Friday, February 13, 2015

Read This: "White Angel" by Michael Cunningham: More on Dialogue and Secrets

 Here's a brutal, beautiful story:

"White Angel" by Michael Cunningham

If you're a subscriber to The New Yorker, you can find it in the archives there, too. This story of childhood, drugs and tragedy in late 1960s Ohio became a chapter in the novel A Home at the End of the World, which was made into this movie.

Since I was talking about dialogue in the last post (here), let's look at that: it's as good a way into this story as any.

In the last post I talked about how the power of the dialogue in "Hills Like White Elephants" comes not just from what's said, but also—maybe especially—from what is left unsaid.

Then we looked at John Gardner's dialogue exercise in which each of the characters has a secret, and I talked about how a secret doesn't have to be something obvious, as in Gardner's suggestion that the wife has a lover in the bedroom; it can be any of the dozens of things we think and feel but don't say in every conversation.

Look at the conversation between the narrator and his mother early in "White Angel," when he comes back into the house after seeing his brother and brother's girlfriend in the graveyard. In the linked pdf this is towards the bottom of page 31. What are the secrets that are being kept here, exactly?

There's the obvious one: the narrator lies and says his brother Carleton is not doing drugs. But I would argue this obvious one is not the main secret—it's not even really a secret at all. "Lately police cars have been browsing our house like sharks," the narrator says, and his mother has noticed. She knows "something's going on." She tries to whack the answer out of the narrator with the vegetable brush and fails, but she doesn't really need him to give her the information: she already has it.

So what are the unsaid things that make this dialogue crackle? I would argue that not only are they far from simple and obvious—things like drugs, or a lover in the bedroom—they are so big and complex that they can't even be put into words: the feeling the narrator gets when Carleton sees him and winks at him in the graveyard; the narrator's preadolescent, absolute allegiance to his doomed brother that divides him forever from his parents, a division that repeats itself in every generation but which, in the late 1960s, and in this specific family, has its own terrifying and tragic flavor. I think the story as a whole answers the question "what are the unsaid things?" and there isn't really a way to reduce the answer to anything smaller than that. You feel it in every beat of the story, every interaction between the characters.

This is, in part, a story about two boys sharing a house with their parents but living in a completely different universe. There's a tragic climax, but the story is suffused with tragedy from the first page: it lies in the fact that there are so many secrets, so impossible to communicate that they form a vast gulf that separates all the characters from one another—a gulf that, in the end, seems to widen to infinity.

Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Creation of the World II, 1906

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