What tricks can we learn from this book?
Let me count the ways …
When Fight Club won a couple awards and began to blow up, our local library system asked me to recommend a novel for their “Everybody Reads” program. The library would push the book for a few months, then I’d lead a public discussion about it. So far, so good. When it came time for the discussion, I met with readers at the downtown Portland library.
It didn’t go so hot, that discussion. One reader stood and denounced the book, saying, “It’s shtick! It’s a dreck stand-up routine!” And yeah, it starts that way. I’ve read my share of shtick, and liked it. The books of Woody Allen and Fran Lebowitz come to mind. Books like Without Feathers, Side Effects, and Metropolitan Life, and these were funny, clever books I loved at the time, but they haven’t aged well. Still, a couple essays remain classics, among them “Notes on Trick,” Lebowitz’s satire of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” And “The Whores of Mensa,” Allen’s essay about an escort service that provides brilliant, neurotic call girls.
And much of Heartburn chugs along like stand-up comedy. And then it doesn’t.
Keep in mind, when Paramount sent Roman Polanski the manuscript of Rosemary’s Baby for a possible film, he read the first few pages and took it for a soap opera. He hated it. And then he didn’t. And then he loved it.
At a certain point both books turn a corner. Tom Spanbauer always1 told us that a good story should make people laugh and relax … and then quickly break their hearts. And that’s why I loved Heartburn. It took shtick and morphed it into tragedy. Right up to the most trite gag of all time—the thrown pie—which becomes an act of revenge and resignation and heartbreak. Remember the silliness of Sally Bowles’s green fingernails gesture: fluttering the fingers and saying, “divine decadence”? The gesture is cute and trite … until she does it walking away on the train platform. She’s morphed the gesture into something tragic. She’s staying behind in Nazi Germany, and she’s saying good-bye. That’s the sadly thrown pie.
And sure, you can say Heartburn is derivative, especially in regard to the ring as the through-line object: appearing, disappearing, reappearing, each time with a different meaning and for a different purpose. We saw that in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hell, we saw it in Tolkien! Nonetheless, Nora Ephron reinvents the ring’s journey so that it seems fresh and acceptable. For a similar brilliant essay using an object, read “The Fur Coat,” in which Ephron uses the evolution of a coat to depict her family dynamics.
People into literary fiction used to talk about “voice-driven” fiction.2 This would include the acerbic librarian who narrates The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. Or the young detective who narrates The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Or the second-person, displaced narration of Bright Lights, Big City. My point is, whether it’s a noir voice or a stand-up comedy voice, your narrator’s very distinct voice will carry a reader into the book. Remember how different voices carried us into The Color Purple?
Voice disarms the reader. It charms the reader. It’s funny and nonthreatening, and clears the way for the tragedy you’re about to bring down. Yeah, and the McCracken book sounds bitchy at the start. And Heartburn sounds like shtick. But it’s about where those voices TAKE the reader. As I’ve said before, voice is the tune that hooks the reader. Plot is the lyrics. Voice comes in under the radar and needs little attention, like music.
That’s the tip of the iceberg. The Ephron book reinvents the martyr/murder/witness formula beautifully. Through gesture. Richard Finkel is the good boy who wants only to huddle like a cuckold and resume his safe life. Mark Feldman is the transgressive dick who’s broken all the rules and still expects to get what he wants. Rachel is the witness, aware of both extremes, but able to make a story about it all. And leave the scene.
Think of Nick Carraway doing stand-up comedy. Think of Ken Kesey’s Big Chief doing “shtick,” and you’ve got Rachel with her pregnancy and her loony father and fourteen kinds of arugula.
So, let’s talk about “body of knowledge.” It’s here by the boat load! Rachel sees everything through the lens of food and cooking. So much so that recipes are her built-in, reoccurring “authority speeches.” Do you see, once you determine your character’s body of knowledge, how the storytelling becomes a breeze? In every scene you know what your character will notice. You’ll know how to bridge from one moment to a seemingly unrelated moment.3 I could not disagree with her more regarding capers. I live and breathe capers, but I love that vinaigrette. And I’d bet that just as many people mix that vinaigrette not knowing its source, as say “snowflake” not knowing its source. The point is Giving people something they can use. Give your character a body of knowledge through which to view the world.
