So let me begin looking at nonfiction with Tobias
Wolff’s This Boy’s Life: A Memoir. For concrete and economical
storytelling, his work is a good model.3 The book
Our car boiled over again just after my
mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for
it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn.
The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot
past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after
it. "Oh, Toby," my mother said, "he's lost his brakes."
One particular strength of this narrative is its economical characterization.
First, it tells a great deal about Toby and his mother, and their situation,
without resorting to abstractions. Their car boiled over “again”:
in the story’s first five words we already know something about these two
people (and their Nash Rambler) that no combination of adjectives— poor,
unpropitious, troublesome, meager—would convey as well. Although
Toby’s mother speaks only six words directly, she is revealed, by what
she says and what she does, as a vulnerable and caring woman in an out-of-control
world where the guardrails are insufficient. Her broken-down circumstances
might suggest an ineffectual or careless woman, yet she “asked whether
anyone had gone to report the accident,” which shows otherwise. The
brief “arm around my shoulder. . . . looking over at me, touching me, brushing
back my hair” dramatizes economically. The boy Toby is revealed as
well, in a way that no abstractions—observant, intelligent, scheming, needy
or greedy, conscientious yet weak—would capture as well. (Wolff’s
honesty here, revealing himself in unflattering terms as he will throughout,
signals a trustworthy account, as well.)
The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in
the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.
By the time we got there, quite a few people were
standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through
the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river
below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully
small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out
in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident.
Someone had. We stood with the others at the cliff's edge. Nobody spoke.
My mother put her arm around my shoulder.
For the rest of the day she kept looking over at
me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to
make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had
tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn't help myself.
When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded
moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.
Notice, too, Wolff’s diction. For all
its elaborate description, this is a deceptively plain style that does
not draw attention to itself—some medium length, but mostly short sentences,
informal and non-elevated diction, straightforward voice. He writes
simple, declarative sentences. His language is concrete, rich in
active verbs or verb-based modifiers: “boiled . . . crossed. . . . waiting
. . . to cool . . . bawling . . . shot . . . shimmying.” Weathers’
and Winchester’s The New Strategy of Style refers to “texture” and
“level” of diction: level being the “level of formality,” and texture the
“vividness and intensity” of vocabulary (128, 135). Wolff writes
densely textured prose at an informal level. Meticulous word-choice
packs meaning into this prose: the strong connotation of “bawling” characterizes
the airhorn (and the driver connected to it), and also sets mood beyond
what is necessary to describe the horn. I think of this as “word
soup”—the word “bawling” comes up in one spoonful of soup, but its flavor
extends further and blends into the general mix. The same happens
with the trailer “shimmying wildly” and other words that combine connotatively
to flavor this soup with vulnerability: “lay on its back . . . pitifully
small . . . feathering,” and the sound of the horn that disappears into
wind “that sighed in the trees all around us.” This is economical
description, elaborate yet succinct.4 It carries strong
pathos, all the more effective for being understated.
3 Wolff is known primarily for his
short stories, fiction. His “Bullet in the Brain,” published in The
New Yorker and anthologized in his The Night in Question, is
one of the dozen best short stories I’ve read in two decades; the title
story is also excellent. His storytelling skills translate well to
4 It may be unnecessary to
speculate on the why-and-wherefore of this economy, but another of its
values has to do with the pace of our time. In Henry James’s day
readers spent long contemplative evenings in the library with a gas-lamp,
and willingly savored lengthier text; today’s readers haven’t the same
luxury of time; their reading time competes with the TV, with Email and
other E-seductions, and with expanded domestic demands. Prose that
can not deliver succinctly, will not deliver at all; it will go un-read.
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