Monday, May 9, 2016

The Indifference Death Knell

Last week I began with the news that the summer reading assignments were complete. Today I'll begin by telling you I am officially no longer an employee of Louisiana Delta Community College. I submitted final grades & turned in all the necessary paperwork on Thursday afternoon.

Then I took a selfie.

Then I got cupcakes for me & the kids to eat, though they were gone before any pictures were taken. The cupcakes, that is, not the kids.

What's funny, I suppose, is that I am still going to be an adjunct instructor come fall. I'll be teaching freshman composition for Louisiana Tech, I'll just be doing it in the high school classroom. There is a tall stack of tax forms & other employee documents sitting on my desk that mock the freedom I feel at having shed my adjunct days. If anyone from Louisiana Tech happens to be reading, I promise, they'll be completed soon & returned to you. 

Last week was one of those odd weeks when everyone's schedule is in transition & you wake up every day thinking, What day is it? Where are we all supposed to be today? Whose foot is this? Why has no one brought me coffee?

This week ought to be a little calmer, given that I have no schedule, save a haircut later this week. Tomorrow & Wednesday will be Reagan's last days at WEE School, though tomorrow will be devoted to practicing for the program & graduation that will comprise Wednesday morning's activities. You're going to come to realize, if you haven't already, that this blog sometimes serves as my planner. I take deep breaths while I sort through it all, mentally cheering myself on as I picture myself completing tasks. I return the following week to inform you of the success or failure of said tasks.

You might think I am about to make good on last week's promise to unveil my summer to-do list, since it is now *officially* summer for me. You would be wrong. The plan for today is to discuss All the Light We Cannot See before more time slips away & I read so much else that I can't recall anything about the book. That's the plan, but there's a kink in the plan I'll soon divulge.

Written by Anthony Doerr & winner of a Pulitzer, All the Light We Cannot See is historical fiction set during WWII. It's told in third person. My inclination is to say it's third person omniscient, given that throughout the course of the novel, the reader is privy to the thoughts of numerous characters, however, I've read some articles stating that if there is a clear distinction between the shifting of narration, such as a chapter break (this is the case in Doerr's book), it's still considered third person limited. 

I've recently had to educate myself further on the dos & don'ts of third person (& the specific differences in limited & omniscient) after realizing there are a few instances in Dear Miss Moreau when the reader randomly gets a snippet of a secondary character's thoughts, thoughts that are just not necessary to advancing the story & may in fact pull a reader out of the story because they're stopping to think, Okay, are we switching narrators? Why was I just given that glimpse inside so & so's head? Or maybe they're not paying close attention & it doesn't phase them at all.

My intent was to tell the story primarily through Edie, save the inclusion of a few scenes in which she's not present when the reader is in Dr. Foster's head. Actually my intent was to stick with Edie (third person limited all the way), but the lure of the world via Dr. Foster's mind was too great & before the close of the first chapter the reader jumps into his head. What can I say? I lack discipline.

While it is fun to head-hop (omniscient, you know, like God) & provides a writer considerable freedom, one thing I learned from Doerr's book is that too much hopping can be tiresome to a reader, & can make it difficult for a reader to form the necessary attachments to characters that keep people reading. When I say people, I mean me.

It's generally considered taboo to head-hop in a scene. Writers who head-hop typically do so in an established pattern, such as switching narrators each chapter. A masterful example of this is Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. There are writers who ignore the taboo of head-hopping within a scene, & the most cited example of this so far as I can tell is Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway commits the taboo of jumping from head to head to head within a singular scene, but I guess it went over pretty well because then he won a Pulitzer & a Nobel Prize.

An excerpt:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
 It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.
The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.
Others, of the older fishermen, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the steady good weather and of what they had seen. 
"Yes," the old man said. He was holding his glass and thinking of many years ago.

The taboo is jarring the reader; if you can avoid that, hop, hop, hop away. The reader needs to feel the narrator is in control. I'd venture to guess few are the authors who can smoothly transition from head to head within one scene, given that many cannot pull it off well when only switching narrators from chapter to chapter.

In Doerr's book, the reader sees primarily through the eyes of a young French girl & a young German boy whose paths are destined to cross. They muddle through their teen years as the war progresses, & finally, at long last, come face to face toward the close of the novel. Two things kept me reading: knowing these two would eventually meet, & also, as always, knowing I'd be gathering with the book club ladies & not wanting to show up covered in the shame of the unread. 

Here's the thing: I didn't love the book. I think it is worthy of the Pulitzer it received, I do. Mr. Doerr tells a beautiful story. It's yet another peek into life during WWII, this time focused on Saint Malo, a coastal French town that was occupied by Germans & then nearly completely destroyed by fire at the end of the war.

