Code and Message:
Ed Coet’s “David’s Angel”
by Bill Bowler
One object of linguistic study is the “speech act,” understood to encompass spoken utterance, written text, and even physical gesture. The linguist’s schematic model of the speech act includes two elements called “code” and “message,” in other words, form and content. The speaker (or writer) can place relatively greater emphasis on one element or another in order to produce different results.
A poet, for example, might focus on form, on composing mellifluous lines with intricate patterns of meter and rhyme, without having any urgent message to convey. On the other hand, a person who sees smoke and flames in a building can shout “fire!” with complete emphasis on getting his message across and with no concern for niceties of expression.
When the speech act is a story, shifting the balance between code and message alters the reader’s experience of the work. An author can emphasize code (form), wishing to create a work of pure beauty for its own sake or an author can emphasize message (content) with the goal of persuading the reader to take the author’s position on some issue.
In story form, the devices of literary construction — imagery and metaphor, theme, setting, plot and character — are employed by the author to capture the reader’s interest while conveying the content. Plot intrigue, especially, holds the reader’s attention by piquing his curiosity to find out “what happened next?” or “who did it?” All these formal devices work in combination to draw the reader into the fiction, where he “suspends disbelief” and vicariously experiences the author’s vision.
The history of literature is full of examples of authors who wrote fiction with emphasis on the message. The great novelist Tolstoy, to take just one, used fiction to persuade his readers of moral principles that Tolstoy held dear. Stories such as “Master and Man,” “The Death of Ivan Illych,” “How Much Land does a Man Need?” and “Father Sergius” are literary vehicles used to convey moral principles that Tolstoy repeats elsewhere in his non-fiction, in essays such as “God Sees the Truth, but Waits” and “The Kingdom of God is Within.”
In conveying his message through fiction, an author must necessarily decide what balance to strike between form and content; he must decide what relative degree of emphasis to place on code and on message.
The author can simply state his message in the body of the story. In this case, the message takes the form of a digression, an interpolated essay. However, modern readers of fiction typically have little patience for lengthy digressions; they may well lose interest in sections of a story not advancing plot or, at least, developing character.
The author with a message can hold the reader’s interest by shifting some emphasis back to code, to form. Imagery and metaphor can grab the listener’s attention. The author can deliver his content, not through “boring” interpolated essay, but directly through the characters and events of the story.
The message can be spoken by characters in dialog and dramatized by their actions. Plot events can unfold in accordance with the unstated postulates of the message (evil deeds are punished; virtue rewarded). If the characters, plot, setting, and imagery, all conform to the content of the message, then the message is contained implicitly in the story and can be conveyed with great economy by the story itself without being stated outright.
In this way, the reader of fiction’s potential resistance to non-fictional content is circumvented. He arrives at the same conclusion as the author (gets the message, learns the lesson) without quite realizing he has been gently but inexorably led to the author’s position through the pleasant and interesting experience of the story.
Ed Coet’s “David’s Angel” is a story with a message.
In conveying the message, the author does not neglect story form: the plot is well constructed (protagonist and antagonist come into conflict, which is ultimately resolved); the high school milieu is depicted; and the characters are simply but clearly delineated. The story seems aimed at and quite likely to appeal to a young adult audience.
In fact, the first part of “David’s Angel” tends to emphasize code over message. The author dramatizes his ideas using plot, character and setting: David arrives at his new school; sees Janet; falls for her; asks her out. She rejects and humiliates him, and then her boyfriend attacks him.
The third part of “David’s Angel,” the conclusion, also emphasizes story form, and constitutes the epilog. It is the telescoped narration of what consequences befall the characters after the main action of the story has taken place. The fates of the characters are described but not explained or interpreted except in passing, and the reader is left to draw his own conclusions, a pleasurable act that is part of the aesthetic experience.
Sandwiched between the first and third sections of the story is Elijah’s dialog with David. In this middle section, the author continues to use literary devices but the emphasis shifts markedly away from “code” (story) towards message.
The middle section is literary in form — a scene (hospital deathbed vision) with characters and dialog (David’s questions and Elijah’s replies). However, plot and action, crucial story elements, are temporarily suspended. The dialog form is used but only thinly veils the author and his message. David’s questions are brief and basically serve as prompts for Elijah, standing in for the author, to explain the meaning of the story.
