Strategic Clutter and Decoys

Strategic Clutter and Decoys

And Other Fictional Strategies

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Richard Wertime reflects on the Crafting
of his story “Soccer,” published in WTP Vol. IX #3

“Setting in fiction ought always veer toward metonymy.”
—Novelist Richard Bausch

In my  recent short story, “Soccer,” published this month in WTP, a mid-life father joins his teen son, Kevin, in an impromptu soccer game in the family’s side yard with the aim of reassuring him that he, Matt, the father, will not need to be hospitalized that evening for a nervous breakdown. The threat of a breakdown has been brought on by a marital crisis between Kevin’s parents, which has disrupted the harmony among all three of them. Interestingly, the greater number of my readers to date—poets together with writers of fiction and appreciative general readers—have overlooked the central fact about the story’s setting: it evokes the Garden of Eden, and thus qualifies the story (odd as it might seem) as winning admittance to the “Fall of Man” or “Loss of Eden” sub-genre in our literature. Its unlikely inclusion in that potent sub-genre might bring to mind, for the poets around, Robert Frost’s troubling foray into this territory, his quirky and unnerving poem, “The Subverted Flower.”

Several readers, moreover—astute ones, appreciative of my story’s overall virtues—have felt the need to “apologize” for missing it about the setting, one writing to me, “It left me feeling ashamed, it was so perfectly obvious once you’d pointed it out!”

Why no need for shame exists, or any apologies, is the drift of this brief technical note.

We all remain mindful of that great principle from the Italian Renaissance, introduced by Castiglione in his famous Book of the Courtier, of “sprezzatura,” the (loosely defined) negligent-seeming, ostensibly casual effortlessness with which the deeply skilled, in whatever discipline, “perform” their actions, in so doing practicing craft and guile as they “make it look easy.” To be sure, sprezzatura is a double-edged sword, one that calls for a deeper look than we have time for here (in brief: to beguile your audience into thinking it’s “easy” runs the risk of having your performance undervalued, whatever satisfactions you might be able to harvest from having “put one over” on the unsuspecting), but we all understand that effortless grace is one of the qualities we hope for and expect from high-level performance.

Let’s add, too, by way of beginning, that it’s one of the aims of serious literature to “test” the reader’s powers of mature discernment. How indispensable this test is to all fully realized writing, and, as well, to a fully realized reception of it, is nicely explored in Wayne C. Booth’s Rhetoric of Irony.

 If we return for a moment to my epigraph—Dick Bausch saying that “Setting in fiction ought always veer toward metonymy” (those are Dick’s exact words)—we might begin by appreciating the delicacy of his phrasing, “veer toward metonymy”—veer toward it, but not “get to” it, metonymy, of course, being the technical term for having one thing stand for (even stand in for) another, as when Wordsworth, in his great sonnet, laments that in the England of his day, altar, sword, and pen together with fireside have “forfeited their ancient English dower.” All the italicized words standing figuratively—metonymically—for traditional English institutions (religion, prowess in war, the literary tradition, peaceful domesticity, national heritage).

But, again, in seeking to “set” a piece of fiction—veer toward but not “get to” metonymic equivalences of the sort we see in Wordsworth’s sonnet, because we want the setting to have suggestive resonance that works on the reader without offering easy meanings or neat equivalences handed on a plate. –The writer, again, always testing the reader’s powers of mature discernment.

 So, then: how do we do it? How do I do it—lend the setting of “Soccer” a suggestive resonance that remains, however, unobtrusive, easily missed by so many readers? Let’s turn, first, to the function of my title.

The Decoy

“Soccer”—how innocent-looking, that one-word title! As one reader has written (one who did not pick up on the setting as Edenic), “The title of the story seems so innocuous: soccer is such a universal, communal, unifying game that the reader has to wonder how it relates to the family crisis.”

So—we know immediately—“Soccer” is a sports story! Jock stuff! We can expect a game in it! And yet, of course, the very opening of the story, so foreboding and fraught with impending trouble and conflict, has to leave us wondering how on earth the game of soccer, any game of soccer, is going to have a part in this family drama! And, beset with this preoccupation (and challenge), the last thing we’re likely to have on our minds as the story begins is—of all things, good grief!—a Biblical story, the Genesis account of the Fall of Man, of the loss of primal innocence and the forfeiture of Eden! Not even on the radar!

