(Note: This essay was originally written in the spring of 2015, in a graduate course Robinson was taking while at work on the manuscript that would later become “The Horse Latitudes.” Temporal references and quotes from Robinson’s work are as they appeared in the original.)
THE WAY I CAME TO WRITING was this: On June 4, 2004, three soldiers in my company were killed on Route Pluto by a single IED blast, two immediately and one later at the CASH. The sergeant and specialist were running to an already-exploded vehicle, combat life-saver kits in-hand. The concussion got them. The lieutenant, still with their stopped vehicle, died of shrapnel wounds, internal bleeding. Before nightfall I scribbled it down, the way I thought it happened. How they were trying to rescue the wounded who were hit first. How they just turned off, like lights, except the lieutenant. I called the trigger team hajjis. I called their use of IED’s cowardly. I wrote and wrote. I pushed hard with the pen. It took up almost a whole page of paper.
I closed my notebook and put it aside. I went on missions. I kept going. Eventually I came home. The notebook ended up in a box with other war stuff. A piece of shrapnel from the first blast site we drove to. Prayer beads from three Iraqi men, given on three separate missions. A handful of voting ballots from the free election. The only uniform I kept from the six years of my enlistment. I put the notebook on top and put the box away. For about eight years.
In that time I struggled with my adjustment back. I kicked holes in walls, I cried hard at a teacher and an AT&T representative, I screamed at my kids, at kids in the neighborhood, at anyone I could. I really liked screaming. At work, when I’d have disagreements with coworkers, I would elaborately explain how easy it would be for me to kill them. Not simply the ease of the act, but the ease of the conscience. I wouldn’t lose sleep, I know where the holes go unfound, it would be a pleasure compared to this argument, it would feel like relief.
Needless to say, I was asked to talk with someone. A vet counselor. She was in her sixties and kind. She listened. I talked. I talked a lot. She’d heard worse than every one of my stories, even when I embellished. When she didn’t respond I would dial it back, give her the honest version. She asked me if I’d ever written any of it down. This is how I came to writing.
The first night I was scared. It was late, the kids were in bed, my wife was out. I poured a glass of gin. I found my war box and read the page I’d written years before. I read it again. I kept reading it. I went to bed.
The next night I tried again, waiting until the family was sleeping. I drank gin and my hands shook and I typed, starting at the beginning and ending, well, at the end. I went through four glasses of gin. I’d written two pages. When it was over my hands weren’t shaking.
For eight years my anger came out sideways. Haphazardly. Indiscriminately. It wasn’t doing me any good and it was certainly doing harm. The night I wrote two pages I slept straight through the night, only checked the doors once before bed, and woke up feeling good. The gin was only part of it.
I took the story to my counselor, who after reading it said, “You tell this story differently when you tell it out loud.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean when you tell it, you get really upset, you get angry.”
“I’m always angry. I wrote it angry.”
“It reads like a story. Like it’s more than anger.”
I’m not sure what that meant. I wrote it angry. I wrote it drunk. I wrote it real slow. I shook and cried and felt better when it was over. I guess kind of like the war.
I kept sitting down, kept pouring gin, kept writing out pieces of the story. Exactly as I remember them happening. I never showed another one to my counselor, but I felt better after every one.
“I wrote ten pieces of flash fiction, all about serial killers. They allowed me to enact many of the threats I’d been throwing around in my daily life.”
I ENROLLED AT Oregon State University. Online, so I wouldn’t have to be around students. I took a bunch of different classes for the first year, always putting off Creative Writing. It didn’t seem like something a person really did. It felt self-indulgent. I stopped writing, busied myself with homework and my day job. Tried to be less angry, but it didn’t work. I threatened to murder the director of another department and decided I wasn’t fit for duty.
My first term of Creative Writing, I wrote ten pieces of flash fiction, all about serial killers. They were short exercises that allowed me to enact many of the threats I’d been throwing around in my daily life. These stories, I wrote sober. None of it was real, I didn’t give a shit about the killers or their victims. I played with voice and setting and dialogue and in a very real sense learned that what I had been doing before was not story writing. I wasn’t writing anger. I was writing angry.
My serial killer stories read like this:
“Jack . . . ”
“Your hands. Jack, your hands, look at them!”
“ . . . ”
“What is that? What the f—”
“Nothing, go away.”
“Is that blood? Whose blood is that? Jack who’s in there with you?”
