Minneapolis Convention Center | April 11, 2015

Episode 98: Puzzle and Mystery: Orchestrating the Known and the Unknown

(Natalie Bakopoulos, Lan Samantha Chang, Steven Schwartz, Peter Turchi) Every story, novel, and poem strikes a balance not just between what's included and what's omitted, but between what is known—by the characters, by the narrator, and by the writer—and what is unknown, even unknowable. Effective choices regarding inclusion and presentation can create productive tension and realistic complexity; less effective ones can result in vagueness, obscurity, and unhelpful opacity. This panel will discuss examples from longer and shorter works.

Published Date: October 7, 2015


Speaker 1 (00:00:04):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2015 A W P conference in Minneapolis. The recording features Natalie Opolis Lan, Samantha Chang, Steven Schwartz, and Peter Churchy. You'll now hear Peter Churchy provide introductions.

Speaker 2 (00:00:33):

All right, I want to introduce this. This is the panel on puzzle and mystery, the known and the unknown, and now I'll introduce all four of us and then we'll just get up and tell you what we have to say. To my left is Steven Schwartz. Steven is the author of five books most recently A Little Raw Souls, A Collection of Schwartz Stories. That book was the winner of the 2013 Forward Book of the Year award, the Gold Medal winner In short stories, it's hard to do better than that, and it was the winner of the 2014 Colorado Book of the Year Award for literary nonfiction that can't be n is. He is teaches in the Warren Wilson College M f A program for writers and in the M F A and Writing program at Colorado State where he is fiction editor of Colorado Review. To my immediate right is Natalie Opolis.

Speaker 2 (00:01:23):

Natalie received her M F A in fiction from the University of Michigan where she now teaches her first novel. The Green Shore was published in 2012 by Simon and Schuster. Her work has appeared in Tin House, ninth Letter Salon, Granta Glimmer Train, the New York Times, and in the 2010 Penn O Henry Prize stories among other places, her book reviews appear in the San Francisco Chronicle. She's the recipient of fellowships from the Camargo Foundation, the SoPo Fiction Seminars and the McDowell Colony and most recently she was named a 20 14 20 15 Fulbright Scholar. In fact, she ran over from Greece just to join us to my far right land. Samantha Chang is the author of two novels, always forgotten Nothing is Lost, an Inheritance and a Collection of Short Fiction Hunger. She's the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and she's a professor of creative writing and the director of the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. And I'm Pete Turie. I've published six books most recently, A Muse and a Maze Writing as Puzzle Mystery and Magic, which was our inspiration. It's not a coincidence and Maps of the Imagination, the writer as cartographer. I teach creative writing at the University of Houston and also in the M F A program for writers at Warren Wilson College. And I'm going to do a sort of introduction to the topic, so I'm going to go first and then we'll narrow in.

Speaker 2 (00:02:45):

I want to begin by acknowledging what I'm not talking about puzzle and mystery in the writing process. In the book I've just published, I refer to these as the muse and the maze. The maze represents all of the conscious work we do when we draft and revise. When we assemble and organize the parts in every poem, story or novel, we're configuring information, words, images, characters, scenes, ideas to lead the reader on a kind of journey. We refer to that conscious configuration as craft and we talk about it quite a lot. We talk about it in class after class. We talk about it in panel after panel year after year here at a w P, but it's important to recognize what we all know to be true. No amount of studying, no amount of diligent practice, no given number of hours spent at the keyboard will guarantee that we produce anything beautiful or transcendent.

Speaker 2 (00:03:39):

That's where the muse comes in. If the notion of an actual muse seems quaint or romantic, think of it as inspiration, intuition, indigestion the unconscious or the subconscious. We tend to talk less about that part of the writing process largely because we can't teach it. We can teach the arrangement of image, we can talk about scene and syntax and suspense, but we can't teach anyone to be inspired or to create beauty, and yet it's essential to keep those mysterious elements of the process in mind because the leave them out is to create the impression that they're unimportant, whereas they are, as we all know, essential and while we can't teach them, what we can do is cultivate them and we can try to stop ourselves in workshops and other conversations. If we hear everyone talking as if writing fiction were a mechanical act, one that can be practiced and perfected.

Speaker 2 (00:04:30):

Writing can of course be practiced and improved, but great writing often involves one or more moments of transcendence of something inexplicable or mysterious. The composition of a story or poem or novel is a puzzle for the writer whose job is to decide what to include, what to exclude, and how to organize the parts. The problem is compounded by the fact that we begin to write without knowing precisely what we're trying to create. The work continually changes form and emphasis and purpose characters disappear. New characters are added, some scenes grow longer, others are reduced. In summary, a pocket watch that just happened to be in a dresser drawer suddenly seems to indicate something larger. We can't compose the puzzle or arrange the words and sentences and characters and events most effectively until we finally feel confident that we understand what it is we're trying to create.

