Friday, March 21, 2008

The Art of the Subtext: Part 1

The Very Bad Cold has taken away my voice. It has been fading for days. I am supposed to be resting to make myself better. So apart from a quick trip out to the shops I have been doing nothing but reading THE ART OF SUBTEXT by Charles Baxter (although I did manage to post a review of the James Meek's book WE ARE NOW BEGINNING OUR DESCENT on the Revish website. I gave it five stars).

It is another small book, but manages to tell a lot in its 125 pages. The first chapter is called The Art Of Staging. 'Staging' according to Baxter is when objects and actions are used to create a pathway to the character's inner life. It is this aspect of a novel which distinguishes popular genre from the more literary. In popular romances (e.g. a novel by Danielle Steel) the location, material wealth, physical attributes and who is paired off with whom is important. In the popular thriller (e.g. by Tom Clancy) it is the military hardware, and the hierarchy of power that are important. In both the characters are secondary; but in more literary fiction they are central to the plot. In more literary novels the character is shown by what is unsaid - the showing rather than telling - and presumably the more that is shown and the less that is said, the more literary the novel (and subsequently, perhaps, the less it will be read).

Genre novels, he says, shut down imagination and therefore are ideal reading material for the anxious traveller because it reduces the ability to speculate. Literary novels on the other hand promote the imagination, and in order to do this a character who is hyper-vigilant ie fully attentive, has poor understanding and is emotionally bewildered is ideal as a protagonist. Through these eyes the situation becomes strange and dramatic and interesting. Possible observers could be the frightened child, the unguided foreigner, the half-dying lover, the broken couple - which is why, perhaps, the most successful characters in books, for me, anyway, are alienated and alone. Seeing something from the outside quite often makes it seem exotic and enticing.

In Digging the Subterranean Baxter refers to a board game. At the start of this a player had to decide whether they wanted to acquire wealth, fame or love, and having decided this play the game scoring points as the player lands on each, and at the end of the game if they acquire what they set out to acquire. This, says Baxter, is the plot of many novels - what the character wants and what he eventually achieves, and the journey along the way, complete with the resistances and the reactions is often the summary of a plot. Another plot may concern the desires that the character cannot own up to, a mania, and this creates subtext. For instance in Moby Dick Ahab wants to kill the whale but he can't say why - all he knows is that he has to enlist the entire crew to satisfy his mania. In The Great Gatsby Jay Gatsby obsessively wants his version of Daisy Buchanan - but in order to get her he has to become someone else. Both of these stories are told by someone who observes the obsessive, not the obsessive himself because the obsessive would be a too unreliable narrator; instead the story is told by an observer who is a bit like the frightened child in chapter 1 - intensely seeing but understanding little, from the outside so that the reader fills in the gaps.

Another possibility is the story where the person is 'wrecked by success'. This is where what is sought is won - and unhappiness results. Desires turn out to be more powerful than satisfaction.

Yet another is exemplified by Chekhov's The Lady With The Dog'. Here the protagonist has one desire fulfilled but finds himself with something else as well. In this case Gurov wants and has a quick affair but then finds himself in love with unhappy consequences.

In Unheard Melodies Baxter says that the most artful dialogue is marked by periods of inattentiveness. They are signs of egoism, narcissism and psychic vulnerability, and are essential markers of subtext. Some information goes unheard because it is psychically unbearable; some is simply filtered out by the unconscious because we have become too accustomed to hearing it and it has become background noise.

Another sort of not hearing is indifference - what is being said is simply not important to the listener to garner his or her attention. This is the inattention of the narcissist - the only information that gets through is that which is directly relevant to oneself. The narcissist is wounded and is waiting for either an apology or admiration.

Self-dramatisers are also not very good listeners. They know they are being watched but they have lost the gift of listening.

The unheard may be suddenly interrupted by the heard ie the irrelevant interrupted by the important. In other words a change in tone may herald something important but will only be noticed if there is a listener alert enough to pick it up.

Non-listening is often comic - but soon descends into hellish behaviour.

Non-sequiturs in dialogue often indicate gaps which in themselves tell more than what is said.

Mobile phone mania has ensured that talk is now cheap whereas listening is not. Close-listening now seems freakish and is the province of shrinks. It differentiates novels of Thomas Hardy with more contemporary novels such as those of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green, some of which are based on non-listening. Inattentiveness is essential in a modern novel.

I shall continue with the rest tomorrow, I hope.


Blogger jem said...

I think the v.b.cold is doing the rounds. Its struck me too. Credit to you for keeping your brain in gear enough to read and make insightful posts. My mind has gone into temporary hibernation.

Regarding the post, I always / worry about books that attempt to pick about how literature works. In one way I want to read to understand and therefore write better, but at another level I fear the mystery being taken away. If I know how the trick is done perhaps I wont fall for it?

Sat Mar 22, 08:44:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Jem, I know exactly what you mean - I think that is one reason I have never studied English Literature and regard it with suspicion - is it possible to know too much? Would it stultify my creativity in some way if I did? If I was really competent at punctuation would it interrupt my flow? As I grow older I think the answer is probably no, but still I am wary....However I do find some of these books to be quite stimulating and inspiring. I think that maybe little goes in, but perhaps some does and so I might improve.

Sat Mar 22, 01:03:00 pm  

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