The exploration of character was shallow because I didn’t really care what happened in the stories. It made it easy to do terrible things. I stayed detached during the writing and tried to creep out my creative writing teacher. These stories are full of anger, none of it my own, none of it meaningful or purposeful, none of it good writing.
In my war stories I was attempting to channel my own shaking rage through the keyboard and onto the page. I wrote things like:
The Red Head was there. At the blast. Before the blast. Filming. Documenting tragedy. She had been warned, given a time and a place. Maybe more. Maybe an expected damage report. A body count. She had been warned. The dead hadn't been warned. We hadn't been warned. If we had been, lives might have been saved. With just a little warning. Less death. Less human loss. What has she done?
Not a lot of story in it. Melodrama. Sentimentality. I hint at the plot. But not much story. I was writing angry but there was a disconnect. I cared a great deal but it didn’t matter in the story, so it wasn’t felt in the writing.
When I wrote anger, I had hollow stories doing angry things without impact. When I wrote angry, I had the story in mind but it wasn’t making it onto the page. The anger left me, provided catharsis, but it didn’t become story.
What I did was this: I sat down again, gin in hand, and typed out a fictional war story. I was shaking mad, immersing myself in setting, peopling the scenes with characters I had known, but because it was fiction, they could do anything. They weren’t constrained by my memory or by my personal logic. My experience informed them, but didn’t predetermine them. They could be angry, they could be sad, tired, funny, scared, lonely, anything. But they could only be what was right for the story. I was writing angry, and I was writing anger, but I had a blueprint: story.
The shift “out of my anger, into the story’s anger” helped Robinson understand his fiction.
Much later—okay, this week—I was trying to decide what writing angry means. Initially, during those first few nights of trying to write down “true” stories, my anger was due to content—I was angry about what had happened. Some things are just hard to say and it took me a certain amount of rage to get the words out, to puke up first drafts. Dorothy Allison’s habit of locking herself in a motel room to drink and write comes to mind. Later, when I was writing flash horror for class, I was not writing angry, because what was happening in the story—the content—wasn’t mine. And my writing of it wasn’t engaging and I wasn’t feeling anything.
The switch flipped when I fictionalized the war stories. All of a sudden I wasn’t rolling up to stories with fear and anger already in my chest, the content wasn’t set in my mind before I began. I had to do the work at the keyboard, on the page, in order to respond, as a reader, to the content as I was writing. I began writing angry, but the anger was in response to the stories I was writing. I got mad at characters for making shitty decisions and being awful to each other. Dumb luck would piss me off as so many terrible things began to occur, seemingly at random, as has been my experience.
What is very important about this shift in approach is that this new paradigm required my anger to be a response to the writing, rather than my writing to be a response to my inborn anger, which led to the stories starting to resonate for other readers. All of a sudden some degree of emotional response was being earned by the writing, because I had to earn the emotional response in myself first. It wasn’t an immediately obvious realization. I would write duds, scenes that just sat on the page, and I didn’t get worked up during the writing. I assumed that I was less angry that day, that maybe I hadn’t had enough to drink, that I hadn’t brought enough of myself to the desk to begin with. But the truth was that basic craft elements were failing, characterization was weak and tension was lacking, and I had failed to make my first reader, me, care.
I STARTED REALLY TRYING to piss myself off. I’d force my characters to push against each other, made my dialogue more clumsy, less on the nose. If given a choice between saying the easy thing, the thing that everybody wanted to hear, and saying something shitty, characters would always say the shitty thing. Or the nonsensical thing. Whatever was the least helpful to everyone else in the scene. I decided communication is the best thing in the world for human interactions and that everything is worse when communication fails. And after a great line of this kind of dialogue, I would get so mad. I responded by having things explode or someone would get shot or have to shoot somebody else or puke or cry or any goddamn thing really, but they had to respond because I was responding and the writing pulled and pulled.
In one story, a truck crew is ambushed and returns fire. After the shooting stops and the gun truck begins moving again, the narrator sees a civilian shot dead in his car on the side of the road. He was killed by enemy fire. In the writing of it, before I knew he was in that car, before I knew the car was there, I had thrown bullets at my characters and disjointed their dialogue so that no one is really speaking directly to each other. By the end of the story, they are each continuing dialogues with themselves:
Before we fully pass him, before Mason sees, I tap his knee. He looks down. “You all right?” I say, still looking out my window.
“Yeah. Fucking great,” he says. We’ve passed. Only Napes and I have to know what the dead man looks like.
