Monday, October 27, 2014

The right way to lie

"Specific, definite, concrete, particular details--these are the life of fiction. Details (as every good liar knows) are the stuff of persuasiveness. Mary is sure that Ed forgot to pay the gas bill last Tuesday, but Ed says, "I know I went, because this old guy in a knit vest was in front of me in the line, and went on and on about his twin granddaughters"--and it is hard to refute a knit vest and twins even if the furnace doesn't work."

-Writing Fiction, Burroway, 7th edition, pg 26

Most readers can probably be divided into those who love great sensory descriptions of scene, those who let their imaginations go with the details, and those who are happy enough just skipping over that stuff. I've been one of the second most of my life. I first noticed this tendency in myself when I was nine and reading Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series. He was describing his characters traveling through a woods, and try as I might to bend my imagination to the details Alexander wanted me to see, I could only see the woods behind my house. Even after the characters had traveled for days, I still had only moved them from one end of the woods to another. 

Later, in high school, I read Lewis and Tolkien. I got very badly stuck for two days once on the same two-page description of some outdoor scene. They used British terminology for topography, and in those days learning a term you didn't know required getting a dictionary or encyclopedia. I eventually just said to myself, "this is a mountain," and moved on. 

I guess I'm a Philistine with details that set a scene. Jhumpa Lahiri or Khaled Hosseini's pearls are trampled by swine like me. In the last few years, I've been better about appreciating scene, partly because I've tried to write it but mostly because I can now just push an unknown word in Kindle and get a quick definition. This helps keep me on track. It's also critical that a deepening sense of how to view scene like it were film, with all the possibilities of meaning available there, have made it more enjoyable to put in the effort to imagine what I'm supposed to imagine.

But it still doesn't come naturally to me. Here's the beginning of an early favorite story of mine:

A certain man had two sons. (What were their names? What did they look like? What were their favorite colors and subjects in school?) And the younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me" (What did the father do to gain his wealth? How did his sons feel about this occupation?) And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. (What was his motivation for leaving? Did he plan to party his money away, or did it just work out that way? Did he justify his decisions to himself, or was he deliberately blocking the voice of reason in his head?)  

You get the idea. You can put together a fine story without a lot of details. Flash fiction (which I don't really like that much, but everyone swears it can be as powerful as its longer cousins) necessarily drops details in order to keep the word count under 1000 and still have something happen. 

I think there's a much deeper reason why I tend to be anti-details than just my own laziness or lack of spatial and artistic intelligence. The passage I started this post with says that details tend to hide a lie. But don't they also tip the skeptical among off that a lie is being told? If a student starts to tell a long story about how the homework didn't get done through no fault of his own, or if the employee begins to talk a long time on the phone about why she is calling off, the teacher or boss gets a tingly feelings that all is not well. It's the same in fiction. I hit a point where, after too many too close details, I start to call bullshit. Here is a totally unfair example of a passage I recently read and hated. It's from "Depth Perception" in Carve Magazine by Laura Gibson. There are a number of well-crafted details that I accepted and even enjoyed for some time:

-Sitting on an old milk pail between rows, he stopped for a moment, a clutch of pineapple weed in one hand..
- I sat up and leaned over the booth table and put my face close to Lou’s, inhaling his sawdust and wood smoke flecked with motor oil, a whiskey after-burner.

But then I get to this line:

-The bottoms of his boots smooth and worn, so thin near the balls of his feet he’d have to have them re-soled soon.

And I just felt that the story was bullshit and had a hard time going on emotionally. Her lead character was putting the corpse in the rig, but my willingness to follow the story stayed there in the bar. Why? It was one detail too many, and too fine a detail. Nobody notices things like that with that amount of detail. It leads me to wonder: who is the narrator? Is it a disembodied person seeing through one character's eyes? Is that why he can see better than the person herself? (Incidentally, I'm not at all calling this a bad story, or saying Gibson should have written it to my taste. I'm saying that this is a taste I have, and I find it offended often in 2014.)

Well, of course that is exactly what third person limited is. But muscular or fine details have a way of making that too clear to me, and ruining my ability to listen to the disembodied voice. It just announces itself too much when I need it to stay hidden. It's like realizing what eggs really are in the middle of eating an omelet.  It's too good of a lie, and it makes me feel uneasy about the whole prospect of listening to a lie for the next 15 minutes to 20 hours, depending on the length of the lie. 

Of course, there is a way around this for me. Tell me tons and tons of lies. Make your lies outrageous. Because then, it'll be clear to me that you're just spinning a yarn that's meant to make me enjoy myself, and I can forget about suspending disbelief. This can be done in fantasy, of course, but it can also be done with really self-conscious description. The Corrections comes to mind. I of course know that all the too-fine thoughts going on are all Franzen, but he's not trying to hide that, so I just go along with Franzen, and it turns out Franzen is a pretty entertaining liar.

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