Beside the Point
Corporal Johnson had two fake front teeth. That was a detail about him. His two top-middle teeth had been installed by a dentist, recently, so they were a little more white than the others. Though you might not notice unless you knew to look.
The story behind the detail was that one day, during training, Corporal Johnson and his fire team were running across a road; they were going to storm a house where the pretend bad guys were hiding. As they ran across the road, Johnson tripped and fell, and the barrel of his rifle planted into the road like the pole of a pole vaulter, and the buttstock smashed into his face and knocked his teeth out.
So that was a detail about Corporal Johnson. He had fake front teeth.
Soldiers have to know about details because sometimes knowing the details can prevent people from getting hurt. Guys were always stressing about paying attention to detail. But it was always rather unclear what constituted a detail. How unimportant something had to be to qualify. Because basically everything on the whole planet is details, or made of them. When a sergeant told his guys, Pay attention to goddamn detail, what he was really saying was, Pay attention to goddamn everything, which was a lot to ask.
As a writer, too, I love details. But I’m curious why. Why believe in them so much? If details are, as the dictionary tells us, the parts that are inconsequential or beside the point, why are they so important to the story? Why do I sometimes, after reading something, have the instinct to say, I loved the detail? Because if detail is the stuff I don’t notice or pay attention to in real life, if it’s really beside the point, why is it that when it’s time to account for myself, and it’s time to tell the story, why do I turn to them? What, specifically, about a detail makes a story feel true? And is that feeling of trueness, is that real? Or have I just gotten good at picking out symbols and tricking myself into falling for them? I’m open to the possibility of either, and I’m open to the possibility there is some other answer I haven’t thought of. I just want to be responsible about the ways I go about knowing the past, and knowing what matters in it.
As soldiers we were supposed to pay attention to detail, to all the shit that seemed inconsequential, because maybe it really wasn’t. A pile of rocks on the side of the road is no longer inconsequential if the rocks conceal a homemade explosive. The meaningless detail, the pile of rocks, upon exploding, transitions into being consequential. The very notion of a detail is flexible and context-dependent.
Or for instance, if the gunner in the first vehicle of a convoy—let’s say it’s Corporal Johnson, just for continuity—spots this pile of rocks on the side of the road. Let’s say the point of the convoy had been to patrol this road, so the pile of rocks was (bear with me) literally beside the point. But now Corporal Johnson spots it and the convoy halts, and the patrol leader calls up to the ordinance disposal people about this pile of rocks they’re suspicious of, and the convoy waits for hours and hours and hours for the disposal people to show up, and in the meantime they form a security perimeter and clear away nearby civilians. The pile of rocks is no longer a detail of this patrol. It doesn’t matter if anything’s concealed there. It was a detail. Until they looked at it. Until they lingered.
It’s like in a movie, when a camera lingers an extra breath on some seemingly random thing, so you know it’s not a random thing. You know it carries weight, somehow affects the narrative. The moment I identify a detail, it immediately becomes consequential, no matter what, because I made someone look at it. Which is to say it loses the only quality that defined it in the first place.
And I think this is part of the fantasy I have about detail: that any one of them can be secretly full of meaning. If I just linger on the right one. That if I pay enough attention, the detail will somehow pay me back.
Maybe it really is just a matter of choosing the right detail. Of curating and selecting. Choosing the detail that best distills everything around it. Like sometimes, the only thing I remember from a whole book will be one really good detail. In college, I was assigned to read Don DeLillo’s White Noise in two different classes, in two different semesters, and I was a super-obedient student so I know I read it both times. Now five years later, about the only thing I remember is the part where one of the children is muttering to herself in her sleep, and the word she’s muttering is the brand name of a car: Celica. She’s muttering Toyota Celica. I think if I saw Don walking down the street, and for some reason I told him how almost the only thing I remember from his most famous book, which I read twice, is this child muttering a meaningless brand name in her unconscious, I think Don would be pretty satisfied with that. Like, yeah, you pretty much got the gist. Because it was this right detail; it distills meaning. It was beside the point. But really it wasn’t at all.
I know that taking any one detail in isolation is a mistake; it avoids the character and the larger story, but any one detail, isolated, still ought to retain something; the meaning shouldn’t vacate so easily as that, and I want to know what we retain. I’m skeptical about the notion that such Right Details really do surround us, or that I can know anything about the past through this act of locating and naming and arranging its ornaments. Or, at the very least, there must be an ethics to the ornamentation.
