by Jacques Debrot
Gone Lawn 16.
As we all learned in our junior year English Lit class, the modernist literary movement was greatly inspired by psychology, which informed literature’s narratives by adding greater realism to their depictions of a character’s psychology. Writers began to conceive of consciousness as a series of loop-de-loops rather than a straight flat line. Consciousness proved unpredictable, dancing around, left and right, forward and backward–not simply marching solemnly forward. Does any of this make sense? I’m saying this because it relates to the stream-of-consciousness feel of today’s story, the beautiful and matter-of-fact “Burning Torch” by Jacques Debrot.
Stream-of-consciousness storytelling doesn’t have to reach Joycean or Faulknerian levels of obscurity. I think what’s key are the free-associations and mixing of the serious and trivial.
Mr. Debrot does this incredibly well in his story. In this single-paragraph story we are told about a woman murdered by her ex-boyfriend (serious) just after being told about a slate blue dog in a bookstore (trivial) and before being told about the owner of the bookstore, who is HIV positive (serious) and rides a Ducati motorcycle (trivial). Whether serious or trivial, it’s all relevant to the story. “Burning Torch” is an assemblage of disparate details and its strength, its fun and sadness and beauty, stem not from the most serious revelations but its oddest trivialities.
Today’s writing community is informed by undergrad and graduate workshops, which often spout their share of prepackaged writerly wisdom. While “Show Don’t Tell” is often a useful suggestion to keep in mind, not every piece of workshop advice is applicable. Or rather, not every piece of workshop advice is applied appropriately. I’m thinking in particular of the old wisdom of necessity– the idea that every word, every detail and image, must contribute to the overall gist or theme of the story. I’m all for the elimination of clutter, but I think this pearl about necessity is often misunderstood to mean discursive tangents and trivial details are off-limits.
Nothing is off-limits. If a writer thinks every detail must contribute to the overall thrust of the story, s/he is probably holding a very narrow view of what the story is or can be. In fact, the discursive tangents and trivial details are often the best parts of a piece; they are what make the story unique and exciting.
With all due respect to Wendy Burning Torch, the subject of the story “Burning Torch,” I am less interested in her murder than I am in that blue dog. Countless stories are written about murder, but few include a cameo by a blue dog. Relevant? Absolutely.