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.