I used to think about details like they were the periphery of the story. Like details defined the boundaries. They asserted the illusion of a perimeter. A story shows you an inconsequential thing, and it seems like this must be the edge of the narrative—if it were any less meaningful the writer would’ve left it out—but even the inconsequential thing is designed to make you consider the larger point. It directs you back inside the story. Like it’s a boundary—the detail turns you back around. When that happens in a story it’s beautiful. But I can never get the story of the past to work like that. I don’t even know if it’s right to try.
I prefer details to be both specific and absurd. The more specific and the more absurd, the more something strikes me as a good detail. For instance, one day our commander, Captain Wilson, walked into the 1st Platoon tent. This was on an outpost in the Laghman Province of northeastern Afghanistan. Captain Wilson looked really shaken up and he just stood in the doorway. He turned to our lieutenant, who had the cot closest to the door, and Wilson told the lieutenant: so, I just came from a meeting with the Taliban. And he told the lieutenant about meeting these scary Taliban warlords and how it felt to talk to them. Then a few minutes later, as Wilson was about to leave, a private called to him from halfway down the tent. The private said, Hey sir! And Wilson turned. The private said, did you hear, O.A.R. is gonna be playing in Iowa City the week we get back? And Wilson’s eyes perked up and he looked instantly normal, like the commander was just a guy from back home who probably went golfing sometimes. Wilson said, no shit, I didn’t hear that, when do tickets go on sale? And the private said, it doesn’t say yet sir. And the commander said, well keep me in the loop—those guys are fuckin awesome. The private said, roger sir. And the commander walked out of the room. The private caught me watching this exchange and he shrugged and said, what can I say—that guy fuckin loves O.A.R.
The anecdote has this specific rock band, and it’s pretty absurd, so it sticks out to me. But I’m not sure if I’ve learned anything. The commander fuckin loved O.A.R. Corporal Johnson had fake front teeth. Everyone in the story was human.
Brenda Miller wrote in the craft book Tell It Slant that when relating true stories, “We resurrect the details” from our memory.
We resurrect them. Details are on the level of savior.
Zadie Smith wrote that details, especially seemingly random details, serve to “confer the authenticity of the Real.” I agree with Zadie here, that they have this effect, but it worries me that we need to do this; that we use details to assert or prove the real. It seems like it’d be easier if I just stapled my DD-214, which is the army’s separation paperwork, to the back of each piece of writing, and if a reader had any doubts about the authenticity of the Real, they could refer to it like an appendix and confirm I was there. And I guess my question is, does that statement seem truer because I know the nomenclature for the paperwork is DD-214—does being more specific in that way make it truer? Or if I told you that DD stands for Defense Department? Does that detail make it truer? Does it confer authenticity? Or if I told you that one of the awards listed on my DD-214 is called the Combat Infantryman Badge, which was established by the War Department in 1945—back when it was still called the War Department—and how they established the badge because they had so much trouble convincing anybody to sign up for the infantry, because the job was so shitty and terrible, they had to incentivize the experience of violence, so they invented this badge, and it proved really successful, and now infantry guys care a lot about their CIBs and I’m really proud of that line on my DD-214.
Are we yet in the vicinity of truer?
Would it seem more real if I told you that for each CIB that gets awarded, before you can be officially certified as having been in combat, you have to write a short narrative about the violent moment and a battalion-level officer has to literally approve the narrative, so that your encounter with violence can be officially documented? Then you get a small badge to wear on your chest. Or if I told you that when you’re first given the badge, there’s a kind of ceremony, and the badge has two sharp prongs on the back side and the officer pushes the badge into your uniform, then punches it as hard as he can so the prongs stab you into the muscle? Then everyone in the company who already has this award files past and punches it also, again and again and again, and the badge digs through your uniform and your t-shirt and your skin and it’s like this kabob effect happens on the prongs, and guys get awfully proud of the bloody holes they’ve earned by doing God-knows-what. And what I mean is, isn’t it funny how an experience can be represented by two bloody holes in your chest, and represented by official documentation with an official narrative and a signature, and represented by one line on a DD-214, and represented by the stories you tell about it to the people who were there and the slightly different stories you tell to the people who weren’t, so that it’s thoroughly and redundantly represented, it has a great big huge constellation of what it is and what I know about it, and what I mean is: I think sometimes I have stories where I am not at a loss for details, but I am still at a loss for meaning.
And how can that be?