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Character Revealed Indirectly in Emma Cline’s “A/S/L”

 

By Jessica Lampard •

Revealing character—not just how a character serves the story, but who they are beneath their public persona—is the bedrock of all good fiction. It’s how real truths about human nature take hold within our imagination.

Yet techniques for exposing a protagonist’s inner self are generally limited to the most intuitive: focus the narrative lens on that character as they move through the story, anchoring the protagonist in the centre of the descriptions. Front their reactions, interactions, histories, and thoughts against the background of the story’s other elements. This approach, though effective when the right balance of detail is struck, risks tipping a reader to the writer’s intention, overwhelming the story with details that feel staged for the purpose of characterization. There is a method that avoids this risk, however—a character-revealing technique underutilized in contemporary fiction: take the focus completely off the main character.

It’s counterintuitive that moving focus away from a character brings a reader closer to their reality, yet understandable if we consider how this approach allows a more complete view of what this character sees and observes. By flipping the lens and looking through it from the protagonist’s eyes, by conveying exactly where they fixate in the scene, the character is revealed in the same sweep as the setting and the rest of the story world. As the protagonist notices the environment and the other characters within it, flashes of their innermost selves naturally show. Since the focus is outward, just enough of their inner life is left out that the reader leans in, wanting to know more. It’s basic psychology: our attention naturally goes toward what is withheld, or slightly out of reach.

It’s this kind of studied, outward attention that fills “A/S/L,” a story by Emma Cline first published in Granta and now printed as part of her new collection Daddy. Throughout this collection, Cline’s characters “hum with cranky, human specificity,” as noted by Brandon Taylor in The New York Times. In “A/S/L,” Thora, a woman in her early thirties who is staying in an upscale rehab centre to undergo detox, embodies this “human specificity.” Cline spends most of the time turning the focus away from Thora and onto minor characters as seen through Thora’s eyes. To draw a deeper sense of Cline’s technique, I’ll look at several excerpts from the story, starting with one of the first interactions between Thora and her roommate at the centre, twentysomething Ally.

‘You just kept repeating yourself,’ Thora told her at breakfast. ‘Over and over.’

Ally pushed for details, asking Thora whether she’d said anything else. ‘I can handle it,’ she said, ‘just tell me,’ and it struck Thora that Ally wasn’t nervously patrolling the spill of her psyche, worried about what poisonous things she’d let slip, but that Ally genuinely hoped to learn something valuable and unknown about herself.

Thora is revealed here not through who she is, but who she is not—she’s not the sort of person who can relate to Ally’s contentment over leaking her subconscious thoughts in the night, but rather, we can infer, the opposite. She considers Ally’s comfort over the “spill of her psyche” not only noteworthy but striking: “it struck Thora” that Ally wasn’t “worried about what poisonous things she’d let slip.” Cline doesn’t need to write that Thora is worried about her own potentially poisonous psyche, only that Ally’s not worried about hers. This technique keeps a degree of mystery, but this mystique does not feel forced or intentional. Because the lens is not on the protagonist in this moment, but tilted so that we are looking out of it along with her, noticing what she notices, we don’t feel the lack of clarity about exactly which poisonous things Thora is worried might spill loose, but rather an underlying tension of sensing without knowing.

They were bored, lights out, Thora’s headlamp illuminating the corners of the room: the not-bad abstract paintings, the window cracked to let in the chilly night air. Outside were the dark shapes of the big aloe plants, the cacti. Thora stared at the twin beds, the matching coverlets. She hadn’t shared a room since college. It had been so long ago: she couldn’t remember if she’d actually liked any of her friends, the girl she lived with who kept her hair short, who baked loaves of sourdough in the dorm kitchen. She was a wilderness guide now. Thora was sure her life would seem appalling to the girl. Maybe it was.

Thora notices her environment here, where we begin to get a sense of how Cline’s word choices impact her character. Her personality pours into the objective, straightforward descriptions of the setting: the phrase “not-bad abstract paintings” signals that Thora is probably not deeply compelled by art, a minor point, but this small signal carries along with it whatever stereotypes the reader might unconsciously carry. The narrative moves on in this blunt tone as the entire outdoor view is caught and held by a single line: “Outside were the dark shapes of the aloe plants, the cacti.” Thora here is brisk in her account of the landscaping, no voiced thoughts about it, just a sketch that is clear and carries understated meaning.

The focus then slides to the roommate who “kept her hair short, who baked loaves of sourdough in the dorm kitchen,” which is an indirect opening into another facet of Thora. The details of this girl, her home-baked sourdough and wilderness-guiding career, add another element of contrast to her character, subtler than we’ve seen so far: it’s implicit that Thora is not one to hunker in her kitchen and produce homemade bread. That she probably isn’t a wilderness guide. The wholesome, homey, practical lifestyle that this girl embodies is not Thora’s. And by now I think we’ve already picked up enough cues to sense that perhaps it never has been.

