Thursday, October 25, 2012
Philosophy of 'Father' & a Small Review of "Big Ray"
John Locke said, “Words in their primary or immediate Signification, stand for nothing, but the Ideas in the Mind that uses them” (the crazy punctuation is not mine). Now there are multiple ways to interpret this and there are scholars who have spent a majority of their lives trying to determine exactly (which is ironic despite his vagueness) what Locke meant. And to fully understand the point that I’m going to make, bare with me over the next four paragraphs…
We may collectively understand a word’s meaning but that act alone doesn’t prove that the word is a pure representation of an idea. There is still the speaker’s bias to consider. Anyone who has been around me would know that I choose any word in order to represent something that I’m trying to say. We all do it. Think to that scene in “The Princess Bride” where Inigo Montoya tells Vizzini “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Therefore if words rely on The Mind That Uses Them, then they are not static. And even if they are static for The Mind That Uses Them, there is still the audience to take into consideration. Even if The Mind That Uses Them has a static understanding of the word – lets say the general consensus, a dictionary definition – then the person receiving the communication may be biased and the probability of a miscommunication is great.
So why should a writer give a shit?
Pushing the obvious arguments aside (because really, I’m blathering on enough), an understanding of the way words work and the way an audience works can help the author easily manipulate both an audience and a story. One of the things that we see at AH is how flat a piece gets with just a few (or even many) word choice errors. Writing is nothing without word choice – it’s what separates your piece from my piece from her piece from everyone else’s. It sets the tone, it sets the style… so really what the fuck are you doing otherwise?
(Here’s where it gets good)
In writing, we all know events are sometimes drawn from the author’s life, despite how far they’ve wandered from what actually happened. How then does the author communicate? The author who cannot speak frankly shrouds himself with a deluded reality – delusional because you lie to yourself about reality in order to write about it fictionally and hopefully believe in your own story. And for a time, it works And this shroud and these inabilities make their way into the work. They enhance the work in a way that the author could never describe otherwise. Within these delusions are sacrifices (of mind, of fidelity).
When trying to write about my family’s history, escapades, events, I couldn’t bring myself to use the word ‘dad.’ He represented this fantastic character from my childhood and whenever I wrote about the ‘sad’ things that happened I tried to shield myself from a belief that my dad could be involved in such a mess. That’s the thing about words: they take on a meaning independent of dictionaries, they’re poisoned by memories.
‘Dad’ and ‘father’ are representations of the same thing. They are the same thing until they aren’t. When I was younger, my dad got angry with me for calling him father. Yet when he got angry with me for other things, he would say “I am your father and you are to obey me.” Now I can’t write without using “my father.” It allows for a strangeness, a distance, a gap. It’s the same person, but I now have a different relationship with him.
In the novel Big Ray, Michael Kimball uses the phrase “my father” over eight hundred times†. It was something that I noticed in the first chapter. It was something that everyone should have noticed in the first chapter. Michael Kimball uses that phrase so many times that it begins to weigh on you, and you begin to feel the father sitting on your shoulders or next to you (though it could just be the fact that he’s so fat, he sits next to everyone). The father is unbearable and should be fictionalized. One can see the relationship both Kimball and the main character have with the father. And if Kimball wanted to remain silent (despite the story’s basis in truth) his inability to control how many freakin’ times he uses “my father” clearly shows what relationship Kimball had with him. He did it on purpose. He understood the importance of that phrase. He understood what it meant to him and what affect it would have – you can’t have a dad that unbearable and not see the difference between ‘dad’ and ‘father.’
Michael Kimball uses “my father” over eight hundred times, but in the end, ‘my dad’‡ is used after a novel’s worth of reminiscing, after the father is just a bucket of ashes. Reviewers talk about the forgiveness in the piece, and yes, it’s there in the memories, it’s there in the actions, but it’s the biting transition between those two phrases that really shows the main character’s transformation. Something has changed psychologically. Not with the author, with him this change possibly happened years ago, but with the audience as they come to accept the narrator forgiving his father.
Even if dead dads aren’t your thing, the progression of plot that hangs so tightly to the transitioning of one phrase is enough to pick up this book and see an author who truly understands the importance of word choice.
† I say over eight hundred times because I counted. Yes, I counted. It’s okay, I wasn’t doing anything productive those five hours anyway.
‡ About 35 times