I haven’t blogged about anything for a bit, mostly because work has been very busy lately. That, and I have been mentally preparing myself to begin revisions full-tilt on COMPENDIUM. In preparation for picking up my red pen, I just finished Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Brown and Dave King, which is an excellent resource for those of us who have our first draft under our belts and are trying to make our manuscripts stronger. It is also a good read for those writers just getting going on their first draft, because it will give you some techniques to think about as you begin. I found the chapters on point of view, narrative distance, and dialogue particularly helpful. I also know that writing instructors have accused me of not trusting my reader enough, and there is much advice in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers regarding showing versus telling. Although in my case, I think that perhaps in the first draft, it is not so much that I don’t trust my reader as that I don’t trust myself, and the symptoms of not trusting myself look a lot like not the ones for trusting my reader.
I think one of the best points any writer can take from that Self-Edting for Fiction Writers and other similar craft books that I have been working through, such as The Portable MFA by the New York Writers Workshop, is that when you sit down to write, forget all the rules. Here is my favorite excerpt from The Portable MFA, written by Tim Tomlinson.
A friend of mine who’s an avid (and very good) tennis player wanted to take his game to the next level. He hired a coach twice a week. The coach ran him ragged on the court and made micro-corrections to his form. In less than a month, my friend found his game falling apart, and after two months he complained to his coach. “I get out on the court, I try to remember everything you’ve taught me, and I can’t return a ball over the net.” The coach said, “When we practice, practice as hard as you can. Do every drill, integrate every correction. Then, when you play, forget you ever had a coach, forget every drill, every instruction. Just play your game. The drills and the instructions will filter into your game if you just forget about them and play.” My friend followed the coach’s advice, and soon he as at the top of his club, looking for more advanced players to challenge from other clubs. The same principles apply to writing. Practice hard and often, attempt to do the exercises and the drills while you’re practicing. Then, forget everything you’ve learned and write straight out of the fever (or the grind) of writing. Once you’ve got a stack of pages, read them, see how they’re going, then think about the “rules.”
And so here I am, ready to think about the “rules.”
But, I have totally digressed. The reason I even mentioned Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is because I just had the pleasure of listening to the New Yorker fiction podcast for August 19, 2011, where Salman Rushdie reads Donald Barthelme’s “Concerning the Bodyguard.” I already listened to Donald Antrim read “I bought a Little City” by the same author previously, and that story did not resonate with me at all. However, I was interested to see what Salman Rushdie saw in this particular story and am very glad that I took the time to listen to the podcast, especially in light of my recent study of narrative distance as discussed in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. If you prefer to listen to the podcast before reading this review of it, I have posted a link here, since if you read any further, I will be spoiling the story for you.
Strikingly, Mr. Barthelme wrote this story almost entirely in the format of questions asked in the third person. Sometimes, these questions are asked from the point of view of the referenced bodyguard, as if they are questions he himself might ponder. At other points in the story, the questions have so much narrative distance that they seem to be asked from a third party interrogating the bodyguard in some sort of post-mortem investigation or perhaps or even a third person omniscient voice so removed from the incidents that occur in the story that we the reader are presented with a very clinical, antiseptic version of the events.
Mr. Rushdie, in his discussion about the story, states that Mr. Barthelme tells the story very indirectly. That the story is hidden inside the questions. I agree and disagree. I agree that the story is told indirectly, and I think this was an intentional construct by Mr. Barthelme to create so much narrative distance between us, the readers, and the bodyguard that we are able to evaluate the incidents in the story and see them from a perspective largely uncolored by emotion. However, I disagree with Mr. Rushdie that the story is hidden. “Concerning the Bodyguard” is written with such economy that each question reveals something about either the bodyguard, his principal, or the incidents that are occurring as the story progresses.
Among the long strings of questions are peppered one or two sentences at a time of declarative statements. These sentences serve as a pause in the mounting tension created by the rapid-fire questions. Ironically, these points, while breaking the tension of the written format, are in fact designed to reveal tense points in the story itself. Placing points outside the question structure relieves them of the implicit tension, but they are the meat of the narrative. For instance:
In every part of the country, in large cities and small towns, bottles of champagne have been iced, put away, reserved for a celebration, reserved for a special day. Is the bodyguard aware of this?
