Friday, November 30, 2012

Subtext BY the Simple-Minded

Lots of questions arose about my previous post which appeared to have confused a fair number of very perceptive people. I will therefore demonstrate the pathophysiology of subtext by deconstructing one of my published stories. Which one? Hmmm. Let me think.

See what I did there? I just bragged that I have so many published stories I have trouble choosing among them. That's subtext! Truth is, I've sold just over 20, at this writing, and only 5 or so at professional rates. Nevertheless, the subtext is there to impress you with my prolificity. Prolificicity. Prolificality. Whatever. I'm picking "Karlsson," published online by Kasma.

"Where is Charlie?" I asked.
Lynne didn’t look up from her laptop. "Watching his stupid cartoons, I think," she said.
"I’m going to work," I said. "Night shift."
"Bye," she said.
She used to say, ‘Be careful.’
"Bye." One word. One syllable. The subtext is in what isn't said.

Infodump begins:

"Karlsson," I said. "Is that your first or last name?"
The dome light strobed off his grinning face: red, blue, yellow. His eyes were wide open. He had a coverall on. No hat.
"Just Karlsson," said the man. "Karlsson who lives on the roof."
There was a propeller hanging off the back of his coverall, and a big red button sewn on the front. The button didn’t look like it belonged there. It looked like he’d sewed it on himself. The button, and the propeller, too.
"That’s not what your wife says," I said. "She says your name is Arthur Quinn."
"I have no wife," said the man. "I live on the roof. Wives don’t live on roofs. If they knew how wonderful roofs are, they’d live there, too."
"You don’t live here at all, any more," I said. "On the roof, or under it. Your wife has a restraining order on you."

"You, too?" said Sergeant [Emily] Smith.
"You mean there is more than one?" I said.
Her chuckle sounded a bit forced. "These damn Karlssons are all over the place," she said. "Damn loonies. Family court is swamped."
"Where did they all came from?" I said.
"Google it," she said. "Karl with a K, double-S, O, N. Look under ‘videos.’" She hung up.


Someone did a hell of a job dubbing into English a fifty-year-old Russian cartoon based on a Swedish children’s book. Karlsson, a kindly, fat, jolly fellow, lives, as advertised, on a roof, best - only - friend to Little Boy, only protector from the evil housekeeper Frekken Bock. Flies through the window with the help of a little propeller attached to his back. Which he turns on with a red button sewn on the front of his coveralls.
Oh, and it runs on raspberry jam.
Which, by an odd coincidence, is what one of my Karlssons would look like if he tried to fly off a roof of anything higher than a chicken coop.

End info dump;
Begin demo of subtext:

Emily quarter-smiled - half her mouth turned up, both eyes hooded. "Why don’t you go Karlsson yourself?" she said. "Charlie would like that."
"Why don’t you?" I said.
How would she answer that?  "Can't you see I'm lonely?" "No one needs me as their best friend?" "I've never met anyone I've cared enough about?" Sergeant Emily Smith does not say such things. She does not even say them to herself.

Unable and unwilling to cry, she does the only thing left to her:

 "I don’t have a roof," she said, "that I’d want to fall off of."
She laughs.

Now, it's a funny thing about subtext. I was going to end this post right here, really I was. But now I can't. A memory just popped into my head, and I swear it hadn't been there - not as an overt recollection - when I was working on "Karlsson."

There's an excellent Indian restaurant to which I go every chance I get. The owner, Farouk, knows each customer by name, down to their tastes and tolerances for capsaicin,  and loves to introduce people to each other.

He introduced me once to a really cool person, a police officer named Lydia. We had a great talk about our jobs and our lives, and how different reality of our jobs is from anything people imagine, and how hard it is to find a person who understands. She had that been there, done that, got the tee shirt look about her, and eyes that looked right through me searching for my inner perp and seemed quite happy with his absence. Yes, now that I think about it, Lydia was the model, the inspiration, for Sergeant Emily Smith.

Over the next few years our paths crossed, in the same restaurant, a few more times. And then I did not see her for a while. So I asked Farouk if she'd been back.

And he said, "No." And it wasn't a regular "No." But it was a "No" all the same. So I dug deeper.

It was a "No" all right. One word. One syllable.

Lots of subtext.

So, in a way, the subtext of Karlsson - wheels within wheels, thoughts within thoughts - is, I wanted Lydia's story to have a different ending.

I wish she'd found something - anything - to laugh about, that night.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Subtext for the Simple-Minded

 Had a nice conversation today with my friend and awesome writer, Alex Shvartsman. It was about subtext.

Apparently, some people don't believe in it.

To which I say: that may be so; but in [Soviet] Russia, subtext believes in you!
"What terrible food," said Sue.
"Yes," said Ann. "And such small portions!"
One evening he was dining in the gardens, and the lady in the béret came up slowly to take the next table.[...] He beckoned coaxingly to the Pomeranian, and when the dog came up to him he shook his finger at it. The Pomeranian growled: Gurov shook his finger at it again.
The lady looked at him and at once dropped her eyes.
"He doesn't bite," she said, and blushed.

Irina Asanova (a cinematic costumer):
The director of that film promised me a pair of new boots if I went to bed with him. Think I should?

Arkady Renko (a police officer):
Well, the winter's almost over.
-Martin Cruz Smith, GORKY PARK

"...Well, what I was nearly forgetting is this: that, though I am aware that you can't forgo your engagement, I am not going to give you up—no, not for ten thousand roubles of money. I tell you that in advance."
Here he broke off to run to the window and shout to his servant (who was holding a knife in one hand and a crust of bread and a piece of sturgeon in the other—he had contrived to filch the latter while fumbling in the britchka for something else):
"Hi, Porphyri! Bring here that puppy, you rascal! What a puppy it is! Unfortunately that thief of a landlord has given it nothing to eat, even though I have promised him the roan filly which, as you may remember, I swopped from Khvostirev." As a matter of act, Chichikov had never in his life seen either Khvostirev or the roan filly.
-N. V. Gogol, DEAD SOULS 

There is a reason most of these quotes are either by Russian writers or by Russian characters: few things are more thoroughly ingrained into the Russian mind than talking over a censor's head, around a police informant, or through a monitored telephone line. Subtext isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. This makes it easy to write in subtext.

All you have to do is censor yourself.
"What terrible food," said Sue.
Ann, for whatever reasons, is unable to disagree, though the food is pretty good, and she is hungry. She is hunting for a negative comment to make about the food for which she is still rather hungry. What is the first thing that pops into her head?
"Yes," said Ann. "And such small portions!"
As an exercise, think about the underlined speech in each quote:

-What did the character want to say?

-What keeps him or her from saying that directly?

-What what is the character thinking, that makes them say what they actually said?

-What quotes can you come up with, from your favorite works, that work with subtext in similar ways?

-You can live in America and write exactly what you mean? What a great country!