Nick Carraway's Convenient Dog
Or, The Sure-But-And-So,
a Strategy for Approaching Awkward Necessity
There are times when you just need certain things to happen in order for a story to work. Sometimes these things are implausible, unlikely, or wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. How do you handle this?
The trick is:
- acknowledge the difficulty;
- provide one reason the difficulty isn't quite what it seems;
- provide another reason; and finally
- introduce the false, required conclusion.
Sure – but – and – so.
Think, for example, of the hidden implausibility that begins – and in fact makes possible –The Great Gatsby:
I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father, and a little later I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless. Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe – so I decided to go east and learn the bond business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business so I supposed it could support one more single man. All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they were choosing a prep-school for me and finally said, "Why – ye-es" with very grave, hesitant faces. Father agreed to finance me for a year and after various delays I came east, permanently, I thought, in the spring of twenty-two.
The practical thing was to find rooms in the city but it was a warm season and I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees, so when a young man at the office suggested that we take a house together in a commuting town it sounded like a great idea. He found the house, a weather beaten cardboard bungalow at eighty a month, but at the last minute the firm ordered him to Washington and I went out to the country alone. I had a dog, at least I had him for a few days until he ran away, and an old Dodge and a Finnish woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove.
Well, it ain't much, but it'll have to do. Of course, Nick Carraway would live in the city: he works there, after all, and what young man wouldn't want to live in the great hustle-and-bustle instead of out among the stuffed shirts of Long Island?
But Nick can't live in the city, because if he did there'd be no book. So we get the sure-but-and-so, tidy as any syllogism:
- [Sure] – The practical thing was to find rooms in the city
- but it was a warm season
- and I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees,
- so when a young man at the office suggested that we take a house together in a commuting town it sounded like a great idea.
Hey, great idea!
Note, too, how quickly these devices are dismissed after they've served their purposes! The "young man at the office" vanishes completey (never to be mentioned again) and even the dog, whose presence argues for the lawns and trees, runs away. And the awkward necessity of Nick's being on Long Island is never discussed – and Fitzgerald hopes we never notice how very awkward it is.
The sure-but-and-so is sometimes more implicit than explicit. In The Folded Leaf, William Maxwell has to convince us that two very unalike boys – the meek, anxious Lymie Peters and the bluff, easygoing Spud Latham – become powerfully close friends, if not lovers. This friendship is begun when, after they participate in the same (high-school) fraternity initiation, the boys separately discover they're peeing green. Big fearless Spud worries he's contracted some sort of VD (from a toilet seat, he figures), and when he sees Lymie at school the next day:
He walked faster but Lymie hurried too and caught up with him as he started up the wide cement steps. They went into the building together. Neither of them mentioned the initiation but as they passed the door of the boys' lavatory on the first floor, Lymie said, "Did you pee green this morning?" and deprived Spud of the last hope, the one comfort left to him.
The disease showed.
If it had been any of the others, Spud would have swung on him. He couldn't hit Lymie. Lymie wasn't big enough. Besides, he remembered what he saw the night before when he ripped his blindfold off: Lymie, his thin naked body marked with circles and crosses and the letters I EAT SHIT, trying to get to his feet, without help from anyone. The scene had stayed in his mind intact. Also the curious feel of Lymie's shoulder under his hand. Instead of lying, which he would have done if it had been any of the others, he still had enough trust in Lymie to be able to say "Yeah," in a weak voice. "Yeah, I did."
"So did I," Lymie said. "I thought it might be – you know. So I asked my father. He said it must be that pill they gave us."
The sickness receded, leaving Spud without any strength in his knees….He wanted to laugh out loud and prance and dance….Spud and Lymie walked in together….In spite of the babel and the steady tramping outside in the corridor, each of them heard the other's footsteps; heard them as distinctly as if the sound were made by a man walking late at night in an empty street.
So the friendship begins in earnest (relatively late; this is page 63 of a 289-page book) thanks to a bonding experience and helped along by an implied sure-but-and-so:
- sure – If it had been any of the others, Spud would have swung on him.
- but – He couldn't hit Lymie. Lymie wasn't big enough.
- and – Besides, he remembered what he saw the night before when he ripped his blindfold off: Lymie, his thin naked body marked with circles and crosses and the letters I EAT SHIT, trying to get to his feet, without help from anyone. The scene had stayed in his mind intact.
- and [again] – Also the curious feel of Lymie's shoulder under his hand.
- so – Instead of lying, which he would have done if it had been any of the others, he still had enough trust in Lymie to be able to say "Yeah," in a weak voice. "Yeah, I did."
This is a handy tool, although not one to be deployed too often. And it may even serve as a useful diagnostic. If it seems you need a sure-but-and-so, it's worth asking whether your scenario is entirely well-considered. We succeed, mostly, in forgetting about Nick's reasons for being on Long Island, but do we ever quite believe in Lymie and Spud?
A more illuminating sort of sure-but-and-so is not an author's trick but a character's self-deception. With its dubious logic, the sure-but-and-so can be used to show us someone trying to convince themselves of a convenient truth. In Alice Munro's "Family Furnishings," the narrator explains how she justified avoiding making contact with her cousin, the once-favored Alfrida:
I won a scholarship. I didn't stay home to take care of my mother or of anything else. I went off to college. The college was in the city where Alfrida lived. After a few months she asked me to come for supper, but I could not go, because I worked every evening of the week except on Sundays. I worked on the city library, downtown, and in the college library, both of which stayed open until nine o'clock…Nor did I think that Alfrida was the sort of person to show up at the library. The very word, "library," would probably make her turn down her big mouth in a parody of consternation, as she used to do at the books in the bookcase in our house…."Lot of hotshot reading in there," Alfrida had said. "Bet you don't crack those very often." And my father had said no, he didn't, falling in with her comradely tone of dismissal or even contempt and to some extent telling a lie, because he did look into them, once in a long while, when he had the time.
That was the kind of lie that I hoped never to have to tell again, the contempt I hoped never to have to show, about the things that really mattered to me. And in order not to have to do that, I would pretty well have to stay clear of the people I used to know.
The sure-but-and-so is well buried, but it's just as present as it is in Fitzgerald and Maxwell – with the crucial distinction that it's the character making the excuses, not the author:
- sure, we lived in the same city and I should have made contact,
- but I worked in the library,
- and Alfrida scorned libraries and all those people who loved them,
- and in order to preserve my sense of myself I had to stay clear of people who didn't love them,
- so I avoided Alfrida.
The syllogistic nature of this argument is stark, and this starkness adds to the feeling of the narrator's self-serving fatuity. You can't reliably apply logic to the workings of relationships, after all, especially complicated ones. And when you do, you're only fooling yourself. That's the point of a sure-but-and-so, of course – fooling someone. When a character does it early in a story, you're usually supposed to notice, and you can usually count on the argument collapsing later on. But when an author resorts to the same tactic, he's hoping you don't notice.
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