Greatness is about difference. This statement becomes all the more apparent when comparing the works of Dan Schneider to the works of Jessica Schneider. Despite having an overlap in influences and inspirations, both writers manifest their voice in completely different ways. This is an important lesson for any young writer, or creator in general, in that rather than emulation (“I want to write like Shakespeare/Bergman/Whitman! etc… etc…”) – differentiation should be one’s primary aim. Differentiation, firstly, on a technical level, in the avoidance of clichés and previously-tread ground – before using an edifice of influences to rise up into distinction of voice.
Compared to Dan’s expansiveness, Jessica’s works are smaller – from those couple of novels I’ve seen, they usually resolve between 100-200 pages. Yet, this is not a criticism, because of the sheer precision & beauty of her writing, which allows her to mine deeply into microstructures of her characters, while Dan aims more towards a macrocosmic scope of world. And, through this focus on the micro, it still powerfully translates a portion of reality – internal reality – and reaches into its own distinct area.
The excerpt I’ll be analysing today is a few pages from Jessica’s unpublished novel – The Vanishing Spider – covering the beginning of the book & outlining aspects of her artistic voice to future readers, also counter-acting the possible misconception that Dan praises Jessica’s writing out of some kind of nepotism rather than perception of actual quality. Hopefully my analysis can prove her objective greatness to you. Jessica has two books published so far, and you can find her Amazon page over here. Alex Sheremet has also done a review of her novel – Quick with Flies – over here.
Before I get into the excerpts, let me quickly summarize The Vanishing Spider. It focuses on Sister Jacinta – a nun of the Dominican Order who is also a poet – and her various reflections towards God, her own Art, and life in general. The Bergman influence is strong in terms of themes like God’s Silence and its analysis of religion – but Jessica distinguishes herself from the film-maker in many different ways. The 2 main plot-threads are Jacinta’s attempts to get her book of poems published by the Church’s publishing press, and her bond (positive or negative) with one of the priests in the Church called Father Marko. Ultimately, though, the book places Jacinta as a spectator to various aspects of the religious life, and is less concerned with a linear storyline than a gradual development of several themes, symbols, character personalities and narrative threads. Yet, the novel cannot be charged as a “work where nothing happens” despite seeming so – at least to people who read for that purpose – since there is still a direction it heads towards, pulling together all its separate threads towards a single tapestry.
Despite being a book about religion, and despite Jess probably being non-religious herself, it does not concern itself solely with religious grappling (e.g. Dostoyevsky or any other book centering on stuff like doubt) – nor does it concern itself solely with didactic criticisms of religion (although it does show the hypocrisy and stupidity of some religious types). The Vanishing Spider treats religion as an object of analysis, takes a ‘God’s eye view’, and aims to illuminate as many sides of it as possible. Thus, it combines all perspectives and ideas into one, and this is what distinguishes it as Art rather than anything smaller. Jacinta does have religious grappling & doubts, and she does see stupid religious types & there are criticisms of the whole institution – but Jess is more concerned with showing how Religion ties in to things like Humanity’s perception of the Cosmos, or the Creative urge, or the connection to deeper Nature. Let me remind you again that she touches on all this in about 150 pages or so.
Without further ado, let me present you with the prologue section of The Vanishing Spider, entitled “Some Form of Separateness” – and the 3 pages of chapter 1:
Let me reveal to you a limitation that comes with analysing a book like The Vanishing Spider on such a small scale (prologue & 1st chapter). I cannot show you to development and permutation of the symbols and parallels across the entire scope of the book, so your perception of this prologue will murkier due to its abstraction, while there are parallels that I perceive for having finished the whole already. Even then, I can still show you how Jessica sets up the themes that will come.
The book begins with a rumination, and here we already see the trappings of that whole “religious doubt” theme, although Jess doesn’t centre exactly on religion, and uses a statement of doubt in general. Yet notice how there is a leap in the first paragraph already, suddenly jumping to an unknown ‘student’ talking about how an artist perceives the greater cosmos. Just to illustrate the difference between Jess’s approach, and someone who starts with a same sort of rumination but goes into a smaller scope – here is famous YA writer John Green, and the opening of his book Paper Towns:
Notice how Green’s opening aims to be snarky & overly-precious, and cuts off the rumination on luck by linking with the main storyline in a ‘boy-meets-girl’ sort of cliché. I also use a YA example to show how simple Jess’s style, but how her ideas are complex. She doesn’t care about Green’s lesser approach, and is willing to leave a schism between the two parts of her paragraph – striking purely at theme, and describing exactly what is necessary. Then, she breaks off that paragraph for a single line with a wonderfully enigmatic image: “Even the most prestigious school is not immune to fire”.
