Birds and BASE

Techniques tracked:
-Narrative as emotional trajectory
-Chronic and acute tension intersecting for climactic choice

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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.

-SCR

Creative Writing 101

I.
The goal of creative writing is to make the reader feel like they are inhabiting the fictional world you wish to render (or nonfictional one you wish to recreate), to make this world seem real. EM Forster says the writer’s only responsibility is to make the reader want to know what happens next; making the world seem real is an implied and necessary prerequisite. To make your readers feel the world, you must create an image in their brains. Studies show that specific, concrete actions and objects (verbs and nouns) light up the same neural pathways that would go off if we were actually performing that action or seeing that object in real life. In our brain, we are experiencing it. In other words, reading is equivalent to doing—that is, when the right words are being used.

One of the best ways to access the images your brain naturally projects is to observe how you experience your memories. The writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry has a method called writing the unthinkable that demonstrates the three-dimensionality of projected images. As the warmup, close your eyes, and picture a car. Got it there, situated in your mind’s eye? How can you if you’re reading this?
Okay, good. Now:
Are you inside or outside?
Is it day or night?
What’s to your left?
What’s to your right?
Above?
Below?

Did you picture a black Camaro? A pistachio Volkswagen Beetle? Being able to answer these questions (admittedly better administered verbally than in writing) should give you an idea of how clear and specific your mental images can be. As Russell Brand extrapolates,

There is no limit to what can be imagined either; we can now in this moment command the mind to play the Kylie track, then instead of her singing it, have the words emerge from the mouth of an elephant in dark glasses. Your mind is doing it now. It exists. Then you can put your school’s hardest kid in there, mine was Jamie Dawkins (no relation), put him on the elephant’s back dressed as bin Laden, singing the harmonies.

Barry’s next step is to pick any concrete object—“lemon” or “feathers” or “cookie” or whatever tickles your fancy (she has a readymade box of nouns to draw from)—and take 2-3 minutes to jot down images you associate with it. For “lemon,” mine might be “melting lemonade popsicles in summer,” “seeds in a strainer,” “rinds in a slushie,” “shrimp cocktail,” etc. Then take the most vivid image on the page and sketch in more of the surrounding scene, describing the sensory details associated with it. Move around in the image; explore it. What’s going on to the left and the right? What do things sound like, smell like, taste like, look like, feel like? Barry’s point is that the things we remember are significant; if they’re not, then we forget. I might remember the shrimp cocktail because it was from the celebratory dinner after my high school graduation at which my grandparents presented me with a new car they left out in the parking lot with a giant picture of me taped to the side. The lemonade popsicles might remind me of the time my brother busted my lip while we were playing street hockey and I couldn’t eat them for a week because they stung so bad. The point is, if you probe your memories, you’ll discover narrative. Of course it’s impossible to sift through all of them; the object provides a useful filter that organizes the mental database.

Senses are the gateway to memory: if you suddenly smell the air freshener that your deceased grandma used to use in her bedroom, then your mind will flash to your grandmother’s bedroom back when she was alive. And you won’t only remember the place itself, but the things that happened in it, whether it’s a recurring memory of how she read in her armchair or a specific one of your rifling through her dresser to play dressup. Barry points out that if we pay attention, we’ll notice this flood of sense-based memory happens all day long.

And this is the next important lesson: pay attention. This poem by James Wright (via David Mitchell) discusses the importance of observing:

“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Much like Barry’s exercise, here the writer is apprehending what’s above, below, and to either side of him. The point, according to Mitchell at least, is tongue-in-cheek; it’s not a waste of time for a writer to observe, but rather a writer’s job. There’s a difference between observing and merely seeing; the more time you spend observing, the more you will see (Wright sees horse poop and observes cyclical regeneration). Once you’re able to mentally look around and observe the physical sensory details that bring a scene to life—that is, project it into the reader’s brain—then you’re well on your way to fulfilling the classic creative writing adage “Show, Don’t Tell.” As Anton Chekhov says, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Showing lights up the neural pathways; Telling doesn’t. For example:
Telling: Dad was a mean man.
Showing: One Christmas Eve [Dad] shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. (George Saunders, “Sticks”)

Flannery O’Connor offers this on showing:

Now when the fiction writer finally gets this idea through his head and into his habits, he begins to realize what a job of heavy labor the writing of fiction is. A lady who writes … wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our having five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.

The line she cites of Flaubert’s as an example is:

She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.

