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Cassie Recs rsadelle's "Undoubtedly"

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I love a sparse, terse story, and this is an excellent example of what can be done with fewer words, if they are the right ones. I wish the author had written more Eroica, because she has such a solid handle on the characters and on the setting. (She penned twenty-one Eroica stories in all. Go read them, folks!)

The narration is extremely bare—almost a sketch, where we have to fill up a lot of blanks. I love that as a reader, because it makes me pay attention; I feel like I'm working together with the author to build the narrative by connecting the dots. Incidentally, I also love it as a writer, because it's tricky: how much info is enough? How can I trust my readers to follow me? Where is the line between too much and too little?

"Undoubtedly" is aptly titled, because it's an exercise in deduction. It looks like we're told almost nothing, and we have to solve our doubts all by ourselves; but the story doesn’t actually contain as many doubts as we think, it's just that it's extremely subtle and clever in hiding things in plain sight. At each re-read, small details prove to be meaning-full, and things become a little less ambiguous, less dubious.

So, what is un-doubted and what isn't?

*

The story opens baldly and extremely effectively. No wonder this sentence is also used as the story summary:

"Klaus."

Klaus turned toward the voice with dread. He had his hand on Eroica's lower back and they were standing close together; there was no mistaking what they were pretending to be.

 

There is so much here, both implicit and explicit. We're told explicitly how Klaus and Dorian are positioned (very familiarly); how Klaus feels (filled with dread); what they're doing (pretending). We're also told that it's clear what other people would think, but not what that would be. It's up to us readers to figure out the meaning of what's going on. Any reader would gather the gist, but Eroica fans would know instantly that what fills Klaus with dread, when Dorian's concerned, is (Dorian's) homosexuality and everything that revolves around it.

So, we already know this is going to be a difficult moment for Klaus. And in the next two lines, it gets worse: the person who addressed Klaus is his father. Oops.

However. Canon!Klaus is the epitome of ire, but he is shown as capable of controlling his reactions, if he's got a good enough reason, which is usually work-related. In other words, if it's for a mission, Klaus will not blow his cover no matter what; he keeps pretending even to his father that he and Dorian are a couple. Dorian is equally professional, and on his politest Earl of Gloria behaviour. When running up a roof in a cape and high heels won't do, try aristocratic manners.

We don't know why Dorian and Klaus have to pretend to be lovers, or who's observing them, or what is the endgame of the mission: but this made me feel as if I was taking part in a proper spy mission, in which we're briefed on a needs-to-know basis. Figuring out things is vital, and much remains forever unknown, unresolved or classified in the end. The spy game is not one for clearcut endings or sharp moral distinctions. Indeed, we'll never know what the mission is about. As far as the plot is concerned, we end up with a good balance of doubt/un-doubt.

*

We don't know exactly how much time elapses in the course of the story, and scene changes are not marked visually in the writing; we have to piece it together as we go. The story unfolds over the course of a few hours, but the pace is not concitated; they're just sitting around and talking. There are four basic scenes in the sequence: Klaus and Dorian meet Klaus's father; they all have dinner together; Dorian leaves and Klaus and his father have a tete-a-tete; Klaus talks to Dorian in their room. However, we know exactly when the story takes place:

"Darling, I'm a gay man of fifty-two with a large number of gay friends. I have heard of all sorts of reactions to coming out."

[…]

They'd known each other for twenty-five years. More than half their lives.

 

The story may take place in about half a day, but it actually covers a lot. We are given a summary of the key events in Klaus's professional, financial and personal life through the years:

The flat was in Klaus's name, and his earnings from NATO were separate from the family money. He would lose the Schloss. He wouldn't be the heir. There would be no more pressure from his father and his butler to settle down with a woman.

 

We are also told in some detail events from before Klaus's father's wedding. Von dem Eberbach senior talks about Klaus's mother in a way that shifts Klaus's views about his father's personality and his parents' marriage:

"My father disapproved. Oh, not of her," Klaus's father said. "He thought it was unseemly how much I loved her." He sighed. "I had given up hope that you might ever know what that is like."

 

Later on, it's Dorian's turn. He tells Klaus about his life away from thieving and working for Klaus, and his childhood and early adulthood, again providing an alternate narrative to Klaus's imaginings:

That was exactly the kind of nonsense Klaus could imagine from one of Eroica's friends. "What happened?"

Eroica sighed. "He turned to drugs. Died of an overdose a few years later."

[…]

"My first experience wasn't one I was eager to repeat," Eroica said. "I'm rather romantic, you know, so I only tried for men I thought I could have a true love affair with." He sighed dramatically. "And then, of course, I fell in love with you."

 

At the end of the story, we know a lot both about the present and the past. However, we're left with open questions about the future. What will happen after the story ends? Is Klaus going to relent and give Dorian what he wants? Will their relationship continue unchanged, given that Dorian seems content with half a loaf?

*

In the initial scene, we don't know where Dorian, Klaus, and his father are, or what the occasion is. There are a few possible explanations, and I enjoyed going through them. Is this a hotel? A society event? An art gallery? Out in the street? Klaus's father says 'you will dine with me' and in the next line the action jumps to 'They went into the dining room together'. Later on, Klaus 'goes up to a room.'

I personally I imagined that they met at some fancy event in a luxury hotel, which would minimise the need for practicalities such as agreeing where and when to meet, how to relocate from one place to another, and also be conveniently situated for whatever pretending the mission requires.

There's an interesting parallel here with the way time is dealt with. Here, we're vague on where the action takes place, but small details in the characters' spatial positioning are very specific, and very meaningful. Klaus's hand on Dorian's lower back at the beginning; later on, the way Klaus, his father and Eroica share a table for four, emphasising how they are on one side together, and the older man is alone on the other side; in the final scene, the way Dorian and Klaus move in relation to each other in the room, on the sofa and in the bed:

Eroica looked up when he came in, and stood as if he were going to do something. Klaus held a hand up to stop whatever it was and went to sit on the sofa.

