Years ago, a novel-writing teacher of mine liked to ask her students, “What is the feeling you want to leave the reader with, when they finish this piece?” The teacher was Jeanne Cavelos, the Director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Her question struck me as perfectly normal and legitimate, but not really central. At the time, I was writing passionately, though without a plan. Writing novels was fun, a kind of grand exploration. It was art was for art’s sake…art for my sake. I wasn’t thinking about how my work would emotionally land with readers. And shockingly, my novels—wait for it—didn’t emotionally land with readers. After years of writing novels that readers shrugged off, I decided two things. (1.) I really did want to reach readers. (2.) I wanted reach them the way great novels had reached me: with grand, indescribable moods. I wanted to evoke the aching, forlorn beauty at the end of The Great Gatsby; the rugged, mystic hope at the close of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; the awesome compassion for genius on the final pages of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. As I pondered how to do this, I came to a few core realizations. First: great stories deliver great payoffs. Two of my favorite narrative forms are the parable and the joke. Both are ancient and durable; the basic microorganisms of narrative. They are highly economical systems of set-ups and payoffs. In the parable, the payoff is wisdom. In the joke, it’s laughter. Anyone constructing a joke or a parable arranges a tight, sturdy story to get to the payoff as quickly as possible. A novel, it occurred to me, is fundamentally no different. Though it’s a larger and more complex organism, capable of delivering more complicated emotions, ultimately, it’s still just an elaborate system of set-ups and payoffs. Second: the genre determines the type of payoff. Readers of romance, mystery, thriller, action, and horror, expect certain kinds of endings. If you don’t deliver them, beware—it’s like telling joke no one laughs at. Knowing your ending = knowing your genre. Knowing your genre = knowing what your reader craves. Knowing what your reader craves = the first step in giving it to them. Third: focusing on the final payoff is helpful in crafting the story’s beginning and middle. If you’re going to end high, you have to start low. If you’re going to end low, you have to start high. The beginning is reverse engineered from the end. Most character arcs can be boiled down to this: “It’s a story about a character who begins at X and must overcome Y to get to Z.” But in the writing process, Z comes first. Without Z, you don’t know what Y or X must be. Without Z, you don’t have a story. I recently got back in touch with Jeanne and told her how formative her one basic question had been. She drove her points home. “Readers pay the most attention at the beginning and end of what they read, and most especially at the end, so what you put there is very important,” she told me. The emotion at the ending “will, in many ways, define the piece and determine what kind of story it is.” All of this begged a question: did a novel’s final, emotional payoff have a name? I asked a few writers. “A reverb? A resonance?” said novelist and memoirist Jenna Blum. “Like that sound the orchestra makes and that you carry with you in your heart as you walk out of the building.” Hmmm. So maybe…le sentiment après l’orchestre? “We do need a word for that feeling,” said author Stephen Kiernan, “When I get to the end of certain books, I feel ruined for a while. It’s that feeling of satisfaction, and nostalgia, and fullness. It’s a feeling only a novel can accomplish.” Then I chatted with author Jonathan Evison, who did have a name for it. “You have to hit that last right musical note that will sustain,” Evison said, describing how he works on his own novel endings. “When you hit it, you know it, and the book doesn’t ever feel done to me until I hit it. In Hollywood they call it ‘the walkaway.’” For the past year on my author interview show, The Thoughtful Bro, which airs on A Mighty Blaze, I have closed each of my conversations the same way. I wait until the end of the discussion, when the authors are nice and loose, then I say: “Imagine you have an ideal reader, someone who is receiving your book in exactly the way you wish it to be received. Now imagine they have just finished the final page. In a word or a phrase, what is the feeling the reader has at that moment?” Many authors at first seemed stumped by the question. Clearly, being able to articulate the walkaway is not a requirement for producing great books. But when they did get around to their answer, the responses varied wildly. They were funny, poignant, inspiring, and above all, revealing. “Like child’s pose at the end of yoga,” said Yaa Gyasi, about her novel Transcendent Kingdom. “Sweaty and happy,” said Mark Leyner, about his latest, The Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit. “It’s a cozy, warm feeling,” said Jeff VanderMeer, about his young adult romp, A