Friday, March 3, 2017

The Triumph of Technique in "When You Reach Me" by Rebecca Stead

Sometimes you read a book and your soul splits in two. Half is overcome with rapture at its beauty and perfection. The other half beats its chest and tugs its hair, knowing that you will never produce something this exquisite, this perfectly constructed, nor this wise, and this book has just exposed you for the fraud you are.

Reading is a risky business.

One book that shreds me like soggy paper is Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. This 2010 Newbery Medal winner doesn’t need my gushing. If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably read the book. In hopes of learning something, I’ll try to push past reverential awe and describe what’s working. Maybe my hair-tugging half can get over herself and inch her work closer to what her counterpart so admires.

Of the novel’s dozens of literary virtues, I’m emphasizing three: 1. The sequence of revelations and twists, 2. Manipulation of timelines and narrator awareness, and 3. A reusable economy of characters, moments, and objects. And a bonus fourth, TBA.

Virtue Number One: An intricately constructed sequence of revelations and twists. Certainly Reach Me is tightly plotted, but I’m talking about more than plot. It’s not simply that intriguing events, causally connected, are strung together as close beads. (In fact, some causalities are bewildering until the puzzle becomes clearer toward the very end, and this is one of its strengths.) It’s not that details and characters which seem insignificant turn out, surprisingly, to be crucial (more on that below). Rather, it’s that the unspooling thread of the story doesn’t simply alternate between resolving past mysteries and introducing new ones; every new revelation is simultaneously an answer and a new question, twisting and complicating the puzzle ever more minutely, and ratcheting the tension of reader curiosity ever higher. The best mystery novels traverse this path well, playing cat-and-mouse with readers who love this game-like or puzzle-like quality which forms the intellectual half of the reader’s engagement. (In Reach Me, the emotional half saves most of its wallop for the end, after the puzzle begins to fall into place.)

Virtue Number Two: A Deft and Complex Manipulation of Timelines and Narrator Awareness (or, who can know what, when). It’s unavoidable for a time-travel novel to have a complicated, looping, and abstract sequence of events (and sequence of presenting them). But Reach Me not only gets every single timing note right (IMHO, and so few time travel novels do, IMHO), but it employs those timelines, time-loops, and knowledge gaps to excellent dramatic effect, choosing the novel’s beginning at precisely the right time: Miranda knows much; she has experienced most of the story’s key events, and can look back on them retrospectively, consciously piecing together their significance, and yet, and yet, the final puzzle piece has not yet snapped into place. She does not yet know all. The big reveal, organically and deservedly, is yet to come. Readers may scarcely notice when the actual story starts (and how it differs from when the narrative she relates starts).

We have many timelines to keep track of in any story, with extra layers and twists in this one. For example, we must parse out each of the following in Reach Me:
  • The linear order in which events happened.
  • The order in which they are presented to the reader.
  • [Courtesy of time travel element]: The order in which past or future events converged with the story’s main timeline, such as, when visitors left or visited the story’s timeline and interfered with it, and when and how that interference is presented as a deviation. (If we can stretch our brains to accommodate this idea, and depending on whether there are infinite time-loops and multiverses or not, which will vary according to the quasi-physics of each story. Thankfully not, in this case.)
  • The moment in which the narrative consciousness telling the events begins their telling (where & when are they then? Young/old/alive/dead/after-the-fact/living-the-story/somewhere-in-the-middle/post-denouement/pre-denouement?)

I don’t want to be too spoilery here, but consider the significance of where Reach Me begins: April 5 or 6, it seems: 21 or 22 days (if we allow Mom a day to steal a calendar from her work supply closet) prior to Miranda’s mom appearing on The $20,000 Pyramid game show on April 27, 1979. The events of the story as Miranda describes it began the prior autumn, beginning with her friend Sal getting punched, and culminating in some pretty huge events in January. But the story isn’t really and truly over until April 27, 1979, with some mop-up in the days that followed. Or, perhaps, some 50-odd years later. Or, if Julia’s diamond ring theory is correct, it’s never ended. It’s still happening now, and always will be.  

