March 01, 2014

The Power of Uncanny Details

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
—Stephen King

When it comes to writing, the devil is definitely in the details. As King argues, the key to making your readers believe, feel, relate, or care is specificity. Inexperienced writers can get caught up in the grandeur of big ideas, but the truth is, it's that narrow slice of life, that concrete image, that small, small thing that brings life to writing.

The statement that a character is tall--worthless. The scabs on his knuckles from where he scraped his hands on the ceiling when he yawned--that's the stuff.

But we can take the importance of detail one step further. Any skilled writer knows that making a piece come to life requires a deep dive to bring back plenty of specific details that appeal to the reader's five senses. But a master knows how to go one step further and use--the uncanny detail.

A Useful Definition

I use the word "uncanny" rather than "striking" or "original" because there are aspects to this word I think we should keep in mind whenever we search for the right detail to reveal something about our characters, their settings, or our plots.

Merriam Webster defines "uncanny" as "a: strange or unusual in a way that is surprising or difficult to understand" and "b: being beyond what is normal or expected, suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers."

Both of these definitions are highly useful for the writer's purposes. Finding a detail that is strange, unusual, and surprising to the point where it challenges initial understanding is what can make writing resonate with something magical. No matter how closely a piece clings to realism, that uncanny detail can make the piece resonate with an almost supernatural verisimilitude, making the whole thing more real and more relate-able for its very strangeness.

Examples

As an example, I present my own attempts at uncanny details in "She Falls Down," a short story about a woman with a strange feinting disorder originally published in 2008. When the narrator describes his girlfriend's condition in the opening of the story he says:

"She falls down. Whenever I kiss her. Whenever I ask her where she's been. Whenever she sees Mr. Miyagi nod at Ralph Macchio in the last scene of The Karate Kid."

The first two details are fairly conventional, but it's that third that reaches for the uncanny. Imagine how much less meaningful, memorable, and just plain real this would sound if the last line were simply, "whenever she hears a sappy song."

Completely expected, the line would whiz right by the reader without making an impact. But Ralph Macchio and Mr. Miyagi? That final scene in The Karate Kid? Now the reader has to slow down and consider the woman being described as not just a type, but rather an idiosyncratic, unconventional--all of which translates as real--person.

Similarly, when the narrator describes the bruises the woman gets from constantly falling, I reach again for an uncanny detail to ground one of the more emotional and lyrical moments in the story:

"The bruises scatter across the back of her head, her neck, her thighs, her shoulder blades. They become constellations of our emotional life one week at a time. Each purple blotch is a memory. This is the argument over the fact that my mother still buys my underwear. This is the gentle kiss I placed on her throat last week. This is the time I told her I dreamed we were old and married with six children, one five years old, slightly retarded, and unable to pronounce 'Mom,' so instead she called her 'Mush.' "

The entire excerpt speaks in the language of detail, referencing not just a fight and a tender moment but an "argument over the fact that my mother still buys my underwear" and a "gentle kiss" on the throat, but neither of these go anywhere all that unexpected. It's the final detail here--the mention of a dream that includes a mentally handicapped girl who calls her mother "Mush,"--that introduces the unexpected, the slightly jarring, the uncanny.

My purpose here was to undercut the emotion of the moment. But it's more than just a gimmick, a comic moment providing counterpoint. By reaching for that uncanny detail, the moment--which has the danger of becoming pretentious--becomes more grounded in reality.

For me, the take away is clear: More unexpected, more strange, more uncanny = more real.

Don't Get Too Clever

But be careful, strangeness for its own sake leads to its own kind of pretension. You must always ask yourself whether or not the uncanny detail for which you're reaching resonates with something essential about your character or your story. If it doesn't, it's likely to come off as the writer simply trying to out-quirk the competition.

If done well, the uncanny detail heightens the sense of reality, hiding the writer and the very act of writing behind fully fleshed characters. If done poorly, however, it does the opposite, calling unnecessary attention to a writer waving at the reader and shouting, "look how clever I am."

But don't be afraid to reach for the uncanny detail when you write. You can always put it to the test and make sure your detail really works, but if you don't reach, you'll never find it.

What Say You?

So what do you think? Can you find examples of the uncanny detail in your writing, or in the books of writers you admire? Is uncanny just not the right word for the best kind of detail in writing? Or is this whole uncanny detail just a load of bunk?