Peculiar Peril. “You close the book in front of the fireplace, after having had a couple of marshmallows and a hot cup of cocoa.” “It’s kind of a Mister Rogers feeling,” said George Saunders, about his work of non-fiction, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. “I like you, and I hope you like me, and we just did something together that was kind of fun.” Other authors hoped their readers felt “remorse,” “companionship,” “euphoria,” “a beautiful sadness,” or even the feeling of “a struck diving board—just humming.” In the video below, you can see a compilation of writers trying to boil down what they hoped their readers felt when finishing the books they’d written. The question seems to cut to the core, for each author, of their book’s raison d’etre. As for me, a sailor navigating the vast oceans of narrative, I now feel confident in my north star. Whether I’m introducing a protagonist on page one, keeping the arc aloft in the muddy middle, or tying up things up in the denouement, I’m constantly inching toward that final emotion, that parting shot, the reverb, the resonance, that ultimate task and unique power of the novel… The walkaway. Image Credit: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker [millions_email]
Reviews of award-winning, international sensation The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani have made much of the first line, “The baby is dead.” The first three pages pull no punches. There are graphic descriptions of two dead children in a Paris apartment, murdered by a nanny. A baby’s little body gets hauled off in a grey bag, zipped shut. The mother howls like a “she-wolf.” Shocking as this is, the real clue to what the book is about occurs a few pages earlier than the first line. It’s in the epigraph, taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky: 'Do you understand, dear sir, do you understand what it means when you have nowhere to go?' Marmeladov’s question of the previous day came suddenly into his mind. 'For every man must have somewhere to go.' This, in a nutshell, is what Slimani is exploring. The fate of a trapped, ignored, abandoned person, a woman with nowhere to go, who in this case is driven to an unthinkable crime. Slimani’s project is one of psychological forensics—what drove her to it? The Dostoevsky quote provides part of the answer. After showing us the dead children, Slimani takes the reader back in time. A few pages later, we find them alive again, and happily playing with their parents, a typical upper-middle class, married, Parisian couple named Paul and Myriam. They live in a handsome apartment with Japanese prints on the wall. He’s a music producer, she’s a lawyer. Post-childbirth, she’s feeling dumpy -- feels that she's losing her looks, squandering her education on mere motherhood. Paul wants to be in the studio all the time. They squabble. When she says she wants to resume her career in law, he says, “I didn’t know you wanted to work.” She responds by calling him an “egotist.” Like so many other doomed couples in art, Paul and Myriam thought they could have it all. At first, they didn’t even want babysitters. Soon enough, life will be impossible without the help. Enter Louise. She is petite, blonde. Lots of makeup. Not a hair out of place. She does everything perfectly well. Cooks, cleans, the kids love her. She’s discreet. Paul doesn’t even think of her as a “real” woman, but rather, part of the world of children or employees. [millions_ad] There’s hints of darkness. Louise has surprising strength for someone so small. “Her face was like a peaceful sea. Its depths suspected by no one.” There’s a bite scar on Louise’s shoulder. She watches gruesome true crime on TV. She tells creepy fairy tales. She knocks the daughter down by accident, towering over her. Then she puts makeup on her, making her look like a drag queen. Outside of work, Louise fits in nowhere, “like a character who ended up in the wrong story and is doomed to roam endlessly through a foreign world.” On the streets, she’s bumped into. Yelled at. Pushed around. She feels “invisible” on the movie set of humanity. She’s also deeply in debt. Her own daughter has gone off the rails in school. Her husband is dead. She feels like a “dog whose legs are broken by small children.” The book proceeds through vignettes, as Myriam and Paul continue to do all the bourgeois things you’d expect. They go on vacation. They have dinner parties. They have sex. Louise overhears. The scenes of bourgeois life can be a bit slow, but the book picks up intensity when we start to hear from different witnesses to the crime, layered throughout. People wondering if they should have done anything to prevent it. A neighbor looking back at an elevator ride he shared with the murderer. The police putting together the clues. Everyone asking, who was this woman? As Louise gets closer to the snapping point, Slimani sprinkles in a few choice creepy moments. A rotting chicken carcass appears on the kitchen table—a perfect jump-out-of-your-seat moment. Paul, the husband, gently mocks his wife for being worried about the nanny, saying “it’s like the script of a bad horror film.” Whenever a character makes light of the horror, you know something awful is afoot. In some ways, the book is a classic, even Dostoevskian, tale of one person’s descent into madness. But the true structure of The Perfect’s Nanny seems to be more of a love-triangle. Both the parents and Louise are in love with the children, but only one can possess them in the end. Louise plays the part of the spurned mistress. The outcome can only be disastrous.
Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s bracing, miraculous debut, starts out typically enough, laboring in that old vineyard of novelists—infidelity. Set in Dublin, the narrator Frances is a 21-year-old poet invited to the home of a magazine writer, Melissa. Melissa’s husband is the handsome Nick, “a failed actor whose marriage is dead,” and who at times seems “embarrassed to be alive;” in other words, a man ripe for an affair. Things build precipitously. Rooney has a gift for pacing, and the illicit builds with each chapter: The glances that last a few moments too long. The intrusive thoughts. The texts ignored; the texts whose importance is denied; the texts pondered over; the texts eventually responded to. The engineered encounters. The specially directed compliments. The chest-tightening jealousy. The waves of despair borne in secret. The denial to friends, and to oneself, that it is anything serious. The struggle to bury a revealing look, as to not be found out. “Our eyes seemed to have a conversation of their own.” Frances, self-described as plain, analytical, and cold, advances through the early stages of the affair as she does through the entire book, with minimal introspection. As she wades into uncharted waters, she is often at the mercy of feelings she can neither name nor reign in. After seeing Nick perform, she finds herself licking her lips, playing with her hair, feeling “pure and tiny like a newborn baby.” She makes subtle rationalizations—Nick and Melissa don’t even sleep together; Melissa’s had affairs in the past; Melissa, therefore, is beyond her universe of moral consideration. Frances’s torpedo-like trajectory toward Nick’s marriage fills her not with pause, but with morbid curiosity. Soon she and Nick are in bed together, Frances asking, “Will you die if you can’t have me?” Reading this story in Rooney’s swift voice is like watching a young deer slide down an icy hill toward a highway. I didn’t just read the book in a single day. I read it in a single day on two separate occasions, three days apart. Rooney reportedly wrote the bulk of the book in just 3 months, and it shows in all the best ways. Conversations with Friends reads like a very well-written, lucid email from a close friend—the kind of email you save and never delete. Part of this frictionless feel is Rooney’s talent, but technique figures too. Here are three people talking at a party: Laura said it was nice to meet me and I said: your baby is so gorgeous, wow. Nick laughed and said, isn’t she? She’s like a model baby. She could do ads for baby food. Laura asked me if I wanted to hold her and I looked at her and said, yes, can I? Another technique is the hominess of Rooney’s metaphors. She never reaches far for them, and they are always spot on. Writing emails with Nick was thrilling “like a game of table tennis.” Sex for the first time makes the insides of her body feel like “hot oil.” “The sun bore down on my face like a drill.” Her naked body, “looked like something that had dropped off a spoon too quickly, before it had time to set.” In bed Nick “touched me cautiously like a deer touches things with its face.” When her eyes meet with Nick’s it feels “like a key turning hard inside me.” Rooney was a champion college debater and she has written about having a “flow” when assembling arguments, the words arriving almost without conscious effort. The flow is evident in the novel, too; she seems to have zero literary anxiety. As Rooney writes, you do not feel, as with so many writers, that she is looking over her own shoulder, questioning her own word choice, critical of herself, happy with herself. There is no struggle. The light, contemporary style also has the benefit of blending seamlessly with texts and emails, which appear quoted at length in the book. I read the book entirely on my phone (both times), now and then toggling back and forth with my own email and texts, and this seemed appropriate. The rapid, linger-on-little style is of a piece with the character of Frances, who often aims to stifle it. She finds it “embarrassing” to admit she has feelings for Nick. If the moment gets too dramatic, there’s a flippant quip, or an economic theory to put things on ice. After her first kiss with Nick, she waits to feel any sadness or regret. “Instead I just felt a lot of things I didn’t know how to identify.” Right before the climatic moment of the affair, “I told him I didn’t want to be a homewrecker or whatever.” Frances is a poet by profession—it’s too bad her poetry is never quoted here. One imagines crisp lines about icebergs, chrome, and cool glasses of water. Confronted at one point about her affair by a friend, Frances observes, “I felt sorry for all of us, like we were all little children, pretending to be adults.” Pretending or not, the pain is real. This book is a dagger.