Speaker 2 (00:05:21):

But process is not, as I've said, what I'm going to talk about while composing a poem or piece of fiction is like composing a puzzle. The finished work is not presented by the writer is something for the reader to solve. There may be puzzles within a story, aspects of plot or character or imagery or meaning that the writer arranges with the expectation that the reader will actively participate in their assembly. But the story as a whole is not a problem with the solution. Like Aria's thread, allowing thesis to journey into and safety out of the mythical labyrinth. A story means to lead the reader somewhere, but the destination isn't a monster or a pot of gold or a bit of wisdom. Instead, the destination is something or several things to contemplate. The best fiction in poetry leads the reader not to an explanation, but to a place of wonder.

Speaker 2 (00:06:10):

How do we know? Because the books and stories and poems that mean the most to us are the ones we want to read again, to re-experience and reconsider. I'd like to focus then on the delicate balance in any given work of the artful strategic arrangement of information and the recognition of mystery. To do that, I want to revisit one of the most frequently quoted statements by one of our most frequently quoted writers when he was just 28. Anton Chekov wrote in a letter, I've always insisted that it is not up to the artist to resolve very specific questions. Only the individual who has never written and never dealt with images can say that there are no questions in his sphere, just a solid, massive answers. You're right to demand that an artist take a conscious attitude to his work, but you confuse two concepts resolving a question and posing a question correctly only the second is required of the artist.

Speaker 2 (00:07:01):

The judge must pose the questions correctly, let them be resolved by the members of the jury, each in accordance with his own taste. In that same letter, Chekhov makes clear that the correct posing of the question is a significant responsibility. He says, an artist observes, selects, guesses, arranges. These actions alone must be prompted by a question. If he did not ask himself a question at the very start, there would be nothing to guess and nothing to select. If an author were to boast to me that he had written a story without having thought through his intentions first on inspiration alone, I would call him mad. According to Chekhov, then the artist A asks himself a question, B thinks through his intentions, c, observes d selects and e arranges. In short, he's encouraging the writer to be a kind of puzzle maker. The crucial difference being that the completed puzzle leads readers to a provocative question. While we might endorse this pretty easily, not every writer of great literature in the past would agree. In fact, it's likely that Aristotle, Homer and Euroes would've disagreed, and we know that Tolstoy disagreed with Chekhov. Tolstoy famously told Chekhov, Shakespeare's plays are terrible. Yours are even worse.

Speaker 2 (00:08:19):

By that time, Chekhov believed that the writer's job was to explore and consider. He didn't. If you read Chekhov's earliest stories, in fact you'll find stories that close pretty neatly, almost disappointingly neatly. It was something that he came to appreciate. By the time he was a wise old man of 28, he was criticized for the way that he wrote as a mature artist, Andre Ovv wrote the characteristic absence in Chekhov's work of any overt moralizing of the pointing finger and clear hints to the reader who was left the right to judge for himself. What the writer had depicted was taken by critics not as a particular and original literary style, but as a major conceptual and literary defect. He was accused of indifference and social insensibility. Truly serious literature in that time and place was supposed to point the reader in one direction to offer instruction.

Speaker 2 (00:09:10):

So this business about the importance of recognizing mystery is not some inviolate truth, it's a belief or a choice, one very much dependent on time and culture. Today, most popular fiction including genre fiction, works hard to provide explanations. Despite the label, we give them classic mystery stories such as the Sherlock Holmes stories or Agatha Christie's novels would more accurately be called puzzles. When we get to the end, everything of consequences resolved, explained in contrast at the end of a passage to India, the quiet American and beloved, the narrative is resolved, but a few key questions are left for the reader to ponder both before and after Chekhov. Countless writers have weighed in on this issue of balancing puzzle and mystery. John Keats argued strongly for mystery. It struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously, I mean negative capability.

Speaker 2 (00:10:05):

That is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable, reaching after fact and reason, and yet Keats contained those mysteries in familiar forms including the sonnet, the epic, and his imitation of Spencer. When f Scott Fitzgerald started work on a new novel, one that eventually became the Great Gatsby, he was concentrating on shape. He wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins, I want to write something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned among other patterning devices. Deep in the weave of the final draft is the repetition of keywords including twilight, shadow and ghost. The word light appears over 100 times in the Great Gatsby in various forms, and yet the incessant references the fading and darkness, the elaborate machinations of circumstance necessary to the most dramatic sequence. When Daisy driving Gatsby's car kills Myrtle, who had reason to believe Tom Buchanan was behind the wheel?

Speaker 2 (00:11:07):

None of those formal considerations reduce one of the most haunting American novels. On the contrary, they provide a framework for a book. Many of us have not only been moved to reread, but to understand differently each time we read it. Like many other artists, Catherine Ann Porter saw her work as imposing meaningful order on reality. Human life itself may be almost pure chaos, she said, but the work of the artist, the only thing he's good for is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate things, things that seem to be irreconcilable and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning. Her novella noon wine is a drama carefully orchestrated first to encourage us to judge its main character, Mr. Thompson harshly. Then move us to some degree of sympathetic understanding so that we might comprehend the logic that leads him to desperate anxiety and finally to suicide.