This image seems abstract, but you can see a dichotomy set up within it – splitting between a “prestigious school” and the dangerous element of fire. This line will appear once again in a later part of the story, but for now it sets up a symbol that can be applied to a lot of things – like the primary sacred/profane distinction that exists at the heart of religion, or, to most people really, who find certain things they care about but are always subject to degradation (for example, the later plot points where Jacinta’s poetry is critiqued by other nuns who are incredibly dense towards her art). Also note how interesting and novel the image is.
Once more, it jumps back into a longer paragraph, this time with another split of image – student & teacher – before segueing into what seems like a memory. Here is the part that links up to the “separateness” in the prologue’s title, and this develops the previous idea of the “divided world” of the artist, as well as all sorts of separations cosmic or divine. Think about how you could read this with different frames, say, as Jacinta remembering her childhood, as an artist separating herself into her characters, or even as the possible primal conditions that builds up into the urge to religion (“younger time”) & that lonely childish form parallaxing with themes of God’s Silence and existential solitude.
Finally, the prologue ends back with a single line, raising a question that seems to set up the rest of the novel “Who wants to live amid a memory?”. There is still a lot of mystery to whom the ‘I’ and the ‘Creator’ and the ‘story’ to be relayed are – for now – but you can still feel a general trajectory to the whole prologue even if it is currently enigmatic. Beginning with a statement of cosmic questioning, linking up to the theme of art, setting up a dichotomy, jumping into the concrete memory & image of what seems like a lonely young girl, before ending on a question that speaks the denial of such a memory. Because of that structure, and because of how simple the words are, it is totally different from some po-mo writers that aim towards aporia, textual leaps, and a slapdash with 50 or so abstract lines and ‘surreal’ imagery thrown to bamboozle rather than to gently force contemplation and set up future developments of theme. Note how gentle and relaxed the flow of the prose is in Jess’s case too.
Now we move to chapter one of the novel.
In the first chapter, we get to see the primary approach to prose, which is to form each chapter from a series of immaculately crafted poetic vignettes, which might not necessarily be linked together in terms of plot, there are definite links in terms of theme. In a sense, you could think of each vignette as equivalent to a line of poetry, with the title being the unifier of all parts. Take note that not all the chapters are written like this, and Jess doesn’t write with the same voice all the way through. She mixes up the vignette-chapters with chapters that centre around dialogues, and sometimes she centres the vignettes on a single place rather than letting it float like freeform reflection. Like Dan, she aims not to repeat herself.
Chapter 1 is titled “The Beauty of Dead Flowers” – and the first vignette grounds that image in, focusing mostly on the concrete. The second vignette develops from the first. It is shorter & posits that the title-phrase “the beauty of dead flowers” comes from a singer – “the name I could not be sure”. Now, the astute reader’s first association will probably be towards themes of God Silence, if one knows of the religious thrust before reading the book of course. Such associations stem from the language of absence that Jess uses – “kept hidden”, “no significance”, “Where were they from?” and the singer’s lack of name. All of this points to a deeper reality than mere descriptor, and frames the flowers as something totally different such that the mind cannot help but sense a deeper intellectual structure at work here. She also ends the first vignette with a rumination “I doubt any man could ever grow to become so sensitive” which pushes out from the image into something more internal.
The next vignette pulls away from the flowers, into a different image – this time actually touching on the ‘Creator’. Using the image of a mirror, Jacinta dives into a small interrogation of self-identity. What stands out to me in this vignette is the beautiful way that her face is described – “peach-coloured and slightly lined at the eyes, surrounded by a veil of cloth”. The details that Jess chooses to focus on frame the face in a novel way, and it matches the daintiness of the flower-image in the first vignette, possibly even allowing for a correspondence between the two due to the choice of a colour that associates with fruits & nature. Further developed is the idea of separation from the prologue, especially in how it contrasts the separateness of the artist with this idea that the opposite of separateness defines religion.
And next we come to a dichotomy, of “basements and attics” – one of which shelters while the other points towards “sky-bound things”. This vignette has many facets to it. This idea that Man is split between sheltering Earth & higher things is an old theme, of course, but Jess uses an image that links to Jacinta’s memory, merges up with the memory established in the prologue, and even creates a metaphorical resonance between the man-made attic and a ‘tree’ – merging the image with the realm of nature. So, this single vignette connects to the old mythological divide, to the memory of Jacinta, to the natural imagery used in previous vignettes & will be used later, and just encompasses a wide variety of frames.
