What reader hasn’t been bedeviled by the experience of finding the verisimilitude of a book’s characters and world trickling away the farther one gets into the book? For the reader who’s also a writer, it’s a frightening experience. That, one inevitably thinks in horror, could be my book!
I’ve been aware of the problem of vanishing verisimilitude for at least a decade now. I first tried to put it into words while walking down State Street in Madison, Wisconsin on an afternoon break from WisCon, chatting to a Notable Author who has been teaching writing classes for years. When another Notable Author came up in our gossipy conversation, I remarked that I’d recently read Notable Author 2’s X, a novel that had been on all the award ballots and praised to the skies in Locus and elsewhere. And yet X had left me scratching my head, I said, trying to figure out how a book’s characters could start out three-dimensional and then flatten into two-dimensionality as the details and information about them piled up. After 300 pages, I confessed, I had stopped believing in the novel’s reality altogether and grown constantly aware of the author behind the narration, pulling his puppet-characters’ strings. I’d encountered this problem before in thrillers and adventure stories, where the narrative rushes through dramatic events without even pretending the characters are more than ciphers, but that, I said, was not the problem here. Conscious of the Notable Author’s pedagogical experience, I asked her why/how such a thing could happen in the face of the narrative’s providing more and more information about its characters. The Notable Author’s only reply was to shrug and say that she’d never read any of Notable Author 2’s novels.
I’ve encountered this version of the problem of vanishing verisimilitude numerous times since then. When I noticed that in most cases vanishing verisimilitude is accompanied by my losing interest in the characters and not caring about anything that happens to them, I wondered whether one causes the other, or whether loss of interest and vanishing verisimilitude are both symptoms of a deep flaw in the narrative. On encountering the problem in Sarah Monette’s collection The Bone Key, which at first glance seems to do all the right things (as most of the other books suffering from vanishing verisimilitude do not), I decided to give the problem a closer look.
The Bone Key is a collection of linked stories. Usually such collections involve a large ensemble of characters in a shared setting (for example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Searoad and Orsinian Tales); on occasion they may involve a single protagonist (Joanna Russ’s Alyx stories, Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories). The Bone Key’s ten stories feature a single protagonist and narrator, Kyle Murchison Booth, and the cover illustration offers an unofficial subtitle, The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth. The book is dedicated to M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. “[T]he more I read James and Lovecraft,” Monette writes in the introduction, “the more I found myself wanting to take their stories apart and put them back together with a fifth gear, as it were: the psychological and psychosexual focus of that other James. The Turn of the Screw is, after all, also a magnificent work of horror” (p. 10).
I’d already read two of the collection’s stories separately when they first appeared in print. “The Venebretti Necklace” charmed me, and I mentally characterized it as “delicious” and “promising, but not quite there”; the pleasure I took in reading it led me to keep an eye posted for more stories by Monette. “The Venebretti Necklace” is a ghost story set in a kitchen-sink sort of museum that stocks everything from South American cockroaches to human skeletons to jewels to rare books and also happens to have an extensive archival collection. Its narrator, the timid and neurotic Booth, felicitously pairs up with a strong female counterpart when he discovers a skeleton chained to the wall in a long unused room in the basement of the museum. Vivid and strongly realized, the tale runs with emotional currents that the narrator never names or defines; its deliciousness results from its graceful, almost playful combination of genre conventions (the traditional ghost tale with fantasy of manners) not ordinarily found together. The first time I read it, I began by assuming its setting to be the 1960s or 1970s and that the narrator’s stiff manners and persistent use of outdated formal address had to do with a stodgy upbringing in, say, the 1950s and an odd, alienated personality. The characterization of Major Galbraith as a “veteran” (war undesignated, which usually means World War II) seemed to confirm my assumption. But after the skeleton is discovered, we learn that it has been there at least eighty years and that the narrator’s colleague, Miss Coburn, said that a friend of her aunt had claimed to have seen the dead woman in 1905, which Coburn and the narrator note now seems “unlikely.” And so I decided that the story must be set in the 1950s or earlier.
