The Interval in Writing: What Happens Between Pussycats & Thugs Does Not Stay Between Pussycats & Thugs
Brian Baldi | September 2008
A word follows another word in a sensible progression. There's nothing unusual about the unfurling. It's the beginning of Paula Fox's Desperate Characters, perhaps. "The cat is back," Sophie says. Otto asks her if she's surprised, and what did she expect.1 We're not surprised though. It's the beginning, and there's a cat, and since a beginning must have something, it might as well be a cat. For at least a while, in fiction, we'll take what we are given. But this cat, it soon turns out, has "gray fur, the gray of tree fungus" and a head that is "massive, a pumpkin, jowled and unprincipled and grotesque."2 This is not entirely sensible, we might think. This does not exactly follow. Some of us might be inclined to reconcile these word choices before moving ahead. Others might want to reserve judgment, be patient and longitudinal. But then there's Otto again, and this time he's telling us:
They're not pussycats, you know. They're thugs.3
Pussycats and thugs. In life outside books, one is generally not the other. Otto as a character is declaring a difference and damning the cats, a move that gives us some indication of his oppositional relationship to Sophie. This could have been shown in many other ways, though. Instead of thugs, the cats could have been tomcats. Or, trading nouns for adjectives, they could have been malevolent. Or feral. But this is Fox, and they are thugs. The effect of the word chosen may have something to do with what William Gass calls "the attraction to the artist of the word made flesh, the love of the word as a resonance or a shape in space."4 But while the particular resonance of the word "thug" is certainly important, what happens between the words is arguably more meaningful and propulsive—the lexical montage. With his hyperbole, Otto is vaulting ahead and taking us with him, and when we unexpectedly thump down onto the word "thugs," we are inclined on some level to wonder how we got there, and what it means that we vaulted in the first place.
The province of visual montage offers some explanations for what happens when two things are combined in a manner unexpected by the receiver. Dziga Vertov, a Russian filmmaker who began working in the early 1920s, talked about the "transitions" and "movements" of objects, the objects themselves not so important as the "(intervals) which draw the movement to a kinetic resolution."5 Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein also wrote about what happens when two distinctly separate elements are joined in a work of art, but went further in his description of the dynamic within the gap, saying, "the quantity of interval determines the pressure of the tension."6
Both men are certainly intoxicated by the scientific vernacular of their fresh industrial era ("quantity," "kinetic"), but underneath the technical filigree is the assertion that the space between two things in art determines the effect of those two things. Put another way, the greater the conceptual distance between two freshly affiliated stylistic choices, the more tension is created, and the greater the propulsion. This idea is, of course, related to the oft-mentioned notion that all decent fiction derives from conflict. The sentence-level occurrence of the interval, however, is so atomic that it offers a useful schematic for the inner workings of that conflict.
In fiction, the interval often prominently displays itself in dialogue, which is set apart from the rest of the text as though embossed with consequence. Not surprisingly, it's often assumed to be the barest and most direct expression of need in any story. An argument can be made that the punctuating period—a device that can terrace ideas, show impatience or anger, cut off thoughts and worlds by its early arrival, delay the inevitable by its absence, show causality, isolate items for scrutiny, and much, much more—has a far greater effect on prose writing. But dialogue gets more notoriety, and as a result bears the considerable weight of our expectations. For example, it must not be composed in an over-familiar manner (cliche). It must not be unintentionally devoid of physicality (nonillustrative). It must not restate the narration (yadda, yadda). It must not depart from the narration so much that it does not relate to it. Dialogue, in fact, is supposed to do no less than develop from itself and its surroundings organically, yet also diverge from expectation enough to warrant anyone caring about it. Not an easy task. Often its success comes down to managing intervals.
