The Literary List

Monday, June 28, 2010

Early in the Rutgers-Camden workshop we reflected on the auguring power of literary lists—what they can tell us about a story not-yet-unfolded, what they teach us about voice.  We used, as our exemplars, the opening pages of Colum McCann's Dancer, the extraordinary yield in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and the evocative early pages of Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Hiroshima in the Morning.  We heard:

What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris:

ten one-hundred-franc bills held together in a plastic band;

a packet of Russian tea;

... daffodils stolen from the gardens in the Louvre causing the gardeners to work overtime from five until seven in the evening to make sure the beds weren't further plundered;

... death threats;

hotel keys;

love letters;
and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.

(McCann, extracted from a much longer list)

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.  Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.

(O'Brien, and this is merely the beginning of his brilliant catalog)

These are the things I packed:

— Twelve blank notebooks (paper is more expensive in Japan, or so I'm told);

— Three hundred tablets of Motrin IB and a bottle of 240 of the world's heaviest multivitamins;

— Forty-eight AA batteries in case my tape recorder dies mid-interview once a week, every week, for the six months I'll be away from home;

— Twenty-four copies of my first novel to give as omiyage;

— Two never-opened textbooks on how to read kanji.

(Rizzuto, a list then answered by a second titled:  These are the things I know:)

All three lists featured here sit toward or at the very start of books—before we know plot or meaning, before we've been formally introduced to the characters.  And yet, the revelatory power of these lists is immense; it is instructive.  It forces us to look more carefully at the lists we make—the seeds that lie in shorthand, the provocations bound up in catalogs.


Lilian Nattel said...

I think that long lists in fiction take courage and skill.

Melissa Sarno said...

This is interesting... It's inspired me to make a list in the POV of some of my new characters. I bet I will learn some important things about them.

Daniel W said...

Beth, thanks for coming to Rutgers--it was a great workshop. (I was the British guy who recommended the tuna wrap.)


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