My posts are few and far between since I’m re-writing three memoirs, a novel, and am on the second chapter of my dissertation while teaching, and my cat’s femur broke, was repaired, and screws came loose. Now we’re hanging tight hoping for miracle bone to heal itself.
I’m relying on the articulate ladies’ choices forming my bookclub’s reading list to comprise my blog. Just while I finish these projects. If it isn’t Goethe or Early Modern Rogues, I’m not reading it right now – with the exception of my bookclub text.
With that said, Phillip Roth’s opening paragraph in Goodbye Columbus is one of those passages that makes the weak writer in me cringe. Not a bad cringe. It’s that cringe every writer knows–the “I shouldn’t be a writer” or the “I’m not worthy” cringe. Dickens does it to me. So does Raymond Carver. Lydia Davis. A kind of –should I really be trying to do such a thing as write? Instead of the tired phrase I used as title for this entry, Roth employs advanced techniques. Gesture, yes. But more than gesture- he develops both characters. Well, I’ll explain more after I show you the paragraph:
The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside m. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes watery though not from water. She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped. (3)
I already mentioned gesture that is strewn throughout this passage: the glasses holding, the foggy look into the pool, the glide to its edge, and the catching of the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and its flick back over the flesh. All of this slows the moment, presents her through our narrator’s eyes (first person) and creates a dynamic that lasts until the end of the story. In communication theory, once you hold or touch someone’s property or take/eat something of theirs, you feel indebted. In this section, holding the glasses is a power move and reveals the shifting away from our protagonist, his helplessness and socioeconomic inadequacy that dooms the couple. As I instruct my students to do, I also chide myself for not employing enough active verbs. Not a problem for Roth. Also, if you want a great example of telling and showing – the last statement does both through a hyperbolic gesture that all the writing teachers in the world want you to just know – and that, my friend, is called voice.