In Desperate Characters, Otto has already challenged Sophie before he calls the cats "thugs," so the aggressiveness of his assertion is no surprise. And while "thugs" fits the language pattern set forth by "unprincipled," it is miles away from the teasing, diminutive -ssy of "pussycat." The path between these words is therefore an exhilarating lunge that, because of the sequential nature of sentences, occurs to us the moment we see "thugs."7
Intervals in dialogue can employ far less flagrant diction and still provide tremendous significance. Later in the book, after the cat has bitten Sophie and much upheaval has ensued, there is a peculiar domestic pause:
Otto always turned off the radiator in the bedroom at the first sign of spring and it was chilly now. He shivered as he undressed. Then he stood naked, staring at the bed in perplexity. "What is it?" she asked.
"I'm hungry and I don't know what I want."8
In a moment of literal and figurative bareness, one of the quieter moments of the entire book, the boorish Otto finds himself hungry and confused. That he is hungry is not much of a surprise for a man of his level of insatiability. That he is hungry and doesn't know what he wants after standing nude and staring at the bed is a revelation achieved only by the size of the interval between this moment and the preceding ones. (Revelations, after all, would not be revelations if they came out of a sensible progression.) Before his admission, Otto is unprotected by clothing and is cold. But nothing about this consistently aggressive man prepares us for his unguarded hunger and indecision. His utterance diverges so greatly from expectation that it begs us to wonder what has frozen him. The interval, then, affords us the opportunity to see what lies behind Otto's belligerence: uncertainty and need.
Or take, for example, the revelation of disparity in Phillip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, when early in the book the narrator meets the lissome and brashly mobile character of Brenda, and they talk tennis:
"Why is it you rush the net only after dark?" I said.
She turned to me and smiled. "You noticed? Old Simp the Simpleton doesn't."
"Why do you?"
"I don't like to be up too close, unless I'm sure she won't return it."
"I'm afraid of my nose. I had it bobbed."
"I had my nose fixed."9
The setting is the country club, coming off the courteous court. Roth thankfully does not have Brenda tell us about her nose outright with the words "rhinoplasty" or "nose job." The first is too clinical, the second too obvious. Even though "bobbed" suggests the appropriate physical contours of nose alteration both through its popular definition and through the shape and pronunciation of the word itself, it creates an interval in perception because of the various other meanings that must be passed over to get to the right one. There are many things, after all, which can be bobbed. There is the horse's or cat's cut tail. There is the piece of jewelry. There is the sled. There is the heavy thing on the end of the plumb line. It's most likely that we think of the haircut, but for some people the other definitions linger along the route to the actual connotation. The gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar is augmented by the setting, too. The civil decorum of the tennis court at a country club doesn't exactly prepare us for a frank, offhand talk about cosmetic nasal reconstruction, so the sudden appearance of "bobbed" brings with it the destabilization of an unexpected visitation. This is exactly the pressure of tension Eisenstein had in mind when he spoke about two things being spatially arranged for effect.10 As when an eccentric uncle shows up on our doorstep holding a baguette in one arm and a ferret in the other, we are exhilarated by the newness of the predicament we are now charged to reconcile.
As the unforeseen ferret metaphor implies, intervals are, of course, not limited to dialogue. In literature that relies upon high levels of amplification, intervals can manifest between entire incidences, Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts being a prime example.11 As Charles Baxter has mentioned: "Miss Lonelyhearts has nothing to do with the pleasures of recognition. Its impatience with realism is quite feverish. The book has instead a peculiarly pure interest in the derangements of meaning."12 Derangement, a word that is intrinsically spatial, is itself a tongue-kissing cousin to interval.
