Reading Like a Writer
Helen Oyeyemi's White is for Witching is about many things (twins, immigration, mental illness, losing a mother, coming of age…). But it's also a haunted house story, and that's what I want to talk about. Scaring a reader is one of the hardest things to do, and I want to figure out how Oyeyemi scared me.
Instead of a strictly sequential chronology, this book uses another common technique to convey relative depth to the past: space breaks and fragmentation. Each break lets us know we're moving to a different time period, even if we don't immediately know when that time period is. Then, each segment can be tagged with a time marker, so that even though it's stated in the present tense, we know when it occurs in the past.
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.
Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection that is full of great sex scenes. The scenes are diverse in terms of groupings as well as style and objective. Some are steamy, some are quiet, and some are horrifying.
Machado uses many smart techniques in the depiction of sex, but I'm particularly struck by the attention she pays to the breathing of the reader...
Even after I knew the intent of one character to harm another, both options (that she would or would not go through with the act) felt equally possible. Or maybe it's that they felt equally impossible. The suspense was chilling; the action itself was even more so, offering not a relief, but a fresh horror. This effect is incredibly compelling, but hard to achieve.
... I'm going to look at a much earlier detail, one that does important work to make the "inevitable surprise" possible.
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.
Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is the story of a family caught in Hurricane Katrina. It's also about lost mothers, new mothers, dogs, and community. The narrator is Esch, a fifteen-year-old girl who is newly and secretly pregnant and who grieves deeply for her mother, who died a long time ago.
I'm interested in the way Esch's memories of her mother affect her storytelling style and the greater narrative.
Katie Kitamura's The Longshot is about a mixed martial arts fighter who has a rematch with the first fighter who ever beat him, back when he was winning, and he hasn't really been a winner since. It's about the journey from the top of a career to understanding himself as something else.
Good writing about competitive sports makes bodies present and physical, but still acknowledges the brain's involvement and the games it plays. In elite athletics, the mind and the body act together, but they might also work against each other. The Longshot makes that strange and nuanced mind/body relationship come alive.
Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) is a beautifully frightening novel. I don't want to give away the precise circumstances because the suspense is so well rendered, but I will say the dangers are psychological, chemical, and mystical—all wrapped together and teased to a taut and chilling terror. The first page sets the tone.
When the mind is made to contemplate the paradox of opposite actions happening in the same time and space, one image lies on top of the other and expands the space needed for a single moment of thought. In this way, a carefully contradictory description creates a sense of depth. The fast and the slow happen together and the reader's mind expands to encompass it.