Saturday, January 26, 2013

Informing Narrative

A few weeks ago, we watched The Informant! This movie is often quite funny, with a touch of the surreal, but what struck me most was the narrative structure. Through first person narration from Matt Damon's character (based on the real life Mark Whitacre), we slowly learn about events that he has kept hidden from both the other movie characters and us, the faithful viewer.

The Informant! has an unreliable narrator 
and a hidden layer of events...
Photo Source

The first hint of secret-keeping comes at the beginning, when the FBI arrives at Damon/Whitacre's company to investigate a possible mole situation. As part of this investigation, the FBI needs to tap the phone lines in Damon/Whitacre's home. On the night the special agent comes over to get the phone tap set up, we see Damon/Whitacre and his wife having a tense conversation, regarding whether or not Damon/Whitacre is going to be honest and tell the agent about this other "thing." They seem to be talking about something bigger than the mole/phone tap situation. As if they have been discussing this matter off screen for weeks, months. Maybe years.

The phone is tapped, the agent in the driveway about to leave. After a few more "If you don't say anything, I will" whispers with his wife, Damon/Whitacre stops the agent and asks if they can speak privately in the agent's car. At this point, we viewers are on edge. Due to all the hush-hush, just-be- honest talk with the wife, we know something big is about to be revealed. The tension is heightened as we realize that a sub-current of plot has been stealthily running under the "primary" issue (the mole) we thought we were supposed to pay attention to. The secrecy also lends a realism to the characters, as if Damon/Whitacre and his wife had truly been going about their lives before the movie started (to make things more complex, they had, as these characters are based on actual people) - having conversations and sharing secrets that we never got to listen in on.

The first hint of secret-keeping 
begins with a conversation between husband and wife
Photo Source
In the car, Damon/Whitacre reveals to the special agent that he and other company executives have been working with competitors to fix the price of lysine. (Don't ask me to explain what lysine is, I really have no idea. As best as I could gather, in the movie, it was an industrially produced corn by-product found in manufactured food, something like high fructose corn syrup.)

As the movie progresses, the viewer gets caught up in the lysine price-fixing scandal via Damon/Whitacre's actions and inner thoughts. We see Damon/Whitacre going undercover for the FBI, helping them record tapes and video of illegal activities. Price-fixing and an impending FBI bust seems to be the plot, what we are meant to focus on. But gradually - ever so slowly at first - the movie reveals that other events have occurred simultaneously to the price-fixing investigation. Events we had no way of knowing about because the camera didn't show them to us; because Damon/Whitacre didn't reveal them to the other characters onscreen; and because the movie never allowed Damon/Whitacre to let us in on the secrets. According to Wikipedia, Roger Ebert had this to say about the movie's layering: "The Informant! is fascinating in the way it reveals two levels of events, not always visible to each other or to the audience."

I'm very interested in using this type of narrative technique in my own writing. In The Informant!, the main device used is an unreliable narrator, who we realize hasn't been telling us everything, even within the inner monologues the movie gives us access to. Maybe he is incapable of telling himself the truth (but that's a whole separate plot point). Though I find unreliable narrators very appealing, I am most interested in having concrete events as parts of a story, writing about them through the character(s), but not necessarily coming out point-blank to tell the reader exactly what that event was/is. Facts and memories so engrained in the character - such an integral part of their own story - that they need no self-reference. And a first-person narration/self-reference would be the only means the reader has for receiving the story. However, within my writing, I do want to drop enough "clues" to give the reader footing to accurately infer what the event being written about was/is.

Can you trust my narration in this post? Just watch The Informant! and let me know if any of this rings true...

Friday, January 4, 2013

Amusement Parks, Fairs, and DFW

I'm still plugging away at A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. While excited that I finally reached the David Lynch essay/argument, this means that I finished the preceding "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From it All."  An all-encompassing view of the 1993 Illinois State Fair, as seen through the eyes of David Foster Wallace, it has been my favorite installment of A Supposedly Fun Thing... so far.