Speaker 2 (00:12:01):

But the fact that we understand his reasoning does not keep us from contemplating how he might've avoided that end and how our own view of the world might narrow our sense of possibilities. While one might think that writers who hold strong religious and political views would be inclined toward didacticism and many are Flannery O'Connor's faith insisted on the recognition of the unknown she wrote. The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery, but mystery is not obscurity or mere ambiguity. In mystery and manners, she reminds us St. Cyro of Jerusalem wrote, the dragon sits by the side of the road watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you, we go to the father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon no matter what form the dragon may take.

Speaker 2 (00:12:59):

She said it is of this mysterious passage past him or into his jaws that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell. When we read her stories as writers, we see how again and again she carefully arranges character, atmosphere and event. So as the force one or more poor souls into direct confrontation with a dragon so close that he can hold a gun to her head or runoff with her artificial leg. I'm not sure O'Connor would've been terribly happy to share room on the sofa with Vladimir Nabokov, but they shared this one crucial belief. Nabokov was not of course a devout Catholic. He was instead a composer of chest problems and an amateur scientist fascinated by butterflies. Yet he too believed that examining reality heightens our sense of the unknown. He wrote in a work of art, there's a kind of merging between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science and the greater one science, the deeper the sense of mystery.

Speaker 2 (00:13:58):

This balancing of science and mystery what Borges called the Algebra on the fire is easy to recognize in finished work whether the results seem successful or unsuccessful. The greater challenge is to recognize how to balance our rational work, that artful arrangement of materials with the questions we find most compelling and how to pose those questions for the reader In the title essay of his book, the Half Known World, which I cannot recommend highly enough, Robert Boswell says, what I can see in the story or an novel I'm writing is always dwarfed by what I cannot know. What the characters come to understand never surpasses that which they cannot grasp. The world remains half known. The beginner might understandably confuse that sort of not knowing with the vagueness and inconsistencies of early drafts, the sort of not knowing that results from not looking carefully or long, but Boswell isn't suggesting that we shouldn't interrogate our drafts or work to understand who our characters are and why they do what they do.

Speaker 2 (00:14:59):

Rather, he argues that we need to work even harder to make sure we move beyond easy explanation to make sure our characters in the world around them resists complete comprehension and precisely the way our world so often resists our understanding. In an interview he gave just last year, Stuart Beck gave some indication of the challenge we face in trying to shape the work while stopping short of over determination. Rather than feeling that every moment you've got to exert this enormous control. He said, you can take the attitude that your job as a writer is to set things in motion. Younger writers labor mightily to exert control over their materials, but I want to surrender to the story. I want to write a story that's mysterious to me that's smarter than I am. If I'm trying to give you the answers to something I just wrote, it's failed in some way.

Speaker 2 (00:15:47):

The writer can talk about intention, but that's a very different thing than saying exactly what the story of the poem means. We each have our own attraction to some particular combination of the rational appeal of art and this other element, the mysterious or trans rational. Then we need to work to recognize when we've satisfied our own standards for pleasing composition and to make sure our mysteries are well-defined. Mystery requires precision, a story that is simply unfocused, a story in which we don't know what the characters value or why they suffer or whether they're meant to be sympathetic is likely to collapse under the weight of uncertainty. That result isn't mystery but a mess. Chekhov's formulation fails if we finish a story and find ourselves wondering about everything or about nothing in particular, John Ruskin wrote, it's quite easy to obtain mystery and disorder. The difficulty is to keep organization in the midst of mystery. Ideally, the puzzle or that rational composition can provide the pleasures of shapeness even as the unanswerable question at the heart of the work remains open for the reader's consideration. Thanks.

Speaker 3 (00:17:04):

Wow, stadium seating. I feel like we should be selling popcorn here. Echo what Pete said and thank you all for coming. Everyone can hear me up there in the cheap seats. Good.

Speaker 3 (00:17:18):

I've always appreciated people who can keep their mouths shut and I do mean that as a compliment. Those individuals in grade school who restrained themselves from oohing to be called on, those who sit quietly at committee meetings, neither bored and nor lost, just silently waiting for the right moment to add a rapier strike of sense to the discussion. Those people who when you ask them for God's sake tell me what you're thinking actually are thinking something. They've just been listening too hard to speak anyway. I'm not one of those people. I don't do well with silence. A nanosecond of someone else's is too long for me before I rush in and redirect my question or qualify my qualification, silence has always unnerved me. Perhaps since you asked, it's because of my childhood. My parents' main memory of me as a baby is leaving me alone in the crib for hours.

Speaker 3 (00:18:19):

Wasn't that a neglect? I once asked them, oh no. They said you were happy you sang to yourself. Well, who knows? The point is that silence has always fascinated me, especially the mystery of it in characters and how rather than marginalizing them, it can actually complicate and distinguish them. It's difficult not to equate silence of secrecy in fiction sometimes an entire story revolves around the silence of a secret such as Shirley Jackson's the Lottery. Few other stories have disturbed readers as much thousands of readers canceled her subscriptions to the New Yorker. When the story first appeared in 1948, the well-known story takes place in an unnamed town in an indefinite year on a sunny June day when the townspeople gather for one of their favorite ceremonies, spoiler ahead, which turns out to be stoning to death, a random villager by lottery. The shock of the story comes from the juxtaposition of all these folksy villagers just so friendly and chummy having left their dishes in the sink or their clothes on the line, greeting each other in a town square like they were all at a community picnic only to pick up stones at the end and turn savage in their sacrificial duties.