Part of my judgment that the piece wasn’t quite there had to do with my recurring sense of the narrative’s temporal confusion, which I assumed must be due to either carelessness or a gratuitous desire of the author’s to be mystifying. The other problem I had with the tale was its uncertain—indecisive, perhaps?—narrative structure. Which, I wondered, did Monette mean to be the main story of the tale—the story of the ghost, or Booth’s personal story that is never integrated into his involvement with the ghost and its/her story? Neither of these two competing stories seemed satisfactorily resolved by the end of the tale. The obvious narrative solution, I thought, was to have the stories resonate with one another through a subtextual link (if not resolution) at the thematic level. The lack of such resonance, which I would not have minded in a more clearly structured narrative, is what left me feeling that the tale was “not quite there.”
“Elegy for a Demon Lover,” the other Kyle Murchison Booth tale I’d previously read, which offered no temporal clues whatsoever, read as though it were set in the present, and since the “ghost” in the case took the form of Booth’s fiery demon lover, the supernatural and the personal stories were one and the same. I did have difficulty believing Booth’s claim to be an insomniac, but had no problem taking this as a deliberate effect of the author’s intention to portray him as someone suffering from hypochondriacal delusions of insomnia: “I had always been an insomniac; now I slept only when I had to, both of us loath to lose the beauties we could share” (p. 174). Insomniacs, of course, sleep when they can, not when they have to; anyone who can sleep when he really needs to is not an insomniac. As a standalone piece, the tale worked well.
I suspect that most of the stories in The Bone Key would work well read apart from the others, though a few of them suffer the same problem of bifurcation as “The Venebretti Necklace,” most notably “The Wall of Clouds” (which actually features a second-order plot bifurcation as well). But for all that the stories work fine when read alone, the plausibility of the setting, the narrative voice, and the characterization of the narrator gradually fade over the course of the ten stories, with the character of Booth flattening and thinning until finally he becomes a mere cipher, and his voice becomes simply the voice of the author with little more than a tissue-thin veil between her and her narrative. When I asked myself why this had happened, I came up with several possible answers.
Verisimilitude, I think, first begins to falter in the third story, “The Bone Key.” This tale has a single, unified storyline involving Booth’s mother and his family’s history of a supernatural “gift” and curse. Presumably Monette considers the tale’s explication of Booth’s gynophobia of central importance to the collection since she gives the book its name. To me, the tale reads like back-story explaining why Booth finds women so scary and why he keeps getting entangled with the supernatural (unlike most protagonists of ghost stories, who do not get involved in serial encounters with the supernatural). But the tale’s delving into Booth’s family history draws attention to the fact that both the narration and the narrator lack an anchor in time or history. Trying to make sense of the dates in the previous tale (“The Venebretti Necklace”), I decided it must be set in the 1950s or earlier. But in “The Bone Key,” Booth talks about a daguerreotype of his mother, made before his birth. Rather than giving the date of the death of his mother (as one would expect), he says that she “died twenty-three years ago. I was twelve” (p. 74). Because the early development of photographic technology was so swift and the daguerreotype was superseded by cheaper technology within a decade of its introduction, we can be fairly confident that this places his mother (perhaps in her late teens or early twenties) in the middle of the nineteenth century. But we also know that Booth’s present comes equipped with electricity (not to mention taxis and “public transportation”). Although I had a difficult time constructing a rational timeline from the various historical markers, I realized that I had probably been misconstruing the character’s speech and behavior, since I had clearly been wrong about the historical frame of reference I’d been using for interpreting Booth’s speech and behavior.
