An observer might…


Happy Monday, dear SpecTechnique readers.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading 19th century novels (just like I enjoy reading old-school SF like E.E. “Doc” Smith & A.E. Van Vogt) is that I like seeing devices that have now fallen out of fashion.

Because after that, I can try out ways to make ‘em new again.

One classic lit move, now considered somewhat awkward, is to state the reaction that a hypothetical observer would have.

Here’s an example from my beloved example source, Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.

About his costume, an observer might have said to himself: ‘There goes a squalid person, he drinks, he gambles, he has vices, but he doesn’t get drunk, he doesn’t cheat, he isn’t a thief or a murderer.’  And Contenson was indeed indefinable until the word ‘spy’ came into one’s mind.

Similarly, in Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, illegitimate young Arkady Dolgoruky writes a narrative of his travails dealing with his extended family, and charmingly goes meta to declare a takeaway from his own writing:

If I had a reader and he had read all that I’ve already written about my adventures, doubtless there would be no point in explaining to him that I am decidedly not fit for any society whatever.  Above all, I’m totally unable to behave myself in society.

(Be sure to check this book out; of all the Dostoevsky novels I’ve read it’s the most adorably flawed and maybe even therefore the most formally adolescent novel… 😀 )

A more timeless, less artificial option is for a character to imagine him/herself in a counterfactual category and speculate on his/her possible reactions from that position. Check out Charlotte Brontë in Villette, where shy Lucy Snowe thinks herself into someone else’s shoes. Note the characterization effect here; Lucy’s self-esteem is so low she can only permit herself to have an opinion through mental gymnastics:

Had I been a gentleman, I believe Madame would have found favor in my eyes.

If u read Villette, try to get the Broadview edition. This press never lets me down when it comes to extensive footnotes & critical commentary.

Maybe it’s because it seems to be telling the reader how to interpret the text, this device has now fallen mostly out of style. But worry not, it’s still usable — I have the feeling the trick is to add a twist.

Here’s an example (in admittedly debatable taste) from Kikuchi Hideyuki’s Vampire Hunter D: Raiser of Gales:

If a telepath had been there, they might’ve caught a whisper of a grin deep in the recesses of his coldly shuttered but human consciousness.

Still sort of awkward, right? Heh, I like the line, but then I’m a known sucker for telepathy & all that bullshit.

A more durable, even sneakier way to get away with this technique is to specifically declare that no observer is present… to make a certain observation… like this:

The rain has stopped, and the sky has cleared. The night is mute, and there is no traveler to see how the author’s attic hangs in the night, mounted on little nails of light emanating from the cracks and holes, like the sky on the stars. There seems to be a fire in there. Or one is just going out.

This beautiful night scene comes from the end Andrei Bitov’s brilliant time-travel short story “Pushkin’s Photograph.” Sadly, you might need to hie thee to a research library or buy used on Amazon to find The New Soviet Fiction: Sixteen Short Stories. (Big up to my sister for tipping me off to this cool tale.) But it’s probably only a matter of time before this one gets anthologized somewhere new.

Finally, M. John Harrison… whom I’m probably going to cite heavily on this blog, because his books are a masterclass in literary style… uses a nice first-person variant on this in “In Autotelia,” which you can find in the recent New Scientist-backed zine ARC 1.1.

The “municipal room” at the New Ministries. If you stood there with me this is what you would see: locals in an orderly line, not really a queue, facing expectantly into the room with their backs to the polished wood panelling. Facing them are looser groups of people from our side of things, dressed with a certain formality though they’re not sure how to behave in this situation. They seem uncomfortable, as if this is the first time they have been here, which for most of them, it is. Hopefully it will be the last.

Tomorrow on SpecTechnique: Explaining Without Really Explaining.

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