“Thora was sure her life would seem appalling to the girl. Maybe it was.” There is a quick stroke here of Thora’s own thoughts, the first we’ve seen, but notice how this brief interiority is leveraged outward. The memory of the girl is what triggers Thora’s wondering—Thora is curious how the girl would view her life, which makes the question of whether her life is “appalling” less personal, more distant from Thora’s own mind, because it is funneled through the girl’s perspective, on the surface more a comment on how the girl lives her life than how Thora lives hers. This distance lends a brusque, unemotional quality to a moment that could otherwise seem sentimental.

It amused her, on her laptop in bed, her husband at work, to reply to these men. To conjure an eighteen-year-old that did not exist, an eighteen-year-old that Thora had never been, certainly: blond, blue-eyed, a member of the cheerleading squad. Did high schools still have cheerleading squads? Had they ever?… If she had better friends, she would have told them about what she was doing. Or if James was a different kind of person.

Now we get a physical description of Thora, or do we? Cline has drawn a comparison to this eighteen-year-old who “Thora had never been.” The specificity of the details—blonde, blue-eyed, cheerleader—do significant work, creating a mental image of Thora without any descriptors of her own appearance. If Cline had instead used less specific words like “basic, preppy, popular” to describe the girl who Thora had never been, then the reader’s mental image of Thora would be more nebulous, just like this description of the girl in this version is nebulous. It’s a kind of magic, the power of negation. The description then goes beyond appearance and also conveys her attitude, deepening the sense of her irreverent streak with the way she throws out the stereotype of the cheerleader and then questions, “Did high schools still have cheerleading squads? Had they ever?”

‘Want to see something?’ Ally said, unzipping her little pink purse, flicking her vial of insulin expertly. ‘We did this at diabetes camp once. No bubbles,’ she said, ‘that part is important.’ She got up on her knees, shuffling to the sill. ‘Are you watching?’

Thora rolled her eyes. ‘Yes.’

Ally grasped the moth firmly between her fingers. It barely moved.

‘Watch.’

With impeccable swiftness, Thora injected the fat moth body with her insulin – the moth vibrated a little, awake now.

‘What the fuck,’ Thora said. The moth spread its wings before starting to fly around the room, crazily.

They both shrieked. The moth slammed into the wall and dropped dead. Ally, inexplicably, started laughing.

Here, a single word does the work of revealing an important part of Thora’s character. After Ally’s reaction to the moth and her laughter at its death, the word “inexplicably” pulls as much weight as a whole paragraph. It marks that Thora does not feel the same as Ally about the death of the moth. An important detail, because otherwise there’s no signal that she wasn’t enjoying herself as much as Ally. It’s still unclear what she felt, in depth, but knowing that she didn’t understand why Ally laughed at the moth is enough for me. I still like her enough as a character to care about what happens to her. So that one word is powerful, because without it, these lines might lessen my inclination to care.

James shook his head, shrugged. He had a sty making its angry way to the surface, swelling his eyelid unpleasantly… His hand crept toward his swollen eye, then paused in midair. She saw his desire to do something, to scratch his infected eye, then saw him understand that he should not do the thing, saw him remember that he had been told, expressly, not to touch his eye. And for James, that was enough – he did not do the thing he wanted to do, his hand dropping back to the blanket. Instead, James blinked hard, blinked deliberately. He smiled at her, a tear dripping from the eye he offered to her for inspection.

Here we meet Thora’s husband. As we’ve seen in the earlier examples, the paragraph is about Thora even though it’s not about Thora. The descriptions are blunt in keeping with the style of the narration. But here, there’s an extra bite to the word choices that didn’t come up earlier. I might go so far as to call the description of the sty “making its angry way to the surface, swelling his eyelid” grotesque, or at the very least ungenerous. It’s clear that Thora has some unexpressed feelings for her husband that come out in the way she views his infection.

And then, it is James whose actions bring the story to a powerful end. But imagine if Cline had not filtered her final statement on Thora through James. Imagine it was not James’s scratching, but something Thora had done that closed the story instead, something that brought her into direct focus. In the final lines for example, what if instead of “for James, that was enough—he did not do the thing he wanted to do,” Cline had changed this paragraph to include the line, “for Thora, it was never enough—she was not able to keep from doing what she wanted to do.” The same information is conveyed. But in Cline’s telling, there is subtlety. The reader is placed in a more active role. Left to draw connections. To make inferences. The imagination is easily seeded, so these hints are more than enough for readers to fill in the blanks.

 


JESSICA LAMPARD is a Canadian writer currently based in Vancouver, BC, where she is completing her final year of study in the University of British Columbia’s MFA program. Her fiction and essays have previously appeared in multiple publications including EVENT Magazine, Grain, and Geist, where she received second prize in Geist’s Postcard Story Contest.

 

Featured image by Justin Scocchio courtesy of Unsplash