1. Powers of Language
(iv) CIRCLING ROUND A MYSTERY
Another special power of language depends on the fact that sentences only pay attention, only focus on foreground. You can use this with calculated perversity to pay attention to everything except what the reader most wants to know—like a narrow beam of light circling around a central darkness.
Short stories often make great use of this technique. You circumscribe and define the shape of the most important fact before every allowing it to come clear. Two classic examples would be Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down” (in Black Juice) , where the crucial realization takes half a dozen pages to come clear, and Terry Dowling’s “The Last Elephant” (in An Intimate Knowledge of the Night) where full realization arrives only on the final page.
For full-length fiction, this power of language is probably at its best in journal-type presentation. The format might be an old-fashioned journal or letters, it might be a contemporary blog or emails—either way, the essential feature is that the person recording looks back on something that has only just happened. It’s retrospective, but not across the whole span of the story, as with a standard 1st-person narrator. The recording moves forward and casts back a little bit at a time.
Here’s Jonathan Harker writing in his journal while at Count Dracula’s castle:
Later: the Morning of 16 May.—God preserve my sanity, for to this I am reduced. Safety and assurance of safety are things of the past. Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for: that I may not go mad, if indeed, I be not mad already. If I be sane, then surely it is maddening to think that of all the foul things that lurk in this hateful place the Count is the least dreadful to me; that to him alone I can look for safety, even though this be only whilst I can serve his purpose. Great God! merciful God! Let me be calm, for out of that way lies madness indeed. I begin to get new lights on certain things which have puzzled me. Up to now, I never quite knew what Shakespeare meant when he made Hamlet say:
My tablets! quick, my tablets!
‘Tis meet that I put it down,’ etc.
for now, feeling as though my own brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end in its undoing, I turn to my diary for repose. The habit of entering accurately must help to soothe me.
The Count’s mysterious warning frightened me at the time; it frightens me more now …
I chose a Dracula passage because the technique works so well with horror. The recorder keeps circling around and around what happened, in the meanwhile communicating emotion and generating mood. A feeling waiting for its cause!
It’s a great moment to zoom in on, when perception is in the past, emotional response is in the present and full comprehension and belief are yet to come. Only language can do it, because the very act of turning experience into written (or typed) language is an act of understanding and making things clear to yourself.