Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Cringe Factor

In my reading group last night, the discussion of On Chesil Beach kept returning to how much the book made each woman cringe.
I think McEwan was doing this on purpose. By dwelling so emphatically on a wedding night disaster, he was forcing the reader to experience his characters' shame and horror. He did this through some very specific and relentlessly fulsome details.
Making a reader or viewer cringe drives something home. And I am thinking here of the TV show The Office, where Michael's antics often produce a cringe. A few nights ago, in his workshop on diversity Michael managed to offend everyone in the room. All in the Family did it well too.
I'm sure other books and movies do it too. I don't think I could write it though. Fail to pull it off and the writer looks like a racist instead of someone holding racism up for our ridicule.
Who else does it well?

12 comments:

Sandra Ruttan said...

There's a delicate balance between enough cringing to make you aware of the horror or shock of a situation and too much, to the point of harping on it. I know I winced a lot during Al Guthrie's HARD MAN but never felt it was overdone.

Another book that does it in a different way is Steve Mosby's THE 50/50 KILLER. In the review in Crimespree, Jon Jordan said it was a book that got under his skin and made him uncomfortable, and that's a good summary of it. It poses an uncomfortable question that can't be brushed off lightly.

pattinase (abbott) said...

When you feel it in the heart, it's working. When you feel it in the pit of the stomacn (or lower) it may be a mistake.

Todd Mason said...

Avram Davidson, in his crime fiction and otherwise, could always portray despicable folks well...Jack Vance, in his fantasy and such, too, though in the little John Holbrook Vance cf I've read, he's less interested in that sort of thing. Joyce Carol Oates has a knack for the utterly unpleasant, and Sheila Kohler has been doing so in stories in Oates's ONTARIO REVIEW and elsewhere, recently for the first time in EQMM.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You do read widely, Todd. I'll look for Kolher.

Todd Mason said...

And it's hard to forget Joe R. Lansdale in this context. And Harlan Ellison...and Evelyn Waugh. Algis Budrys and M. J. Engh want to show you why the despicable characters think that what they're doing is necessary or even proper...and Kate Wilhelm and Theodore Sturgeon seem to avoid such figures when they can, but will demonstrate their ability to present them with vigor when they choose to.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I feel like John Cusack riding along on the wonderful wave of your agile mind here. Waugh is a good example. And sometimes Joyce Carol Oates. Her short story made into that movie with Treat Williams and Laura Dern was painful to watch.

Todd Mason, blushing said...

Oh, if you liked (if you know what I mean) SMOOTH TALK the movie, you Must read "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," the story it's not so faithfully based on. The short story, whose ending was changed considerably for the PBS AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE co-production, is devastating. I'm not sure Oates has surpassed it yet. I'm not sure she thinks she has, either, as it's the title story of one of her major retrospective collections (though that might be because it was one of the first stories to get her national attention, as well). And, as I've noted in conversation with others, it appeared in the little magazine EPOCH, which means it might well have been bounced by THE NEW YORKER, MADEMOISELLE, COSMOPOLITAN (then still taking fiction), THE ATLANTIC, HARPER'S, and such higher-profile littles as PARIS REVIEW and HUDSON REVIEW before eventually seeing publication...and highlighting in the O. HENRY and BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES volumes for its year. Which is another of those object lessons, I suggest.

Cusack as surfer? I missed that one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I did read it many years ago and remember it as being even more alarming than the movie--or maybe that's a false memory. (I was referring to Being John Malkovich).

Todd Mason said...

The Oates story is much more impressive than SMOOTH TALK the film, which really takes most of the punch out of the narrative with the restructured ending (or do I mean "cop-out"?)

pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess her complete disappearance was too bleak for audiences of the time--or am I remembering it wrong. Seems like she just goes off with him and it feels very sinister.

Todd Mason said...

Spoiler:



She allows him to take her somewhere to kill her, so that he won't kill her family. Sinister and tragic are a bit mild in reference to the story. The movie lost this bigtime.

(Good luck with the novel!)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Boy, I'd forgotten is was that spelled out. I hd the idea it was more that she was inexorably drawn to him. Funny how you invent your own explanation over time. And thanks, Todd.