Saturday, January 8, 2011

Methodic Floating - #2

STORY: "Levitation" by Cynthia Ozick


BASICALLY: "A pair of novelists, husband and wife, gave a party." The first line sums it up--well, except for the wife's complicated eventual vision of, first, an ascending, rising, levitating roomful of Jews, and then, a fertility dance by imported peasants in a city park. Yeah. Otherwise, though, it's just about a cocktail party at the home of a New York couple.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about all the mechanical bits of story. My first adult stabs at writing stories occurred in a community college class in which we were required to write pieces no longer than 3 pages. It was great, actually—each student had time to write several pieces during the semester, and everyone critiqued everything. All around me, I saw writing that blossomed over the course of a few months—people who couldn't write a coherent sentence at the beginning really began to find voice and rhythm and how crucial a single moment can be, how it can unfold and be so much more than itself. (That's one way of thinking about what story is, right?) Revision is a critical skill, but that class showed me how much the beginning writer benefits from simply writing more and more stories, instead of trying endlessly to polish early crap into masterpieces.

Though I have remained fond of the extremely short form, I'm starting to find that there are stories I want to tell that need more than 3 or 5 or even 10 pages. But I'm clunky about it. I don't always have a clear idea of how to put them together. So I work on things like story arc, and scenes, and the accumulation of actions. Show-don't-tell and all that. And then I go and read something like Cynthia Ozick's story "Levitation," and it just blows everything I'm trying to teach myself out of the water.

Ozick spends the first four and a half pages telling us what this New York couple is all about. It's a total exposition-fest, larded liberally with description. "For love, and also because he had always known he did not want a Jewish wife," she tells us of Feingold, "he married a minister's daughter." And Lucy, "at the age of twelve…felt herself to belong to the people of the Bible." Ozick delves into their theories on writing, especially the "Forbidden Thing," which is to write about writers (as Ozick herself is doing). She summarizes Feingold's novel "about Menachem ben Zerach, survivor of a massacre of Jews in the town of Estella in Spain in 1328" and provides a passage from one of Lucy's. She tells us about their inner and outer lives, how "about their own lives they had a joke; they were 'secondary-level' people," and how timid they are in their own city. Everything we are to know about these characters is served up not through action—as we are always hearing that writers must convey most of their information—but through a long luminous layering of details.

Why does it work for Ozick? The whole argument for using action in our fiction has to do with drawing the reader into the process of coming to know the character. If the writer uses action, the reader must follow that action and draw conclusions about the character; it is an active process. If the writer just explains the characters, the reader is essentially passive, receiving a lecture. Ozick overcomes this difficulty in two important ways: 1) the exceptional gorgeousness of her prose, tempered with humor, which pulls us into the story, and 2) her difficult ending that launches off into a kind of fantasy, religious visions with no absolute or clear meaning. Let's examine those in a little more detail.

It's the Writing, Stupid: You just can't beat Ozick for beautiful prose. It's not exactly at the sentence level—though her sentences are pitch-perfect—it's more in the way that she introduces imagery and information. Look at how she describes the relationship of Lucy and Feingold to their city:

New York! They risked their necks if they ventured out to Broadway for a loaf of bread after dark; muggers hid behind the seesaws in the playgrounds, junkies with knives hung upside down in the jungle gym. Every apartment a lit fortress; you admired the lamps and the locks, the triple locks on the caged-in windows, the double locks and the police rods on the doors, the lamps with timers set to make burglars think you were always at home. Footsteps in the corridor, the elevator's midnight grind; caution's muffled gasps.

This definitely isn't action; we aren't seeing a character in a place doing something. But it still has the feeling of action, because it demands that the reader take part in uncovering the psychology of Lucy and Feingold. It's rich in concrete detail, not just a list that the reader can't possibly take in (a common mistake in dull literary fiction), yet it contains movement. Here's where Ozick takes that same paragraph:

Their parents lived in Cleveland and St. Paul, and hardly ever dared to visit. All of this: grit and unsuitability (they might have owned a snowy lawn somewhere else); and no one said their names, no one had any curiosity about them, no one ever asked whether they were working on anything new. After a year their books were remaindered for eighty-nine cents each. Anonymous mediocrities. They could not call themselves forgotten because they had never been noticed.

You can't predict at the beginning of the paragraph where you're going to end up. Ozick juxtaposes the couple's fears and isolation with their relative failure, and it is precisely this which demands of her reader the same kind of active conclusion-drawing that we generally associate with action.

What the Hell Just Happened?: Reams of professional criticism have delved into what this story is supposed to mean. And I… don't know. I have some ideas. What happens is that Feingold is disappointed because no literary luminaries showed up to the party, and so he sits in one of the three rooms of the party with a bunch of other Jews (including the friend from the Seminary who had overseen Lucy's conversion to Judaism, as well as a refugee) and they all start talking about atrocities committed against their people. Lucy listens to the conversation, but she condemns it in her mind. This reiteration of familiar horrors fails to move her in any way; "the truth was she could feel nothing." Then she has a two-part vision.

The room began to lift. It ascended. It rose like an ark on waters. Lucy said inside her mind, "This chamber of Jews." It seemed to her that the room was levitating on the little grains of the refugee's whisper. She felt herself alone at the bottom, below the floorboards, while the room floated upward, carrying Jews. Why did it not take her too? Only Jesus could take her. They were being kidnapped, these Jews, by a messenger from the land of the dead.
That's the first part. In the second, which Ozick calls an "illumination," Lucy sees what is apparently a memory of a fertility dance she once saw performed in a public park. And this allows her to find her own relation to the night. I don't want to pick out a single quote from this part because it's just so vast—it builds in such a powerful and strange way and connects Lucy to a pagan, fertile past. And I'm not trying to unpack the meaning, here; I want to examine it structurally.

When authors use action to create their characters, the reader starts out not knowing much and becomes actively involved by drawing the conclusions that the action (and description and everything else) suggest. If everything goes well, there's a payoff for the reader's initial confusion. That payoff forms a large part of the satisfaction of reading a story—the reader has been led to a new understanding without even being aware of the leading; she is complicit in her own new realizations. Ozick has approached the structure of this story from an entirely different premise—she tells us who these characters are, paints them in sympathetic but unsentimental colors, gives us parts of their past and their present, and then she grabs the helm and veers off in a completely unexpected direction. We begin with understanding, but are left with mystery. We begin with the specificities of humdrum, relatable lives, and end with inscrutable religious revelation.

It's a mighty risk to take, and to be sure, not everyone likes it. But from a writerly perspective, it's pretty amazing. Ozick does a lot of telling—in her signature confident, lyrical style—but she leaves us with pure enigma. This is a story that took hold of me from my first reading and doesn't seem to want to let go.


Anonymous said...

This sounds pretty cool. I'll have to check this out. Thanks for the review--it definitely intrigued me. --Mike

Lisa said...

Thanks! Cynthia Ozick is amazing. Reading this story made me realize how much I oughta re-read THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS.

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