Monday, April 08, 2013

Details, details

Every once in a while as a reader you encounter a detail in a novel that is so perfect, so unusual, and so strictly unnecessary, that you can't help but assume it comes direct from the author's experience--adapted as needed for the fictional situation, but still seeming to carry with it a whiff of reality that extends beyond the page.

My two favorite examples come from Joseph Conrad and Lawrence Block. In The Nigger of the "Narcissus", Conrad tells of a terrible storm:
On the lee side another man could be seen stretched out as if stunned; only the washboard prevented him from going over the side. It was the steward. We had to sling him up like a bale, for he was paralysed with fright. He had rushed up out of the pantry when he had felt the ship go over, and he had rolled down helplessly, clutching a china mug. It was not broken. With difficulty we tore it away from him, and when he saw it in our hands he was amazed. "Where did you get that thing?" he kept on asking us in a trembling voice.
Conrad of course drew on his experience at sea throughout his books, but that one moment--the extraneous detail of the miraculously (and inconsequentially) unbroken china cup feels as straight from life as anything else in his fiction.

Lawrence Block's moment comes in the best Matthew Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. Published in 1986 but set in the '70s, back when Scudder was still a heavy drinker, it portrays the run-down, nigh-lawless New York of that period--the city, like Scudder, still mostly functional but clearly heading downhill fast. At one of the many drinking sessions in the book, a guy is prompted to tell a story of one of the strangest things he's ever seen in New York: leaving his girlfriend's house on West End Avenue in the 80s early one morning, he sees three black men standing in the street, "wearing fatigue jackets, like, and one's got a cap. They look like soldiers." He continues:
"Well, it's hard to believe I really saw this," he said. He took off his glasses, massaged the bridge of his nose. "They took a look around, and if they saw me they decided I was nothing to worry about--"

"Shrewd judges of character," Skip put in.

"--and they set up this mortar, like they've done this drill a thousand times before, and one of them drops a shell in, and they lob a round into the Hudson, nice easy shot, they're on the corner and they can see clear to the river, and we all like check it out, and they still don't pay any attention to me, and they nod to each other and strip the mortar down and pack it up and walk off together."

"Jesus," I said.

"It happened so fast," he said, "and with so little fanfare, I wondered if I imagined it. But it happened."

"Did the round make a lot of noise?"

"No, not a whole lot. There was the sort of whump! sound a mortar makes on firing, and if there was an explosion when the round hit the water, I didn't hear it." "Probably a blank," Skip said. "They were probably, you know, testing the firing mechanism, checking out the trajectory."

"Yeah, but for what?"

"Well, shit," he said. "You never know when you're gonna need a mortar in this town."
If Lawrence Block didn't at some point see some dudes firing a mortar into the Hudson--or, at minimum, hear about it from someone else he knew, I'll buy him a steak dinner. Or maybe some beef tongue. (You'll see why in a minute.) The Scudder stories portrat a New York that's always believable, even in--or especially in--its seediest aspects. But that moment? Whump! Just too real.

All of which leads, with my usual obliqueness, to the book that brought these instances to mind: Kate Atkinson's Life after Life. I've got a lot more tolerance for historical fiction than Jessa Crispin, who recently gave up on the book because she "got about three pages in . . . and suddenly Hitler is there," but as I near the halfway point I'm not yet wholly sure of the book either--despite finding it engaging. That said, leaving Hitler aside Atkinson does wear her research well--the fundamental requirement for a historical novel that's not dreck. Her descriptions of daily life and its accoutrements feel like typical novelistic description rather than gawping at the past or detail delivered for its own sake.

There was, however, one moment that did feel like the fruit of research, a discovery so entertaining that Atkinson surely couldn't help but include it. In that regard, it's like the mirror image of the moments in Block and Conrad, shining more brightly than its surroundings not because it's crafted from lived experience but because it's the sort of thing that only the haphazardly diligent magpie's research of a novelist would likely turn up. See what you think:
Mrs. Glover was more than fully occupied with pressing a calf's tongue, removing the gristle and bone and rolling it up before squeezing it into the tongue press.
If I may take a moment to play the squeamish vegetarian: There is such a thing as a tongue press! Good god, I hope it has gone the way of sock garters and collar stays, beef tea and pink shape.

Finally, I won't blame you if you begin to suspect that I wrote this whole post for the sole purpose of sharing the following line--which a friend credits to me but I have to believe I stole from someone more clever:
Tongue--the meat that tastes you back.
Good night, folks.


  1. My (English, somewhat older than Kate Atkinson) mother used to press a tongue in a saucepan in the refrigerator, with a plate clamped down over it. My father was keen on it!

    I have 2 details along these lines in my style book, will email them to you next time I have that file open...

  2. As I've learned from old French cookbooks, various meat presses used to be fairly common. My favorite line from a recipe is from Vincent and Mary Price's adaptation of the Tour d'Argent's most well known dish, Caneton Tour d'Argent (a.k.a. Frederic's Pressed Duck), and it reads:

    Crush the bones in the special machine called "Press Duck" in order to extract all the blood, and pour in about 1/2 cup consommé of a duck.

  3. andrea12:49 PM

    What is "pink shape"? On second thought, don't answer that.