When the story you’re writing is very complicated, heavily plotted, allegorical, teeming with characters or just plain dense, you have a little margin for error. You don’t necessarily have to knock every sentence into the bleachers.
Sometimes a writer will simply write sloppy prose but get by on strong ideas. Example: Philip K. Dick. I’m busy trying to get my head around the fact that this character who lives in a dystopian future is himself reading about a dystopian future which bears an uncanny resemblance to the dystopian future in which I happen to live. I don’t have time to wonder if “effervescent” is really the best adjective to describe a sunset.
Sometimes a writer will make a conscious choice to rein in his or her prose in order to allow the reader to more easily follow what’s going on in the book at large. Example: Tolstoy. I spend all my time remembering that Marya, Maria, and Masha are all the same person, daughter of one prince, sister of another prince, in love with a third prince, friends with this princess and enemy of that one. I’m not really all that concerned with whether or not, “The sun came up,” ought to have been, “The sun rose over the battlefield like an adjective noun simile.” It doesn’t matter.
But when the story you’re writing is very simple that margin of error disappears. The choice of the right word becomes extremely important, because those word choices add up to your tone which quickly adds up to your aesthetic, which is itself almost the entire story. When you’ve got one or two characters dealing with one situation, you’ve got to nail it. Every word. Every sentence. Every scene. Example: Grace Paley. Another example: Roberto Bolaño’s novellas.
Dominque Fabre’s The Waitress Was New is another good example. 117 pages. One major character and four or five minor ones. And it works because Fabre makes excellent choices from the top down. Choosing the right character, Pierre, a 56 year-old café bartender. Choosing the right story, Pierre’s boss disappears one day in the grip of an ongoing midlife crisis, leaving his wife and his business to fend for themselves. Choosing first person, a narrative voice that has often been overused or used to poor effect, but which in this case is absolutely the right choice because it allows Fabre to offer the reader an awful lot in an unobtrusive, natural way. Choosing to use these elements to produce a book as apparently modest yet casually profound as its own protagonist. All of these choices, each of them right in this particular case, are then carried through. The result is book that took a few hours to read, which has been echoing in my head ever since.
Pierre does not tend bar in some dive, nor in some fancy restaurant, but in a modest café, basically a bistro, on the edge of Paris. He works the day shift. He has his regulars. They talk at him, not to him. He says very little. His bosses mostly talk at him as well. His co-workers are pleasantly collegial if not friendly. Then he gets off and wanders around, goes home and watches the news and then slowly reads Primo Levi’s holocaust memoir, If This is a Man (Abacus Books). He dreams about work then wakes up and goes to work.
Throughout the book, Pierre talks either to himself or to the reader, sometimes it’s hard to tell which, about whatever crosses his mind, most of which relates to his work. And every so often, in the middle of a paragraph about some quotidian banality, he’ll come out with a line like, “I aged a lot, watching over that empty café,” that is just sad, plain sad. Or he’ll make some poignant observation, usually touching on his own futility as a human being. Or some odd, revealing confession, such as the fact that he puts Nivea on his face every night because he worries about looking old. This stuff adds up. I was very quiet while I was reading this book, without really knowing why.
It bears mentioning that Fabre’s depiction of life as an employee in such a place is one of the best I have ever read. I speak from about ten years in the trenches as a line cook, waiter, and barista. The Waitress Was New brought back to me how unutterably tired and depressed I was during that tenth year, pondering the unanswerable questions, such as, “What the hell am I doing here, anyway?” that eventually led me to walk away. It is nice that there is a book which speaks as well as this one does for all my friends who had nowhere to walk away to, who are probably still there, being talked at by people who are neither friends nor strangers.
N.B. Unfortunately my French is grim joke, and anyway I have not seen the French text of this book, so my ability to speak intelligently about the quality of Jordan Stump’s translation is exactly nil. That said, I feel confident enough in the reputation of the book’s publisher, Archipelago, to feel safe in assuming that the translation is of quality. Dominque Fabre seems to like it, since he will be reading from this book while on tour in the United States, beginning this Monday, February 25th, at the Old Can Factory in Brooklyn, with dates in Chicago and points west later in the week.