We’re reading Charlotte’s Web out loud. (Toby’s three and five sixths; we started reading chapter books at about three and three fourths.) The book is as good as I remember it, unsurprisingly.
But one thing took me by surprise, which was this, on p. 16, a little ways into the third chapter:
One afternoon in June, when Wilbur was almost two months old, he wandered out into his small yard outside the barn. Fern had not arrived for her usual visit. Wilbur stood in the sun feeling lonely and bored.
“There’s never anything to do around here,” he thought.
All of a sudden—without preface, caveat, warning, or fanfare; and after the story is already off and running, with the world fully established—the animals are sentient.
Not so remarkable, I’m guessing, for the three-year-old reader. Maybe not even for most adult readers. But I think it’s a sign of E. B. White’s artistry that he can shift from a realistic world into a fantastic world so effortlessly.
It reminded me of this—an anecdote that opens John Updike’s New Yorker review of The Body, a novel by Hanif Kureishi:
John Hawkes, a conspicuous avant-garde libertarian, once announced, to the astonishment of a writing class in which I was enrolled, “When I want a character to fly, I just write, ‘He flew.'”
A great opening in so many ways: John Hawkes taught at Harvard? Updike—who was the same year as my dad there, Class of 1954—studied with him? Updike was perfectly aware that his characters—mostly earthbound, I’m guessing, although I’ve read embarassingly little Updike—could just take off at any time?
All of which also makes me think a little bit about my short-short story “The Ones Who Came After the Ones Who Could Fly.”
And it reminds me of something similar White does at the start of The Trumpet of the Swan (which I read out loud to Toby before he turned one; I think that was around the time that I also read him some New Yorker fiction out loud, on the theory that what was mostly needed at the time was out-loud reading, not necessarily age-appropriate out-loud reading.) As with Charlotte’s Web, you’re already fully in the world when all of a sudden, on p. 11, a few pages into the second chapter, the swans start to talk:
“Take a look at this!” exclaimed the female, as she swam round and round.
All of a sudden, it’s not just a world of humans and animals, it’s a world of humans and animals who can talk to each other, and who can understand human speech, but who cannot be understood by humans.
Another fantastic example of pulling off the neat trick of suddenly introducing a particular kind of magic into a world that didn’t have it before: my favorite moment in “CommComm,” by the great George Saunders:
Turns out when the recently dead breathe in your face they show you the future.
“Turns out”! So easy; so brilliant. I think Murakami does this too in at least a couple stories. The casualness of the voice, the friendliness of it—it says “hey, you didn’t know this, but I, the narrator, didn’t know it either, so we’re in it together, experiencing the strangeness of this thing.”
I borrowed the line “turns out” as part of a recent rewrite of a story I wrote in grad school—using those words, similarly, as a pivot, as an unassuming opening of a magic door. And I’ve been sending the story out.
So far, no luck. I think it’s a good story, though; no magic needed. Just persistence.
Which, in some ways, is synonymous with magic and luck.