I was speaking with a prominent writer fairly recently, about a couple different things, and we paused for a few minutes when the discussion turned to scenes and the skill and art and necessity of capturing scene. We talked about the fundamentals of scenes and looking for not just any detail, but important details, and how you know when you lock eyes with an important one.
But, really, the entire conversation about scenes could be reduced to this elementary and possibly overly simplistic quote:
“It’s like trying to build the fastest car in the world and forgetting the tires,” the writer said. “To me, the thing about scenes is that if you don’t have them, then you’re doing it wrong.”
There’s no better display of scene – and the mastery of bringing them to life through the dry ink on pages – than Wells Tower’s book of short stories Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
Everything Ravaged is a nine-stop ride on a dark commuter line with Tower’s characters, who take on different names in these first-person narratives. The chapters are saturated with despair and disappointment and failure and the shards of splintered childhoods and broken families and, well, yeah it’s not the most pleasant of reads. It’s a book about downtrodden, middle-aged lives.
Even the slightest rays of hope for Tower’s characters have to fight through dark, dark clouds. In a story titled “Retreat,” Matthew makes the painful effort of connecting with his younger brother, Stephen, to ask him on a vacation to the mountains. It’s clear that Matthew is trying to massage years and years of emotional scars that were left from the lashes of jealousy and envy among young siblings. But, at times, it’s just too much. Matthew says: “I go wet at the eyes for my brother and swell with regret at the thirty-nine years we’ve spent lost to each other.”
Tower portrays a full range of emotions through narrowly focused portraits into the rawest and darkest nooks of his characters’ souls. Reading feels like an unimpeded act of invasion. It’s uncomfortable. I was often left to lay the book on my lap at the conclusion of a scene and decipher what Tower wouldn’t tell me. A number of scenes lead you to a well only to find it dry. Why did Matthew go off down the road? Why did the scene end that way? What happens when he disappears into the white fog? Why does the story end with him quietly shoving a forkful of food in his mouth? WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS MEAN!!!???
Tower’s scenes are so brilliant because they bring you to the precipice of a story, of an encounter, of an ending, and then vanish, forcing you to deal with the pieces. They show you so much, tell you so much, and leave you uncertain of even more.
But not all scenes. Some of them just nail it and are fulfilling in odd ways. For the full effect, you must pick up the book. But here are two of my favorite scenes from Everything Ravaged.
No. 1 – From “Executors of Important Energies”
Burt gets a message from Lucy to meet her and his father, Roger, in New York’s Washington Square Park. Roger married Lucy when Burt was 10. His father was 46, Lucy was 21. We are told that through the last decade, Roger’s mind has gone from present to occasionally present to all but gone. Burt’s father appears to be a shell of himself, the victim of a mind-eating disease, but in a way it’s not much different for Burt.
I was in my twenties when my father’s mind began to go. At first, I thought his failure to remember where I was living, or that I’d finished school, was just a deepening of the aggressive indifference with which he’s always treated me.”
Burt begrudgingly hops on the subway and heads for the park, where his father is engaged in consecutive games of chess with a man named Dwayne. Burt hasn’t seen his father in 15 months, and you get the feeling that he hasn’t actually “seen” his father in a lot longer than that. When was the last time Burt held a conversation of any substantial meaning with his father? When was the last time he had felt like the son of this absent man? He spots his father and approaches him.
“Dad, it’s Burt … It’s Burt. It’s your son.”
“Right, right, nice to see you.”
Roger doesn’t offer anything more before turning his focus back to the chess pieces on the city park table. He engages a dispute with Dwayne about what color of chess piece he is this game, and Burt stands there, observing it all. He watches his father ignore him. We don’t see Burt in this scene, but we don’t need to. We can imagine his expressionless face resting on top of his lifeless body. He wonders why he even got on the subway. He knew what the outcome of this interaction would be. Does he feel pain? Does he feel anger? Does he feel regret? Does he feel anything? The scene ends:
Overhead, a large blue violence of storm clouds had begun to swell, but my father took no notice. He hunched to the game, giving me his broad sueded back.
No. 2 – From “Down Through The Valley”
In this scene, Ed is called by his ex, Jane, to come help with an accident. Jane had previously left Ed for her “meditation instructor,” a bearded man who took care of his physical self and believed, perhaps to the point of delusion, in these quiet methods of nurturing used on the mental and spiritual self. Ed freely admitted that Barry was a better looking man.
When Ed saw Jane once a month – on the day he went to pick up their daughter, Marie – it didn’t escape him that Jane began to look better, too. She had given up alcohol and closely followed Barry’s routine of yoga and meditation and whatever else. Barry had an accident and hurt his ankle pretty bad, and Jane was in the midst of something called an “isolation” where she was supposed to spend 36 hours alone. She needed Ed to come pick up the injured Barry and Marie.
So Ed does, and he gets there and cracks a couple wise jokes about Barry’s injured hoof, and then he helps Barry to the car with Marie. But before Barry gets to the car, he stops to pause at the mountain scenery, sniff the fresh air, listen to the quite. A flock of geese fly overhead, and it is here that Tower delivers another of his poignant images.
Barry hoisted Marie up so she could see over the car.
One arm slid across her shoulders, the other caught her in the crook of her knees, and he propped my daughter on his stomach in a way that showed he’d held her like this many times before.
The scene carries on a little more, but after those lines, I’m afraid there’s nothing more to say.