"My First Goose" #10
Pulse 4. (So much for taking a break, ha ha.)
Today we move on to Pulse 4 of “My First Goose”: He meets, then abuses, the old woman and her goose (last few lines on 52, first eight grafs on 53).
We are, of course, reading this story at an insanely slow pace. I just went back and read it from the beginning and found that it took me a minute and thirty-six seconds to get through the first three pulses, which we’ve been working on since March 7. .
We’re reading it slowly in order to notice more, and especially to notice things that we may have only “noticed” subliminally during our first quick read.
When we work this slowly it is, of course, easy to make leisurely intellectual observations, locate biographical references, compile allusions to other works and to current events and so on – and that’s all part of the fun.
But for me, the value of this slow reading is to show myself that there was a lot going on beneath the ground floor of my initial reading experience that I might not have overtly noticed at the time but that was nevertheless happening. It’s kind of like when something quick and surprising happens (a car accident, a weird confrontation with someone at a store, a sudden slip-and-fall): in the moment, there’s not much thinking going on, and time seems to speed up, but sometimes, later, we can patch together the micro-impressions and -inclinations we were having at the time – we can begin to recollect them, once we’re again at leisure to do so.
Reading can be something like that, I think. We’re flying through the text, intent on finding out what happens next, but all the while, as we go, we’re also gathering up quick, subconscious impressions. In the end, in a beautiful story, these subconscious impressions are felt as part of a unified system; they were not, it turns out, random.
Walking through a party, we don’t overtly notice that everyone is smiling at us a little strangely. Later, when the party culminates in someone giving us a wonderful and unsuspected present, all of those smiles come into focus (we sort of retro-notice them) and we realize: oh, the whole party was about that.
Back when we read The Falls, we talked about the overstory (the surface details, our natural interest in the story’s basic events) vs. the understory (the hidden meaning of the story that reveals itself in the end).
Here, the overstory might be, simply: “Will he fit in with the Cossacks?”
It’s a little early to talk about the understory (we should wait until the last pulse for that) but suffice to say that the understory is essentially made up of, or fueled by, all of those subconscious impressions we’ve been gathering up. For example – early on, reading slowly, we were perhaps better able to notice the strange feminization of Savitsky in the opening lines of the story. That is something we “hope” will play into the ending of the story; that is, our internal Aesthet’O’Meter hopes so: if we find some echo of this, we’ll be pleased, because the story will feel that much more unified. So, reading the story slowly put that aspect more squarely on the table, we might say.
Also, let’s note that if the story only results in an answer to the question above (“Will he fit in with the Cossacks?”) we’re going to feel a little disappointed. We’ll feel that it’s not quite doing the full work of a story, which is, I’d say, to somehow overflow its banks, to answer that question (yes, sure, of course) but to do something else as well, something transcendent and surprising. That “something else” has to do with the understory (which has been telling itself to us all along, via those subconscious impressions) rising up to assert itself, so that we get that beautiful feeling: “Oh, so this is what you wanted to be about all along.”
Well, please accept the vagueness of the above as a reminder that the ineffable is, uh, hard to discuss.
So: a short and violent pulse. Our narrator approaches the landlady (whose existence we don’t know about until he approaches her there at the bottom of 52 – and there’s a little lesson in efficiency in that) and requests some food. She tries to engage him in a human conversation, he rebuffs her, looks around, finds a saber, then finds a goose, kills the goose, demands she cook it for him.
Some things we might notice:
With his abuse of the landlady, the narrator has done what he was instructed to do by the quartermaster – he has messed with a lady, and a nice one too. Part of the beauty of the story is the strange juxtaposition of the advice and the way the narrator implements it. The implication of the advice was: “Go sexually abuse a nice young woman” or, if we’re feeling generous toward these Cossacks “Go have sex with/compromise a nice young woman and then abandon her.” But the narrator doesn’t do either of these things; instead, he kills the (presumably valuable) goose of a poor old (blind or nearly blind) woman.
We might also note that he doesn’t physically hurt her (apart from that jab in the chest). What he does, is get her to kill her goose before she’s ready to kill it herself - I think. (Maybe someone who knows more about these things than I do can advise: would the goose have been kept alive as long as possible for the eggs, or would it have been killed soon anyway?)
