Yma’s Critique of Going Down
This chapter has a beautiful arc, and like a certain kind of well-constructed chapter could stand alone as its own short story. There is debate over whether or not to start a story with dialogue because the reader doesn’t know who the speaker is. In this case, I think it is perfect because Chris doesn’t know who the speaker is either. It creates an immediate sense of dislocation that you build on throughout the chapter.
Emotional impact is working in very powerful yet subtle ways in this chapter. It is filled with interactions that ooze a kind of slow burn ickiness that makes you want to take a shower afterwards. First there are the statements that are supposed to be compliments. “You’re more James Franco than James Franco.” The agonizing choice between referring to Chris as “Beefcake” or “Eye Candy;” should his name be “Sam” or “Duncan?” These are strangers talking about Chris’s body a way that summarizes, exoticizes, and dehumanizes him in a subtly racist way.
“Well, I see you on TV and I see you in Cosmopolitan and I see you at Cannes and I see the same person,” he paused, drawing an imaginary box around Chris’s face. “And you can sing a little, dance a little, flex a little, act a little, and do everything a little, but not too much,”
Chris answers his own question of “How did I get here?” The conversation between Ana and Chris shows a complicity and pay off for this objectification which is as disturbing as the objectification itself. He doesn’t pack a duffel bag, he packs a “Goldman Sachs” duffel bag. When Ana cautions him about the French not liking Latinos Chris’s response, “I have never been to France before. Maybe they will like me” gives an unsettling view into his interior life and looming insecurities that Chris needs outside approval to transcend. The attention to brand, Goldman Sachs, Best Buy, Radio Shack, Motorola etc. parallels the conversation about branding Chris, who is perceived as a commodity, “Beauty is useful,” rather than an individual.
A high emotional impact moment is when Bob observes that Chris appears to always be on show, he knows “the exact angle to display” and how to work the light off his face. Chris is forced to confront the fact that he is the “biggest faker,” and the world may know it. This is very uncomfortable.
In terms of storytelling cohesion, I had some problems following this chapter. I am assuming that some of this may be a function of it being an excerpt. The other, I suspect is more calculated on your part. There are a lot of little time ruptures that fall short of flashbacks (except for the section with Ana). The opening line combined with the quick referral to Dave buying the camera and referring to “deleted scenes” is destabilizing and somewhat confusing entree into the chapter. The emotional impact stems from one of many central questions in this excerpt. What is reality?
The suggestion of manufacturing deleted scenes slaps the reader in the face. And I was sort of clawing for purchase from that point on. However, I am very hesitant to suggest any alterations, because the text is performing Chris’s confusion. The character seems fundamentally bewildered by his life.
The sense of orientation is further compromised by conversations full of oppositional ideas that creates an emotional ping pong effect. Chris will be “reacting” not “acting,” and he might be “too much of a natural.” “Super Size Me” a quintessentially American concept will be more “Eastern European.” French fries taste worse in France, and my personal favorite Applebees in Cannes (quelle horreur!).
Then there are the location switches. In the space of 1400 words, the reader travels between an airport (JFK security checkpoint and Terminal 7 Best Buy), the United States, France in general (Cannes in specific), Eastern Europe (Rasputin – time/location rupture), Applebees, Oradell, Rue Croisette etc. This device shakes up storytelling cohesion as well as clarity but amplifies bewilderment (emotional impact) which supports the plot line.
This moves neatly into the question of overall clarity. For this text clarity in the conventional sense, i.e. a more linear feeling narrative, could weaken the work. On one level, it is clear that Chris Selden is having a conversation with Bob and Viktor about an acting opportunity in a restaurant and that the cameraman Dave is present. But the conversation topic, the dozens of micro-ruptures suggest something else entirely. So is it clear what’s going on? Yes and no. This section, in fact this whole chapter has that feeling we have all had of walking into a room where something has clearly happened before we got there, but no one is talking. Something is just off, which I believe was your intention.
The second section beginning with setting description suggestive of screenplay is an interesting device that again forces the question of, “What is real?” Dave’s puppet master role becomes more evident in this section as he coaches Chris on creating a sense of the “accidental.” Then I am being bounced back and forth between locations azure coast, cruise ship, the generic Caribbean island, JW Marriot, Ana’s kitchen. The ever increasing sense of dislocation is amplified thematically with the introduction of lyrics from the New Order “World (the Price of Love),” an absolute slam dunk in terms of emotional impact and the suggestion of personal bankruptcy and devastation. However, it is very subtly executed. By this point, the references to Ana have taken on an added layer of intensity. Memories of her are operating as an emotional life raft of sorts. When all else fails, there is always your mother.
