Monthly Archives: January 2011

BEN, IN THE WORLD / Doris Lessing

BEN, IN THE WORLD

Doris Lessing. 2000 (178 pgs)

The sequel to THE FIFTH CHILD

First Ten Pages =  5.62% of total book

First Sentence:  “ ‘How old are you?’ ”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Close third person. Shifting POV from various characters but always regarding Ben. There is the sense that when it isn’t from Ben’s POV, the others are attempting to see through his eyes or figure out how they can use him to their own advantage.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  Ben is an unusual man. He is from a different age (hence the irony of the first sentence). At the unemployment office, Ben has a difficult time convincing the clerk he is eighteen years old, in his strange clothing and appearing middle aged. He is extremely uncomfortable and the clerk mistakes Ben’s forced grin as some sort of mockery. Ben’s physical description is more animal than human, yet his voice and accent are “posh.”

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  Through various perspectives, including Ben, the unemployment clerk, a cat and Mrs Biggs, the kindly, elderly woman who has taken Ben in, the reader learns that Ben is an anomaly – human, yet a throwback to something ape or dog-like. With his broad facial features, squat body with huge chest, furry body and his propensity to experience the physical world through smell, sound and the warning sensations of fear and anxiety, Ben is incapable of getting along in the real world. His upper class family has abandoned him and he is constantly robbed or swindled. He prowls grocery market aisles for food stalking for meat and terrifying the shopkeepers. If not for Mrs Biggs (and her highly suspicious cat) Ben would steal. And yet Ben knows he is eighteen because every Christmas since he was fifteen, he has added another year to his age.

Language: BEN, IN THE WORLD is the sequel Doris Lessing’s THE FIFTH CHILD. Ben is a simple man, who uses simple thoughts and words. He constantly tries to negotiate his survival in the unnatural world of cars, offices, elevators, and machines. Lessing uses a direct and unadorned storytelling style, as if this is the type of story people will tell in small groups and around campfires, the reader not knowing how much is possible or true. Most sentences are declarative statements of fact or biased observation. The reader is conscious of a storyteller speaking very closely in their ear. While the shifting character POV relays the story from their own experience, judgment and sensitivity, the unifying effect that Ben seems to have is that he constantly elicits curiosity and wonder. The various voices contribute to a worldview about this strange “manimal,” and each character echoes their need to sympathize or capitalize on him.

Setting: This sequel covers a much larger territory than its predecessor, THE FIFTH CHILD. Ben’s journey takes him literally into the world, specifically deeper into London and then Marseille, Brazil and in the mountains of the Andes where he discovers where he comes from and who his people are. The world in general serves to be a scary and imposing place for Ben. The reader is familiar with the world to which Ben has no affinity or ease. Presented to the reader from Ben’s perspective, the world is oppressive and confusing, while from others, things like taxis, airplanes, grocery stores are every day occurrences.

Character:  Ben is handicapped. Not to a wheelchair or by mental illness, but by elements of the western world. He is the extreme in us and held up to the reader for an examination of self. Ben is the universal child of parents who cannot cope. Ben is part of every man who feels out of sorts in his environment. Ben is the natural world – the extinct world – calling for recognition.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  The rhythm is simple and short. Lessing often returns to short declarations of fact to tell the substantive aspects of the plot, which lend an air of impending unease. There is considerable tension caused by common occurrences in these first ten pages – that to the twentieth century reader would seem unusual. Lessing uses this confusion to indicate the mental state and incapability of her main character to cope with the most obvious situations. As the story progresses beyond the first ten pages it becomes more and more difficult for the reader to anticipate a happy ending. Metaphorically, Ben’s being in the world is a statement that there is very little room for the natural world in the world in which we have fashioned.

Intention: Perhaps Lessing is reminding us that we are animals regardless how sophisticated we seem. Ben is the hero. He is put upon and rescued by a number of people who take pity on him or see a way to profit from his differences. Even though he is robbed and set upon by petty thieves, it is Hollywood and “The Cages” of laboratory science that strike the most dissonant chords in Ben’s forced venture into the world.

