My Curious Reading: Character Logic

Mr. Boots Let’s begin by splitting a hair.

E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel (Harcourt, 1927), gives his seventh lecture on the theme of Prophecy. He introduces a metaphor: “song” to represent the voice of the prophet; “the furniture of common sense”, to represent verisimilitude. Towards the end of the this section, Forster says, referencing the furniture: “Perhaps he will smash or distort, but perhaps he will illumine.” (Page 135.) But…

You note that the seer will have to be a thing more complicated than a berserker in a furnished room, if he is going to become the lamp that shines light. Illumine is a metaphor in its own right, one buried long since in the language. Logic is what produces this quibble. We read a lot of prose that never achieves the perfect symmetry of logic; we may do so without noticing more than a vague dissonance, or dissatisfaction. My examples for this piece will be a short story I read many times growing up, and that I like, Ray Bradbury’s 1953, “The Dwarf”, collected in The October Country (Ballantine Books, 1955); and a novel I’m tepid on, but had chosen for the recommendation of its having won the Booker Prize.

Bradbury’s creation of atmosphere is a signal feature of his style; nearly a character in itself. In all his work, he strongly imagines a place, then weaves its presence into the narrative as though this setting were sentient and motivated, itself the menacing figure in the shadows. “The Dwarf” is told from a single point of view, that of a boardwalk performer named Aimee. The story is ultimately didactic (not pedantic), driving towards a moral—that Ralph, the Mirror Maze proprietor, himself is the small man.

The dwarf (Mr. Bigelow), has in his own right no antecedents, no foundational truths. Aimee seems a fixture of the place, but has newly discovered the dwarf on the day the story opens. He has been meant (this mentioned a few pages in) to have come to the Mirror Maze for a year. Before that, we might guess, he lived someplace else…or, he has made a decision to begin visiting—a decision which would require reasoned synthesis of various pieces of information: a strong, if not conclusive, characteristic of sanity. 

A practical joke’s outcome (one involving a mirror switch), is projected to drive Mr. Bigelow to suicide.

If we take Mr. Bigelow as a real person, who exists in a real world (so far as life is replicated in fiction), then we know he knows he is a dwarf. We suppose him to know bullying, likely enough with a degree of expertise; to know the other side of the coin: patronizing “help”; to know his own physical limitations, the baffles a man of his size finds built into the “normal” person’s world. We must suppose he has seen himself reflected with unflattering distortion many times—in the shine of a coffee pot, in a puddle after a rain; or, as he walks along the street, in a car’s fender, shop windows. Mr. Bigelow has a career; he pursues his affairs. He writes detective stories—does research, presumably, sends inquiries, sighs over rejections, dickers over payments, pays his rent, eats his meals, banks…has purchased the lapeled garment he is described as wearing. He speaks to people, and people speak to him.

As the story is constructed, it is only on the evidence that he has this heart’s wish, to see himself “normal”, that we can account for his complete breakdown at the end (and on the meta-evidence that the story has been so framed and so plotted at all, to offer the concept of normal/not normal, using the dwarf vs. Ralph, as this dichotomy’s embodiment.)

Mr. Bigelow has no attachment to Ralph, no expectations of him, no reason to feel for Ralph the trust of a brother; hence, to feel a deep betrayal, subjected to Ralph’s belittling treatment. Ralph is a man whose speech is loutish and disrespectful, the signal to a seasoned victim, of all he expects of a bully. Ralph has telegraphed to Mr. Bigelow that he is about to pull this stunt—today, his “old customer” can go into the maze for free. Unless we add something to the dwarf’s backstory, assume a trauma or a sorrow associated with the dénouement, we can only take the contrivance of the fiction, the single point of view, the information we’re given, as explanation for why Mr. Bigelow would not assume at once a mean joke, the sort of thing his real life counterpart might resignedly roll his eyes over. A real Mr. Bigelow might be tough, fatalistic; he might well have a sense of humor. He might, in naïveté, merely say to himself, “Jesus Christ! Why do people change things around?”…go back to the booth, say to Ralph, “Hey! What’s up?”

The character is possible, then; made seemingly so by the story’s construction—but he isn’t logical. He hasn’t got a psychology true to himself. Even his sympathizer projects feelings and thoughts onto him, seeks gossip about him, makes plans to save him, and only belatedly thinks of speaking to him.

***

Now consider the way a comic sequence works in a story.

A man, concealing a chicken under the flap of his jacket, boards a subway car. He notices every time the chicken moves, it squawks. He hunches with his arms crossed over his chest, twists to the left and right to disguise the bird’s struggles, and coughs to cover the noise. After a time, he looks up to find all the other passengers staring. Someone tells him, “That’s the worst cough I’ve ever heard.” He disposes of the chicken, goes to a job interview—the reason for his trip downtown. The reader will anticipate the punchline; that moment the interviewer turns from her computer screen, and meets his eyes.

