Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Two Elements of Good Fiction

So I feel I must apologize for all the recent posts regarding David Foster Wallace. It's just that I've been slowly making my way through Infinite Jest (I'm on page 625), and it's like every time I read, I get inspired with a new idea or thought. I spent the afternoon reading in the park with my friend Becky, and I was struck by two things Wallace does in his writing that I think are hallmarks of good fiction:

1.) An attention to ordinary, often-overlooked details of life that make a story more relatable and real. For example, here's a description of a security guard from IJ: "The Security guy's hammered, his name's Sidney or Stanley and he wears his Security-hat and baton shopping at the Purity Supreme (supermarket) and always asks Gately how it's hanging. His shoes uppers are blasted along the feet's insides the way fat men that have to walk a lot's are." These details tell so much about this security guard. Wallace doesn't have to say the guy is pathetically proud of his status as a security guard--he shows us with these details.

2.) Scenes that contain subtle, easily missed moments of grace, even spirituality, often right in the midst of dreadful circumstances. For example, there's a scene in IJ where Don Gately, recovering drug addict and the house supervisor of a halfway house, gets shot and stabbed defending another recovering addict, who didn't deserve to be defended. As Gately's laying on the ground bleeding, another recovering addict, Joelle (who always wears a veil because she is ashamed of her deformed face, which may or may not actually be deformed) comes to his side, for comfort: "Joelle runs a hand down Gately's wet arm that leaves a warm wake, the hand, and then gently squeezes as much of the wrist as she can get her hand around (Gately is huge). 'And Lo,' she says softly." And then the scene goes on. The average reader might not get that this is a reference to Jesus' last words of comfort to his disciples, "And Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." These small moments of grace amidst dreadful circumstances--not sappy or melodramatic, but subtle, like a whisper--these moments always get me. My other favorite writer, Dostoyevsky is a master of this. Granted, Dostoyevsky is a little less subtle sometimes, but the idea is the same--grace amidst suffering, like the scene in Crime and Punishment when this old drunk is in a bar, and some men are laughing at how pathetic he is, and he (the drunk) launches into this ecstatic speech about how it is precisely because he is so pathetic that he will receive grace. So beautiful.

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