3 Circular Triangles exercises
Books lead to other books. Read one and you’re reminded of another. New publications refer to past ones, famous and obscure. Genres cross over, involving similar concepts, tropes, devices. Writers lift, pay tribute, re-imagine, claim as their own and take it a step further in their effort to tell gripping, original stories. Pick up the trail and we end up making extraordinary connections.
These are Circular Triangles exercises …
ON THE FRAGILE DYNAMICS OF IDENTITY AND THE BENEFITS OF JOURNALS
Kafka On The Shore; The Face Of Another; The White Castle. Three outlandish stories on the process of writing and the effect it has on one’s sense of self.
In Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami, Miss Saeki (a side character) attempts to reconcile with the past. She’s waiting for the one who will help her make amends and undo some of the damage she did along the way. She wants to put things right and move on. Until the catalyst appears (Murakami loves using the Deus ex machina, inspired by the ancient Greek tragedies) she writes down the story of her broken life. The story is meaningless, it has no deeper point, Miss Saeki admits, but the process of writing is what’s important – having written things down, processed what happened, assembled all past events and actions in a grand narrative … she’s done that with diligence, her journal now made up three folders, which are reminiscent of
The Face Of Another by Kobo Abe, the story of an unnamed protagonist, a plastics scientist whose face is burned in a chemical accident. Following the accident, the scientist writes his story – the events that transpired as a direct result of the accident – in three notebooks, and leaves them for his wife to read so she can understand what happened. His account is reflective and convoluted, sometimes confusing and full of contradictions. Disfigured and cast out of society, the narrator explains how he suffered an identity crisis that forced him to look for ways to restore his face. In the process he experimented with a mask, which he developed with meticulous devotion, and in time transformed himself from a man with a hideous face to a man with no face (bandages) to a man with an artificial face (a realistic mask), all of which exacerbated his identity crisis rather that resolve it, which is reminiscent of
The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk, a story about an Italian who is taken as a slave in the Ottoman Empire by a man named Hoja. As it turns out, the Italian and Hoja are dead ringers, and Hoja manipulates their resemblance to convince everyone that he is very knowledgeable, appropriating the Italian’s knowledge to make an impression on the Sultan and rise up the ladder. He uses the Italian as a sounding board for his own ideas. He taunts and ridicules his slave in an effort to compensate for his inferiority complex. The Italian in turn, shrewd in his own right, uses Hoja to disseminate scientific ideas in the empire, eager to mold a world more suited to him – at least that’s his intention. The two doppelgangers become entangled in a game of cat and mouse (more like twin vs. twin) that brings about an identity crisis, which is addressed by note-taking and transcripts, written-down events and anecdotes (the stories of one’s frustrating and eventful life, which, as Hoja points out, makes little sense until a person writes everything down), which leads us back to
Kafka On The Shore and Miss Saeki’s journal i.e. her attempt to come to terms with her past through the act of writing.
And there we have it. Kafka On The Shore; The Face Of Another; The White Castle: three outlandish stories that shed light on the intricate and fragile dynamics of identity and the benefits of writing about one’s life.
ON THE POWER OF THE CHILD
An exercise short and swift as a needle prick. Margaret Atwood, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Graham Greene: three writers who love to explore the exalting highs and crushing lows of the human condition, all of them paying tribute to an unlikely power.
In The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen explores the psyche of a Vietnamese double agent who, in a crucial part of the story, and while under tremendous stress, is crushed by the screams of a child, and wonders how ‘a creature so vulnerable can be so powerful,’ and then proceeds to apologize mentally to his mother for all the torment he must have caused her with his screaming when he was a baby, which brings us to
Surfacing, the story of a young woman trying to come to terms with the loss of her parents. Margaret Atwood paints a vivid landscape (Canadian wilderness) populated by vivid memories, the majority of which – alongside the various objects and landmarks the protagonist encounters – take on new meaning as the days pass, and new information comes to light. The unnamed young woman undergoes an excruciating metamorphosis, which, at one point is punctuated by the vision of children as little barbarians, vandals capable of devastating life without batting an eyelid, their ignorance so complete and their power over life so total, their existence interwoven with such anguish and angst, it brings us to
The Fallen Idol, a short story about a boy left at home with the ‘help’ while his parents go away for a while. Graham Greene weaves a haunting tale from the POV of the little boy who, try as he may to escape the confines of his childish life while foregoing none of the perks of childhood, is eventually drawn into an adult world of passion and repercussions that scares him so profusely, he cannot but retreat back inside his constricted childish nature, a nature that ultimately commands the fate of the help, and of the world at large, at least by implication. The boy pays a price after all, as we find out, but it’s obvious that his was the most powerful voice in the story, which brings us back to
The Sympathizer and its tremendous insight on how the most vulnerable creature wields the most powerful cry in the world.
