Friday, April 30, 2010

Analysis of Benjamin Percy's "The Woods" - Part 1

In a word – chilling.  Even read in the bright light of morning.  I don't want to get trapped by describing the story or even offering an oblique critique.  If you plan to read the story you should probably stop reading this entry right now and revisit it after you've read it.  Description is a start, but my reading comprehension and summary skills don't really need work.  I want to know why and how the author achieves "chilling".
So I reread The Woods the following morning to better understand the why and the how.  Right off he vividly recalls an event in the distant past in first person.  He puts us right up close to the narrating character's younger self with short, sharp sentences decribing his experience in sensory detail.

     My father wanted to show me something, but he wouldn't say what.  He only said that I should get my gun, my thirty-aught-six, and follow him.  This happened just outside Bend, Oregon, where we lived in a ranch house surrounded by ten acres of woods.  I was twelve at the time:  old enough to own a gun, young enough to fear the dark.

So he takes us into the woods with him.  He describes a keening sound at once like a woman, otherworldy and grating.  (Women do not fare well in Percy so far.)  They pursue the source of the awful sound until:

     Then, between the trees, I saw the inky gleam of its eyes, and its huge ears drawn flat against its skull, and then I saw its body.  Blood trails oozed along its cinnamon color.
     "Man alive," my father said. 
     It was a four-prong male deer ...

Note that he says "cinnamon" in color.  Not tawny or brown or sable or mahogany.  He uses a more sensory adjective, one that conjures taste and smell to describe how something looks.  Throughout that paragraph, and the many that lead up to it, we don't know what's making the awful sound.  By withholding it, Percy prepares us for the phantom that haunts the main body of the story.  But I forgot about the otherworldly possibility once I got to the later pages because after a few tense paragraphs, the sentence offers a simple explanation of things – It was a four-prong mule deer caught in a barbed-wire fence.
This led me to be believe that there's a simple explanation for things.  I relaxed.  It wasn't a pretty situation, but it seemed normal once explained.  An accident.  The trauma the narrator experienced was not really the discovery of the trapped and wounded deer, it was what his father directed him to do once they found it.
There's another passage of nice detail in the prologue preceding the father's directive:

   I stood behind a clump of rabbitbrush as if to guard myself from the animal.  The bush smelled great.  It smelled sugary.  It smelled like the color yellow ought to smell.  By concentrating on it so deeply, I removed myself from the forest and was thereby able to contain the tears crowding my eyes. 
   Then my father said, "I want you to kill it."

I admire the way he repeated the verb "smelled" three times.  I often avoid using the same simple word in the same paragraph.

The bush smelled great.
It smelled sugary.
It smelled like the color yellow ought to smell.

– – –– –
– –– – – –
– –– – – – –– – – –

That's poetic.  It's got rhythm.   I'm tempted to count the words and even the syllables as I was taught when studying Spanish poetry.  After his father's order, another three word sentence brings the prologue to a close:

Just like that.

I sit here thinking of giving the moment at hand some description.

I'm overwhelmed by the garbage truck sounds in the cul-de-sac.  Is that the compactor or the transmission struggling up the hill?  Gears and crusher blending and then gone revealing a bird's intermittent warbly tweeee and some other more typical sing-song chirps from other birds.  The furnace quietly blows from the register.  A bread bag rustles in the kitchen followed by the closing of a cabinet.  My stomach grumbles.  A feeling of heaviness on my chest.  Constriction across the bridge of my nose, especially the right nostril.  The long husky tweee continues its rhythm.  There should be a Shazam-like iPhone app for bird calls.  My stomach is empty.   Nearly painfully so.

The first thing I notice about my inventory of the moment is that there's a lot going on.  I couldn't even get to the multivalent use of descriptive words like cinnamon.

My sense of sight:  light, white, green    moss on the trees branches outside, cedar.  Soft shadows on the ceiling.  Almost camouflage, everything is white green and brown aside from the two washcloths, one pink, the other orange, dried and stiffly retracting on opposite ends of the towel bar in the bathroom.  There's no bigger towel between them.  I want to put one there.

My phone then rang with a call from a potential employer. (I booked the job today as production coordinator for a fashion photography shoot happening here in Portland by a New York photographer and Japanese client.)  And the morning's notes came to a close.  This blog entry was a transcription.  Is that cheating?  Like when a smack talking caller to a sports radio show scripts his call before calling in?

Two things contribute to this new blogging approach.  One, I've committed to keeping digital out of the bedroom.  When my wife is home and I'm not responsible for making lunches and getting the kids off to school, I've been waking up and reading a story and writing some notes before getting the day started.  Two, I feel like writing for an audience in the browser window evokes a different quality of writing than I'm currently interested in.  This is an exercise.  There's no self-promotion aspect to these entries.  I'm not trying to get anywhere on the outside.  That I'm currently aware of at least.

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