I recently read a craft article by Ben Percy on creating and managing conflict in stories. Trying to figure out the allure in Stieg Larsson’s uber-popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Percy decided to color code the conflicts in the novel’s hefty pages, working to understand the way Larsson had complicated, layered and ratcheted up the various perils facing Lisbeth and Mikael. According to Percy, the best stories create characters who juggle several problems at one time – these are the “flaming chainsaws” of good fiction, simultaneous crises that increase in threat and rotation. Necessary tools, because believable, palpable peril is the engine under the hoods of novels.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I read it, aligning his notion alongside of my own stories, which frequently fail in early drafts to be on fire in effective measure.
This week I considered chainsaws in Alice McDermott’s quiet book Someone, the story of Marie Commeford. In 2012, I read one of the book’s chapters excerpted in The New Yorker, though at the time I didn’t realize it was part of something longer because it works so beautifully as a short story. Two sentences into this section of the novel, my first experience reading came back to me viscerally in full bloom: Marie’s first sexual experience with the usurious Walter Hartnett, a boy with a gimpy leg; Marie’s abandonment when Walter found a better offer, a girl with money and a name. McDermott’s stories, searing and quiet, structurally complex, worth puzzling over, are the sort that stay with you.
In the novel, throughout her life, Marie invokes Walter’s name several times, an iteration that McDermott deftly employs to illustrate the power and lasting watermark of sexual memory. A girl plagued with poor eyesight, Marie tells her own story, looks back over a life beginning in a 1930s Brooklyn neighborhood. Her lack of sight, the various surgeries she has to correct it, the scenes a reader is privy to through Marie’s hazy vision or which we experience from beneath gauze, become an important trope in the book, which is largely about the way we see the world slant, caught up as we are in dreams and our varied versions of reality.
When it was released in 2013, many critical reviews examined how nothing much happened in Someone’s pages. Even the book flap reads: “…this resonant story of an unremarkable woman’s unforgettable life.” Not the best words to recommend a reader sit down right now and give it a go.
McDermott herself, when interviewed by The New Yorker about the novel, said, “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past. But that’s what the novel wanted to be. . . . It’s the contrarian in me, I’m afraid.”
There’s the undeniable beauty of McDermott’s writing, spare and unassuming, a fitting match for the characters, who soldier on without the kind of histrionics present in louder stories. And McDermott’s fictive world is certainly universal– the novel depicts a world we might recognize in our own neighborhoods, sensorially rich but compressed, too, in the way stories about others often come to us. Constant in every page is the aching gap between the intimate knowledge about ourselves we accept or refuse or dress up as something else, and the way we never really know the heart of another.
And yet I found McDermott’s unremarkable story surprisingly compelling, and though it’s not the stuff of Stieg Larsson’s edgy-sexual-action-adventure-murder-mystery-thriller, it IS full of the sorts of chainsaws one recognizes.
Inspired by Percy, I started making a list of McDermott’s chainsaws, struggles essential to the becoming of Marie. There are Marie’s internal issues– the effect of her father’s sickness and early death; her trouble with her sight and later, the fear of blindness and the surgeries to avert it; her sexual awakening with Walter Hartnett; her desire to understand and to help her brother Gabe, which is largely a useless desire, until the end.
Orbiting all around Marie is another set of struggles, all within spitting distance of her Brooklyn stoop. There are the neighborhood deaths that dot the landscape of these pages — her neighbor, Peegen Chehab, who dies falling down a flight of stairs, and whose name, like Walter Hartnett’s, is invoked again and again throughout the novel; young Mrs. Hanson, her best friend Gerty’s mother, who dies in childbirth, echoed later in Marie’s own medical scare with her first child; blind Bill Corrigan, the arbiter of street baseball, who commits suicide. And later, once young Marie broadens her world view, there is the parade of death she must help assuage the pain of at Fagin’s funeral home where she works. There’s spiritual crisis, abandonment, widowhood, urban blight, complications of Marie’s own child birth, the question of whether and how one can save others from themselves.
The list is much longer than this, but I’m surprised at the way this quiet story is so fraught with struggle. McDermott’s Marie is not being chased by madmen or facing the end times, but her chainsaws have heft and urgency enough to give Marie the kind of agency readers seek.
And while I never fully understood why McDermott didn’t choose to let fully rise to the surface what’s really wrong with Gabe, I did find it interesting how she uses the unknown surrounding her brother to pull us along through the narrative. The issue of Gabe rises above another rotating danger – bearing and raising children, which, as Marie shows us time and again can be treacherous and heartbreaking. It is all around Marie in those she knows. It is also her own treachery–bearing a second child after almost losing her life to the first is a defiance she justifies out of desire, courage, stubbornness. But this danger is muted by our early understanding that Marie is looking back, that she’s successfully had children.
Flaming chainsaws at work in a story reach a place where they are dangerously aflame. The “constant, rotating threat of them,” as Percy says, must be extinguished.
Gabe’s breakdown and time in an institution, the way Tom and Marie bring him home like a child (though, even to the end, Gabe remains the zen-master about the world and the human heart), are a surprising inevitability. Ultimately, Marie believes she “saves” Gabe from himself by pocketing his pills, saves him from “falling down” like poor Peegen Chehab. I’m not sure it works, this choice, but I take McDermott’s point.
It’s not a movie, after all, it’s a life. Full of all that cannot be seen or known, of falling and failing, and the celebration of triumphs, both real and imagined.