Object Lessons: An Exploration
By Laura van den Berg
This summer, I spent five weeks at an artists’ residency in Italy, where I had the good fortune of crossing paths with a Swedish composer-performer and visual artist named Charlotte Hug. Known for her musical-visual performances and her interdisciplinary work with room-scores, Charlotte decided to undertake a site-specific project at the residency. She would record the participants, her fellow artists, speaking to a person who had died, in whatever language they wished and in a place of their choosing. Later, Charlotte planned to mix the recordings and incorporate them into a sound installation. A sign-up sheet went up in the kitchen, inviting anyone who wished to participate to select their place, their time.
I was curious enough to sign up, but confess that I did so with a measure of skepticism. During our time together, I had been captivated by Charlotte’s work and the project itself interested me, but I had doubts about my own capacities. I have trouble going to deep emotional spaces quickly, especially when there’s an audience, and I was worried that, under these particular conditions, I would have nothing to say. Charlotte assured me that I didn’t have to say anything at all, that silence was, after all, a language unto itself
I chose a shady spot in a garden. Charlotte set up her recording device, a mike on a small stand, and explained that she would wait out of earshot and would only return once twenty minutes had elapsed. Before we parted ways, she pulled a white sheet out of her satchel: for other participants being covered by the sheet had created a shield, a sense of privacy.
Charlotte draped the sheet over my seated body and then I listened to her footfall in the grass, moving farther away.
By the time my twenty minutes had elapsed, the sheet was no longer a sheet—lifted from its typical context, the sheet had become instrument of transportation and transformation. To my great surprise, the sheet allowed me to forget the corporal world and open a portal to another place. I had, it turned out, a lot more to say than I had expected.
Later, Charlotte showed me a photo she had taken of me from the opposite side of the garden. My physical presence had been transformed too—I looked not at all like myself, but like a large ghost sitting slumped on the grass. I considered how the scene would appear to a passing stranger, how the presence of the sheet would, from a different point-of-view, alter an ordinary sight—a woman sitting in a garden—to something unexpected and uncanny.
I share this anecdote because, in life, objects have the power to shift, deepen, and even reshape moments—and the same is true for fiction. The right object, appearing at the right time, can change a scene, a story. Or, in the words of Italo Calvino, “I would say that the moment an object appears in a narrative it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic, a knot in the network of invisible relationships.”
When writing, I think a lot about the different functions that detail can serve, from the orientating details of a scene (Is the character inside or outside? Is it sunny or raining?) and also what I call “granular detail”—i.e. those hyper-specific, hyper-vivid details that hold layers of time and meaning. In my new novel, The Third Hotel, the first section is titled “The Fingernail,” in part because early on Clare is startled to discover a fingernail in a hotel room drawer, a detail that becomes emblematic of the strangeness of travel and transit spaces. Because granular details carry layers of time and resonance, introduce their own questions, new dimensions are created when they appear. If orienting details ground our readers, then granular details often work to startle and destabilize. The friction between these two approaches to concrete detail can create a certain weather on the page. A tension. A charge.
Granular details are also more likely to develop into objects.
What is the difference between a detail and an object? A character might wear green shoes, and those green shoes might be referenced several times throughout a scene, and while those green shoes might be a literal object, it doesn’t mean they are an object in the higher-order sense—it doesn’t mean the green shoes will take on a “luminous halo,” as Virginia Woolf put it, or become charged with Calvino’s “special force.” Objects, though they might begin as granular details, have a larger role to play: they are descriptive, yes, but they can also be powerful generators of structure; character; atmosphere; and plot.
Objects contain worlds; troubled and fractured histories; unanswerable mysteries; forcefields of thought and feeling. In speaking about Lydia Davis’s story “The Sock,” Stuart Dybek observed that “What art does is give us the refinement, all the shades of meaning, of emoting, that we don’t have language for. What fascinates me about that is we’re talking about an art form in which your medium is language. It’s almost a paradox that you’re seeing. I want to give you emotion, that if I just relied on diction, I wouldn’t have language for.” Objects, when they take on the “luminous halo,” have the power to communicate the matter that exists beyond the limits of language.
The Third Hotel concerns a couple, Clare, a sales rep for elevator technologies, and Richard, a horror film scholar who had plans to attend a film festival in Havana, to interview the director of a new horror film he believed would be groundbreaking. After Richard is killed in a hit-and-run car accident under mysterious circumstances, Clare travels to the film festival in his place. It’s my practice to keep a thought log when I’m between projects, and in some ways this book grew out of a constellation of recurring images and objects: a fingernail; a white box; a camera lens, filming in secret; a blood moon.
