Here comes a second take on the opening chapter of Cherish Farrah.
Before we begin reading Cherish Farrah "for real," I wanted to spend another newsletter on the opening chapter.
I'm sure you've already noticed this, but it is brief. Only about 150 words.
One thing that struck me is the way that twice the narrator "hides" important information in a sentence. This gives us, I think, a feeling of mystery, suspicion, unreliability. This storyteller has a plan for us but they are hazy about how they are sharing their secrets.
Look at this sentence, below, and see Morrow places a key piece of information in a subordinate position:
"I’m sitting in a bedroom with the kind of vaulted ceiling I wanted in my own, in a house much larger and more extravagant than the one I can’t go back to, and the fact that I can’t enjoy it upsets me."
This key bit of drama, "the [home] I can’t go back to," is delivered mid-sentence, deep in the turns of a grammatically intricate set of phrases. The story could have begun with the narrator saying, "We had been evicted," or "Our house had been condemned due to a radon leak." Instead, she shares that information in a way that seems maybe reticent, maybe calculated.
A similar "hiding" occurs later in the chapter:
"Like an ordinary teenage girl, when all I’m ever doing is pretending to be one."
This strange statement about the narrator's pretence is buried within a sentence fragment.
My prompt for today is: what information could your protagonist / narrator share in a similarly reticent way? How would the reader's view of them change if they just stated it outright.
A second craft point: the power of repetition
The previous craft tip suggested that the opening chapter of CF is challenging to read. But notice how much repetition there is in these short opening paragraphs.
The repetition helps us focus on the story.
"I feel fickle. Angsty. Defensive. Like an ordinary teenage girl..."
This idea about the character is stated four times, each in a slightly different formulation (fickle, angsty etc).
And we are told to pay attention to the narrator's house because it is also mentioned twice in the opening 150 words:
"the one I can’t go back to"
"The house where I used to live"
Often the trick, when friends / workshop partners / beta readers say a chapter or scene is hard to follow, is simply to add more repetition. Say the thing you meant to say twice.
When the repetition is immediate, the second instance following right after the first, I call it "doubling up." It's a very useful skill to learn.
Hi Daniel–Hope you and your family have had a wonderful holiday. Thanks again for your thoughtful notes and analysis. I agree with the technique here of “hiding,” although I’d say that this is more “hiding in plain sight.” Cherish’s most weighty statements here are folded into the middle of some grammatically musclebound sentences, but they’re so bold and severe that you really can’t miss them. So, not exactly hidden, though the technique is trying to hide them.
I’m not certain that this technique–trick, maybe?–works. I’m now midway through CHERISH FARRAH, and the musclebound sentences, loaded down with noun clauses, oddly inserted phrases near the end of sentences, and a curious tendency to sometimes place verbs near the end of sentences (a kind of Germanization of English), makes for in my judgement an unnecessarily clunky read. (There’s also another tick–is it voice? is it style? I’m not sure–in which Morrow will end a sentence ending in a noun clause, and starting the next sentence in an extended noun clause, (“That,” “That”)). I must say that it makes for some upside down reading. Do you experience this too?
Morrow is clearly a confident writer, fully in her voice, determined to impose on the reader a thoroughly repellant, egomaniacal and psychopathic teenager. It recalls for me the roughest tendency in Martin Scorsese’s cinema, which tends to be obsessed with utter reprobates, scurrilous scoundrels, and toxic, deeply unlikable characters. (One need look no further than RAGING BULL for an example.) Cherish isn’t quite Jake in BULL, but she is profoundly toxic to the touch.
But here’s the problem: Her toxicity has a limit to its interest. Morrow wants us to understand that Cherish thinks like a chess player; she’s constantly thinking about every single move she’s making against each move she perceives other characters are making–she perceives, again–against her. This can be intricate, but it isn’t interesting.
And there’s another problem that I think is indeed a useful lesson from reading at least half of the book: Cherish is a teen character obviously written and conceived by an adult mind, a intellectual adult mind, a mind that is far beyond the capacity of all but the most genius of teenagers. The magic of Holden Caulfield is that Salinger allows us to thoroughly be immersed in his adolescent mind, with language appropriate to a teen boy; it is never the case that Salinger imposes an adult syntax and mindset on a younger character. (I’m thinking also of THE SOUND AND THE FURY. I think this also applies to the voice of the warrior student in JADE CITY.) CHERISH FARRAH is a useful learning experience in a sense by providing examples of what not to do.
I think I might jump over to Gish Jen’s story….
Just a brief comment as I’m only working on my phone at present (awkward). I definitely felt that information was being held back intentionally, just as Daniel described, but I got the impression that she’d been taken in by another family. Possibly adopted, but certainly one that she felt was “superior” to her own in terms of wealth and status in society. It was the description of her room (grander than her previous one) and the fact that she felt she was only pretending to be a young girl/teenager, as though her prior experiences had made her grow up well beyond her years and beyond the way she was currently being treated and provided for. I may well be wrong (and the writing makes me want to continue to read to find out), but I got the impression she was not living with her own family in this new house. We’ll see!
In the first chapter, micro, sentence-level doubling up rubs against macro-level repetition like sandpaper on skin. The fact that the narrator “can’t go back to” her own house, yet can’t “enjoy” the one in which she finds herself “upsets” her. Readers are primed for the sentence-level doubling up that describes her state of mind: “fickle,” “angsty,” “defensive” “pretending to be an ordinary teenage girl.”
Concepts of inside and outside repeat throughout. The narrator is “upset” inside the large bedroom and about “what’s happening on the inside” of her. She’s equally upset about her loss of control “on the outside” and about the “house where [she] used to live [that is] only a few blocks away” and is “no longer” hers. What’s happening on the outside is “destroying [her] on the inside… making it hard to eat… to maintain a train of thought about anything else.”
A war between inner and outer is being waged. Doubling up, or reformulating all the ways in which this war is affecting the narrator is disquieting. Especially since the short chapter ends with the narrator’s declaration that she’s aware that someone else is in control of her and that: “I won’t allow it/ I would burn it all first.”
In short, we are introduced to the narrator sitting in a bedroom, then given reason after reason after reason why—and how—being in this bedroom is making her miserable enough to drive her future decisions. That’s a lot of doubling up.
I think the doubling up is especially useful when there’s something odd going on, when you want to draw the reader’s attention to something of importance. Of course you can use it elsewhere, but if you have some crucial point you don’t want the reader to miss, I think this is a great way to do that.
This was an interesting reading and practice. I guess I’ve thought of repeating as something not to do, especially when you’re watching the word count. But your comments make sense in terms of emphasizing.
I like the description “grammatically intricate.” I found it a little bit hard to follow. Although part of me is curious, part of me already doesn’t like this narrator.
Great insights and technique advice on ‘hidden’ information and repetition, thank you.