Editing Analysis: J.D. Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”

There is a solipsistic self-righteousness to Smith’s outlook on the people that surround him: he is insulted by M. Yoshoto’s proofreading assignments and by two of his pupil’s less-than-stellar bodies of work. Yet his adoration of Sister Irma becomes a vindication of his existence, and more materially his ego: through Irma’s accomplishments does this character gauge his own worth. This validation is much needed after his pessimistic interpretations of his relationship with the two Yoshotos.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Browne and King advise that when using the first-person point of view, the character must be distinct enough to keep the reader’s attention, but not eccentric enough to make readers “trapped inside his or her head.” This issue can be characterized as one of tempering alienation: if the reader must deal with being alienated by every action or sentence that the first-person narrative produces, then the act of reading becomes laborious. However, as we see in Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”, alienating the reader can produce an unlikeable sincerity; between the lines of the main character’s cynicisms exists a nimble exploration of ego and perception.

This nimbleness exists in John Smith’s lively descriptions of his actions and dreams, especially after having sent a hugely caring letter to his star pupil, Sister Irma:

I would listen, listen, listen, with my head in my hands–till finally, unable to stand it any longer, I would each down into Mme. Yoshoto’s throat, take up her heart in my hand and warm it as I would a bird. Then, when all was put right, I would show Sister Irma’s work to the Yoshotos, and they would share my joy.

There is a solipsistic self-righteousness to Smith’s outlook on the people that surround him: he is insulted by M. Yoshoto’s proofreading assignments and by two of his pupil’s less-than-stellar bodies of work. Yet his adoration of Sister Irma becomes a vindication of his existence, and more materially his ego: through Irma’s accomplishments does this character gauge his own worth. This validation is much needed after his pessimistic interpretations of his relationship with the two Yoshotos:

I gave away a lulu of a Picasso story that had just reached me, one that I might have put aside for a rainy day. M. Yoshoto scarcely lowered his Japanese newspaper to listen to it, but Mme. Yoshoto seemed responsive, or, at least, not unresponsive.

The limitations of the first-person viewpoint enhances John Smith’s perceptions of the Yoshotos as passive indictments on his quality of person. Throughout the story, Smith seems to be surprised how much he could trick everyone around him to believe he is De Daumier-Smith, but tempers his success with the anxieties of being discovered by his hosts and student for his true nature. In his world, these characters are obstacles to realizing his wants and desires for something more.

However, events such as Irma leaving the school or the revelation that M. Yoshoto’s school was not even licensed reveals a much larger universe that exists outside of his control and intellect; the first-person viewpoint becomes a powerful tool for exploring the limitations of human experience. With enough descriptions from John Smith, these characters are filled with thought and emotions, but we are left with the sneering descriptions and clever insults from Salinger’s first-person narrative.

Without overt introspection, J.D. Salinger invites the reader into the very limited world of John Smith: limited in length (at only about fifteen pages long), limited in scope (about two or three main settings), and strongly limited in point of view, as the reader is stuck in the head of a 19-year-old protagonist, whose age may contribute to his lack of emotional intelligence and his bleak judgment on all those around him. But Salinger deliberately utilizes the first-person perspective to transform the broader world into an opaque glass that merely blinds the teenager instead of letting him peer in.

The Shower

The American shower is to partake in an accepted pleasure.

Kalinga’s showers were predominantly bucket-based, common for middle-class households in an outside of major Filipino cities. The city’s tap water flowed through the kitchen sink, the toilet, and a faucet located at knee-height in the shower room. The faucet, just like one found outside on American suburban homes, would quickly fill the multi-gallon bucket with – at best – lukewarm water; at worst, and mostly occurring in the lofty mountain village of Lubo, one would receive the chilly stream sourced from underneath the residents’ homes and farms.

The Philippine air was cool: at night one only needed a long-sleeve shirt, and day a light t-shirt. The showers may have been less of a stress if the morning picked up in temperatures more quickly; instead, an entirely apathetic breeze passed by as I entered the shower room with my bucket and towel, mentally bracing myself for the jolt of cold as I start with the top of my head, my face (I lean forward so the water won’t drip down and cool anything else), then down to my shins, closer to my privates, but always second-guessing the need to pour the bucket on my chest and tummy, which would jumpstart the beating of my heart and inevitably reach my nethers.

The act of showering via this method is defined by the thoughts of showering; I am undistracted by stray thoughts, and in other words, wholly distracted by showering as a process. The objective was to get in and out with as little trauma as possible.

Contrast this with the more distracted, passive act of the American shower, or in my case, the apartment-based shower (no water utility fees) with seemingly unlimited hot water – let alone the limitless water itself. Knowledgeable of this abundance (I have grown for two decades with America’s unending stream of warm water), the act of showering is modified. I am not seeking the end, but it’s prolongement; it is common to hear one say that the shower is the “one place” for tranquility. I can only agree by evaluating its functions: the nakedness, the wetness, the transition from “dirty” to “clean”; the American shower is ordained by its society as good but private, encouraged but hidden.

The American shower is to partake in an accepted pleasure.