And here we are. Three astounding insights by three exceptional writers on the innate and universal – and, at times, complicated – power of the child.
ON THE TRAGEDIES OF CIVILIZATION
Three authors with a sharp and wicked sense of observation: Jeffrey Archer, Roald Dahl, Joyce Carol Oates; four wickedly good stories – A Good Eye, Nunc Dimittis, Death of an Old Old Man, Black Water – plus a book review titled The Art of Vengeance.
Black Water is the haunting tale of a young woman caught in the wreckage of a car sinking to the bottom of the sea in the middle of the night after suffering an accident with a Senator she idolized, a man she had been fantasizing over during the short course of her young, prismatic life, a life inspired by this particular Senator who, in his hurry to get to the port after an afternoon summer party on an island off the East Coast, and in his great frustration as a result of having gotten lost en route to the ferry, a frustration that had nothing to do with the charming self he so effortlessly wore in public – this ordinarily smooth and inspiring politician managed to crash into a rotten railing on a deserted backroad, plunging himself and the young woman into the black water of the night sea, a water so black and putrid and seemingly thick with conspiracy it swallows them up slowly, inch by terrible inch, during which time the young, idealistic woman reminisces her meeting with her idol, how she’d devoted her studies to his cause and corpus, delighted to finally meet him in person at this party and chat to him well into the hours of the evening, earning his personal attention, an attention so charming and fawning it was almost too good to be true, a reach-out from a world far beyond hers, the sensation oh so uplifting and empowering and reminiscent of
A Good Eye by Jeffrey Archer — the story of a clergyman in possession of an invaluable painting of Christ and his Disciples, the origins of which lay in the clergyman’s ancestor and his obsession with a vagrant painter back in the 17th century, an artist of exquisite talent, bad temper and meager means. The clergyman’s ancestor, a lawyer by profession, ends up becoming the patron of this acrid painter, commissioning what are to become a sublime set of paintings that would over the generations end up in the possession of the humble clergyman, a man so ignorant of their true value and significance he hardly lends them a thought – a man whose principal obsession is God, and whose main worry is fixing the leaking roof of his church, and whose decision to take action is taken during the Nunc Dimittis canticle, at which time the roof begins to leak dramatically as if a sign were being delivered by God himself: Sell the art at your disposal, secure the money to fix the roof! The clergyman sees the message clearly in his mind, he, God’s faithful servant now all too happy to be dismissed by his Lord with the knowledge that he has acted according to His wish, seen the light and salvation, finally blessed by divine intervention – a revelation and canticle that brings us to the title-sake story by
Roald Dahl — ‘Nunc Dimittis‘ — a story about Lionel Lampson, a fine art connoisseur and collector who decides to exact vengeance upon Janet de Pelagia, a woman whose apparent scorn injures his grand affectation for her – yes, grand affectation, the term suits him – turning him into a bowl of fury and rage boiling over with plans on how to humiliate her, his former love interest, in public and console his hurt ego. It’s a story of vengeance and shame, guilt and deception, plus the sheer power of embarrassment, the unmistakable and relentless wrath manifesting in the shadow of men and women rejected by their fellows, a combative and psychotic state of mind that swallows people up like black water, spitting them out crushed and festering – a state of mind all too indicative of Roald Dahl’s assorted tales of the grotesque, tales including Death Of an Old Old Man, a story in which a pilot plunges to his death after colliding with an enemy combatant in midair, parachuting straight into a dark pond, the waters of which engulf the poor pilot like a dark tunnel, eating him alive, the soft silk of his parachute dragging him down to the bottom – the irony! – a story that a certain Joyce Carol Oates covered in her piece The Art of Vengeance: a review of Roald Dahl’s collected stories, in which she addressed Dahl’s esthetic, the ease with which he created sharp, fantastic characters with a penchant for revenge, wickedness, and the misfortune of a grotesque demise.
And there we have it. Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey Archer, Roald Dahl – three extraordinarily sharp authors attesting to the human condition’s predilection to all things wicked, testament to the dark genius that underscores civilization. As far as these three are concerned, at least in light of the stories mentioned above, the more civilized the setting, the sadder and more tragic the outcome of its frictions.
Nicolas D. Sampson is a writer-producer based in Cyprus and the UK. His work has appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, The Scofield, and The Writers’ Magazine, among others. His short story Flames and Shadows was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Film projects include Behind the Mirror (writer/producer – winner of Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival 2015), Vita and Virginia and Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (executive producer). He loves Alfred Hitchcock films. And traveling. And the Cloud. And is currently working on a psychological horror script.