I want to go to bed. I want to hold a piece of cold metal in my closed fist. I want to sleep and wake up on a different day.
We pick up speed. Continue mission. Charlie mike.
“I’m so fucking hungry,” Napes says.
He looks like he’s screaming.
My narrator is asking if the gunner is physically okay after the firefight. Gunner responds, sarcastically, about how he feels after returning fire in a combat zone. And the gunner, a few lines later, just wants to be back at the base, eating a late dinner.
“Characters began to carry it around with them, they’d let it out with less and less prompting. The story world became less hospitable.”
They are in the same small space, literally speaking to each other, but they certainly aren’t communicating with each other—they are communicating to me, the first reader of their story. I responded to the action and the decisions that shaped the story and was so angry by the time the shooting stopped that I couldn’t write them making sense with each other. I know the narrator wants the gunner to check his body, to pat himself down and say that he is in one piece. But I’m mad that a civilian was killed so I frustrate my narrator for being involved, I deny him his straightforward answer. The gunner is one man in a group of four, but the only person tasked with shooting. He knows what the narrator wants to know but because being the only shooter on the truck is bullshit, when given the opportunity, he expresses that shooting isn’t fun, that even in response to an ambush, shooting is the hard thing, and he’s alone in having to do it. And farther away, in the front seats, the driver is so outside the shooting he’s worried about maintaining his protein levels so he can continue making gains of lean muscle, and the truck commander doesn’t even speak—he has nothing to say.
Although I clearly brought my own opinions of war and group dynamics and firefights to the writing, it wasn’t until each character started thinking about themselves, and the story began frustrating their wants, that I began responding to the content, getting angry at the story as the characters began to behave like people.
I was writing anger.
Characters began to carry it around with them, they’d let it out with less and less prompting from other characters. The story world became less hospitable. Randomness became a tool of frustration. I wrote a story where I granted these same characters a reprieve from physical violence. I sat them at the front gate of their base and made them talk to each other and they were so shitty, relentlessly shitty, in how they spoke to each other, and I got so angry at them for being so, I felt compelled to bring a different kind of violence to the page, in response. Nahla, a female interpreter, comes into the story, reading the grounds of Turkish coffee she serves the other interpreters. The proposition of having their futures read, although obviously a terrible idea, is nonetheless too good to pass up. The narrator asks Mason, the gunner who is on speaking terms with Nahla, how reading grounds works and whether or not he should ask for a reading. Napes, the driver from above, bullied his way into his own reading.
“She doesn’t read for soldiers,” Mason says. “It’s bad juju, like I told Napes. No news is good news.”
“What about Napes?” I say.
“He is asshole,” Nahla says. “He calls me hajji. I take his money, and give him coffee. That is all.” She’s not smiling anymore.
Napes’s aggression results in both Mason and Nahla deciding to fuck with him, to charge him money for the reading and then give him a manufactured and intentionally frustrating future. It’s the right response for the scene. My narrator, however, is allowed to get close to his own fears and anxieties about his future and possible lack of future, and he just wants to be told he’s going to be okay. Napes is a dick, he can’t have what he wants. The narrator is soft in a place and at a time where he can’t be soft, so nobody tells him he’s going to be okay. And all this is a result of them being shitty to each other when they were sitting around talking.
So I’m no longer angry when I sit down to write. If I’m doing the work, if the writing is rooted in character and place and I feel immersed while writing, I begin to respond to the story—I become angry. If the characters are behaving as people, in sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle ways, they get angry in response to their surroundings and to their frustration of having their goals denied. By the end of a story where I get angry and they get angry, the story builds and builds and most often ends in a shit show, but I am left with that feeling of catharsis of having exorcised some personal demons that I had when I wrote mad and drunk before.
THERE’S SOMETHING else, though. In all of that writing, even what I’ve done recently in that same vein, I have denied my characters interiority. The writing is entirely scenic and I’ve left it up to the action and dialogue to demonstrate character motivations, rather than internal contemplation. For example:
Carefully, like pulling bandages away from a burn victim, I roll my bedding down and away from Gleeson’s rifle. Too much blood. I get an undershirt from my footlocker, cut it into strips with my Leatherman, and begin cleaning the outside. My hands shake when they slip off the shirt and smear themselves bloody. I take a toothbrush to the handgrip, really getting in to those diamond-shaped crevices. I have to get a bottle of water from the hallway ice-chest to rinse the bristles before taking it to the shoulder-strap, which has been soaking for hours now. I give up and remove the strap, burying it in my laundry bag. I place the strap-keepers in my ammo can. Tink tink. It’s one of the first sounds I recognize as sound since the blast.
