Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Listening Closely to Small Sounds

Big ups to writers who describe highly dramatic events in a highly un-dramatic manner.

Here is a passage from Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist.

Suddenly, Roberta cried out, and was sitting on the pavement, cradling a bloody mess that, Alice reasoned, could only be Faye. Yes, she could see an arm, white, pretty, whole, with a tangle of coloured bandages on the wrist.

Faye is one of the novel’s key characters, and the bomb blast that kills her is the climax of the novel. What a temptation it must have been to write this event as a climax, to puff it up with paragraphs of lush description. And what a joy it is for the reader to read it as a climax, to witness this narrative blast without seeing the author strain towards it with unnecessary words. (Words that would give a false account of the event anyway, since they would swell an abrupt experience into a slow-motion contemplation.)

Here are some other passages in the same style:

Faye lay on her back. Propped slightly up on embroidered and frilled cushions, ghastly pale, her mouth slightly open, and her cut wrists rested on her thighs. Blood soaked everything.
Alice stood screaming.

The smell on this floor was strong. It came from upstairs. More slowly they went up generously wide stairs, and confronted a stench which made Jasper briefly retch. Alice’s face was stern and proud. She flung open a door on to a scene of plastic buckets, topped with shit. But this room had been deemed sufficiently full, and the one next to it had started. Ten or so red, yellow and orange buckets stood in a group, waiting.

Here it is not the revelation itself but the events surrounding it that give force to the former. Drama is indicated by its effects, like the smell of shit diffusing through the house.