-structure: intersection of acute and chronic tension for climax
-use of objects to facilitate aforementioned climactic intersection
-foreshadowing how the climactic intersection will occur to make it feel more satisfying to the reader when it does occur
-creating an off-kilter but familiar world
Adam Johnson’s short story “Nirvana,” the opener from his 2015 collection Fortune Smiles and winner of the Sunday Times short story prize (the largest cash award for a single story), has a lot going on in it. The story opens with the first-person narrator in bed next to his wife, hearing the whisper of Nirvana lyrics through her headphones. His wife is paralyzed, possibly temporarily, possibly not, with Guillain-Barré syndrome, and potentially suicidal. She tells him he needs to stop talking to the president, to move on because the president is dead. Then the narrator snatches a drone that’s hovering outside his window. Later he talks to a hologram of the assassinated president he built himself, and we get the backstory about the saga of his wife’s illness, from hospital admittance to diagnosis to discharge. He started making the president hologram after learning Charlotte’s condition had seemed to progress past the point of no return. In the present, he fights with Charlotte about his optimism. His boss Sanjay comes over to help figure out who the drone belongs to (Google); Sanjay wants him to make more holograms to become rich. He lets Charlotte use the drone he’s taken over to smell roses. They have sex at her insistence, during which he has the memory of when she exacted the promise from him to help her kill herself. She needs to listen to Nirvana during the sex, prompting him to demand why she needs Nirvana so much and to go and finally listen to an album when they’re done, which does not help him understand. The drone is hovering around, annoying him, and he opens the garage door to let it out, at which point he sees the cat that they had to get rid of down the street and suddenly understands what it is Chalotte needs. He makes her a hologram of Kurt Cobain, and when she sees it, she pleads with Kurt not to kill himself because of how much he means to her.
The chronic tension isn’t just that the narrator’s wife has become paralyzed from the neck down (which happens before the start of the story, but since the paralysis is ongoing winds up becoming an element of the acute tension). It’s also that she’s extracted a promise from the narrator to help her kill herself if she decides she can’t take it anymore. And it’s also the narrator’s need and inability to save his wife (as we get in his explanation of why he made the president: “I just needed to save somebody, and with the President, it didn’t matter that it was too late.”) as well as their conflicting mindsets about her illness (hers often pessimistic, his optimistic, or trying to be). The acute tension is her escalating pain and this random drone that shows up at the narrator’s window on the second page.
The narrator needs to talk to the president for the same or at least similar reasons that his wife needs to listen to Nirvana; these are the outlets of comfort in times of crisis that appeal to their obviously different sensibilities. The main problem in the story is that they can’t understand each other’s coping mechanism, to the point of actively discouraging the other from using theirs. This conflict is resolved when the narrator understands that his wife gets the same thing from Nirvana that he gets from the president, and to show he understands this, he makes her the hologram. In doing so, he also induces her to understand his perspective–everything she says to Kurt are the things that the narrator has been desperately needing to communicate to her, but hasn’t been able to. They are communicating indirectly via this Kurt Cobain hologram. The object facilitates plot resolution through its facilitation of this communication. One of the peripheral characters voices this phenomenon of objects as conduits to understanding:
As Sanjay puts it, “They have no idea what I do out here, as if I could make them understand that I help bad sushi chefs ward off Twitter trolls. But the American President, that they understand.”
