Posted by: oneyearbook | June 9, 2009

Study project begins

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that one of my goals when I finished the first draft was to take a bunch of my favorite books and re-read them, dissecting them for how they do the things they do. How does the structure of each one work? How are the characters, well, characterized? What’s the POV, and why does it work? And so on. Usually when I read I just read straight through – I’m in the story, as it were – so that I sometimes feel that while I have, indeed, done as all writers are told to do and read, read, read, I haven’t learned as much as I might if I had ever stopped to analyze. I’m doing it with books that I’ve read before in order not to ruin the excitement of something new.

I call this my Book Ripapart Project – it’s like a child with a favorite toy, tearing it apart to get at the innards. As a child I was fascinated by the joints in Barbie dolls – and one day my mother and I sat down and used a kitchen knife to slice away the rubbery flesh and reveal the ball bearings underneath. It was fascinating.

You Went Away

You Went Away

So, anyway, the first book in the BRP is Timothy Findley’s You Went Away, which classifies itself as a novella and comes in at 218 pages. I own a signed first-edition hardback of this book.

First things first: point of view. The book begins with an italicized section of text introducing a mysterious box of photographs, found at a flea market, and suggesting that in that box there is a story, waiting to be told. The authorial presence – the author as creator, hovering over the story – is very overt. “This book is such a box, retrieved from the past,” says one of the first lines. That authorial presence stays throughout the book, becoming an omniscient type of narrator. The point of view flutters between the main characters – Matthew, a young boy, and Mi, hsi mother – and, to a lesser extent, a few others – Mi’s friend Eloise, Graeme, Matthew’s father, and Ivan, a young member of the air force. But the author does not relinquish much to these characters. When he gives their direct thoughts, they are given in the same italic font as the introduction, as if they came from the author, too; and even when the point-of-view is briefly in close third with one character, another character’s impressions can show up just as well. “Matthew felt quite at home. The smells in the corridor reminded him of school – antiseptic, waxen, male … Mi smelled none of this. For her, the corridor was redolent of apprehension …” That’s all in one paragraph. The authorial voice also allows itself to know the future: “He loved them – all at once, entirely – with a pride that would slowly vanish and a need for their presence in his life that woudl slowly be dnied. But that came later.”

Second – the structure. This is a World War II book, but it doesn’t rely on the progression of the war to underpin its structure; it also doesn’t seem to rely on the usual Act I – Act II – Act III structure that we were taught in school. At least, I can’t pinpoint the turning points for any of those, nor even really what the climax might be said to be. What I had always thought of as the defining element of the plot – Ivan and the other characters’ relations with him – doesn’t appear until about page 104, almost halfway through the book. At that point the style and timing of the book shifts – before that, it jumped forward quickly in time, six months here, a year there, presenting only the most important scenes from those years. Then it goes straight through for a couple of months, and sticks in the same place, instead of moving around in space, as well. Are the first 104 pages only setup for that section? It seems like a lot of set-up – and yet it also seems necessary. Lots of things happen in those 104 pages; conflict is set up, advanced, compounded. Conflict is well done in the book – there are those that believe that conflict creates structure, and if so, the structure here is solid. The book starts with the start of the war – how that will impact this particular family is set-up straightaway; and soon there are conflicts piling on conflicts: poverty, alcoholism, infidelity, death.

Third – the tone, the prose itself. This is a book stuffed full with events; if I related them, dryly enough, you might be tempted to say that it sounds like a soap opera. But Findley easily avoids this, with a taut, lean sort of prose that muffles off hystrionics or overemoting from his characters. When someone dies, we don’t see their loved ones wallowing in grief – there is often just silence, and then, as time passes, oblique references to the level of suffering. Twice he uses small objects, gifts and mementoes, to signify the depth of a loss. It’s better than hearing about how sad someone was, or even seeing them cry continually. Show, don’t tell, yes, but what is to be shown is the real question. The book also switches point of view to reveal information that we might expect to come from another source – instead of seeing Mi upset over learning the news of her husband’s demotion, we find out when Matthew digs through her dresser drawer and finds the letter with the information. Instead of seeing Mi rage over another bit of bad news, we see her friend Eloise discussing it with her husband, Roy; the revelation of a major plot point comes, not from the two characters involved, but from a minor character’s thoughts. Characters are drawn through other people’s views of them. Everything is at a slight remove (which goes back, I guess, to that authorial presence). And it works: the emotional payoff is just as strong when we see a tiny gesture between two characters than it would be if we saw one of those characters rage or sob. Less is more, I guess, if I had to sum up a lesson from this whole meandering thing.



  1. so glad you remember carving up Barbie; i had a blast doing that with you. much more fun than dressing her up.

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