Posts Tagged kurt vonnegut

Before Arrival: appreciating Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang is probably better known as its movie adaptation, Arrival. I haven’t yet seen the movie – but before I do, I want to post about the prose story because it pulls off a trick that seems impossible in the literal and external medium of film.

Spoilers follow; if that’s a problem, toodle-pip and see you next time.

Still here? Fasten seatbelt. Off we go.

Story of Your Life opens as alien artefacts appear on Earth. They seem to be windows into a spacecraft. The narrator is a language expert who is called in to help establish contact. This narrative is intercut with another story – a letter to her daughter, who, we soon learn, has died.

Two narrative threads

One of the narrative threads is linear – the process of decoding the language. The other, the story of the daughter, has a more haphazard order. One moment we see her as an infant; the next, her mother is travelling to identify her dead body.

The focus isn’t on revelations or startling events. We’re not directed to wonder what the aliens want and there aren’t any secrets to learn about the daughter and her fate. The story’s interest is smaller scale, an unravelling process of study. While the aliens and humans evaluate each other, the narrator is retracing the times with her daughter. Indeed, for some readers it might veer perilously close to the navel-gazing kind of literary story where nothing appears to happen.

But there is a story

Still, something kept me reading – a sense of exploration, in themes of time, development and change. There’s a searching emotion, a sense of puzzlement. One puzzle is literal – the intellectual task of figuring out the aliens’ language. The other puzzle is less easy to solve – the phenomenon of the narrator’s loss. Her mind grasps at memories and questions: how her daughter could grow up so fast; how parenting could cause such anxiety and wonder; how the narrator’s own life could extend beyond the beginning and the end of her child’s. This interior working is the true quest of the story, the narrative momentum.

As the narrator studies the aliens’ language, she begins to grasp their way of thinking. While humans’ world view is mostly linear, like our sentences that place one word after another, the aliens think in complex constructs of time. Their written language is more like a work of art, an image that contains many ideas all at once. With this comes the main reveal. The action with the aliens is not in the present, but in the past. It’s how the parents met. The family life – and ultimate tragedy – is yet to come.

Described like this, the revelation seems rather negligible, but within the atmosphere of the story I found it to be a powerful perceptional pivot. It suddenly transforms everything we’ve seen.

Perception

The process of learning the aliens’ language has altered the narrator’s perception and allowed her to reach a resolution. Because of the way the aliens communicate about time as complete pictures, the narrator is able to see her years with her daughter as a complete, rich life, instead of just its endpoint, a numbing loss. We finish with the narrator and her husband coming together on the night that will be the daughter’s conception – and an uplifting feeling that, if you look at it as a whole, the best is yet to come.

Kurt Vonnegut has said it rather elegantly:

Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now. To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are.

And here’s the thing. I don’t know of any medium that could do this better than prose. I’ll be interested to see the film adaptation, but I’m guessing its story will have to be more literal, perhaps including a device like time travel or precognitive vision. It may work well in its own terms, but I can’t see how it could achieve this subtle, deep-level trick of switch and release, which allows the narrator to let go of the tragedy. The interior shifts are as important as the objective facts. And they’re only possible because prose has such a close contact with the reader’s mind.

Tell me your interpretation

As with all good stories, you could argue several interpretations (and do add yours below in the comments if you wish to). But whatever your takeaway, Ted Chiang’s prose has achieved something rather fascinating – the learning process about the alien language has gradually adjusted the reader’s brain.

I think that’s awesome.

I’ll no doubt have more to say when I’ve seen the movie. Meanwhile, if you want to read more about Arrival, plus a little bit about the story, here’s a discussion about how it portrays translators. And if you want to know more about storytelling techniques, you might like the Nail Your Novel books.

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Nail Your Novel – the DH Lawrence way

‘Try to nail something down in a novel,’ said DH Lawrence, ‘and you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’

(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)

Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.

(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)

Ready?

How’s this for an opening?

The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’

Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.

Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.

Characters

We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)

They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.

It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.

Psychological hold

The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.

Longing

‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)

This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.

From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.

The relationships thicken

Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.

The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.

Thanks for the pic Editor B  

Your turn – let’s talk about The Lovely Lady – or is there another short story you’d like to give an honourable mention to?

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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