Initially, this was to avoid overexplaining. It’s not that characters didn’t have their reasons for their behavior, but I did feel that letting the reader know those reasons would reduce the tension of the action. Even though the actions are, to the characters, the inevitable response, I didn’t want the reader to know way before the action what was coming. I had also taken to heart some version of Hemingway’s purported belief that language is incapable of communicating some things, that what a character does and says can carry unfathomable weight in the doing or saying and that anything else is clutter. I’m paraphrasing, badly, but I do believe it. I think that too often interiority is used to try to make sense of too much, or make too definitive the sense of the story. Shit doesn’t always make sense, especially what ends up in stories.
Then this happened: I allowed a character to try to make sense of a fucked up situation. I’m going along, typing away, my characters are being awful, I’m getting angry, they start getting angry, and I slip into interiority not to explain, but to follow the thought process of a character trying to make sense. And everything changed. Tension wasn’t reduced. The action wasn’t explained. The meaning wasn’t summarized. Tension was complicated, the action was interpreted, and meaning was nuanced. In the same collection, from the point of view as the same shitty driver who likes to call Iraqis hajji:
The girl smiles. Skeletor smiles. I can’t feel the rifle, it’s lost its mass, my hands numb. We look at each other, on and on. Skeletor’s mouth is moving but I’m sitting on the roof of the Baghdad Hotel in a guard shack and my knee is pressed against Burnside’s and our rifles are laid up on the sandbags and we’re taking turns looking out over the city and I’m calling in the sit-reps and he’s telling me about how we’ll move to Portland when this is over and our enlistments are up and we won’t have to be hard anymore and we’ll be soft but soft together which is way stronger than the kind of hard we have to be now and even in the dark we can hear each other smile and the first few minutes after each sit-rep he’ll hold my hand and in his hand my hand isn’t cold and that’s when I feel the tear fall clear to my chin.
Napes isn’t on the roof, he’s at the main gate, teasing the prostitutes, when he is presented with a fourteen-year-old girl and her mother to purchase for the evening. The world is all of a sudden too much, too awful, and there’s no escape. So he retreats into his head, to a place not outside the war, not that selfish, just some place away from the gate and the women, on the roof, with the one person in Baghdad he loves. The interiority doesn’t explain this escape, it just happens, in the time it takes for a tear to roll down a face. And if I was true to the constraint I would have had the girl smile, the mother smile, and the tear fall. That would still have communicated that Napes was sad and probably angry and it would have been an honest moment. But allowing the narrative to follow Napes as he mentally departed we learn things that otherwise couldn’t be expressed: what makes him feel safe, what makes him feel loved, what he thinks of his fellow soldiers, a glimpse of how masculinity is treated both by straight soldiers and by closeted gay soldiers. It became a different story.
And it was through this last shift—all the way out of my anger, into the story’s anger, through it, and into the individual anger of the character—that I really understood the story I was writing. I have made subsequent decisions about which characters I grant this access to and when, and what the consequences are within the story for such indulgence. I hope they are meaningful, that they serve the story and reinforce the random nature and violence of war stories. I still believe that action is the primary maker of meaning in writing, I think it is true to life. But especially with large, often blunt emotions such as anger, there is a sophistication of emoting, of stimulus and response, which is best served by a closeness of consciousness in the telling.
Perhaps that is why some of the angriest texts I’ve read have been first-person narratives. There is something satisfying, voyeuristic, in following the train of thought of a mind leaving the rails, or responding to the impossible. The hundred-page rant. The fractured thoughts and frantic looking of an overwhelmed psyche. The narrator narrating themselves behaving crazily while at the same time saying to themselves, and to us, no, stop, this is fucking crazy. There is tension in it and voice and stakes. The psychological well being of the only person the reader is getting information from. It makes them dependent on you, and they must suffer along and through with you.
John Gardner puts it like this:
The theory of fiction as a vivid, uninterrupted dream in the reader’s mind logically requires an assertion that legitimate cause in fiction can be of only one kind: drama; that is, character in action. Once it is dramatically established that a character is worthy of our sympathy and love, the story-teller has every right (even the obligation, some would say) to give sharp focus to our grief at the misfortunes of that character by means of powerful, appropriate rhetoric.