Having been subject to unprovoked attacked and viciously beaten, lying near death in his hospital bed, David asks Elijah the big one: “Why am I here now?”
Elijah answers that David has not been listening to God and God has taken measures to get his attention. The implication is that David has been sinning, but this has not been dramatized in the story. On the contrary, David’s behavior has been exemplary.
David has been described by the narrator as “good, decent, hard working... honorable...” and even possessing “considerable” courage (in order to ask Janet out). In fact, the narrator says David “was the nicest and kindest son that any parent could hope to have... He would give anyone the shirt off his back if he thought they needed it... He never stopped trying to be friendly to everyone... [He] loved everyone... even those who ridiculed and harmed him... He couldn’t be vindictive or vengeful.” There is some question as to whether this is the portrait of the “sinner” described in Elijah’s message.
This question results from a structural problem: the story attempts to deliver two different messages — divine guidance for sinners, and the reason for innocent suffering — by means of a single character.
In the first and third sections of the story, David’s “Christ-like” characterization (he “loved everyone... even those who... harmed him”) and subsequent beating serve to explore the theme of why innocents must suffer.
At the same time, the theme of divine guidance is addressed and Elijah tells David, “I am charged to guide you away from sinfulness.”
To convey both messages, or both aspects of the message, the story has a dual need: an “innocent” to suffer and a “sinner” to guide. When David is given both roles, his characterization becomes inconsistent: he is both “innocent” and sinner. This contradiction tends to weaken the coherence of the story and, at the same time, to dilute the impact of the message.
David addresses this very issue and asks Elijah, “Why am I a sinner?.. I honestly tried to be good.”
Elijah replies, “Don’t you remember how you complained about your pimpled face, your fat pudgy body and ... your overall bad looks? You were concerned about your physical appearance...”
Elijah seems to suggest that David’s sin was vanity and the reader seems asked to accept that David has been beaten to death because he was too concerned about his physical appearance.
There is no strong support in the story for Elijah’s claim. There have been hints, but no actual scene of David complaining about his looks. At the beginning, the narrator said David was “aware of his... blemishes — his pimpled face and his chubby physique. He was self-conscious about this.” But David is further described as “upbeat and confident;” he “felt ... comfortable” asking Janet out.
Elijah can state the message. He can declare that David has not been listening to God and been complaining about his appearance. However, the reader is more firmly persuaded of this if he has seen and heard David complaining, that is, if the tenet of the message has been dramatized in the story. If, in fact, David has demonstrated characteristics that are inconsistent with Elijah’s assertions, then the reader may be left in some doubt, which is the last thing an author with a message would wish for.
Having finished parts 1 and 2 of this essay, the essayist proceeded to read another story which, by a strange concatenation of circumstances, turned out also to be a story with a Christian message.
The author of this new work (“The Quarry,” which readers of Bewildering Stories will have the opportunity to read in the near future) has, in effect, “followed the advice” offered in the present essay. In “The Quarry,” the message remains the priority but is thoroughly integrated into the story structure, into the story itself, and conveyed by means of character dialog and plot action.
And yet, more questions arise, but different questions — questions more like those raised by Steven Francis Murphy’s “Sharpshooter” and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where the message is politics rather than religion (see “Science Fictional Politics” and “Science Fictional Politics, Part II”).
In “The Quarry,” the message is delivered, not by authorial digression or fiat, but by a “real” character in the story, and not just a static stand-in for the author but a character who directly participates in the action.
Now, if you take Elijah’s dialog with David out of “David’s Angel,” (something to which the author of the story might strenuously object), you are left with a more ambiguous but still interesting and realistic story that explores the themes of innocent suffering and injustice.
The first part, especially, ending with David’s brutal beating, is quite dramatic and the reader is left, in the end, to ponder why a nice person like David would be assaulted for no apparent reason and why one kid would sadistically attack another — all grist for the reader’s mill.
In “The Quarry,” by comparison, there is no homily. The message is intrinsic to the action and incorporated directly into the story itself. Yet there is apparently more to it. There comes a moment in both stories — be it digression or true dialog and action — when the reader recognizes the formula, the prepared message, and realizes he is being manipulated. At that moment, the spell is broken. The content of the ideology (religion or politics) intrudes on the magic of the fiction. Now the reader’s experience of the work comes to depend on his agreement or disagreement with the message and not on his enjoyment of the story. And that’s the rub.
Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bowler