Thematic Preamble: This story wears its theme on its sleeve. Its dark perception of human nature is made upfront and is not subtle. The author does not make the reader dig deeply beyond the events at hand to find subtle meanings. Even so, where Ben is handicapped by the world he lives in, he has the animal capability to kill a man by crushing him in his arms, a power he must put down in order to survive.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten:  This is my first time reading a Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing book and one of her last (Lessing died in 2010). With my initial reading I was not impressed by the simplicity of Ben’s story and how there seemed little room for the reader’s participation. I wondered if it was because I was reading part two without having read part one. I realized, however, that Lessing is telling Ben’s story from Ben’s core. The writing style explains the events. The reader can only observe characters trying to help Ben and failing, while others succeed at taking advantage of him. While the writing seems simple and childlike, the overall effect forces the reader to ask how one copes in this cynical world.

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PARIS TROUT / Pete Dexter

PARIS TROUT / Pete Dexter. 1988 (306 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  3.27% of total book

First Sentence:  “In the spring of that year an epidemic of rabies broke out in Ether County, Georgia.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Third person. Past tense. No deviation.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The reader learns of a rabies epidemic “that spring,” but doesn’t learn which year. The reader is told that the setting is a county in rural Georgia that suggests it might put one to sleep. From the first six words the reader should conclude that the story is set in the significant past. Contemporary people don’t talk in terms of seasons. They delineate time in much smaller packets, like Facebook entries. The reader is then told that seventy foxes were killed, twelve were rabid, but nobody contracted the disease…except an old man named Woodrow and a fourteen-year-old girl named Rosie Sayers. Both from “The Bottoms.” Part one of the story features Rosie Sayers. This information is economically narrated in four brief paragraphs. Economy will be a guiding principal of the entire story.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The reader is offered a considerable amount of information in the first ten pages, most of it following the narrative of Rosie being sent into town by her mother to purchase bullets from Paris Trout’s store. The bullets are for her mother’s guest – a sportsman – but are lost when Rosie is bitten by a rabid fox. Without any money, she returns to Trout’s store to replace the bullets, introducing the misshapen concept that a white man will solve a black man’s dilemma, a theme that resonates tragically throughout the story. Paris Trout shows her no kindness, and none to the clerk in his store who insists on taking Rosie to the clinic for her wounds.

Language: The narrative voice is established with the opening sentence and carried faithfully through to the last line of the story. The story contains nine sections named after five of the major characters, yet no character is favored above another. The narrative voice remains equally detached. Dexter portrays social and class differences through the words his characters choose, but without minimizing the spoken dialogue into written slang. Privileged white characters communicate with educated ease and are represented by how they speak. Those who believe they have entitlement over another because of race or circumstances represent accordingly. The black characters living on the outskirts of town down by the saw mill speak a minimized English that speaks to the point and removes pretense. On the page each character uses words from the same vocabulary. How they are arranged sharply defines character and illuminates intent.

Dexter begins this story with a broad narrative event – a rabies situation – then focuses on a girl affected by this broad narrative event. When Dexter slows the broad telling of events to focus on a simple dialogue conversation it is a catalytic one that resonates throughout the remaining story.

He came out of the dark, it reminded her of a ghost. He glowed tall and white. “What is it?” he said.

“Bullets,” she said.

“Speak up, girl.”

“Twenty-two bullets,” she said.

Firearms and entitlement are crucial elements to Dexter’s story. The first conversation that occurs in real, spoken time is one about buying bullets and creates an echo the reader won’t hear until further along.

Setting: In the same way that familiar nuances cue a reader into a Western story or a New York City setting, the reader quickly understands they are the Deep South with ingrained social delineations. The Bottoms. The dusty, sunken road behind the sawmill. “The white people stores were empty.” A nurse who spends more time washing her own hands than cleaning Rosie’s wounds. These do not precisely represent locality, and yet these places and actions are standard clues to an obvious social setting. Where they live engrains how they live.

Character:  The reader learns of Paris Trout through his actions. Paris Trout never explains or defends. It is a leading characteristic of this story that even when people do unusual things, the narration offers very little in the way of defense as if action is its own defense.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  Huge waves of emotional and sexual tension are created and discharged in the course of this story. Each of the characters – except Paris Trout –believes they can separate themselves from injustice by following the accepted order – the way things are supposed to be done. This pretense is the undoing of each character, except Paris Trout. He is a man without guilt and there is only one way. Trout’s way.

Thematic Preamble: PARIS TROUT begins without preamble and places the reader immediately in the story. Nothing is said at the beginning to soften what will happen to these characters and demands that the reader draw difficult conclusions at each turn of events.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: This reader expected a hero to emerge. One doesn’t. What emerges alternatively is how we are a society based on association and agreement. The black citizens in particular understand and do their best not to step outside prescribed boundaries. It is generally ignorance – an affliction of all the characters regardless of social strata – that brings someone down.