February 28, 2014

Celebrity Meat, Next-Level Branding

The Guy Who Wants to Sell Lab-Grown Salami Made of Kanye West Is "100% Serious" | Motherboard: ""BiteLabs grows meat from celebrity tissue samples and uses it to make artisanal salami." So proclaims the copy on BiteLabs.org, right under an all-caps call to action: EAT CELEBRITY MEAT. "

Is it any wonder we're having a hard time determining if bitelabs.org "Eat Celebrity Meat" initiative is real or a hoax? You could ask the same question about Katy Perry's Pop-Chips flavor or Carmen Electra's stripper-poles. Apparently both are legitimate branding side-deals for the artists.

In a sense, wouldn't selling cloned meat of your own flesh really be the ultimate expression of contemporary celebrity? It fully realizes the celebrity as god-figure metaphor with the opportunity for Christ-like communion with your favorite star.

More importantly, the idea of Kanye West selling himself as salami rather than as leather jogging pants just seems more honest. After all, isn't that what all this branding is about--stars selling you the opportunity to fully consume them?

December 15, 2013

Photoshop as Beauty Aid--Digital Art by Anna Hill

Image by Anna Hill
Photographer and digital artist Anna Hill lampoons the unrealistic beauty standards popularized by retouched photos in a series of mock ads that position Photoshop as a beauty aid.

The pieces each show a confident woman engaging the camera and showing off an artificial beauty made possible by Photoshop. "Shiny by Photoshop," one reads. "For that poreless, android look you'll never attain in real life." Others tout the magical limb-lengthening and eye-magnifying powers of this new beauty aid that--like the images it makes possible--is pure fantasy.

The satire is well done and spot on, but what I particularly like here is the way lines like the one quoted above highlight the twisted implication behind the ads Hill takes on. In ads as well as on magazine covers and internal photos, the beauty industry is not just selling an unrealistic ideal--it is selling an ideal that is patently unreal.

I wonder what impact this has on both genders and what it says about our culture as a whole that we are being taught to crave a beauty that isn't reflected in a human ideal, but rather in an inhuman, artificial ideal. Hill's use of the word "android" is key here, because there's actually a flesh-less desexualized aspect to all of this that may have a lot to say about our culture's true attitude toward humanity.

I appreciate the feminist take on all this, and I see it, but I also see something along the lines of an emerging anti-humanist strain at work. As if we are almost being prepared to accept and love our android overlords--or caretakers--we are increasingly fetishizing the artificial. At first, it was a matter of using artificial means to approximate or exaggerate a natural ideal, but now we're edging toward abandoning any reverence for the natural and giving over to idealizing the synthetic.

Women's bodies, like cultural canaries, are at the forefront of this movement. I can see that this is partly what I've been getting at in some of my fiction of the last few years and my fixation on supernatural phenomenon surrounding women's bodies (see "When My Girlfriend Lost the Weight," "She Falls Down," "Keeping Susie Whole" and "Whatever God Blesses Us With"). But I don't think it ends there.

I think our shifting values in this regard, our movement toward artificiality may have a lot to tell us about our future. After all, is it just a coincidence that this shift is happening at a time when wearable computing, unmanned drones, and advanced robotics are already a reality and the singularity may be just around the corner?


December 13, 2013

Genetic Russian Nesting Doll

Scientists at the University of Washington have discovered another code stashed inside genetic code.  It turns out that some elements of genetic code--codons--actually have a double meaning. The UW scientists have named these codons "duons," because they impact protein sequence with one meaning and gene control with the second meaning. (They are codons with a dual meaning.)

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said John Stamatoyannopoulos, who led the research team that made the discovery. "Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

Commentary
As always with genetics, it seems that the more we know, the less we know. The discovery of DNA seemed to promise that we could unlock the secret of life if only we could decode the mysterious double helix. Yet when we completed mapping the human genome in 2003, it became clear that whatever answers we got only opened more questions. If, as we found, only a small percentage of the genome coded for proteins, where did the rest come from? Then there's the camp that points out that genes don't really play nearly as big a role as gene expression does.

Like a Russian nesting doll, the field of genetics seems to open a new set of mysteries for every mystery it cracks. No doubt, this discovery will pose far more questions than it answers. Which makes it tempting to wonder, if the universe is indeed a hologram, is the genetic code just somebody's way of  messing with us?