THAT TANLINE ON YOUR RING FINGER…
In Franz Kafka’s modernist classic The Trial (Original German: Der Prozeß, all quotations in English from Breon Mitchell’s translation, as published by Shocken Books in 1998) the protagonist Josef K. awakes on the day of his 30th birthday to find two strangers in his apartment, eating his breakfast. The strangers promptly inform him that he is under arrest, despite K. “not having done anything wrong.”
Let’s set aside the mountain of half-baked interpretations of this as a story of an oppressive dystopian regime persecuting an innocent man. (It really isn’t, but that’s another post for another time). Instead, I want to focus on a tiny little moment that follows next.
Josef K. is told to get dressed and present himself to the inspector, who is waiting in his neighbour’s apartment across the hall. Kafka’s prose is sparse and intentional. Especially in his original German, there is not a superfluous word to be found. And yet in depicting K.’s conversation with the inspector, the dialogue is punctuated by descriptions of little gestures. This apparently legal proceeding is taking place in a domestic setting, and the inspector sits amongst household items of the young, single woman who lives there: a book, a candle and some matches, a pin cushion, all laid out on her nightstand.
Their conversation begins, and it is civil, yet plainly adversarial – like a chess match. While he listens to Josef K.’s hesitant protestations, the inspector is rearranging the items in front of him. K. has just explained that he doesn’t believe that this whole episode is a practical joke; there would be too much planning involved. And then:
“‘That’s right,’ said the inspector, checking the number of matches in the matchbox.”
This is just one example of a literary device called a ‘gleaming detail’: a minute, exquisitely observed fragment of text that is at once incidental and incredibly revealing. Counting the matches.
Could it be that the inspector is bored? That would certainly be in keeping with the dispassionate, routine nature of the bureaucratic proceedings that follow. But there’s more here; with a little unpicking this tiny little subordinate clause contains everything that The Trial is about.
Josef K.’s trial is intended to scrutinise the minutiae of his daily interactions, at home and at work. The matches are incendiary, able to generate destructive force with just the smallest spark. Maybe they are symbolic of K’s temperament, quick to scold anyone he deems his inferior, falling into fits of indignant rage at the first whiff of any injustice to him. Or perhaps they represent his lust – before this first chapter is over, he will assault the woman who rents this room, kissing her “like a thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring.”
It is K.’s character that is on trial – the way he lives his life. And the power scrutinising him will leave no stone unturned when measuring his guilt. They’re counting the matches in the box and making a calculation.
A skillful writer gives the reader what feels like a fully described, vivid image. Yet if every detail of every character, setting and object in a novel, for example, were described in exhaustive detail, it would make for an incredibly dull read. The art is in the choice of details to include. Little hinges of information that the reader fills in the blanks around.
Kafka was a master of the gleaming detail, but he’s not alone in that regard: Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and so on, and so on. They all use these masterstrokes of detail in their work. And a name that I would add to that list is David Berman of the band Silver Jews.
Berman is one of those lyricists whose work is often described as ‘poetic’. But what do we mean when we say that?
It can’t simply be a matter of meter, rhythm, and rhyme: almost all songs have that. Even Agadoo by Black Lace has all of those things.
So what does the label ‘poetic’ – usually (but not exclusively) ascribed to singer song-writers with acoustic guitar backing tracks – refer to?
I’d argue that it’s this same kind of observational storytelling: an attention to detail which grants a writer the ability to pour so much meaning into a single line.
Berman was a published poet as well as a musician, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his songs feel poetic. But it goes deeper than that.
There are so many different things to focus on in any one Silver Jews song: a humourous turn of phrase or ironic reference, a deep sense of loss or pathos, politics, a fairytale set in a mythic 20th century America that never really existed.
But as a writer, it’s the little gleaming details that I want to learn from most of all. Lines like:
“But before I go, I’ve got to ask you dear about that tanline on your ring finger” (Random Rules)
“The alleys are the footnotes of the avenues” (Smith and Jones Forever)
“I’d been so lonely since she found Christ.” (Buckingham Rabbit)
“Suburban kids with biblical names” (People)
“I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men’s room walls” (Random Rules)
These are just a spattering of lines picked out from American Water. They’re taken from songs that have their own narratives, and appear with little to no contextual information. It’s wonderful writing.
Whatever you write – from epic fiction to a sales email, from a haiku to a strange and indulgently self-referential blog post – you’re telling a story. And there’s a lesson in storytelling to be learned here. A way to make your writing more vibrant and grab your reader’s attention.
You just need to give your audience two things:
1) A little nugget of detail.
2) Some credit.
Not everything has to be explained to your reader. Try leaving something implicit, with a breadcrumb trail of a sentence to set them on the path of deciphering it. It will add a touch of the poetic into your writing, but it also makes your audience sit up and pay attention. Without being spoon-fed the information, they are forced to engage on a deeper level.
Let them work something out for themselves.
Then, when they do get it, they’ll feel clever.
And if they feel clever, they’ll think your writing is clever.
But, and here’s the caveat, you can’t just throw in any cryptic little line and move on. You need to find a way to relate it to the larger story you’re telling, and giving just enough detail for an attentive reader to unravel the thread.
Berman pulls this off through colloquialisms and visual language.
Read that first example from Random Rules back. A human hand is such an easy thing to picture. It’s almost impossible not to see the band of paler skin on a slender hand. Maybe the skin leading to the fingernail is red with blood, the hoop of a wedding ring having been recently squeezed over it, darker than the skin just below the knuckle. Maybe the hand is held in another, gruffer palm. Half-tenderly, half-accusingly. Maybe the slender hand is trying to pull away, guiltily.
Maybe there’s a hand carefully totting up the number of matches in a box.
Any writer can learn a lot from Berman’s lyrics. It’s such a shame that he isn’t around any more.
Berman’s death at the age of 52 happened just a few months ago at the time of writing. It still feels fresh, raw. His first music for a decade – Purple Mountains’ self-titled LP – had just been released to quiet acclaim when the news of his death broke.
He was a troubled man, and that pain came through in his lyrics. But the darkness and cold shouldn’t come to define his work. There was so much humour, warmth and love in his words, too.
Listen to Berman’s records and keep an ear out for the little details. There’s a wealth of stories lingering beneath the surface, gleaming.
Telling stories through gleaming details. RIP David Berman.