• Alan Bray

What Do You Do When I Can't See You?

What’s missing in “Starting Out in the Evening” is as significant as what’s present. A lot is missing; the novel consists of discontinuous glimpses of the four character’s lives, like scenes from a play. Umberto Eco had a great comment on this phenomenon, saying that the only genre where the continuity of characters’ lives doesn’t break is pornography. In pornography, Eco says (I don’t know because I’ve never seen any), if a character goes out to the store, the viewer sees the whole event, walking out of the house, getting in a car, driving, parking, etc. The “action” occurs in real time. Not in “Starting Out in the Evening” In fact, really not in most fiction. The author has to make choices about what to show and not to show, and this has meaning.

The beginning is a fine example. “Heather was wearing the wrong dress. It had seemed like a good idea in the morning…” Two points in time are referenced—the present, when Heather is waiting to meet Schiller for the first time, and the morning of the present, when she chose her attire. But Morton doesn’t show what occurred between—there is no scene of Heather leaving her apartment, waiting for the bus, walking to the restaurant from the bus stop—there’s no need to show this, it would be tedious and might not carry the story forward.

Because…

We humans have the ability to imagine. If we listen to certain pieces of music where only a few notes suggest the harmony, we “fill-in” what’s missing without conscious thought. In the same way, when we read a story (or hear one) we make meaning of what’s left out. We don’t need to be shown Heather’s complete day before meeting Schiller—we can imagine it. And, of course, we each imagine a slightly different day based on who we are and our experiences. That’s why there is no one “correct” reading of a novel. We all have our own “Anna Karenina.”

Another level of this—in “Starting…” important things occur that the characters apparently don’t react to internally. We all do things and then reflect about them—unless we’re so ashamed that we try to suppress our memory of them. There’s the curious scene in Chapter Four—Heather impulsively kisses Schiller’s hand (impulsively is a good word for a lot of what the characters do in this book). And Schiller responds by covering her eyes with his palm. He doesn’t reflect on this unusual event—at least the readers aren’t shown his reaction. Heather does react. “She didn’t know if he was trying to commune with her or trying to hold her off…she was trying to absorb the meaning of that strange encounter in the hallway—if it had any meaning at all.” Maybe that’s the idea, that it had no meaning—naw, why show it then? Everything has meaning in fiction, best beloved. Near the end, this incident is reprised when he slaps her during the last visit she makes to his apartment, and again, he is never shown reflecting.

By the way, I’m using the word “reflect” in two different senses here. The first is that we reflect on something—we think about it after the event. The second sense refers more to reflections as in mirrors. The characters experience other characters as reflections of themselves; they see themselves in the others, and this has an impact. Ariel sees her younger self in Heather, as an example.

The day after their first encounter, we get some reflection (thought) from Schiller about meeting Heather. “Schiller thought of the young woman he had seen the day before. Wolfe. Something Wolfe. Heather Wolfe…That strange scene in the hallway—as he thought about it now, his hand still seemed to be buzzing on the spot where, bizarrely, she had kissed it.” But he is not shown reflecting on his own action of covering her face with his hand. How come? I think the answer lies within the mysterious web of the story—there is strange stuff going on between Schiller and Heather, strange connections, repulsions. They affect each other, strongly. Perhaps, Schiller’s covering her face is an attempt not to see her? There I go, trying to make meaning of what’s left out. See?

The novel has many scenes of behavior that the actors do not reflect on—the story moves on to something or someone else. We are asked to fill-in—and this engages us more with the story. The story is open and allows the reader entry. At other points, there are reflections—Heather reflects on her motivations for pursuing Schiller, Ariel reflects on her feelings about her father and about Heather, later on about Casey. Casey is the most reflective of the four, I think.

Actually, is it the characters who reflect on their behavior, or is it the narrator? Both, in free indirect style.

It’s an intriguing idea that in a novel like this one that is very open, the reader becomes a co-author—at least for her/himself. We are drawn in to make meaning of ambiguity and omission, and that engages us more fully with the text. It requires more effort too, and some people don’t want to read things that challenge them. Maybe Eco was on to something big—pornography isn’t very challenging. Everything is “filled-in.”