The bodyguard is guarding a political figure but all around the country, preparation for a large celebration is in play. This sentence mentions nothing about the fear of the bodyguard, his plight, his concerns, or the principal’s worthiness to be guarded. But this one sentence about the celebration falls on the reader like a knife. We know that this special day does not bode well for the bodyguard. It is also told from the third person omniscient voice, rather than the third person limited. Whether it is a cause of celebration or not, we do not really know, nor are we concerned.
In other parts of the story, Mr. Barthelme takes us closer into the mind of the bodyguard.
Seated in a restaurant with his principal, the bodyguard is served, involuntarily, turtle soup. Does he recoil, as the other eats? Why is this near-skeleton, his principal, of such importance to the world that he deserves six body-guards, two to a shift with the shifts changing every eight hours, six bodyguards of the first competence plus supplementals on occasion, two armored cars, stun grenades ready to hand under the front seat? What has he meant to the world? What are his plans?
Again, we begin this paragraph with a declarative statement, but here, we are given an insight into the character of the bodyguard. He does not like turtle soup. The turtle soup is perhaps a representation of the difference in social class between the principal and the bodyguard, and it causes the bodyguard to question whether his principal is deserving of such protection. The narrative distance in this portion of the story is closer to third person limited. And this paragraph opens to a section questioning the retirement age of bodyguards and the preparedness. We are taken into the bodyguard’s mind regarding his fears about being too old to protect the principal and whether, if tried, he would be found worthy.
The story comes to a head with yet another series of declarative statements.
In the Mercedes, the bodyguard and his colleague stare at the hundreds, men and women, young and old, who move around the Mercedes, stopped for a light, as if it were a rock in a river. In the rear seat, the patron is speaking into a telephone. He looks up, puts down the telephone. The people pressing around the car cannot be counted, there are too many of them; they cannot be known, there are too many of them; they cannot be predicted, they have volition. Then, an opening. The car accelerates.
Is it the case that, on a certain morning, the garbage cans of the entire city, the garbage cans of the entire country, are overflowing with empty champagne bottles? Which bodyguard is at fault?
So, it is clear to us that the principal is dead, and the country has had its moment of celebration. A bodyguard was unable to prevent the assassination. Was it the fault of bodyguard we followed through the whole story or his colleague? We might make the case for either. But I do not believe that it is any bodyguard’s fault, even if he believes so. The narrative distance created by Mr. Barthelme left me relatively unemotional about the death of the principal and able to evaluate the story from outside the bodyguard’s perspective.
I certainly felt for the bodyguard, but at the same time, I don’t really know his opinion about the principal. Perhaps, apart from his sense of duty as an employee, he had no care for the man either. And, thus, our emotional state at the end of the story mirrors the bodyguard’s. The sense of failure springs from our knowledge that he was not able to stop what is portrayed as inevitable. The champagne bottles were ready and waiting. It was just a matter of time. The car was described as a “rock in a river.” These images are carefully chosen by Mr. Barthelme to tell us that this is bodyguard (whether invested in the safety of his principal or otherwise) was working against forces much larger than himself. He was prolonging the inevitable.
And that we are left at the end with a sense of futility regarding the bodyguard’s actions. “Which bodyguard is at fault?” is such a loaded question, for it absolves the principal of fault, and it absolves the mob of fault. We understand that the bodyguard wrongly feels at fault for the death of the principal, but the narrative distance created by Mr. Barthelme allows us to see past this limited point of view and understand that the complexity of the situation defies this conclusion. And thus perhaps the answer is “Neither.”
“Concerning the Bodyguard” will definitely go into my mental archive as a masterfully crafted story with much to teach the reader. I feel lucky that I happened to pick it to listen to just after finishing Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which will hopefully help me evaluate and improve COMPENDIUM as much as it has a master like Donald Barthelme.