-how chronic and acute tension dictate plot structure
-the use of an object to convey a character’s emotional state
While we wait six more days for Fortune Smiles, Pulitzer-Prize winner Adam Johnson’s first book of stories in twelve years, let’s take a look at a story from 2003’s Emporium. “Teen Sniper” is the story I always like to read first in my fiction classes. It’s about (surprise surprise) a teen sniper who, as a crack shot who’s the best in his profession, is isolated from his older colleagues and his own peers. This isolation is the story’s chronic tension, the situation already in place when we begin. In the first scene, our teen sniper takes out a guy at Hewlett Packard (apparently in this brave new world software guys are causing problems and the state is escalating its response). I always ask: why does the story begin here, with this scene? And the answer I usually get is: because it shows us what his life is like. That is, it shows us the chronic tension, which is true. We see that he has trouble shooting this guy because he thinks about what it must be like to be him, a “problem” he’s been working on in therapy, where he’s told empathy is not real. But while a story’s opening should make clear the chronic situation, the particular starting point depends on the acute tension. To establish chronic tension, the first scene could have shown him struggling to shoot any target on any day. But why this guy on this day?
We’ll find out, though it will take a couple more scenes. Our teen sniper returns to police headquarters, then has lunch with a bomb-defusing robot, ROMS, who, demonstrating the extent of the narrator’s isolation, is his only friend. After work he goes with a colleague to do some martial arts at a dojo and meets the guy’s daughter, whom he instantly develops a crush on. Meeting this girl, Seema, is the acute tension, what will cause the problem beneath the surface—that the violence of his job makes him unhappy and disconnects him from the rest of humanity—to rise to the surface and thus somehow resolve itself.
The next day, Seema is at the station visiting her father, and while talking to her, the narrator denies his friendship with ROMS out of embarrassment. After work, he gets drunk for the first time on top of a satellite, where he has a view of Seema’s house and spies on her through his rifle scope. Once drunk enough to calm his nerves, he goes to her door, but is too drunk to make any sense, and she asks him to leave. The next day, the narrator reconciles with ROMS and asks his advice about Seema; ROMS tells him to give her something with no strings attached and to open the lines of communication, but then seems to be talking about dealing with hostages. That week, ROMS dies in an explosion, making the narrator even more depressed. A new ROMS arrives, sounding much like the old one and making the narrator question if the first ROMS was ever really capable of being his friend. He decides to test ROMS’ advice to see, and gives Seema his rifle scope as his no-strings gesture of goodwill and tells her he is willing to listen. He imagines Seema watching him through the scope as he walks away, how he’ll appear like a thermal signature, and thinks that if she calls him (the scope also has a phone), it will prove that empathy is real.
The chronic and acute tension intersect at the story’s climax with this gesture of the narrator giving Seema his scope. The scope, more than the rifle itself, is what he uses to kill people, as he wouldn’t be able to shoot them without seeing them. What constitutes a big part of his problem is that he sees his victims as real people (making the scope an even more powerful symbol and emblem of his chronic tension), which means performing the basic function of his job is making him very depressed. The acute tension, meeting Seema, causes the narrator to look at himself through an outsider’s eyes, to consider what he looks like to other people, particularly ones he wants to like him—intensifying his problem, as he didn’t look good to himself in the first place. She causes him to question what he’s been told, to find out if empathy is real, and in this climactic gesture he takes a necessary step to find out. If he finds out it is real, we at least suspect he will stop sniping. It seems highly likely that he will, given that he’s abdicated the scope.
The object of the scope itself is used to tie the acute and chronic tension into a neat little bow at the end here. We of course first see the scope being used in its official capacity, sighting a victim. It appears, in fact, in the very first line:
When I reach the rooftop, I pull the dustcovers off my rifle scope and head for a folding chair leaned up against an air-conditioning unit—right where I left it the last time I was up here.
He doesn’t just mention the rifle, but specifically mentions the scope. Its capabilities are further elaborated in the first scene:
…the scope is state of the art, a fully digital Raytheon with cellular live feed, so that it’s a camera, phone, and radio all in one. That means Lt. Kim can see and hear everything….
