-Narrative as emotional trajectory
-Chronic and acute tension intersecting for climactic choice
Before he upended television with True Detective, writer Nic Pizzolatto cut his writing chops on literary fiction. His short story “Ghost Birds” from the collection Between Here and the Yellow Sea (2006) demonstrates two fundamental craft lessons: 1. A narrative tells the story of a character’s shifting emotional trajectory, and 2. This narrative is a product of tensions interacting at the surface (acute) and subtextual (chronic) levels.
The story has a built-in symbol of emotional trajectory: it opens at the top of the St. Louis Arch, where the main character, a park ranger, has his office. Positioned thus with an expansive view, about to BASE jump six hundred feet, the narrator observes: “in that moment I feel I might be straddling the sleeping intersection of a country’s dreams.”
In a story there are lots of things going on, all of which fall into one or the other category of what I’ll call here, courtesy of former Gulf Coast editor Zachary Martin, the story’s “chronic” tension and its “acute” tension. Chronic refers to past, ongoing tension that exists before the start of the story, and acute refers to that which is happening right now, the situation of the story.
Every story surrounds a particular event taking place in the present moment. In “Ghost Birds,” the acute tension is that this narrator, who’s living an isolated life, begins seeing a girl named Erica and teaching her how to BASE jump, his preferred method of stress relief. People who have seen him doing this from the arch at night believe him to be a mythical “ghost bird,” and Erica is the only one who knows his identity as this entity. The story begins in the moments right before he meets Erica, unspooling the circumstances of his meeting her.
The events of the present, the acute tension, are only important insofar as they are informed by the character’s past. The character is going to experience some type of change from going through the events covered in the story’s time span, and the past, the chronic tension, is the key to why these particular present events have whatever effect on the character they do.
Some writers might dump a lot of information at the beginning about the things a character has been through, but this risks draining energy from the present narrative and is generally ill-advised. Pizzolatto handles the insertion of the past with brief deft brushstrokes that reveal a little bit more each time they appear.
In the opening scene leading up to his meeting with Erica, as the narrator is in the elevator going down the arch to investigate some suspicious people he’s spotted, we get:
I had a girlfriend who loved exploring forbidden places. Our nerves humming along on whatever we copped, Mabel would lead me through dark spaces crammed with steam pipes and No Trespassing signs, staircases to rooftops that ended in a kiss.
And after the scene in which he meets Erica, when he’s coming back up the arch’s elevator, we get:
I’m compelled to think of Mabel, so I spend the rest of my shift practicing guided meditation. In the lotus position, I close my eyes and focus on the Blue Triangle where I store the egoless self, trying not to remember Mabel’s laugh and the cleft at the base of her spine, the taste of her sweat or the purple bathwater that covered her on our last night together.
That “last night” reference piques our interest. What happened to Mabel? The next mention of her comes when Erica, trying to procure his instruction, asks him why he BASE jumps:
…the image of Mabel floating lifeless beneath lavender soap bubbles flashes across my mind…
This is a description that intimates Mabel might have committed suicide. A while later, after the narrator’s father makes an appearance, Mabel comes up when he first sleeps with Erica:
Her skin is darker than Mabel’s, and she weighs less.
And when Erica again asks him why he BASE jumps, when he’s trying to convince her not to go through with hers:
I don’t mention the time four years ago when I bought half a gram of heroin, or the night Mabel used it, passed out, and slipped under the bathwater we were going to share when I got home.
The intimation of suicide was a tease, it turns out. We discover the narrator was involved in the death himself. No wonder he’s so reticent to think about Mabel. A bit later in that same conversation we get:
What I don’t mention is that I can’t possibly handle killing another girl.
The narrator was not only involved in Mabel’s death by having been there for it, but feels directly responsible. Erica insists on jumping, and since she’s going to with or without him, he packs her parachute for her, assuming the responsibility he does not want. Erica makes her first jump but promises not to do any more. Later, when she insists on returning to jumping despite his reservations, we get:
…the face I see is Mabel’s. My stomach hurts, a cramping I haven’t felt since I first went cold turkey, four years ago.
And he breaks up with Erica. When she demands an explanation, his response is the intersection of the acute and chronic tension:
“Because I don’t want to be there when you die.”
The acute tension is his relationship with Erica, the chronic his relationship with Mabel—more specifically, the responsibility he feels for her death. The acute and chronic tension are integrally related: the issues the narrator has surrounding Mabel have remained below the surface for him until the acute tension, meeting Erica, forces them to the surface. The sparingness with which the narrator spools out information about Mabel isn’t just to pique our interest: it’s organic to this stoic, control-obsessed character. The surfacing occurs gradually, but steadily, and in spite of his apparent resistance to it. Mabel’s face appearing to him the day Erica declares she’s jumping again drives him toward his climactic decision to break up with her and not retread the road of witnessing a girlfriend’s death.