There is an image thereafter of Jacinta reaching into the vase to draw some parts of the flower, before releasing these parts into “the foggy, half-light of afternoon”. The twist of prose in “a fist formed me” – which does a kind of poetic leap such that the human becomes the object manipulated, even as Jacinta reaches out to grasp the flowers – is highly evocative and blends together the external action with internal action. And, as she releases the petals, it falls into memory with “grandmother’s garden” before surging all the way back into the creative process – Jacinta writing. Look at the amount of subversions and connections that occur within a mere 2 paragraphs of prose. This makes The Vanishing Spider into one of those books that, despite being so short, you have to activate your full intellectual capabilities to sift out all the facets.
Suddenly, there is a shift in tone, as the next 3 vignettes cuts away from the dainty prose and is more spoken. This is a rumination by Jacinta on the types of women who enter the convent, and she demarcates between the type who joins for more individual reasons of solitude, and those that “lives for God alone and prayer”. Jacinta claims to be “existing as both and neither”. Notice how these paragraphs could function as aphorisms if severed from the rest – but outline character and higher themes when placed in connection with the whole.
And this smoothing out of tone leads to a small bit of exposition, where we finally get Jacinta’s name and what order she belongs to. Despite being exposition, it is short and ends in an interesting way (“he performed many magical things”).
From there, Jacinta recollects a memory of seeing a movie about the Blessed Virgin Fatima. There’s a little quip from her father about Christianity that she recollects, but the point of interest to me is the core of the recollection, where the image on the screen syncs together with the idea of the miracle (the parallel is strengthened when Sister Jacinta talks about the historical Jacinta – “the one witnessing this miracle”) – and how “images of that miracle, both from the film itself and how I imagined it, ever remained within me”. Themes of religion and its connection to fiction are tapped in this recollection.
There’s also a small moment where Jacinta recalls a thought she had as a child – thinking about nuns and their need to confess – which, although not appearing now, links up with a later part of the story where Jacinta, a nun herself, ponders her own image and how she appears to other people. This also ties in with the whole idea of the reality of the miracle and its image.
After that recollection, the immediate next paragraph becomes charged with much intellectual energy. Jacinta wonders about a city called Fatima in Portugal, and how “the most fascinating events exist as something one only reads about”. The connection to divine distance/separateness is plain here. But also think about how it syncs with the core image of the “Beauty of Dead Flowers” – the viewing of apparitions from a distant city, and beautifying it in one’s own thought.
Then, Jacinta recalls a cat called Frank who lives near the chapel – and there is, once again, parallels in how Frank is named – “I am unsure who chose the name” – with all of the other symbols of absence in this chapter (and the main symbol of the ‘Vanishing Spider’).
The next image is an amazing one – as Jacinta, going to pray below the Blessed Statue – sees Frank nuzzling at her feet, and wonders about children’s preference to “to explore, to express and to see”. She notes how she would do the same as Frank if she was in the cat’s position. Besides parallels with Jacinta’s prayer at the foot and the cat’s appearance at her own – and how it links to greater themes of man, divinity, limits of knowledge, place in nature etc… etc… this also reflects Jacinta’s character when, later in the novel, she undergoes frequent self-questioning and reflection, much in the same way as Frank’s forage.
Two paragraphs – one talking about the architecture of the church – and the other talking about the scenery of nature, combined with one more recollection of the “dead flowers”. The architecture, as described, reflects the previous paragraph about “basements and attics” and sky-bound things. It nicely caps of everything that came before, providing another variation to a theme of divine separateness and human limitations. Much of this chapter is about reaching out. The line that brings it all together, I feel, is “I believe one can sift for meaning among most anything”.
The ending is a peaceful one, and allows the chapter to dissipate away, pulling back into Jacinta’s peace. So, in a single chapter we have image/symbol – poetic descriptions – aphorism – exposition – memory – witticisms – just as much as possible in 3 pages.
Reading a work like this is really panacea to the imprecisions and slowness of other writers, even those who claim precision and minimalism. Yet precision is not merely about stripping sentences to their core, but ideas – which is why Melville, despite his ornateness, can still do more per page in his condensation and variety – than a ton of others aiming towards simpler sentences.
In other words – publish Jessica Schneider! Her books will not waste your time, and can be consumed in a few days – but the ideas and poetics within them will resonate infinitely, and draw you back again and again, in a hunger for greater things.