Writing Review: You

by Intermittent Rain ~ May 12th, 2018

I haven’t done a review for some time, but I haven’t been sparked to do so until now. You, by Caroline Kepnes has left me wondering. *Spoiler alert: many plot topics covered below.*

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I think I found the title via a list of novels that have surprise endings. I say “I think” because I’m not sure, and there is no surprise at the end.

“You” is a narrative in second person from the point of view of a stalker to his target (and effectively in first person when the target is not mentioned).

Second person POV is unusual to begin with. What’s more unusual is the long, long narrative with a character that just seems to be recording. He doesn’t feel nervous about his stalking research and actions. He also doesn’t feel much when he is threatened by the cop brother of a girl he’s dumped or when he’s beaten up in his bookstore by three guys, one of whom he recognizes. The narrative just records his thoughts and actions and the actions and words of others as if he is an android: thinking, planning, recording. Or numb, perhaps. I never felt he was supposed to be a sociopath because the emotions and reactions are there, but distant. I would expect a sociopath to draw blanks emotionally and to keep needing visual clues to fake responses to others, and that they would experience physical sensations normally. In “You”, both the physical and emotional sensations are numbed, as if the character is anesthetized rather than lacking in judgement.

Another oddity are the little time jumps where small important events happen and the reader is not given much detail or it is only summarized after the fact. If this were a diary and the main character was simply too busy in the moment to record until later this would make sense but that’s not the case during other situations.

This led me to believe that the author had a plan. The lack of real  emotion and physical sensation plus the time jumps made me suspect that this entire story was being set up to be faked because then missing elements in his narrative would make sense. And for me these time jumps stood out because the novel is well written on a line level so I was guessing that these issues were intentional, that at some point the author was going to twist the plot and reveal that everything was only imagined.

So I read on. And on. And on. It’s a long novel and at one point I stopped to see how far I had progressed (I read in ebook form). I was only half way but I felt as if the author should start to reveal the truth because we had been meandering about in this character’s world for a very long time. Eventually we start interacting with some new characters (he starts therapy with his target’s therapist and begins a relationship with another woman, the one whose brother who is a cop) but when he breaks up with the woman and we come back to focusing on his target again I lost hope that the story was going somewhere interesting.

The surprise in “You” is that there is no surprise. I did have some sense, as in “Lolita”, of an unreliable narrator, or maybe I’m only connecting the two because the main characters have obsession in common. But maybe the time jumps and missing event detail and emotional and physical numbness are not intentional clues to an unreliable narrator but simply weaknesses in the writing.

Even if the main character was intended as an unreliable narrator, there are other elements that fall short of being convincing. The target is not fully rounded or filled out. Yes, some of the unexpected changes of mind could be drawn from real life examples and we are told she has issues, but readers need to feel that the author knows what’s going on via clues and later clarifications. In “You” the target does things seemingly at random, like people in real life that we only know slightly. This is fine for the main character’s perspective but the writer has to convince the reader that there is a reason behind these changes of attitude and interaction even if the main character doesn’t understand otherwise the reader is left like I am; thinking the writer doesn’t know the other character well enough or hasn’t built them completely enough. The main character too is missing backstory that would tell us how and why he came to be who he is, and who Mr. Mooney is, beyond just the owner of the bookstore and the one who built the cage in the basement. Like the missing details, these are mentioned but briefly and glossed over.

It is a first novel for Kepnes, and maybe the goal was never any higher than satisfying genre focused readers.

What, then, made me so interested in the story? Why did I tell my wife that I’d never read anything like it?

Writing in second person and using a main character who is a stalker without giving the reader a sense of malevolence or of a complete lack of morals is interesting. But it seems that one of the biggest attractions; feeling that the author was setting us up for something interesting to turn later on, was a misreading on my part.

Exercises in Style

by Intermittent Rain ~ January 19th, 2018

I started an exercise similar to Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises de Style” but much simpler, taken from John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers“.

“Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. (Compare Raymond Queneau, Exercises de Style.) Describe the event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways (changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance, etc.) Make sure the styles are radically different, otherwise, the exercise is wasted.”

To this I added the condition that any element I define has to be true or possible in any variation so that the reality remains consistent; I can’t introduce a unicorn to write one fantasy story because that unicorn will exist in all versions.

Variety

The first was a basic depiction followed by ones playing with POV because these are the easiest way to explore backstory and to understand the two characters. After six variations I had established:

  • The bus and sidewalk are nearly empty
  • It is mid afternoon in June.
  • The weather is moderate.

And,

The man is in his twenties,

  • wears a suit,
  • is nervous and distracted
  • is on his way to a job interview.

The woman is in her twenties,

  • has just purchased a new pair of shoes
  • is wearing a short black skirt
  • enjoys the feeling she gets from knowing she looks good.

And she is the reason the man stumbles.

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Somewhere around version 10, 11, or 12, I stopped pushing for “radically different”.

Prior to this exercise I thought that a simple situation such as this one can only be written a few ways and then all that’s left to do is just polishing with line edits. But maybe that’s not true. That’s what I’m trying to discover now. Maybe this is in the realm of things that I can’t see, things that I’m missing, things that I’m not aware of, things that are hard to learn because I don’t know they exist. Possibilities outside the realm of my awareness.

