I’m thinking about perfect chapters. I’m thinking about the perfect chapters of Joan Didion. I’m reading A Book of Common Prayer, and the chapters are perfect.
The narrator, Grace, sets out to give an account of another woman, Charlotte. (“I will be her witness.”)
The story is not exactly chronological; it’s more prismatic. Grace holds Charlotte up to the light and examines her from one angle, and that is a chapter. Grace turns slightly to look at things another way, and that is the next chapter. Each chapter offers up a small example of how Charlotte could be, and it doesn’t matter that they contradict one another because that’s the point; a layered story about a layered person. In one chapter we understand that Charlotte has been hanging around the airport because she has nowhere to go and is in the lonely position of waiting for something to happen to her. In another we see her kill a chicken with her bare hands.
Of course, this narrative choice serves to reveal not just Charlotte but also Grace. What Grace chooses to remember or dwell on, Grace’s particular regrets, all the things Grace can’t shake, delivered one at a time in short, perfect chapters. It’s a genius way to tell a story.
I’m thinking about perfect chapters because I’m still in the long slog of sorting through my manuscript to figure out what should stay, trying to organize it. One can easily string together dozens of pages but not have a chapter. It’s not enough to move the plot forward, for the next thing to happen. There is a certain magic to a perfect chapter.
In my own manuscript, I can tell when something’s missing, though I might not (yet) know how to fix it. What I love about Joan’s chapters is how they build on each other, all the repetition and echoes, how things don’t totally make sense the first time she mentions them but then the story falls into place. I have this conviction that the best thing I can do for my own writing right now is read these chapters, and then read them again.