So the kink in my plans to discuss the book is that I have no strong feelings about it. What Doerr does well, does exceptionally, is use language. Some of his descriptions are insanely perfect. What he fails to do, in my opinion, is pull the reader so deeply into the character's lives, their stories, that the reader wants to keep reading not only to reach the conclusion (& be prepared for book club), but because it is pleasant to spend time with the characters.

What I always tell people about The Bronze Horseman when I am berating them about not having read it is that, while Ms. Simons may not have Doerr's mastery of descriptions, her characters are sublime; I fell head over heels. Yes, the three novels in this series are lengthy, but I didn't care when I was reading because I just wanted to keep hanging out with my new friends. What? Alexander sneezed? *Swoon* I'm going to reread that. Had she included a chapter about Alexander reading the Russian phone book, I'd have read every word. That's unrealistic, of course, as no one had phones or even power half the time & they had to burn their books to stay warm, but you get the point. 

I've been thinking a little about Pulitzer Prizes lately. There is a gender gap in prize-winning literature. I don't begrudge the men their prizes; they are, for the most part, well deserved. Tennessee Williams won one for A Streetcar Named Desire. Hemingway won a Pulitzer. Doerr won a Pulitzer. Characters don't necessarily win you a Pulitzer, & you know who tends to write character above all else? Women. Happy endings need not apply for Pulitzers, & women tend to write more of those as well. 

My dad recently read The Sun Also Rises. He was initially a bit down on the book, & then, along with my sister, we had this text exchange:

Hemingway's characters are not always adored by readers, but readers generally react strongly to them, even if they don't initially realize why.  Hemingway avoids, masterfully avoids, what Doerr, in my opinion, does not: readers slipping into the dreaded ditch of indifference. 

One of my dad's comments was that he didn't like any of the characters in The Sun Also Rises. Hey, there's no Jake Barnes poster on my wall. Hemingway's characters are so very, very, almost tangibly, real, & that is due in part to the dialogue that comprises so much of his work. You get to know them the same way you get to know actual, real people: by speaking to them, by listening to what they say, & noting what they don't say. Hemingway took his own advice to writers to, ". . . create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature."

I think Hemingway is the best of both worlds: he didn't neglect his characters for story, as I believe some male authors tend to do, & in fact, often his characters are the story. Various wars & other events serve as a backdrop as he unfolds his characters via their dialogue, which, you later realize, was revealing not only the characters, but this whole maze of commentary on war, love, despair, etc. Social commentary also = Pulitzer. 

Characters don't necessarily win you a Pulitzer, but as a reader & a writer, characters are the end all be all of a book for me. If I don't care about a person, I don't usually care about the battle they must fight, or the decision they have to make, or the first date about which they're nervous.

Two women who nail the whole thing are J.K. Rowling & Suzanne Collins; their respective series have universal appeal, cutting across lines of age & gender. Upon my first read, I would have cared significantly less about the outcome of the rebels' fight with the Capitol had I not been so deeply invested in Katniss & Peeta . . . & had I not been waiting so eagerly for Katniss & Gale to part ways. Rowling won me over with Harry long before I was sold on the story she was telling. Yes, by the end of the series the story is just the most glorious thing ever, but before I was pulled into the world of witches & wizards, I fell for the orphaned Harry Potter.

I just never fell in love with Doerr's characters. They always felt just beyond my reach, like I was hearing about their story in a noisy room, missing important details & never able to emotionally invest. Not to give away the ending, but people die, & when I read it, I was like, Whatever . . . where's Alexander? 

One of my first thoughts about the book once I finally finished it was of the church at Laodicea. 

And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write . . . I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.
 (Revelation 3:14-16) 

No actual vomiting was involved, but you get the idea. Had I hated the book, you might be reading a scathing review. Had I loved it, I'd be going on & on & on about it instead of discussing third person narration options & The Bronze Horseman & why men win the Pulitzer Prize. Indifference is the last thing you want someone to feel when reading something you've written. Make them fall in love, make them angry, make them uncomfortable, but don't open the door to them mentally composing their grocery list.  

What Doerr's novel has inspired is some heavy thinking about writing, & about indifference in general. Believe it or not, we're not yet done with The Bronze Horseman.

The fight scenes in The Bronze Horseman are amazing (I am not referring to battle scenes, by the way). I reread some of them recently, both for pleasure & for "research." No, really. Simons uses the word indifferent as a punchline more than once & it works so well. Her heroine, Tatiana, is a feisty, brave little woman who has endured the unimaginable during the siege of Leningrad. Amidst the starvation & freezing & dying, she falls in love with a soldier named Alexander. For various reasons you'll discover when you read the book, they can't be open about their affection, & Tatiana understands this, intellectually, but she's eighteen & she's insecure at times about Alexander's behavior toward her in public spheres. This leads to some incredible fighting.

This is from a scene midway through the novel, before they've escaped Leningrad.

