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The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop…is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation.  –Flannery O’Conner

I recently watched the movie “Inception”, the sci-fi thriller about a man (and his team) who has the technology to enter into the dreams of powerful men to steal their secrets. What I found most intriguing about the film was this concept that there are levels to a person’s interior world. Like the iceberg theory–only 10% we can see, while 90%  lies beneath the surface.  If we imagine the mind as an iceberg, we would have to dive below the ocean’s surface  to really see it in its entirety. Diving down, layer by layer, we’d swim past daily thought processes, past rationalizations and motivations, past even the emotional and irrational, until we reached the deep subconscious. In the movie, these layers are represented by dreams within dreams.  Quite an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of work. The action and special effects aren’t too shabby either.

All throughout the movie I kept thinking about the revision I was (supposed to be) working on.  My editor cut down my longer sentences, sometimes breaking the prose into shorter fragments.  She simplified some words so that the narrative was nearer to the character’s language.   I was really pleased with how her suggestions opened up the voice of the piece and created better access to the central character.  But even with the changes, the voice felt distant, even artificial at times.  She encouraged me to work at getting closer into the character’s perspective.

I was drawn to return to the first two stories in The Best American Short Stories of 2005:  Tom Perrotta’s “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face”, and Dennis Lehane’s “Until Gwen”.  What stuck with me most about these stories is how deeply we get inside the characters, and how well these writers mine for the thought-behind-the-thought. More interestingly, when we dive deeper under the surface, additional levels of reality are created.

In these stories, readers are trained from the very beginning to be open to the truth only the character can reveal.  Voice establishes the relationship between character and reader:

The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose.  I wanted the Town Pizza Ravens …to humiliate them, to run up the score and taunt them mercilessly…I know this isn’t an admirable thing for a grown man to admit – especially a … home-plate umpire – but there are feelings you can’t hide from yourself, even if you’d just as soon chop off your hand as admit them to anyone else. (Perrotta 1)

With Perrotta’s opening, we are immediately immersed in the character’s interior.  We have reflective distance in filtering phrases like, “I wanted” and “I know”, but these words are juxtaposed with phrases like “to humiliate”, “taunt them mercilessly”, “can’t hide” and “chop off your hand”.   We get the sense of a confessional. There is acknowledgement of wrongdoing.  An intimacy is formed with the reader, with the promise of honesty that you could only have with your priest.  In the voice, there is an acute self-awareness – of the disparity/distortion between his interior self and his exterior self.  He’s invited us into his head, to find out for ourselves what he cannot admit to anyone.  The reader becomes confident and priest.

With Lehane’s story, the interiority is there, but it is found in the space between the words, what is not being said.

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker… Two minutes into the ride… Mandy tells you she only hooks part-time.  The rest of the time she does light secretarial … and tends bar, two Sundays a month… But she feels her calling – her true calling in life is to write. (Lehane 19).

In 2nd POV, it provides a dramatic account of the ground situation.  We’re immediately immersed in the narrator’s external world.   But note the hard facts we are presented with: “father”, “prison”, “stolen Dodge Neon”, “8-ball of coke”, “hooker”.   Then we are introduced to a minor character (who continues to contribute to the story’s literal tension when she’s off-page) and are told intimate facts, in a seemingly objective voice, like “she only hooks part-time”, along with her brief resume.  Then we are told “her true calling in life is to write”. The narrator lays out the facts as he sees them.  A father with a stolen car, drugs and a prostitute.  A part-time hooker with a higher calling.  Immediately, we are taught to look closely at the incongruities of his exterior world to find a greater truth.  The reader is invited to be witness and judge.

Continued in Beneath the Surface-Part 2