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“Why’s this so good?” No. 1: Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando

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Truman Capote’s profile of the depressive, incoherent, brilliant Marlon Brando is one of the greatest of all time. Published in 1957 in The New Yorker, it nominally takes place one evening in the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto.

One could point out many things about craft in the piece. The descriptions of characters are finely observed and sticky. A director “is a man balanced on enthusiasm, as a bird is balanced on air.” Or check out his description of how Brando transforms into Kowalski: “with what chameleon ease Brando acquired the character’s cruel and gaudy colors, how superbly, like a guileful salamander, he slithered into the part, how his own persona evaporated – just as, in this Kyoto hotel room 10 years afterward, my 1947 memory of Brando receded, disappeared into his 1957 self.”

But all that verbiage needed some infrastructure on which to run. Rhythm, narrative or otherwise, is a pleasing regularity in time, and Capote bangs away like a drum major to keep it.

There are two Russian critical terms that are helpful here: fabula and syuzhet. The fabula is the real chronology of a narrative: Brando was born at such and such a time, grew up, and meets up with Capote in 1957. The syuzhet is how the story is told, its internal narrative time. How you convert fabula into syuzhet is storytelling, and Capote is dazzling. He weaves big time (a life) into little time (the hours), always working at two scales. For all its descriptive frippery and meandering actor monologues, the profile is set in reassuring 4/4 time. We never really leave that room in Kyoto even though Capote sweeps across Brando’s entire life.

The first layer of structure is simple, and it’s the one most of us take when we approach long form. Capote starts and ends in the same place. The first graf is knocking on Brando’s door; the last graf is leaving the hotel and walking home. OK, 101. Much of the rest of the work, particularly in the latter half of the story, is done through a remarkably clever rhetorical gadget. Here’s how it works.

About 1,000 words into the 14,000-word profile, Brando’s nominal screenplay co-writer, the pseudonymous Murray, leaves to go to dinner with a promise to call three hours later to do some work.

Murray shook his head; he was intent on obtaining Brando’s promise to meet with him again at ten-thirty. “Give me a ring around then,” Brando said, finally. “We’ll see what’s happening.”

By Chekhovian logic, we know the phone will ring before the story is over; such a call might even end the story, so we’re watching for it. The telephone actually rings four times in the course of the rest of the piece, and each time, we zoom back from wherever we were to the room where Brando is sitting with Capote. The first ring whips us back from the strange James Dean-Marlon Brando relationship. The second ring interrupts Brando’s detailed, inarticulate descriptions of his acting. The third ends an inquisition into whether Brando makes real connections with anyone. And the fourth stops Capote’s masterful description of the actor’s family.

If you plotted the movements with time on the x-axis and distance from Brando on the y-axis, Capote’s perambulations would resemble the elliptical orbit of comets, reaching away from the dinner to various distances, but always returning to late 1957.

That’s how Capote handles big time, always grounding us back into his narrative present and giving his piece the reassuring rhythm that he’s got all Brando’s history firmly under control.

But there’s another aspect to his ploy. Each time the phone rings, some nearly arbitrary amount of time has passed. The first time Murray calls, we know it’s been three hours, though clearly three hours haven’t been described or felt by the reader. In another instance, “an hour seemed to have passed,” in the course of a thousand words. The passage of time roughly tracks with the word length, but not precisely so. And that’s the real trick. By forcing us to pay attention to the real time (the fabula) every so often, Capote is free to play with narrative time (syuzhet) at will, tunneling back to childhood, zooming in on Brando on the stage or on film, stopping, starting, reversing, slow-mo-ing. He’s like a magician distracting us with unnecessary information so that we don’t notice the mechanics of how he pulls the trick off.

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of “Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.”

For more on this new collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see our introductory post for the series. And stay tuned for inspiration and insight from other writers in the coming weeks.




10 comments

  1. David
    posted June 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm | permalink

    Wonderful trick with the phone — too bad it wouldn’t work today for the 15-minute film junket interview circuit

  2. Harkanwal Hothi
    posted June 30, 2011 at 10:06 pm | permalink

    A great idea for the series and a wonderful start. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  3. mary
    posted July 1, 2011 at 10:48 am | permalink

    Hope you’ll take a look at something by Tracy Kidder. This is very good. Thanks!

  4. Drosera
    posted July 2, 2011 at 1:02 pm | permalink

    [A sentence has been cut from this comment to meet Storyboard standards.--Ed.]

    One could point out the cliché-like description of the Japanese women at the beginning, their oh so funny pronunciation of ‘apple pie’. But I would like to highlight one symptomatic detail to illustrate why I don’t care much about Capote’s piece.

    In the description of Brando’s hotel room we read:

    And cameras, a typewriter, a tape recorder, an electric heater that performed with stifling competence.

