The Art of SUBTEXT

October 18, 2009
Beyond Plot

from the author of The Believers


Paperback: 182 pages

Publisher: Graywolf Press, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-1555974732

Trade Paperback: 6.9 x 5 x 0.6 inches


Available, click here from amazon.com


     The master short-story writer, Charles Baxter, provides a complex read on something  poet Marianne Moore once expressed this way, “The power of the visible, is in the invisible.” Here Baxter examines stories “with a magnifying glass, looking for the secret panel, the hidden stairway, the lovingly concealed dungeon and the ghost moaning from beneath the floor.”

     He shares his conclusions about staging scenes. In real life, he says, good families (i.e. normal, boring ones) don’t have them, but these are the building blocks of drama. And that’s the point. We want to see things played out on the page or on the screen that for one reason or another we are hesitant about in our everyday exchanges. To capture that contradictory process great stories, “don’t depend so much on what the characters say they want as what they actually want but can’t own up to.” The author has us reconsider classics from Ahab’s obsession in Moby Dick to a rather profound observation about the power of fantasy in The Great Gatsby. Then of course there is John Cheever’s “The Simmer,” Franz Kafka, and Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” But what of the dark night of the soul lit by Dostoyevsky, the world’s foremost “psychologist of rage?” That comes later under “Staging a Desire.”

     In terms of dynamics between characters—in these scenes genteel people so fear—Baxter uses one of my favorite examples, Frost’s “Home Burial.” In describing the camera shots of Citizen Kane Orson Welles once said he wanted each character to have his or her own unique angle so that even if a viewer didn’t know the plot the viewer would be able to understand the story. We’re always looking up at Kane (Welles even built a trapdoor on the set to get the camera at a very low angle) and looking down at Susan Alexander, the singer who is his less-than-talented protégé. Remember the camera shot that comes down through the skylight of a nightclub where she’s performing? Well, here we have the same thing, but it’s even better because the man and woman in the Frost poem change position as the emotional advantage swings from one to the other. The man begins at the foot of the stairs and rises to eventually tower over her, however they are both upstaged by an unknown presence outside, which they glance at through the window.           

     We can observe these things in life or in examples of contemporary writers, such as Richard Bausch and Edward Jones. Baxter, the writer, is ever the teacher: “Dialogue, instead of bringing people together, instead tends to define their differences and then cast those differences in stone.” This is a book like Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, forty years ago, that turns things on their head. One important point I learned is what Baxter calls a “fallacy of dialogue today,” that all characters are, in fact listening to what is said. In reality there is an inattentiveness, not only in the best works of Eugene O’Neil, Tony Kushner and Lorrie Moore, but in our society outside of plays and books. The same is true about facial expression, though I have to admit he loses me a bit with this. It may be , as a student of Baxter’s claims, no one is interested in faces anymore (this is the age of texting and twittering, after all), but isn’t this something we seek (or should seek) for exactly that reason. To compensate for the lack of it in our lives? We watch close-ups of faces on big screens, stare at tabloid pages featuring paparazzi-stolen glimpses at celebrities. We even buy books, such as this one, to better see the Other. The strong must see the weak, if we are to count ourselves civilized. The healthy, the sick; the rich, the impoverished. Good literature helps us do that, and books like this one by Charles Baxter, help us understand why and how.    

φ φ φ φ φ (five roses out of five)                      –  John Lehman


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