Reading Like a Writer: "The Bath" and Default Settings

Posted on Wed, Nov 23 2016 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


I'd love to tell you what Yoko Tawada's "The Bath" (translated by Susan Bernofsky and Yumi Seldon) is about, but I'm not sure I can. I guess it's the story of an incompetent interpreter, but that's pretty reductive. Just know it's delightfully strange at the beginning, and it keeps getting stranger.

In the opening scene of "The Bath," a woman studies her face in a mirror.

Eighty percent of the human body is made of water, so it isn't surprising that one sees a different face in the mirror each morning. The skin of the forehead and cheeks changes shape from moment to moment like the mud of a swamp, shifting with the movements of the water below and the footsteps of the people walking above it.

I had hung a framed photograph of myself beside the mirror. The first thing I would do when I got up was to compare my reflection with the photograph, checking for discrepancies which I then corrected with makeup.

Compared to the fresh complexion shown in the photograph, the face in the mirror looked bloodless and pale, like the face of a dead person. Perhaps this is why the rectangular frame of the mirror reminded me of a coffin. When I held up the candle to look more closely, I saw that my skin was covered with fine, overlapping scales, smaller than the wings of tiny insects.

The scales are strange, but I'm more intrigued by the candle. Where did it come from? What does it do?

In order to understand the light it casts, we have to look at the setting, and there's just one line describing it: "I had hung a framed photograph of myself beside the mirror." That's not much.

However, it doesn't mean the space is empty. The narrator goes to this mirror first thing in the morning and uses it to apply makeup. It could be in any room of a house, but I imagine a bathroom. I see a figure leaning over a sink—as I know from movie after movie. And what does my bathroom look like? It's vaguely contemporary, but not drawn in too much detail. There might be a candle, but it's decorative or scented. The primary lighting is electric.

Before I go further, I should say that my default space-with-a-mirror is not going to be everybody's and that's okay. The craft of writing is always culturally based. The effect I'm about to describe will fluctuate in intensity, or even be entirely different, depending on the reader's go-to image, which will vary from culture to culture and person to person.

In this case, the specifics of the bathroom don't actually matter, but that light does—the electric light. And that's why the scene is so interesting to me.

Because my default bathroom included electric lights, the candle is a surprise, even an intrusion. The narrator has given me the space to imagine my own version of the room and then changed that room in a remarkable way.  A candle is a great way to do this because its light spreads over the whole picture, subtly changing every element.

I've written previously about creating an image and then taking it away and how that builds a connection between narrator and reader. I used a pencil as an example. If I hand you a pencil, it creates a slight intimacy between us. Maybe our fingers even touch. But if I snatch the pencil from you, it's a violation. I've entered the sanctity of your personal space and grabbed something. It's a kind of forced intimacy, and it can be profound.

The pencil that Tawada first hands over is my imagined bathroom—or whatever the reader has invented. I see the narrator's face as she inspects it, so the room must be lit. And no matter the room, I think many readers, though certainly not all, will assume electric lights.

When that candle is referenced, then, it's a surprise. The light in my imagining shifts, as if the candle is being freshly lit. That first default image is snatched away like the pencil I described.

But before it disappears, it flashes brightly. When the original impression of the space is negated, forcefully, with the lifting of the candle, both images pop into my mind at the same time. The old image comes forward and I see it: A bulb-lit bathroom. The other image asserts itself too: The candle that has no place in the bathroom I've pictured. And so I've been tricked into thinking two things at once. That distorts my perception of reality, which is essential for a story like this one.

More important, when this sort of thing happens in a story, something special happens in my brain. I'm no longer imagining in linear terms, trapped by the rope of word after word, but experiencing the deeper, more complex shape of a story.

In "The Bath," I suspect this effect is, counter-intuitively, enhanced because my default image is hazy. I'm not consciously picturing the bathroom so much as vaguely understanding that it must be like the bathrooms I already know. If I had a correct image of the room, or even a clear and incorrect image of the room, it would fade with the new light. But this isn't a clear or even consciously held image. I don't notice it until it disappears. I'm not only confronted with two ideas at once; I'm surprised by them both.

But let's not get carried away with the haziness! This trick wouldn't work for me if I didn't have the concrete, specific detail of the mirror—a detail that evokes sight and touch. That single physical object gives me something tangible on which to hang the rest of the room. It gives my brain a direction toward which to extrapolate what is not described.

Also important: I'm given just the right amount of space for that bathroom to fill in behind the other words of the story. If the candle appeared immediately after the mirror, there wouldn't be time for the murky bathroom to appear. If left too long I might forget the room, or I might become too sure of its look and feel for the candle to register.

I also like that the candle is so tangible, like the mirror. It has a shape and it emits both light and heat. The fog of the imagined default-setting bathroom is bookended by physical objects that evoke the senses.

And one more thing related to those cultural implications of craft I mentioned: this writer employs them not as a limit but as a tool. In addition to everything else, lighting the candle is a "gotcha!" moment. The author has caught me superimposing my own expectations on her story. It's a reminder not to do so going forward. I'll be taken to a strange place—my cultural associations might not make sense there, and even if they do, well, let them go. This will be a strange journey.

Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this winter: Awkward Is My Superpower: Writing SexHow'd They Do That: A Craft-Based Book Club for Writers; and Watching the Clock: The Art of Time in Fiction. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (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.