Truman Capote’s profile of the depressive, incoherent, brilliant Marlon Brando is one of the greatest of all time. Published in 1957 in The New Yorker, it nominally takes place one evening in the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto.
One could point out many things about craft in the piece. The descriptions of characters are finely observed and sticky. A director “is a man balanced on enthusiasm, as a bird is balanced on air.” Or check out his description of how Brando transforms into Kowalski: “with what chameleon ease Brando acquired the character’s cruel and gaudy colors, how superbly, like a guileful salamander, he slithered into the part, how his own persona evaporated – just as, in this Kyoto hotel room 10 years afterward, my 1947 memory of Brando receded, disappeared into his 1957 self.”
But all that verbiage needed some infrastructure on which to run. Rhythm, narrative or otherwise, is a pleasing regularity in time, and Capote bangs away like a drum major to keep it.
There are two Russian critical terms that are helpful here: fabula and syuzhet. The fabula is the real chronology of a narrative: Brando was born at such and such a time, grew up, and meets up with Capote in 1957. The syuzhet is how the story is told, its internal narrative time. How you convert fabula into syuzhet is storytelling, and Capote is dazzling. He weaves big time (a life) into little time (the hours), always working at two scales. For all its descriptive frippery and meandering actor monologues, the profile is set in reassuring 4/4 time. We never really leave that room in Kyoto even though Capote sweeps across Brando’s entire life.
The first layer of structure is simple, and it’s the one most of us take when we approach long form. Capote starts and ends in the same place. The first graf is knocking on Brando’s door; the last graf is leaving the hotel and walking home. OK, 101. Much of the rest of the work, particularly in the latter half of the story, is done through a remarkably clever rhetorical gadget. Here’s how it works.
About 1,000 words into the 14,000-word profile, Brando’s nominal screenplay co-writer, the pseudonymous Murray, leaves to go to dinner with a promise to call three hours later to do some work.
Murray shook his head; he was intent on obtaining Brando’s promise to meet with him again at ten-thirty. “Give me a ring around then,” Brando said, finally. “We’ll see what’s happening.”
By Chekhovian logic, we know the phone will ring before the story is over; such a call might even end the story, so we’re watching for it. The telephone actually rings four times in the course of the rest of the piece, and each time, we zoom back from wherever we were to the room where Brando is sitting with Capote. The first ring whips us back from the strange James Dean-Marlon Brando relationship. The second ring interrupts Brando’s detailed, inarticulate descriptions of his acting. The third ends an inquisition into whether Brando makes real connections with anyone. And the fourth stops Capote’s masterful description of the actor’s family.
If you plotted the movements with time on the x-axis and distance from Brando on the y-axis, Capote’s perambulations would resemble the elliptical orbit of comets, reaching away from the dinner to various distances, but always returning to late 1957.
That’s how Capote handles big time, always grounding us back into his narrative present and giving his piece the reassuring rhythm that he’s got all Brando’s history firmly under control.
But there’s another aspect to his ploy. Each time the phone rings, some nearly arbitrary amount of time has passed. The first time Murray calls, we know it’s been three hours, though clearly three hours haven’t been described or felt by the reader. In another instance, “an hour seemed to have passed,” in the course of a thousand words. The passage of time roughly tracks with the word length, but not precisely so. And that’s the real trick. By forcing us to pay attention to the real time (the fabula) every so often, Capote is free to play with narrative time (syuzhet) at will, tunneling back to childhood, zooming in on Brando on the stage or on film, stopping, starting, reversing, slow-mo-ing. He’s like a magician distracting us with unnecessary information so that we don’t notice the mechanics of how he pulls the trick off.
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of “Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.”