But the president hologram is technically from the chronic tension, though the question of what the narrator will do with it is present in the acute, since what’s happening in the present is both the world and his company realizing the hologram’s potential. In this way the surface plot of the acute tension mirrors the emotional transition the narrator must make in the present in order to achieve resolution–the question of what he’ll do with the hologram induced by Sanjay, his boss, presenting the prospect of how much money it will make, is a symbol for the question of what else he’ll do with the hologram–use it to facilitate a new understanding between him and his wife. So the president hologram is dictating the escalation of the acute tension. The narrator’s and his wife’s different attitudes toward talking to the dead president reflect their different attitudes toward his wife’s predicament–this is what the arc of the plot is moving toward, a reconciliation between these seemingly irreconcilable attitudes. But the drone is the object that’s more primarily acute, since it does not appear until after the start of the story, and the fact that the narrator snatches it from outside his house in the first scene seems to be the reason this is where the story starts; presumably there have been many other nights where he’s woken next to Charlotte hearing her Nirvana lyrics; this night is important because of the drone. So how does the drone wind up figuring in the plot to help compel closure by resolving the chronic tension?
What the narrator is trying to do with the drone is the same thing he’s trying to do with the president–he’s trying to take over something that isn’t his, feeling entitled to do so because the thing (his emotions surrounding the president’s death, the drone) seems to be stalking him, is something that he can’t get rid of. But the drone has to do more than just be a symbol; it has to have immediate plot consequence, or else it will feel contrived. The drone’s consequence winds up being subtle–the narrator’s opening the garage to let it out leads to him seeing the cat that they got rid of because it sat on Charlotte’s tracheal incision–and it is seeing the cat, this thing they had to get rid of, a symbol of what they’ve lost, that leads to his epiphany about what Charlotte needs. The cat, then, is also an important object, a subtle one that’s mentioned so fleetingly one might suspect it’s a spandrel, originating as a minor detail emphasizing the extremity of the change once Charlotte returns home from the hospital that Johnson was then able to use to facilitate closure.
The narrator comes to understand what she needs, which is to also see what he needs–everything she says to Kurt Cobain is what he wants to say to her, wants her to understand. He’s translated his experience to her. The holograms might be useless for what they’re actually supposed to be for, talking to “real” people, but in an unexpected way they did facilitate communication between flesh-and-blood people (or fictional flesh-and-blood people, anyway).
A couple of quotes show how Johnson foreshadowed the conclusion he was leading to in passages that more or less describe what will happen, though the reader doesn’t realize that on first read. This trick makes the ending feel more satisfying to the reader because it makes them expect it without knowing they expect it:
…she waits for me to place the headphones on her ears, where she will hear Kurt Cobain come to life once more.
“You love Kurt Cobain.”
“Too bad he’s not alive for you to get mad at.”
“Man, I would let him have it,” she says.
As always with Johnson, this world is familiar even if we haven’t quite reached it yet. He pulls this off with hyper-specific details. First, the fact that the story is set in the real Palo Alto, and the way he actually describes what the hologram is:
“I wrote an algorithm, based on the Linux operating kernel. You’re an open-source search engine married to a dialog bot and a video compiler. The program scrubs the Web and archives a person’s images and videos and data—everything you say, you’ve said before.”
There’s all the references to Google. The president isn’t real (we haven’t had one assassinated recently), but Kurt Cobain is. “Realness” is important as a theme. The realness, or lack of realness, of the president in the hologram. The realness of Charlotte’s disease. The realness of the world–we could reach this point of technological advancement even if we haven’t yet, just like Charlotte’s disease could reach the point of her demanding the narrator fulfill his promise. The world is both strange and familiar to us, and in offering a vision of the possible future of technology, but Johnson leaves it up to the reader to judge whether its potential consequences will be good or bad. It’s up to the reader to judge the narrator’s gesture of facilitating communication with his wife by placing yet another implement between them. At the end of the story they might understand each other better, but they’re still not communicating directly. Is this a sinister sign of the increasing divide technology will cause, or is technology facilitating what would not have been possible otherwise, enabling Charlotte to smell roses and to see things from her husband’s perspective? The gesture of giving her the Cobain hologram seems generous, but is it? Is he selfish, fixated on trying to get her to see things his way, rather than trying to see things her way? Or does this gesture imply he is seeing things her way; are their differing perspectives as embodied in the president v. Cobain perfectly unified in the Cobain hologram? It’s up to the reader to decide.