She came up to him, her teeth gritted, and she couldn't believe herself: she wanted to hit him. She clenched her fists. She wanted to hit Alexander.
 He stared at her fists and at her and said with upset incredulity, "You promised me you would forgive me -"
"Forgive you," Tatiana hissed though her teeth, tears streaming down her face, "for your brave and indifferent face, Alexander!" She groaned in pain. "Not your brave and indifferent heart."

Later, hundreds of pages & many dead people later, they continue their fight. They've been separated for months & by a considerable distance. Finally, they are face to face again, & the tension simmers briefly, & then they have the best fight I have ever read in any book. I won't quote the whole thing, but it comes down to what they were arguing about in Leningrad months earlier: he wears his indifference toward her so well in public she too believes his act, & it eats her alive. For six months,  Tatiana has been alone, isolated from him, & thinking & overthinking about their final encounter before being separated.

This is once the storm is over:

"Please forgive me, Tatiana," said Alexander, "for hurting your perfect heart with my cold and indifferent face. My own heart was always overflowing with you, and it was never indifferent. You didn't deserve any of what you've been given, of what you've had to bear. None of it. Not from your sister, not from Leningrad, and certainly not from me. You don't even know what it took me not to look at you one last time before I closed the tarpaulin on that truck. I knew that if I did, it would all be over. I would not have been able to hide my face from you or Dasha . . . It wasn't that I didn't look at you. I couldn't look at you. I gave you so much when we were alone. I hoped it would be enough to carry you forward."

I know.

I can tell you the first time I read that scene it was about four o'clock in the morning. I'd been drinking fully loaded coffee & plowing through the siege of Leningrad for hours in our quiet, darkened house. I thought then, too, of the Laodicean church, & the Lord's anger over their indifference.

Indifference is the worst, as Tatiana knows. Simons uses it so brilliantly in her novel. Via Tatiana, she shows how undone a person can become when they believe someone they love to be callously indifferent to their feelings, to their very existence. She sets it up so well, too. She doesn't want the reader to be too angry with Alexander (as if!); there are legitimate reasons the pair must remain aloof in public. More than once, Alexander tells Tatiana he doesn't care, that they should declare themselves to the world, but she says no. Do you see?! Do you see why the fighting is so epic?

(A short aside: if there are any parents of students or school administrators reading, no, I have no plans to ever bring this novel, or the three-book series that tells Alexander & Tatiana's story, into the classroom . . . I'll just say that Russian soldiers & young, private-school minds shan't be joined in my classroom)

I'm not even going to pretend these scenes aren't influencing what I'm writing at the moment (I mean beyond this blog, obviously). I don't have the benefit of WWII angst (there is no angst for a couple quite like world war angst), but I'm dealing with two lovelies whose personal entanglement cannot be broadcasted in certain spheres, & we're all just having the most fun ever. We're yelling, we're hurling insults, we're dealing with accusations of perceived indifference, we're writing angry letters, we're quoting Oscar Wilde ("Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood.") Dr. Foster is not a Russian soldier, & so his language is cleaner & his suits are neatly pressed, but he can churn out a spirited, grammatically correct letter like nobody's business.

Last Wednesday morning I accompanied Reagan to Uncle Robert's Orchard on a WEE School field trip. I'd stayed up too late praying & gnashing my teeth over primary outcomes Tuesday night, & I was so, so tired Wednesday morning. About ten o'clock, with only one cup of coffee in me, I found myself sitting on a bench, zoning out & making mental lists in my head of what needed to happen by the end of the day in order for me to get speeches graded & final grades averaged & entered in the computer. Reagan was busy having a blast playing with her WEE School friends; I looked up at one point & realized I hadn't even been watching her. I was, in short, feeling pretty indifferent about being there.

There were other moms & some dads there, too. I overheard several mothers ushering children along because they had to get back to work. I knew of several moms who weren't there at all because of work responsibilities. I felt shame. I quit making my mental lists. I quit bemoaning the lack of coffee I'd had. I got up off the bench. I rode the hayride, & the train, & then took pictures of Reagan in this gazebo she loved.

On the train ride:

I don't think Reagan was a paying a lick of attention to me while I was ruminating on the bench, but I can't be sure. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning & I'm glad I got off my duff & enjoyed it with her before it was time to leave.

Watch out for indifference. I devote considerable mental energy to the characters I write (& often those I read, obviously). How would so & so react to this? What would she assume from him saying that, doing that, wearing that, etc? Sometimes I stink at reflecting on how my kids perceive me, how they will react to what I do & say, what I don't do & don't say. The absolute last thing I want them to assume is that I am ever indifferent about them, or any activity of theirs. Is it odd that when I think of indifference, I think of the Laodicean church, & of a fictional couple whose love survives the siege of Leningrad? Maybe it is odd, but these two ideas hammer home the danger of indifference to me.

I hope your Mother's Day was pleasant & the week ahead unfolds seamlessly, as you'd planned. I challenge you to conjure up & display some genuine emotion for the people in your life.


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