At one point in the story, the character of Miss Lonelyhearts finds himself intimately ensconced with Mrs. Doyle, the wife of a "cripple" who has left the scene to fetch some gin. Feeling like a failure for ranting that "Christ is the black fruit that hangs from the crosstree," Miss Lonelyhearts rejects Mrs. Doyle's flirtations:
He said he was too tired to dance. After doing a few obscene steps in front of him, she sat down in his lap. He tried to fend her off, but she kept pressing her open mouth against his and when he turned away, she nuzzled his cheek. He felt like an empty bottle that is being slowly filled with warm, dirty water.13
In the vicinity of a passage that is painstakingly and almost boringly devoted to basic physical actions, the above moment acts as a hairpin turn leading us to a bit of imagery that couldn't be more distant in form and content. He's not just a sodden piece of detritus; he is a translucent one through which we can see his gradual defilement. The chasm between what is happening in the room and the pathetic visual of rank water filling a bottle is stunning, and in reconciling the two we are meant to see the futility of Mrs. Doyle's specious horniness. West, however, is far from done with intervals. Directly after the passage above, the following occurs:
When she opened the neck of her dress and tried to force his head between her breasts, he parted his knees with a quick jerk that slipped her to the floor. She tried to pull him down on top of her. He struck out blindly and hit her in the face. She screamed and he hit her again and again. He kept hitting her until she stopped trying to hold him, then he ran out of the house.14
With breaches in incident so abrupt and severe, it is no wonder the book is often described as grotesque and kinetic. Like the ever-adapting and chaotic urban world in which it is set, Miss Lonelyhearts is frenzied and reckless. This leads to one of the most fascinating paradoxes of the interval: the greater the distance between two artistic elements, the greater the sense of propulsion, but only because we have the human urge (to varying degrees, of course) to reconcile safe things with unsafe things. We are natural-born gap-crossers, and it excites us to lay our pontoon bridges across things. The divergences also disrupt our sense of stable progression, and in doing so, create counterpoints that put words and concepts into relief. As a result, we begin to see more clearly.
When, in Goodbye, Columbus, the narrator looks upon the "sporting-goods trees" in Brenda's backyard, he sees an astonishing array: "Beneath their branches, like fruit dropped from their limbs, were two irons, a golf ball, a tennis can, a baseball bat, basketball, a first-baseman's glove, and what was apparently a riding crop."15 The oddity of the trees is compounded by their distance from the narrator, and reveals an interval of identity. The narrator looks out from a picture window, and behind him is a safe, multi-roomed home ample with fruit and connotations of prosperity. Even farther away is his aunt's home in struggling Newark, where meal-planning is precariously tied to need and resources, rather than choice. In coming to the window, he has placed himself right in the middle of the interval, the paranormal appearance of the trees showing not only their distinctiveness as details—in fact, we are arguably given far more than if Roth had provided the oaks' family, genus, species, variety, and cultivar—but also their determining role in how the narrator sees himself. We knew before that he was in vexing territory, but now we know the degree. His class-consciousness and resulting tension are not illustrated by simple maples, poplars, or even simple oaks. No, we are given abstracted, twinkling, idiosyncratic instances of florae. In the fantasia of the yard, the trees are in front of the narrator, and the degree of their difference puts into highest relief what is behind him, which is only his entire life to date.
It's no small thing, you see, to have "the quantity of (an) interval determine the pressure of the tension."16 In its thrilling leaps, the interval shows us not just what lies ahead, but always the urgent strain of what is current.
Brian Baldi's fiction and poetry have appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Denver Quarterly, Fairy Tale Review, ZYZZYVA, and Fourteen Hills. He has taught at Marlboro College and the University of Massachusetts, and is curretly finishing a novel.
- Fox, Paula. Desperate Characters (New York: Norton & Company, 1970), 3.
- Ibid., 3–4.
- Ibid., 4.
- Gass, William H. Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: Nonpareil, 1979), 95.
- Vertov, Dziga. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Ed. by Annette Michelson. Trans. by Kevin O'Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 8.
- Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Ed. and trans. by Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1949), 47.
- Fox. Desperate Characters, 4.
- Ibid., 116.
- Roth, Phillip. Goodbye, Columbus (New York: Vintage, 1959), 13.
- Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, 47.
- West, Nathanael. Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust (New York: New Directions, 1933).
- Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1997), 33.
- West. Miss Lonelyhearts, 49-50.
- Ibid., 50.
- Roth. Goodbye, Columbus, 21–22.
- Eisenstein. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, 47.