Public Republic random header image

Time Travel: Hyper-Compression in Frank Conroy’s “Body and Soul”

February 18, 2009 by · 3 comments

Brian Russell

Photo: m o d e

In his deeply moving novel, “Body & Soul,” Frank Conroy employs the fictive technique of compression in both traditional and exciting, less traditional ways that I might dub: hyper-compression.

The traditional use of compression often moves a story ahead in time or condenses what would otherwise be a lengthy scene into a sentence or less. Conroy makes great use of this sort of compression early in the novel at the end of Chapter Two. The protagonist, the eight-year old Claude Rawlings, is just beginning to get to know Mr. Weisfeld, the owner of a music store who will come to be the most important figure in Claude’s life.

After Mr. Weisfeld asks Claude to tell him all about himself, Conroy writes, “And Claude did.” Those three words compress a scene that the reader senses takes quite a bit of time into a moment.

On several other occasions, Conroy utilizes compression to seamlessly advance time, such as when he writes, “One morning in the castle, after a year of lessons, Claude played the Mozart B Minor Adagio he’d been working on for two weeks.” The simple phrase, “after a year of lessons,” quickly and elegantly tells the reader that time has passed.

At the beginnings of Parts Two and Three of the novel, Conroy uses compression with nearly identical words, opening Part Two with, “Four and a half years later…” and Part Three with, “Five years later…” In each case, Conroy employs compression to jump forward in time.

With what I’m referring to as hyper-compression, Conroy allows himself to leap out of the moment of the scene to reveal additional information that provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the emotional impact of a scene. For example, at the moment that Claude learns that the young Catherine Marsh, on whom he has a major crush, has eloped and moved to Australia, Conroy writes the following parenthetical paragraph:

“(Many years later, in the wings of a theater in Cleveland, Claude was to be knocked half unconscious by a falling board. Sunk to his knees, he was to feel not pain but a sensation of discontinuity in time, as if lifted out of its flow entirely and then, click, back in, feeling uneasy and unsure about what it was he was back into. He would later connect that moment to what he felt now in the faculty lounge.)”

This passage not only illuminates how shocked Claude is by the news of Catherine’s elopement, but it exemplifies what it is describing, in that the reader experiences his own discontinuity of time. The reader also learns that Claude will continue to perform many years later, which is implied by his being in the wings of a theater in Cleveland.

Conroy uses hyper-compression to tell the reader something that cannot be known in the moment of the scene, but that deepens the readers’ understanding or implications of the present moment. One example of this is when, much later in the book, Catherine Marsh re-enters Claude’s life in London, England. They become lovers for a short time and Claude wants Catherine and he to be married.

Catherine is explaining why marriage is not a good idea for them and says, “‘I can see you when you’re forty-five. Famous, good-looking, confident, you’ll have some fabulous girl on your arm. Twenty-five. Thirty, maybe.’ (This was in fact precisely what would happen.)”  The parenthetical sentence tells us what will happen in a future that is never fully fleshed out within the novel, but the knowledge of what will happen deepens our experience of the scene and both characters.

When Claude learns that he will soon need to leave London – and, therefore, Catherine – and return to the United States, Conroy writes:

“He wondered how she would react at the news of his Tuesday flight. (She was to respond with characteristic stoicism. Not until the final moments, standing with her at the green door, the taxi waiting, was he to see her face register pain, and a concern, he saw with some surprise, for him, as her eyes filled with tears. “Take care” were her last words.)”

By utilizing this hyper-compression, Conroy has short-circuited the need to write the “goodbye” scene – he’s already told us the most important information about Catherine and Claude’s final moments together. He is, therefore, able to keep the story moving forward while also alerting the reader to the emotional reality of the moment the two lovers’ parting.

The last example of hyper-compression I’ll share occurs very near the end of the novel, just as Claude is about to take the stage for the debut of his own Piano Concerto, performing with the London Symphony Orchestra. Claude has recently met Lord Lightning, a light-skinned Negro jazz pianist who the reader is beginning to suspect is Claude’s father, although Claude has no idea. At this moment, Conroy writes about the last-row aisle seat that Lord Lightning will occupy for the concert, and follows with:

“(But he would not have the chance to appreciate the irony. The four people who knew the secret of his patrimony – Reggie Phillips, Lord Lightning, Emma, and Al, with whom Emma had discussed the wisdom of her withholding the truth, and the possible impact on Claude of her false story of promiscuity – these four would take the secret to their graves.)”

With these two parenthetical sentences, Conroy not only confirms the readers’ suspicion that Lord Lightning is, in fact, Claude’s father, but he also tells us that Claude will never know the truth.

Using compression (or hyper-compression) can offer the novelist the opportunity to speak directly to a reader, telling her quickly and directly of the importance or deep meaning of a moment in a characters’ future. It is a powerful technique, indeed, and one that should be in every writer’s arsenal.

Related posts ↓

3 comments so far ↓

  • Nobody has commented yet. Be the first!