It’s that appropriate rhetoric that I’m getting at—the ways of bringing out greater dimensions of character and story by, once having earned dramatically earned a reader’s care for a character, going to the interior. And, for your sake and mine, I’ll start using writing that is not my own as examples.
First: the unearned interiority. Here is the opening of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs:
How angry am I? You don’t want to know, nobody wants to know about that.
I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying and I speak to my father every day on the telephone—every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.
We don’t know who “I” is. We don’t know what has come before. It is entirely without action, except for the calling and the hand-holding, which are actions but they are just dropped, within a mess of claims. In fact, this opening is one big claim. I am angry, so angry, that before I can tell you how I got here—the story—I really must preface the whole thing with this declaration: I’m angry. Messud then spends the remainder of the novel backing up and working uphill to support this claim. But out of the gate, this interiority, this contemplation and declaration of feeling, is unearned. We can talk later about whether or not Messud succeeds at establishing and maintaining the fictional dream (I think she does, although perhaps not to a degree on par with how angry this claim is), but she does have to provide the supporting drama in order for this kind of interiority to stand.
Here’s what made our narrator so angry:
And yet this was what the video showed, for all the world to see: the fouling of Wonderland, by none other than myself. The fact that I was essentially supine in the images, and half undressed, and pretending (not that the viewer would know this) to be Edie Sedgwick, the fact that the etiolated youth could never have guessed that the zealous masturbator in the Wonderland video was the sensible Merrell-wearing Woman Upstairs who’s stolen his chair and spoiled his calm, didn’t make the facts less true.
Somehow, I had been filmed in that most private moment. Somehow, I had been seen; and could then be displayed, an object, like one of the artists in my own dioramas. I could be sacrificed. In the upper grades at school, you teach the kids ethics: you ask them, would they push a button that would kill an anonymous person in China, if they’d get a million dollars. Would they push the button if it made them famous. If nobody knew they’d pushed the button. If it meant the whole world would acclaim you as an artist. If it showed the world some genuine truth about what it was like to be a sad, lonely fucker. Would you?
Even here, we are getting it diffused. The narrator has already seen the video, already passed out, already come to. The action has passed. She is now considering what everything means, the thinking is a separate occurrence from the moment of action. What we decide as we’re reading is, since the action has already passed: what is gained by this interiority?
We learn a lot. We learn the narrator’s opinions about the consequences of the action, how as a character, her response is clearly singular. I would hope that when the day comes when I’m caught masturbating on film I’ll hold it together better. Maybe not pass out. Maybe not be dressed as Edie Sedgwick. But you never know. The beauty of this reveal is that it is uniquely this character’s. And so it supports Messud’s opening claim.
Now, the suffocating interiority: Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete. A 156-page novel in which roughly 120 pages are reported by the narrator as a stream of consciousness kind of rant. There is very little action. Bernhard’s drama, then, comes not from Garner’s version—character in action—but of character reporting back action in such a way we find so endearing or interesting that we give up our internal protest against all this damn reporting. Here’s a section in which I have underlined the physical action of the scene:
And what about my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy? I’m not going to write it just for my own satisfaction, after all, and then leave it lying around when it’s finished. Naturally I intend to publish it, whatever the consequences. For I actually believe that this work will be my most successful, or rather my least unsuccessful. I certainly am thinking of publishing it! But before I can publish it I have to write it, I thought, and at this thought I burst into a fit of laughter. Of what I call self-laughter, to which I have become prone over the years through being constantly alone. Yes, you’ve first got to write the work in order to be able to publish it! I exclaimed to my own amusement. By suddenly laughing at myself like this I had actually released all my tension; I got up and went to the window but couldn’t see a thing. Thick fog clung to the windowpanes. I leant against the sill and tried, by continuous concentration, to descry the wall on the other side of the yard, but despite the most intense concentration I couldn’t make it out. Only twenty yards away and I couldn’t see the wall. To exist alone in such a fog is madness! In a climate like this, which makes anything and everything a thousand times more difficult! It oppressed me, as it always did at this time of year. I knocked on the windowpane with my index finger to see whether I could scare some bird outside, but nothing stirred. In the same way as I had tapped the pane I now tapped my head and dropped back into the chair. Ten years and not one successful piece of work! I thought. Naturally that has robbed me of all credibility. My sister spreads it around Vienna that I am a failure, especially in those quarters where the effect is most devastating for me. I’m continually hearing her say to all and sundry My little brother and his Mendelssohn Bartholdy. She’s not embarrassed to call me a madman in everybody’s hearing.
