“Seizure” Writeup by Camryn Davis

In Will Christoper Baer’s short story, “Seizure,” Emma is a seizure prone eighteen year old who lives in a halfway house and is in a secret relationship with the cook, Seth. While they are having sex one day, the owner of the house, Mary, walks in on them and Seth loses his job, but because Emma is a legal adult, no charges can be pressed and he is just fired. Seth writes Emma that he’s going to pick her up on her nineteenth birthday, so she listens for him and they sneak out on his motorcycle while deciding to skip town. Emma has to go to the bathroom and Seth wants to pick up some cigarettes, so they stop at a bar called Sweet’s. After she goes to the bathroom and they head back out to his bike, they find that one of Seth’s “friends” that he owes money to, Oz, has taken the bike and offered them a ride. On the ride, Oz shows interest in Emma, especially when Seth steps out to buy them beer. While Seth is still in the gas station, Oz takes most of Emma’s seizure pills. Later, Oz suggests they go to New Orleans together instead of Seth and Emma’s original plan of going to the West Coast, but Seth attempts to shoot this idea down. Oz, now drunk, stops at an older woman named Lou’s house to buy some blow for their drive. In Lou’s house, they participate in some small talk before Emma begins to feel dizzy and has a seizure. Lou gives her a tender bath until they hear yelling from Seth and Oz. Emma runs out to see Oz stabbed in the neck because he wanted Seth’s money. They take him to a hospital and a cop questions Seth about why he stabbed Oz. Seth says they were fighting over Emma and he goes to jail.

Simultaneously throughout the piece, Seth is sending Emma letters from jail and describes the other prisoners, how much he misses her, a man named Elvis who wants to have sex with him (even after they got into a fist fight), his friend named Kool, and a white guy who never showers. Despite this, he still promises that he’s okay and asks her to bring cigarettes if she ever visits him.

I saw the chronic tension being Emma’s seizures and the acute being Oz attempting to steal all of Seth’s money, but I’m not sure where the issues with the prisoners fits into these categories since it’s in the future – any ideas?

One thing I hope to imitate from this piece is playing around with conventional structures, like how Baer did by not adding quotations for dialogue. To me, it felt like an oral story without the dialogue tags, but did anyone else find that effective or was it too confusing without quotations?

One of the things I highlighted was sensuous strokes because although there wasn’t a lot extremely vivid imagery, I did feel like we learned a large amount about the characters through the small details (like wondering if Lou had children just because of her breasts).

At the end of the piece, it’s not totally clear as to what they were actually fighting about (whether it was Emma, money, or something else), so I was wondering what everyone thought their fight was about and why they had unbuckled pants?

Overall, this piece is really unique in its structure with the letters, short paragraphs, and lack of quotations for dialogues. I really enjoyed this new form because it keeps the reader awake and it distinguishes it from other pieces of work.

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“Working Anything but 9 to 5” Writeup by Olivia Cardenas

Jodi Kantor’s article “Working Anything but 9 to 5” explores the impact of new scheduling technology on single parents. By closely following the story of Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old Starbucks barista and single mother, Kantor sheds light on the difficulties faced by both mother and child. New software has been developed that allows companies to determine the most effective times for their workers’ shifts based on sales data. Using this data yields more profit for the company but leaves workers with erratic schedules and chaotic lives. Kantor constructs the article by weaving the personal story of Ms. Navarro in with interspersed quotes and comments from corporate leaders and experts.

Kantor humanizes the effects of this technology by mentioning the negative effects this has on Navarro’s son, Gavin. By focusing on the little boy’s feelings of instability and discomfort, Navarro’s situation becomes more devastating. Kantor highlights that Navarro’s chaotic schedule causes Gavin to be “tugged out of bed” and forced to “walk a mile” with his mother towards day care. Emphasizing the negative effects this has on Gavin gives more reason to end erratic scheduling. After all, this not only impacts employees but also their children and family members. It is not fair that a little boy is denied opportunities to play with “live hermit crabs and play-doh sea urchins” all because his mother cannot take him to daycare. The discussion of the mother’s efforts to create a better life for her son juxtaposed with the negative effects of her schedule on her son’s well being show what a strain this chaos has caused. Jannette and Gavin are symbolic of the millions of impoverished mothers and children who are being hurt by irregular work schedules. Kantor provides a concrete example of implications by giving the reader Jannette and Gavin to sympathize with.