[…]

Eroica hovered, then came over to sit next to Klaus on the couch.

[…]

Eroica had settled down and they were just lying there side by side in the dark.

 

We may not know exactly where they are, but we do know where they stand.

*

The story is not actually about the mission: it's about Klaus's accidental coming out and how that is going to play out. Klaus is coming out both to his father and to himself (Dorian has already figured out about Klaus a long time ago, thank you very much).

Since this is a coming out story, things unsaid/unseen are the most important ones. The dialogue is full of incomplete sentences, and of little aborted gestures:

Eroica glanced at Klaus before answering.

[…]

"Hmph," Klaus's father said. "You might have mentioned."

[…]

"I'm not," Klaus said sharply. It wasn't as sharp as he'd meant it to be. It wasn't quite a full sentence either.

"Aren't you?" Eroica said gently. 

[…]

Klaus looked at Eroica to find him with a faraway look on his face. "Was he one of your?" He wasn't sure what to call them.

 

Here, doubts are integral to the narrative: the characters dubitate as they re-assess the past, flounder in the present and hesitate about the future. When the mission's over, is Klaus going to explain to his father—and maybe other people—what was going on? And how?

*

Throughout the story, we get to see the calmer, and slightly melancholy side of Dorian and Klaus. They're older, and they're playing a cautious waiting game; but the situation pushes them into a reflective mood. Their characterisation bears no trace of Dorian-the-jester, or Klaus-the-bully. They are at their most professional. They are both guarded and stripped bare.

Dorian is thoughtful, tactful, gentle, and a little sad. He seems to have accepted that his love for Klaus will never go away and that it will always be unrequited. We don't know what he thinks of the mission, of having to pretend, even if such a pretense must be cruel.

Klaus is buttoned up emotionally as always, but he seems to be calmer, more patient. Emotionally speaking, is he progressing or regressing? In twenty-five years Klaus still hasn't clocked on the depth and seriousness of Dorian's feelings; he gets to hear of them up close, and for once bare of antics and grand gestures.

We don't know if this honest and minimalist approach works; Dorian only tried simple and direct once, in Rome. However, the attempt was still too public and declarative for Klaus, and it didn't end well. Now we're decades later, it's a more private setting, and Klaus has been receiving new and disconcerting information the whole day through. His father was and is a young romantic in love; Dorian's not promiscuous, has a circle of friends, and a life beyond just theft and spying; Dorian has actually been serious and steadfast in his feelings for Klaus for a quarter of a century.

At some level, Klaus knew already: when his father grills him about Dorian, Klaus fishes around for something to say; of all things, he comes up with 'Dorian is very loyal.' Is this the dawn of understanding, not just knowing intellectually and half-heartedly? Is Klaus finally getting it? Dorian says 'Klaus is a very private person'—to the point of hiding his own feelings to himself. Has the pretense somehow dragged Klaus's feelings to the surface? Throughout the story, all we know directly about Klaus's feelings is his dread at confronting his father, but we're not told anything about how he feels for Dorian.

Klaus's reaction about the onslaught of new information isn't—he just sits there and boggles. The carpet's been swept under his feet, but Klaus's usual rage-and-action response does not materialise. Of course, when he's in public he cannot break his cover, no matter what's simmering under the surface. But is he undercover in the final scene?  I've had a conversation with a very perceptive fellow reader as to whether Klaus is breaking cover in the final scene; we had different opinions, but we agreed that the scene is (once again) ambivalent.

The dialogue gives very little away, and feelings are mostly to be inferred through the characters' actions. What names they use when they talk to each other is interesting. When they are alone in the room, Dorian calls Klaus 'Major.' Throughout the story, Klaus thinks of Dorian as 'Eroica'; he only refers to hams as 'Dorian' when he's pretending for his father.

Dorian talks freely about his feelings (but that's nothing new, no matter what) and sits close to Klaus. Even if the story is in Klaus's point of view, but he remains opaque. Klaus doesn't say very much for the whole of the story: in the room, the only sentence that might indicate he's not keeping his cover is the truncated 'I'm not'.  They share a bed, but they behave like a couple of 25 years would. No bodices have been ripped.

I concluded that in the final scene Dorian's breaking cover, and that Klaus is off balance enough that he almost breaks it by saying 'I'm not'. I think he doesn't complete the sentence because he can't bring himself to admit to his feelings, rather than because he's keeping cover strictly.

The ambiguity here works well, because it adds to the characters' complexity and realism. Real Life abounds in loose ends and things left unsaid or undone. We know more than we think, but it's not always enough.

 *

I think I've quoted enough from the story to show how economical, elegant and effective the writing style is in maintaining the balance between known and unknown, doubtful and undoubted.

Most of the story is dialogue, and it displays a wonderful ear for the characters' voices. It's such an aural story, it deserves to be read aloud with your eyes closed (yes I know—it's called a podfic…)

Having said that, I also loved the scattering of vivid images: from the way the initial positioning of Klaus's hand on Dorian's lower back stands for their relationship to the dinner table arrangements symbolising how the characters relate to each other. But the image I fell in love with was this sentence towards the end, once I realised that the PJs are a metaphor for the story itself:

Eroica had given in to Klaus's demands and worn pajamas, but they were thin, silky things that left very little to the imagination.

 

In conclusion, "Undoubtedly" is a 1,200-word stories so packed that it takes this review twice as much to discuss it, and a vast number of re-reads to take everything in as completely, or at least as undoubtedly, as possible.  Well done, rsadelle!