From this point on I began actively searching unobtrusive references to historical events to give me some notion of Booth’s generational location, which would offer a frame of reference allowing me to infer some sense of what kind of person he really is. We all know what a difference the location that constitutes a person’s (or character’s) present can make, regardless of the century (nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first). As Mary Butts puts it in Armed with Madness, “Picus and Scylla were of the generation before the war; Felix of the half generation after it. And at the bottom of that dry gulf between half a generation there are corpses, who did not notice the gulf was there.” In the 1920s and 1930s, it really mattered what generation one was born into. Booth may be a member of America’s “aristocracy” (and so, if he was alive at the time, may—if he was lucky—have arguably been oblivious to the profound effects of the Great Depression), but even aristocrats were affected by the United States’ entry into both world wars. And even if Booth is so privileged that political and economic reality never have the slightest bearing on his identity or life, it is impossible to believe that the social, gender, and sexual changes that occurred throughout the twentieth century had absolutely no impact on or relevance to a closeted gay man (who would probably have been described as a “latent homosexual” in the 1960s). The only promising social clue I spotted in the entire book appeared in the final story, “Listening to Bone”:
I could not determine either the age or the sex of the child clutching my sleeve, but it was an unhealthy-looking creature, its skin almost gray in the bright summer sunlight; its pale curls were badly tangled, and although its clothes were clearly expensive and well-made, they were dirty and torn. (p. 241)
The children of affluent or wealthy parents have been distinguished in their dress by gender at least since the second world war. Fashions in dressing children varied a good deal before then—enough so that the clue gives us no help in pinning down Booth’s historical location.
The failure of my search for historical context cannot, obviously, alone account for the creeping loss of verisimilitude with my reading of each successive story, but it certainly contributed to my sense of Booth as an unanchored specter without location, as did the narrative’s (distinctly un-Lovecraftian) concealment of the name of the city in which Booth lives and works. I believe, rather, that the heart of the problem lies in two other aspects of the text that are mutually reinforcing.
First, although events in earlier stories are referenced in succeeding stories, they exercise no lasting effect on Booth’s life or his psychology. The burns he suffers through intimacy with his demon lover may leave scar tissue on his skin, but the experience of that intimacy—the only sexual intimacy he has apparently ever enjoyed—does not change him in any significant way. Throughout the book, the only change Booth acknowledges in himself is that of having become a “magnet” for the supernatural through his use of demonological magic in the opening story (though the “Bone Key” suggests that it is Booth’s ancestry that marks him for the supernatural). A psychologically static character, of course, does not always come off as two-dimensional. The heroes of many adventure series often remain unchanged by their experiences; Joanna Russ’s Alyx, for example, is a full-bodied character who is psychologically the same from story to story (though the circumstances of her past aren’t always the same). But Booth’s tales are not adventures, and his psychological interiority and biographical trajectory comprise a significant part of the book’s story.
Since Booth is an “unreliable narrator,” I suppose we could invent an explanation along the lines that although he makes so bold as to tell us the story of his demon lover, he deliberately and craftily conceals its effects from us. But that brings us to the second aspect of the narrative that contributes to the sense of Booth as a specter: unlike the narratives of most ghost stories, these narratives never indicate who the intended addressee of the tales is (whether a particular individual, a wider audience, or simply Booth himself, writing in a diary or journal), much less the reason for their being told, the form in which the words exist (as thoughts in Booth’s mind, or an orally delivered story, or a letter or book), or the point (or points—since it’s conceivable, if unlikely, that the narrator composed the stories at different times) in Booth’s life from which he is looking back and telling the stories.
Monette, as I noted earlier, cites James’s Turn of the Screw in her introduction as an influence on the book. It’s worth noting that James encases his ghost story in a prominent, elaborate narrative frame. Most first-person ghost stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had some sort of narrative frame embedding the narration of the tale. Many, for instance, were told as dinner-club or country house-party stories. The narratological reason for framing first-person ghost stories is fairly obvious: ghost stories are inherently prone to reader skepticism, and a frame creates a second layer of narrative reality between the reader and the author-function (which is usually one or two layers removed from the real-life author). Because The Bone Key fails to intimate why Booth’s voice has produced these tales, much less specify a location from which his words proceed or a sense that he as the author of these words views his life as more than a series of unrelated stories without an overarching shape, Booth loses depth and finally even presence as a character, causing the veil between author and reader to thin nearly to transparence, thus reducing Booth himself to the role of mouthpiece for the real-life author, Sarah Monette, that I increasingly came to sense lurking behind him. And so the narrative’s withholding of the time and place of the stories and their production seems to be Monette’s—and not Booth’s—choice.
