Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Storyteller or dramatic narrator? With a review of Elizabeth Zahzam's God of Wine

Some experiences challenge accepted ideas.  In the last days, we’ve seen the entire east coast region in a black out, cut off from transportation and even communication.  Yet this vulnerability hasn’t brought on any foreign attack.  The U.S. still has so much to offer other nations that its presence is probably too vital for any planned attack.  I grew up during the Cold War era and since then, our defense system may have operated on a foundation of paranoia.  I was glad to hear of the National Guard helping during this crisis.  I did wonder, thinking about the millions without power and many without their normal housing, why more of our readied forces couldn’t have made certain that citizens weren’t in danger or experiencing severe suffering. 

I’m sure many stories will come out of this.  And even if they are now being told verbally, would you hear it from a storyteller or from a person who might dramatize or act out their experience?

A few weeks ago, I finished Elizabeth Zahzam’s God of Wine.  The author works through scenes about theater people in New York City while intriguing the reader with active interior from the protagonist.  Elizabeth is from Superior, Wisconsin, across Lake Superior from Duluth where I live.  For many years, she has lived in New York and recently, endured the storm waters and wind there. 

God of Wine is a fascinating book and I would say a dramatic narrative.  Here is my Amazon review:

An intoxicating book, the story of Krissy is about her development as well as about the adulations of the theater. Krissy makes you cringe sometimes, wanting the Broadway actor Taylor and accepting the plan of the eerie theater man, Dionysus, in breaking up Taylor's marriage.  Dionysus is an enthrallment, directing a plan she won't accept as her own. It involves scandal and a twisted plot in causing Taylor, a recovering alcoholic, to become inundated with Krissy.

I really liked how Dionysus was both real in being an older man hanging around the theater and symbolic in directing Krissy before she finds an agent.  Sometimes he seems real and other times, he hauntingly appears as the motivator, critic, and tempter.  This made me wonder about Krissy besides
Taylor, whether she gives Dionysus a delusional power, accepting her role rather than taking responsibility.  In the same way, his protégée Taylor can't take responsibility once he is drunk.

The book is written with both dramatic terseness and interior rapture, driving the story so that I knew I would read it to the end. Elizabeth Zahzam is skilled and she has depicted a scenario that punctuates with possible reality while Dionysus's ability to turn up adds speculation and the highs of hoped-for love. The book has the illusion of theater and it takes on the challenge of the tragic.

After congregating with other book writers on the Internet, I wondered about the writing advice of our time:  “Don’t tell, render the scene”;  “Start in the middle of things”;  “Show, don’t tell.”   Often I commented on what I preferred, a balance between narrative and rendered writing.  Even today, narrative writing can be mesmerizing while rendered writing conveys the vitality of characters.

Authors of early novels, using the omniscient narrator, told about their characters, around them, and they could even psychoanalyze them.  They also wrote blocks of description.  A favorite novel of mine, Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy begins:  “Description of Farmer Oak – An Incident    When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance from his ears ….His Christian name was Gabriel…”   There are seven paragraphs of narration before Hardy renders the protagonist’s new beginning after her inheritance.  Agreeing with me, Amazon readers today gave the book 4.5 stars. 

And then there was Dickens’s beginning at the beginning of things.  “I am born,” tells David Copperfield.

Film probably threatened the novel from the first.  I’ve thought that the book writer should try to accomplish what the film can’t.  There aren’t many films that are told by a master narrator.  And it’s difficult for film to account for a character’s inner feelings and schemes. 

There seems to be two kinds of narrative – storytelling and dramatic.  From ancient times, the storyteller narrated as in The Bible, Homer, and the Indian sagas.  Then the Greeks introduced written drama.  After that, dramatic writing often paralleled narrative writing, in Rome, England, and France. 

From Wikipedia
We were told to render everything.  When I began long fiction, it came naturally to write the juvenile novel, probably because I read many of them in grade school.  I wasn’t so much of a storyteller, I knew.  I liked to jump into the action and bring on the dialogue.  Later, I felt that I needed to fill in gaps between scenes and strengthen my narrative voice.

Especially since I’d noticed that readers in the 1980s and 1990s liked strong narration.  Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, and Ann Beattie all have distinctive narrative voices.  In saying that, I mean that the voice lends tone and mood to the writing while a more dramatic narrator seems to be observing or reporting the story.

Doris Lessing’s narrative in her Children of Violence series was so luscious between the strong scenes that I read every book.  The first, Martha Quest, begins:  “Two elderly women sat knitting on that part of the verandah which was screened from the sun by a golden shower creeper….”   In the next 12 paragraphs, the author tells about Martha’s father and mother, English settlers in Africa, and about Martha.

Alice Adams is a dramatic writer, I think.  Superior Women starts:  “All, or almost all, of the events of Megan Greene’s life, its violent dislocations, geographic and otherwise, are set in motion in the instant in which she first sees a young man named George Wharton… This takes place in the Stanford Bookstore, where Megan has a summer job ...”  After this, there is much dialogue in scenes that are spaced from one another.

Whatever works seems the creed of most writers.  Understanding one’s stronger or more natural way of telling a story might be the way to begin.  I’ve spent two years rewriting and editing my manuscripts.  I wonder how I might begin again.