Friday, September 4, 2009


I've been thinking a great deal lately about the role of parallelism in literature, the way that in good work it can be as if we've entered a hall of mirrors, a hall of mirrors erected at angles and cantered by varying degrees such that images reflect back on themselves although never in a direct line, never a simple exact duplicate. This is how jazz works differently than pop music where you can hear the recurrent theme but it never repeats precisely, instead the theme gets reborn again and again in new variations. In pop you get simply, overt repetition of the theme--catchy, sing-worthy, but predictable on many levels. Good books work more like jazz. Sometimes they do so at the largest levels of construction and sometimes only in the most nuanced bits of metaphor and image. The best books often do both.

Perhaps I've been thinking about this so much lately because I am nearing the end of the first draft of a new novel. Frequently on a given day I am writing new material in the morning, material that is creeping up on the awareness that it is pushing near the ending, and by late morning or early afternoon I am either typing material or editing material (more often both--well always both as I type) that was originally written months ago. This constant forward backward movement allows me to look at the earliest passages of the book from the distance of some hindsight (and a new awareness of where the story actually goes) and to see in the newest material the moments when it best reflects the language, tone, images, and rhythms of its origins. Of course this allows me to see, and I hope, capitalize more fully on the echoes and parallelisms that are organically present in the text. That's how it is for me: discovering what has occurred organically at the rather subconscious phase of the original writing and then stepping away into the analytical ability to see in it what is natural what works, and then, with luck, enhance that.

The presence of such development was made material for me the other night when my wife and I were watching a commentary from the writers and directors of "The West Wing" about an episode titled "Two Cathedrals." (Okay, I am rarely a fan of TV, and the series is now years removed, but we are rapid fans of this show; one of those rare shows that is powerfully and smartly written, beautifully directed, and brilliantly acted--why aren't there more?) The writer and director spoke at length about the way they began to envision the use of the convergence of two story lines and the employment of the past and the present through the parallelism of events and of settings. Employing parallelism, symbolism, repeated image and gesture and parallelism in dialogue lines, they move the viewer seamlessly in time, going so far as to trust the viewer enough to be intelligent enough to catch more nuanced points of time transition (something TV rarely does--trust the intelligence of its audience). Beyond employing parallelism in time, they also used these patterns to allow the personal life of the President to reflect the political and executive decisions he encountered, which is one of the very things that drew viewers to the series in the first place, the humanization of a fictional equivalent of those in power from whom we are so otherwise removed and yet so dependent upon. Is that not one of the roles of literature after all, to humanize and activate ideas and experiences that otherwise seem removed and too large in scope to comprehend.

About the same time as seeing this commentary I was finishing my reading of an older Stewart O'Nam novel The Names of the Dead. Now O'Nam is consistently an enviable craftsman, someone whose work I not only enjoy but learn from. He uses parallelism in both plot and image to do something similar and move the reader within two time periods--past and present. Given that Larry Markham, his protagonist suffers PTSD from his service as a medic in Vietnam, the creation of the reader's ability to inhabit the two time periods is critical, for of course Larry does, as do all people who have survived horrific and traumatic circumstances. Memory does not leave. Indeed science shows us that without biological manipulation, the memory of absolute fear cannot leave. The reader must experience this in order to begin to formulate and understanding of Larry's present. The fluidity with which O'Nam transitions such movement in time is precisely the sort of thing writers must study if they are to learn the larger elements of craft.

Of course literature can succeed with employing identifiable applications of parallelism in part because life does. We often fail to see the images and symbols and interweaving lines of such parallelism in our lives simply because our lives are to close to see in focus. Literature allows us to examine such structures and to ask why they exist, to examine what they reveal. As always, when we encounter such applications in good books, we examine our lives and our world anew as well.

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