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Who is incidental?

January 27, 2011

I heard Michael Cunningham say, in a recent interview, that he believed all characters in his novels, even the passing pedestrian, should be honored for their humanity. I assumed this to mean that even incidental characters, the less visible people, as Cunningham puts it, should be described by writers in specific, particular, and interesting ways. I’d been looking forward to reading Cunningham’s most recent novel, By Nightfall, and in my reading, I paid close attention to the characterization of the more minor characters and the effect it had on me.

On the first page of the novel, the two main characters, Rebecca and Peter, are in a cab in New York City. They are on their way to a party but stopped in traffic because of an accident.  Several very minor characters are introduced in this initial scene. First, “[a]n elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way (stately, plump Buck Mulligan?), pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars” (3). For most Americans, this man is a recognizable type in urban settings. Cunningham could have used shorthand, writing more economically: a homeless man pushes a shopping cart. Readers would have understood who the figure overtaking the cab was. He chose, however, to give specific details and thereby, to some extent at least, humanize this man, taking him out of a generic category and making him an individual.

Does Cunningham, in this act of artistic humanization, risk misleading his readers, who could see this greater level of detail as a signal that the homeless man will become important to the story? My writing group has sometimes given me the feedback, when I introduce a character that I see as incidental that they liked or were intrigued by the person and expected to see more of him or her. How does Cunningham avoid the issue of reader expectation or attachment? In this instance, I would argue that readers know on an intuitive level that someone passing by on the street, no matter how fully described, is unlikely to continue to feature in the novel. Therefore, Cunningham isn’t creating last attachment by particularizing such a character.

The second minor character is the cab driver himself, who is described for the first time three pages into the cab ride. Notice that the description interrupts itself midway through to include a brief argument for making what could have been a generic character more human: “His bald head sits solemnly on the brown plinth of his neck. He, of course, has his own story, and it does not in any way involve the well-dressed middle-aged couple in the back of his cab. His name, according to the plate on the back of the front seat, is Rana Saleem” (5). Cunningham, through the narrator who at this instance is very close to the author himself, tells the reader that every human being is important and different from every other, even when that person fits a type, even when the character is a taxi driver and mainly there to get the couple from their apartment to the party.The narrator, as author stand-in, is also alerting readers to the fact that we should not become attached to this character because, if we are to trust this narrator which I think we have reason to, the cab driver will not become an important character in the story because he is not connected to its main characters. In this instance, we are getting rather direct instruction for what expectations not to develop.

The narrative voice continues immediately, changing to a closer third person: “India? Iran? He might have been a doctor where he comes from. Or a laborer. Or a thief. There’s no way of knowing” (5). Peter is the main point of view character of the novel and here we get some insight into who Peter is by how he thinks about the cab driver. He imagines different stories, more or less fantastical, about the cabbie’s life but concludes that he can’t find out the true story. There is, of course, a way to get at least some information–Peter could start a conversation with him and ask. Instead, he retreats from knowing, from getting closer to this immigrant man, and this clues the reader in to where and with whom Peter feels at ease, and indicates his fear of connection.

When the next cab driver is introduced, it is more briefly, and, in fact, parenthetically: “(this driver’s name is Abel Hibbert, he’s young and jumpy, silent, fuming)” (13). Cunningham has made his point–every human has his own story even if that human is a character in a novel–but complicates it here by showing that we, as readers and as people in the world,  may not feel (like Peter) that we have the time, energy, ability, or interest to get close to everyone we encounter, particularly not in a short novel or in a crowded city like New York. Similarly, a writer cannot write extensively about every character in his novel. By Nightfall is a relatively small-format hardback, coming in at 238 pages. Despite his goal to humanize all characters, Cunningham doesn’t have the intention, and thus doesn’t choose to take the time, to describe every single one in great detail. Though he, and we, have ideals, practical considerations and choices affect our daily, and our artistic, lives.

When Cunningham does go a bit further into a minor character, it is with the intention to add resonance to a theme he’s developing in the novel. About a third of the way into the book, Peter and a fellow art dealer go out for lunch and visit an art museum. They’ve come expressly to see an exhibit they’ve both seen before: a dead shark floating in a steel tank. There are others walking around the tank and viewing it as well. “The high school kids gather before the shark’s midsection, all but trembling with fear and sexuality and disdain, speaking softly in a private language… One of the girls puts a hand on the glass, pulls it quickly away again. The other two girls shriek and run from the gallery as if their friend has set off an alarm” (37).  In this instance, these minor characters respond emotionally and intuitively to the shark in a way that  Peter the sophisticated art dealer will not let himself. While Peter feels a “prickle of animal panic” (36) when he first sees the shark, and his stomach lurches, he goes immediately into intellectualizing his response to the art.

Bette, the art dealer accompanying Peter to the museum, revealed to Peter at lunch that she has cancer. Her response to the shark is different from Peter’s and the teenagers’. “Bette strides up to the front of the tank, bends over slightly to see into the shark’s open maw” (37). Bette, at her age and in her condition, must face the shark in a way that neither Peter nor the teenagers have to. This is brilliantly displayed by contrasting the various responses. We would not have understood Bette, a more important character in the novel, if we hadn’t seen her juxtaposed with the minor teenage characters.

Readers, and therefore authors, have to navigate trickier issues of attachment when characters are introduced that we should perhaps be paying closer attention to–characters with some connection to the plot, to the main characters, or to emerging themes of the novel. One such character in By Nightfall is Carole Potter, introduced about half-way through the novel. One morning, Peter’s assistant at his gallery lets Peter know that Carole Potter has called. When Peter seems surprised that she’s called so early, his assistant responds, “Darling, Carole Potter gets up in the mornings and feeds her fucking chickens” (71). Peter goes on to think: “Right. Carole Potter, heiress to a kitchen appliance fortune, lives on a farm in Connecticut. A Marie Antoinette-style farm, granted: herb gardens, exotic chickens that cost as much as pure-bred dogs” (71).  In the next several pages, Carole’s character is developed with many specific details, Peter avoids calling her then finally does, and, it becomes clear, she will play a role in moving the plot of the novel forward–she provides Peter with the opportunity to make a big sale, thereby possibly taking his career to the next level. Should the reader become attached to Carole Potter?

On a first read, at this point in the novel, it’s an open question. The writer has described in varying degrees of specificity other characters that do not return. We’ve been given no explicit authorial instruction on whether to become attached to Carole. But is this confusing? I would say no. Readers don’t need to be completely sure. As we read, we formulate and revise hunches. Will readers be let down if the character turns out to be only incidental?  Again, in most cases not. Readers of finished, published (and therefore not malleable) texts do not develop such a degree of investment that they would feel let down by a minor character’s disappearance.

Carole Potter turns out to be somewhere in the middle of minor and main characters. In Peter’s point of view, Carole not only helps his art career, she facilitates the walk to the beach that ends in the all-important kiss with his brother-in-law, Mizzy. But we never know what Carole wants, and Peter’s explanation (“Does she suspect he’d like to be alone with Mizzy? Does she actually imagine that he’s not a brother-in-law at all, but a boyfriend Peter keeps on the sly?” [188]) is typical for him, a bit self-obsessed, neurotic, and not one the reader interprets as “the truth.”

The final pages of the novel give credence to the theory that the question of minor characters, of who is incidental, is not simply a craft question but is in fact thematic. The artist hanging her show in Peter’s gallery has made several short videos of real people whom she does not know. The five videos are projected, and on a shelf in each of five areas, the artist has arranged so-called ancillary merchandise–she’s turned the person in the video into an action figure, an image on a T-shirt, a lunch box, even a Halloween costume. Peter, in thinking about the installation, concludes that “[i]t’s adroit. Sure it has elements of irony and condescension, but it is at heart… an homage. Everybody is a star, on his or her home planet” (210). In this case, the third person voice could be understood to speak for Peter and for Michael Cunningham, echoing the sentiment about the cab driver at the beginning of the novel. But, Peter concludes, the art does not move him enough; he needs more than this. Moments later, he asks himself: “What do you do when you’re no longer the hero of your own story?” (226).

Essentially, this is a novel about a man struggling with questions that circle around the issue of leading an average, or normal, life, and whether that’s enough. Cunningham deftly uses the layering of these minor characters–the cab and limo drivers, the teenagers in the art museum, and the art patrons, even the creations of the artists themselves, the average people in the videos–to raise this question. On an artistic level, Cunningham is convinced from the beginning of the novel that we are all main characters in our own lives even though we might appear as minor characters in the lives of others. But he lets Peter struggle with this question through the entire book. It is not until the final few pages that Peter returns, in a sense, to his own life, to his wife, to be the hero of his own story in his own mind rather than dreaming about casting aside the life he has for a new one.




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