I’ve been thinking a lot about repetition lately. To be honest, it’s one of the techniques in fiction that I respond to the most readily. When I first read Tim O’Brien’s wonderful novel-in-stories The Things They Carried, I was struck by the structure and language repetition O’Brien employs. Through the course of the novel, O’Brien circles back again and again to an image of a young man’s dead body, to another young man stepping on a landmine and flying into a tree. He reuses the same sentence structures and descriptions in each repetition, and it lends the narrative a haunting quality. The form mimics the content. The narrator remembers these images in these terms, so the repetition feels natural. O’Brien does something similar in In the Lake of the Woods, another book about the intrusion of memory and trauma. That kind of formal repetition is discussed quite frequently – and rightly so; it’s tricky as hell, and when it pays off, it pays off big – but the repetition I’ve been thinking about lately is a little less structural and a little more rooted in narrative itself.
In the last few months I’ve read two different books that employ character-based repetition, Junot Dìaz’s This Is How You Lose Her and Dale Ray Phillips’ My People’s Waltz. Both books are story collections that are rooted in a central recurring character, so I suppose some amount of repetition just comes with the territory. Still, what Phillips and Dìaz do in these books takes that natural repetition to a different level, largely because the main characters – Yunior in This Is How You Lose Her, Richard in My People’s Waltz – seem to be addicted to the destructive behavior that has doomed most of their relationships. Yunior and Richard know that they are behaving poorly, they know that what they’re doing is hurtful and generally detrimental to people they supposedly love, but they are compelled to repeat their mistakes. What this means for the books is that many of the stories follow similar tracks. That’s an awfully big risk, but Dìaz and Phillips pull it off partly because they invest each story with its own unique focus on the recurring action, but also because all of that repetition manages to earn a level of investment from the reader.
In The Things They Carried, the repeating images allowed me access to the narrator’s interior. Similarly, by having repeating plot points and character movement anchor their stories, Dìaz and Phillips are able to open up the inner lives of their characters. There’s a lot of bad advice out there about needing characters to change. These two books directly refute that advice. Yunior and Richard change, sure, but their changes are superficial. The great tragedy of the characters is that no matter how they try, they can’t break out of these patterns of behavior. They are trapped. While that makes the books lack a sense of forward movement, it ultimately creates a different kind of narrative, one where the tension that normally arises from movement comes from stagnation instead. That stagnation can be off-putting. Readers might bail after a few stories, but the attentive reader, the one who digs into this cyclical action, is rewarded with an experience that is unexpected and unique. It’s tricky, it’s risky, but its payoff is well worth it.
Christopher Lowe is that author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals includingThird Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Grist, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.