In Mary Gaitskill’s essay, “Leave the Woman Alone!”, one of a bracing, terrific new collection called Somebody with a Little Hammer, Gaitskill takes a look at the media reaction to some recent sex scandals involving politicians. She’s irritated that the wife of the philanderer is presumed to be humiliated; she wonders if those defending the betrayed woman are so enthusiastic because they are secretly gloating; she observes how the mistress gets something of a free pass; and she questions why the cheating men are attacked so viciously, when no one really knows their motives. Gaitskill is particularly perplexed over how, when Elizabeth Edwards continued to support her husband, John Edwards, after his affair was exposed, Edwards herself was berated, perhaps because she refused to let her marriage be defined by others, and instead defined it for herself. Watching these scandals unfold, Gaitskill, ever fascinated with public shamings, asks, “What is going on here?” It’s a typical Gaitskill set-up. In these brilliant essays, which stretch back to the early 1990s and run up to the last few years, Gaitskill explores emotionally charged situations, catalogues conventional responses to them, then reveals their hidden, psychological underpinnings. Her explorations are incisive and unpredictable -- she sticks up for Axl Rose, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Céline Dion, and Linda Lovelace, to name a few of the unexpected; she even sticks up for the philandering politicians mentioned above. The last thing you want to do with any topic is say, “I know just what Mary Gaitskill will think of this.” In a 2015 article, The New Yorker described Gaitskill by reputation as a “writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse.” Gaitskill’s oeuvre, from her debut 1988 short story collection, Bad Behavior, through her much-fêted, National Book Award-nominated Veronica, is known for its kinky, heartless, transgressive sexual encounters. She regularly discusses rape. As Gaitskill writes about herself, “In case you don’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.” It’s volatile stuff for sure, and Gaitskill’s work is a ready bullet point for anyone ready to politicize sex. An example of the heated talk about Gaitskill came in an essay that appeared in The Rumpus in 2013. Author Suzanne Rivecca began her piece: “I hate it when men talk about Mary Gaitskill. I call for a permanent moratorium on men gassily discoursing on Mary Gaitskill.” Rivecca goes on to explain how Gaitskill is grossly misunderstood by men, in particular when it comes to feminism. “When men read Mary Gaitskill, their boners deflate. They feel squeamish and violated and desperate to reimpose a semblance of order and moral authority on their ransacked worlds.” I must say that as a man, my (literary) boner does not at all deflate when reading Gaitskill. But I should be careful here. As Rivecca says, “Even the nice things men say about Gaitskill are annoying.” The Rumpus piece was so strident that Gaitskill herself wrote a public letter to say that, while flattered by the author’s defense of her work, not all men are out to misinterpret her. For me, the sex in Gaitskill’s work would be prurient if Gaitskill didn’t have such sensitive emotional antennae. I think a lot of the reason Gaitskill writes about sex is for the illusions, lies, power, aggression, and animal instinct it lays bare. For her, it’s a loaded nesting doll of psychological truths. In my reading, much of what drives Gaitskill is shining a light. She is constantly lasering in on the gap between what is on the surface versus the emotional reality below. She praises the “numinous unconscious” in Charles Dickens, and his “secret life which glimmers in the margins.” She likes artists who “illuminate dark corners,” or who try to “tear things up in order to find what is real.” For Gaitskill, to contemplate darkness is a step toward health. As she writes, “The truth may hurt, but in art, anyway, it also helps, sometimes profoundly.” In her essay “The Trouble with Following the Rules: On ‘Date Rape,’ ‘Victim Culture’ and Personal Responsibility,” Gaitskill discusses the nomenclature of inner pain, in particular people who inflate it with loaded terms, for example, calling one’s childhood a “Holocaust.” 