Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Red Coats

Shining City, the play by Conor McPherson, concerns an inexperienced therapist, named Ian, who has a very troubled patient. A recent widower comes to see Ian, complaining that he is being haunted by his dead wife. In nearly all of McPherson's plays storytelling plays a central role. Characters tell their own stories to the audience or to each other, so a therapy session seems natural shift for him. 

The main character, John, narrates the first of these ghostly visits in which he comes home and turns around to find his dead wife standing behind the door: "I could only see half of her, behind the door, looking out at me. Eh...but I could see that...her hair was soaking wet, and all plastered to her face. And I, I f*ing jumped, you know? And I f*ing just stood there, I froze, it was terrifying. And I mean she was as real as...you know if you've ever seen a dead body? How strange it is, but...it's real! That feeling..."

Later, he describes the troubled marriage, troubled in part because he wants to have an affair with a woman he met at a party. He describes this in detail the meeting, the party, the first text messages. (And I'm thinking, he's in his 50s and he texts? I'm a generation younger and I don't text. Don't have the foggiest idea how.) In the course of all this is a little detail about buying his wife a red coat that was too expensive, but he bought it anyway out of guilt, and then he says it became her good coat, the one she wore the night she died, the one she wore when she appeared behind the door. It's a striking detail, this red coat, and I wondered what it was doing there. It's as loud as the ghost image, but the narrative takes off again before we can think too much.

Ian talks further about meeting this woman and then pushing her to go to a hotel room where things go horribly, comically wrong, and then he finds himself in a whorehouse where things now go violently awry. One of the things I love about McPherson's work is that he peppers each play with these galloping narratives. A character makes one bold mistake and then it's a mad scramble, usually bolstered by many beer-backed shots, to the next horrible blunder, all of which is told in the past tense, well after the fact. It's electric and strange and of course the truth of these narratives is always in question, which just adds interest.

I read the play in one day of ceaseless interruptions. I kept the book close at hand, but had no peace all day. Finally, at Garret's swimming lesson, I took the book out again to read the last scene. No galloping narratives here, which made the last awkward exchange between the therapist and patient seem slow. What's going on here? And I read through to the end, to another image of the woman and the red coat and I didn't understand. I looked up to see my son stroking through the water, his arms windmilling as he moved on his back, legs kicking wildly. He got through three strokes before he sank under the water and came up sputtering. I sank, too, into the details of the play. What had I missed? 

All around the kids were screaming and playing. Their voices echoed under the bubble. I looked around at the bored parents sitting in the lawn chairs along the side of the pool, weighted by the oppressive humidity of the indoor pool. I watched my son, now on his belly and stroking the other way, still sinking after a few feet. He continued to flail but couldn't make himself stay afloat. He stood and wiped his eyes. My heart lurched for him. He wants to swim so much. At the same time a woman stood in my mind, her face battered. She wore a red coat. What did I miss? I watched and thought. I spun through the details of the play. All the while, the woman in the red coat waited.

THE EXERCISE: Allow a single, vivid image to haunt your story, even if it doesn't make sense. It's good practice to add striking images, or to let an odd image take over part of a story. This detail should rattle its chains, appear at odd moments, and inspire fear or awe, as though it lives in a place not bound by the laws of reality. Why? Because it's good to be haunted.

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