The plot embodies an arc: the narrator meets Erica, the action rising to the moment of her first BASE jump, at which point the narrator realizes she is doing it for the same reasons he started to—to attempt to (futilely) tame fear and death. There’s a brief interim where we stay at the emotional arch’s pinnacle: Erica promises not to jump again, and the narrator quits working so many creepy graveyard shifts at the park, apparently no longer jumping himself, either. Then, eventually, Erica changes her mind, initiating the arch’s downward slide into the story’s climax, where the chronic and acute tension intersect: the narrator breaks up with Erica because he doesn’t want to be responsible for another girl’s death. His decision in the present is informed by the formative experience of his past. He gets his old job back, and starts jumping again. These returns to positions he occupied at the story’s beginning might seem to imply he hasn’t changed, but his perspective on the view from the arch at least has:
Now I tell myself that I don’t straddle the dreams of my culture, but that I stand within them.
He has gone from being an outsider to insider, or at least telling himself he has, and taking solace from the thought of what other people will interpret him as, a ghost bird. With this ending, he actually becomes a ghost bird.
This conclusion, however, did not bring me to my knees; the “change,” though well executed technically, fell short of a satisfying emotional catharsis. It could be the abstraction of the idea of “standing within the dreams” of the culture that I’m struggling with. Thinking about the people “ready to mold me into whatever they decide to believe I am,” the narrator seems to have gained a more altruistic impulse, which seems to be why he sees himself as more integrated into the culture. He goes from wanting no one to see him because what he’s doing is illegal to welcoming it, human connection he gets in lieu of a relationship with Erica. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a significant change because when we begin the story, the narrator seems to have himself well in control (see all the Taoist texts and Blue Triangles). Erica disrupts the balance of his Triangles, but only briefly, and his disciplined decision to sever the relationship seems a manifestation of the control he’s been working hard to maintain, of the control he already had. The decision seems in character, not one that disrupts character and changes it.
It would still be a perfectly fine story if he technically stays the same from beginning to end, as he has the opportunity to change—a decision was still made. But this decision doesn’t feel momentous enough to have enabled the change the story seems to be trying to imply occurs, his alleged shift from inwardly focused (dealing with the Mabel trauma) to outward (helping people by being whatever they believe him to be). Perhaps it is critical that the sentence begins “Now I tell myself” instead of simply reading “Now I don’t straddle the dreams of my culture, but stand within them.” Perhaps we are supposed to read him at the end as in denial, but other textual clues seem to be pushing for legitimate change.
An ongoing thread is that the narrator’s father has Alzheimer’s and lives in a home nearby, with a scene of the narrator visiting him and witnessing his deterioration during the brief interval after Erica stops her jumping (perhaps hinting at the deterioration of this peaceful state). The issues with his father would seem to be part of the chronic tension, since they exist before the story starts. There are references to the narrator’s having grown up on a farm and then not fitting in when he went to college, which the reader might interpret as a potential contribution to his drug use. But the real way the father contributes to the story’s chronic tension is exposed when Erica presses him for more of an explanation of why he’s breaking up with her:
“I can’t handle losing anyone else,” I say, and what I’m thinking is, I am so tired of everyone disappearing.
Right before the passage about the narrator’s supposedly changed motivation that precedes his story-ending jump, he drives by his father’s home and, seeing his father’s not in his window—that is, seeing his father’s absence—he thinks “I ponder my father, perhaps for the first time, with true clarity.” This presents difficulties similar to the dreams-of-my-culture line, an abstraction pronouncing clearly that there’s been a change, in this case in the way he sees his father. The change toward his father seems to be another signal of his trajectory shifting from inwardly focused to outward, a textual clue that potentially undermines the denial reading.
What’s shown is that he’s in the exact same place doing the exact same thing as at the beginning; he’s just told us his reason for it has changed. Perhaps his actually seeing someone watching before jumping would do more to show us that he wants them to see. The story’s being bookended by the exact same prop and action—the arch, his jump—subconsciously reinforce a lack of change, and I’m left feeling like I’ve been told the change rather than shown it.
“Lost Brother in Yosemite,” an article about real-life BASE jumpers, is an example of a piece bookended by the same prop that succeeds in reinforcing a massive shift occurring between beginning and end. At the beginning we get the description:
There were no tourists, only a raven, black and unhurried, circling at the edge of the cliff.
Two BASE jumpers, Dean and Graham, then jump from the cliff to what turns out to be their deaths. At the end, we get,
Rapp [Dean’s girlfriend] sat alone on a rock. A raven appeared. Unflinchingly, it approached and patiently ate a piece of salami out of her hand. It had never happened to her before.
Rapp then declares her belief that the raven is Dean. We begin and end with the raven and Dean on a cliff, but they are separate entities at the beginning, combined at the end, viscerally demonstrating the biggest change that occurs over the course of the story, Dean’s continued presence despite his bodily absence.