Exploring the art of prose


Author: Jonathan Durbin

Author’s Note

Repetition in fiction is often viewed as a negative, but I’ve always felt that when done well, it can create a productive disonance. There are only so many times you can read a word or phrase before it loses cohesion in your mind; enough repetition and whatever is being repeated will become a device, dissociating itself from both its original meaning and its meaning as its initial use in a story seems to intend. It can transform portions of a text—or even a whole story—into something else entirely, allowing language to take on secondary qualities of consciousness, repetition being a relatively subtle method of allowing a piece of writing to comment on itself. It evokes the space between what the story understands to be true, the literal narrative as it exists on the page, and whatever inferences the story points the reader toward making—its emotional resonance, its success or failure in conveying intelligence, mood, feeling, vitality.

In concrete terms, when I refer to “repetition,” I mean that it can be as simple repeating words or phrases, or expressed in more complex forms: circular dialogue, patterns of interaction, a story’s structural elements. In real life repetition is frequently irritating, but in fiction it can be revelatory—see, for instance, Joshua Ferris’ brilliant story “The Breeze,” in which so much hinges on that mundane relationship question, “What do you want to do tonight?” Like anything else, using it successfully depends on what you want to do with it, and how well you’re able to pull it off.

Legends and folklore are, of course, nearly always grounded in repetition, and “Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?” owes them some inspiration. Shortly before writing the story, I’d been reading about feminist versions of the legend of Bluebeard, older forms of the tale in which the young wife, upon unlocking Bluebeard’s chamber of murdered exes, reanimates the women by placing their heads back on their bodies, and then, together with her zombie sisters, regains her freedom by killing the old man. Something about how that telling of the story, apparently once common, has become an alternate curio version, subsumed in popular consciousness by the one in which the young woman is effectively punished for disobeying the orders of her husband, struck me in unexpected ways. On an emotional level, it prompted me to consider marriage as a kind of loss, both of individual identity and as a fracturing of the trust and sense of possibility that exists between old friends.

That’s certainly the perspective of the narrator in “Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?”, whose views on three weddings of women with whom she was once close comprises the whole of the story. Each wedding-sequence mini-story resembles the other in that the narrator deploys similar language to describe what happens. By repeating slightly altered versions of descriptions and interactions between sections, the story begins to take on a rhythmic quality—a sometimes arcane syntax that fits with the overall tone of the piece, and, I hope, speaks to how mysterious she finds her feelings without sacrificing clarity in the piece as a whole. In many ways it’s a story about fear of change, and how love (or, in the narrator’s view, “love”) operates as a catalyst for that change. If the repetition in the story works, then it serves to underscore the narrator’s discomfort, and to illustrate her yearning to influence matters outside of her control. I suppose that sounds a little like jealousy, but if she’s jealous then it’s for something stranger, not love or money, but the ability to start over, anew.

JONATHAN DURBIN’s fiction has been published by One Story, Crazyhorse, New England Review, The Masters Review, Catapult, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and elsewhere. His non-fiction has appeared in The Village VoiceEsquire and Interview, among others. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is a former fellow of the Writers’ Institute at the City University of New York. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of stories.