Monday, January 28, 2008

Imitative fallacy

The summer before last I went to Salt Lake City for the Writers at Work conference. In workshop with Steve Almond, I was introduced to the term "imitative fallacy." Until then, I'd always called the concept, "A boring story about a boring man." It was a Dangerous Writing caution: you must avoid falling into the trap of adopting the narrative tools of your narrator when telling a story—unless your narrator is a gifted story teller. It's up to the writer to craft a compelling story, even if your main character is an idiot. Or, in the case of The Secret to Love's Fifi, an emotionally disconnected scientist.

Part of the challenge I'm facing is because, like Fifi, I'm sort of a geek. I'm not as smart or as educated as Fifi, but I think I share with her the tendency to cause glazed eyes when I go off on one of my conceptual epiphanies. In workshop a few weeks ago, I shared a first draft of a critical scene at the end of the novel's first act. There's a lot going on in the scene, four people all doing something different, and the anticipation of an important family gathering. But something goes amiss, and in trying to unpack the tension leading up to that something, I'm trying to shine the light on an activity that serves as a metaphor for the whole first act. The activity is boiling live lobsters. But, remember, this is a laboratory scientist boiling these lobsters, so it's fitting to engage in some of the character's unique sensibilities while she's boiling these creatures alive.

Even though she's cool as a cucumber while reporting the killing of the lobsters, I need to show how her body betrays the coolness. I need to demonstrate that she's not heartless lest the reader be too turned off to care about her. I have to mitigate imitative fallacy by revealing, somehow, Fifi's broken heart—or at least her discomfort:

It's show time. Grandmother always set the egg timer, plunked the lobsters into the pot, placed the lid atop, and then promptly left the room until the ding sounded—not wanting to offend her genteel sensibilities with the futile scratching and scraping from inside the pot as the aquatic arthropods protested their being boiled alive.

There was a time that we children questioned this practice. During our fleeting vegetarianisms and outrage at various injustices. None of us had the nerve, of course, to confront the matriarch on her barbarism, but we complained loudly to our mothers. Loudly enough so that Grandmother interrupted the shooshing and sighing with her knowledge of the life sciences.

"My dears," she assured us, "They don't feel pain. They have no cerebral cortex, you see. Only an instinct to scuttle off to a certain density of liquid."

We never challenged this. Never looked it up officially. Grandmother was notoriously and perfectly final in her proclamations.

Eventually, in a marine science class, I discovered that Grandmother's guilt-alleviating speech was typical, but inaccurate. While it's true that lobsters don't have cerebral cortexes, that piece of neuro-anatomy is merely responsible for translating pain as an emotional experience, not registering pain in and of itself. A lobster, I found out, can indeed receive stimuli—it can feel things through its carapace. Lobsters have nociceptors and prostaglandins and neurotransmitters—rudimentary versions of our own equipment. They have all the hardware needed to register pain, in other words, but maybe not to experience pain.

These lobsters will take fifteen minutes in the boiling water before their antennae pull out with ease—the old Watch Hill litmus test. But they remain alive in that boiling pot for the first of those minutes. And that's why I do what I do.

In the lab, we call this the Kevorkian Rapid Unconsciousness Method. K-Rum. Disable the frontal ganglion. Ice pick to the forehead.

I reach into the rubbery pail and grasp the first victim. A slimy handful, this big boy. His eyestalks wag like Egon's tail. I look away as I set him on the cutting board and reach for the large brass nail and hammer. I am horrible. A monster. But. My dying cousin wants a lobster dinner tonight, so that's what she shall have. Lou-the-Lobster is wriggling his ten little legs. His experience of the air must be like being drowned. A person's horror at being held underwater against her will. A maneuver like this requires a little anesthetic. The Beefeaters bottle—a Watch Hill kitchen counter staple—glistens in the spill of sun through the transom. A half dozen highball glasses still remain in the cupboard and offer themselves up, I like to think, eagerly.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting. If you have trouble posting a comment, let me know!