But suppose, rather than a job-seeker burdened with a chicken, our protagonist is an international secret agent; the story a thriller. Across from him in the car sits a woman whose ethnicity he condemns, inwardly, in hostile terms. He proceeds to meet with his contact. Nothing further in the story addresses the subway scene. The writer is criticized for bigotry, and defends himself by saying, “That’s just my ironic humor.” The reader feels, in dispute, that to say a thing doesn’t make it so.

Humor, as the chicken bit indicates, is a formula. The writer signals humor by giving certain types of information, using a certain means of framing the scenario.

This signaling bears on dramatic devices more veiled than comedy. Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (American edition, Pantheon Books, 1985), is perceived to have a feminist message. Reviewers have seemed to struggle over locating this, and in locating the nature of the book’s central device. Edith Hope’s friends may have sent her away to Switzerland to think over her mistakes. How they could have exercised this power in the late 20th century is harder to see…such a proceeding might have suited a Victorian cabinet minister who’d appeared drunk before Parliament.

In the opening chapter, she writes to her lover…a long letter about herself, in which she assesses her looks—after she has just finished assessing her looks, when recalling her drive to the airport.

(She could also quickly come to a resolution, in this matter of wavering over the married lover, by saying to him: “David, why don’t you move into my house?”)

Edith looks like Virginia Woolf; she has been told so by “several people”. This forces the assumption that she looks like the famous profile shot (comparisons of this type making a sort of subterfuge by which writers avoid the sin of vanity, while showing their characters attractive)…because if Edith looks like Virginia Woolf at fifty, probably she will not have been told so, and might not so like, in her secret mind, bragging to herself about it. 

She worries over her writing, a romance called Beneath the Visiting Moon (which I keep reading as Beneath the Viking Moon), yet by this Woolf affinity seems not inspired to a course of study to improve her writing. She tells her lover, near the end of the letter, that she thinks of him all the time; informs him, for the second time, what sort of person he is, remarks in closing that he is her life.

She has no history with the hotel, no mutual enmity with the family that owns it, but has deprecating—or depressive—words for the room, the scenery, the town. Edith has phrases—“colour and incident”; “emblematic significance”—where observations couldn’t hurt. What makes a wardrobe “costive”? Does the door stick? Is this an antique, a sort of stubborn anti-taste, or just cheapness? How is the room the color of “over-cooked veal”? (All meats overcooked sooner or later achieving the same color, we may suppose the veal gratuitous, and the room anywhere from pink to charcoal.) But these are Edith’s descriptions; her eyes guiding the reader.

That she is passive, her taste in people-watching bourgeois, her grope for the mot juste inexact, might be taken as foreshadowing—the character’s transgression (an instance of altar-jilting), has been committed in passivity, against the perceived order of middle-class place-holding. If she were surgical in her opinions, she would have also a type of self-awareness. A self-aware woman would not, after humiliating her fiancé, tell him she is really the one who’s suffered. (She might rather, of course, tell him it was his own fault.) And if a character is never the butt of the joke, never reacts (as she would if she were) to seeing herself as others see her, but is constantly shown flattered by others; if her humbleness feels tailored to present her as “the one who is really right”, the reader assumes the author stands behind this.

Edith has had an unhappy childhood, which she recalls intermittently. She might, then, have been poorly socialized…but our attention is never consciously directed towards counting Edith dysfunctional, merely quirky and sad. (But even her sadness is because she feels deeply.)

The expected presence behind the scenes, the finger that guides the pawn, seems absent, so far as to indicate Edith’s egoism material to the novel’s plan. All the comic potential in an obstinately self-deluded woman is left to fall by the wayside, while we are given the heroine at face value, and meant to like her. Readers must like a protagonist because of her weaknesses, or despite them. Yet, even supposing the author to mean this, that Edith’s weaknesses represent an individual morality (an alternate ethos can be a legitimate literary thesis), we should see the underlying message that this is so, signaled to us in Edith’s encounters.

She is taken up by the improbable Mr. Neville, whose proposition begins with his telling her what sort of person she is. She finds this behavior not insight-inducing, but insulting. Of course the canned ending, in a “choosing the right man” story would be the heroine’s rejecting of the rich suitor and returning to the poor one. Courage as here represented—Edith’s “rightness”—rests with her decision to impose herself once more between David and his wife. 

Any protagonist’s “test” can resonate only to the extent that her problem is life-like, relatable; her choice at the end reflecting either the reader’s wish for her, or well-illuminated at least by those experiences chosen for her, and delineated in their unfolding, by the author.

The single point of view can disguise the directed stream of information, so that various approaches to story-telling give us plausibly right-choosing characters, plausible misunderstandings and tragedies. Ideally, we want every character whose choices bear on the plot’s outcome to have a logical backstory, to have his points of intersection  with others expose clues for us, so we put the book down at the end of it all, and feel it was neatly done.

***

2017, Stephanie Foster

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