Jim Harrison has long held a prominent place on my shelf of great American writers. I love his affirmative and highly spiritual vision of nature’s place in humanity’s consciousness, and I love the wild beauty of his descriptive prose. One of the things he does best is portraying the thoughts and feelings of his characters: what some writers call “interiority.” Consider the following passage from “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” one of three novellas in Harrison’s excellent collection from the 1970s, Legends of the Fall:
It was while cooking dinner that a strange feeling came over him that gradually forced a radical change in his life. It was an ache just above his heart between his breastbone and throat; at first it alarmed him and he placed a hand on his breast and stared out past the sea-rose to where the ocean buried itself in the haze of dusk. The sharpness of low tide mixed with the roasting meat and he looked down at the meat and sighed “Oh, fuck it.” He was rather suddenly not much interested in past or future, or even his breaking heart that perhaps now felt the first itch of healing. But he didn’t know that and cared less. The sigh seized his backbone, rippling up his vertebrae to his brain which felt delicately peeled, cold and clean. The feeling was so abruptly powerful that he decided not to examine in for fear it would go away.
To paraphrase the great Robert Stone, the point where a character’s exterior and interior journeys intersect is viable ground for literature. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it’s one of the things literature can do so much more effectively than film.
A lot happens in these three novellas – violence, sex, death, epiphany – and experiencing it all from the point of view of Harrison’s intelligent, sensitive, observant, and highly original protagonists makes for a compelling reading experience. From a technical perspective, I’m most impressed by the way Harrison’s characters experience emotions physically – something I’ve struggled with in my own writing. It’s hard to get it as right as Harrison does in the first novella in the collection, “Revenge,” when the wounded protagonist finds out his kidnapped lover has spent a month in a whorehouse shot up with heroin:
Cochran was suddenly wet from head to toe. He gazed at the green fertile valley and the brown mountains beyond. He forgot to breathe and felt vertigo to the point that the car seemed to float.
Throughout Legends of the Fall, Harrison uses narrative summary to a much greater extent than scene, a stylistic choice I find interesting because it is both unusual and, here at least, quite effective. “Revenge” has a simple, direct story line: a man is badly beaten and his lover is mutilated and kidnapped. The novella follows his quest for revenge and, he hopes, the lover’s rescue. There’s no doubt that the success of this kind of narrative depends upon having a point of view protagonist with whom the reader is happy to spend time.
“It’s not necessary to know the man,” we’re told by the unnamed narrator, who isn’t shy about addressing the reader directly. It’s not necessary to know him because he’s been wounded badly enough to completely alter the course of his life; in effect, as we later come to realize, he’s been reborn. At this early stage, the story has already engaged us on both the emotional and the intellectual level because of what’s been left unsaid.
On a basic emotional level, we’re curious to find out whether Cochran will live or die (E.M. Forster refers to this as “story”). On a more intellectual plane, we want to know who beat him up and why. As in a murder mystery, we want motivation and whodunit (Forster refers to this as “plot.”). Another way to put the dual emotional/intellectual, story/plot nature of the narrative is to call it future/past. We’re interested in what’s going to befall Cochran, but we’re also interested in the back-story: what factors conspired to bring him to the present circumstance?
Despite the narrator’s disclaimers about the unimportance of knowing anything about Cochran, owing to Harrison’s gift for interiority it doesn’t take long before we do know quite a bit about him—his past, something of his unique drives and ambitions, how he got into the present trouble. At the same time, we see that the slate has been wiped clean: the old Cochran is basically dead. The new Cochran has a single, urgent, and easily understandable mission: revenge.
For most of the novella, time passes in an orderly chronological fashion, interrupted occasionally by brief flashbacks in the form of memories, which serve to deepen our understanding of the main character, thereby generating greater sympathy. As in much of Harrison’s oeuvre, the main work of the narrative is accomplished not through action or dramatic scenes, but through interiority: the moment-by-moment unfolding of a protagonist’s evolving inner landscape.
For a fiction writer, it seems to me, this is something very much worth noticing.
Do you enjoy this kind of literary craft analysis? Read more here.