“Aren’t You Happy for Me?” by Richard Bausch is an excellent example to showcase this week’s lecture as well as Francine Prose’ chapters on character and dialogue.
The story is a fast paced, high energy and, yet, profoundly sad and intensely frustrating peek at broken relationships and family. While the story was, at times, all over the place that added to its authenticity. It felt familiar but also uncomfortable like a true story being shared or like I was a character myself, sitting awkwardly in the room with the father and pretending not to listen.
This week’s class lecture states: “As students of writing, we are often told for example that we must describe what our characters look like, and we often do, and this is fine and even good. But, writing isn’t a formula, it is an art, and our characters certainly shouldn’t be created with a formula in mind either. Prose gives an example of the Marquise in Heinrich von Kleist’s novella The Marquise of O–, saying that “There is no information, not a single detail, about the Marquise’s appearance . . . We assume that the Marquise is beautiful, perhaps because her presence exerts such an immediate and violent effect on the Russian soldier that he loses all control and turns from an angel into a devil . . . Kleist tells you what sort of people his characters are–often impetuous, wrongheaded, overly emotional, but essentially good at heart–and then lets them run around the narrative at the speed of windup toys” (115).”
Prose goes on to say, “He (Kleist) has no time for their motives, nor do they, as they struggle, like the reader, to keep up with the pace at which one surprise follows another.”
In “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” it was easy to picture these people, flawed and full of issues and real life drama, despite the fact that Bausch doesn’t really describe them or their surroundings physically. In fact, aside from what the mother is wearing (and the smile on her face) and the characters’ ages and genders, he tells us very little about what they look like. And, yet, we still feel we know them because of their actions and words.
For example, I imagined the daughter being pretty, fresh-faced, bratty and naïve but book smart. I pictured the father to be sad, lost, lonely, and defeated both emotionally and physically. For the most part neither one’s actions or words felt premeditated. They were guided by the situation.
In so many ways this family is my family, your family or the family of someone we know. It’s unique and, yet, familiar. You and I may have never experienced their exact situation, but we understand how they feel. As a parent, it’s easy to relate to a father who wants the best for his child. And looking back at my youth, though I never got knocked up by a much-older professor (not that I’d admit it here if I had), I feel like I can still easily relate to the daughter’s fears, anxieties and, especially her all-in-without-concern-for-the-consequences mentality. She is her age, and we’ve all been there. Descriptions are not necessary when we’re looking in the mirror.
In regards to dialogue, Prose says, “Most conversations involve a sort of sophisticated multitasking. When we humans speak, we are not merely communication information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal.”
Bausch exhibits this masterfully. In the story, the dialogue is intense, choppy and inconsistent. Because of this it feels real and authentic. The conversation between father and daughter is a family nightmare but a believable one. The way the daughter drops bombshell after bombshell on her dad is crazy but classic. And the way she continuously sighs, puts him on hold and even hangs up made it feel like life in the way nothing in life goes smoothly. The fact that her fiancé was sitting there listening made me feel uncomfortable, similar to how the father felt. It was already awkward! With so many abrupt distractions and interruptions, I wanted to yell at the daughter, “Hey! Pay attention. This is your life we’re talking about!”
The chat between the father and his future “son-in-law” was relentless. It’s easy to understand the father’s frustration as he deals with his child making what he sees as the mistake of her life. And if that’s not bad enough he gets to talk to this immature adult who his daughter has chosen, for lack of a better word, as a life partner. The fact that she seems to not be listening makes it even more frustrating and realistic. There’s nothing the father can do or say to fix this situation but, like anyone in his shoes, he’s trapped in his disappointment and frustration and simply can’t argue effectively but also can’t just let it go.
Oddly enough, the father and the fiancé, due to their circumstances and disappointments in life, are also her age—emotionally speaking. The fiancé is twice a widower and the father is spiraling toward divorce and realizing that he’s about to lose his wife and daughter. At their ages, both men should know better. But the fiancée sounds more like a young college student than an experienced professor, and while the father’s advice might be seen as wise, his delivery was not. Even stranger, the mother who is separated from the situation for most of the story and soon to be separated from her husband should probably be more alarmed but simply seems disconnected, free and optimistic. Even that somhow felt natural to me given her situation with her husband.
In regards to my own writing, I’ve learned a few important lessons here about character and dialogue from Prose and Bausch. First I learned that, while helpful, descriptions aren’t always necessary to define characters. There are other ways to provide critical details and information without getting physical. For me, this validates my occasional instinct not to worry so much about the descriptions and just focus on the story. Second, I learned that there are exceptions to every rule. Regarding dialogue, some say writing can be real without being overly realistic and others disagree. So I get to decide for myself. Finally, I learned to always keep my goal front and foremost in my mind. It doesn’t matter which roads I choose to get there as long as I arrive.