“The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” —Donald Barthelme

Reading: The Confessions of Max Tivoli , p. 114

The fire spoke, chattering like a madman, and then quieted again in a helix of sparks. My friend, so still and copper-outlined in the dark, said something so softly that I cannot, even more than thirty years later, hear what it was.”

This is a passage that displays at least three facets of Andy’s world-class chops–probably more, but here’s what struck me about it upon a recent reading:

1.  It’s impressive on the level of sheer wordsmithing, particularly in the phrase “copper-outlined in the dark”. That’s a fresh yet entirely apt description of the tonal values that firelight throws into a room.

2. Equally impressive is the quiet language at the end: “I cannot, even more than thirty years later, hear what it was.”The character doesn’t say I didn’t understand what he said, nor does he say I couldn’t make out the words, or any such variation.

He doesn’t use the past tense at all.

Instead, that moment thirty years ago is painted as if it’s somehow part of a continuous present–as if Max Tivoli could extract the uncomprehended words even now, if only he could better listen. Not remember, but listen. A subtle but wonderful deepening of a character’s interior mindscape.

3. This is also a brilliant use of ambiguity (a tool many writers are afraid of, fearing it will transmogrify into vagueness). These words, floating in the air for thirty years: the narrator can’t make them out–but does this mean he’s still trying? If so, then the meaning of those words are still an open question. The ambiguous language makes the whole business of the conversation artfully weightless, rather than freighting it immediately with a significance that might feel leaden, considering that the matter isn’t taken up again for several hundred pages. I don’t think it spoils anything to tell you that Max Tivoli does eventually understand what was said, to devastating effect.

(photo: Andrew Sean Greer reading at the Progressive Reading Series, January 9, 2006, by Steve Rhodes.)

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