Saturday, May 21, 2011

Your Story Is a Place - #31

STORY: "Death by Landscape" by Margaret Atwood

FROM: WILDERNESS TIPS (Doubleday, 1991)

BASICALLY: Reflecting on her valuable collection of landscape paintings, displayed in a new apartment now that she's widowed, a woman remembers the fateful summer of her thirteenth year, when a friend mysteriously disappeared while the two of them were alone during a camp expedition.

This is a story with lots to teach, if only I could figure out what. Seriously, it's seamless—my description above of the story's plot doesn't even begin to do it justice. Atwood presents a childhood incident in such a way that she's able to evoke the entire course of a woman's life and the emotional reality the woman has never been able to deal with. I came away from "Death by Landscape" feeling as though I had read a Greek tragedy or watched a heartbreaking documentary, even though the story only portrays this woman—Lois—in youth and (briefly) in old age. Two stops along a whole lifetime, and yet it's enough. We feel as though we understand. While the story isn't crushingly sad, there's an emotional impact, a sense of years collapsed into a few paragraphs.

You might remember that in story #28, I was all like, Realism? Meh—whatevs. And yet here is a profoundly real-seeming story that totally enthralls me. I mean, that's not to take anything away from Bezmozgis—I was serious when I said "Tapka" is well-written, and absolutely the right kind of story for the right kind of audience—but I do think it's interesting that I had such different reactions to what is pretty much the same genre; these are both pieces of literary fiction that deal with a Significant Childhood Incident. Obviously, the writer whose techniques I'd like to emulate is the one whose work resonates for me when I read it. And Atwood…I can see that I need to read a lot more of her.

Just another indication, friends, that we should cast our nets widely. We never know what's going to strike a chord. I, for example, am not a reader of realistic fiction! Until I am.

So, what was so effective about Atwood's story for me?

Margaret Atwood seems to have a lot of tricks up her sleeve when it comes to making her small story seem huge. Like the author of story #29, she plays around with present tense and past tense—except that she actually does it well and not quite like you'd expect. Instead of just using present tense for Lois-as-an-old-woman and past tense for Lois-as-a-girl, Atwood complicates the relationship of these two versions of Lois by putting part of the childhood experience—maybe the most important part, the part that revolves around the disappearance of Lois' friend—in present tense. This connects it to the present tense used at the story's beginning and end to show old-woman-Lois, and (like I talked about with story #29) it moves the story's camera into a greater intimacy with the character.

Atwood also just writes really beautifully. A monumentally unhelpful observation, I know. Oh, I can hear you exclaiming, if you'd just told me I was supposed to write beautifully, I would've tried that. But how to quantify style? It's not that Atwood's writing is especially lush or poetic (though she is also a poet, and a good one); it's more that she writes fluidly. All those mechanics everyone harps on, from sentence variation to strong verbs, turn out to recede into the background when they're employed well. Atwood's sentences are so consistently well-constructed that you don't even really notice them. Instead, you keep tumbling forward into the story.

And I think that's a key to the power of "Death by Landscape." Because those beautiful sentences that flow so nicely and naturally aren't just telling the surface story of the events leading up to and away from the disappearance of Lois' friend; they're also telling another story about Lois and what the events mean to her. Not directly, though. If Atwood had come right out and said, "Lucy's disappearance bothered Lois for the rest of her life," no one would care. But look at this paragraph: 
However, there were things Lois knew that Lucy did not. Lucy scratched the tops off all her mosquito bites and had to be taken to the infirmary to be daubed with Ozonol. She took her T-shirt off while sailing, and although the counselor spotted her after a while and made her put it back on, she burnt spectacularly, bright red, with the X of her bathing-suit straps standing out in alarming white; she let Lois peel the sheets of whispery-thin burned skin off her shoulders. When they sang "Alouette" around the campfire, she did not know any of the French words. The difference was that Lucy did not care about the things she didn't know, whereas Lois did. 
Not only do we get a fantastic image of the kind of friendship that existed between these two girls (Lucy lets Lois peel the dead skin from her sunburn, ew), but check out that last sentence. In the context of the paragraph, it makes complete sense, and we understand exactly what we need to about the difference between these two personalities. But the wonderful trick here is that this sentence also means something significant about Lucy's eventual disappearance and how it will affect Lois. Although Atwood never explains directly, sentences like this one help us to understand the reason why Lois is haunted her whole life by this childhood event, beyond even what might be expected.

The story's full of such sentences. Not so many that they're annoying, of course—that would just distract from the storytelling. These sentences do double duty. Meaningful in the context of the narrative's forward movement, they're also directly applicable to the story's larger meaning. Atwood uses them as a tool to bring her readers to a realization about the kind of person Lois is. We come to understand why this woman—not just a woman, but this woman—would possess a collection of landscapes that "fills her with a wordless unease." And we understand not because we're told directly, but because everything is there, all at once, woven into the landscape of the story itself.


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