Speaker 3 (00:19:39):

The story is entirely objective cinematic in its presentation. We have no access to anyone's interior point of view and thus we don't feel cheated when we learn the secret of what's really going on at the end that is the silent subject of what this collective group is up to is buried among the quotidian. I'll repeat lots of chatter but no truth, which is a fundamental means how silence operates to perpetuate mystery and fiction. With the assistance to press digitization distract the reader with the surface busyness while stealthily plying and moving along the subterranean narrative. Early in the story we see children gathering stones, but what could be more typical than innocent children playing with stones? Certainly we don't imagine their stockpiling murder weapons mole like with only the faintest trace of surface tunneling. This subterranean narrative creeps ahead until it bursts to the surface to a large degree.

Speaker 3 (00:20:40):

Any fiction that is written in an objective point of view and offers no access to characters thoughts and feelings utilizes silence as an enhancer of the unknown. Hemingway's hills like white elephants being another classic example, the reader may rightfully conclude that there a bleak line of dialogue just to let the air in is about an abortion, but for all the discussion between a couple sitting at a table outside a train station, there's little factually revealed compared to what's left unspoken. The reader might as well be behind soundproof glass trying to read the lips of the characters as to any explicit meaning. You'll find no central intelligence of a Henry James story here to guide us with expositional grandeur intimacy is traded off for intimation that handmaiden of mystery, the unknown or you might say the undemonstrative serves to keep the reader at a tantalizing distance. It's not an easy thing to achieve without shortcomings and one reason a cautionary note here that an objective point of view is rarely used.

Speaker 3 (00:21:44):

At worst, it comes off as the unwanted withholding of information, a coy dodge when it does work. However, as in these two famous examples, it's because the silence behind the story is integral and in organically necessary to the truth of the narrative. Just as atavistic repression drives the seemingly innocent townspeople in the lottery and pain avoidance characterizes the purportedly caring couple in hills like white elephants, a narrative that withholds information needs for credibility to whisper through its subtext. Some fundamental basis for concealment in the lottery. In hills, silence tins darkly the whole narrative surface, but the unknown in the mystery that silence can engender is more often found within a single character. And Catherine Ann Porter's Noom wine, A stranger shows up seeking work on a farm. The farm's lazy and stingy owner, Mr. Thompson, ask him, how much you fixing the gouge out of me?

Speaker 3 (00:22:42):

I'm good. Worker answers Mr. Hilton, I get dollar a day and that's pretty much all we hear from the un talkative Swede. Initially, his silence confounds to family members until they become used to his remoteness and stop trying to pry information out of him. Mr. Helton is sort of genie at making a dry scrabble. Land flourish soon turns the farm into a cornucopia of abundant butter, cheese, eggs, milk, and fat hogs, the likes of which the penurious. Mr. Thompson has never been able to produce himself. Only at the end of this story do we learn of Mr. Hilton's background considered a lunatic he's wanted for the murder years earlier of his brother, but by this time we have become enamored of and sympathetic to the clearly saying Mr. Hilton, as has Mr. Thompson who in the one selfless act of his life tries to intervene in Mr.

Speaker 3 (00:23:32):

Hilton's arrest by an UNC unctuous bounty hunter, but with tragic results withholding of information about Mr. Helton we never go near. His point of view is not so much a plot contrivance as it is in with the character of a hunted man who has tried to remove himself from the world in all its misunderstanding and seek sanctuary on a near barren farm. What's remarkable while virtually saying nothing during the course of this 50 page story is how enlarged, vivid, and riveting Mr. Hilton's character becomes silence in this case, as with so many characters who speak little but have powerful presences means anything other than invisibility. It's important to point out that this expansion of characters the chief means for ensuring the reader doesn't in fact feel tricked when the plot revelation does occur. Mr. Helton in many ways after his past is revealed in a climatic scene, still remains unknown and more complicated than any of his past can account for his mythic contribution to the farm can't be explained away by plot alone.

Speaker 3 (00:24:37):

Porter is very careful to pick a few incidents, particularly a violent reaction by Mr. Helton when the Thompson children touches Harmon's to prepare us for if this makes sense, what will become the known part of the unknown? Too little explanation of the unknown will leave the reader dissatisfied. The fiction vague and lacking in authority. Too much explanation will eliminate all ambiguity and those contradictions that create complexity of character. Noon wine has the faded quality of a Greek tragedy and yet despite the predetermination of such a form, it feels as if at any junction matters might proceed a different way. Those oppositional possibilities are actually the result of the unknown and known working in tandem to create tension. I don't know if I'd call it negative capability or just dumb luck when it comes out this way, but when you have the possibility of anything happening and yet the unstoppable proceeding or to put it paradoxically the random potential of an inevitable outcome, you create a state of excitable wonder.

