Dispatches | October 08, 2010

Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn features a private investigator who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. In less skilled hands than Lethem’s, this premise might seem terribly gimmicky. Yet the way that Lethem works Lionel Essrog’s condition into every aspect of the novel is largely what makes it such a fascinating read.

The author also provides us with one of the most inspired plot moves of all time. Essrog, in trying to crack the case, finds himself in what is surely the worst possible place for a Tourettic: a Zen center where everyone has taken a vow of silence.

Of all the fates that could befall this detective with this condition, surely nothing is worse than to have to sit amongst absolutely silent people having to be absolutely silent himself. It’s excruciating to watch him try, because we know he’s going to fail. It’s just a matter of how, and when, and what the fallout will be.

Lethem’s novel was on my mind when, last week, I asked my creative writing class to think about the most uncomfortable situation their protagonists could find themselves in. Not the worst situation. Heck, you can always drop a piano on your character’s head. That’d be pretty bad, but not awkward or uncomfortable, since the falling piano (or tornado strike, or swerving drunk driver) doesn’t stem from the protagonist’s personality. But awkwardness and discomfort depend on our personalities. They are as specific as our individual dreads. And to discover just what would bring a character’s dread to light is also, maybe, to discover a scene that ought to be in the story. Because isn’t that what key scenes do—test the protagonist in the exact way that he or she would least like to be tested?

The reason I mention all this is that while my class worked on the assignment, it occurred to me that I should be following my own advice. And in doing so, I discovered the key scene that’d been missing in a story that had been giving me fits. Let me tell you, it felt great to edit out the falling piano.

Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time, forthcoming in February 2011 from Press 53. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is michaelkardos.com.