Monday, February 3, 2014

My spidey senses are tingling

Still from Big Ass Spider
One of my favorite things as a reader is when I start getting vibes from the writer that all is not well, and my spidey senses turn on, waiting for the fly in the ointment to be revealed—if the writer’s good, this happens almost unconsciously. I came across a good example this morning, in this scene from Jennifer Weiner’s novel, The Next Best Thing (I was intrigued by a New Yorker article about Weiner, which I posted here.)

Vibe #1: Trouble in paradise? My spidey senses started tingling as soon as I read these first ~150 words—all you need to know is that the main character, Ruth, has had her TV pilot script picked up for production, and that she’s heading with her boyfriend to a celebration dinner thrown by the network that bought it:
“’So tell me the timeline,’ my boyfriend, Gary, said.... I reached for his hand and was pleased and a little relieved when he let me take it and gave me a reassuring squeeze. When we stopped at the light, I looked at him, marveling, as I often did, that he was actually interested in me, that we were actually a couple. Gary had pale skin, dark hair and dark eyes, and a cleft in his chin... He’d gotten dressed up—or at least his version of dressed up—for the occasion, wearing a belt with his jeans, black leather shoes instead of sneakers, and a sportscoat instead of a fleece. True, there was an ink stain on his cuff, but he was here and he was trying, and I felt lucky, loved and lucky...”

As soon as I read this, I knew (well, subconsciously, anyway) that something's fishy with Gary. Here are some of the reasons why, I think. First, there’s a good use of imbalance (tension)—Ruth feels “lucky” that Gary’s interested in her, while he barely puts any effort into dressing up for her big event. Okay, maybe he’s just a schlub—some boyfriends are—but Ruth also shows surprise at his “reassuring squeeze,” which makes Gary seem less than supportive. 

Vibe #2: Literal (and figurative) out-of-stepness. Reading on:
'The timeline for tonight or the timeline for the show?’ I asked. The light turned green. Gary dropped my hand and started walking, so that I had to half run to catch up.
‘Show,’ he said.
‘Okay. Well, let’s see.... We start pre-production next week, and for the next eight weeks I’ll be working on the pilot. I’ll have to cast it, of course, and hire a director, and a DP—a director of photography—and a line producer...” I paused, waiting for him to ask what a line producer did... but Gary didn’t ask. My voice was high and chirpy, slightly breathless from hurrying, as I kept talking....
‘How long will all that take?’ he asked as we walked across Beverly.
Now the plot thickens. Not only is Gary a schlub, but it’s clear he’s not really with Ruth on her journey—in fact, he’s literally leaving her in the dust (a nice touch of irony, because later Ruth notes that she's already surpassing him in material success). Nor, apparently, is he interested in her party—jerk. Again, there’s great tension in Ruth’s hurried speech and Gary’s selective inattention (he’s not interested in the process of the TV show, only the timeline, indicating impatience and doubt about the outcome).

Vibe #3: Is that all there is? Ruth gives Gary a lengthy explanation of next steps, ending with—if all goes well—the eventual premiere of the show. Gary answers with:

'That’s it?” His voice was flat, his tone uninterested, his expression impossible to read in the darkness as he walked with his hands jammed in his pockets and his head down. He looked like a guy being led to the guillotine instead of to a party.
‘That’s it. Then you have to wait to see if you get good reviews, and if you find an audience, and if you get renewed.’
‘It’s a lot of waiting,’ Gary observed.
‘It’s not so bad,’ I said, trying not to sound disappointed.

My Kindle edition!
Vibe #4: Sweet, sweet vindication! Okay, now I feel totally justified for thinking that something was off—Gary is no longer even pretending to try. And now for the payoff—commiseration with Ruth in real-time as his jerkiness sinks in (“All I wanted was for Gary to be happy for me . . .  [but] all he’d done was ask picky questions, pointing out the problems, prodding at the soft spots. . .”) And there’s nothing like a good boy gone bad for either fiction or pillow talk with your favorite character!

(Sorry, I don't have a page number for quoting here—I usually like to give that, but I've been using my Kindle edition. The excerpt comes from Chapter 4.)

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