What Remains is What Matters
I am a fan of the lingering detail. Specifics that do not shift are valuable real estate for any communicator. Take In Cold Blood, for example – a book I read more than ten years ago. The first thing I think of to summon the spirit Capote’s masterwork is its tiny detail, not its big plot, nor its murder and mayhem, fiction-faction narrative.
I refer to a fleeting paragraph towards the beginning, which foreshadows the beautifully expressed horror of what is to befall Herb Clutter. The farmer who, alongside his whole family, will be murdered later that evening, is described by Capote as he signs a new life insurance policy. The timing was purely coincidental.
“With the cheque written but not yet signed, [Clutter] swivelled back in his desk chair and seemed to ponder. The agent, a stocky, somewhat bald, rather informal man named Bob Johnson, hoped his client wasn’t having last-minute doubts. Herb was hard-headed, a slow man to make a deal; Johnson had worked over a year to clinch this sale. But, no, his customer was merely experiencing what Johnson called the Solemn Moment—a phenomenon familiar to insurance salesmen. The mood of a man insuring his life is not unlike that of a man signing his will; thoughts of mortality must occur.”
This scene, and that turn of phrase – ‘the Solemn Moment’ – is engraved on my mind. It is detail that lingers, hidden in its sinews lies the ominous pathos of that doleful Kansas day.
Every great storyteller cares for the detail.
I would like to offer you three recent instances where the detail has become the story; or at least the most important thing I care to know. And my objective in doing this? Well, I must admit to not having a very clear one. Perhaps it is this – to explore how detail not only supports story, but sometimes becomes story; and to celebrate the great joy that lies under the microscope of narrative.
CHAPTER 1: STEVEN AVERY’S CLOTHING
In the crazy, mind-melding story of the Avery family told in Netflix’s Making a Murderer, there occurs the tiniest snippet of a remark that has not yet left me.
Early on, Steven Avery is tried and found guilty of a sexual assault which, in fact, he did not commit. The film-makers leave us in little doubt that the evidence presented at court was topsy turvy. The victim – a middle aged lady, and pillar of the community – remembered several specifics about her assailant, one of which that he wore white underpants.
Mr Avery protested his innocence, and rejected the victim’s assertion with the most curious of explanations. His clam was NOT that his underpants were a different colour – green, black or perhaps blue – but rather that he, Mister Avery, wore no underpants at all. The man was in possession of not a single pair of jocks.
As I watched the story unfold, I found myself referring back to this detail again and again. Much of Making a Murder is about what happens when a man from the wrong side of the tracks is forced to be participate in, and be answerable to, an alien system. The symbol of this mismatch was perfectly summoned in the absence of underpants.
CHAPTER 2. NANCY REAGAN’S JOB
For those of us growing up in the 1980s, Nancy Reagan was a totem of loyally conservative Americana, interminably dressed in red frocks with high necklines. She was there when Ron was sworn in – looking up at him adoringly; there she was with jelly beans in hand when the President got shot at; and there she remained to the bitter end, when Ronnie was in advanced stages of dementia and could no longer think straight, or think at all. Nancy, Nancy, Nancy. It was easy to forget that she was, in her own right, an actress of high standing, and a mother of two. There was something so derivative about her. She acted as if she were a rib of Reagan.
Among the recent obituaries for Mrs Reagan, a detail of her biography sang through to me. She is reported to have marked her occupation, in income tax returns, as ‘First Lady’. Ah yes. That was it! That unpaid, unclear, un-needed role was fully how she saw herself. She saw her job as a surrendered servant that of her husband, the President. I find this fully congruent with the many stories swirling regarding the Reagans’ abject failure as parents. First Lady was not her role. It was fully her.
CHAPTER 3: MARIA SHARAPOVA’S DISAPPOINTMENT
Although I am not a tennis fan, I am a sucker for unfolding scandal, especially when it involves a glamorous woman. Maria Sharapova’s press conference this week, to explain how she came to be consuming banned substances, was the first time I have ever heard her speak.
I was instantly marked by her full American accent, and struggled to fill in this Russian heroine’s back story. Mostly, I tried to decide if I believed the story she told. Because I am mostly ignorant of her athletic achievements, I had little interest in her explanation of those drug misdemeanours. But I was certainly interested in the tone of her press-conference. It seemed to me human, personal, contrite and vulnerable. I was more or less fully willing to believe her, until her very last sentence. It was then that the detail emerged; that detail that has so lingered with me.
“I know many of you thought I was retiring”, she said. “But if I was ever going to announce my retirement it would not be in this downtown Los Angeles hotel, with this fairly ugly carpet.”
This fairly ugly carpet. In that passing, off-the-cuff phrase – laced with wit, smarts, condescension and entitlement – I was left with an altered impression of Ms Sharapova. Whatever she is, these were the words of no ingénue. No innocent.
I clicked from website to website to find commentary on Sharapova’s commentary: this fairly ugly carpet. I was interested in little else. Not meldonium. Not fleeing sponsors. I wanted to hear more about the fairly ugly carpet. To this hour, I have not managed to find a picture of it. It is a carpet which appears to be keeping a remarkably low profile. Like Steven Avery’s underpants.