Friday, March 9, 2012

Stripping "Lolita" & Hurling the Bones by Aj Ferguson

What the hell is Lolita about anyway? Asking that question of ten different readers would yield a variety of responses depending on the sophistication of the reader. But let’s pretend they are all ‘good readers’ as defined by Vladamir Nabakov himself[1]; let’s arm them with, among other things, an imagination, a memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense. Given this object and these aspects, our good readers will most assuredly tell us that Lolita is about a number of things that have less to do with pedophilia and more to do with themes far too complex to be reduced to an isolated independent clause with any accuracy.

Yet an obsession with pedophilia is clearly the motive force that propels Nabakov’s protagonist throughout this novel. Surveying the field of famous literary goals, Humbert Humbert’s quest to obtain a nymphet, a sexually aware prepubescent girl, is more than just a little creepy; it’s memorably loathsome. Nevertheless, what is both loathsome and cruel is part and parcel of a beautiful, brilliant, and sometimes tender novel: this paradox turns the knife. Humbert is witty; Humbert is self deprecating – he is also relentless, condescending, sadistic, and awful. Humbert is all of these things and more, but most importantly for the story’s success – he is driven. That he is driven to pursue nymphets is incidental to the relentlessness of his pursuit. The light of Humbert’s life and fire of his loins could just as easily have been Helen of Sparta, Tadzio the Polish boy, or Rex the Collie[2]. – In short, Lolita is the MacGuffin.

As you may know, the MacGuffin is a term attributed to Alfred Hitchcock; commonly referenced by cinematic directors, it is, unfortunately, often neglected by writers of literary fiction. While the MacGuffin can either be a concrete item or a specific goal, it is always something that characters want badly enough that they are driven to do extraordinary things to achieve it.

The MacGuffin most frequently cited is the Maltese Falcon. A more current cinematic example is the movie Up, where Carl Fredricksen is determined to fly his house to Paradise Falls, utilizing thousands of helium balloons. The MacGuffin is the explicit goal of the plot, the apparent brass ring.  Of course, some characters are willing to do more than others to get what they want. In fact, some stories use the tension surrounding what a character will not do – or ‘prefer not to’ do in Bartleby’s case – as the MacGuffin. But confusing the explicit goal of the character with the stakes of the story is an error because the stakes are the changes that will occur within characters and settings as a result of action or a lack thereof. Therefore, the MacGuffin must be understood to be both as arbitrary and hollow as it is filled with specifics and meaning. For example, we care that Carl is flying to Paradise Falls because we care about Ellie and Carl and feel an urgent need for him to fulfill their lifelong dream of reaching the destination. That he is flying there in a wooden house is a neat gimmick. However, the flying house would remain merely a gimmick if it were not imbued with all the emotion and significance stimulated by rich characterization and a compelling back story. But, of course, the audience is not thinking about any of this unless they are unlucky enough to be writers.

That the reader does not think about the details of artifice is a neat trick. If a writer is doing her job properly, the reader will probably proceed through most or the entire story under the illusion that they are just as invested in the MacGuffin as the characters striving to achieve it. In truth, this explicit goal should diminish once the larger stakes and the character’s core motivations become apparent. We will focus on this transmutation later. But before symbolic action can be understood as symbolic, a character needs to pull the trigger because the target needs to be dead. That is, the needs of the story outweigh the writer’s need to be deep and meaningful. So for the moment, let’s take a look at the narrative arc.

Hitchcock says to begin with a piece of ‘foolscrap paper’ where he places the bare minimum[3]. Here is my stripped-down synopsis of Lolita:

After losing his first love to illness, a young boy becomes haunted by her image. Once the boy becomes a man, his relationships with adult women are unsuccessful and leave him yearning for sexually aware young girls, nymphets. He lodges with a woman and her daughter who he identifies as a nymphet. He marries the woman to gain access to the girl. The woman discovers his interest, but suffers a fatal accident before she can tell the police. The man and the girl begin a sexual relationship. They travel across the country living in motels, then settle in a town where the man finds work. Eventually, the relationship falls apart, the girl tires of the protagonist, and leaves him for another man. After some time, the protagonist finds the girl pregnant and living with a rube. The girl reveals that the man she ran off with was a pornographer who she abandoned once she tired of his propositions.  After the girl refuses to come away with the protagonist, he leaves, finds the pornographer, and murders him. The protagonist is arrested, writes the narrative as his confession, and then dies.

