Various Art Forms:

A Strange Esthetic – July 7, 2019

Red file folder

I have an aversion to the obvious. The world that is apparent to the senses at first look, the answer to any question that comes first to mind, the most widely accepted social and political views—all of these fall somewhere between ennui and ick! with me.1

I prefer the second glance, the deeper meaning, the hidden truth. And that’s if I’m feeling philosophical. In other areas—music, for instance—I like the strange chord progressions, the minors over the majors, the first and fourth over the first and third, and the transitions that feel just a little bit “off” and odd. In paintings, I prefer bold but unusual color combinations, hues, and shadings, or perspectives that are slightly skewed. In photography, I like shots taken from an angle or from noticeably above or below eye level.

So a guiding principle in my writing—my esthetic if you will—is to avoid the obvious. It’s easy enough to tell a story from one point of view, the first-person narrative. Or from the omniscient narrator, who observes and reports all the action at once, sampling the story from inside A’s point of view and then, in the next sentence, popping into B’s head to get the reaction to whatever A has done or said. It’s easy enough to set the story in familiar old Grover’s Corners—the background of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—or the anonymous American suburbs that Steven Spielberg mined so artfully for his characters in many of his early movies.

To me, that’s bland and boring. And it lacks style. I much prefer a definite setting with a few kinks and quirks and special needs, like the summertime resort of Amity Island in Spielberg’s Jaws, where everyone is dependent on tourist dollars and so has an economic as well as a visceral reason for hating and fearing the shark. I’m not looking for an Everytown as the place to tell a story, but a town with an edge and maybe a secret.

This is one of the reasons that I have settled on telling my novels through the tangled stories of multiple characters and tightly controlling their viewpoints. In this form, every scene is told from the viewpoint—that is, from inside the head, as if written in first person but with third-person pronouns—of a single character. The narration tells, and the reader knows, only what is available through that character’s senses and perceptions, intuition and insights, and knowledge of the story so far. If I want to show the reader the immediate reaction of another character to what the viewpoint character has said or done, that reaction must be discernible from an exclamation, facial expression, or other clue visible to the viewpoint character—and it will depend on the viewpoint character being the sort of person to notice the reactions of other people in the first place.

Limiting the story to the separate viewpoints of a cast of characters forces me as a writer to consider and choose. That narrowed viewpoint is like someone holding a flashlight in a darkened room. (I’ve used this analogy before.) The viewpoint character’s attention, vision, understanding, and reactions can focus on one thing at a time. This is like stream-of-conscious writing, but with the ability for the character to reflect, recall, and question what he or she is perceiving and doing.

And then I let the reader, who is riding along inside the viewpoint character’s head, have his or her own reactions to the world as the character sees it. For example, if the character sees but does not note or distinguish an obviously misplaced object or clue, the reader is tacitly invited to note it for him- or herself and thereby wonder about the perceptions, understanding, and even the intelligence of the viewpoint character.

This kind of limit on the scope of my writing—and these mind games I play with the reader—force me out of the obvious ways of telling a story. The story doesn’t start just anywhere but in a particular place and time, and with a particular viewpoint. And from there, I am using the perceptions of the viewpoint characters to make the setting unique. Not just a china cup but a china cup with a crack in the rim, or fading paint in its design, or the character’s memories of the cup once sitting in Grandma’s china cabinet. The world in this place is not obvious, not simple, not the expected. It’s a different world, filtered through the perceptions—and sometimes the misperceptions and misunderstandings—of a particular person.

By avoiding the obvious, by looking for the strange, the skewed, the particular, I am forced to make the novel’s setting and circumstances come alive in my imagination and in the reader’s mind. I give the world an element of surprise leading—sometimes but not always—to a consideration of what might be new and different this time.

Of course, there is a danger in taking this aversion to the obvious too far. Some combinations of musical notes are not mysterious but simply discordant. Some color combinations are not only surprising but clashing and garish. And some stories so violate the norms of sensibility and end up in such bad places that readers are not enticed and intrigued but simply repelled. So, as always, the dominant force in the storytelling—as in music and art—is the creator’s sense of control.

The author’s imagination—as with the composer’s ear and the painter’s eye—can run all over the place. The artist can reach for the weird simply in order to be weird. The intent can be to create the strange rather than the interesting. And sometimes, if the artist is in a bad mood, to create the repellent and offensive, to trick the reader into stepping into a metaphorical manure pile and then, presumably, to laugh as the reader vainly attempts to wipe his or her shoes.

So the aversion to the obvious requires an element of restraint. In every art form, there are reader/listener/viewer expectations that are shaped and honed by experience and catalogued for the artist in volumes concerning poetics, music theory, or art appreciation. Stories, for example, don’t always require happy endings,2 but they do have to end in a place and manner that explain the actions that have gone before and render a set of consequences that the reader finds intellectually and emotionally satisfying. To push the story in a direction or to a conclusion that avoids the obvious to the point of not making any kind of sense would be a mistake.

But, that said, I do spend a lot of time between the first impulses recorded in my outline and the final set of words on the page looking for images, responses, and story lines that rise above the obvious first-take and arrive in someplace unique, interesting, and sometimes even surprising.

1. In fact, an element of my somewhat strange and dry humor is to state the obvious with a degree of apparent boldness, as if I were drawing a new insight, or absolutely deadpan. This usually gets me funny looks and explains why some people think I’m really kind of stupid.

2. For this, see my recent blog Classic Comedy from May 19, 2019.