Exploring the art of prose


Author: Jack Noland

“Watershed” by Jack Noland

Distilling a city to its essence is a fool’s errand, but Dublin in December tests the fool. It’s all magnified: wind-blown rain; the serious, northern-latitude darkness that drives pub traffic and tea sales; a high holiday looming that’s both hearty-Catholic…

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Author’s Note

In an interview with Frank Ormsby, the Belfast-born writer Ciaran Carson traces the similarities between mapmaking and poetry. “[A] map is only useful by how far it deviates from reality,” he says. “The perfect map would be reality, and therefore useless—the city as a map of the city. For a map to work, it has to use shorthand, or symbols, or metaphor, and in this it resembles poetry.”

It’s a beautiful analogy. Writing is mapmaking. Both seek a product that simultaneously stands on its own and conjures something larger, less skeletal than schematic. As the stories and maps we make will show, the city is another assemblage of tiny things given collective identity by virtue of their interconnection. Each component is both individual and of the crowd.

In writing this story, I was interested in exploring the ways people use group relationships and shared surroundings to justify, study, and contradict their own conceptions of self. Our environment becomes a stage for our actions. As such, the views people have of their world and their neighbors will reflect their own identities. The city becomes the composite of those impressions.

But belonging isn’t binary. The collective identity members of a group both shape and wear is inherently fraught. As the novelist Colson Whitehead writes of New York, “There are eight million naked cities in this naked city—they dispute and disagree.” That tension’s a rich narrative seam. In the gulf between viewpoints we learn a lot about our onlookers and the landscape linking them.

Naturally, these naked cities shift over time. The story’s premise—foreign students abroad, a few months into their program—affords a middle course between novelty, when details are most vivid and mysterious, and familiarity, when they’re commonplace and comprehensible.

Merging these points of view puts structural issues in play. Perspectives can’t be truly unified, of course, and to be enjoined they have to be stacked, another assemblage of tiny things. Scenes should move, and inhabiting five characters’ minds risks forcing hot-potato transitions. Rather than deepening understanding, jumping from person to person to person over the course of a few lines can have the effect of draining the story of any perspective at all. For that reason, I tried to make dialogue a rudder, steering the story between characters. When people speak, a little of their interior world comes out, deliberate or inadvertent, complete or fractured. These interactions are the building blocks of the group.

And the beauty of collective identity is that it develops a force of its own. To indulge the cliché, it’s a quality greater than the sum of its individual parts. In a story that’s nominally centered on five students, the biggest moment puts just three in view. Because the off-screen characters exist as members of the group even when the group is divided, their absence compels the others to action. What’s not there illuminates what is—and the narrative hinges, in the end, on something that doesn’t happen to one character inspiring another to make a decision.

Fiction can’t faultlessly recreate a city or a group of people. The deviation from reality is what matters, as Carson puts it, and this story’s schematic shorthand is the intersection of these narrative strands. As the details these characters absorb shade the outlines of their Dublins, it’s the act of interweaving these perspectives that serves to map each person, the city, and the group itself.

JACK NOLAND lives in Ridgewood, New York. He is a recent graduate of George Washington University, in Washington, DC, where he developed passions for fiction writing and public policy. His reporting on money in American politics can be found on the award-winning OpenSecrets blog. “Watershed” is his first published work of fiction.