And in its pleasure is one of thought. As the most typical configuration of shower schedule is to follow the morning’s waking up process (somehow the wetness, warmth, cleanliness is considered a way to activate one’s productivity during the day), the processing of dreams, stray thoughts, and tasks to be accomplished is initiated by the shower. The comforts of the shower not only encourages the pleasure of comfort but also a period of light processing before heading out the door. It should not be surprising that the term “Shower Thoughts” has been coined in the past few years as surprising ideas that stem from the idleness of the shower; mental associations unencumbered by external necessities may be explored to their logical conclusions. A feeling of accomplishment in mulling over minute details may be achieved; mental pleasure follows in its wake.

While I enjoy the prospects of the American shower, I cannot so much entertain its side effects of environmental unsustainability; the bucket showers accomplish their goal of the clean body, without the pleasure but also without wasted gallons. So my exploration of the American shower is to figure out its qualities, benefits and determine if they can be isolated beyond the shower; is it the water, in all its liminal symbology that allows one to come up with such creative processing? If not, then is there a way to achieve the meditative benefits of the shower without the water? Is there a modified form of reflexivity, understanding, awareness that we can employ in order to achieve a sustainable self-reflection?

For such a small part of our day, the shower defines so much of our culture, from sensuality, to cleanliness, health, privacy, aspirations, dreams, and spirituality. But it would be an important feat to decouple its benefits from the act itself, and be able to do the same acts anywhere, in any climate.

Editing Analysis: Jim Shepard’s “Minotaur”

Browne and King’s largest takeaway from the chapter “See How it Sounds” is that the rhythm and flow of both dialogue and narration is key to preventing the reader from being overly encumbered by the writing itself. Their idea of flow goes beyond “realistic dialogue” and instead into a type of literary conciseness that reads naturally, even if it isn’t fully grounded in reality. Jim Shepard takes this advice to heart by focusing on jilted dialogue as a centerpiece of a short story about miscommunication.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Browne and King’s largest takeaway from the chapter “See How it Sounds” is that the rhythm and flow of both dialogue and narration is key to preventing the reader from being overly encumbered by the writing itself. Their idea of flow goes beyond “realistic dialogue” and instead into a type of literary conciseness that reads naturally, even if it isn’t fully grounded in reality. Jim Shepard takes this advice to heart by focusing on jilted dialogue as a centerpiece of a short story about miscommunication:

“You know Latin?” He asked.

“Do you know how long I’ve been tired of this?” she told him.

“I don’t know Latin,” Celestine volunteered.

“Tastes Like Chicken,” he translated.

“Nice,” Carly told him.

“I don’t get it,” Celestine said.

“Neither does she,” he told her.

“Oooh. Snap,” Carly said.

It is a challenge to insert four characters at once into a conversation for basic reasons of clarity, but Shepard transitions the bottom half of this conversation into small bursts of speech punctuated by “said”, allowing for both clear speaker attributions and the opportunity to extend the scene without resorting to beats or exposition.

The small bits of confusion expressed by the characters harken back to the famed West Wing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who was able to hybridize character exposition with dialogue by developing a sense of confusion for both the audience and the subjects speaking. Celestine’s “I don’t get it” coincides with the reader’s ignorance of Kenny’s patch, and Carly’s vocalizing of the patch allowed Kenny to explain to the characters and audience its existence in Shepard’s universe. We can already tell Carly’s curiosity about her husband’s work, Celestine’s ignorance, and Kenny’s matter-of-factness in just a few lines rather than paragraphs.

Carly’s motivation to acquire information is further explored through the lens of the first-person narrative of her husband, who was also able to gain character through informal narrative exposition. Words or phrases were italicized to emphasize the narrator’s personal thoughts his circumstances:

Not being able to tell the people you’re closest to anything about what you care about most?

Within this relatable informality, we are able to understand the perspective of narrator: content with his job’s acronyms and ardent separation from his home life, he is also content with being detached from the thoughts of his wife. The image he has created for Carly is based solely on her external expression rather than any kind of emotional intelligence; when she claims she is happy about her lack of knowledge about himself or his job, he takes it for face-value.

Similarly for the audience, we are limited to Kenny, Celestine, and Carly’s dialogue — and their direct interactions with the protagonist — to develop character images; the informality and confusion of the dialogue scenes relate to the main character’s limitation of perspective. He cannot understand why Kenny would sell him out for sharing his wife’s secrets, and by the end of the story repeats his face value interpretation of Carly when she accepts his apology. In other words, while the reader can enjoy Shepard’s command of natural rhythm and flow of wording within dialogue and exposition, we are also trapped by this flow, floating within the protagonist’s limited perception of the world.

This obsession with structure seems to arise out of a desire to say not simply all there is to say on a given subject, but to say too much. Just as the poet maudit, or cursed poet, goes too far in his rhetoric, so does the French social scientist. It is as if many of them are torn, like Barthes, by the desire to be a poet, to make rhetorical structures.

Like fashion, of which it is certainly an example, semiology, too, might be characterized as a novel in which nothing happens. It also resembles a kind of machine for maintaining meaning without ever fixing it. Like the subject of this book, Mr. Barthes is so rapt in his analysis, that we can hardly recognize him. It is as if “The Fashion System” was an immense and melancholy pun on his situation as a writer at that time.