So I’m sticking with third person POV, mostly staying outside of either characters’ heads. If I can define a new narrator’s voice by personality, age, attitude, or angle on the situation it’s not too difficult, but am I then limiting it so that there are only a few different ways?

Is it only the range of narrative voice that I’m exploring?

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It is possible that, without being fully conscious of it, I’ve developed a writing voice, a style, one that has some flexibility and can adapt to at least a few different situations, but one that that is ingrained enough that I don’t see other alternatives.

A few years ago in a writing group a woman said that she’s still developing her writing voice. In my head I thought, that’s not my goal. I don’t want a writing voice; I want many so that I’m capable of writing in many different situations. Yet, maybe I’m more stuck than I thought.

Writing Analysis: Cat Person

by Intermittent Rain ~ December 20th, 2017

I’m not a woman and perhaps my perspective will miss the boat for many readers of this wildly popular story published in The New Yorker but my objective is to do writing analysis; there will be no “How To Reply When Asked About ‘Cat Person'” or “My True Life ‘Cat Person’ Experience”.First, a list of elements (not events but factors that reappear, in varied guises, throughout):

  1. Acting as trained/expected (previously a barista where flirting increased tips, and as a young, single person),
  2. and having dreams and needs (she has a fantasy version of Robert, jokingly tells her stepdad they will likely get married, is anxious when Robert doesn’t reply to her texts right away),
  3. but being uncertain as to whether Robert, in reality, is a satisfactory choice (she initiates some steps then recants in her own head, likes him when he’s comforting but finds him revolting at other times),
  4. results in couched speaking, inconsistent and shifting thoughts and feelings, attempts to communicate without words, and,
  5. combined with a fear of appearing capricious or spoiled,
  6. leads to resigned compliance.

Margot’s neediness expresses itself differently than Robert’s. Hers presents as earnestness and agreeability whereas his is expressed as awkward orders and demands — awkward enough that an older, more experienced, more confident version of Margot might find them laughable or disturbing, or, to be accurate; more laughable or more disturbing since Margot does succumb to a laughing fit and has thoughts that he might murder her. Margot’s youth is to his advantage.

Both characters have challenges with communication: hers due to age and inexperience and society-trained female behavior and worries, his due in part to being a loner-nerd who possibly often goes to movies and bars by himself. Both have some interest in the other but also uncertainty about the others’ interest in themselves. This is exacerbated by their early communication; weeks of texting witty comments and funny anecdotes without any real sharing or discussion so by the time they actually go on a date they know very little about each other, including their respective ages. That, for me, is a sub theme; communication in general, but especially between opposite sexes and when using electronic methods with modern attitudes toward communication.

The elements that lead to Margot’s situation, Margot’s hesitant, tentative way of suggesting or making choices, Robert’s unrefined declamatory style, the neediness on both their parts as well as the lack of knowing each other and the difficulties in communication permeate the entire story. Were this an essay for an English Lit course I would list them but instead I’ll just leave them highlighted in my analysis version of the story.

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Structurally, I come up with these sections:

  1. opening
  2. Robert at her movie theater 2 times
  3. texting
  4. going to movie
  5. first bar
  6. second bar
  7. house, and sex
  8. post sex
  9. drive home and end of evening
  10. internal narrative and Tamara breaking them up
  11. see him in the bar, his texts

or, slightly compressed,

  1. opening, movie theater, texting, incipient crush – 1,061 words
  2. movie – 681
  3. first bar – 566
  4. second bar – 1,003
  5. house, sex – 1,881
  6. post sex – 668
  7. drive back, break up, bar, texts – 1,351

Word count-wise the house setting and sex take the largest portion and are 3,771 to 5,182 out of a total of 7,201 words, so about one quarter of the words and located in the third of four quarters, were this a football or basketball game. There are two bar scenes but I’m uncertain whether this intentionally mirrors the two times Robert comes into her work, or three bar moments in total mirroring the three times she sees Robert in movie theaters? There are almost as many sections after the sex as before but shorter, so a nice denouement, though my breakdown by section is by no means definitive.

4,773 words are the single evening, the date, so well more than half. 1,300 words before, up to and including the texting period, and 1,128 after so again a little more lead in and a slightly quicker end. If you’ve read the story you know how tersely it ends and that it ends the way the relationship began, with texting, though now the meanings are brutally clear and personal.

One of the recurring comments from one reader of my own writing is that he often wants more story and more depth. What is here that I might not have included are the bar scenes or at least the amount of time devoted to them, and maybe not as much time in the post-coital scene. Food for my future consideration.

For some reason, not so much during the first read but during subsequent readings, I found the back story and non-Robert elements obvious, separate. For me these include:

  • reference to past barista work
  • conversations with her stepdad
  • movie choice, not part of the story until after the movie is finished
  • seeing the grad student TA in the bar
  • losing her virginity (only reference to her mother)
  • having seen her high school boyfriend during break, who is gay

I’m unclear what the last three add. More food for consideration.

It’s only when, date over, back at school, the obsession and focus from the early stages of a relationship gone that her roommate and other students appear. Though the rest of her life starts to become part of the story we never do find out what she’s studying. Perhaps as a sophomore she’s undeclared, perhaps that’s part of her uncertainty at this point in her life, and it’s likely not important, though an inexperienced writer might think it needs to be included. And where exactly are those cats?