The Tricky Parts

a commonplace book of sweet word tricks

Violence with Elizabeth Gilbert

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.

Print: Hello World

I am re-teaching myself how to write fiction.  I have been out of the game for quite some time.  During this time, however, I have done a lot of reading, which does help.

Some types of things are very hard to write.  Sometimes it helps to see how other people write those types of things.  This is a commonplace book of tricky bits of writing which I admire.

Sex with Aimee Bender

Sex scenes are so notoriously tricky that there is an award for the worst sex scene published in any given year, and fancy people who usually win Pulitzers and National Book Awards win it for describing sex between Hitler’s parents using poop metaphors.  (The internet isn’t working very well today, or I’d look up the particulars for you – Philip Roth, maybe? – but I am completely certain that at one point, someone’s junk is compared to a “coil of excrement.”)

I read the following for the first time less than a week ago, and I was struck by how vicariously dizzy it made me without being even slightly conventionally obscene.  A sex scene is really required by the story – just look at the title – but what advances the plot is not the mechanics, here mostly left out, but the dynamic between the two main characters and the impression left by/with/upon each of them.

Aimee Bender, “Motherfucker” originally published in Fence, Fall/Winter 1999; anthologized in Willful Creatures, New York: Anchor Books, 2005.

He stepped closer.  For some reason, his hands were shaking.  Using his finger as a pointer, he drew an invisible line around her.  He said, “Listen.  Look.  Desire is a house.  Desire needs closed space.  Desire runs out of doors or windows, or slats or pinpricks, it can’t fit under the sky, too large.  Close the doors.  Close the windows.  As soon as you laugh from nerves or make a joke or say something just to say something or get all involved with the bushes, then you blow open a window in your house of desire and it can’t heat up as well.  Cold draft comes in.”
“It’s not a very big house, is it,” she said.
“Don’t smile,” he said.  She pulled in her lips.
“Don’t smile,” he said.  “It’s not supposed to be big at all.  It should be the closest it can to being your actual size.”
She could feel it brimming on her lips, that superstar smile, the bow shape, the teeth long and solid tombstones.  She knew just what it looked like.
“Don’t,” the motherfucker said, harder.
And the smile, like a wave at the beach, receded.  And when she didn’t smile, when the windows stayed shut, the glass bending out to the night but not breaking, the glass curved from the press of release but not breaking, then the tension went somewhere else, something buckled inside her and made the longing bigger, tripled it, heavied it, made it so big the whole house grew thick and murky.  This was not something she knew well, this feeling; she was used to seeing her desire like an angora sweater discarded on the other side of the room.
And she felt she needed him then.  In the same basic way she needed other things, like water.
She was up again refilling her cup of tea and he followed her in and as she was pouring it he took the teapot out of her hand and balanced it right on top of the teacup and while she was looking at that, her hands shaking now, he took her fingers and leaned in and kissed her.  Took her face in his palms, then suddenly the faces were too close for anything else to be happening and the kiss was soft and so sweet and in the next room the kid shifted and his dream switched to one about lightning and a boy who stuck his hand in the electrical socket and what happened next.
“What do you want?” asked the motherfucker, getting ready to motherfuck, and he stepped into her house and her hands were all over his face, his neck, his bones, his hair.
“Stop asking questions,” she said to him, kissing him again.  “That breaks open your windows, doesn’t it?”  And the motherfucker felt he could crush her, because she happened to be right, and he shut up and his house grew smaller, smaller than he was used to, and she didn’t smile or run to the bushes, so hers grew smaller, smaller than it had ever been, and then smaller, and then smaller, until she fit inside, gloved, a house of desire the exact size and shape of her.  She thought she might wheeze away but then his hands touched skin, and her throat cleared and lifted.