Laying It All Out On the Table

It’s nothing new or anything, but it just kind of hit me again when I was reading about Dickens’ style of representation. One of his critics—perhaps it was even Henry James—complained that his style of characterization was very caricaturesque; that everything was out on the table from the first moment you met a character, none of that subtle revelation of his or her secret nature piece by piece.

I found that interesting because I noticed something lately, which is that people actually do sometimes lay things out on the table from the get-go. At least, they seem to do it, subconsciously or neurotically perhaps. Now, I’m not going to get all Freudian here—I would hardly approve of that, given my disdain for Freud and anyone who takes him seriously, especially given that it’s only lit majors who do take him seriously anymore. But at the same time, it’s something for which the word neurotic does seem to fit.

I don’t think I can get into details here, of course; on a subject as sensitive as this, it’s a little too much. Nobody likes their foibles pointed out in public, especially in a situation where no names are dropped but everyone knows who is being discussed.

But I found it interesting thinking back on the fact that one guy spent a long time explaining how he found it quite terrible that in Korean culture, cheating on one’s spouse or girlfriend is so common—he went so far as to claim that it was just common practice. He decried the sexual infidelity of Korean men in lurid detail, and length, and made it clear that he disapproves in the extreme.

Well, that wasn’t the interesting part: it was hearing, a little later on in the day, about the rather widespread reputation he himself had for the same thing. I don’t hang out at the local expat watering hole, so I had no idea; I had not seen him out with other women, or sneaking off with them on nights when his fiancée was at home or at work. But apparently about half the people in the room knew all about it… and while everyone kept silent about it,

I find that interesting: while I, who was ignorant of his hypocrisy, experienced his diatribe as a mere anti-Korean rant, the people who knew the truth must have experienced something rather different: some kind of neurotic self-justification? Or some sort of self-castigation by proxy? Or was there a nuance I was missing? Was he perhaps implicitly trying to contrast his own tendency (to cheat in the context of secret, long-term relationships with “other women”) with a perception that Korean guys are likelier to use sex workers when they want to cheat on their wives?

I don’t know, but either way: if you know just a little about the guy, what’s funny is that he lay out everything you really need to know, to construct a story of his life–not the story of his life, but a serviceable story of his life–right on the table in a single diatribe. There’s a lesson there for writers…

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