Story and Change

Whereas the other features of creative language operate by bringing us in close, showing more of the world, exposing the inherent attributes of a person or scene, story drives us forward—through and beyond. Richard in Pinter's The Lover tries to fix the meaning of 'blind'. Lois's paintings in Atwood's story will always reveal the irreclaimable presence of her friend. The point about making images is to make them stay in place: the statue that will never be dislodged from the public square; the works of art stowed in their museums; D'Aguair's worm that always winds to the surface; his London of chokey streets, grey light, close skies. Story rebels against such continuities. If popular journalism loves images, its addiction to story draws even more followers. The celebrity ideal attracts because story puts it at risk, and so this sense that things can always get better, or worse, feeds an appetite for discontinuity. Here is an example from a piece of journalism:

It starts with the little things: the unscrubbed bath, the unwashed dishes, the socks on the living room floor Then the little things become bigger; the unpaid share of the gas bill, the 'borrowed' clothes, the continuous late night thump of the stereo system. Gradually you come to realise that you are living with the flatmate from hell.

(Tredre, 1995)

From an Observer article by Nicholas Tredre, this passage implies a point where the person causing these kinds of disruption won't be tolerated much longer. Even though this is the opening paragraph, already the language has started to move us on, tracking a situation as it develops. The writing enacts, builds tension, records time as events not just in a list but as a shape. We are allowed to feel the developments from the viewpoint of someone there in the picture—a picture already changing, moving on.

The 'little things' are getting bigger, yet the tone remains comparatively light. Not so in this next extract from Michael Herr's introduction to the photographer Don McCullin's autobiography, where the setting is a road intersection in North Vietnam:

This was an elemental crossroads, where body and spirit could meet and then be sheared away from one another in a second. It had been cold and dark for days, and all the light seemed to be weighed with gray, greasy particles. And without breaking it down into its components of smoke, cordite, fear; dust, death, prayers, and the palpable pyramiding misery, the air was just too thick. It was thick along the ground where we were lying, and above us it was thick with rounds. We then saw McCullin step into this crossroads with what was, at the very least, a great impersonation of total deliberateness. He referred to his light meter, made some adjustments on his camera, and began taking pictures.

The rule is: set the scene, move it forward. 'For days.' becomes 'the ground where we were lying.', becomes the first moment of action: 'We then saw.' followed rapidly by more moments of action. The whole style of the passage is an acting out. Whenever events develop in real time, as in reports or records, someone could always be ready to say, 'I was there, and it wasn't like that'. A writer aims to counter such objections, and does so using reality effects, details that carry an 'I was there' type element of 'convincingness'. Here we have 'light.weighed with gray, greasy particles.the air was just too thick'. Most of us have enough sense of war to accept these details, and it's important we do so because when McCullin does appear he is going to be playing a hero's role, or at least a 'great impersonation' of it. We are being asked to accept this, too, and we do. The passage has slipped from real time into time where heroes arise. Armed with a camera, McCullin appears like Beowulf facing Grendell's ravages in the hall of the Geats. Someone has stepped forward with hero qualities, crossing the borders of real time into a world of story.

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