It matters, because this tells us something about the exact flavor of harm the narrator has done her.
When he approaches, she is “spinning yard on the porch.” Consider the difference between: “I put the paper aside and went over to the landlady,” and “I put the paper aside and went over to the landlady, who was spinning yarn on the porch.” This may seem obvious, but this move is a fundamental one in fiction. Babel needs a landlady. He supplies one with the word “landlady.” Then the Gods of Fiction ask, “Yeah, but, Isaac, where is she? What’s she doing? Come on, man, make her real, so the reader will see her and believe in her.” And Babel honors that request – he’s going to tell us where she is and what she’s doing. We might imagine him writing along, and he scrawls, “I put the paper aside and went over to the landlady….” and then his years of practice incline him to add a phrase, and he makes a very smart (what we’ve been calling) “micro-decision”: she’s not killing a chicken or screaming at a servant, but doing something domestic and peaceful (knitting), out of which he then roughly pulls her.
Of such apparently small choices are great works made.
So, it might be worth thinking about how you make these sorts of decisions in your work. For me, they always come at speed, with no thought or planning or vetting re my themes and so on. It has something to do with visualizing the scene (“What’s around here, that I can use?”) but also, maybe more so, with sound – the sound of the phrase. Many times, a story will take a swerve because of the way I “fill in” one of these TBD phrases – some new story element will suddenly appear in that phrase, not because I needed it or wanted it but because it sounded good and then rushed in to fill the void.
So, let’s say I have:
Sam moved into the room and was stunned to find (FILL IN).
Now I’m going to quickly fill that in without thinking, by sound alone (since there’s no surrounding story to inform my choice).
Sam moved into the room and was stunned to find Nate droning on, though dead.
Well, there you go.
That gives me something to work with.
But the basis for adding “Nate droning on, though dead” was one hundred percent sound. Or, you know, sentence rhythm. I didn’t add (and wouldn’t change it to): “Nate droning on, though poor Nate had been dead for seven weeks,” because I don’t like the sound of that. But also: it didn’t arise in my mind that way.
The feeling is like I’m riding a wave of sound. And, as Babel has his narrator say in his great story “Guy DeMaupassant”: “A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice.”
Although I’d add: “But can you, of course, come back tomorrow and, you know, ‘twist again.’”
(I know you thought I was going to insert an image of Chubby Checkers, but I am not. Come on, guys, this is a serious intellectual undertaking here.)
The narrator’s glasses are a big thing in the story, as we’ve mentioned. We note that this old woman also has a vision problem – she lifts “the flooded whites of her purblind eyes.” Later “her blindness and glasses” are said to be “glinting.”
I don’t know that there’s a name for this sort of relational connection in fiction but there should be. (Hmm, how about “Relational Fictive Connection” or “RFC?”) We are always making connections between elements of a story. We know that, ultimately, in a perfect work of art (the one that has never been accomplished yet, by anyone) every element will be in communication with every other element – no accidents, no randomness (except those little bits of apparent randomness that, ultimately, are intended to make the story feel more real and lifelike and are, therefore, not really random.)
When there are two mentions of the color pink in a story, we connect the two pink elements, even if one is a car and the other is a woman whose hair is pink. When there is one very religious person in a story and one passionate atheist – we connect those two people under the label of “has strong feelings re God.” When someone is assigned an action we understand as “rushing in” we are awake to anything we might understand as “rushing out” – even if what’s “rushing out” is the tide, five pages later.
And so on.
Here, we connect the narrator and the old women on the basis of “both have vision issues” and we, maybe, expect them to be simpatico with each other on that basis. It seems that the landlady expects this too. When he first approaches her, she calls him “Comrade,” and confides in him: “Comrade, this business makes me want to hang myself.” And it seems that the narrator is also aware of this expectation that they will be simpatico – we know this because he reacts so strongly against it.
This is a chance for him to bond with her, his comrade in nearsightedness (and, we feel, in decency). But in this bond, he senses doom. So, instead, he pushes her in the chest with his fist, and the kills her goose, denying the bond.
Given that “vision” has been declared as an element in the story, are there other manifestations of this notion? And remember – we can work our way out from the literal (no Cossack is described as wearing glasses) to the metaphorical.
I’ll leave that an open question for now, for you all to discuss.