Black Box: The Art of Restraint

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

There’s a concept in illustration called artistic restraint– at least, that’s what I call it. It’s knowing when to stop adding texture and detail before you over-complicate the image and make it harder for the eye to engage with it. The idea is that the viewer will fill in the missing pieces subconsciously. The full image is implied by the artist’s “incomplete” rendering.

This applies to fiction and I’m not talking about brevity, either. I’m talking about the pacing of information, because in a lot of ways, the best examples are those that are technically “overly-complete,” in its exposition, while burying the lead– the grander narrative, so to speak– under layers of storytelling .

The classic example of this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” wherein a couple has an intense conversation without ever directly acknowledging the subject of debate. One of my professors once told me that this story was a failure, in that no one understood what the story was actually about until Hemingway gave it away in an interview. I kind of agree to an extent (anyone who tells you what that story is about was 99% likely to have been told themselves. It’s not exactly evident in the writing.) but I also appreciate that all readers understand that something bigger is going on in this little exchange.

Easier discussed examples are found in the horror genre. I’ve mentioned before that H.P. Lovecraft loves to obfuscate the true horrors of his stories with psychosis, doubt, and scientific reasoning, while only allowing a mere, vague glimpse of the monster before the story ends. His contemporaries, such as John Carpenter, do likewise– you never see what the Thing actually looks like, just the perversion of its replicated host. The doubt and conflict is born out of the fact that anybody could be the Thing.

A modern novel that understands informational control well is Bird Box by Josh Malerman. The premise is this: there are “somethings” floating around outside and if you see one of them, you go insane and kill yourself and those around you. The entire book is therefor written, essentially, blind whenever the characters are not inside of a boarded up house– which also creates a sense of blindness to the outside world, despite the sensory details of a home. The amount of information as to what the hell is happening is minimal, and experienced minimally. As such, there’s a pervading sense of paranoia and claustrophobia throughout the entire book, expressed through these sensory limitations. Also, the climax contains one of the most appalling things that has ever entered my brain.

It Follows takes this concept and makes it one of its primary themes. The horror is only experienced by the protagonist as they’re the only person who can see the monster in pursuit. Furthermore, it’s relevant only to their life, taking on the image of someone they know personally. Essentially, the cursed person’s experience of the horror is filled in by their own subconscious– generally with the broad strokes of Freudian of sexual formation (Jay first sees an elderly naked woman, possibly her grandmother; Greg sees his own mom in a night gown; Hugh claims to see a girl in a yellow dress). The horror experienced is a black box that no other character can access. What’s excellent about It Follows is that it spends just as much time with its secondary characters, usually slasher-fodder, and actually develops them into a unit of friends concerned about the protagonist undergoing a difficult time that they don’t understand– because they don’t have the information that the protagonist has. As much as you sympathize with the main character’s isolation, because you’ve been there, you also empathize with the others’, because you’ve been there today.

Information becomes currency in stories. Look at Silence of the Lambs and pay attention to what information does. The main storyline unfolds like a procedural tracking down Buffalo Bill until Hannibal Lector comes onto the scene. He understands that information is powerful. He delivers information about Jame Gumb to thread the narrative along for what? Information about Clarice Starling. Specifically, personal, traumatizing information about Clarice Starling’s childhood. Quid quo pro. It does something to a reader, having to face a character’s darkest memories. The reader, along with Clarice, has to access their own personal account of darkness and attach the weight of their own traumas to hers. But the character of Hannibal Lector does something even more insidious– he gets the reader to goddamn like him. You do what Crawford always warned Clarice about: you forget what he is. So when he finally bursts out of his cell via the grisliest means necessary, you’re suddenly stuck between cheering him on and personal betrayal accompanied with self-disgust.

It’s called a psychological thriller for a reason.