So far we’ve touched on voice, martyr/murder/witness, body of knowledge, morphing objects, morphing gestures. What else is there? The textures—note how they vary from the recipes to the list on page five:
“God, did we have things. We had weather vanes and quilts and carousel horses and stained-glass windows and tin boxes and pocket mirrors and Cadbury cups and postcards of San Francisco before the earthquake, so we were worth something; we just had no money …”4
How about transition devices? The recipes, again. Whenever the narrator needs to introduce a new topic or button a scene—like the rules in Fight Club—we get a recipe. They are wonderful nonfiction devices that serve so many purposes.
Need more to love about this book? Consider how it demonstrates the power of fictionalizing memoir. If Ephron had written a bitter or funny autobiography, it would not have had such legs. I read the book unaware of the roman-à-clef reality of it. Countless people will watch the film The Devil Wears Prada not knowing it’s a send-up of Anna Wintour at Vogue. If not for the film Citizen Kane very few people would know a thing about William Randolph Hearst. Of course, these tweaked fictional versions aren’t completely true, but by making the past into a story the writer is able to tweak it for better emotional effects. Think of Anne Rice writing her vampire series to exhaust her pain after her daughter’s death by leukemia. If you want more catharsis, and a story with greater impact on the culture—fictionalize your memoir.
Ephron herself makes that point:
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.
By crafting your memoir as fiction you can own it. Control it. Cognitively reframe it. You can master the past and use it rather than be used by it. As Ephron was known for saying, “Everything is copy.”
Another aspect to love is the “thumbnail” that gives away the plot in the first paragraph. It’s the equivalent of the newsreel that tells us Charles Foster Kane will die. Or the computer graphic that shows us the Titanic will sink bow first, then break in half. We know the “horizontal” of the plot, so now we can focus on unpacking the “vertical” of the emotions as we see the story dramatized. Rachels tell us she’s been betrayed, she’s pregnant, she’s staying in New York, all on page one.
What else to love: It’s short. It’s 179 pages. I love short books. A friend of mine is an exceptional cook, but the portions she serves are minuscule. And she doesn’t serve seconds. But I can recall everything I’ve ever eaten at her house. Part of the appeal of her food is its scarcity.
In closing, I love the absurdity of the book. I grew up reading Vonnegut and Tom Robbins and Joseph Heller and Patrick Dennis. And Fran Lebowitz—whose books Metropolitan Life and Social Studies were the first hardcovers I ever bought. And Erma Bombeck. And what all these authors did was take the boring and the tragic and push them to the point of absurdity, and by doing so they destroyed the power of what had seemed to be insurmountable problems. You want to lose weight? Follow “The Fran Lebowitz High-Stress Diet” and smoke forty cigarettes per day while living next door to the apartment of an aspiring salsa band. In closing, once a reader sent me a clipping from Scientific American magazine, about an Oxford scholar whose research showed that ancient Greek comedies vastly outnumbered their tragedies. Because their culture felt that human life, as viewed by the gods, was absurd and always laughable. But that subsequent Christian culture was based on tragedy and so had destroyed the bulk of Greek plays, preserving the tragedies.
And in closing, I met Nora Ephron once. At a publishing party in New York, also attended by Stephen Sondheim, where we were each promoting a new book. Ephron and I talked about the Greek go-to for absurd comedy. We talked about why she’d dropped certain essays from her reprints—among them the cutting profile of Linda Lovelace. And we talked about how she’d always kept her home phone number listed, and anyone who’d ever tried could simply call her, and I’m glad I hadn’t known that. It was enough to have two drinks and talk an hour. And she did not tell me that she was then dying. She’d told almost no one. That wasn’t the point.
“The point,” as she’d written so eloquently, “is the product.”
Note, voice-driven fiction tends to make poor films unless that voice can be retained as voice-over.
I once talked to professional wallpaper hangers, and their stories were all about, “… well, it’s not as bad as that miserable silk foil I had to hang … or the flame-pattern brocade that was impossible to butt at the seams and cost six hundred dollars a roll … or that grass cloth so thin it showed every bubble and lump of paste underneath …”
Evocative of nonsense, in particular, “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to speak of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings. Of why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings …”