My grandmother, Martha Colby Day, pianist and piano teacher, taught all of her students to take particular notice of those vertical squiggles and rectangular bricks written into the sheet music: the rests to be taken between notes. What isn’t played is as important as what is. Without the spaces between, it is difficult, she insisted, to fully appreciate the notes. Not only are rests fundamental to establishing rhythm, but the listener can use the space and time they provide to anticipate or reflect. The direct correlation in writing might involve punctuation. Don’t worry, I won’t go there.
I have, however, been thinking a lot lately about that which is not told. What is not written. And how, unlikely as it seems, such things can be just as much a part of a story as that which makes it to the page; like shadows, and how they define what we see as much as that which is lit.
This past winter, I had the good fortune to read Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On without knowing anything about it first. I opened the book, never before having heard of Watford School of Magicks or Simon Snow, of Baz or Penelope or Agatha or The Mage. I was not concerned about how the telling might relate to Rowell’s earlier book, Fan Girl, whether the author penning this story was the fictional author of the fictional Simon Snow series or Fan Girl’s heroine.
For me, the book’s unfolding was a revelation. A radical kind of meta-fan(ish)-fiction. Certainly, such a story could not exist without that other boy-wizard tale, but parallels to Harry Potter veer off in unexpected directions, and soon are let go. Carry On is gripping and original, true canon.
Anyway, there I am, dropped into the final book of the Simon Snow magical adventure series. Only, here’s the thing: no preceding books exist (Really. I checked. And checked again.). Despite this, old exploits are referenced regularly—a dragon slaying and Chimera attack already in the first three pages. These mentions are casual, as if to say: Well, everyone knows that already! Who hasn’t read those! Or, No need to regurgitate them here.
Rowell has peppered a collection of holograms throughout the book to be pondered. Tiny windows onto the past set into closed doors. Doors that readers must open with their own imaginations. Rowell has confidence in her readers, knows that most will easily fill out story for themselves. She no doubt trusts, too, that some will carry Simon Snow’s past and future on, for all fandom to enjoy.
Another brilliant kind of gap, a useful kind of not-telling, is a strictly directed narrative point of view. Rowell does this masterfully in Carry On, building a story collective in which the characters form a circle of search lights, bright columns, scanning the night. Manifold streams of narrative are delivered in this way: Simon, obsessed with his troubled relationship to magic and with his nemesis, Baz; Baz, obsessed with Simon for altogether different reasons and with the mystery surrounding his mother’s murder by vampires; regretful ghosts, obsessed with communicating with Baz and Simon before a thinning veil closes; Agatha, disenchanted with Simon and then Baz, and with the hypocritical world of magic; Penelope and the Mage, working to fix Simon and the world of mages in very different ways. Together, the characters crisscross one another, creating an interlocking pattern. The negative space between them is a presence, not only lending contrast to their swirling dance, but those dark morphing shapes encompass what each character can only assume, but never truly know about the others.
Rajesh Parameswaran, too, has a gift for character-specific point of view. In each of the stories in his collection, I am an Executioner: Love Stories, he has carefully chosen the angle from which to present the tale. He understands that the limitations of the chosen character, what he or she cannot, or will not, perceive, are the very thing that will highlight the heart of each story. In that way, he is like the artist shining too bright a light on a subject in order to lend intriguing subtlety to the shadows beyond.
The narrator in “On the Banks of the Table River” observes the world of his childhood changing around him. Though the story is part murder mystery, he is neither a crime investigator, nor someone directly involved in a crime. He is a caring parent and community member whose job it is to prepare the bodies of the dead. He reflects on his past, his long-dead mate, and worries for his young-adult daughter, who seems uninterested in the family business, despite her natural skill, and is drawn to a non-native young man.
Somehow, without words, Parameswaran manages to float a second version of the story, from the daughter’s perspective, above the first, there for the reader to pluck from the ether. Did I mention this story is told in first person? Solely from the father’s vantage point? The daughter’s untold phantom story is a delicate shadow cast alongside a glowing, sunlit figure. Set off in this way, both subject and shadow, both stories become charged, mysteriously electrified, made unforgettable by an unassuming and intangible shade.
My conclusion? I will continue to be on the lookout for what is only barely there, and also for what has intentionally been left out of narratives. My recommendation: keep your antennae tuned! There might well be more to that story you’re reading than meets the eye.
Rowell, Rainbow, Carry On, St. Martin’s Press: New York, 2015
Rowell, Rainbow, Fan Girl, St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 2013
Parameswaran, Rajesh, “On the Banks of the Table River”, I am an Executioner, Love Stories, Vintage Books: New York, 2012