The title decoys us away from any such likelihood. In a curious way, it’s a kind of “purloined letter,” lying right out there on the table for everyone to see—particularly the ominously pugilistic homonyms (which to date no readers have picked up on) contained in that innocent title, so utterly at variance with his overt meaning: soccer=socker (one who hits, punches), even more aptly, given the action of the story, soccer = sock her, Matt forestalling hospitalization by playing soccer with Kevin and thereby thwarting Meg’s ready willingness to see him hospitalized, which outcome would render him the “cripple” in their marriage, and firmly grant her the upper hand. The story, on one level, is nothing if not a power struggle, a battle of wills between husband and wife. (One astute reader has proposed that Kevin is in effect a “pawn” in the father-mother contest. It’s hard to quarrel with that, for all the genuine love Matt feels for his son.)

So the title is a strategic decoy, deflecting your immediate interest, as we say, elsewhere. I learned of this strategy in part from John Casey’s award-winning novel, Spartina, whose protagonist—it’s a novel of the sea—is a professional harpoonist, a rather curmudgeonly swamp-Yankee who, in the course of the action, impregnates a woman not his wife. His name, his first and last name (first names only, no last one in my story), comprise the initial two words of the novel.

His name: Dick Pierce. How much more outrageously phallic could you get! And yet I had taught John’s novel in one of my courses several times before I ever realized with what a calm poker-face he had laid that pair of cards on the green felt, right in front of my eyes, right in front of everybody’s eyes! The purloined letter! The “decoy,” too, like my title, “Soccer,” because in beginning to read a work you’re absorbed expectantly in what its content is going to be, you’re eager to get on with it, not expecting your “critical faculties” to have to come into play immediately! What for theater-goers is Coleridge’s famous “willing suspension of disbelief” is for fiction readers a ready state of gullibility that makes one eager for what’s to unfold!

… So, again, the Garden of Eden is far from the reader’s mind as one begins reading “Soccer.” But how, we must now ask, do I hide the Garden from view?

For a further answer, we next turn to Updike.

The Baroque Disguise, or Baroque Elaboration

These, let me say, are equivalent terms that I’ve coined for our uses here, for lack of any better. Only their utility and clarity of purpose might recommend them for the moment.

I was struck, as a very young writer (and hence as a young reader), by the way Updike had closed his wonderful story, “A Sense of Shelter,” whose central action involves a high-school boy named William—William intending, this very day, to declare his long-felt love (so he thinks) for his pretty classmate Mary Landis. It’s an utter disaster, his encounter with her—he’s trying to be a “wolf” in his pursuit of her, wolf imagery at play all through the story (W for William, W for wolf—get it?), but by the end he has thoroughly humiliated himself in making his clumsy, juvenile approach to her. The school day has ended, and he goes to his hall locker, ready to head home. Updike writes:

The tall green double lockers appeared to study him critically through the three air slits near their tops. When he opened his locker, and put his books on his shelf, below Marvin Wolf’s, and removed his coat from his hook, his self seemed to crawl into the long dark space thus made vacant, the humiliated, ugly, educable self.

The story ends shortly after these two sentences (“below Marvin Wolf’s”—there’s Updike having fun again!), and—for me at any rate, “close reader” though I was trying to be—it was only long after that I realized what Updike was doing here! He was embedding a perfectly familiar cliché—He wanted to crawl into a hole—in the passage by subjecting the obvious to a Baroque elaboration, or Baroque disguise! Specifically, he was using a certain amount of strategic “clutter”—elaborating details—to deflect the reader’s attention away from the cliché that was “right there.” But difficult to discern, rather like those famous figure-ground puzzles made famous in gestalt psychology. And, as in those puzzles—oh, that’s the face of a brindled cow hiding in the picture!—once you discern the “hidden” image, your perception of it is irreversible! You can’t thereafter go back to not discerning it and separating it from its disguising background!

Updike, it would turn out (I only saw much later), was having even more guileful fun than I’d realized—sprezzatura at work!—in his management of the animal imagery in his story. William, the failed “wolf” in his pursuit of Mary Landis (his books in the locker are even lower than Marvin Wolf’s!), is nicknamed—what?— Billy, as we learn from Mary herself! A would-be billy goat! But not even measuring up to the virile status of a billy goat; by the end, he’s merely a “goat.”