Random Comments: This is a troubling story. The book jacket suggests that PARIS TROUT will “probably interfere with your sleep.” It didn’t. It interfered with my entire day.

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY / James M. Cain

DOUBLE INDEMNITY / James M. Cain. 1936 (115 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  8.7% of total book

First Sentence:  “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. (…) That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  First person. Hard-boiled. Factual. Detective genre style. Narrating events from past tense. Not straying from essential facts.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  A visit to a prospective client introduces insurance agent, Huff, to the House of Death. He is a hard-core and experienced salesman who is seasoned and proud of his ability to tender a sale. Huff narrates the first few paragraphs as if events are afterthoughts, including a touch and go exchange with the housekeeper who is bent on preventing his entry. He is polite, respectful (and calculating). Once he gets in the door he “…pitched my hat onto the sofa,” indicating an ongoing level of contempt for his client and the game he plays to “get in.”

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The reader receives details of The House of Death, including the “blood red drapes that run on iron spears” and furniture that seems to have been installed directly from a classy department store showroom floor. Huff sizes up the wife of his client as she enters in a suit of day-pajamas and as they cat and mouse around the topic of automobile insurance. When she makes the mistake of – a little too causally – asking about accident insurance, Huff knows she is onto something and that he’d best stay a couple of steps ahead.

Back at his office Huff is complimented by his superior for being a top-notch salesman while he keeps the company’s interest in mind. The reader is told in a fast dialogue scene that the boss is very satisfied with Huff’s ability to determine a scam “just by looking at the circumstances.” Huff’s diligence has saved the company the cost of a claim on a new truck. The reader is clued into the reality that this ability can go either way. By the end of the first chapter (7th page) Huff is alone in his office wondering what type of warning he’ll clip on the “accident policy” and what kind of “accident” his client’s wife will be.

Language: Classic detective genre first person straight-talking guy. Clipped and clear. Every word serves its purpose. All unessential description removed. The provocative image of “The House of Death,” which rings of a newspaper headline, is placed alongside a relatively commonplace explanation of public liability insurance, yet each has weight and importance to the plot of this story.

Setting: The Los Angeles environs are quickly established in the first few words, first by indicating that he drove to Glendale and then – and the period in history is also established – to Hollywoodland. In context of the L.A. basin he has moved from the working class suburbs to the playground of the elite. Los Angeles plays a significant background role as Huff peddles insurance from the coast to the foothills and every neighborhood in between.

Character:  While Huff is the main character and narrator of the story, Mrs. Nirdlinger provides a constant catalyst for the forward movement of the action. That the story is titled DOUBLE INDEMNITY clues this reader into the high likelihood of a double cross. As the story is told in the past tense, Huff directs the reader’s attention to events that place Mrs. Nirdlinger (and later her daughter) under suspicion from their first encounter.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  With it’s terse, immediately past tense style and frequent sections of present tense dialogue, the story seems to unfold in the moment that Huff tells it. It is easy to forget that the events he discloses (and some he neglects to disclose) have already happened and that the story is being unfolded at the narrator’s leisure. This rhythmic style puts the reader into the hands of a confident storyteller, even when the main character has trouble putting events together – or chooses to delay information that would make it easy for the reader to figure out the plot.

Intention: This is well written literature regardless of the fact that it relies heavily on clichés from the detective genre style. It is entertaining and moralistic, but within this well defined and familiar structure the reader is given an excellent  and entertaining read.

Thematic Preamble: Absolutely none. Action begins with the first line and does not pause until the story is over. Nothing is given away or foretold. The narrative is offered as factual even when portions are delayed for dramatic foreclosure.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: OK. I will admit that I couldn’t stop at page ten, twenty or even after several chapters. Even thought I am unaccustomed to detective genre stories, I could not put it down. As I was reading this masterful work, I considered how the narrator’s confidence in his ability to make a sale was both his strength and his downfall. It is clear from their first encounter that Mrs. Nirdlinger is hugely attractive and is a gigantic draw on Huff’s ability to focus. Even as he adopts an “I told you so” POV, the overall message from the opening pages is “cheaters don’t prosper” or “the piper must be paid” – and both these adages are upheld at the story’s conclusion. What kept me reading is that I expected a well-plotted scam to go well or to go badly and to be told with confidence and strength.

Random Comments:  James M. Cain wrote THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1934) and then immediately after DOUBLE INDEMNITY. He wrote MILDRED PIERCE in 1941.

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