“Why’s this so good?” No. 33: Michael Paterniti’s painted ghosts
It was summer; it was winter. The village disappeared behind skeins of fog. Fishermen came and went in boats named Reverence, Granite Prince, Souwester.
Whenever I find my writing drifting into the simple staccato of basic exposition, whenever I question the role of rhetoric in storytelling or despair over rumors of distracted readers and diminished attention spans, I pick up Michael Paterniti’s “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy.”
The ocean, which was green and wild, carried the boats out past Jackrock Bank toward Pearl Island and the open sea. In the village, on the last shelf of rock, stood a lighthouse, whitewashed and octagonal with a red turret.
Paterniti’s style with its repetitive rhythms, its subordinate clauses and discursive participles might be considered indulgent. Perhaps it is. Perhaps too, in a day and age when the overwhelming pressure is to write with concise brevity, it is an artifact, a throwback to another time and place.
Its green light beamed over the green sea, and sometimes, in the thickest fog or heaviest storm, that was all the fishermen had of land, this green eye dimly flashing in the night, all they had of home and how to get there – that was the question. There were nights when that was the only question.
I hope not, for I always thrill to the opening of this story with its cadences of ocean brushing against a rocky shore – and to the subsequent recounting of the events on and after Sept. 2, 1998, when Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, five miles from the village of Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia.
Seldom has such simple language carried such terrible imminence.
“The Long Fall of One Eleven Heavy” was first published in Esquire in July 2000, and 12 years later, I find myself admiring with each reading the risk that Paterniti took in his telling of this story.
As journalism, the work is idiosyncratic. Paterniti identifies none of the characters by name, and he provides no explanation. The principals are known only as the medical examiner, the television reporter and the father of the woman with the blue Persian eyes.
Nor does Paterniti seem overly concerned with sharing the provenance of details in the story. To complicate matters, he acknowledges in a Nieman narrative writing discussion that he might have gotten some of those details wrong.
I am, however, not overly troubled by these omissions. For the writing alone – and for the many details I have no reason to dispute or question – I have found few narratives more spellbinding, a quality I attribute largely to the melody of the language.
In “The Art of Fiction,” John Gardner writes about the “fictive dream,” in which a story becomes for readers “a rich and vivid play in the mind.” The ingredients for creating this dream, according to Gardner, are vivid and continuous details, which holds true equally for nonfiction.
The opening sequence of “The Long Fall” is a mere 500 words and, in my mind, an incantation of Gardner’s dream, one that stunningly hinges halfway through upon a couple making love (no better image of human vulnerability) seconds before the plane hit the ocean.
Before this image: a series of stills introducing Peggy’s Cove. After this image: the gathering momentum of the disaster with its disorienting and sinister intrusion upon daily life when out of the low ceiling of clouds comes first a sound – the first suggestion of a plane (“the horrible grinding sound of some wounded winged creature”) – and then silence, then an explosion and the backstory.
Writing about style is tricky. A turn of phrase, an accretion of facts, a surprising verb and imaginative analogy – these are brush strokes of the painting one pauses over at a museum, the reason the audience doesn’t leave its seats after the movie or play. “The Long Fall” intertwines both style and content to the same lingering effect.
Take a passage in a later sequence where we are introduced to the medical examiner:
This had been a frustrating day, though, driving up to New Glasgow, waiting to take the stand to testify in the case of a teenage killer, waiting, waiting, four, five, six hours, time passing, revolving, nothing to do in that town except pitter here and there, waiting.
What could have been said more briskly is drawn out so that the meaning of the sentence goes beyond the recitation of fact and gets to the experience of the fact.
Or consider the cadence of the sentences with even the most horrific of details:
Inside the hangar, days and nights of horrific work, checking dental records, X rays, fingerprints. And on several occasions the medical examiner took fingers from which they could not get accurate prints, decomposed fingers, made an incision, and stuck his own finger inside, went inside these bodies, became them, so that he could lay an accurate mark of them on paper, return them to their rightful place.
Or the repetition of strange words and phrases:
“Disintegrating”: six times. “Grief” and “schizophrenic”: twice. “Turning to gold”: twice.
Or the questions placed throughout the narrative:
Could a place like that really exist?
Do you remember the last time you felt the wind? Or touched your lips to the head of your child?
How could she not follow their beloved daughter into the ocean?
Ironically, by asking these questions, Paterniti adds authority to the narrative, a story that is all about unanswered and unanswerable questions, and yes, while the technique may seem more rhetorical than journalistic, I find the cumulative effect honest and persuasive. These questions become my questions; this wondering, my wondering.
The language throughout contributes to disorientation that befell the medical examiner, the television reporter and the father of the woman with the blue Persian eyes. In the face of such tragedy little is certain.
You never knew, or maybe you already did.
Assumptions are shattered.
… after having done so much to put a life together … how quickly it became undone.
Everyday securities are broken.
He had never conceived of the possibility that anything he did could be undone, let alone that he himself would become undone. But he’d become undone.
While I look to stories to help explain life and its mystery, here is an instance where there is no explanation, and without an answer, I too find myself lost in the grief of this accident.
In his Nieman conversation, Pateniti spoke to his experience reporting and writing “The Long Fall”: where to start, for instance, and more significantly, how to “capture grief as something tactile.”
Like a narrative poem, “The Long Fall” is chasing an objective correlative, offering something tangible for something abstract, like a feeling. More than grief though, his story gets to the experience of loss, of disintegration, memory and time.
There is little reason, therefore, to separate style and content. Both combine to suggest that “The Long Fall” has more in common with poetry than prose, is less bound up with facts than the emotional experience of the facts.
Paterniti is, I would argue, painting pictures of ghosts, none more convincing than the story’s closing image of laundry hanging on the clothesline in the village, and here – as a reader – I circle back to the opening.
Like the fisherman looking for the light signaling their village, I too wonder how do we get home, knowing that the world can change in a second. Without that answer I find myself no different than the residents of Peggy’s Cove or the families who lost someone in the fall of One-Eleven Heavy.
When the 16th-century painter Pieter Bruegel chose to depict the fall of Icarus, he presented the tragedy from an extraordinary perspective. W.H. Auden, writing almost 400 years later, captured this perspective in his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts,”
About suffering, they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along….
It is this perspective, I suppose, that draws me again and again to “The Long Fall,” not just for the feelings of loss and suffering, but in the end, for how they find their place amid our lives.
Thomas Curwen (@tcurwen) is a writer for the Los Angeles Times. His 2007 story “Attacked by a Grizzly” was a finalist for a 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing.