The Beauty of an Economy of Words #writing #hemingway #wolfe

In the the great game of Chess, we have this concept of Tempo (or gaining tempo).  There are many detailed explanations of this with regard to the mechanics of the game, but the essentials behind the idea may be generalized as follows:

Tempo is gained when many tasks are accomplished with a single action.

In Chess, this is a simple concept to grasp; however it is not always straightforward to achieve.  Developing a piece while delivering check (as is noted in the linked article) is the easiest example.  In short, you want your one move to yield the most benefit.  You always want to be doing more than one thing at a time.

This concept is expandable to many other avenues in life, though the idea becomes more abstract.  In the case of writing, gaining tempo through an economy of words turns a straightforward sentence into a many-faceted work of art.

Hemingway was a master at this.

I’ve spoke about Gene Wolfe here before, I think, and if I haven’t I should do so more often.  He is another master of this technique, albeit in ways strikingly different from Hemingway.  Hemingway shocks with his deceptively simple style.  His writing asks the reader to unhinge the analytical brain and feel the meaning behind what he writes.

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

Ernest Hemingway

You must not spend a great deal of time on this statement.  If you do, it will be rendered meaningless and nonsensical.  The greatest disservice that happens in the American English classroom is when a writer like this is studied and the teacher asks the student, “What do you think he meant by this?”

No, god damn you.  Trying to force these things is like trying to recall a dream that doesn’t want to be remembered.  You must feel these things in your gut not understand them with your head.  Your head is not the place for Hemingway.  Your head is the shaking, fumbling fingers of an adolescent boy trying to master the clasp of a bra strap.  You belly is required for such things.

Wolfe, on the other hand, requires every bit of your analytical mind that you can muster.  Each idea that he presents has the potential to be a key that unlocks a greater puzzle.  With Wolfe, it’s a good idea to bring your A-game, else the experience of reading his stories may feel more like a fever dream than a diversion.

I want to share a quote from his story “Litany of the Long Sun”.  It will require that I do some explaining to set it up – this is going to contain spoilers.  If you plan on reading this book, I recommend you step out now.

Don’t say I failed to warn.

Maytera Marble, a synthetic being living on a space-bound generation ship referred to as “The Whorl” by its inhabitants, has seen better days.  She can remember a time before The Whorl, when she lived on a real planet.  This time is now so long ago that she may not necessarily remember the distinction between planet and ship or why one is different from another (the humans who live on the ship certainly don’t realize that there is a universe outside of their reality).  She knows only that, once upon a time, her body was not failing her.  Because she is a synthetic, she is being constantly assailed by failure codes and faulty systems diagnostics as they are overlaid in her field of view.  Being a Sibyl (akin to our Catholic Sister), she is a teacher of young human children; she hides her infirmities from those who love her.

It is important to note, here, that what they call the “sun” on this generation ship is a long heat ray that runs down the length of the cylindrical enclosure.  She can remember a time when the sun was a bright disk that moved across the sky.  The heat ray in the ship is referred to as “The Long Sun”.  The disk that she remembers: The Short Sun.

“Maytera Marble could remember the short sun, a disk of orange fire; and it seemed to her that the chief virtue of that old sun had been that no list, no menu, ever appeared unbidden beneath its rays.”

Wolfe, Nightside the Long Sun (p. 24)

This one small entry tells us so very much about Maytera Marble with so very little.  It tells us that she is melancholy, that she is rendered sad by her failing body and her memory of happier times.  It demonstrates that the short sun itself does not hold any special talismanic place of power in her mind outside of its rather simplistic association with a period in her life where she can remember that she was physically more.

It is instructive to note that by this point in the story, Wolfe has not yet made it clear that Marble is an artificial being – he hints and dances around the idea.  It becomes clear later; however Wolfe (in his deviousness) also goes to the trouble to blur the lines between synthetic and natural persons, greatly confusing the issue.  He toys with the perceptions of the characters in his story as he toys with those of his readers.