This passage shows both the larger town that Emma Bovary is a part of, and her effect on it. The bailiff’s clerk is activated by his bareheadedness, slippers, and sheet of paper: three strokes.

Point is, you can’t just tell the reader you’re at an amusement park and expect them to believe it. You have to show them the skeletal behemoths of the rides and the creaking chains that pull them, the clammy feel of the bar clamping you into the roller coaster cart, the smell of cotton candy, the sound of screaming and the fact that, eventually, you start to ignore it. In “Sticks,” Saunders offers more “sensuous strokes” to activate the mean father: “He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream.” The things we do show what kind of people we are.

II.
Now that you can beam scenes into your reader’s brain with evocative sensory details, you’re ready to discover how these scenes fit into the larger overarching structure of a plot. An industry plotting standard is the infamous “inverted checkmark” model:
which represents rising action leading to a climax followed by a brief stint of falling action (the resolution). A story is, loosely, something that happens. What happens, however, cannot be arbitrary, but could only happen to your particular character(s). A family going on a picnic and being struck by an asteroid is something happening, but it is entirely arbitrary, as the asteroid would have killed any family. In Flannery O’Connor’s classic “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family gets killed by a fugitive criminal, but this is not arbitrary; it is specifically the grandmother’s fault that they encounter the criminal. She brought along the cat she wasn’t supposed to, and, emerging from its hiding place, the cat causes a car wreck that puts the family in the criminal’s path. The grandmother’s selfishness initiates the story’s chain of events; it not only leads them to the criminal, but also ensures their destruction once there when she is unable to contain herself from blurting that she knows his identity from the papers. This is an important lesson: plot comes from character. Characters cause their own problems, and problems are plots.

Laura Numeroff’s classic children’s tale If You Give a Mouse A Cookie nicely illustrates the “rising” action of story:

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. When he’s finished, he’ll ask you for a napkin. Then he’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache. When he looks in the mirror, he might notice his hair needs a trim. So he’ll probably ask for a pair of nail scissors. …

One thing causes another causes another. Plot is just one big ole snowball rolling down a hill—down the hill being, in this case, through time.

As per Barry, plots aren’t premeditated. In my experience, there are (at least) three avenues to generating them: beginning with a concrete setting, a concrete character, or a concrete action (note the common theme here). The key is you are discovering plot from writing, not generating it beforehand. There are plenty of exercises to jump start you from any of these three avenues, providing some parameters to work in that can help narrow the overwhelming possibilities of the blank page. Once you have something that happens, you can then ask what other things this thing might logically (or illogically) cause.

Setting. Justin Cronin offers a list of mini scenes to bring to life with concrete details. Once you start to describe the setting, you’ll find the story of what happened there just waiting for you to discover it. Starting from “something rusty,” I began describing an old scythe by a woodpile that used to be the narrator’s father’s. Implicit here is the story of why the father is no longer around; the fact that the narrator associates a sharp (or formerly sharp) object with her father implies he is a man who could also cut—emotionally, that is. Though he can cut physically too if that route is best for the story.
Starters:

  • Dusk descending on an open field in autumn, beside a rarely-traveled road far from any city.
  • An amazingly expensive instrument in a surprisingly humble setting.
  • Being searched at an airport.
  • Being in the presence of a favorite relative who might be ill.
  • Someone buying something large/expensive/frivolous.
  • Getting a haircut
  • The first night in a new house.
  • Begin lost in a thoroughly alien neighborhood.
  • Stepping off a plane into a strikingly different climate.
  • The look and feel of the world just before a storm arrives.
  • The “feel” of stealing something.
  • The room of an abandoned house, unaccountably strewn with books.
  • The view from a rooftop.
  • Having dental work done.
  • Driving on an icy road.
  • Sneezing and hiccuping at the same time.
  • A crying child who cannot find her mother.
  • A butcher shop.
  • Counting out a lot of money into piles.
  • Sorting warm laundry with a small child.
  • The room of someone who has died.
  • Something rusty.

Objects. (I’d call this a subset of Setting rather than its own avenue, but that’s merely quibbling.) The Storymatic is an expanded version of Barry’s noun box, with the goal of combining random elements to inspire the story of how they are connected. Draw two gold cards, which describe potential characters (member of the clergy; rider of elevators), and two copper cards, with props and plot points (long awaited invitation; abandoned building), or as many cards as you want. The possible number of story combinations is supposedly six trillion.