DFW's personality really shone through "Getting Away..." (keen observations tinged with human insecurities/vulnerabilities, the way the surrounding environment affects mood) and there was subtle humor sprinkled about. Allow me to list a few standouts:

  • His descriptions of the game booths, how "rows of stuffed animals hang by their feet like game put out to cure."
  • The gluttonous, sensory overload of the food booths. And this is before he eats himself into an unpleasant sounding digestive situation at the Dessert Competition tent.
  • Although his coverage of the Fair is due to a journalism assignment from a "swanky East-Coast magazine," he fails to bring a notebook with him. He then buys a notebook, leaves it in his car with the windows down, and the notebook gets ruined by rain. He doesn't even have a pen. After indulgence at the Dessert tent sends him to the Emergency Room, he ends up in the hospital gift shop to buy another notebook. He buys the only one they have, a kid's notebook, "with that weird soft gray paper and some kind of purple brontosaurus-type character named Barney on the cover."
  • The cacophonous noise from the Poultry Building is "what insanity must sound like."
  • "Clydesdales with their bellbottoms of hair"
  • Throughout the piece, DFW conducts hapazard interviews with various Fair folk. Basically asking random questions, with little more than an eye roll, profanity, or blank stare as the response. At one point he writes: "I ask a little kid to describe the taste of his Funnel Cake and he runs away." I had to laugh out loud when reading this, just imagining a rumpled DFW approaching some kid out of the blue; and the kid, having no idea who DFW is, hightailing it out of there in full stranger-danger mode.
"The Fairgrounds are creepy with everything set up but no one about.
A creepy air of hasty abandonment, a feeling like you run home from kindergarten
and the whole family's up and moved, left you."

- David Foster Wallace

To me, the center of "Getting Away..." is DFW's memory of how as a child, he was convinced that everything he encountered existed just for him. And how this sense of the world is why "special ritual occasions drive a kid right out of his mind." Special occasions such as Fairs. The child counts down, looks forward to this special event, and "every hanging banner, balloon, gilded booth, clown-wig, turn of the wrench on a tent's erection...will present itself as Special-For-Him...For-Him alone, unique at the absolute center."

This reminded me of a sentiment I've tried to capture in my own writing. In a section of my grad school thesis, there was a piece where a female character visits an amusement park (which was a much-anticipated, once-a-summer occasion from her youth), and tries to reconcile her current experience of it with her childood impressions. To bring this blog post to a close, I've included two excerpts below.

The following is from written work by Fiona Clifford:

As a kid, the drive to Funtown was the best part of summer, promised magic as August faded and the beginning of a new school year loomed near.  Every evening darkness arrived a little earlier, the threat of frost and the tips of trees already turning not quite hidden from our attention. Hair matted with chlorine and the ocean, we rode bikes around town, stained our lips red and purple with Freezie Pops. There was still Funtown to look forward to.

It was strange being at Funtown in the middle of the day...

At Funtown, neon bulbs split the night open with endless flashing circles.  Merry-go-round horses spun with boundless energy. Kids like me rushed about, thrilled to be up so late, sandaled feet thumping over wooden bridges and scattered popcorn bags.  

On the way there we shivered with anticipation, all of us in the backseat straining to catch the first glimpse of the dinosaur.  The entrance to Funtown. He was perched on the side of a cliff, ferocious claws captured by spotlight. With the night lingering on the edge of expectation, anything could happen  once inside.

I shifted to the front of my seat as Ethan drove on. I wanted to spot that dinosaur. As we neared the park, my eyes focused instead on a brown blob lumped onto a plastic pile of rocks  A bear, his crafted 
expression smeared into attempted 
wildness, stood in the place of the dinosaur.
“What the hell? Has that bear always been there?” Squinting, I tried to pinpoint where my memory misled me. 
“How should I know?” Ethan pulled into the parking lot. “Does it matter?”


It was strange being at Funtown in the middle of the day, without night casting its spell over everything. Lights were on – blinking from the seats of the Ferris Wheel, dangling heavily from the tents that promised prizes for all the money in your pocket – but no one noticed. The carousel mirrors were covered in grime and the horses reared up in various expressions of pain. Impaled with a gilded pole, their hard red mouths and glazed eyes remained lifeless. The air was thick with the smell of frying oil. Kids stuffed themselves with onion rings, fries, fried dough; simply dropping their wrappers on the ground when they were through. Cotton candy dissolved on the tongue before they ever had a chance to taste it.