He thinks and thinks and thinks, he gets up and looks outside, has a thought, taps the window, sits back down, and thinks and thinks. Not the most telling action to prop up a story. Which is why it works. The narrator is so insistent on sharing his thoughts that in the telling, the delivery, he isn’t concerned with why the reader should care, isn’t worried about building the fictional dream. He starts, he talks, and talks, he occasionally reminds the reader of where is body is during the telling, standing vs. sitting, and then plods right along. We learn from this that his mind is a singular kind of mind. His concerns are singular. If he were capable of constructing a scene for us, he might not be the same character whose sister would publicly call him a madman. For this character, this is the only way. This interiority redefines drama—if the thinking is singular enough, that thinking as action can do the work as Gardner defines drama.
Lastly, let’s go out on a very successful blending of character in action and interiority. The opening from Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment:
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were cleaning the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach with us, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture with his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.
We’re getting it in summary but we are getting a scene. Like Bernhard’s narrator, Ferrante’s is not yet ready to set the scene. Her mind has suffered a shock and this is the best she can do. We know this because later, in quieter and louder moments, she is able to perfectly render scenes for us. Either she’s feeling well enough or is so overwhelmed that her thoughts can’t elaborate, make meaning, they can merely observe.
Similar to Messud, this opening makes a claim, though less declarative. Instead of saying, hey, over here, I’m angry, let me tell you why, Ferrante starts at the beginning of the anger. The unspoken claim is that we will follow the same journey in both novels, the plot of the anger through to a resolution. Here she is, going crazy, action underlined:
I leaned over, I examined the key closely. Finding the imprint of the old gestures was a mistake. I had to disengage them. Under the stupefied gaze if Ilaria, I brought my mouth to the key, tasted it with my lips, smelled its odor of plastic and metal. Then I grabbed it solidly between my teeth and tried to make it turn. I did it with a sudden jerk, as if I wished to surprise the object, impose a new statute, a different dispensation. Now we’ll see who wins, I thought, while a pasty, salty taste invaded my mouth. But I produced no effect, except the impression that, because the rotating movement of my teeth on the key wasn’t working, it was finding an outlet in my face, tearing it like a can opener, and my teeth were moving, were being unhinged from the foundation of my face, taking with them the nasal septum, an eyebrow, an eye, and revealing the viscid interior of head and throat.
I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like a coiled skin of an orange after the knife had begun to peel it. What is there still to try. Lie on my back, feel the cold floor against it. Stretch my bare legs against the panels of the door, clasp the soles of my feet around the key, fit its hostile beak between my heals to try again to capture the necessary movement. Yes, no, yes. For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized that Ilaria had made a deep wound.
Ilaria, the narrator’s daughter, has been armed with a letter opener and instructed to bring her mother back if she journeyed too long into her interiority. Ferrante’s narrator is in it, in the moment, and of a mindset that allows immediate digression away from the action while informing the effect on her of the action. It is a fantastic blending of Gardner’s rule of giving us a character in action and the dimensionality of Bernhard and Messud’s experiential narrations, tying back to the scene more than either.
Angry characters interacting with their own stories in distinct ways. Each delineating their psychological and emotional states through the presence and deployment of their interiority.
I came to writing by trying to express my own anger. I thought that because I was mad enough, that if I could just maintain that anger while writing, the end result would be a piece that clearly communicated that anger to a reader. It took a long time to realize that the anger I brought to my keyboard began and ended before my fingers went to work. It was the story that determined its own anger—the anger had to be earned by its characters and the plot. What they did and what happened to them, the action, had to elicit an angry response in me, as I was writing, in order for it to communicate what I wanted. Then, and only then, are the characters and I angry enough for me to get to that final place, to be immersed through the story into the characters’ consciousness, where the making of meaning is really to be found, where the external is borne, organically rather than intellectually, and where the story’s anger, and meaning, reside.
Matthew Robinson holds an MFA from Portland State University, where he also teaches writing. The recipient of a 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship, his fiction has been published in O-Dark-Thirty, Nailed Magazine, Gobshite Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, and Clackamas Literary Review. He served six years in the Oregon Army National Guard, deploying to Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004. The Horse Latitudes is his first book.