The scope in this scene is also a window to empathy:
Sometimes, when I look through my scope, I am overwhelmed by the illusion that I know this stranger in the crosshairs in an essential way, like we’re old friends, like you can see his soul.
Then, he climbs on the satellite to watch Seema, and empathizes with her as he does his victims:
I’m doing what Twan says, really looking at her through my scope–the way the splashing water makes her feet glimmer, how she squinches her face when she works a gross spot on the grill–when I get this sense that she’s…
And it goes on from there. After he gets drunk and humiliates himself with Seema, he wakes up the next morning to find his rifle in a dumpster:
My poor Kruger. I shake a banana peel off the scope and try to clean coffee grounds out of the breech with a wet sock.
His sight has been momentarily clouded by drunkenness and being generally misguided.
Then, at the end, in his climactic gesture the scope takes center stage:
“A rifle scope. Just what I’ve been needing.”
“Well, it’s also a telephone and a radio, so you can reach me anytime, at work or home. If you ever want to talk. Or maybe if you just need someone to listen.”
“Here’s the range finder,” I say. “And this switches it to thermal. Thermal’s so sensitive you can see the heat signature of a pumping heart. If someone looks normal but you can’t see the strobe of their heart, then you know they’re concealing body armor.”
The scope is an offered gift, as per ROMS’ second piece of advice, a gift that itself literally facilitates communication—ROMS’ third piece of advice. The scope has become a powerful symbol for empathy, that which the narrator is seeking:
…if you’re looking at someone through a scope they become large, filling the whole field of view, and there’s nothing in the world but them.
The view in the scope here has shifted from one of deathly intent to one of love, and because of this shift we have hope for the narrator at the end. I would posit that Johnson did not make any such grand plans for the scope when he was first starting out. I imagine he began imagining a teen sniper, and the scope was a necessary physical detail that emerged when he imagined what it was like to be a sniper, what a sniper would do. Then, he was able to use the scope to facilitate the intersection of the acute and chronic tensions for the climax.
Robert Olen Butler likes to emphasize how a story should emphasize, and be driven by, a character’s yearning. Here, the character yearns for a human connection, as is apparent in the way he desperately tries to connect with his sniper squad mates, and then with Seema. It’s precisely his job that prevents him from making a human connection; there seems to be, in fact, a direct inverse correlation between how good he is at his job and how able he is to connect with others:
Flowers, I think. Flowers, flowers.
I’m a zombie, I’m so sad…
The funny thing is, my shooting just gets sharper and sharper. It’s like I’ve got my heart working on remote control, my accuracy is that good. I go where Lt. Kim tells me, fire at a dot on the horizon, and a kilometer away a neck goes pop.
All the “positive imagery” is to dehumanize his victims. You can tell he’s succeeding at dehumanizing the targets from his language: they’re not people, but a “dot” and a “neck” (the latter of which is at least a human body part but not a human). When he’s looking through the scope he’s specifically supposed to see his targets as non-human, to envision their blood like flower petals, etc. The more he’s able to do that, the better he is at his job, but the worse time he’ll have connecting with others when he’s not sniping, that is, on an emotional level. When he’s doing his job, he literally has to stop his heart! No wonder he’s so unhappy…
Part of the reason I like beginning my creative writing classes with this story is its theme of empathy and the question of whether it’s real—a question the story apparently leaves unanswered, as we don’t know if Seema will call him or not. But by giving her the scope, he is literally giving her the way he sees other people, his identity, his self (and he is giving her the opportunity to see him). That he then imagines her looking through it at him demonstrates empathy on his part: he is imagining what it is like to be her, just as he’s done with his victims, and we’re reminded that he has proven empathy is real through his actions. He leaves the question open-ended to himself, but it’s confirmed for the reader.
I like to show empathy is real as a starting point for the teaching of fiction, the whole point of which to me is that yes, empathy is real, and fiction is exactly how we access it, how we feel what it’s like to be other people. That is to say, fiction is a universal rifle scope. And if anyone is equipped to show us that, it’s the guy who’s rendered himself a character in a story written from his own wife’s perspective, as well as, among others, from the point of view of a pedophile (one imagines possibly inspired by the fact that his footballer doppelganger has been brought up on charges?). Both stories are out in the new collection.