Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Breaking Rules

At some point earlier this year, Alicia and I talked a little bit about lists and series. We talked about different methods for organizing information in lists. We talked about how people remember list items. We talked about rhythm and parallel structure and ending on strong notes. (Did we talk about shortest-to-longest? I can't remember.) Useful editing tricks.

But, as with all rules, there is a point where art transcends form and the rule no longer matters. This point has been brought home to me recently in a book I'm reading which both follows and ignores ignores all of the organizational principles for items in lists.


The things they carried were largely determined by a necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and the two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots -- 2.1 pounds -- and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl's foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or ground sheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.

From The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.


Is there an organizing principle to this list? Not really. There are lots and lots of beautiful things he does in the prose, but we can't say that this list is organized according to any sterile central rule. It has tremendous emotional impact, though, and that's really what I'm talking about when I say that sometimes art transcends form. Art speaks to our emotions. Form is the container that holds the art. Sometimes the emotions are too big for the container or don't fit comfortably in a standard container. In those cases, function should trump form, as it does here.

But, of course, there's always a danger in breaking away from established forms. It's a risk. The best way to minimize that risk is to really understand the rules and the underlying principles that create them. And then, with that understanding to guide you, look at successful instances where others have broken the rules and examine how they've made it work.

So let's talk about the paragraph from the Tim O'Brien piece. (This is an exceptionally good book, by the way. Well worth reading even if it's not one of your usual genres. I'm not a big fan of 20th-century war books, but my sister-in-law recommended this one, and I'm so glad she did.)

Tell me what you see him doing, and why you think it works. Yes, I'm going to make you think about this. Pay attention, and think it through. Notice things like word choice, repetition, and the points where emotion is introduced or eliminated. Tell me in the comments what kind of impact those things have on you as a reader.

By the way, in case you were wondering about my recent absence, I wasn't wandering England with Alicia. I wish I had been. My family owns a small construction company and we're in the process of moving to a new location. I'm not deeply involved in this business, but I am deeply involved in the move. And it's no fun at all. But we'll get through it. We're in the home stretch now.


ps. Today is the birthday of P.G. Wodehouse, which makes me want to lay in bed, drink tea, and be silly all day.


Edittorrent said...

Don DeLillo does that Biblical list thing too-- describing what college students unload from the car and carry into their dorm rooms. It's actually a comment on the terrible consumerism of our society.

PatriciaW said...

By telling us what these soldiers carried, he tells us about them. First, what they have in common. Then, what sets them apart, which will help readers to recall the individuals as well as identify with one or more of them. Finally, back to what they have in common, reminding us that they're a team, a unit.

I've awarded this blog the I LOVE YOUR BLOG award. Where else do I get lessons on participles? :) See more here.

Anonymous said...

I read a really funny list in Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson.... you should read the book, it's very good!