    What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Because it doesn’t ring true, that’s what’s wrong. One can sense that the author had initially written: “And cameras, a typewriter, a tape recorder, an electric heater.” Then, realizing that this didn’t sound like real literature, but more like a plain inventory, Capote decided to embellish one of the objects. He could have gone for the typewriter, or the tape recorder, but picked the heater. What does a heater do? Heating, of course. Boring. So let’s make this heater slightly more interesting by suggesting that it was doing it’s job rather too well. However, by not making the reader feel in any other way that the room is stiflingly overheated, it becomes apparent that this heater is only a prop. It makes the reader (this one, at least) suspect that this writer can’t be trusted, that he is bound to invent pretty details to show off his stylistic ability. It gives the whole piece its fake, kitschy tone.

    But truth should not be sacrificed for style, least of all by a journalist. The really great writer combines both. Capote’s not one of them.

  5. Drosera
    posted July 3, 2011 at 5:22 am | permalink

    I suppose budding journalists should not be taught about satire. Fair enough. Their job is to uncover and report facts in an unbiased and effective way. A clear writing style is essential. But using techniques appropriate in fiction (for instance the Chekhovian logic that Alexis Madrigal mentions) can be dangerous. In my experience as a scientist, I find that whenever a journalist reports on something I know about, the resulting piece often contains factual errors, while patent exaggerations and plain inventions are rarely absent.

    I tend to find the errors the least irritating; we cannot expect journalists to be experts in every field they write about. But exaggerations and inventions clearly result from the authors’ trespassing in the field of fiction. Bending and stretching the facts to make a piece more ‘interesting’, even if only for the sake of style, is tempting, no doubt. But it is a temptation that journalists should resist at all costs. They should take pride in not writing fiction.

  6. Romas Sakadolskis
    posted July 3, 2011 at 7:33 am | permalink

    A great idea for a series and a nice start. Deconstruction always illuminates and sometimes exhilarates, especially if it validates what the reader may have sensed. Capote’s piece exemplifies “literary journalism” that assembles facts into a grand story. Another is Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” published in Esquire nine years later, in 1966. I wonder what Mr. Madrigal would find, should he sink his cognitive teeth into this seminal piece? Capote visited his subject and they conversed at length. Talese visited his subject, but Sinatra refused to be interviewed. Capote manipulates time in the presence of Brando. Talese also manipulates space — he’s always close by — and place(California, New York, New Jersey) in the presence of his subject. Each weaves a grand story. Perhaps juxtaposing them would yield some grand insights.

  7. posted July 13, 2011 at 9:14 pm | permalink

    I love this! What a great way to share these timeless stories and to read informed opinions as to why they are so good. I am not a writer, nor did I study writing, but I feel like I am in one of the most advanced writing classes in the world. Thank you for taking the time to write about these and post them.

  8. Andrea Pitzer
    posted July 13, 2011 at 10:37 pm | permalink

    Drosera,

    It’s true that there are a number of questions about Capote’s reporting that have come up, particularly related to “In Cold Blood.” The good news is that standards in that arena have evolved in the decades since Capote’s most famous work was published. And journalists who don’t keep them often get outed.

    I agree that even when a reporter sticks to the facts, there can be risks to using literary techniques. But I think Alexis is admiring a narrative device here, one that is still fair game and well executed.

    And if you look around, I think you’ll find many reporters talking about making choices when it comes to using even legitimate techniques. I remember talking with Tom O’Neill about a story he wrote for National Geographic on North Korean defectors. He knew he wanted to do a narrative, but he didn’t think just one person’s story could represent the experience of defectors crossing the border to China. A single individual might have made a more compelling narrative, but he chose to write the story in a way he felt was more accountable to the larger reality.

    And in the last two questions of this April 2011 interview (http://bitly.com/osnEDm), Eliza Griswold talked about consciously avoiding a sensational narrative framework when reporting on religious conflict, knowing that a dramatic narrative that eclipsed subtleties could run the risk of inciting violence.

    It’s possible, I believe, to be accurate and fair in reporting and yet offer readers a compelling narrative–and that doing so often reaches more people than would be possible with a traditional news article.

  9. posted July 13, 2011 at 10:47 pm | permalink

    @Jonathon: That’s *precisely* the idea. Check out the other pieces in the series, too. They are really, really great.

  10. Drosera
    posted July 18, 2011 at 7:31 am | permalink

    @Andrea,

    While I appreciate your thoughtful comments, I still have the impression that for many journalists the line between fiction and fact is one too easily crossed. Advising budding journalists to employ techniques used in fiction in order to make a report more compelling to read is, in my opinion, almost an invitation to cross that line. Still, I wouldn’t disagree that journalists can learn a great deal from careful reading of great literary authors. How to avoid clichés would perhaps be the most valuable lesson.

6 trackbacks

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  2. [...] more from this new collaboration with Longreads, check out the first post in the series, written by Alexis Madrigal. And stay tuned for more inspiration and insight from fabulous writers [...]

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