My love affair with narrative nonfiction was in its early stages when I first read Robert Kurson’s “Into the Light,” in the June 2005 edition of Esquire. I was mostly clueless about the art of plotting as a way to transport and transform the reader, but when Kurson’s story pulled my emotions in opposite directions, I began to understand the particular power of building tension by changing course. Reading “Into the Light” is like having a deep and tormenting debate with a friend over drinks about the meaning of life and the cost of change.
A veteran newspaper and magazine journalist, Kurson often writes against archetype, against our own instinct to decode a story’s arc just by reading a few lines. In “My Favorite Teacher,” for instance, he wrote about a man whose childhood trauma pushed him to molest teenagers and accidentally kill one of them, rechanneling readers’ emotions and allegiances at every turn. He’s up to the same thing with “Into the Light,” the story of Michael May, a blind man who undergoes a new type of surgery to restore the vision he lost when he was 3. We think we’re getting a typical narrative − character loses something dear, stumbles through life without it, finds a way to get it back, goes for it, recovers it, lives happily ever after − but Kurson tells a much more surprising story.
In the opening sequence, set on a steep hill in San Francisco, he does the opposite of what the reader might expect. Instead of portraying May as Everyman, he sets him up in contrast with the rest of humanity:
Tourists, businessmen, café workers, the homeless – all seem to have taken a collective breather at this steepest of places, a city peak where stairs are carved into the sidewalks so people don’t topple. Only one person keeps climbing, and he’s talking, too; he’s saying that you can’t stop here, that if you keep pushing you’ll see things no one else will see, that Macondray Lane is just over the hill and that it’s the most magical place in all of San Francisco, but you’ll never see it if you don’t keep pushing, you’ll never see Macondray Lane unless you really know how to look.
May, 50, is on his way to see the ophthalmologist who a few years back told him he could restore his sight. He should definitely get the surgery, I found myself saying as I read, and Kurson seemed to agree:
Sight was biblical. You had to give the okay.
Yet just as the story seems set up, Kurson veers in another direction, and then keeps pivoting throughout, and soon we’re cheering for the character to make the predictable decision, then arguing against it, then making it seem inevitable, then suggesting it’s the worst thing he could do. Kurson never lets the reader get comfortable. Some examples:
1. After the opening, I want May to get the surgery that will restore his sight, but then Kurson reveals May to be a family man, a revered figure in the blind community, a successful CEO, “a sky diver, lecturer, guitarist, mentor.” May’s life is already “wonderfully vivid.” By regaining his sight, May “would be changing the universe.” Every paragraph follows a similar setup: an anecdote showing how good things are, then, from Kurson, a switchback:
He had devoted himself fully to the proposition that while life with sight might be wonderful, life without sight was wonderful, too. And here was the final proof of that: Nine months had passed and he still had not given Dr. Goodman the okay.
2. Just as he has me pleading with May not to have the surgery, Kurson introduces the “rumbling,” a metaphor meant to explain, and foreshadow, May’s decisions:
It was a sound May had known since boyhood, the sound the world makes when it pauses for that fleeting moment while a person decides whether to stand still or leap forward.
He goes on to meticulously sell “the rumbling,” charting the moments in May’s life when he did the opposite of what we’d expect: ride motorcycles, become a CIA analyst in Africa, win gold medals in downhill skiing. He introduces the concept of “crashing forward” to sum up the character’s development and changes in course.
3. Kurson goes into the history and science of eye surgery, setting out to prove that sight is, in fact, a messy business. He explains everything that could go wrong, closing out his anecdote, as usual, with a pause:
Nobody messes with new vision after a lifetime of blindness and comes out of it okay. Nobody.
That second “nobody” dials up the tension in the story once more. Did I really think the only problem was deciding on the surgery? Well, think again, Kurson says. The side effects could be devastating, and, even if sight is restored, none of the patients behind the documented cases of restored vision lived a good life. None.
4. Yet at the end of his argument against surgery, Kurson pulls the strings again. May will beat the odds, because May is nothing like those that came before him:
None of them heard the rumbling.
5. Even though the push-pull on the surgery is done, and the reader is exhausted (at least I am), Kurson doesn’t let up, and this is the great joy of “Into the Light.” He writes through the surgery, through the aftereffects, and into May’s adventure of rediscovering the world, but then, just as we think we’ve reached emotional resolution, he delivers a stunning revelation:
It would have made no sense for May to tell these people that the best thing was that while vision was fantastically interesting, it hadn’t really changed his life.
What Kurson suggests here is that this is not even a story about sight. May’s narrative isn’t special because he is a patient who escaped the usual side effects of surgery – it’s special because for him vision is just another adventure in a life filled with them. That revelation is Kurson’s final graceful, restrained bow. “Into the Light” was never the archetypal story about recovering something long lost, but a story about how embracing change, when it comes around, doesn’t have to be so bad.
Cristian Lupsa (@cristianlupsa) lives in Romania and edits DoR, a quarterly magazine of narrative journalism. He caught the narrative bug while earning a master’s from the Missouri School of Journalism and is spreading it to Eastern Europe through an annual storytelling conference. The event, in its second year, is scheduled for this fall in Bucharest.
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