The Unseen or the Unspoken: Some Notes on Absence in Fiction

Every story that works gets the level of description that it needs. Which isn’t to say that the level of description needed for every successful story is the same; quite the opposite. In a 1988 interview with Joseph Mallia for BOMB, Paul Auster made the case against a certain kind of density in fiction, lest the result be “overwhelming the reader with so many details that he no longer has any air to breathe.” It’s a valuable lesson: enumerate too much, and prose can read like stage directions. Be too stark, however, and the effect can bypass a kind of pulp terseness and have the effect of an outline, something incomplete.

Cormac, The Road, cover
Atwood, Oryx and Crake

The way that details are revealed effectively in a narrative can vary wildly. Compare two books set after cataclysmic events have devastated Western civilization: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Oryx & Crake is at once a post-apocalyptic novel and an investigation of how the world came to be this way; a literary requiem, or an autopsy, showing how genetic engineering and overly ambitious science laid the groundwork for the world’s unmaking. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has an equally bleak setting: the world traversed by the father and son at the heart of the book is a hostile, terrifying place. Here, however, the reasons for this devastation are never explained. It’s of a piece with the scaled-back prose used to tell the story: a long flashback stating conclusively that The Road is set in the aftermath of nuclear war or volcanic eruptions or an alien invasion would upset the carefully-crafted balance that his stark prose establishes. Similarly, the interrogative mood and phantasmagorical imagery of Atwood’s novel would be ill-served by a pared-down approach to description. For Oryx & Crake, that level of detail, and the horrors it can evoke, is essential.

It’s a valuable lesson: enumerate too much, and prose can read like stage directions. Be too stark, however, and the effect can bypass a kind of pulp terseness and have the effect of an outline, something incomplete.

Questions of whether to be explicit or implicit have been on my mind a lot lately. Earlier this year, I worked on a piece looking at the work of fictional artists and the art-world experience of the writers who created them. It made me think a lot about the ways in which the levels of detail of one specific element of a novel can make that work succeed or fail. That in turn made me think of two novels released this year where a lack of detail about one essential element makes for a stronger reading experience. One of these novels is Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland; the other is Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing. Each is told in the first person; each blends a present-day narrative with flashbacks that reveal the narrator’s history. Wonderland’s structure is more dreamlike, while All the Birds, Singing’s is more regimented, though it may take a few chapters for the reader to get their bearings. In both books, the past looms large.

Evie Wyld cover

In the case of Wonderland’s Anna Brundage, that past involves being the child of artistic parents, of a burgeoning musical career, and of economic anxiety: now in her early forties, she has put her job working with children on hold in order to undertake a European tour, playing songs from acclaimed albums that have retained a cult audience. If Anna’s story is one of reconnecting with the outside world, that of Jake Whyte–protagonist of All the Birds, Singing–is one of isolation from it. As the novel opens, Jake lives alone, raising sheep on a small farm in an isolated part of Britain. Details emerge slowly about her past: she’s something of an outsider in this community, originally hailing from Australia. As more of her past is revealed, her reasons for distancing herself from the people around her become more and more understandable. But there’s a more pressing concern that she must wrangle with: the question of who or what has violently killed two of her sheep.

Each of these novels is told in broadly realistic terms. The world that they occupy in is a recognizable one. And yet one detail is left absent from each narrative. For Wonderland, it’s the style of music that Anna and her band play; for All the Birds, Singing, it’s the shape of whatever might be responsible for the killings.

Over the course of Wonderland, Anna slowly parcels out details of her past, some familial, some personal. We learn that she first found an audience as part of a group called Anna and The Squares, when she was in her twenties. Through one particular moment, D’Erasmo evokes a specific era, group dynamics, and the band’s dynamics.

Fact: we were all so wrapped up in one another that there wasn’t much room left over for an audience. Driving petulantly around the frayed, secondhand alternative zones of the East Coast in Vikram’s station wagon, all the equipment stuffed in the way-back, Daisy’s perfect cameo head on my shoulder, John riding shotgun, scribbling figures that never added up on his little pad. Fact: it was impossible. We were doomed from the start.

Later, we learn of her solo career, and an album called Whale, which made her artistic reputation:

Everyone agrees that it started with Whale, the new thing that everyone remembers so well. The sound waves spread out from that moment. Around the indie recording studios, I became, for a season, a verb. “Brundaging” meant tearing up the sound, erasing half of it, sending it skittering over the abyss, though no one was able to reproduce the way Jonah twirled his wrist over the drumhead, no one had his socks, so they were never able to copy that exquisitely muffled, glancing beat.

