Friday, March 4, 2011
The House of Stairs. Could I Write Like That?
Now to study it. How does she do that? First of all, and the thing that would be the hardest for me, she never cracks a single joke. No jokes. Jokes take the pressure off gut-wrenching suspense, so probably I can't write suspense novels, compulsive joker that I am. Still, I want to try it. So leave out the jokes. Then what?
She layers the book in flashbacks intercut with present-tense narrative, telling us just enough. We must find out what happened next, even as she drops hints that it wasn't anything good, that in fact horrible things took place. This technique is not for amateurs. In Ruth Rendell's hands it is effective foreshadowing. In the hands of one less skilled, it becomes the dreaded "had-I-but-known." Do I dare to try it?
The object of the narrator's fascination is described as a stunning beauty, for which the narrator admires and loves her, even as we see for ourselves that this woman's behavior and utterances are vulgar and repellent. Do we believe our eyes about this woman, or do we believe the narrator? The contrast sets up an interesting tension. All of the characters are very clearly drawn, And many have this same ambiguity. The narrator feels one way about them, but we might feel another way. Tension.
Then there's her description of the setting, the House of Stairs itself. A place of hippie orgies, a place of dread. Every time she mentions the top floor window--which she describes in loving detail, the way it opens near the floor, a four-foot opening, how they neglect to put bars on it even though everyone says it's dangerous, the forty-foot drop to the flagstone terrace below--we know someone is going to go out of it before the end of the book. Eventually the mere passing mention of the window causes shudders.
So that's how it's done. Anyway that's part of how it's done. I will meditate on this and see if I want to take a stab at it.