Images. (Still in the Setting subset.) What better to conjure mental images than real ones? Robert Olen Butler’s Had A Good Time: Stories from American Postcards is an entire story collection in which each piece was inspired by a postcard. You can see Butler, who is also a vocal advocate of writing without thinking, composing one of these pieces in real-time (that is, unearthing the narrative implied by the image) here.

Character. Robert Boswell’s craft book The Half-Known World eschews traditional character questionnaires (How tall is your character? What is his job?) for an alternate one:

What did your character forget to do this morning?
Why does your character think he ought to be fired?
What recent mistake vaguely reminds your character of a previous mistake she can’t name?
What stupid thing kept her awake last night?
If you met your character in a bar, what would she think of you? In what ways would she be right? What would she get wrong? What would she see about you that you don’t yet understand about yourself?

An answer to any of these could provide a great opening from which to work forward.

Action. Plot is conflict working itself toward resolution. All stories must have conflict. All conflicts are caused by people. An exercise designed by former Gulf Coast editor Zachary Martin called “Boy Circle Girl” generates instantaneous scenes waiting to be fleshed out. Start by making a list of verbs that one person can do to another, then plug in “boy,” “girl,” “man,” and “woman” on both sides of each verb.
Boy dresses woman
Woman swindles woman
Girl reads to boy
Delve deeper and show us the scenes these lines are telling (and use the Storymatic for further inspiration).

Once you have these story starters, whether from setting, character, action, or some combination thereof, they can offer you clues as to what might happen next. For example, I had a student once write a story opening from the Storymatic card “frozen piece of wedding cake”: a man wakes up in a hotel room late at night and goes to snack on his wedding cake, but finds it frozen due to an apparent refrigeration malfunction. Trying to remedy this, he sticks it in the microwave, but for too long, and the cake melts. From these events my mind’s already spinning the deeper conflict that this man’s surface struggles are evidence of: he is unable to get the cake into the state he needs it to be in to do what he wants to do with it (i.e., eat it). I would expect that he’s about to learn, or already has learned, that something similar is also going on with his new wife. The cake is a symbol of their union, which is apparently unpalatable: a great starting conflict to hatch a larger plot. Curiosity is piqued, a question raised: why would this man marry someone he potentially didn’t like? Future scenes will likely explore how the union came to be, when and how it became so unpalatable, and whether it can eventually be restored.

Seek out the questions your concrete descriptions have raised. If there aren’t yet enough questions whose answers inspire scenes, try rewriting the opening with some new parameters—from a different point of view or in a new setting. When the aforementioned student rewrote his scene in a new setting that had to be a tight space, he had the man wake up in a coffin on top of a giant wedding cake. Though he did not write so far as to indicate whether this was the case or not, it seemed like a dream our newly married character was having that further underscored the problematic union, unequivocally showing the man’s stress about it. The concrete impetus of the Storymatic card kept the student from telling us something along the lines of “Mike was unhappy in his marriage…” which is not painting a scene in my head that enables me to feel his unhappiness in my own cells. I can’t see “unhappy.” I can see a melting piece of wedding cake. Now that we have this unhappy couple, we can apply the mouse’s logic: If you have an unhappy couple, they’re probably going to fight. When they fight, they might break something, like a priceless string of pearls. When the string of pearls breaks, one might roll into the a/c vent, which in this hotel are on the floor, and when the man goes to chase this pearl down…he might meet the woman he really should have married.

-SCR

Long Live the King

Techniques tracked in this post:
-Establishing sympathy and setting with physical sensory details
-Randomizing a character’s fate
-Involving the reader: first- v. third-person narration 

Only one person has sold more books than Stephen King, and that’s God. The questionable source I stole that line from may have incorrectly reported his death three years ago (Stephen King’s, not God’s), but the veracity of this claim…it turns out is also dubious.

And yet, has any other writer’s name appeared more in the debate about what qualifies as “good” writing? Does any other writer have such an apt Dickensian moniker? If you want to reach mass audiences, for god’s sake, read him. But if you want to be “good”? For someone who’s averaged almost a book a year since he started publishing over four decades ago, there’s bound to be a quality differential. Two of his stories that reflect this gap for me are “Autopsy Room Four” and “A Death.” I would classify the latter as literary, while arguing that the former falls short. Good or bad, though, both still utilize techniques worth emulating.

I.