Wonderland novel cover

As befits a novel set on a tour, there are plenty of small details about life on the road. Each member of Anna’s new band has their own story; their dynamics, influences, and foibles all factor into the story being told. Similarly, Anna’s musical history shows up in vivid detail, including a sequence about the recording of Whale. Through the bands Anna encounters on tour in Europe, there’s also a sense of her artistic influence. What the reader doesn’t get is a description of what Anna’s music sounds like. We can infer it, from some of the descriptions of instruments, but there isn’t really a sense of what they might have sounded like. (Another impressive detail: they’re an American band touring Europe, which speaks volumes in and of itself.) And that makes sense, given the cult-like status her music holds for some. But that status becomes, in its own way, a kind of blank slate, allowing a reader to project, to summon up their own favorite cult band, be it Life Without Buildings or Olivia Tremor Control or The June Brides.

Leni Zumas cover

Compare this to approach to that of another accomplished novel that shares certain characteristics with D’Erasmo’s: Leni Zumas’s The Listeners. There, the central character is also a musician wrestling with her own memories after years of inactivity. However, her old band is more explicitly placed in a post-punk category, through the invocation of other groups and other scenes. Here, though, the music is in the background; Zumas’s narrator is, it transpires, wrestling with trauma from a host of sources. In The Listeners, the sound and the scene are concrete; it’s the dread and the guilt that are hauntingly shapeless.

All the Birds, Singing opens with the aftermath of violence. Its first sentence finds Jake arriving on the scene of something awful. “Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapors rising from her like a steamed pudding.” It’s both vivid and detailed, establishing that we’re in the presence of an observant narrator, one who takes careful notes of the horror and damage before her. Soon after, Jake goes to buy some vegetables, and sees another sign of mysterious violence: the windows of the farm’s greenhouse have been broken. When Jake asks the woman working there about the cause of the broken windows, the response she hears is less than reassuring: “Dad said to say the wind blew it in.”

The novel’s first chapter ends with the arrival of Jake’s neighbor Don. We learn certain things from their conversation: Jake has been living there for three years; even after three years, she remains isolated from the community around her. Eventually, the conversation turns to the dead animal before them, as Don examines the body. His observations grow more and more ominous; they could just as easily be setting up a horror novel.

“Mink might tear a sheep up, after she’s dead. Or a fox.” He lifted the ewe’s head to take a look at the eyes. “Eyes are gone,” he said; “could be something killed her and then everything else took their pickings.” He lifted the head higher and looked underneath where her ribs made a cave. He frowned. “But I’ve never seen anything round here flense an animal like that.”

Jake ponders the parties who might be responsible. Initially, she suspects a group of local teens; later, she wonders if an emotionally unsettled young man is the killer. Later still, Jake encounters something that is described only in absence and impossibility. Wyld describes an entity “pelting up the stairs, faster than his feet could fly, and light, like he had more than one set of legs…” That ambiguity is very intentional. In a recent interview with Guernica, Wyld commented on the reactions she’s received to the sheep killings, and to the novel’s ambiguity in general.

There’s this perception that I have the secret of what actually happened. But all I have to say is in the book. So it could be any number of things. It could be an actual large, weird hairy monster killing sheep. It’s lovely to me that people find their own ways through it.

Later in the same interview, she comments, “I think there’s over-telling sometimes, in fiction.” What is most striking, perhaps, in Wyld’s novel is the subtle control she exerts over the narrative. When necessary, things are minutely described; at other moments, a master class in ambiguity sets in, and it’s a balance that’s sustained all the way through to the pitch-perfect ending.

North American Lake Monsters

That blend of detailed horror and ominous ambiguity is echoed in stories in Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters. Where Wyld is cagey about the presence of the paranormal, Ballingrud pushes forward with it, then pulls the rug out from the reader by suggesting that the characters we encounter may not be the most reliable of witnesses. “Wild Acre” opens with three men waiting on a construction site, aiming to halt the vandalism that has befallen it. One of them, Jeremy, steps away from the house-in-progress, then sees something strange, and then sees his friends under attack by something “huge, befurred, dog-begotten.”

It’s the kind of opening that could launch an archetypal horror story: after a harrowing experience, a lone figure must avenge his friends by killing the monster responsible for their deaths. But that isn’t where Ballingrud goes with this; instead, he follows Jeremy’s slow psychological deterioration. For Jeremy, the horror is less the creature he witnessed and more the question of what he did or didn’t see, and what he did or didn’t do. Elsewhere in the collection, Ballingrud invokes more tangible horrors: a vampire hiding below a house, recuperating from the sun; the slowly decaying carcass of, yes, a lake monster. Ballingrud can certainly write the uncanny, but he also knows when to keep the monsters in the shadows, and when to prompt questions about whether the monster is there at all.

Each of these authors takes risks in the way they manage ambiguity. What’s notable about all of them is how weave it into their narrative: it’s one element among many at their disposal, and it’s judiciously used. Taken together, they allow for the creation of fiction with the best qualities of realism and ambiguity, even surrealism. It’s that balance, and that pacing, that keeps the reader unsettled, and lodges these stories in our memories.

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