DO NOT USE QUOTATION MARKS TO INDICATE IRONY
by Anthony Wallace
David Sarnovski taught only one creative writing course at Boston University, so he didn’t have an office. Sometimes he conferenced students in the Espresso Royale at BU Central, sometimes in a filthy Chinese restaurant at Kenmore called the Jade Inn. Sometimes he would just pull into an empty classroom, have a seat at one of the desks, and start talking about whatever he thought the issue was. Madison had met with him twice before and had tried to follow through on at least some of his suggestions, but the grades only seemed to be getting worse. He’d given her a B on the video store story, then a B minus on the Dog Chapel story. One of his comments was “do not use quotation marks to indicate irony.” Sure, she’d done that a few times, but it was hard to understand how a few quotation marks could get you a B minus. There were a few other margin comments, and a short paragraph at the end, but it was hard to read his handwriting, and none of it seemed to add up to much.
Sarnovski wore a Yankees cap and a beat up tweed sports jacket; he talked nonstop about writing a heroin-chic novel on Stegner money, out at Stanford, kicking back for a couple of years and soaking up the California sunshine. He’d asked the class to call him by his first name, but Madison privately thought of him as “Sarnovski.” Since she didn’t want to call him either David or Professor Sarnovski—or even Mister Sarnovski—she avoided the problem by not directly addressing him at all. She began her e-mails to him with a simple “Hello.” Madison had arranged a meeting via e-mail so that she could talk to Sarnovski about the B minus, and he’d written back that they would “touch base” directly after class. When the class was over she waited until everyone else had filed out, then she reminded him of their appointment. She knew he’d forgotten, although he acted like he hadn’t.
Sarnovski put the rest of his stuff in his Tumi shoulder bag, and together they walked down the unevenly lighted hallway. The course was scheduled at night, since Sarnovski had explained to the class that he wrote all day and this was the only time slot that fit into his schedule. He’d told them all at the first meeting that the writing must come first, must be always placed above everything else. The class met for three hours on Wednesday evenings, and sometimes if things really got going they didn’t stop for a break.
Without saying anything Sarnovski veered left into the first classroom he saw, flipped on the lights, and sat down at one of the desks in the back of the room. Madison supposed that he expected her to follow suit, which she did. “Close that door,” he said to her as she came toward him. “Would you please?”
She went back and shut the door and then took the desk opposite his. She went into her bag and brought out the story, which was called “A Journey to the Northeast Kingdom.” The story concerned a pet sitter named Heather who begins an affair with a married man, a tax attorney she meets while walking a pack of five mismatched dogs down Commonwealth Avenue.
“This is a really imaginative premise,” Sarnovski began. “But I have a few issues with the way you’ve followed through on it.
“I wanted to start revising,” Madison cut in, “but you didn’t give me much to go on.”
Sarnovski thumbed through the manuscript in a way that seemed dismissive. “Oh yeah, well, these margin notes are really designed more for me than for you, something to help me remember what I thought about the story when we meet to discuss it in conference. I do find it so much easier to simply meet with students in a seminar this small. Plus you have my commentary from the last two stories.”
“That’s true,” Madison said. “I definitely know what you don’t like about my work.”
“Yes,” Sarnovski went on, again thumbing the manuscript, this time licking his thumb beforehand. “And here once again are some of those things we’ve already discussed. Sentimentality, overwrought or stilted language, forced dramatic action or realization—I think I’ve laid it out for you pretty clearly to this point in the semester, so I’m not sure if you’re simply disregarding my suggestions or if these problems are really ingrained in how you’re thinking about this—I mean, they seem really entrenched.”
He set the manuscript on the desk, looked down at it, then looked directly at Madison. Apparently he thought this was some sort of showdown, and maybe he was right. She certainly felt that she was trying her best, that this story especially was the kind of work she’d imagined doing when she’d first gotten interested in creative writing back in high school, and now here was this Sarnovski telling her not to do exactly what she wanted to do. Whose work was it, anyway?
Of course she didn’t say any of this to Sarnovski. Instead, she returned his gaze as evenly as she could manage. Under the Yankees baseball cap his eyes flashed deep blue, almost purple, something at once attractive and menacing: a gaze intended to indicate both that he was a friendly soul but that she was taxing his very large store of patience. Madison was the first to look away. Her eyes landed on the manuscript. On the first page above the title she’d sketched the Dog Chapel, a small white New England-style chapel with a steeple on top of which, poised like an oversized weather vane, was a wooden black Labrador retriever with blue and white wings. Sarnovski’s response to the sketch was that she should “Resist the impulse to illustrate. Illustrations are for people who are (some word she couldn’t decipher) with language.” Whatever she did in Sarnovski’s class, it was wrong.