“Autopsy Room Four” is told from the first-person perspective of a man who finds himself on an autopsy table, unable to move or communicate his consciousness to the morticians about to cut him open. We come to understand exactly where the narrator is as he does, via the sensations he’s experiencing: the sound of a squeaky wheel, the smell of vinyl, the scuff of shoes, the motion of rolling. King is a master of sketching the setting via specific physical, sensory details. Crackles and “rubbersmelling stuff.” The hiss of a pneumatic hinge. The tickle of his handler’s tie on his forehead. The whine of a drill, the sight of various scissors and saws. The convincing physical sensations are what yank the reader in, making us a) sympathize with the narrator by making us feel like we are also paralyzed on a gurney; b) want to know what is going to happen; and c) want to know what has already happened. The tension of b and c is further heightened as the narrator regains snippets of memory about what he was doing just before he landed here (golfing), and from the question of whether he’s dead or not. But for this reader, both the mode of revelation of what happened to land him here (what’s going to happen) and what actually landed him here (what already happened) fall short of living up to such a grand, tense setup. Basically a guy storms in just in the nick of time and yells something along the lines of: he’s not actually dead! While just how he figured this out is unclear, it seems he needn’t have bothered anyway, since the narrator’s erection simultaneously reveals he’s alive to the female doctor who is holding it because, in the process of noting markings on the corpse, she has come across an old Vietnam shrapnel wound near his groin. This approaches satisfying irony in that something painful from his past turns out to save him, except that it turns out it doesn’t actually save him, the arbitrary burst-in does, and the emotional pain surrounding this physical past wound is pretty much undeveloped. At any rate, he’ll end up dating this doctor, despite having experienced some pretty grave breaches of corpse-handling protocol during his paralysis.

And how did our narrator get here in the first place? Does it turn out someone was seeking revenge on him for his arrogance, a character trait that’s been seeping subtly through his generally indignant reaction to the situation (“What the fuck do they think I am, a buglight?”) and is hinted at through his nickname, “Howard the Conqueror”? Has he perhaps committed some wrong he’s not even aware of, symbolic of many similar wrongs committed throughout his life that he’s now being called to task for, grabbed by the emotional collar and shaken in a way that forces him to take a long hard look at himself and ask why am I such an asshole? No. A snake bit him. The paralysis will slowly fade, and he gets to date the doctor. Everyone’s happy. And that’s why I would say “Autopsy Room Four” is ultimately not a “good” story. “Good” fiction can never be completely happy; that’s for your sitcoms and blockbusters. As Buddhists know, only suffering leads to redemption. This narrator suffers on the surface, but he never has to reckon with the shortcomings of his own character, and therefore the suffering will not lead to meaningful change. The problem is, what happened to him could have happened to anyone who wound up in that particular place at that particular time, who wound up there as the narrator does: randomly. It was not some essential element of his character that drove him into the brush where the snake was hidden. It would be different if he’d been at the golf course with his wife and pissed her off and she’d hurled her wedding ring out there and that’s why he wound up in the brush where the snake was (for a bad example). If he was in this situation because of something he himself had done, being avenged for ripping someone off in a Ponzi scheme or sleeping with their significant other or just being a general dick bag, then he truly would have suffered in an existential sense, and perhaps would have properly earned his date with the doctor via the charming honesty of a newly turned leaf. But he didn’t really get himself into this mess. No one can blame him for golfing, unless he’d been there in service of some sleazy business shortcut or something (see Ben Fountain’s “Asian Tiger” [note: that is only the beginning] for a golf game that really ups the moral stakes). The snake bite is random, the equivalent of an asteroid, and leaves this tale hovering in the realm of anecdote instead of story.

In 127 Hours, based on the memoir Between A Rock and A Hard Place, Aron Ralston cuts off his own arm to survive. His suffering is not just that induced physically by the extremity of the situation. The thirst, hunger and heat he feels are intensified dramatically by the knowledge that he hurled himself into their clutches. If he only hadn’t been so self-involved as to not tell anyone where he was going, his aggressive independence a fatal flaw…

King is the king for the same reason sitcoms and blockbusters are ubiquitous: we’ve been conditioned to take short-term pleasure over long-term gain. But King is really the king because he’s proven he can also grab those of us who are seeking a challenge by the literary balls when he wants to.

II.

“A Death” (note: that is the whole story) takes what could be called an opposing narrative stance to “Autopsy”’s voice-y first person. The reader is left to interpret events described in a cinematic external third person rather than having a character-narrator mediate them. The story opens with Sheriff Barclay arresting Jim Trusdale for what we eventually learn is the murder of a little girl. Everyone is certain Trusdale is guilty, though Barclay eventually comes around to believing the opposite:

“I ain’t lying,” Trusdale said, and that was when Sheriff Barclay believed him.