The novel poses a lot of questions and only answers some of them. For Clare and Richard, the most pressing questions are fundamentally irresolvable. The questions can be explored, but not answered definitively. While I knew early on that I wasn’t going to attempt to resolve the irresolvable, I began thinking a lot about how the use of recurring objects—the fingernail, the white box Richard was carrying when he died, cameras of varying sorts—could create imagistic patterns that would usefully anchor the narrative, in addition to helping me understand what questions could be answered. Eventually the white box is opened. Eventually the secret film projects that have been taking place, the work of all those cameras and lenses, are revealed. My ambition here was that the resolution of certain mysteries, through the evolving role of objects, would offer a measure of narrative closure, enough to allow that ongoing and irresolvable material to remain convincingly suspended in the space of unknowingness. In this way objects lent The Third Hotel both strangeness and stability.
In thinking about the use of objects in the work of other writers, I’m hard pressed to come up with a better example than Yiyun Li’s story “Sweeping Past.” A portrait photograph—of the protagonist, Ailin, and two other young women, taken just after the three swore an oath of lifelong sisterhood—works as an instrument of time travel, a bridge between a long-ago past and a haunted present tense. When the photograph is discovered by the narrator’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Ying, the act of violence that led to Ailin’s estrangement from her friends is discovered as well. The fated choices we make, the consequences we could not possibly foresee, the life-shattering fallout of violence and trauma—all this history unspools once the photograph is uncovered, layer-by-layer.
After hearing her grandmother’s story, Ying proposes taking the photograph back with her to Lisbon, where she helps her parents run a restaurant. She announces that she will hang the photograph on the wall as decoration, and Ailin wonders “how could [she] make the girl understand that all the existences surrounding her, solid and reasonable though they seemed to be, could be changed if the fantasy of a lifelong sisterhood had not occurred to Ailin fifty years ago?” Ailin is plagued by the different paths a different set of choices could have forged, and the portrait is a living reminder of the path she did choose, with its particular heartbreaks and failures. Now Ying wants the photograph to provide fodder for fantasy of a different sort, where the subjects will “smile on the wall into the indifferent eyes of foreign strangers, as if time had stopped at the photographer’s cramped studio fifty years ago.” Stripped of its context, the portrait photograph will be transformed from a sarcophagus of history, of hope and violence and loss, into ambience. This transformation marks a final recognition that the promises of the past are indeed lost forever, evoking the “sweeping past” of time evoked by the story’s title.
The portrait also creates an elegant structural bookending, as the story begins on the day the photograph is taken, years in the past, and ends with the evocation of the photographer’s studio—another lost and unreachable space. The portrait even allows the story to time-travel into the fate of the photographer himself: his German-made camera would, nine years after the portrait of Ailin and friends is taken, be seen as evidence that he was a capitalist spy and he would be “the first one in town to be beaten to death by the young Red Guards.” The fated choices we make, the consequences we could not possibly foresee—the photograph becomes a conduit for these human questions, allowing them to recur in different contexts throughout the story, to refract and echo.
I want to stress that the portrait in “Sweeping Past” is not a static symbol. A static symbol does one (fairly obvious) thing; objects do many things. In his essay “Talking Forks: The Inner Life of Objects,” Charles Baxter writes that: “If objects only reflect the characters who look upon them, they have nothing to tell us. All they would do is mirror us.” An object, in other words, should be a mirror and a window and a refraction all at once. A static symbol is reductive, a one-to-one, whereas the “luminous halo” of an object extends both keys and questions, at once deepening and further unsettling our understanding of the characters and their inner worlds.
In a recent interview with Paul Holdengraber, Alexander Chee spoke about how “I think what you can do with fiction is you can look past yourself, past the moment, into the whole crazy scheme that has built up around the lives of your characters; a culture, a government, a history, and you can see deeply—hopefully—into it and into how you have been shaped and how the people around you have been shaped by things that you may never have even guessed at.” I love Chee’s vision of fiction here, and objects can be vital means of evoking the shaping forces, both known and unknown, visible and invisible, that Chee speaks of.
Before we parted ways at the residency, Charlotte gave me a flash drive with my recording. I set the flash drive on my desk and told myself I’d listen to the recording the next morning. Several mornings came and went and still I did not listen.
I thought about how objects are made objects by the conditions of the contexts they exist in and how they transform contexts in turn. The flash drive had taken on Calvino’s “special force”; it had become “a knot in the network of invisible relationships.” I felt in active conflict with the flash drive and its contents. On my desk, the object had taken on a distinct presence—strange, insistent, alive.
LAURA VAN DEN BERG is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. Her most recent novel, The Third Hotel, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in August.