One of the writers in my book group suggested The Hours by Michael Cunningham as our book for February. He’d read the book and admired its craft. Also, he is working on a screen play based on his novel and thought it might be interesting to read the novel and screenplay together. While I also could not help but admire certain elements of craft, I didn’t love the book—wasn’t moved by it. It’s worth noting that the four men in our group all liked the book significantly more than the two women. Both myself and the other woman writer thought that the seams showed too much, that there was a lack of emotional authenticity that made the story feel contrived. That aside, there was one element of craft I thought Cunningham pulled off with power and grace: juxtaposition, both within and between the three parallel stories.
Juxtaposition served not just to flesh out characters and relationships between characters, but to create the tension of subtext in the present situation. On pages 42-43 the placement of Laura’s thinking about Virginia Woolf and her own fascination with Woolf, “a woman of such brilliance, such strangeness, such immeasurable sorrow” (42) precedes a description of what a force of will it takes for her to begin her daily routine, interact with her family, “She conquers the desire to go quietly back upstairs, to her bed and book. She conquers her irritation at the sound of her husband’s voice” (43). This enables us to see the depth of her withdrawal, gives us a basis for comparison, makes it more than just a moment. Then, shortly after that the depth of her depression and withdrawal is further illustrated by the setting side by side of her son’s reaction to her and then her own reaction to her son’s affection. While he is “happy to see her, and more than happy…transported by love”, she “reaches into her pocket for a cigarette” (44), an unconscious gesture of anxiety. She is pregnant, with a loving husband and a small child and clearly, an unhappy woman. Then in Clarissa’s story on page 126 we see lots of really great detail about her history with Louis, Louis’s history with Richard, which makes the small talk conversation that occurs between Clarissa and Louis about where he is staying and who he is seeing all the more strained and weighted.
This happens again and again in the novel. Backstory just at the right time. Just when it’s going to bring us deeper into the present scene. Within the different stories, I do admire the way Cunningham presents details at the right time, so that they add to each other and play off each other and make the whole greater.
A similar tension and dimension exists in how scenes are juxtaposed between the three stories. First Clarissa has flowers to buy, then in the next chapter it’s Virginia Woolf buying flowers, then Laura is musing on the line in Mrs. Dalloway about buying flowers and admiring the beauty of the writing. What is Clarissa buying flowers for? For an award party for Richard that will never happen because he’ll kill himself. Richard, the same little boy that will help Laura bake a cake for his father and then will watch her dump the cake he participated in making into the trash bin because the flowers aren’t perfect. This juxtaposition of scenes about flowers leads the reader to ask deeper questions about the significance of the detail, wonder what the author is suggesting about life and beauty. A similar effect is created in the repetition and juxtaposition of the idea and images of fame and the line “What a lark! What a plunge!” to suggest that beyond and more important than the question of lasting fame is the hours (moments) of the lives we lead and who we love. The fact that Louis leaves Clarissa, furious with her not because of anything that actually passes between them, but by his own hurt feelings about not being the prominent figure in Richard’s book and what we know about his history is emphasized further by how as he’s leaving, the sun “explodes like a flashbulb in his face” What he’s really upset about isn’t his lament that there is “so little love in the world”, but his own bruised ego, his desire to be significant. Right after that we move to Mrs. Brown who is striving even in cake baking to “make something finer, more significant”. This same struggle is paralleled in Virginia’s striving to write well, as she descends into a depression that will lead to her suicide. In the juxtaposition of these same elements in parallel stories, the message comes through with greater resonance.
The placement of detail in The Hours seems always to have an echo and to be placed in such a way that that echo can be understood by the reader. I’ve definitely had trouble in the past with trying to put in too much detail all at once for the sake of filling in the reader. Cunningham’s The Hours offers a nice reminder to us that it is okay to withhold details, and in fact, it is quite powerful to ask this question: what else does it do for this scene besides inform the reader about the character or scene. How does it tie into something in the big picture? Can it wait?