Friday, January 28, 2011

Setting by Example: Murray

Continuing our discussion of setting....

I thought it might make sense to look at an example of an author incorporating setting details at the moment they become relevant, and not before. I'm reading "Skippy Dies" by Paul Murray. (Very slowly -- for reasons unrelated to the book's merit, I keep having to interrupt the reading process for other things. Hate it when that happens.) This book was recently nominated for an NBCC, and it's generated quite a lot of online buzz.

In one scene, the history teacher Howard is waylaid by the assistant principal, referred to in the text as "the Automator." They're walking through the school at a very fast pace as the Automator shares some of his thoughts about the nature of history and science teaching. This goes on for about a page and a half until the Automator stops abruptly and we have this:

"Howard, take a look around you. What do you see?"

Dazedly, Howard does as he is told. They are standing in Our Lady's Hall. There is the Virgin with the starry halo; there are the rugby photographs, the noticeboards, the fluorescent lights. Try as he might, he can perceive nothing out of the ordinary, and at last is forced to answer feebly, "Our Lady's Hall?"

(p.86-7 of the hardback edition, in case you want to examine it more closely. I urge you to do so. This is very strong writing, worth studying.)

Though this passage comes in the middle of a scene, and though they've been talking and moving consistently up until now, we didn't know where they were other than the vague understanding that they were somewhere on the school grounds. Until this passage, the only setting detail we're given is that they started within view of the exit and are moving away from it. Until this moment, everything is action and dialogue without reference to the specifics of the setting.

There are two reasons it works. First, Howard is concentrating on the conversation, so he might not be noticing the environment. Viewpoint influences which setting details can be included because the pov character is the lens through which we view everything. If he doesn't see it, we don't see it. Second, because of the lack of setting detail leading up to this moment, we have more contrast between the fast walk and fast conversation and then the abrupt stop and scan of the hall. Howard is dazed by the change, so much so that he doesn't know what he's supposed to see. The text reflects this.

But even without that contrast for effect, the setting details wouldn't be relevant until this moment. We don't care about photos and notices until they matter to the action and interaction, and that doesn't happen until the Automator asks his question.

The conversation unfolds a bit between them, discussing the hall's history without getting into concrete detail. Then we get this question about the hall from the Automator:

"Does it say, Ireland's top secondary school for boys?"

Howard takes another look at the hall. The blue-and-white tiles are scuffed and dull, the grubby walls pocked and crumbling, the window-sashes rotted and knotted with generations of cobwebs. On a winter's day, it could double for a Victorian orphanage. "Well..." he begins, then realizes the Automator has turned on his heel and is power-walking back the way they came.

And then they're back to the fast walk and fast talk that started the scene. Notice the use of three details in that second sentence: tiles, walls, sashes. Three is a magic number! But again, this closer inspection becomes important to the story at the moment that it's requested and not before then. Howard doesn't think about the condition of the building until after the talk about the year in which the hall was built. Only then does the age of the hall impress itself on him in those particular details.

The end result of the scene is the reader's certainty that the Automator manipulates everything, right down to what people notice in the world around them. It's a very controlled and well-written use of setting, and it's a great example of a scene that only incorporates setting details when they become relevant.



Wes said...

Very interesting. I'm going to experiment with this technique to emphasize why certain characteristics of a setting are important.

Samantha Hunter said...

Thanks for the analysis -- good technique to store away in the writing tool shed and think about...