Friday, August 7, 2015

Writing the Sea: Narrative Music by Alex Gilly

I remember reading about a writing exercise of Raymond Chandler's - how he'd re-write stories and books that he thought were good - trying to retell them in his own voice. Somebody else I admire (I forget who) would type up favorite passages from literature just to get the rhythm of good writing down before embarking on their own. Hmmm... and David James Keaton did closed-captioning for porn, so yeah there must be something to it.

Alex Gilly has been translating best selling books for years, and, if any of that dedication to craft pays off, his debut drug-running thriller Devil's Harbor ought to be the first in a long line of titles that make him a household name among fans of hardboiled crime. When I asked him for a Narrative Music piece appropriately he chose a song about darkness on the water. Check it out and give Devil's Harbor a look at his website

Writing The Sea by Alex Gilly

Why do writers write about the sea? And what draws readers to sea stories?

One answer to the first question is literary convenience: the sea is so easy to allegorise. Jot down the first five things that the word “sea” brings to mind, and I’ll bet at least two are human emotions. Here are mine: big, beautiful, deep, dangerous, capricious.

If you’re not paying attention, storm clouds will appear every time your protagonist gets anxious; every boat journey will mirror your character’s inner journey; every mention of “the deep” will evoke the unconscious; every horizon will be a promise.

The first problem here is that the most commonly-used maritime metaphors have been dead so long, their abysmal bones were picked clean by bottom-dwellers long ago. We keep using them, though, because it takes hard work to spawn fresh images, and writers are lazy.

The other problem is that sometimes, the allegorical sea can get in the way of the real one. Sometimes, the sea is just the sea.

All this is to introduce you to a song by John Darnielle, if you don’t know it already. I’ve seen Darnielle perform four or five times with his band The Mountain Goats, and I went to hear him speak about his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. Darnielle works hard, and it shows—his images are as fresh as a fishing jerking on the line. To my ear, he’s a master.

Darnielle has a side project, a band called The Extra Lens (I have no idea what that means), that released an album a few years back called Undercard (a title I plan to steal for a future novel). The track I want to discuss here is on that album. It starts with a gentle four-note arpeggio, repeated four times, that slips over you like sunlight falling across your face while you doze in the back of a travelling car. Then Darnielle starts singing, and throughout the song his voice stays so measured and restful, he could be leading a guided meditation. Here’s the opening verse:

Sun shone down on a cloudless sea
We were out on the water, my father and me
With several friends of the family along for the ride
And out on the calm water we killed the motor and spread our nets wide

There’s no literary conceit here. Just a father and son heading out on a fishing trip. The sea is just the sea, cloudless and calm. The only oddity is the nets. It’s almost certainly a recreational-fishing trip (because they’re taking “friends of the family along for the ride”), but pretty much only commercial fishermen use nets—amateur anglers use rods and reels. I’m guessing Darnielle doesn’t do much fishing, but that doesn’t matter because his first verse does all he asks of it: it introduces us to the principle characters (father and son), gives us the setting (boat at sea), establishes the mood (calm, silent) and point of view (the son’s), and it raises a question (what will they catch?).
Here comes the chorus:

Keep your face to the wind and you’ll be fine
And wait for the faint tug on the line

Here’s the first instance of something that might be a literary device. Faint tug on the line (also the song’s title) feels like it refers to something. What?

The grammatical shifts also feel significant: the switch from declarative to imperative mood and (necessarily) from first person to second. Is the father now addressing his son, advising him how to ward off seasickness and catch fish? Or is the son remembering his father speaking to him? Is Darnielle telling us to pay attention? Are you getting impatient?

Everyone getting restless when we pulled up the net
We dropped it down on the deck. Everyone's feet got wet
And the fish that looked like monsters from way down where the water gets cold
Slid down the deck like shuffleboard coasters and made for the hold
Everyone's eyes like saucers, nobody saying a word

Were you expecting that? The net comes in and everyone—all of us—are made complicit: everyone’s feet got wet. But complicit in what? What’s in the net? Fish that look like monsters from way down where the water gets cold. Are we in allegory here? Or does Darnielle mean actual creatures drawn up from where the darkness is complete, the pressure crushing, the temperature just above zero? The realm of monsters.

The chorus is repeated once, then then final verse:

Sailed home in silence across the cold sea
Several friends of the family, my father and me
And something down below deck that we would try to forget
Shapeless and probably nameless as of yet

Darnielle tells us again who’s on the boat, emphasising it, making it important: Several friends of the family, my father and me. They’re sailing back to port, and now they have something they didn’t have on the way out. Something they would try to forget. Whatever it is—whatever his analogy is mapping—stays shapeless and probably nameless, as of yet.

Tug On The Line is a sea story. Some people go fishing, they catch something, they return to shore. Simple. So why do I find it so compelling? Why do we love sea stories?

In the hands of a good writer, the sea can be an allegory for pretty much anything that keeps you up at night. Darnielle’s written a sea story about fathers and sons, about monsters, about shared secrets, about shame. All topics I’m interested in. I also get the feeling that there’s a crime in there somewhere, not directly acknowledged.

But what makes this such a brilliant piece   is that it’s also just about the sea: cloudless, calm, cold. Darnielle recognises that the sea has the power to awe, and he knows we’re born to feel awe, so he never lets his writing get in the way of it. There’s something important at the heart of the song, but it’s ineffable, so he focuses our attention on what isn’t.

So, the action in the song is exactly what it seems to be,” he writes in his liner notes. “A man and his father go fishing, and they catch something. And then they sail back to shore as the sun is setting. Pulling into dock, the evening is quiet. All the pleasant sounds of the harbor: ropes slackening and tightening, tides causing things to knock against each other, not so hard that anything breaks or gets bruised. That sort of day in one another’s company.”

Alex Gilly is a writer and an internationally bestselling translator who was born in New York City. His published translations include the bestselling INCAS trilogy (The Light of Machu Picchu, The Puma’s Shadow, and The Gold of Cuzco) by A. B. Daniel, published by Scribner in the United States, and Thierry Cruvellier's Master of Confessions, a non-fiction account of the first of the Khmer Rouge trials in Phnom Penh. He is also the official translator for award-winning novelist Amin Maalouf’s blog. Gilly has lived in Australia, Canada, France, California, and the UK, and he currently lives in Sydney with his wife and son. He is the author of the debut thriller Devil's Harbor.

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