeping these papers, I allow myself the privilege of purging the memories to the very back of my mind. I want to remember -- I need to remember -- but I don't have to remember anything about it now, as long as I am secure in my external storage system.

Five years ago, Dave and I lived in a tiny apartment on Waller Street. I was in my first year of grad school, still contemplating a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. Dave kept crazy hours working his consulting job. Here's how we described our situation in the time capsule: "Dave: works 12 hour days + 2 hours travel, loves Netflix. We are cooking non-stop thanks to our organic produce delivery service (Planet Organics). Obsessed with Palm Pilot (can't wait to get a Treo!!) Sick and tired of driving my car. Just discoved tea with milk." And Olga? "Olga: procrastinates on writing papers, dreams of ending school and working on more stories. Wendy, Paula, and I started a writing group. Hope to keep in touch with SFSU friends."

Together, we contemplated moving to London after I was done with grad school, dreamed about taking cheap weekend trips everywhere in Europe, easier travel to St. Petersburg and annual trips to Pennsylvania and New York. In our email to ourselves, we looked even further ahead. Dave expressed a desire to end our sojourn in London at the end of these five years: "Prepare to move back to The States and start a biz-natch," he wrote. My immediate plans included "Gotta get over my email hangup where it's difficult to force myself to answer emails," and more long-term: "Plan for 2005-2010: Find a way to earn a living by writing." This last one appears very naive at the moment, but it's great to know I was thinking about creative writing even in the middle of the whole Comp. Lit. adventure, when I wrote at best two stories in two years.

We never ended up going to London. Dave started searching for jobs there, but no immediate opportunities turned up, and then we figured out we liked San Francisco too much to move. I never applied for Ph.D. programs, soon deciding that if I were apply to school again, I would want to do an MFA in writing. I'm still debating this decision once in a while. We signed the time capsule very warmly: "Love you guys! Olgie and Davey." Isn't that sweet? This alone is worth the effort of writing such a message: we gotta keep reminding ourselves of our old, dopey selves.