Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“He drew air into his lungs one last time…”

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"Karvonen had observed the chase..."

Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 22. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of my recurring obsessions as a writer is how narrative elements that once served a purely pragmatic purpose can be appropriated by artists to convey meaning or emotion. Take the convention of opening and closing credits. Originally, movie credits consisted of a simple card at the beginning of a reel to indicate the film’s title, mostly as a matter of convenience for the distributor. Gradually, they expanded to include more information, and as they grew longer, they became a means of creative expression in themselves: Saul Bass’s great credit sequences for Hitchcock and other directors are only the flowering of a tradition that began with those first shaky titles at the start of a silent film. These days, elaborate opening titles have sadly fallen out of fashion, except in the James Bond movies, but even ordinary credits can still serve a narrative function. The first appearance of a film’s title can be a statement of intention, coming as a kind of punctuation mark after a dramatic cold open, and the decision to dispense with an opening title at all—which is becoming more and more common—is a choice in itself. And many directors use their own credit as a punchline. Tarantino does this all the time, and the ending of A Clockwork Orange wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the cut to the stark “Produced and Directed by Stanley Kubrick,” as Gene Kelly sings us out of the theater.

In fiction, authors have access to similar tools, in the form of white space, chapter breaks, and the transitions between sections. Much of the formatting of a book is out of a writer’s hands, of course, and I suspect that if more authors had control over the layout of their novels, we’d also see page breaks used as dramatic devices. (Screenwriters, for instance, will often edit the script so that a joke or surprise appears at a good place on the physical page.) As it stands, it’s generally only in the larger divisions of a story that a writer can exercise control. Most readers know how it feels, for instance, to see out of the corner of one eye that a chapter is about to end, which subtly guides the way we read the rest of the text. As a writer, I always like it when the reader needs to turn the page to see that the chapter is ending, ideally with only a few lines left, so that the full impact of the break is retained. The same is true, to an even greater extent, when the end of a larger section becomes visible on the horizon. And our tactile awareness of how many pages remain in the book as a whole shapes our attitude toward what we’re reading now. Douglas Hofstadter, for one, wondered whether it would be possible to pad a novel with additional pages to mislead readers about how close they were to the end, and by accident, I ended up with something like this with my own books, each of which concludes with a sample of the next installment in the series, hiding the real ending.

"He drew air into his lungs one last time..."

Even in other kinds of writing, these sorts of physical, structural breaks carry syntactic meaning. The gaps between sections in a long magazine article, for example, were originally incorporated for typographical reasons: for the sake of the reader’s eyes, you want to break up the wall of text with illustrations or blank lines whenever possible. When you read an article in The New Yorker, though, you quickly find that that writer—or editor—has turned those patches of white space into an expressive tool in themselves. They often occur at a pivotal point in the argument or narrative, and they naturally emphasize the text that comes immediately before and after. The sentence leading up to the break, in particular, is effectively put into invisible italics, so we’re encouraged to look at it more closely. Position, along with content, informs the reader’s response, and if the article were reformatted so that each paragraph flowed smoothly into the next, there would be a real loss of meaning. A visual break in the text looks both forward and backward: if there’s one sentence that a reader is likely to read more than once, it’s the last line before a major structural division, which is the novelistic equivalent of a curtain line in theater. We may not be sure why the author put those words there, but we know that it’s probably important.

Which brings us to the end of Part I of City of Exiles. The fact that Chapter 22 concludes this larger section probably doesn’t come as a surprise to a reader. Internally, it feels like the end of a big chunk of narrative, since it represents the end of one major plot thread: Karvonen fulfills the assignment that he received in the first chapter, killing Morley and his bodyguard, and he escapes with the MacGuffin safely in hand. The fact that the chapter lingers more than usual on the violence, which I generally show only sparingly, is another clue that we’re nearing the climax. And if that weren’t enough, the layout of the print version of the novel itself, which puts the epigraph to Part II on the facing page, gives away the game a few paragraphs before the reader reaches the end of Part I. For all that, though, I think the result works just fine, even if it doesn’t have quite the slap to the face that I would have liked. (Whenever I think of a perfect act break, the first thing that comes to mind is end of the first half of Doctor Zhivago, with the big reveal of Strelnikov on the train followed by a crashing Maurice Jarre chord and the title card reading Intermission.) Here, Morley lies dying on the floor, and Wolfe arrives just in time to hear his last words: “Dyatlov Pass.” With that, the section ends. And we’re going to spend the rest of the novel trying to figure out what he meant…

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