So when we read, we must keep a thumbnail placed in April, 1979, the now of the narrative consciousness, and of Miranda, who is both moving forward, quizzing her mom for the game show, and looking backward; we must keep our other thumbnail in the sequence of past events Miranda told us about which began last fall. Not only does this leaping keep interest high, and deductive smoke puffing out of our ears, but it creates many opportunities for sleight of hand, whilst Stead (or, I should say, the narrative consciousness, see below) plants clue after clue, which we miss because we’re stuck calculating the when of any given scene. Well played.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby writes, “Withholding, or hiding, information is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe. It forces the audience to figure out who the character is and what he is doing and so draws the audience into the story. When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, it ceases being an audience, and the story stops.” (page 7)

And again, on page 273, “A word of caution is warranted here. Don’t overwrite exposition at the start of your story … The mass of information actually pushes your audience away from your story. Instead, try withholding a lot of information about your hero… The audience will guess that you are hiding something and will literally come toward your story. They think, ‘There’s something going on here, and I’m going to figure out what it is.’” (emphasis added)

I’ll add an amen, but then my own caution: Withholding is vital, but it demands a darn good reason for its secrecy. Readers expect to unravel some knots, but they don’t like being manipulated. They expect fair play. When details are withheld because the author is being coy or capricious, for no good reason, or for stupid reasons (convenient amnesia that clears up just in time, or a narrator just being a jerk), the reader feels betrayed. All this is to say, Rebecca Stead’s manipulation of timelines, and of what could be known when, creates a bulletproof justification for all of Miranda’s withholdings. Even looking back on events as she was, there was so much she didn’t understand. And the unusual story she had to tell, to a character who would, in the future, fulfill events that were now already past, obligated her to construct the narrative piece by piece, not alienating her special reader (him) by revealing what she did already know before the proper moment, when conclusions couldn’t be ignored or rejected because they seem unfathomable and unbelievable.

Virtue Number Three: A Reusable Economy of Characters, Moments, and Things. It’s very satisfying to readers when details, events, things, and characters that would seem to be throwaway turn out to matter later. (Up to a point.) It also creates a conveniently economical system for the writer, who can thus keep the headcount, prop-count, and scene-count at manageable levels. But it is a contrivance, and convenience can be carried too far until believability suffers. The tidiness of fiction sometimes strays too far from the randomness of reality. Here, however, the construct of the Reach Me, as a letter, or rather, a journal-like musing aimed toward a mysterious someone that feels letter-like, written to a highly mysterious character, creates not just a reason but an obligation for the narrator to be selective in her presenting of details. She is entirely justified in revealing only characters, details, and moments that will matter again later. To do otherwise would be superfluous. From the outset, Miranda proposes to tell a specific story, selecting only those events and people that are vital to it, because she has a narrowly specific purpose in the telling, and has, in fact, been given a mandate for the telling by the tell-ee (how bizarre! an intriguing mystery in its own right), even though she constantly protests that mandate and considers ignoring it (a choice that readers realize is perilous, whichever way she chooses, even though there’s much that, as yet, we don’t understand). It’s a virtuoso performance of manipulating the limitations of the narrative consciousness of the novel to sophisticated heights. (The narrative consciousness, or the mind behind the narration of any story, which is neither its author, nor its protagonist/narrator, is something I’ve been jawing about lately to anyone I can entrap into listening to me.) This unique setup of telling a specific story to an unknown person, under protest, combined with the time travel plot (not fully unzipped until the end) in which every detail she relates is made to matter by the future person who will read the to-be-written letter and treat it as instructions to be carried out, makes the revealed significance and causal connectedness of each seemingly minor detail, thing, person, and moment a triumph, rather than an eye-roll.

Bonus Virtue Number Four, which I could write 1000 words about, but I won’t: The many levels upon which this referential novel explores A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: as a beloved touchstone title; as a vehicle for book discussion and debate, bringing people together; as a conduit for explorations that might change the science of the future; as a catalyst for thematic discoveries relevant to the story’s spiritual center. Lovely, lovely, worthy of this loveliest of classics.

It’s the heart of a novel, and not its intellectual sophistication, that moves readers to rapture and tears. Yet the masterfully employed virtues of technique in When You Reach Me build a rugged scaffolding for the real story, which is beautifully simple, needing no tesseract, and played out on several plot lines and pairings: People who have long cared about each other – or who learn to care about each other --  can hurt each other deeply; suffer sorrow, regret, and shame; and try, in bumbling but beautiful ways, even after long interruptions, to make it right.  Where there was love, there can be redemption, and love can be found in the unlikeliest places.

I’m so glad this book exists in the world.