Speaker 3 (00:25:44):

In fiction it is however not always the case that the known within the unknown is even partially explained. Take Melville's most bewildering story Bartle be the Scrivener. Bartleby is arguably the most mysteriously silent character in all of fiction. I prefer not to proofread a document. I prefer not to go to the post office. I prefer not to tell you where I was born. I prefer not to quit these quarters. And finally, Bartleby prefers not to accept his employer's desperate attempt to help by taking Bartleby home with him. No secret is divulged no explanation provided for bartle bee's progressive withdrawal that eventually results in imprisonment for vagrancy and death from starvation. Bartle B'S mutant is so profound, so intractable that he's lost to all possibilities of being reached. Why does bartleby behave this way? Among the theories, the stories of study of clinical depression, of modern alienation, of the dehumanizing effects of capitalism is the view that bartleby reflects melville's own feelings of being silenced in the face of the negative, critical and commercial reaction to his work.

Speaker 3 (00:26:52):

But much as we want to know what is the motivation for Bartle B's behavior, the story offers no answer other than the final line. Ah, bartleby humanity. We don't know what Bartleby is thinking. We don't know what Mr. Helton is thinking and we certainly dunno what the people in the lottery are up to until the stories end, but we do know what Chief Bronwyn and Ken Keesey one flew over the C'S nest is thinking and feeling and how he came to be hospitalized as a schizophrenic Native American. In fact, early in the novel, he breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the reader. So what's unknown here then the discovery for the reader isn't in whether he's really unable to hear or speak or even when the other characters will realize it or not. It's how he would become freed from the self-imposed condition of isolation and invisibility, all of which is to say that for a writer mastering what is known or unknown isn't necessarily about withholding information from the reader.

Speaker 3 (00:27:49):

It's about delving into the intricacies of motivation. Randall p McMurphy, the novels hero beloved by Chief Broo will also be suffocated by him. The known in the unknown have to be equal partners in that occurrence for it to be credible. Chief bro doesn't go from being invisible to the mercy killing of his dearest ally without a great deal of the unknown becoming known. The engagement in the mystery lies in watching how this transformation happens because in the process, character has to be revealed that was formerly obscured. Or to put another way, chief Broom who considers himself small and insignificant, invisible has to reappear again as a six foot seven Indian. He really is In Edward St. Alban's, Patrick Melrose novels, a particular kind of silence underscores all the whi and dazzling verbiage of the five volumes. As James Woods wrote in the New Yorker, the striking gap between, on the one hand, the elegant polish of narration, the silver rust of those exquisite sentences, the poised narrowness of the social satire, and on the other hand, the screaming pain of the family violence inflicted on EPA make these books.

Speaker 3 (00:28:56):

Some of the strangest contemporary novels that family violence however takes place largely in the realm of the unspoken say to Oban at the age of five was brutally raped by his father. In the fifth chapter, the first book, nevermind through the point of view of Patrick, we witnessed the unbearable act. Then he was back down on the bed again feeling a kind of blankness and bearing the weight of not knowing what was happening. He could hear his father wheezing in the bedhead bumping against the wall from behind the curtains with the green birds. He saw a gecko emerge and cl motionless to the corner of the wall beside the window, Patrick lance himself toward it, tightening his fists and concentrating until his concentration was like a telephone wire stretched between them. Patrick disappeared into the lizard's body. The scene is one of the most accurate and painful descriptions of dissociation, the psychological term for detachment from one's body during trauma, Patrick will become self-destructive.

Speaker 3 (00:29:59):

Over the course of the novels, a heroin addict filled with self-loathing and rage. He does not tell anyone what has happened to him. The abuse continues until he's eight, two books later in some hope an adult now and eight years after his father death, his father's death, he confides in his best friend Johnny, A psychologist. How do you mean abuse? Johnny? Sss Patrick tries to answer it was he sighed concussed by memory and then the narration continues. In Johnny's point of view, after having watched Patrick draw his way fluently through every crisis, Johnny was shocked that seeing him unable to speak such a confession after years of vigilant suppression brings with it not immediate relief, but silence within sound and admission, perforated with gaping holes of speechlessness as if shot through with bullets. In 1991 Saint Aba and finally told his mother about the abuse, his mother's reaction as he put it in a New Yorker interview was wasn't totally satisfactory.

Speaker 3 (00:31:02):

Me too. She said meaning that his father had raped her as well. She was very, very keen to jump to Q and say how awful it was for her. With that kind of reaction, no one would have any trouble understanding why say an Alban or his all ego Patrick would never have spoken of the abuse earlier. The fear of being disbelieved ignored or unheated and only making matters worse and more punishing, which scare anyone into silence. Such silences are not temporary, they're not resolved. They have no expiration date. They are long, limitless, silences even when breached. The core of such silence is always a mix of terror, rage, and undeserved guilt that strike a child with a voiceless paralysis, no less crippling than a physical disease. The only recourse is exposure, the only relief safety. The entire quintet of the Melrose series is written out of such a silence contextualized with the intrust, social commentary, observant went, and psychological self-assessment.

Speaker 3 (00:32:04):

If you're lucky enough to have the talent of St. Alban, it's also the transformation of experience into art that releases you from the strangulating hold of silence. What St Alban has managed in Melrose Books is to make the brutality of his childhood the hidden and unknown subject of the books the rape and abuse are hardly referred to while never letting us forget for a moment that its legacy infuses every sentence. That's a masterful use of silence at again its most subterranean level. I believe this is what the poet Adrian Rich meant when she wrote in an essay on Emily Dickinson. It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment that explodes in poetry. I'm quite certain too that writers must come to know the silences within themselves in order to make use of them in their work, know and study these silences like traps monks.

