Monday, March 12, 2012

Science!, which I suppose is appropriate for a novel called By Blood

Today, let's try an experiment! The first step is to read this passage from the first page of Ellen Ullman's By Blood (2012):
My involvement with the young woman in question began several years ago, in the late summer of 1974, while I was on leave from the university. I sought to secure for myself a small office in the downtown business district of San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series of lectures about The Eumenides—The Kindly Ones—the third play in Aeschylus’s great trilogy. A limited budget brought me to the edge of a rough, depressed neighborhood. And my first sighting of the prospective office building,—eight begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time—nearly caused me to retrace my steps.

Yet there was no question of my turning back. Immediately upon my arrival in San Francisco, a month earlier, a great gloom had descended upon me. I had arranged my leave in great haste; I knew no one in the area. And it must have been this isolation that had engendered in me a particularly obdurate spell of the nervous condition to which I had been subject since boyhood. Although I was then a grown man of fifty years, the illness, as ever, cast me back into the dark emotions of my preadolescence, as if I remained unchanged the desperate boy of twelve I had been. Indeed, the very purpose of the office was to act as a counterweight to this most recent spell, to get me dressed and out of the house, to force me to walk on public streets among people, to immerse myself, however anonymously, in the general hum of society; and in this way, perhaps, sustain the gestures of normal life.
From those few sentences, do you get a sense of claustrophobia, of someone who's been living too long inside his own head? Of an inner--and thus an outer--world that's not quite right? Like perhaps this narrator isn't entirely to be trusted? By the end of the second paragraph, I think there's no doubt, but it seems to me that the cracks are beginning to show long before the explicit reference to the "nervous condition," the spell already being cast. The "rough, depressed neighborhood" and "begrimed gargoyles" even seems to spread their murk backwards, infecting the possibly innocent "on leave" and highlight the finickiness of "sought to secure for myself."

Or at least that's what I experienced. But it's possible I'd been primed--here's where the science comes in--for those are not the first and second, but the second and third paragraphs of the novel. The book opens with this:
I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, though I never learned her name.
So here's my question: did you, encountering the paragraphs I first revealed, read them like I did? Or, without those two creepy opening sentence that I just revealed, are the subsequent signs less obvious?

I ask in part simply because this specific type of narrative voice has always interested me as the most attractive solution to the problem of first-person narration: you turn the narrative over to someone who, it is clear, can't help but write it all down for us, obsessively and deliberately. And even as the voice lifts us over many of the hurdles of first-person narration and allows us to believe in it, it opens up at the same time for a writer the possibility of playing with our inherent instinct to trust the account we're reading. Doubt creeps in, and every word we read begins to carry with it a darker valence.

The other reason I'm curious about your reaction to that passage is that at first read it brought to mind two others. First there's the opening to James Lasdun's psychological horror novel The Horned Man (2002):
One afternoon earlier this winter, in a moment of idle curiosity, I took a book from the shelf in my office and began reading it where it fell open on a piece of compressed tissue that had evidently been used as a bookmark. I’d only had time to read a few sentences when I was interrupted by a knock on the door. Reluctantly—the sentences had looked interesting—I closed the book on its marker and returned it to the shelf.

The next morning I took it down again, intending to continue reading where I had left off, only to find that the marker was no longer at the page it had been on the day before. Leafing through the book, I found my sentences thirty pages earlier. Either I had moved the marker inadvertently myself or some night visitor had been reading the book in my absence. I settled on the first as the more likely explanation, though it seemed odd that I could have moved a bookmark forward thirty pages without noticing it.
The doubt sown here is perhaps even less explicit than what's found in the opening of By Blood: it rests in the single line about the "night visitor"--and in the fact that such an idea instantly presented itself to the narrator as a real, if less likely possibility. It's a hairline, but it's nevertheless a crack.

The second book I thought of was Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), whose opening, strong on its own, was made immortal by Joan Fontaine's delivery of it at the start of the Hitchcock fim:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw the lodge was uninhabited.

No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkept, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end.
Du Maurier, who understood mood as well as any writer I've read, makes the situation explicit--it's a dream--but leaves the menace implicit. Locked out, alone, we "of a sudden" are allowed in, and we find . . . nothing but the absent hand of human care, and its reminder that all our works will end in dust. How could you not want to continue reading after that opening?

That's also how I felt about the opening of By Blood. I'm only about 75 pages into the book, so it's still far from clear where it's headed--or even where its concerns will ultimately rest--but it's compelling thus far. And it all starts with those first paragraphs and the spell of fragility and uncertainty they weave. Which brings me back, to close the post, to the experiment: did you react as I did to the quoted passages, even without the first paragraph to guide you? Or was that paragraph crucial for priming me find the dark spots in the subsequent lines?

1 comment:

  1. The first paragraph was not at all required for me to experience the effect you're interested in. In fact, I actually found the second and third paragraphs *more* creepy without the first—which holds the faint suggestion that even if the narrator *used* to be unstable/unreliable/menacing, he might no longer be at the time of writing...