Starting Out in the Evening
This week, a new book—Brian Morrison’s 1998 novel “Starting Out in the Evening.”
I saw the film version of this novel first, in 2018—Frank Langella does a wonderful portrayal of one of the main characters, Leonard Schiller. In mildly innocent fashion, I noted the film was based on a novel (I read the credits). The book had laudatory reviews and I read it. This is my second reading.
“Starting Out in the Evening” is very much about writing and mortality—two “sexy” subjects. It concerns an ageing and obscure novelist, Leonard Schiller, his thirty-nine-year old daughter, Ariel, and Heather Wolfe, a young woman working on her master’s thesis. The thesis is on Schiller’s work. Schiller is initially reluctant to help Heather, and she pursues and persuades him, thereby incurring the enmity of Ariel.
The names are interesting. Names in stories can be random, and they can have meaning—in this case I think they have playful meaning. Schiller was the great German dramatist and philosopher who wrote about the synthesis of aesthetics and reason. Heather Wolf(e) can be seen as predatory (more on that later—I think she is more nuanced), and Ariel is the spirit who assists Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and is eventually liberated by him.
The novel has an interesting structure—Schiller, Heather, and Ariel are each given their own consciousness and chapters. So, the first chapter is Heather, as are the next two. The fourth chapter appears to veer into Schiller (“Schiller made his way gingerly on the icy sidewalk.”), but then it’s all Heather after that. Each of the three appears in the others’ chapters, however, there is an assured, omniscient narrator who presents everything in close third person and is hidden—that is, there is no mention of a narrator entity telling the story.
Thus, the story begins, “Heather was wearing the wrong dress.” This is a statement about Heather’s opinion of her attire vs. the narrator’s opinion of Heather’s attire. It is, I believe, a fine example of “free indirect style,” developed by no less a writer than Flaubert. It is a statement so close to Heather’s consciousness that it’s a challenge to tell whether it’s her or the narrator. (It’s both). A contrast would be “I am wearing the wrong dress,” Heather thought. Or, if the narrator was describing a character from its own point-of-view, you might have, “A young woman named Heather waited in a coffeeshop, wearing a miniskirt that was inappropriate to the setting.”
And this narrative structure—free indirect style—is a constant. The story focuses on the character’s inner life, what they think and feel about the situations and conversations they inhabit. So there are scenes and conversations but they are balanced with long passages of free indirect style. I wouldn’t call these “stream-of-consciousness,” because the passages are focused; they serve the story. What I mean is, I (the actual “I,” Al Bray) could write, “I am sitting here writing a post and the birds are very loud. I look up, and my neck cricks.” The characters in “Starting Out in the Evening” wouldn’t be shown thinking something like that unless bird song and internal sensation somehow bore on the primary action—writing and related to the story.
In his book “The Perpetual Orgy,” Mario Vargas Llosa writes, “Flaubert’s great technical contribution lies in his bringing the omniscient narrator so close to the character that the boundary lines between the two vanish, in his creating of an ambivalence in which the reader does not know whether what the narrator says comes from the invisible teller or from the character who is soliloquizing mentally.”
Vargas Llosa goes on to say that this structure serves to erase the presence of the omniscient narrator and/or turn it into one of the characters. I’m not so sure this is what Brian Morton does here, “Starting Out in the Evening” being a more modern iteration of the novel.
What effect does this have? It brings the reader very close to the character, and establishes empathy and caring.