Speaker 3 (00:32:59):

I was watching downtown Abbey the other night as a reference point. I'm writing this in the middle of season five and noticing just how many unknown secrets and silences there are in this show. Lady Mary has slept with Lord Gillingham and has to keep that secret. Edith has to hide the fact of her baby. John Bates is involved in some possibly nasty business over the murdered valet. Alex Green who brutally assaulted Anna Barrow is attempting some quackery with drugs to change his sexuality. Even the dower violet crawley as something or other in her past with the Russian Prince Corrigan, only Phyllis Baxter lady, Kors maid seems to have come clean about why she stole those jewels for all its explicit pageantry. Downtown Abbey is a veritable hive of secrets and silences. People shutting up quickly when anyone enters a drawing room. Heard of conversations in the kitchen, hallways down downstairs. So what's this all mean? Simply never underestimate the power of silence. It's often the most formidable expression of character in a world filled with unknowns or as Bert put it, the smallest thing contains a little of what is unknown. Let us find it. That is the way to become original. Thank you.

Speaker 4 (00:34:22):

Hi everybody. I've chosen today to talk about James Baldwin's story, Sonny's Blues because it is a work so many of us have read and also because it's such a beautiful rendering of what my more philosophical and St. Augustine reading students this semester have been calling the irreducible mystery of human beings. These young writers are especially interested in fiction that does not diagnose, define or otherwise reduce human experience, but instead shows explorers and otherwise illuminates a singular experience of human consciousness, desire and suffering. Sunny's blues is among other things, an exploration of heroin use that only once uses the word addiction and in that way I think it tries to create an understanding of drug use that is not clinical or empirical, but individual emotional and social. Yet the story is told from the perspective of a first person narrator who has no experience of drug use and is judgmental toward those who do because our time is limited.

Speaker 4 (00:35:35):

Today I'm going to a few of the structural choices. Baldwin makes particularly choices of chronology to create an approach to an issue that is so frightening, so consuming, and so ultimately mysterious that the narrator has resisted even trying to understand it for most of his life. For those of you who haven't read Sonny's Blues, this nameless narrator, an algebra teacher and married man living in a Harlem project has been charged by his mother to keep and watch over his younger brother's Sonny because he is young himself absorbed in his life and afraid of what he does not know. He not only fails to support his brother's desire to become a jazz musician, but judges him for it and the two have a falling out only to begin talking again after Sonny is released from prison. However, there's more to Sonny's blues than this summary reveals the true narrative.

Speaker 4 (00:36:34):

The line that Baldwin chooses to follow is about the narrator's attempts to reckon with his brother, past, present, and future to listen to him and learn to know him and to show his love for him. The story chooses to begin in the middle with the narrator's realization that Sonny is a heroin addict. Its famous opening paragraph reads. I read about it in the paper in the subway on my way to work. I read it and I couldn't believe it and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it at the newsprint, spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car and in the faces and bodies of the people and in my own face trapped in the darkness which roared outside this beautiful opening. Placing us into the context of the narrator's world in society is interesting structurally because it comes close to the very middle of the story's chronological events.

Speaker 4 (00:37:36):

At the end of paragraph two, the narrator states that what he has read in the newspaper that his brother has been picked up for selling and using heroine. Sonny's blues eventually goes on to describe Sonny as a child and adolescent. It follows his story through his imprisonment, his release, and his first musical performance. Afterward when the story opens, the narrator is estranged from Sonny and hasn't talked to him for years. Baldwin begins with a narrator subway ride because he knows that the story's true drama takes place in the narrator's mind. He's stunned by the definitive knowledge that Sonny has been arrested, that Sonny is a heroin user and most likely an addict he has been unable to accept or approve of for years that his brother is living a jazz musician's life, a life that he does not consider respectable. It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that as I walked from the subway station to the high school and at the same time I couldn't doubt it.

Speaker 4 (00:38:37):

I was scared. Scared for Sonny. He became real to me. Again with the opening his process of reckoning with this knowledge of trying to show it begins, readers who have come this far in this story are generally given to continue on because they want to discover what will happen next, but there's also the underlying question of how this happened, how Sonny began using heroin and although the narrator is shocked to learn, his brother is a user. The reader suspects that his rendition of Sonny's story will uncover through the painful recognition of second sight that the narrator knew more about it than he believed at the time. Baldwin's opening creates structural possibilities. There is the choice about whether to proceed in the direction of the past or the present and the usual choices about when to move into a scene. Baldwin chooses to continue on with pages of description, descriptions of the narrator's pain of his memories of his brother that have been jogged loose by the content of the newspaper article reinforced by the present action of his work as a high school teacher where he is surrounded by young people who remind him of his brother.

