Monday, October 17, 2011

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia

I decided to reread this novel in anticipation of Cristina Garcia's reading at FAU (Oct 20, 5 pm, at University Center for Excellence in Writing) and was delighted by it all over again (I confess I had a certain bitterness connected to it in my memory based merely on the fact that I loaned my original copy to my then boss in 1995 and never got it back; that bitterness has happily been erased) (though I'm still annoyed that I loaned my copy of Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land to someone in 1998 and never got it back). Anyway... what I want to talk about is an idea related to that of "significant detail"...

Most undergrad workshops will at some point talk about significant detail--it's the idea that an author doesn't choose what to describe at random. We don't try to give a complete sensory portrait of a scene, nor do we point and click our cameras indiscriminately. We choose key images because of their connotations--emotional and intellectual. But my point is we don't just do that with sensory images--the things that physically exist in the imagined world of the story (or poem or essay) but also with figurative language, and with exposition, and with dreams... things that are planted into the story even more than those significant (and sensory) details are. So when someone chooses a metaphor as a means of description they are not actually trying to provide a more apt description of the image (the orange does not seem more orange-like because it has been compared to the sun), they are trying to point the reader to an emotional reading of the image (the orange seems more intense, more dangerous, more fiery because it has been compared to the sun). A better example: in Garcia's novel "Celia fingers the sheet of onion parchment in her pocket, reads the words again, one by one, like a blind woman." Through the use of the simile, we are meant to understand that Celia is literally running her fingers over the letter but also we are supposed to take on the layered meaning of blindness--someone who literally can't see, but also someone who can't understand... the moment provides the reader with a clear picture of what is happening, but also with a subtext, an implied understanding of the character...

Likewise, when author's insert dreams into their narratives this kind of subtext or connotation is often their intended effect: to add an emotional and intellectual subtext to what is "real." And that can be a huge mistake. Because readers are so trained to see dreams as symbolic that we can be highly suspicious of them; it feels like the author is taking a shortcut to meaning simply by inventing a dream that the character had. Now, of course, a novel titled "Dreaming in Cuban" is likely to be loaded up with dreams, so I thought it interesting to consider how Garcia gets away with such a potentially manipulative plot device... and I've decided she does because the "vivid and continuous dream" (see John Gardner, Art of Fiction) of this novel is not interrupted by the literal dreams. The trouble with writing dreams usually occurs because of the way they stand out from the rest of a narrative and how they take an otherwise realist experience and insert the surreal into it (yeah, this is how dreams operate in life, but fiction is not a direct representation of life, now is it?). So dreams work in this novel to add symbolism and meaning to the story, but they don't interrupt the story... just as your figurative language and your flashbacks/exposition also don't interrupt the story but rather feel of a piece with it. So my suggestions is if you want to use dreams in your writing, don't suddenly switch tones and styles and go into dream language but rather relay the dream (which can still be surreal and strange) in the voice of the rest of the story... maintaining the "vivid and continuous dream" that you have put your readers under.

Likewise, if you send your characters off into waking dreams (aka their imagination--also a useful way to add emotional and intellectual connotations), you need to maintain the tone of the rest of the work. Another example from Garcia: "Ivanito imagines the vines and tendrils, taut and violent as a killing rope, snaking along the floor to his bed, wrapping him in place, tighter and tighter, choking off his breath while his sisters sleep."

Don't you want to read this book now? You should.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

You Are Free by Danzy Senna

The first story of this collection was my favorite and the one I want to talk about. "Admission" is about a mixed race couple who are deciding whether to enter their child in private school or public school, and who receive a highly coveted admission spot in a very upscale pre-school (I had to return the book to the library, so I'm working from memory, I'm pretty sure it was pre-school). The husband wants to say no, the wife considers saying yes. But (spoiler alert!) in the end they say no. At which point this realist, quiet, but good story goes a little bananas. The admissions officer starts calling their home, visiting, essentially stalking them trying to figure out why they won't say yes... It is so weird and unexpected that it really makes the story. And because the admissions officer is a minor character whose thoughts the narrator does not have access to, we never know why she's doing what she's doing. Sort of like how we never learn why Bartleby "prefers not to" in one of my all-time favorites, Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener". And it had me thinking--you can Bartleby pretty much any story, even the most realist and quiet. People are often inexplicable and unexplicated. Not everything in your story has to be explained. Of course, you can't Bartleby all your stories. That would be silly. But maybe if you're stuck on one, can't get it going...Bartleby it. (can you see how I'm trying to make that a catch phrase? is it working?)