So it is in “Soccer” that I set the scene this way, just before the soccer skirmish:

The side lawn of their house [which we’ve earlier learned is “ample”] enjoys a fifty-yard depth, its width only marginally more modest in dimensions. The property is historic: a farm (or part of one) from an earlier century, it still harbors fruit trees—apple, pear, cherry—and old stands of berry cane, raspberry mainly. A grape arbor wraps two sides of the house on the sunny east and south sides, and garden plots, Matt’s recreation, now, in summer, grace the property’s farther reaches. Old-growth pines frame the longer of its borders.

How does this become Eden? Or, put differently, how do I get Eden out of it? Well, we note, for preliminaries, that this language is pretty “elevated”—Baroque in its own right, you might say—there being a whole slew of easier ways to say that the lawn is quite a big one, or that the place is notably nurturing and comfy (readers do get that much). But Eden? Ah! the property is historic! And it’s part of a farm, an old one from an earlier century—no, not the previous century, but an earlier one—and how much “earlier” might that be?—that “harbors” [lots of water imagery in this story!], that is, retains, still shelters, fruit trees, the fateful apple tree being the first mentioned . . . and then those garden plots that “grace” the property’s farther reaches.

But there’s “clutter” around too, not discernibly pertinent to Eden per se: the other fruit trees, the pear and cherry trees, the grape arbor wrapping the house, the stands of berry cane, those fairly irrelevant old-growth pines . . . the clutter, as in Updike’s passage, comprising an elaboration that disguises the salient elements.

Should the reader have missed the Eden here, I drive the point home later on in the story, after the soccer match is over and Matt is on his way back out to the car to fetch in his briefcase for the evening: “How strange it all seems, still! It was out there by the gardens that he loves so in summer that he first learned about it, no scorched grass around.” The Death of Innocence confirmed, if the reader so needs it!

Updike uses the Baroque Disguise or Baroque Elaboration often enough in his work—rather more frequently than we have time for here. (His use of it might have contributed to the complaint he makes in a famous interview, where he says that the reviews of his books when they first come out are “humiliating” for him. The reason? He’s imbedded in his work all these delicate ribbons of meaning that the reviewers, he says, never see. The downside, again, of sprezzatura!)

But the most stunning instance that I know of from my reading of this device I call the “Baroque Disguise” or “Baroque Elaboration” occurs in Beowulf. Yes, in Beowulf! Beowulf’s descent into the mere, that grisly monster-laden lake, to fight Grendel’s mother in her underwater lair is outrageously sexual in all of its pertinent details! Whereas he has fought Grendel, male antagonist, hand-to-hand, no weapons, almost naked physically (think of the male wrestling contest to come later in Lawrence’s Women in Love), Beowulf plunges into the mere to do battle with the terrifying female antagonist in full body armor—a full-body condom!—equipped with a supposedly magical, highly phallic sword loaned to him for the occasion (it proves ineffectual)… and the mere itself is a fearsome vagina, awaiting him:

                                         A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere: the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. . . . That is no good place.
When wind blows up and stormy weather
makes clouds scud and the skies weep,
out of its depths a dirty surge
is pitched towards the heavens.

(Seamus Heaney translation)

But here, too, the canny poet has infused the whole scene with “clutter”—elaborating details—that serve to compromise easy recognition of the scene’s “genital” meaning. We must not think, because the poem is about a grim warrior culture from what we term the Dark Ages, that its poet, never named, is lacking in fully adult sophistication—or fails to be ready, here and elsewhere in his poem, to test is audience’s powers of mature discernment!

~

Additional notes will follow on the craft of “Soccer,” notes that treat the language of the story, (complexly controlled on many levels), its dramatic structure, its “psychology,” its spare but suggestive management of dialogue, and other issues.

Richard Wertime is the author of Citadel on the Mountain: A Memoir of Father and Son (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 2001 recipient of the James A. Michener Memorial Prize. His work has appeared in The Hudson Review, The Yale Review, The Georgia Review, Southwest Review, Ploughshares, and other journals. “The Case for Empathy,” his most recent publication, appeared in the September 15, 2020 issue of The American Scholar. He is currently at work on a novel, A Taste of Italy.

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