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A Quandry

Sunday, September 22, 2013



How to begin? Starting with an incomplete sentence seems wrong, even if there is an implied subject, a narrator if you will. But is that narrator myself, the author? Or is it (we don’t know yet if it should be a he or a she) some imaginary all-seeing being who just happens to have witnessed this extraordinary event? Should the narrator be involved? I don’t see how – the situation is just so unusual that forcing an additional person into it would just complicate matters unnecessarily.
Perhaps we should just set that “little” problem aside for a while, and see how things develop. And yes, those are ironic quotation marks, signifying that the situation is far from small – yet we haven’t even begun to suggest any hint of that situation’s nature, so what is the reader to make of them? Perhaps the reader will just assume that the narrator is a pretentious twit who punctuates his/her conversations with the index and middle fingers of both hands, unsubtly scribing all-too-visible invisible quotation marks in the air. That won’t do. If the narrator is me, that paints too vivid a picture – one whose composition is too busy, too filled with tiny distractions, to show the scene as it deserves to be seen. Even imposing that “arty” metaphor is an intrusion. Better to just leave all that stuff out. Besides, if the narrator is me, and I’ve portrayed myself as a twit (of any description) isn’t that a tad too coy? Too self-deprecating? The reader will not be fooled – he/she will see through the persiflage, recognizing the worm in the apple, the bosom serpent, the hidden egotism, for what it is.
Maybe we should (perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently) set the problems of the narrator aside as well. Wait -- what is that? The royal or editorial “we”? There’s no “we” here. It’s not like “we” are having a discussion about the situation – are we? No. In fact, we (whoever the hell “we” is – or are) haven’t even begun to deal with the strange and compelling incidents that forced us to the typewriter in the first place. No, even that’s wrong. “Typewriter” either places our mysterious events in a historical period somewhere between inkwells and software (which is probably inaccurate or downright misleading), or it’s an overly-cute attempt to show the writer at work by implying an anachronistic means of communication. If we said the writer was sending smoke signals, we would (ourselves) have sent a signal that was only slightly more misleading. Not to mention, silly.
God knows, we don’t want to appear silly. The situation is too important, too fraught with meaning, for silliness. Damn, there’s another issue to deal with. And yes, we know we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition (or start one with a conjunction, for that matter), but things are beginning to get out of hand here. That whole “fraught with meaning” business. We don’t want to imply that there was something going on in the incident other than the incident itself, do we? It’s not a goddamned allegory, is it? Things happened. Inexplicable things (despite the fact that we are really, really, trying to explicate them).
Maybe we should just let the scene speak for itself. I know, a “scene” is neither animate nor capable of self-expression, but let’s try to focus on the problem. The “problem,” is how to describe the event. We don’t want to interpret it for the reader (well, we do, but we don’t want to be obvious about it, do we?). We’d like the event to stand on its own (there we go again, treating the event as if it were a character). But how do we do that?
Should we provide background for the real characters involved in the incident? How much? If we even mention their genders, won’t that allow certain pre-conceived notions abut gender roles to intrude where they may have nothing to do with the facts? And aren’t readers of different genders – let alone differing political orientations -- going to impose different sets of stereotypes on the characters before they even open their mouths? Maybe it would be better not to describe the characters at all; maybe not even let them speak. Of course, that places the entire burden back on the narrator (and we know what a can of worms that is).
Maybe we should literally let the scene speak for itself (and yes, we know that “literally” is anything but literal in this context). We could simply describe the setting to provide the ambience in which or enigmatic event occurred. But how much detail is enough, how much is too much? The event could have happened anywhere, or any time – but did it? Is that even important? Do we need to furnish the scene with details, details that may or may not help the reader to understand the situation? We may have noticed things at the time – things like an old clock whose hands had not moved in years (and how, exactly, would our narrator have known that – would he/she have been part of the scene for all those years, or would the fact of their immovability been made apparent by corrosion or other visible damage?). However, such details may simply be filling space, padding the word count, without adding anything useful to the narrative. In fact, such small furniture (however artfully-described) may mislead the reader by suggesting that an acknowledgement of passing (or passed) of time may somehow add to an understanding of the event. Again, who is noticing those clocks (by which we mean the entire spectrum of details that could be included in the description of our scene) – that damned narrator again? If the narrator keeps inserting him- or herself into the action, the reader will begin to suspect that he/she is part of the action. If that’s the case, it’s but a short step to believing that the narrator has some ulterior motive for drawing attention to minutiae, might have reasons for choosing to show, or hide, key bits of evidence (for example, the all-too frequent use of italics is almost as distracting as ironic air-quotes). This is just too much of a distraction. Unless, of course, distraction is our purpose in revealing these details (it serves as a writer’s slight-of-hand, especially a mystery writer’s), we probably should not allow such suspicions to enter our readers’ minds. 
But that’s not our situation. 
We want to describe something that happened – something that is mysterious, but is not -- in itself -- a mystery. Maybe we would better off dispensing with the narrator altogether. Unfortunately, since we have already eliminated all the speaking roles, that leaves no one to tell the story of this most unusual happening – which is just as well, because we couldn’t figure out how to begin to tell it anyway.

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