“Yes, the illustration,” continued Sarnovski. “It’s cute, you know, but a little amateurish. The same thing with the way you’re using quotation marks, which is a new wrinkle. I don’t remember you doing that before.”
“No, it was something I was trying out.”
“That’s, you know, sort of like air quotes. It brings attention to the fact that you’re using the word in a different way, usually ironic. Sort of like Doctor Evil with ‘The Laser.’” He made two gigantic quotation marks with the first two fingers of each hand, then burst out laughing. Apparently this Sarnovski thought he was a very funny fellow. “But if you start with that, where does it end? I’m happy you’re attending this ‘meeting,’” he went on, once again hooking his fingers in the air in a way that made him look like Richard Nixon giving the victory sign with both hands, but with the fingertips pointing downward, “and I hope this ‘meeting’ ‘helps’ you to ‘write’ ‘better’!”
At this he lowered his arms and laughed uproariously, a trick he used in class whenever things got a little tense.
They discussed the plot points of the story leading up to the epiphany, which Sarnovski said was forced, as was some of the language, and this was also evident in the way Madison was using quotation marks, which were designed to show that a word was being used in an unconventional way, or that the conventional meaning of the word was being challenged by the character, the writer, or both. The main thing he seemed to be insisting on was that everything seemed a bit forced, that things needed to be done more quietly, more seamlessly. And the ending was simply a lesson that the lawyer was too cynical and needed to open himself to the possibilities represented by the Dog Chapel. But the story didn’t take into consideration that the Dog Chapel itself could represent kitsch, sentimentality, oversimplification of emotion. The writer had painted herself into a corner in the way she had set the Dog Chapel up as a symbol. The story could work, but she needed to get more control of her material, to see that the story itself might suggest more possibilities than she’d realized.
Sarnovski droned on and on, and much of what he said really was interesting, but Madison was drifting away, thinking of how she’d tried to write a nice little story about something that happens in a Dog Chapel in Vermont. She’d gone there with her parents last summer because her mother had wanted to post a photo of their golden retriever Lucky who had died of a brain tumor the previous winter. Madison had thought the Dog Chapel was a stupid idea designed to get stupid tourists to part with their stupid money, but once inside the place unexpected things began to happen. And when Madison saw her mother kneel in the Chapel, fighting back real tears, all the battles they’d had throughout high school fell away and she saw her mother—felt about her—as she had when she was a little girl on her first day of school. Her mother said, “Mind the teachers and be polite. And when you meet another child just say, ‘Hello, my name is Madison. What’s your name?’” At recess she tried this and, to her amazement, it worked. By the end of the day she’d made more new friends than anyone in the class—ironically, she’d been enrolled in a Friends School—and when her mother came back to get her Madison ran into her arms. In the Dog Chapel this past summer Madison went up to where her mother was kneeling and knelt down beside her. She put her arm around her, and together they stood and thumb-tacked the picture of Lucky to a vacant space on the corkboard wall. Since then it had been completely different between Madison and her mother, as if the real women named Veronica and Madison had been held prisoner and were now suddenly free.
It was this sense of freedom Madison wanted to create not just in this story but in every story. The attorney could be free of his awful cynicism and womanizing, and the pet sitter named Heather could be free of whatever it was that always made her submit to male authority. They could be free, everybody could be free! As she had this conversation with herself she looked carefully at David Sarnovski. Beneath the bill of the Yankees cap his blue eyes flashed and glinted like thin patches of ice on a frozen pond. His chest and shoulders heaved up and down as he worked himself into a frenzy with his own ideas.
“I like the whole setup,” he went on. “I mean, I like that the guy is a real creep, the attorney is a real creep, as all attorneys are. The pet sitter is eighteen or nineteen, sweet, loves animals, as you might expect—and I like that she likes the Dog Chapel, and by that I mean I like that she takes it seriously, and by that I mean I like that she takes it literally. That she wants to go there with the picture of the dead dog and that she gets the attorney to take her there as part of a romantic getaway.”
He paused, took a pair of wire-rim reading glasses from the top pocket of his sports jacket, and picked the manuscript up with both hands.
“Let’s go right to the climax of the story, right to where he looks at her and has the ‘epiphany.’” He hooked his fingers in the air to make two oversized quotation marks, straining a bit inside the tight jacket and smirking. “That’s where I have the biggest problem, and that’s where I think the story goes off course. Some words we can change, the quotation marks we can delete, but—the center of the story—the place where everything comes together, or is supposed to—well, I just don’t buy it. And for a few different reasons. For one thing, I don’t think the change is earned by what happens in the story. For another, I like him as a creep, so I’m not sure I want him to change. That might be a red herring—to think about the story in terms of something happening to him, that something has to happen to him.”
