That Gut-wrenching Moment

15 May

Sometimes in a book, there will be a short episode or event of such power that it casts its shadow over all that precedes and comes after it. Typically, it will be a moment that shocks you then leaves you desolate. It’s a rare achievement and etches the book into your memory. To be truly effective, there can be only one such moment in a novel. We’re not talking about plot twists here. Post-Tales of the Unexpected, plot twists have become as hoary an old cliché as describing something as hoary and old. It might be a revelation, stripping away much that the reader had previously believed about that fictional world. It doesn’t have to be, though. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has such a moment as does Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (in order to avoid plot spoilers, the scenes to which I’m referring have been relegated to footnotes at the end of this post). They would be powerful books without these moments but their inclusion adds to them immeasurably. Much less well known is Andrew Cowan’s Crustaceans, a work of subtlety and power also containing one of these pivotal moments. Such scenes haunt the imagination and memory, sometimes years or decades after you first read them.

Andrew Cowan's novel, as its title suggests, contains an unforgettable trip to the seaside...

Andrew Cowan’s novel, as its title suggests, contains an unforgettable trip to the seaside…

More recently, I read Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole, the first of the late author’s books to be translated from the Hungarian into English. I keep visiting the book store in the hope that another translation has been commissioned and that it’ll match up to this book. Sad but true – that’s the kind of book junkie I am…  Metropole contains one of those episodes, perhaps the finest example that I’ve come across to date. Whereas those in the novels by Orwell and Ishiguro darken the despair that we already feel, Karinthy’s episode offers a moment of hope, following a series of reverses in the protagonist’s fortunes. That the hope proves to be illusory only deepens its impact. The original Hungarian title of the novel was Epepe, named after one of its principal characters. This was deemed insufficiently marketable, one assumes, when the book was translated into English. During the period of the Hungarian People’s Republic, such matters would have been unimportant (some things about the past are better…). I’m guessing that the new title was intended to carry echoes of Metropolis, to suggest an ultra-modern and alienating city such as the one depicted in Fritz Lang’s silent movie. I suspect it also carries a hint of this key moment, which takes place at a metro station…

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t managed to achieve this effect in any of the books that I’ve written to date. It’s not for the want of trying, though. It remains an aspiration. I wonder if any of my readers know of novels that utilise this powerful technique…

Plot Spoilers

Nineteen Eighty-Four

It’s the point where Winston and Julia’s run-down love nest is revealed to have been a trap and they’re arrested by the Thought Police.

You were the dead, theirs – that is, the proles’ – was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two equals four. ‘We are the dead,’ he said. ”We are the dead,’ echoed Julia dutifully. ‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them. Winston’s entrails seemed to have turned into ice… 

Metropole

The protagonist, Budai has arrived by mistake in a city where nobody speaks a word that he can understand. And then he has an encounter.

One time, heading home on the metro, he was just descending the long escalators… when he suddenly spotted a man holding a Hungarian magazine. It was no mistake… This was such an unexpected shock that he had no sooner registered it than the man holding it, an elderly, grey, bespectacled figure in a worn green overcoat, had already passed him and was now behind him… Budai screamed out… ‘Hello! Look this way!’ The man addressed turned around, his expression astonished, as if hearing a voice from another world. 

Needless to say, Budai loses track of the man among the crowd at the metro station and never sees him again.

Never Let Me Go

The novel concerns people who’ve been cloned, merely for the purpose of providing donor organs for others. The gut-wrenching moment comes when the characters realise that the donations won’t stop if they survive their fourth donations. The narrator comments:

“There’s nothing to do except watch your remaining donations until they switch you off. It’s horror movie stuff…”

All text © PSR 2014 except the excerpts quoted from the named authors. Image © PSR 2014.

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8 Responses to “That Gut-wrenching Moment”

  1. www.laurensapala.com May 15, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    I recently finished reading “Under Western Eyes” by Joseph Conrad and the whole book centers around just such a moment. The entire narrative deals with the aftermath of that one moment in which a man betrays his conscience, and how he subsequently learns that a man’s conscience is the only thing he can truly betray on this earth.

    It’s a stunning work, not only for the reason detailed above, but also because it’s Conrad and he’s a prophetic genius, and the structure of the book is phenomenal. If you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a Conrad fan. 🙂

    I’ve put Metropole on my to-read list!

    • Paul Sutton Reeves May 15, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

      Hi Lauren and thanks for your comments.

      I am a Conrad fan but I haven’t read as much of his work as perhaps I should have done. I’ll be reading ‘Under Western Eyes’, then! It’s already on my bookshelves…

  2. sara33ia May 15, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    Reblogged this on sara33ia.

  3. mylongdalliance May 16, 2014 at 12:28 am #

    Thank you for this post. I completely agree that there really can and should be only one truly gut wrenching moment in a book. The last book I read called Burial Rites (my review is in my book review page), has mastered one of these SO well that I have actually picked the book up 3 times since I finished reading it 4 months ago JUST to read that particular chapter again. It is so etched in my mind and effected me to a point that I cried for an hour! If you can master a gut wrenching moment in your novel, I think you are half way there 🙂

    • Paul Sutton Reeves May 16, 2014 at 5:54 am #

      Hi there and thanks for dropping by, MLD. I shall pop across and have a look at your review, then. Have you been working on such an effect in your own work?

  4. Mari Biella May 16, 2014 at 8:10 am #

    I know what you mean, Paul, but I can’t seem to think of any good examples at the moment! I’ll have to get my thinking cap on…

    Gut-wrenching moments, though, really can add something wonderful to a work of fiction. It’s quite unlike the old plot twist thing, which sometimes gets on my nerves a bit, especially when it’s included just for the sake of a bit of razzle-dazzle, or is obviously a case of a writer trying a bit too hard. For me, it has the effect of ripping aside the curtain and allowing you to see the mechanics underlying the whole thing, à la “The Wizard of Oz”. A good gut-wrenching moment never does that.

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves May 16, 2014 at 5:03 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for commenting.

    My children and I have recently read that bit in ‘The Wizard of Oz’. It’s definitely not gut-wrenching but is funny. The Great Humbug…

    I shall await the results of your thinking cap!

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