The synopsis above is what Hitchcock calls the “steelwork” or the “barest bones,” from which he would build upon. Of course, Hitchcock was adapting stories to film which is a different animal and exercise entirely. And while I am certainly not arguing for a formulaic or axiomatic approach to writing, I do see tremendous value in keeping one eye on the narrative arc even as it twists into a helix, Möbius strip, or whatever shape one’s narratives take. I am arguing for the value of plot because the arc, its trajectory, and apparent target are what the reader instinctively follows. Humans are hardwired to enjoy narratives because we evolved as narrative creatures with a trail of evidence that spans approximately 77,000 years establishing this fact. But the use of the MacGuffin does not constrain a writer to moribund convention, but it does allow him to exploit human nature.

The steelwork of Lolita as I have constructed it above is a grand opportunity to entertain and delight the reader through a series of moves that include both calculated misdirection and strategic confessions. The writer chooses the point of view, in this case first person, and the protagonist charms the reader with self deprecating wit even as he reveals himself to be a monster. The writer fleshes out the details of the protagonist's obsession, characterizing and complicating both the protagonist and the object of his desire, by making him slightly sympathetic and casting her as manipulative. Along the way, their road trip across the country becomes an opportunity to invert what Joseph Campbell calls the hero’s journey; as the protagonist crosses one moral threshold after another, the reader cannot help but follow the train wreck even as it gyrates through themes and spins off references and symbols that elevate the story as something much more than the perverse and gratuitous yarn it might have been. But I must point back to the target, the tragic end that the reader is certain will arrive. After all, Nabokov begins the novel with the conceit that the protagonist is writing from jail and reminds us several times throughout he is still there. – And here is an important point: as with all magic, the audience can be more easily misdirected if they are given a well-lit target to focus on as the writer performs sleight of hand.

In the case of Lolita, Nabokov does a brilliant job of allowing the reader see what Humbert wants them to see while dropping enough hints that they can go back to interrogate his claims when they reread the novel. But, of course, the target is not always used for misdirection. For example, Margaret Atwood commonly provides readers with strange and incomprehensible image of the novel’s end while slowly revealing how the protagonist arrived there one juicy bit of information at a time. Other writers allude to where the book is going through foreshadowing and may switch out MacGuffins mid-novel. The variety of tactics regarding plot and structure are as numerous as they are immaterial to this essay. My point is that everything that occurs in a good story must seem necessary and organic[4]: as I said before, the character needs to pull the trigger because the target needs to be dead. In the process of making a piece work, one can identify themes and symbols to make it resonate.

One of the wonderful things about seeing the world through a writer’s eyes is that it is almost always replete with symbols and themes. Most humans understand the world through metaphors and similes as they are the bridges one uses to relate a common experience. Writers simply happen to be hypersensitive to such things because they work with language on a constant basis. Yes, language has its limitations, and those limitations are its strength in constructing fiction. Once I have grasped what the MacGuffin will be, I can hurl it forward, mark its progress, and note where it falls. Then the real work begins, placing flesh on the bones and breathing life into the story. The results of this process are only limited by my imagination, energy, and patience in articulating the story. In short, The MacGuffin is not a plot device to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown straight ahead and with great force.

[1] Nabakov discusses his ’good reader’ at length in a lecture entitled “Good Readers and Good Writers.”
[2] Okay, okay – so Ignatius masturbating to thoughts of Rex was just a weird and disturbingly comic plot device, but I was hard pressed to think of a bestiality MacGuffin. So sue me.
[3] Hitchcock discussed the MacGuffin at length in several interviews, but, to my knowledge, the first recorded instance can be found in a lecture he gave at Radio City Music Hall in 1939.
[4] Yes, yes, I hear you grumbling. I am writing primarily about realist fiction. But while it is beyond the scope of this here blog post to address the specifics, I would argue that some of the most effective non-realist work is also concerned with a quest in some form or another. The conventions of realism are simple easier to talk about.

Aj Ferguson holds an MFA in fiction from Florida Atlantic University where he teaches writing as an instructor. He is working on a number of projects and collects personalized rejection slips like other folks collect crystal bunnies or baseball cards.

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