Speaker 4 (00:39:48):

It is not until after three pages that Baldwin chooses to dramatize one conversation. It's a brief chat with a person who does not appear again in this story, but who haunts it throughout an encounter the narrator has with a junkie who knew Sonny as a school boy, a man who looks at him partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child. His eyes are yellow, he smells funky. He has sought out the narrator with a piece of information from Sonny's youth. Funny thing he said, and from his tone, we might've been discussing the quickest way to get to Brooklyn. When I saw the paper this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I had anything to do with it, I felt sort of responsible. We read forward here, curious to know why and also believing from the description of the junkie's tone that he is sincere. I never give Sonny nothing but a long time ago I come to school high and Sonny asked me how it felt. I told him it felt great. He also tells the narrator, listen, they'll let him out and then it'll all start over again.

Speaker 4 (00:41:03):

When at the end of the conversation he asks the narrator for money and is given $5, a terrible closed look came over his face like he was keeping the number on of the bill. A secret from him and me. Why this conversation? Why is it the scene that Baldwin chooses to dramatize the first real scene in this story? The junkie is a physical representative, an emissary from the world of addiction. The narrator and the readers have been persuaded by the information he provided about Sonny's past, but by the end of the scene we wonder if the story he has told about talking to Sonny in school is true and even if it is true, whether his motivation for seeking out the narrator is as straightforward as we had thought it was. The information we glean about Sonny's childhood floats over the underlying knowledge that we gain about heroin and its effect.

Speaker 4 (00:41:54):

Baldwin is now faced again with the possibility of moving either into the present or the past. He chooses the present describing the way he failed to write his brother until the death of his two year old daughter Grace from polio. The relationship has not been mended, but the lines of communication have been open and when Sonny is released from prison, he comes to live with the narrator and his family. The second scene shows the brothers reunited, but the specter of the future hangs over Sonny. It is at the end of their reunion that Baldwin uses the word addiction and he uses it in an attempt to gain knowledge in a moment of distrust that the narrator feels after their first dinner at home. I was trying to remember everything I'd heard about dope addiction and I couldn't help watching Sonny for signs. I wasn't doing it out of malice.

Speaker 4 (00:42:43):

I was trying to find out something about my brother. I was dying to hear him tell me he was safe. The narrator's knowledge of Sonny's experience is limited. It is far outpaced by his fear about whether Sonny will have a relapse, whether he's going to begin using again. He's obliged to admit his knowledge is insufficient or perhaps it seems the attempt to think of Sonny as an addict does not address the true nature of the narrator's question. Who is his brother? Here Baldwin begins a brilliant movement, backward in time, safe. My father grunted whenever mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood which might be safer for children, safe hell ain't no place safe for kids, not nobody. The story moves back still further through a powerful passage describing the dangers of the world faced by the children as they listen to the stories of their parents feeling safe and the knowledge that they will grow up and face the danger and darkness outside.

Speaker 4 (00:43:43):

As readers, we are hurdled back to the narrator's earliest knowledge of childhood, but the reach into the past only reveals to the narrator and the reader that the answer to the narrator's question cannot be found there. Baldwin chooses to dramatize the conversation between the narrator and his mother shortly before her death. When she asked him to look out for Sonny, he quickly reassures his mother, don't you worry, I won't forget. I won't let nothing happen to Sonny. His mother reveals the story of the narrat, his father's brother, a musician who was run over by a carved drunken white man when the narrator reacts, Lord, Lord, mama, I didn't know it was like that. The mother replies, oh honey, there's a lot that you don't know but you are going to find it out. After the mother's death, the narrator tries to speak to Sonny but does not try to listen to what he has to say.

Speaker 4 (00:44:36):

I suddenly had the feeling that I did not know him at all. He acknowledges This conversation begins the summary of a great estrangement that lasts for years. Baldwin guides us through a long period of resentment and understanding. We're reading because the story is compelling and because we have come to understand what is at stake, the mother's story has made it clear to us that the trouble goes back generations and then Baldwin in another jump over a white space shows the narrator gaining knowledge that ties the past into the present story. It is the knowledge of grief and it is described with such painful clarity that the reader gains the knowledge as well. I read about Sonny's trouble in the spring. He writes, little grace died in the fall. One day she was up playing. Isabelle was in the kitchen fixing lunch for the two boys when they'd come in from school and she heard grace fall down in the living room.

Speaker 4 (00:45:29):

Isabelle says that when she heard that thump and then that silence, something happened in her to make her afraid and she ran to the living room and there was little grace on the floor all twisted up and the reason she hadn't screamed was that she couldn't get her breath and when she did scream, it was the worst sound. Isabelle says that she'd heard ever in her life and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams. Isabelle will sometimes wake me up with a low moaning, strangled sound and I have to quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabelle is weeping against me seems immortal wound. This passage is so lucid and so specific and the pain of it is so unlike anything the narrative has before related that its effect on us is very much like one of a thump and then a silence then follows the scream piercing the sound of little grace suffering and dying and of the silent accompanying beseeching of how such a thing could have happened.