The thing that you carry away isn’t necessarily the way that the story ends, but how it affected you. Silence of the Lambs is effective because it’s main plot line is almost a red herring for the more subtle horror of Lector accessing Starling’s/your mind. Buffalo Bill is disturbing. Hannibal Lector is seductive. Silence does this by foiling Lector with Crawford, both manipulative men. The story controls its flow of information so carefully, that while you, along with Starling, are wary of Crawford who remains stoic, vague and unyielding of his intentions, you buy into Lector, who’s smart, polite and generous with his knowledge. It makes Starling, and you by extension, despite everything in her power to remain at the head of the curve, naive. 

The Black Mirror episodes, “Shut Up and Dance” and “White Bear” execute this perfectly by stringing along an increasingly cruel set of circumstances for the main character, encouraging our sympathy the entire time, before dropping the curtain and revealing who the main characters really are–a simple revelation that makes us question whether or not our sympathy was deserved. It puts the entire narrative we were just told into another light with a single line of information. That’s the power of limited perspective.

In the batshit crazy House of Leaves the information we are given is… a lot to take in. The worst but only way I can describe it: this is a book about a guy who’s writing about a book he found written by a different guy about a film a third guy made about his house that doesn’t make sense. And that’s just scratching the surface.  I think I’ve mentioned before that reading this book in public makes you look crazy– you have to turn it around to read all of the annotations, flipping through several pages, back and forth, as there are annotations to annotations, forcing you to reference the index in the back and you journey through the narrative only to find that it folds into itself endlessly. And then, if you’ve done the homework, solved the puzzles, educated yourself about architecture, documentary film-making, and cryptology… the real story emerges like a 3D painting.

And it happens weeks later after finishing the fucking thing. It’s a study in forming broad strokes via intricate design.

I know what you’re thinking: how does this relate to True Detective? Funny you should ask because I was just about to go there, you pidgeon-toed, gawking ratfink. Hardboiled noir fiction runs on the engine of gathering information about a crime or infidelity. Usually this is done with a progression of interviews, voyeurism, and clever deceits. Like all stories, it becomes complex and then it simplifies. Which you have in True Detective, expressed as a buddy cop procedural. Within that basic structure, you have the narrative device of flashbacks, contextual to the interviews of Cohle and Hart. It’s a simple thing to point out, but the fact that you see these guys as ruined, possibly insane old men makes you wonder what exactly the hell happened 18 years ago to warrant these changes.

 

True Detective also plays out as a horror story. There’s an encompassing feeling of dread threaded throughout the miniseries. But it’s only glanced at as reverberations in the “psychosphere,” mentioned by junkies, felt but never seen– the closest we come to seeing it is Cohle’s hallucination of the black star while he’s being choked out by Errol. Usually we see it in brief glimpses through Marty’s eyes– his daughter’s recreating a ritualistic murder scene with dolls, or the entropy of of a tasseled tiara stuck in a tree. Likewise, the protagonists never face the shadow society responsible for the historical murders in the area. They get Errol– which disappointed a lot of viewers but is thematically on point. Sticking with concrete leads brings them to a concrete, yet impotent conclusion and Cohle understands that the bigger, elusive (and allusive) culprits are still at large. Hart acknowledges their own limit of understanding by the consolation “We got our guy.” The story becomes complex in its information and then it simplifies, but the difference here is that there is still incomplete, complex, deliberately placed information that hasn’t been digested by the narrative, speaking of a much larger conspiracy that appears unconquerable.

All of this is to say that the most effective story you can tell is one that subtly asks the reader to tell themselves a story along with you. They’ll meet you halfway.

 

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Spoiler alert up top: I’m going to delve into Chinatown, LA Confidential and True Detective. If you have any interest in being surprised by those works, you might want to stop reading now.

I’ve heard it around the way that a successful Sci Fi or Fantasy book reveals its built up world gradually through the fresh eyes of the main protagonist. I got to thinking that maybe noir does the same thing, except in reverse– we’re introduced to a fantasy and then what follows is the revelation of our very own dark and gritty universe (usually) through the eyes of the protagonist who can see the true, underlying reality.

