Thursday, January 20, 2011

Subtle techniques, subtext of horror

I've been reading a lot of the shorter novels/novellas of a group of women who wrote in the mid-century, mostly postwar, English and American. I'm sort of amazed at their subtlety and the grace of their prose and scene design. I suspect that they don't get a lot of critical recognition because 1) they were women, and 2) they wrote in the crime/horror area predominantly. But their stories repay study. Here is what I've been reading:
Shirley Jackson (The Lottery and other stories, We Have Always Lived in the Castle)
Patricia Highsmith (particularly The Talented Mr. Ripley)
Muriel Sparks (The Driver's Seat, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

Many of these have been made into films, btw. Why? I don't know, but I think partly because actresses can really show their stuff here-- the characters are deeply textured.

I would characterize all of the authors as being preoccupied with the danger in everyday life, the murderer next door. Might this be a result of living through the war, and seeing how neighbors turned on neighbors (and turned them in to be transferred and killed)?

Anyway, I was reading Sparks and came across what I think might be a technique that reflects the theme (Modern life alienates us from each other) but also the progress of the novel (a woman who wants to die searches subconsciously for the man who will kill her).

That is, in The Driver's Seat, Muriel Sparks has a worldview of alienation-- she presents a story in which people don't connect, where characters never understand each other. And this "disconnect" is represented in several ways, as in the symbol of the heroine's clothing, garishly colored and clashing. But this disconnect is developed most intriguingly in the dialogue. When the main character speaks to other characters, often the meaning just goes by unheeded. In fact, often they seem to both be talking, but not to each other. They're talking PAST each other rather than TO each other. Here is an example where she is talking to an old lady she has been sightseeing with. Notice there is none of that usual conversational interplay, where one answers the other's question, or responds to the other's unstated worry, or repeats an important word.

(Mrs. Feidke shows up after having "a spell" and fainting in the previous scene -- Lise left her in the restroom, unconscious.)

Lise says, turning to smile at her, "Look at this idiot girl. She can't stop dancing."

"I think I fell asleep for a moment," Mrs. Fiedke says. "It wasn't a bad turn. I think I just dropped off. Such kind people. They wanted to put me in a taxi."

"Look at her," Lise says in a murmur. "Just look at her. No, wait. She'll start again when the man puts on the next record." The record starts and the girl swings. "Do you believe in macrobiotics?"

"I'm a Jehovah's witness. But that was after Mr. Fiedka passed on."

But in the end, when Lise has finally found the one she has been seeking (the "boyfriend" she subconsciously wants to kill her), the dialogue suddenly meshes:

"Before you went to the clinic, how long did they keep you in prison?"

"Two years," he said.

"Did you strangle or stab?"

"I stabbed her. But she didn't die. I never killed a woman."

"No, but you'd like to. I knew it this morning."

"You never saw me before in your life!"

"That's not the point," Lisa says. "That's by the way. You're a sex maniac."

"No, no," he says. "That's all over and past. Not anymore!"

"Well, you won't have sex with me."

She's driving towards the park and turns right towards the pavilion. Nobody's in sight. The wandering groups are null and voice, the cars have gone away.

"Sex is normal," he says. "I'm cured. Sex is all right."

"It's all right at the time," Lise says. "And it's all right before. But the problem is afterwards. That is, if you aren't just an animal. Most of the time, afterwards is pretty sad."

"You're afraid of sex!" he says almost joyfully, as if sensing an opportunity to gain control.

"Only afterwards. But that doesn't matter anymore."

Notice how they re-use each other's words (all right, sex), and answer each other's stated and unstated questions. They are conversing in a way that Lise doesn't converse with anyone else: fully engaged.

The change from the earlier "disconnect" to the ending "connect"-- which connects with the ending, Lise getting killed, btw, the two of them acting in concert-- is an example of change as coherence. That is, the constant is the conversation-- Lise talking to people-- but the change in that constant is in sync with some plot change (from a disconnect with non-threatening characters to a "connect" with the killer).

Do we ever create a coherence like that consciously? Or is it an unconscious sense of how the story changes that leads us to create parallel scenes that develop differently? I don't know. I suspect some writers do this subconsciously. Can we do it consciously without being too heavyhanded?



T. Frohock said...

Good lord, what a post! I have a scene in my current WIP where two characters are talking past one another, I did it deliberately, but it is only one brief exchange. I can't imagine writing a whole novel with that type of character, but what you’ve shown us makes perfect sense.

Now I've got to get a copy of this book and study it. I love the concept, and it is one of those tricks that doesn't really hit the reader until the last page is turned. I would think that if Sparks did it as consistently as you’ve outlined, she was probably conscious of applying the technique.

I love this.

Edittorrent said...

Teresa, it's a really strange book, where the main character is completely opaque. Everything revolves around her, but she's directed on this one aim, and she doesn't connect with anyone. Lots of study-able techniques, I think, for building suspense. She's almost like her own villain.

Very weird book, but everything that's weird, when the book is done, makes sense, because it all goes to answer the question who is this woman and why did someone kill her?

What about your "talking past each other" scene? what was going on there?

T. Frohock said...

My scene is nowhere near as complex as what you've discussed. It's very brief and it concerns a key.

The boy Miguel asks Belita for a key so he may unlock his friend Diago. However, Belita insists that she cannot help Diago and that Miguel must make Diago understand that she cannot help him.

When Miguel requests the key a second time, Belita simply tells him that she cannot help Diago.

They are both talking about keys but in entirely different contexts. Miguel wants a physical key, but Belita is speaking more metaphorically as in the key as a solution.

When I was writing this, the key was the unconscious part. I inserted it into the manuscript more as a matter of detail, but when Belita started talking around Miguel, I realized I have a device that I use later if I manipulate Belita's words just right. That is the point at which I, as the author, must take command of the story.

So after talking my way through this (and in answer to your original question), I'm starting to believe the process is a combination with the subconscious linkage to the key, then the conscious effort to take care with my character's words.

My, that long . . . ;-)

T. Frohock said...

My, that [was] long . . . ;-)

Edittorrent said...

That's interesting-- there's coherence there through the different uses of the same word "key."