Clarity is once again a moving target in this passage. From a linear narrative standpoint, we are at a photo shoot where everything is staged, and that is clear. Symbolically the line between clarity and opacity is so blurry it almost becomes a form of enchantment reminiscent of a kind Faustian deal with the devil. The description of Chris’s emotional state in the next passage speaks to that. Our protagonist is “so happy and so excited and so nervous all at once, so enlivened or enraptured or both” that he forgets for a moment that is “choking.”
Introducing Dennis Romero creates a strange sense of déjà vu. I had to look back and see if we had met this character before. I realized that it had to do with a synergistic energy between Bob’s French fries comment and Dennis’s reverential attitude towards being a an “American in Cannes” coupled with nasty insults about Waterloo, WW II, and Algeria. They illustrate the boorish international stereotype of the “Ugly American.” For me the emotional impact has less to do with Dennis’s behavior than extreme discomfort with Chris’s attempt to clean up the situation. One senses that Chris is backed into a corner, and lacks the agency personally and professionally to disentangle himself from a very unpleasant situation. Adding to the emotional impact is an assembling crowd to watch the spectacle. The idea of a myth belonging to everyone loops back on this incident.
From an emotional impact standpoint, the alienation is reaching a crescendo. It is the first place where you begin to alter the text. The partygoers on the Rue Croisette speak about Chris the JOURNALIST, not to Chris the poet, who for the first and only time in this chapter really emerges in a first person way. “FIRE DESTROYS PROPERTY, MEMORIES” is reflected in many ways, but to me the most significant is that Ana (his only real anchor in all of this chaos) is not mentioned again. The location “ping-ponging” disappears and Chris is firmly rooted in the “reality” of Cannes. For me this is where the story really becomes cohesive, the vignettes with their wealth of symbolism begin to adhere in ways that multiply emotional impact and clarity, very much like the focusing of a blurry camera lens. We lose Chris the person who has been fading in and out of focus the entire chapter, and Chris the beef cake, the eye candy, and the myth emerges front and center.
In this mythical world, Chris is selecting between Clark Kent and Superman prior to attending the press Q & A. You complicate the concept because neither identity is truly his, but the Clark Kent character is a journalist and superman is certainly a myth “that belongs to everyone.” Chris’s participation in myth making adds to the emotional impact. I found it tempting at points to default to a simplistic exploitation narrative. Chris’s sideways turn in the mirror and “opting for thick-rimmed glass he had recently been fond of wearing to affect contemplation,” defy that instinct. To me this is character crafting at its most elegant, Chris colludes in his exploitation, blurring the fault lines. “I haven’t decided which one I am today.”
Chris appears in costume so to speak, then decries the “frenzy of façade” and is pained by Sarah Martha Greenburg’s failure to recognize him and demonstrate some kind of human connection.
“He had recently abandoned correcting her, or anyone, on their mistaking him for someone else. Chris Selden had wandered from Mark Van Etty’s cramped basement shrine to vanity into the boundless Hall of Mirrors, where appearance was everything and yet nothing at all.”
It is truly awful to witness what happens to Chris in the final scene. Again at this stage clarity and story cohesion continue in a very linear, clear fashion. The staged reduction of Chris’s life right down to his choreographed response to the movie’s success à la Dave is deeply disturbing. The use of a dash in quotes “-”, i.e. a blank spot where Chris’s life should amplifies emotional impact. No one notices that this character is dying inside (“choking”) while they toss accolades around the globe. The coup de grace is of course Dave’s confession that Viktor, Farid, and Bob were hired to provide “texture” to his life. I am left profoundly saddened that such a man appears to be the closest thing Chris has to a real friend.
I would add that emotional impact is working on another level here. The fact that you are a model, a journalist, and have the same name as the lead character adds a layer of stomach tightening to any uncomfortable situation in the novel. This work is by your own admission self-reflective and self-critical. You blur the line between character in the novel and character in real life, both in terms of personhood and ethics in a way that is equal parts brave and frightening. In straight autobiography, the reader knows the material is true. In fiction, we know the events might be inspired by true events or completely imaginary. Going Down complicates these lines in an extremely innovative way, and like Chris the character, we are always destabilized and always questioning what is real. I can’t wait to read this whole book. Outstanding craftsmanship!