Reading Like a Writer: A GOOD COUNTRY and the Creation of Intimacy
A Good Country, by Laleh Khadivi, follows Rez, the son of Iranian immigrants, as he grows up among affluent white people in Southern California. I don't want to spoil the novel by telling you how he ends up. Instead, I want to look at an early scene when Rez is surfing in Mexico with his buddies.
More specifically, I'd like to look at some remarkable techniques for the creation of intimacy in fiction.
They ate more than normal and after a while the corners of their mouths and palms were stained red from the chili oil of the carne asada. Kelly looked around and pointed.
Dude. You guys look like melting clowns.
It was funny enough and they laughed because no one cared, no one felt the small self anymore, the one that told them, I am Kelly and no one else and I am Matthews and not Rez and I am Rez alone and on and on, and different by father and mother and sisters and brothers, and instead they sat, exhausted and full, with the one self they shared on this adventure in and out and in and out of the sea.
Of course, Khadivi names the intimacy outright: "with the one self they shared." But more important than her explicit statement, the passage uses internal and external factors—symbols, even—to unite these individuals, bringing their bodies, minds, and senses of self into a shared space.
The most obvious connections are made through the boys' bodies, which are linked in a variety of ways. They're eating the same food—seems too easy, right? But consider what food does for a party, how it brings people together. These boys are literally taking the same substance and incorporating it into their bodies. The food not only goes into their bellies, but "the corners of their mouths and palms were stained red from the chili oil of the carne asada," making them look the same, and connecting them more.
Further bodily connection comes when they have the same feelings. The line "no one cared, no one felt the small self anymore" tells us they feel a profound bond. But describing them as universally "exhausted and full," has a similar effect. They don't literally have the same body, but each body feels the same way.
Their bodies are also linked through proximity. In other passages, the car they drive encircles them, pulling them physically close to each other and also encasing them. It forms a barrier between the "us" of the boys and the "them" of anybody outside, which necessarily makes the "us" into a unit. This feeling is reinforced for the boys because they are all four American and the car is zooming through Mexico.
In the example we're looking at, however, we have a bigger yet more subtle thing pulling them together. It's the entire ocean. As each body is encompassed by the water, a boundary is made between inside and outside of that water, connecting those inside. Furthermore, when each body becomes part of the water, it becomes a part of the other bodies, since they're also part of the water.
"This adventure" itself unites them like the sea and the car do. Inside of it, they are together. The adventure, I think, can be the whole trip to Mexico, or it can be the concept of surfing, which is made into ritual—and thus its bonds are stronger—with the repetition of "in and out and in and out of the sea."
Laughing together is an additional linkage, enhanced by the suggestion that it's not the joke so much as the mood that makes it humorous ("it was funny enough"). It puts them in the same mental space, not by hitting each funny bone individually but because they agree, without words, to be amused. The shared thought, the unspoken agreement, of course, is another mind meld, another space they occupy together.
And the "melting clown" imagery is profound. First, they all look that way. But more importantly, consider how they are suffused with heat and sunshine and water. Those things might make something melt quite literally. Then consider what it is to melt, how edges and borders become indistinct, how adjacent substances liquefy, then pool into each other, dissolving and forming a new and fused-together something else. That is what is happening to these boys.
The reader won't analyze each of these small or symbolic connections. However, the subconscious will notice and suffuse the entire passage with a sublime sense of connection, as if we've stepped into a special, intimate space. For me, it's like the passage is tingling.
In this case, the intimacy turns sour within pages. The boys' friendship doesn't survive this surfing adventure.
As a reader and a writer, the temporary nature of this intimacy strikes me. I've long wondered about the fairness—or maybe it's the honesty—of forcing intimacy on characters. The technique of casting a light or a shadow or a carne asada over a collection of people to symbolically unite them definitely works, but is it a cheat? Is it okay to bring characters together metaphorically if they haven't earned the connection? And if we can cast this intimacy on just any group of people, does it still have meaning? Does it still make the characters vulnerable in ways that are true and in ways that push the story?
Because that's what we're trying to do when we create intimacy in fiction. We open characters up so they're vulnerable—so they can be hurt—and then (usually) we hurt them. Intimacy works very much like conflict. Bring characters together—whether aggressively or tenderly—and things will happen. They might even change.
It's controversial, of course, to suggest that intimacy can substitute for conflict, that it can create change all on its own. But if you won't go quite so far, you can surely agree that it complements conflict, making it more painful and thus increasing its impact.
That's what happens in A Good Country. When the friendship explodes, it hurts more than it ever could have without the moment of communion.
But doesn't the later loss of intimacy retroactively discredit the boys' connection? Doesn't it mean it was all superficial? I don't think so. I mean, maybe it was never real—but what is real?—it was certainly felt. And it's what is felt that matters.
A passage like this makes me realize the "cheat" happens in real life, too. When an experience or circumstance (or a freaking symbol!) encompasses a group of people—even people with nothing significant in common, an intimacy forms. Sharing food, for example, often creates family-like feelings. And when I bring my kid to library story time, sit in a circle with complete strangers, and sing songs, a connection is forged. It just is. It doesn't last, but for a short time, it exists. We brush these things off, but before we do, we feel them.
Through a series of smart and lovely techniques, Khadivi creates intimacy between a group of high school boys. Then she shatters it, and it hurts.
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 Spring 2018 class offerings for her upcoming class: Once Upon a Time: Writing the Modern Fairy Tale.