Once Barclay does, it almost becomes inevitable, for plot’s sake, that he is wrong and Trusdale is guilty. Trusdale insists upon his innocence until the end, but the silver dollar that the victim was murdered for, whose absence has played significantly in Barclay’s assessment of innocence, turns up in Trusdale’s stool after he’s hanged. Thanks to the even-handed third-person narration, the reader is stuck squarely in Barclay’s position of having to evaluate Trusdale based on sca(n)t evidence. We experience Barclay’s learning of Trusdale’s guilt as though we, too, have been fooled (though one might note we were set up to be, “true” being in the lying character’s name). But as another character points out:

“Maybe that says more about you than it does about him.”

But no one wins here. The key change that is the “what happens” in this narrative happens in both Barclay and the reader: it is revealed how little we know of human nature. Judging a person innocent based on little more than that person’s own claims shows you’re a chap who’s inclined to give humanity the benefit of the doubt. Barclay is stuck, as he is with the crap-coated silver dollar, with the knowledge that the townspeople so quick to condemn turned out to be correct—but at the same time, these people have long misjudged Trusdale’s intelligence, allusions to Trusdale’s stupidity surfacing throughout:

‘Ain’t got a brain in his fuckin’ head,’ one of the men remarked. ‘Makes his daddy look smart.’

‘…He’s too bone-stupid. If he’d had that dollar, he’d have gone back to the Chuck-a-Luck and drunk it up.’

Justice was done, and yet the reader’s left with a feeling in the pit of the stomach as unsettling as we’re left to imagine swallowing a silver coin must be. That’s because several passages underscore how justice was not done:

Roger Mizell, who had familiarized himself with the case, served as prosecuting attorney as well as judge.

Prosecutor Mizell called half a dozen witnesses, and Judge Mizell never objected once to his line of questioning.

During the jury’s lunch hour, hammering was heard from behind the stage depot and not ninety paces from the scene of the crime. This was the gallows going up.

The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”

Trusdale may have been guilty, but his elaborate measures to hide the coin and maintain his innocence prove he was never given enough credit.

“He didn’t have any holes in his pockets,” Barclay said. “Only one in his boot, and it wasn’t big enough for a dollar to get through.” He drank some of his beer. The tumbleweeds blowing up Main Street looked like ghostly brains in the snow. [boldface mine]

The silver coin implicates Trusdale as guilty of murder while simultaneously implicating the townspeople of ostracizing Trusdale, perhaps implying that they play a much larger role in this crime than they’re willing to recognize. They go on singing their Christian hymns in church right after he’s hanged in front of them. (That the hymn-singing gets the very last line—“It was the Doxology.”—might imply that Christian attitudes spawned this whole cycle to begin with; here at the end, we’re back at the beginning.) Barclay says of the recovered silver piece:

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”

Me neither. There are no easy answers here. And that’s what makes this good—it’s truer to the human condition than a happy ending.

But this is just one reading: mine. Another reader wondered if Trusdale might have been framed. Confronted with this possibility, it seemed to me only the undertaker could have been in a position to plant the coin in Trusdale’s excrement. This undertaker, Hines, pops up quite a bit throughout the story. The truck with “Hines Mortuary” is mentioned very near the beginning, it is Hines who yells passionately at Trusdale during his trial testimony and must be escorted from the courtroom, and Hines is the one who confronts Barclay about his belief in Trusdale’s innocence, suggesting he simply threw the coin away (though if he wants Barclay to believe this story, one wonders why he’d go through the trouble of then planting the coin in Trusdale’s crap). There is no textual confirmation of Hines’s framing, but the text does leave the possibility open.

Supposing, on the other hand, that the coin does indict Trusdale and there was no framing, this other reader and I also read different implications into the silver’s discovery. I thought the act of concealing the coin indicated a certain mental astuteness beyond what Barclay thought he had, while the other reader thought it seemed like something a child might have done, and wondered if his lack of competence was supposed to somehow exonerate him from the murder as not being responsible for his own actions. The more I ponder these possibilities, the further away any concrete conclusion seems. And this is exactly what makes “A Death” such a great story, that it leaves possibilities open so the reader’s own presumptions are revealed. 

stephen_king_rocks

-SCR