That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Balancing on a Precipice: The Gothic Reach

I was given a leather-bound embossed journal with cream-colored pages which I was quite reluctant to ruin with my scrawling draft work. Instead, I decided to use it for a learning exercise by copying, in longhand, one of my all-time-favorite novels. Initially, I intended only that, but what has developed is an engagement with the text, sometimes veering into David Foster Wallace-like ruminations. (Though I claim none of the brilliance of the authors mentioned here.)

My novel obsession is Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. I was fortunate enough to read this story the first time with no prior knowledge of it; thus, Styron taught me the skill of misdirection with his deft telling of Sophie’s many choices so that when it came to the choice I was socked in the gut, though—and this is important—I did not feel tricked, because I was not tricked. Misdirection, done well, is an honest art.

Styron also taught me how to use something I have come to call the Gothic Reach defined by, amongst other elements, that yearning between the worst of what it means to be human and the subliminal state always beyond grasp. While I benefitted, as a reader, from this aspect of Styron’s great novel, I only recently became conscious of it. Once realized, however, I began to see the Gothic Reach as a common element in most of my reading pleasure. Though I want to be clear that I do not identify all writing which employs the Reach as Gothic; of the books in this discussion only The Mover of Bones would be called so, and even that would likely be open to a debate I’d like to acknowledge but not linger over at this time.

Here’s the first sentence of the first book of the Tall Grass trilogy by Robert Vivian.

The night Jesse Breedlove found the bones it was raining and he was drunk.

See what Vivian does here? Do you see how he directs the gaze from the night, to Jesse Breedlove, to the bones, to Breedlove’s state of being; from atmosphere, to character, to skeletal remains, to inebriation? Where’s the focus? It moves, and within this movement, this eddy (reflective of the drunkenness), we are moved out of our complacency; we begin to experience the discomfort that is the foundation of the Gothic Reach.

I’m personally fascinated with the art of balancing on the precipice between the uncomfortable and comfortable stance of the Reach, noting that this is often achieved through beautiful language as in Simple Prayers by Michael Golding which, I am sorry to report, I bought at the library book sale for a quarter, a sad commentary because this gorgeous book did not deserve such a fate.

For a study in masterful employ of the Reach, read chapter 4. Only two pages long, this is one of my favorite passages in all literature. After a terrible delay, spring arrives “like a great soundless explosion, the eruption into being of a thought, a dream, a dazzling incantation.”

Here, the Reach exits between the words “soundless” and “explosion,” in the notion of thought erupting into being, and in the description of spring as both arrival and incantation.

After you read the fourth chapter (perhaps out loud to anyone who will listen, as I did) turn to the beginning. “Piero had barely traveled past the first clutch of pine trees when he came upon the body.”

You might have noticed how, even in these brief excerpts, the body is prominently featured. This, too, is an aspect of the Reach; every human being is bound by the limitations of body but also (this is the reaching part) possesses an imagination not constrained by it.

An exquisite example of the Reach between body and imagination is The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment which is a book I have been pressing upon people for years. They always thank me.

The Ta’un’uuans believe that to tattoo and to be tattooed is the deepest form of intimacy—the puncturing of the skin, the entry into another’s body, the flow of blood, the infliction of pleasure and pain, the closure and healing of the wound, and most of all, lest anyone forget, the indelible trace of the process.

The Reach, formed between the polarities of pleasure and pain, is reflected here with not just the wound but the “indelible trace of the process” which is, to borrow from Golding, both arrival and incantation. The stories I love work like this, like tattoos drawn in a space I cannot reach though I feel the burn.

In The Celtic Twilight by William Butler Yeats he writes of this yearning but calls it a different name. Describing the conversation between a poet who has decided to leave his art and a peasant who has lost all hope Yeats writes, “Both how Celtic! how full of striving after a something never to be completely expressed in word or deed.” Yeats goes on to say, “Both seek…to express a something that lies beyond the range of expression.”

What I love in these works is this humble and noble act of authors who dared to reach for the unreachable and in so doing became part of an obscure library with its mysterious catalogue of books shelved in strange locations like an old box at the library book sale. Count me in as a patron of this secret space where bones are buried and skin is traced by the stories told there.


Before earning her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Mary Rickert worked as kindergarten teacher, coffee shop barista, Disneyland balloon vendor and personnel assistant at Sequoia National Park. She now lives in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a small city of candy shops and beautiful gardens. She has published numerous short stories, including the Tor.com Original, “The Mothers of Voorhisville.” Her first novel, The Memory Garden, publishes in May 2014.

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