When the reader experiences this sort of transparency, even virtuosic writing can add to the problem. There’s some especially fine writing in “The Wall of Clouds.” For instance, a long passage depicts two old women as birds, whom Booth, in his weakened physical state, finds frightening. I particularly liked this image: “they both tittered, a thin, brittle sound like sparrows arguing” (p. 193)—though it struck me as a bit too elegant for a pedestrian writer like Booth. But the most striking passage in the tale conveys the feeling of the convalescing Booth dozing off within earshot of a group of gossiping women:
No longer deathly ill, I could not fall asleep in the public forum of the conservatory, even screened by philodendrons as I was, but I sank into a kind of reverie, imagining that the women talking were participating in the one great conversation of the Hotel Chrysalis, a dialogue echoing from decade to decade down the hotel’s long history, in which individual speakers might come and go, appear and vanish, be heard and fall silent, but the conversation itself never paused in its ceaseless murmuring and muttering, the catalogue of symptoms like Homer’s Catalogue of Ships, the tales of doctors’ kindnesses, nurses’ cruelties, miraculous recoveries and sadly unexpected deaths—a vast and powerful river which neither time nor death, nothing but the destruction of the hotel itself could dry up. And even then I imagined pale, sickly specters drifting through the ruins, so enrapt in their descriptions of pain that they would never notice that they had died or that the hotel itself lay open to the stars and rain, that the great edifice of their illness was constructed now of words alone and had no— (pp. 201-202)
Reading this gorgeous passage yanked me entirely out of the narrative, into a moment of admiration followed by perplexity. Since this is the one of the few glimpses into the richness of Booth’s imagination I had so far been afforded, it struck me as uncharacteristic of the narrative and not at all in the narrator’s own voice; it hadn’t previously occurred to me that Booth was even capable of entertaining (much less articulating) such a reverie. And the passage made me wonder why Monette hadn’t allowed us such exquisitely textured moments in the previous stories, for at that moment at least it seemed to me that if she had, perhaps Booth’s stories would have retained their verisimilitude.
Well perhaps they would have, but perhaps not. For after I finished the book, I found myself thinking about the protagonist of Samuel R. Delany’s Dark Reflections. Delany’s third-person narrative, with its exceptional use of telling detail, gives so much more insight into a sexually repressed man with a sexual preference for men than The Bone Key’s first-person narrative that all of Booth’s words combined tell us less than all that Delany’s Arnold Hawley’s inarticulate silence does. Showing us the interior life of such a character must necessarily be especially challenging via a first-person narrative. But perhaps since challenges likely didn’t arise at the moment of the individual tales’ composition, it never occurred to Monette or her editor that a different dynamic might be at work in a book of linked tales than that operating in each single—perhaps episodically conceived—tale.
It’s a shame, really. Monette has a talent for brilliant imagery that occasionally breaks through her narrator’s grayness, and her idea is an interesting one. It could have worked, I think, had she dealt with the challenge of conveying interiority through a repressed, inarticulate first-person narrator and had she made a choice about which of the competing stories—the emotional or the supernatural—ought to dominate in each tale (or integrated them at the thematic level). For those intrigued by the idea, I recommend reading the best tales in the book, not necessarily in one sitting: “The Venebretti Necklace,” “The Wall of Clouds,” “Elegy for A Demon Lover,” “Wait for Me,” and “The Green Glass Paperweight.”
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.
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