Reading Like a Writer: Rainy Royal and Non Sequitur Consciousness
When I wrote about The Passion, I marveled at the sentences and paragraphs that jumped without clear transitions. But I don't think I described the style very well. Maybe I was distracted by the other points I was making. (Weren't they fine ones?)
I'm going to try again to study this technique by looking at a passage from Dylan Landis's Rainey Royal, a novel about a girl growing up in New York in the seventies and coming to terms—or not—with her sexuality.
Rainey is about 14 and has just been told that two of her father's female acolytes (part student, part groupie) will be sleeping on the floor of her bedroom.
"When the fuck do I get my privacy back?" says Rainey. "Where am I supposed to do my homework?"
What she really wants to know is, where is the place beneath a girl's armpit that the back ends and the side begins? She can share her pink room with strangers, but tell her this: Is there a region between back and breast that can, in a proper back rub, be considered neutral?
This passage appears on page eight, before we have any idea what Rainey is talking about, before we know that a man has been coming into her room and rubbing that place.
The passage is similar to what I discussed in The Passion because there's no clear, step-by-step logic for moving from Rainey's protest about her bedroom to her thoughts about her body. There's just a tiny bit of introduction: "What she really wants to know is…" which proves that the jump is motivated by something, but the transition doesn't tell us precisely what the something is. And the full explanation depends on information that we don't yet have.
I used to think of jumps like this one, fresh and seemingly random, as "anti stream of consciousness." I loved the surprise of a sentence that could not have come naturally from the one before. One that defied the efforts of a consciousness to link it.
But I understand now that these jumps in logic are more like a special—gloriously twisted—form of stream of consciousness. I sometimes think of it as non sequitur consciousness.
Because, of course, a jump like this only seems unrelated. And because it seems so, it feels fresh and unusual; it sticks in the reader's mind.
More importantly, the seeming randomness dares us, as readers, to find the link or logic between separate ideas, thus fostering a unique engagement with the story.
When a reader pulls back and thinks, "Why this odd thought? Why now?" And when that reader's brain gropes for and then finds an answer, the experience is not just of watching a mind at work, but of doing the actual work of that mind. The reader moves from observation to participation in the thought process.
In the passage from Rainey Royal, with no real context for Rainey's thoughts about her body, we wonder where the ideas come from. We understand the first paragraph is about privacy and her lack of it. We connect this thought to her body. We then understand that somebody has been violating the privacy of her body. The suspicion is not confirmed until later, but we have a foreboding sense of it. Searching for and then finding that link, rather than having it spelled out for us, puts us uniquely in Rainey's mind and lets us participate in the way her mind works.
When we notice that the thought occurs without much prompting, it further contributes to our sense of the character. Because Rainey thinks this thought at an unexpected time, we get the sense that she's actually thinking this thought all the time. That it takes only the most minor of connections to bring it to the surface.
And Landis invites participation in this aspect of her thought process, too. Because we don't have a clear explanation for the thought—only what we guess—the thought will stay with us longer, as we watch the mystery unfold. If it were fully understood, we could dismiss it, but this question can't be dismissed. So the thought sticks in our minds as other things happen—just like it does for Rainey!
I think it's really important that we experience this thought of Rainey's instead of just witnessing it. Rainey's question is one that we must experience with her.
Once we learn what has been happening to Rainey, we are quite capable of judging it. Her father's best friend has been entering her room, uninvited, to rub her back and side. That's not okay. But Rainey doesn't know if it's wrong or right, because she can't judge the situation. She doesn't have the perspective or the experience or the ability—yet—to own her body.
Landis makes sure the reader feel her confusion, too. For Rainey, it's not an issue of whether this man is welcome in her room or welcome to touch her. It's a question of locating the line between back and breast. Adult readers of the book can better frame the question, but Rainey can't. So Landis takes us into that ambiguous mind space with Rainey. She makes us consider the border between body parts. As we puzzle out the way this question fits into Rainey's experience, we forget that it's the wrong question.
For the reader to reject a thing that a character accepts, or vice versa—that's simple and easy. Instead, we experience Rainey's struggle to understand apart from our own ability to judge. It would be easy to look at the situation from an adult perspective. It's messier, and much more powerful, to feel it like Rainey does.
And that feeling of being with Rainey as she struggles with something that we, as contemporary adults might be able to solve more easily—that's facilitated, in part, by the way Landis forces us to think as Rainey does, by leaving that gap for us to fill between one thought and the next.
When has a book allowed you to fully experience the perspective and mindset of a character? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" this winter at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.