Drive-by Girl

A woman fresh out of a mixed-bag relationship is harassed by the specter of her ex-lover as she goes about her routine chores.

This opening scene finds Dana taking the long way to her supermarket to avoid the school where Jerry teaches, and where he’s known to remain long after the last bell on behalf of his students, “correcting papers, offering extra help, and throwing baskets in the gym.” One gets the feeling that Jerry’s solicitous nature did not extend to his relationship with Dana—a suspicion confirmed later at the Stop & Shop deli counter, where Jerry’s ghost berates her for buying mashed potatoes to go with her rotisserie chicken.

The technique employed here is interior monologue, also sometimes referred to as stream-of-consciousness after the term coined by psychologist William James. But while the stream-of-consciousness technique tends to encompass narratives as a whole (such that descriptions, setting, dialogue, and actions are all conveyed, as it were, by the flowing stream), interior monologue functions as a distinct device within a traditional narrative—as in the given scene, where Dana’s thoughts enhance the narrative, but don’t subsume it.

Compare with this passage from the most famous stream-of-conscious narrative of them all:

… Mulveys was the first when I was in bed that morning and Mrs Rubio brought it in with the coffee she stood there standing when I asked her to hand me and I pointing at them I couldnt think of the word a hairpin to open it with ah horquilla disobliging old thing and it staring her in the face with her switch of false hair on her and vain about her appearance ugly as she was near 80 or a loo her face a mass of wrinkles with all her religion domineering because she never could get over the Atlantic fleet coming in half the ships of the world and the Union Jack flying with all her carabineros because 4 drunken English sailors took all the rock from them and because I didnt run into mass often enough in Santa Maria to please her with her shawl up on her except when there was a marriage on with all her miracles of the saints and her black blessed virgin with the silver dress …

With this sort of stream-of-consciousness, the author relinquishes—or appears to relinquish— control of the narrative to the mind of his protagonist. In fact that “loss of control” is entirely and cunningly contrived to give the appearance of spontaneity and randomness, much as the drips and spatters on a Jackson Pollack appear to be random and spontaneous (they aren’t).

With interior monologue the author never quite lets go of the reins. In the given example the narrator (as distinct from the protagonist) remains behind the wheel, as it were, telling us, between forays into his character’s thoughts, how, having choked back the bile inspired by a vision of Jerry shooting hoop with his charges, Dana “took a left and another left, heading toward the Stop and Shop.” The narrator goes on to explain that in shopping Dana “is all business, plucking apples, bananas, strawberries, and raspberries—expensive, but she deserved them.” Note how with that “but she deserved it” we are dunked, however briefly, into the protagonist’s subjective stream, back into her interior monologue. That she plucks apples and strawberries is an objective fact; that she deserves them is purely her subjective opinion, a taste of interior monologue.

This subtle mixture of objective authorial narration and a character’s subjective perspective goes by its own names. Called close third person by some and free indirect style by others, it lets narrators move seamlessly between objective reporting (“Dana wheeled her cart over to the deli counter”) and a character’s thoughts (“Oh, mashed potatoes.”), to where at times one can barely distinguish the two (“she planned to enjoy these mashed potatoes”).

The virtue of this technique (aside from dispensing with all the “she thought”s and “it struck her that”s), is that it flavors the whole narrative with a character’s feelings—as a sliced onion, left next to the butter in the refrigerator, flavors the butter with onion. Yet unlike the aggressive stream-of-consciousness technique, it gives authors full control over the degree of objectivity.

In this opening the free direct style is well-employed, though one might quibble that if Dana’s brain is indeed “working overtime” to avoid picturing Jerry in his classroom, that hard work hasn’t paid off well, as we are treated to the very images she’s intent on avoiding. Better perhaps to have her inadvertently drive by the school, having neglected to take an alternative route, and thus the image of Jerry gyrating on the basketball court with his charges will be both better motivated and inadvertent.

It seems to me, too, that if indeed Dana is haunted by Jerry, better use might be made of his specter, who ought to be right there in the driver’s seat beside her, telling her to change lanes and use the turning signal and that she almost cut that curb. The supermarket scene likewise feels stingy. Why not have Jerry’s take on more than mashed potatoes? Why not see him micro-managing Dana’s shopping list? Though he may not be there physically, Jerry is a character in this scene—or should be. Under the influence of Jerry’s ghost she might hesitate to drop that quart of mashed potatoes into her cart—and then defy him. Surely that beats telling us that this is what Dana would not have done in the past.

However skillfully or seamlessly rendered, a character’s inner thoughts are no substitute for actions.

About Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and several children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the William Faulkner Society Prize, selected by Random House Senior Editor Will Murphy. His work has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, six Best American Essay notable essay citations, and two selections for the Best American series. A second memoir, The Inventors, is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books in April of 2016. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
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3 Responses to Drive-by Girl

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi, Drive-By Girl here with a thank you for Mr. Selgin and a few thoughts.

    I took your critique to heart, so much so that it circulated among my writer friends and colleagues. Kristan Higgins (8 published novels) felt you were right on with your comments. I wrote her because I didn’t quite understand your critique. OK, I’ll admit I needed a translation.

    Action, that’s what it was about. Thoughts, yes, but let the action lead, interweave the thoughts more, the senses too. She gave specific examples to illustrate her point. I got it. Reworked the page.

    I forgot to mention that my undergraduate degree is in journalism. All that means is that the skin is thick around my ego; I don’t bruise easily and I listen.

    My only criticism of your criticism is your readers would be better served with an example or two that illustrates your point. Rather than, in my case, the literary stream-of-consciousness paragraph.

    Oh, and I liked some of your suggestions–the drive-by his school one served me well. Thank you.

    Not using the ghost of Jerry, though. She sees the real Jerry on page two, bagging his groceries. That was enough of a shock.

  2. Lou Lou says:

    Overall I liked this first page. I like the idea of a woman grocery shopping after she has been dumped and wanted everything she thought she couldn’t have before due to her previous partner.

    I do think however that it was a bit confusing the first time I read it. I was unsure of the relationship between Dana and Jerry and I think you assume too much from the readers in this sense. Because you start right into the scene, we are left without any of the background of the relationship and why Dana hates Jerry so much, despite how nice he seems (staying late with his students etc). I think you assume from the reader that we know they’ve broken up, why they’ve broken up and for how long they’ve been broken up. All of these I had as questions when I was reading.

    I think it’s a little too “bitter girl post break-up” which is a kind of cliché in a sense. I’d have to say that my favorite part of whole page, is the first three sentences. I think you do a really good job with those opening sentences providing us with an image of what this woman is going through–a breakup. I also agree with Mr. Selgin when he says more action, and leave the thoughts to weave throughout.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This opening page is like a million that I skim over in Indigo and put back on the shelf. It’s not original. How many women out there really want to read about someone bitter over a breakup? Not women who are in good relationships and not women who just ended a relationship. Sorry but the subject itself is just to bland for me. I don’t care that your character’s biggest decision is to eat chicken and mashed potatoes. Not turning to page two…

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