Thursday, December 20, 2007

Psychic Distance, etc, Part VII: The First Annual Exposition Exposition, continued

Back to Part VI...Forward to Part VIII

And here's more of the little expository bits I've gleaned from a random assortment of authors (isn't gleaned a good word? It doesn't get used enough these days):

4. Vladimir Nabokov, Ada.

Nabokov slyly opens his novel with a mangling of Tolstoy (presented as fact), then jumps into an omniscient Dear-Reader voice, and finally launches off into ancestral history. Layered within are enough puns and allusions for a dozen dissertations, but couched in an earnest parody style that can’t help but make the reader smile whether or not the references are clear:

“All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy families are more or less alike,” says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievich Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor, Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).

Van’s maternal grandmother Daris (“Dolly”) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski…

The idea that the text has been transfigured (in fact, disfigured) rather than translated is funny enough, but this is underlined by the publisher, Mount Tabor, which is the hill on which, according to legend, the Transfiguration of Christ took place...and so on.

5. Martin Amis, The Information.

I found The Information to be a rather uncomfortable and sometimes mean-spirited read, but there is no doubt that Kingsley's bouncing baby boy can write. One chapter opens with plausible deniability (the ellipsis is in the original):

The railway station had changed since he had last had call to use it. In the meantime its soot-coated, rentboy-haunted vault of tarry girders and toilet glass had become a flowing atrium of boutiques and croissant stalls and limitless cappuccino. Trains no longer dominated it with their train culture of industrial burdens dumbly and filthily borne. Trains now crept in round the back, sorry they were so late, hoping they could still be of use to the proud, strolling, cappuccino-quaffing shoppers of the mall. There was even a brand-new Dickensian pub called The Olde Curiosity Shoppe whose set was dressed with thousands of books—written not by Dickens but by that timeless band of junkshop set-dresser nobodies…In other words, the station had gone up in the world. And Richard didn’t like it. He wanted everything to stay down in the world—with him.

Are those Richard’s thoughts? Hmm, maybe. But it’s really the voice of the novel—tagging base in the first line ("...since he last had call to use it..."), then veering off into sheer exposition before jumping back to Richard.

6. Michael Crichton, Timeline.

Enough of that dodgy lit-fic stuff. Do honest, upright, certifiably heterosexual two-fisted storytellers do this sort of thing? Sure. And no one is more in-your-face about it than Crichton. His stories almost invariably require huge volumes of information to be conveyed, but he is ever-conscious of pacing, and there just isn't enough time to stuff it all into the mouths of the characters. So when he needs you to know something about quantum physics theories, he just lays it out:

Each explanation failed for one reason or another. Then, in 1957, a physicist named Hugh Everett proposed a daring new explanation. Everett claimed that our universe—the universe of rocks and trees and people and galaxies out in space—was just one of an infinite number of universes, existing side-by-side.

Each of these universes was constantly splitting, so that there was a universe where Hitler lost the war, and another where he won; a universe where Kennedy died, and another where he lived. And also a world where you brushed your teeth in the morning, and one where you didn’t. And so forth, and so on. An infinity of worlds.

One of the reasons Crichton's exposition works is that it reads like popular science journalism. It may not be your cup of tea fictionwise, but it sounds authoritative. It's hard not to believe him on the facts of the matter--and it works a thousand times better than the As-You-Know-Bob dialogue some writers try to use to convey needed information.

7. Francine Prose, Blue Angel.

One of my favorite contemporary writers, Francine Prose (love the name, too), wrote Blue Angel from close 3rd, but has no qualms about jumping straight from her protagonist’s (Swenson) action to a lengthy digression on the college town of Euston, and then worming her way back into his perspective again:

Hurrying across the quad, he nearly plows into a tour group inching across the campus. Rather than ruin his sneakers by cutting across the boggy lawn, he trails behind the high school students enduring the mortification of being here with their parents.

Deep in the Northeast Kingdom, an hour from Montpelier, sixty miles from Burlington, one hundred fifty from Montreal if you’re desperate enough to wait at the border while the Mounties tweeze through each car to discourage Canadians from crossing to shop at the Wal-Mart, Euston’s nobody’s first choice. Students willing to travel this far to a college this cut off and inbred prefer Bates or Bowdoin, which have better reputations, the Maine coast, and the L.L. Bean outlet. Euston’s conveniently located in the midst of the two-block town of Euston and the moose-ridden wilderness that its founder, Elijah Euston, so loved.

