Reading Like a Writer: WHAT WE LOSE and Unexpected Structure
Zinzi Clemmons's What We Lose is about many things, but most profoundly it's about the death of the narrator's mother, examining the loss in ways that are both unusual and devastating.
The structure of the book is slightly unusual. The story follows the same character and seems to always employ the same voice, yet sections are distinct, even fragmented, and chronology is loose. Interspersed with narrative passages are philosophical musings, historical analyses, journalistic essays, and even a few graphs. They're all about the novel's themes, but they don't build in the way most of us are used to. I'd like to look at some techniques Clemmons uses to hold this book together, despite the disparate-seeming parts.
But first, we should talk about the story structure that many readers expect in their fiction. It's a structure that is pervasive in western culture, appearing in TV, movies, and books. Maybe you know it—it starts with some exposition, then there is rising action, which leads to a climax, which is followed by falling action and a resolution. There's often a twist or two, an extra jag in the arc—longer works zig-zag quite a bit—but that's the gist of it. Most of us learned about it in grade school, and as writers we contemplate it often.
Though it's certainly not the only way to tell a story, this "traditional" narrative arc is so insidious that even when a writer uses an experimental form or a structure from a different tradition, readers may try to jam the events into it. Assuming it's the climax, they'll misread and assign extra importance to a scene just because it occurs in a certain spot. They'll take the last bit as denouement even if that's not at all what it's doing. At times, they'll even assume a chronology that doesn't exist.
Or they might realize their idea of story doesn't fit what they're encountering and fail to understand the work. They might throw the book against a wall.
These are some serious obstacles to writing outside of that particular tradition. The advantages, however, are pretty great. As hard as we push our stories to fit into the neat arc I described, they don't always. Life is much stranger than that. I think fiction is glorious when it tells the truth of that strangeness.
Clemmons eventually gives us a key to her story's non-arced structure—and it does have a distinct one—but she doesn't do so right away. Instead, we must sit with a thing that we might not fully understand. We're unsettled—in a good way, I think—by the mystery of its shape.
So how does Clemmons get us to sit with that mystery? How does she make it compelling instead of frustrating?
I think a big part of it is confidence and authority. She just does it. Because the voice is unflinching, I let various pieces wash over me without worrying about their sequence, trusting that there is purpose even if I don't see it.
Also important, there's never any fuzziness inside the sections. The movement from passage to passage may be enigmatic, and some of the sections may be unusual for a novel, but the language is always clear and straightforward. There is never any coyness about what is happening within the sections.
This strategy is a good one, especially when the structure is unexpected. The reader can feel secure inside each fragment, thinking, “Yes, this small piece, at least, is a story," "I know what is happening," and, "This is a bit of history, which is odd, I suppose, but that's fine because I know exactly what it is."
To a conventionally minded reader, then, the only inexplicable bit is what happens in the white space—those unmapped gaps between different portions of text. Even though we can assess each piece individually, we don't necessarily know why each passage is chosen or why they are ordered as they are.
Making the white space the only mystery intensifies it. Because the other parts are easy to understand, we fixate on what we don't know. The unexplained jumps become discrete problems in our brains, downturned pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This sense of mystery increases our readiness for the puzzle's key when it finally comes.
Keeping the mystery contained in just one aspect of the book also makes it more approachable. Some readers might agree to tackle that single challenge, even if a combination of obstacles (unknown white space plus fuzzy narrative plus nonspecific description plus stylized language, say) would discourage them.
It's also very possible that some readers won't sit with the mystery of the white space. That's fine. No book can please everyone. In the same way, readers who have practice with experimental forms won't find the book particularly challenging. It's all relative, I think.
About halfway through the book, Clemmons provides the key to her structure. But first she gives us a wrong image, the graph of a structure we already know. It does NOT fit this story.
The graph mimics the "traditional" narrative arc and tries, unsuccessfully, it seems, to smoosh the narrator's emotion into it. So here we get a confirmation of what we've been grappling with: familiar shapes won't work for this story—and it's no accident.
Finally, halfway through the book, after presenting so many puzzle pieces, as well as a solution that simply doesn't work, Clemmons gives us the real key.
The moment of revelation is particularly profound because we've already seen so much of it—it can suddenly make sense.
Remember those discrete passages that we couldn't quite line up? Remember the spaces between them? We see they're like points on a graph—distinct even before any line is drawn to connect them. Without the x- and y-axis, without actually plotting them, it's hard to see the shape. But when we have the graph, the spiral emerges. Different pieces of story have been moving around a central theme, spinning closer and closer, but never quite touching it.
The text that accompanies the graph leads us away from this interpretation, but also right to it (which, of course, mimics the graph, too): "My graph resembled the form of an asymptote, the mathematical equivalent of ineffability: an object attempting to approach a line but forever failing. In the same way, my mind was trying to reconcile my new reality and failing, over and over again."
The previous page reinforces these words as it contains a hand-drawn version of this graph and labels the two axes "emotion" and "time."
So we're told that the graph depicts the shape of the narrator's grief—not the shape of the story. But, of course, the book is the story of that grief. And, even if it weren't, at this point, we're hungry for a shape, ravenous. The author has made us want this thing so badly that we'll take it on any terms, even if she pretends, mildly, that it's something else.
What a lovely, devastating way to learn that the puzzling shape of the book is a replica of the story itself, a way to express a feeling—and its movement—that goes beyond everyday forms.
The graph of the asymptote doesn't need to capture every moment of the book for the reader to apply its shape to the overall story. We don't need to match each unit to a dot, analyze its distance from the center, its emotional weight. (This is especially true because each moment holds its own clarity.) We just need to envision this new shape, this radically different vision of how a story can operate.
Allison Wyss's 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. Check out the Loft's Winter 2018 class offerings for her classes: Saving Face: The Old-Fashioned Art of Physical Description and How to Make it New; Awkward is My Superpower: Writing Sex; and Reading the Other.