An out-of-control baby carriage careens down the Odessa Stairs during a civilian massacre in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.
Much has been made of the numbing effect of our constant exposure to catastrophe and carnage by modern media. Whatever this means for society as a whole, such systematic desensitization poses a particular problem for writers. If, as Franz Kafka wrote in 1904, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” must the contemporary author resort to wielding an increasingly larger axe? Or are there more subtle ways to rouse the contemporary reader?
In 2008, I asked poet Judith McCombs to read early drafts of my story “Making Soup.” She made many careful comments in her delicate hand. In the margin next to my description of what the narrator, a ficticiously precocious one-month-old infant, had made of her mother’s recent nightmare, she wrote, “Eisenstein’s baby carriage.”
I immediately knew what it was that she meant I should do. While showing the extent of the tragedy–2000 dead and 3000 seriously wounded–an astute filmmaker such as Eisenstein likely knew that he also needed to add some small tragedy that his audiences could more readily grasp. I needed to do the same with my scene, the incomprehensible horror in Liepaja harbor that my family witnessed when we left Latvia in 1944. Since I already had an infant, I added a grandfather. This is how the revised version that was published read:
Farmers and those without gas for their vehicles arrived in horse-drawn contraptions. They tied the horses to posts and boarded ships. The horses tried to break free, rearing and neighing and foaming at the mouth. They had no water, no feed. Some effected an escape and ran crazed through the streets, trampling the dazed people who stood in their way.
Then the shelling, the fires began.
My father drove up in his cherry-red sports car. He tried to pull my mother in, but she fought him off. She shouted she had lost me, lost her mother.
As she turned from my father, a man who looked like her maternal grandfather emerged from the crowd. The same full beard and bushy eyebrows. He slipped on the blood-slicked cobblestones and was slowly, slowly falling, trying to protect something held in his arms. A dollhouse, the one he had built for her.
But it could hardly be him my mother, suddenly lucid, remembered. Her grandfather had died in his bed of influenza.
The old man hit the pavement with his hairy chin, and the dollhouse splintered beneath him on the street. The street that now looked as though it were paved with gravestones.
Since I am extremely visual, I continued to look to motion pictures for techniques to make readers cringe. (To good effect, of course.) I ruled out horror flicks and action films since they merely make me roll my eyes. But it seemed that there was something to be learned from thrillers, particularly the psychological, crime or mystery sort.
One consistently used technique seemed to be embedding the disturbing in the benign, increasing the impact by the contrast. Alfred Hitchock did it through bland settings–the blue skies and the yellow cornfield in his 1959 film North by Northwest–and humorous situations–the taxidermist attempting to save his swordfish in a struggle in his 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much. And both Terence Young and René Clément, in the 1967 film Wait Until Dark and the 1970 film Rider on the Rain, respectively, were able to get an actual visceral reaction from me by making me believe that the lady in each had evaded her assailant before delivering the devastating punch.
Similarly, my stories are often set in the most innocuous of places, the American Midwest. And are often told from the point of view of seemingly harmless characters: the infant, the child, the adolescent, even a Lutheran minister. The latter, for example, is forever slipping something into my novel Anna Noon that causes discomfort, as in this conversation that he has with his wife after taking an annoying call:
“Seems we’ve sponsored a spoiled brat,” he says, eying Winnie accusingly. “Babies aren’t the bundles of joy they’re believed to be, you know. Especially when they become bigger. Be grateful you were born barren.”
In this novel, in fact, I do everything possible to momentarily distract the reader from what lies right below the surface, including using a self-conscious postmodern style that signals–not to worry–this is merely a bit of fiction. In the preface, my unreliable narrator writes:
Vadim Voronin, who also knew Anna from that time, dismissed my story as nothing more than a fairy tale where an innocent comes close to being chopped up, cooked and served to a large number of guests, many of whom had accepted the invitation to dine merely because they were not otherwise engaged.
A few years ago, I asked poet Clarinda Harriss to help me compile a list of literary techniques used to make readers cringe. It was misplaced, but we can surely reconstitute it and get additional input, perhaps from you. There is enough material for several more posts.
Note: What initially prompted me to consider this matter more closely were words Caryn Coyle provided for “Concerning Craft: Caryn Coyle,” posted back when I was Online Editor at Little Patuxent Review:
I write what I fear. It is important to me that my work resonate with readers. A talented and valued mentor once told me that if I can make the reader cringe even one tenth as much as I did, I will have succeeded.