I’ve been reading a lot of Elizabeth Gilbert lately – for real, you guys. She is, of course, known to legions of non-readers and literary snobs as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, and many of both categories remain unaware that she’s ever written anything else. But for many years she was a staff writer for GQ, of all places, and her journalism and short stories (and, I imagine, her other novels, which I haven’t read yet) are sharper and lovelier and more ruthless than one would expect from E,P,L – or, from the spectre of it as we imagine it, since most of us literary snobs refuse to read it. (Full disclosure: now I think I might read it, but only if I can find it in the library or a free box or something.)
Anyway she’s got a lovely story, “The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick.” It’s a hilarious, graceful, vivid, human story told in sort of a wry mythical voice, and it has as an important plot point a double murder committed by one of the characters. (I ain’t spoiling it for you; Gilbert herself spills the beans at the end of paragraph two.)
Now, I spent most of the last day polishing off David “The Wire” Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (646 pages cover-to-cover in twenty-one hours, bitches, including sleep), and I can tell you there are many ways of describing murder: drama, gallows humor, clinical detail, epic tragedy. Here is Elizabeth Gilbert’s murder scene:
Then Richard Hoffman came out of his office and beat George Purcell to death with a meat mallet. Manuel the pot washer tried to hold him back, and Hoffman beat him to death with the meat mallet, too.
C’est tout. No blood spatter, no “suddenly he felt his rage rise up within him,” no “ha ha I guess he really was mad about those shoes,” no “then came the moment that” etcetera etcetera. While the murder is important in the scheme of things, it’s not the most important mechanism in the machine, and the rest of that scene – which you will have to read yourselves – accomplishes much more in the way of plot development, pathos, etc. than detailing the actual killings might do.
Elizabeth Gilbert, “The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick,” originally published in The Paris Review Number 141, Winter 1996; anthologized in Pilgrims, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.