Sarnovski paused again, looking very satisfied with himself. He looked her straight in the eye over the metal tops of the reading glasses. His eyes looked bruised, sensitive. His hands as they gripped the manuscript looked unusually expressive.
“What about her changing? I mean, what about her seeing that he’s a creep?”
Madison didn’t say anything. But what she wanted to say was that she thought the idea of the course was that he would help her write the story she wanted to write, not take her story and do whatever he felt like doing with it. She wanted to explain that she’d used the quotation marks to indicate how every word potentially is charged, how language is always turning back on itself, simultaneously constructing and deconstructing itself, in the process trapping us in a world of logical construction and deconstruction. Sarnovski hadn’t noticed that, as her characters emerged, the quotation marks went away. It probably was a corny way of doing that: he was probably right about that. But one thing she was sure she wanted to do was to free her characters, and the trap of irony was one of the things she wanted to free them from.
Sarnovski meanwhile continued: “But let’s back up before we consider that as a strong possibility for revision. Right now we get to the part where she puts the picture of the dead dog up on the wall and then kneels down in one of the pews toward the front of the Chapel. He looks at her, her face colored with light from a stained glass window in which a beagle is chasing a rabbit, and what happens? What exactly is the chemical reaction that occurs?”
“He sees her innocence. Or at least that’s what I was going for. He sees what he’s lost.”
It caused Madison tremendous pain to say this—to have to explain the story to him in this way. Almost unbearable pain. Almost like he was a sadist, or a rapist, even, and she was allowing it. But now she couldn’t stop herself. “He’s so cynical, like with everything he says about the B and B where they stay, a place where people sit around in the afternoon sipping tea and working wooden jigsaw puzzles, plus what he says about his wife, and then he has this pure moment when he looks at her tacking the picture of the dog to the wall and then kneeling down—the way the light comes through the stained glass—just the purity of that moment—”
“All right,” Sarnovski interrupted. “But let’s consider what the Dog Chapel itself actually is. I mean, as a complex literary symbol, let’s discuss what it represents.” But this time he didn’t stop to ask what she thought it was supposed to represent. “Kitsch. Sentimentality. An oversimplified emotional response.” He tapped the paper for each item on his list. “I do understand that she can be guilty of that—should be guilty of that—and still be a sympathetic character. I mean, good grief—carved wooden dogs flying up to heaven! But for him to experience something life-changing because of that would mean that you, as writer, are endorsing that—that sensibility—and asking the reader to accept it as well.”
He paused again, looked directly at her.
“Is that what you intended?”
“No. At least not how you’re describing it.”
“Well then, that’s the point, isn’t it? I mean, that’s my central point here today. That story and what you’ve set up might mean different things to different readers. Things much different than what you intended them to mean. Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s a matter of control. You’ve got the characters, the situation—everything, really. But then you just lose control of the story. The story becomes not an interesting and complicated reflection on sentimentality and the questions it poses, the question of how attractive the Disney response is—what we might call the Disney response: It’s a small world after all, whistle while you work—the whole boatload of clichés they peddle down there in Orlando to the tune of billions of dollars a year—and the darker questions that response poses because it’s so attractive. Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you see what I’m saying about the unexplored possibilities here, about taking complete ownership of the material and seeing it through to the furthest possible conclusions?”
His eyes met hers and everything stopped, just for a moment, as she raised her arms and hooked her fingers into gigantic quotation marks and said, “I do!” Then they both laughed. The tension in the room had been broken, and something else had come to take its place, and even when they’d stopped laughing she kept her hands in the air, fingers curled like two talons. He looked, and she looked; her arms were getting heavy. Finally she let them fall, and it came as no small surprise that Sarnovski’s open hands were there to catch them. But his eyes, when they peeped out from under the bill of the Yankees cap, were full of pain—or perhaps it was fear—blue-white and floating just above the empty glare of the reading glasses, as if he’d fallen through the ice and hers were the only hands that could pull him to safety. As if she alone could save him.
Anthony Wallace is a Senior Lecturer in the Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University, where he is also Co-director of “Arts Now,” a curriculum-based initiative to support the arts at BU. Tony has published poetry and fiction in literary journals including CutBank, Another Chicago Magazine, the Atlanta Review, River Styx, Sou’wester, 5-Trope, the Republic of Letters, and Florida Review. His short story “The Old Priest” won a Pushcart Prize and was published last fall in Pushcart 2013. His short story collection The Old Priest is the winner of the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be published this September by the University of Pittsburgh Press.