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Continued from Beneath the Surface-Part 1

With the relationship between character and reader established, how do we dive further inward? In his article about distance and point of view, in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, David Jauss explains how language choices create shifts in distance:

The points of view that keep us outside a character require the narrator to use his language, not his character’s , whereas the point of view that allow us to be inside a character require the narrator to use the character’s language, at least for some time. (n.p.)

I would suggest that “narrator” be clarified as the narrator who sits apart from the story – as either the invisible author or the retrospective narrator with the benefit of time, who sees the present action in a much larger context. In Tom Perrotta’s “The Smile On Happy Chang’s Face”, these language shifts take us into the character’s inner world:

“I’m getting pretty buff,” he would tell me, proudly rubbing his pecs or biceps. “Wish I’d been built like this when I was younger.”

Fuck you, I invariably thought, but I always said something polite, like “keep it up” or “I gotta start working out myself.” (Perrotta 1)

While both sentences are from the narrator’s POV, we can see the difference in language between the first and second sentences. We dip just below the surface in the first sentence, with the insertion of “proudly”. Without it, the sentence would be little more than dramatic reportage. Then we move to the next sentence. The expletive, of course, is in the character’s language. Then narrative distance moves out with “I invariably thought” and “I always said”, evoking that retrospective, confessional voice. We then go back down into the character’s language with the quoted remarks. We have two distinct levels of reality happening now – the character’s interior and exterior.

A little further in the story, we access a more layered interior of the central character:

So many things had happened since then. I was…in the same house, but Jeanie and the kids were gone… I had come to despise Carl, even though he’d done nothing to deserve it except live his own happy life right next to my sad one, where I had no choice but to witness it all the time and pretend not to mind. (2)

Notice how the narrative shifts temporally and psychically. As we uncover the thought-behind-the thought, the levels of reality for this character increases.

In “Until Gwen”, we have a much different, but no less effective, interior approach:

You … see a guy in a chicken suit carrying a can of gas in the breakdown lane, think how real life isn’t like real life. Probably more like this poor, dumb bastard running out of gas. In a car with wings painted on it. Wondering how the hell he ever got here. Wondering who he’d pissed off in that previous real life. (Lehane 20)

Like before, the narrator first lays out the concrete facts, for us to judge for ourselves. Then after that first sentence, we are immersed in the character’s language. We have direct interior monologue with the fragmented sentences. At this point of the story, we can appreciate the absurdity of the man’s situation. It’s funny and universal, but we can’t fully grasp exactly how it relates to the present action. It’s only until we reach the end of story that we are able to see the depth of the character’s interiority being revealed here.

I admire how well the narratives in both stories effortlessly shift between character’s and narrator’s language. These shifts generate a kind of rhythm and tension. The relationship between character and reader is intimate, if not brutally honest. By the end of both of these stories, I’ve plunged deep into their characters’ minds. As surprisingly or disagreeable as their choices may be, we’ve fully bought into the ride. Perrotta’s and Lehane’s stories are wonderful examples of reaching interior depth. They encourage me to explore, to dive down into the depths of character’s inner world to create a larger, more layered reality.

I’ll end with one last quote…

A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. — John K. Hutchens