But, what incredible weight can be found in this passage!  It only becomes clear later (after perhaps more than one reading) what import should be assigned to these words.  You can never just assume that a sentence has but a single meaning with Gene Wolfe.  This is the beauty of his work.  He is the literary Daedalus; his body of work is the Labyrinth and we (the readers) are his Minotaur.

The Labyrinth

Updates to the About Me page (and other things)

joshua-gayou-who-am-iAccording to everything I’ve read, the single most visited page of any of these blog thingies is the “About Me” page.  I mean, I’d much rather you go here and read my books, but hey – to each their own.

So, anyway, I went and made my About Me page the home page of the site and put something a little more interesting up there than just the short blurb that I’m sticking in the back of my books.  It should hopefully explain something of my derangement.

Additionally, Madame Fairy Whisperer had recently shared an incredibly useful article on stuffing Amazon book previews directly into your WordPress site, which I thought was rather awesome.  You’ll find a book cover on the right-hand bar of my site now.  If you click it, you’ll be able to start reading that book and get a sense regarding whether you’d like to continue.

Look, nothing bugs me as much as spending good money on a book that I end up either not connecting with or just outright hating.  I’m well aware of the commitment I’m asking you to make as a reader.  That’s why I’m putting previews up in front.  I want you to be able to get a sense of the story that I offer and decide confidently whether you want to follow me down the rabbit hole.

 

The Utility of the (Unreliable) Narrator #writing #fiction

An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.”

Wikipedia

“They’re all unreliable. Well, we all are, aren’t we?”

Gene Wolfe

Unreliable NarratorWhen I see a story told from a first person narrative, I always end up being cautiously hopeful.  I say “cautious” because I often times don’t get the payoff for which I had hoped.

It bugs me when I encounter a first person narrator that seems to know everything and never gets anything wrong, whose perceptions are always 100% dead on.  I don’t know anyone like that.  I’m certainly not like that.  50% of the time I’m wrong 100% of the time.

Remember the game “Telephone” that we used to play as kids?  Every time someone picked up a story and relayed it, the story was corrupted just a little bit.  Get a few degrees of separation and it became unrecognizable.  It was like looking at a bad copy of a really bad Xerox copy.  Well, a first person narrative is really just the first degree of separation, isn’t it?

Then too, people aren’t always totally up front when they’re relating a story.  There are certain aspects of themselves that they might just not want to share, whether due to embarrassment, shame, ill intent, self preservation, or any other number of very human motivations.  Depending on the person telling the story (with regard to moral character and fiber), the impact translated to the reader’s understanding of the fictitious reality thereby presented may be minimal…or profound.

Authors cognizant of this very human reality in their work are required to walk a fine line; imperfect human narrators promote verisimilitude yet, being too humanly imperfect (i.e. often wrong), there is a tendency to piss off the reader.  Why the hell would anyone want to read a story peppered with unreliable bullshit?

The challenge set for a practitioner of this technique is an aggregate of several requirements:

  1. Characters get things wrong but the author shall write from the perspective that the character is doing his or her best to get everything right.
  2. If your character is going to purposefully mislead, that character shall come out at the beginning of the story (or before the first falsehood is perpetrated) and state that so the reader can be on guard.  Doing otherwise is simply cheating on the part of the author.
  3. The narrative and flow of the story shall be such that the work can still be enjoyed should the reader choose to consume the plot passively without asking questions (or in those cases where the inconsistencies simply go unnoticed).
  4. As the author, you shall present enough bread crumbs and key hints such that, when inconsistencies in the narrative are detected, the truth may be discovered by the reader (with a bit of deductive problem solving).

Practitioners of this technique as well as readers of the Commune Series are advised to keep these little ideas in the backs of their minds…

Commune Book One is available right now as an ebook for a couple of bucks and as a paperback for only a few bucks more.