Recently, a public relations team advised Euston to market its isolation. And so the tour leader—Kelly Steinsalz, from last spring’s Beginning Fiction—is explaining that the lack of distractions lets her concentrate on academics. The parents nod. The teenagers scowl. That’s just what they want from college. Four years of concentration!

Swenson can’t imagine how Euston looks to someone visiting for the first time…

Notice how deftly Prose weaves in and out of plausible deniability. Do we really care if the second paragraph is in Swenson's POV or not? Sure, it's informative, but having the Mounties "tweeze" through your car, and Euston's "moose-ridden wilderness" are so much fun that no reasonable reader could complain.

8. William Faulkner, Light in August.

One of the things I love about Faulkner is how he jumps from the mundane to the sublime with such brio. Light in August opens with the close 3rd POV:

Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, “I have come from Alabama: A fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.”

But on the very next page he moves out of Lena’s POV into a few simple expository sentences, and then without warning leaps for the sky:

All the men in the village worked at the mill or for it. It was cutting pine. It had been there seven years and in seven more it would destroy all the lumber within its reach. Then some of the machinery and most of the men who ran it and existed because of and for it would be loaded onto freight cars and moved away. But some of the machinery would be left, since new pieces could always be bought on the installment plan—gaunt, staring motionless wheels rising from mounds of brick rubble and ragged weeds with a quality profoundly astonishing, and gutted boilers lifting their rusting and unsmoking stacks with an air stubborn, baffled and bemused upon a stumppocked scene of profound and peaceful desolation, unplowed, untilled, gutting slowly into red and choked ravines beneath the long quiet rains of autumn and the galloping fury of vernal equinoxes. Then the hamlet, which at its best day had borne no name listed on the Postoffice Department annals would not now even be remembered by the hookwormridden heirs-at-large who pulled the buildings down and burned them in their cookstoves and winter grates.

Houston, we have liftoff.

And that's the difference between the North and the South of the US, by the way. Down South in Faulkner country they're stumppocked and hookwormridden. Up North in Prose country, they're moose-ridden.

Way Out West, where I'm from, I don't know what we are. Used to be rugged and taciturn and somewhat horse-ridden, but I'm guessing that nowadays Martin Amis would claim we were cappuccino-quaffing.

Well, it beats hookworms.

Back to Part VI...Forward to Part VIII


Tim Stretton said...

This is a fascinating series of examples. It's a long time since I read Faulkner, and I'd forgotten just how skilled he was at manipulating POV and narrative reliability. Truly one of the marvels of the age.

Tim Stretton said...

Hey, what happened to your post on the commercialism of Christmas?

David Isaak said...

Well, that's frightening--you apparently saw it while I was popping it up on the screen to see if the graphics fit. (The Preview function on Blogger doesn't correspond to the actual appearance when the damn thing is posted. Hell if I can figure out why.)

Anyhow, that post will probably be up tomorrow. You just caught a quick glimpse under its skirts.

And, yes, little Billy Faulkner--what a chameleon.

Tim Stretton said...

The wonder of Google Search - if it's there even for a second it tells me. Nothing is secret anymore...

David Isaak said...

Astonishing, to say the least. That means those little Google spiders climbed all over it in a matter of a few minutes.

Anyhow, it's up above now...

Anonymous said...

David - God bless you, bless you, bless you!
I enjoyed every page of this talk on the merits of exposition. And just in time to stop tearing my hair out and my book apart in some misguided effort to satisfy some rule. I
Amen and Merry Christmas!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Anon! Happy to bring a little Yuletide cheer!

Jake Jesson said...

Huh. I appreciate your Timeline example - as I've heard that book take a lot of shit, but I highly enjoyed it (despite its flaws). I also remember the quantum physics exposition in the very beginning being stellar in the ways of explaining "Science!", and I feel vindicated somehow to see it pop up here... because, y'know, you're a Published Writer now. (That ranks you just below the Metatron in some cases...)