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on geometry and drama
I meant to title this newsletter narrative triangulation, but my fingers kept wrapping wrong around the word.
I’ve been reporting on the Pima County jail for AZ Luminaria about the last ten months. The jail, located in Tucson just a couple miles down the bikepath from where I live, is a crumbling, dirty, deadly place. For a long time, even as people being held there kept dying, not many folks besides their families were taking much notice.
It’s not easy to report on a jail. Not only does the sheriff’s department make excuses, deflect, paper-over or straight stonewall, but other city and county officials frequently dismiss complaints, queries, and requests for comment.
People talk about the dustbin or ash heap of history, but there’s also a contemporary dustbin which reigns in news deserts and cities and towns beset by news droughts and social dehiscence. The problem — the dustbins in our midst — gets all the more occluded by media ennui and the fixated focus on national hot-buttons.
But a spotlight (journalistically speaking and despite the good movie) ain’t enough. Because, actually, spotlights don’t exist. At least not in writing. All we have are words and grammar, and with those two tools, from the scratch of the pen or the pound of the keys, we have to construct everything we reveal, report, or opine on.
Which brings me to geometry. That is, the importance of narrative tri(str)angulation — one of the secret extra tools (there are many) that writers actually have. As one of my resolutions this year was to reread more, to further illustrate I’m going to use as an example one of my favorite books, which I recently reread: Corazón tan blanco, or A Heart So White, by the late Javier Marías. (I wrote about Marías after he died last year.)
The plot, as far as there is one, is less important for this meditation than the situational geometry, which actually makes up something like a shadow plot, and is a basic building block for drama. (Drama in the Aristotelian sense — and I’m here cherry-picking vague collegiate memories — of poetic imitation being truer than truth.)
It’s easier if I draw it out. Our narrator, that ube-colored background circle represented below, is Juan, who also appears in three of the soft-cornered rectangles. These scenes proceed chronologically from top to bottom. Each of them consists of someone looking up from the street to an inhabited room or balcony (and sometimes, simultaneously, vice versa). It’s both fabulously interesting and not that important for our purposes here exactly who is looking at who, but I mapped it out to display the interlacing complexity.
Juan is constantly being looked at and constantly doing the looking, and the relationship of who is spying or being spied creates a weave that, in and of itself, builds drama.
Let me run through a closer-to-home example, and the reason why I think some of my recent reporting on the Pima County jail is not only inherently important, but also has all the notches for the weaving of narrative richness.
Reporting on a jail, you focus first (or you probably should) on the people in the jail. What sick gruel are they coughing down? What Stanford-experiment-style cruelties do they face? How does being booked into jail become a death sentence? Those are good questions to ask, but asking and even answering them isn’t enough. The singularity of perspective leads to less depth of text, less narrative dynamism, which isn’t only an aesthetic but also an ethical problem. (More on that in a future newsletter.)
You should never look at just one thing — because you can’t. And I don’t mean that in a hokey/spiritual way that we “contain multitudes,” which we do, but simply. As in: even biographies are about relationships (to others, to a time, to ideas, etc) not about individuals.
Peering into the jail I’m looking not only at intensely surveilled people, but at the people surveilling them and their overseers, thus surveilling both the surveilled and the surveilling. Which gives the story that spice of complexity.
What I’ve found is that there were gaps all along the way: guards not effectively monitoring or caring for people locked up, and the county not effectively monitoring the guards’ ineffectiveness. Which has led to dangerous confines and death and “solutions” like spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new jail.
The narrative problem is at least partially solved by the layering. While all the arrows in the second diagram are pointing, vaguely, in only one direction, we get some orthogonal movement from looking at the (various levels of) lookers. For a story to coalesce into a drama there needs to be that extra node (warp and weft) from which to weave layer upon layer.
There are exceptions, of course. Kafka and Ishiguro can find all the drama they need in a single point, and their novels and stories, parables and fragments, are endlessly rich.
I’ll leave you (almost) with a thought from Marías:
To tell is to deform, to recount an event is to distort and twist and practically negate the event, everything that you recount, however true, becomes unreal and approximate, the truth doesn’t depend on things being or having happened, but that they remain hidden and unknown and untold, for as soon as they are related or described or shown, even if they appear real, or are on television or in the paper, in what is called reality or real life, they become part analogy and symbol, they are no longer events, but turn into mere recognition. The truth never shines forth, as the saying goes, because the only truth is that which is unknown and unshared, that which isn’t translated into words or images, the unrevealed and undiscovered, which is perhaps why we tell so much or tell at all, to make sure that nothing has ever happened, not once it’s been told.
new books news
I’ve got some exciting initial endorsements, from two literary giants (Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz), for my forthcoming book, The Case for Open Borders.
"John Washington makes a strong, eloquent and even inspiring case for the relaxation and ultimately the abolition of border controls." —JM Coetzee
"Perhaps the most profound book you’ll read this year. Washington cleaves through all the cruel obfuscations and militaristic cant that derange our border and immigration politics and offers a better human alternative. Borders will not save us, or our rapidly broiling planet, but Washington's reportorial courage and ethical clarity just might." —Junot Díaz
**Extra — Marías’s original
“Contar deforma, contar los hechos deforma los hechos y los tergiversa y casi los niega, todo lo que se cuenta pasa a ser irreal y aproximativo aunque sea verídico, la verdad no depende de que las cosas fueran o seucedieran, sino de que permanezcan ocultas y se desconozcan y no se cuenten, en cuanto se relatan o se manifiestan o muestran, aunque sea en lo que más real parece, en la television o el periódico, en lo que se llama la realidad o la vida real incluso, pasan a formar parte de la analogia y el símbolo, y ya no son hechos, sino que se convierten en reconocimiento. La verdad nunca resplandece, como dice la fórmula, porque la única verdade es la que no se conoce ni se transmite, la que no se traduce a palabras ni a imágenes, la encubierta y no averiguada, y quizá pore so se ceunta tanto o se cuenta todo, para que nunca haya ocurrido nada, una vez que se cuenta.”
Margaret Jull Costa’s translation (the above is my own):
“Recounting an event distorts it, recounting facts distorts and twists and almost negates them, everything that one recounts, however true, becomes unreal and approximate, the truth doesn’t depend on things actually existing or happening, but on their remaining hidden or unknown or untold, as soon as they’re related or shown or made manifest, even in a medium that seems real, on television or in the newspapers, in what is called reality or live or even reallife, they become part of some analogy or symbolism and are no longer facts, instead they become mere recognition. The truth never shines forth, as the saying goes, because the only truth is that which is known to no one and which remains untransmitted, that which is not translated into words or images, that which remains concealed and unverified, which is perhaps why we do recount so much or even everything, to make sure that nothing has ever really happened, not once it’s been told.”
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