In my post on character sketching, I quoted Raymond Chandler’s bit on Phillip Marlowe. The relevant piece is this:

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth

That’s not breaking any minds to tell you that The Detective archetype is searching for some veritas in noir detective fiction. But I want to pause first on why these guys feel the need to pursue that hidden truth, or rather, what makes them the type of character that knows something is there.

Sherlock Holmes is a good place to start. He solves crimes by deductive/inductive reasoning. He looks at something from above and in the solving of the case, elevates the crime to his own level. He’s simply smarter than the crime.

But noir heroes slum along the bottom. The Noir Detective yanks down the case to his level. Because his world is the truthful one and the illusion spun by the conspiracy of his social betters doesn’t sit well with the reasoning of the cynical world.

In the first season of True Detective, Rust Cohle has been through the hell of losing a child and living deep undercover for years, well acquainting him with the pain of living and how the criminal world operates. When he transitions into a homicide detective, he’s aware that the structures in place are illusory– he can sniff corruption on his fellow police and the investigation is being misdirected by an invisible hand. Cohle also extends this to the broader subject of the world:

“It’s all one ghetto, man, giant gutter in outer space.”

Rust works outside of the agreed upon societal norms, because he outright rejects them as an illusion. He rejects authority, he rejects human relationships, he rejects society. Which is what makes his and Marty Hart’s relationship so powerful– Marty is discovering that his suburban American dream is ultimately immaterial, realized in the bitter disintegration of his marriage and the troubling sexual pressures his daughters encounter. And he’s ultimately powerless to stop it (owing to his own sexual infidelities, alcoholism, and heavy handed parenting methods). It’s only when Marty is dragged to the bottom, to the world of harsh truths where Cohle is waiting for him, that they are able to finally solve the murders.

The mechanism of noir is the progression of interviews and interrogations. In there lies the fabric of the illusion– everyone provides deceitful information to obfuscate the truth. Let’s take a look at Chinatown in which Jake Gittes (a veteran of the harsh realities in Chinatown) is approached by Evelyn Mulwray who turns out to a be an actor. The water department covers its tracks of diverting irrigation to the orange groves. Hollis Mulwray is found drowned in freshwater, but had salt water in his lungs. Katherine Mulwray is supposedly Hollis’s mistress, before it’s revealed that she is Evelyn’s sister before [redacted]. Everything seems to be positioned in such a way that it seems normal at first glance. By the end of the film, every threaded lie is unspun and what remains is a sinister and grim reality dressed up as a caper. In other words, it’s still Chinatown where base crimes are the norm and it turns out that the rest of LA is no different. Again, normalcy is the fantasy.

Also, how good is it that Gittes gets his nose sliced up, metaphorically making him an impotent detective coinciding with him unable to decipher the pageantry in front of him? Pretty sweet.

There’s a lot to play with here and a good example of flipping this script is James Elroy’s LA Quartet. If you think about the main characters driving the novels, they are actually somewhat naive and too obsessed with outperforming their peers to realize the fallacy the of the criminal justice system they participate in. Perhaps because of this, they are often casualties of their own investigations, one way or another. Meanwhile, the common thread through all of these stories is the ever terrifying Dudley Smith, a man who understands the dark reality of crime and departmental (even federal) corruption. Instead of being a The Noir Hero, he chooses to perpetuate (and occasionally even create) the illusion to benefit himself financially and further his career. I can’t think of a better noir villain than Dudley.

At the end of the day what you have is a character interacting with the setting. Interacting is the operating word. I feel as if many books in various genres offer a passive protagonist who allows the world to happen at them. What I appreciate about noir is that the protagonist digs his hands into the guts of the setting and shows the reader its entrails and shouts, “THIS! THIS IS WHAT WE’RE MADE OF.”

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us.