'Holocaust' may be a grossly inappropriate exaggeration. But to speak in exaggerated metaphors about psychic injury is not so much the act of a crybaby as it is a distorted desire to make one’s experience have consequence in the eyes of others, and such desperation comes from a crushing doubt that one’s own experience counts at all or is even real.” (Italics Gaitskill’s). Here, as elsewhere in Gaitskill, is the recognition of unspoken, deeply damaged interiors. I believe this is one of the reasons Gaitskill inspires such deep allegiance in her readers -- those who are wounded know that Gaitskill would see them as they truly are, and would not flinch. The emotional centerpiece of this collection, "Lost Cat: A Memoir," is as fine a personal essay as you will find anywhere. It’s ostensibly about Gaitskill’s desperation over a pet cat who goes missing. Gaitskill uses the cat story as an entry point to talk about two other central sources of grief in her life: her relationship with her remote father and her experience taking into her home an inner-city boy named Caesar via The Fresh Air Fund. (This latter relationship became the source material for her recent novel The Mare.) Gaitskill ends up deeply involved with the troubled Caesar, while often failing to help him. At one point she tells Caesar she loves him because, “You are not someone who just wants to hear nice bullshit. You care. You want to know what’s real.” This, by the way, in Gaitskill-world, is as high a compliment as can be paid. But back to the cat. Gaitskill originally found the cat in Italy, where it was homeless and blind in one eye. She describes the first encounter: But a third kitten, smaller and bonier than the other two, tottered up to me, mewing weakly, his eyes almost glued shut...His big-nosed head was goblinish on his emaciated potbellied body, his long legs almost grotesque. His asshole seemed disproportionally big on his starved rear. Gaitskill, needless to say, finds this cat irresistible. She later describes him affectionately as looking like “a little gangster in a zoot suit.” It’s a pattern you see again and again, Gaitskill saying to an outcast, though no one else will say so, you have worth in my eyes. In an essay about the movie version of Gaitskill’s story “The Secretary,” Gaitskill describes the story’s origin. She had read a magazine article about a girl who was videotaped being spanked by her boss while she stood in a corner and repeated, “I am stupid.” When they were discovered, the boss apologized and paid the secretary $200. On reading it, I laughed, then shook my head in dismay, then thought, What a great story -- funny, horrible, poignant, and gross, the misery of it as deep as the eroticism; the misery, in fact, giving the eroticism its most pungent force. The wank-book aspect was clearly indispensable, but what interested me most was, Who is this girl? The Hopeful Innocent in the porn story, the cipher in the news story -- what would she be like in real life? Another piece discusses a favorite old song of Gaitskill’s called “Nowhere Girl.” When Gaitskill first heard it in the early 1980s, the song “lightly touched me with an indefinable feeling that was intense almost because it was so light.” The song was “trying to get your attention, though unconfidently, from somewhere off in a corner. Or from nowhere.” In the book’s title essay, about teaching Anton Chekhov, Gaitskill works in a passage about telling a ragged, obscenity-hurling woman on the street, who might have robbed her, “You are so beautiful.” In all these cases, Gaitskill comes alive when turning toward what others shun. After "Lost Cat," the other high point in the collection is Gaitskill’s essay on Linda Lovelace, “Icon.” Lovelace, for those who don’t know, experienced a meteoric ascendancy to fame following her starring role in the 1972 porn flick Deep Throat, about a woman whose clitoris is in her throat, and thus achieves orgasm by giving blow jobs. The essay discusses a smattering of documentaries and biographies about Lovelace, including an incident where she had sex with a dog. The topic has everything Gaitskill gravitates toward: it’s provocative, it’s obscene, it’s about a woman on the fringes of acceptability, who is alternately shamed and lauded. Lovelace is also a psychological puzzle, inconsistent about whether she herself believes she is a victim. Gaitskill is in fact so taken by Lovelace, her terminology turns religious: “A compelling, even profound figure, a lost soul, and a powerful icon.” “It’s impossible to dismiss the appealing, even delightful way [Lovelace] looks in Deep Throat, or her otherworldly radiance in subsequence press conferences.” In a superb Gaitskillian flourish, she then compares Lovelace’s ordeal to that of Joan of Arc in the famous Carl Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Gaitskill admits the comparison is a stretch, but still she writes, “Both women were torn apart by that which they embodied, yet for a moment glowed with enormous symbolic power.” What greater dignity can Gaitskill confer upon Lovelace than to compare her to one of the most famous women to ever live, an icon of religious purity? To dignify something -- to say that it is worthy of our respect and attention -- is not the same as to redeem it, or forgive it, in the same way that exposing a wound is not the same as treating it. But exposing it is the physician’s first step, and Gaitskill’s. Back in 1990, she told an interviewer for BOMB magazine, “Before you can heal pain, you have to acknowledge it and feel it.” [millions_email]