Speaker 4 (00:46:22):

It is a passage of terrible and specific pain. It is impossible to recover from such an experience impossible to explain it away once it is known, it is known. I think I may have written Sonny the very first day that little grace was buried. The narrator writes, I was sitting in the living room in the dark by myself and I suddenly thought of Sonny my trouble made his real. It is I believe within an un airing understanding of his story's true subject that Baldwin now moves forward to a scene in which the narrator directly asks his question of whether Sonny will continue using heroin. One Sunday afternoon when Sonny was living with us or anyway been living in our house for nearly two weeks, I found myself wandering aimlessly about the living room, drinking from a can of beer and trying to work up the courage to search Sonny's room.

Speaker 4 (00:47:14):

Suddenly I was standing in front of the living room watching seventh Avenue. There follows a revival meeting outside the window that flows into a conversation between the narrator and Sonny after it and a scene in the bar where Sonny plays piano for the first time since he was in prison the year before. I don't have time to do justice to the extraordinary beautiful, painful conversation, the wonderful passage of music in this joy's transformative ending, but I want to focus briefly on the conversation the narrator has with Sonny about the revival singer Sonny tells his brother when she was singing before Satani abruptly, her voice reminded me for a moment of what heroin feels like. Sometimes when it's in your veins it makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time and distant and sure he sipped his beer very deliberately, not looking at me.

Speaker 4 (00:48:06):

I watched his face. It makes you feel in control sometimes you've got to have that feeling. The narrator asks him if he has to have that feeling in order to play the piano and Sonny replies, I don't know. The narrator asks about Sonny's friends who are addicts and when Sonny replies something told me I should curve my tongue that Sonny was doing his best to talk, that I should listen, Sonny says, but of course you only know the ones that have gone to pieces. Some don't, or at least they haven't yet, and that's just about all. Any of us can say. He paused and then there are some who just live really in hell and they know it and they see what's happening and they go right on. I don't know this moment of not knowing for Sonny, not knowing whether it is possible to continue without heroin and for the narrator not knowing what will become of Sonny or what it is that so is going through is a central point around which the story moves.

Speaker 4 (00:49:03):

Baldwin's chronology, a figure aid begins with the first recognition of that not knowing moves back in time to explore the question, gaining insight and patience then back through the narrator's moment of recognition and into the final scenes of the story without being able to move past the moment of not knowing the moment is eternal. The story uses a figure eight chronology, so you're beginning with the moment in the middle, moving back through the middle into the future and then dipping back to the middle. In part because it is following the natural motion of the eternal and unknowable question, the crux of the question, it is less important that we find the answer to the question and that we understand what went into the making of it. Baldwin's choices place value on the importance of recognizing what cannot be known and they show us that great fiction is an exploration of mystery. Thanks.

Speaker 5 (00:50:07):

Thank you all for coming. This is called the Known and the unknown in Alana Ferrante, Rachel Dio in her New York Review of Books, review of Ena Ante's novels eloquently argues that these books are about knowledge. She writes, what kind of knowledge does it take to get by in this world? How do we attain that knowledge? How does our knowledge change us and wound us and empower us? What things do we want to know and what would we prefer to leave unknown? It's a smart astute observation to which I would add that these novels feel less about knowledge as a goal and more about its fluxx, how knowledge not only changes us, but how we might have a role in creating that knowledge. The books are about being in between, about becoming. Knowledge isn't always absolute and truth these novels seem to suggest isn't either. The novels are about intimacy and distance, objection and negation about balances that are attained only to be thrown off and later restored.

Speaker 5 (00:51:08):

They're about friendship as another self in the way. Such emerging of familiar and foreign create a sort of uncanny allowing us to feel both comfort and disgust in its wake. Today I want to focus particularly on Ferrante, the story of a new name, the second of the so-called Neapolitan novels, a set of four books, three of which have been thus far translated into English. These novels follow the lives of two friends in Naples, Italy, Elena Greco who narrates the books and Raphael Salo, whom Elena calls Lila for some brief context. The first book, my brilliant friend begins in the present, so to speak, when Lila has gone missing at the age of 66, ENA narrates, it's been at least three decades since. She told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace and I'm the only one who knows what she means. There's not only a sense of pride in that knowledge, but perhaps also a burden, and yet it's also privilege and power.

Speaker 5 (00:52:04):

She writes, Lila never had in mind any sort of flight or change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. She wanted to vanish. She wanted not only to disappear herself now at the age of 66, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. Alena continues, we'll see who wins this time. I said to myself, I turned on the computer and began to write all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory. It's this unknown Lila's whereabouts that drives the novels forward, but Eleanor's need to write it all down is hardly an act of memory or preservation. It's one of spite of continuation of a constant battle and balance between them. She writes how easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila. Time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport.

Speaker 5 (00:52:59):

You pick them up, you put them on the page and it's done. What she means is, without Lila, there isn't much of a story or much of herself. Lila is as Aristotle would say, of friends her other self. Walter Beamin in his illumination writes that to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes at a moment of danger. The Neapolitan novels are a sort of seizing hold of a memory. Lila's disappearance, after all is a moment of danger, but not only for Lila, but for Ena herself is if she too might disappear with Lila, be made irrelevant. Her whole past vanishing along with her, what I could become outside of Lila's shadow counted for nothing. Ena writes, her identity is relational. If Lila disappears, who is Ena, and so she must write the books to keep herself alive, to keep herself known.

Speaker 5 (