Furthermore, the experiences of the Navarros are universalized by the commentary of experts on this matter. Kantor does not merely provide an unfortunate account of a struggling single mother. The article reaches its poignancy by showing that this experience is a microcosm of a larger problem. Hard-working single mothers are struggling to improve their lives for themselves and their children despite their best efforts. Time and time again, corporate greed and thoughtlessness stand in the way of progress. The CEO of the scheduling software simply stated, “it’s like magic.” But there is clearly nothing magical about working inconsistent hours and struggling to find someone to watch your child. Comments like this show the shortsightedness of wealthy corporate leaders. Kantor follows statements like this by quotes from childcare policy experts who worry that “the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules.” Clearly something needs to be changed and hope for the future is offered by M.I.T. professor, Zeynep Ton: “The same technology could be used to create more stability and predictability.” These ideas from individuals outside the Navarro narrative help support the idea that this is indeed a wider problem that can be fixed. Without this weaving in of outside information, this article would simply be a devastating story about a mother and her son. This substantiation empowers the story of Ms. Navarro and demands change.

It would have been easy to take the easy way out when writing this piece. It would’ve been easy to pity Navarro and defame Starbucks. Instead, Kantor shows a mother’s strength and resilience in a world where bolstering profits is more important than the well being of children. The balance of emotionally charged narrative and facts create an argument that force contemplation.

Questions for the Class:

  • How does Kantor represent the single mother this piece follows?
  • What effect does the commentary from Starbuck’s corporate leaders have?
  • What is your attitude about the scheduling by the end of the piece?
  • Are you convinced that this is a larger issue that exists in America?
  • Do you think the inclusion of Ms. Navarro’s boyfriend was necessary?

 

 

 

“All Ahead of Them” Write Up by Ty Gates

All Ahead of Them” by Tobias Wolff is a story about a man who discovers that his new wife has been stealing from him and those around him. He decides to let her get away with it the same way he always has, while also realizing how little he really knows her.
The structure of the piece is very interesting, I think. It seems almost stream of consciousness, following Thomas’s thoughts. I thought it was a really interesting way to tell a story with, essentially memory anecdotes. At times in the story, it felt a bit to me like it was rewinding, and going back for more information, only to snap back to the present of the story.
This story is also very strong in the way that it handles characterization. My favorite scene was when Thomas was looking at the painting of Nedra. The way he explains his wife’s namesake in the painting gave the reader the idea that she was sneaky. I thought this was a really cool way of indirectly characterizing Arden. It  wasn’t even noticeable at first, but once you realized what Arden was doing, it makes a lot of sense.
I think that, most of all, I can learn from this kind of characterization. It seems simple, but it kinda blew my mind a little when I read it.
Questions
What do you think about Thomas’s choice at the end? How did you read his mom’s dream, and it’s recurrence in the end? What do you think is the significance of them both going by different names than their given ones?

“The 400-Pound CEO” Writeup by Audrey Mills

In “The 400 Pound CEO” by George Saunders, Jeffrey, a 400 pound man, works at an undercover raccoon killing company under Tim, the ruthless CEO, and alongside his vicious coworkers. After a long series of provocations from all of these people, Jeffrey partly unintentionally murders Tim while trying to save a reporter who discovered the true raccoon burial pit from him. He tearfully buries Tim and appoints himself CEO in a fake letter, but is discovered later that night at an office party and put in prison for 50 years.

The entire piece was so vivid and unique, especially Jeffery’s characterization, so in the story, I decided to highlight absurd details and provocations that are built up in such a way as to both make a murderer, and get the reader to sympathize with a murderer. Saunders makes the weird details seem effortless and natural, and they color the story and entertain while all having much deeper resonances overall. I was wondering, did anyone see a parallel between the raccoons and Jeffery or Tim(Mostly Tim)? I sensed there was an underlying connection there, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Other great details were the drunken nanny with a yearbook, Barbies in grass skirts on a fake volcano at the Hawaiian restaurant, and Jeffery’s feminine hat duties in prison. Also, Tim was so masterfully fleshed out in every way for us to hate him, and Jeffery was fleshed out in a way that made the reader pity and sympathize with him, so that in the end we are able to excuse a murder. Also, I loved how after Tim dies, Jeffery uses his talent for writing invoices to write a kind of invoice in the form of a forged letter to explain away the death. But, he’d given up at that point, and I’m suspect he knew that he was about to get caught, so he wanted to live out his fantasy for a little while before his eventual end. IN my writing, I want to learn to master detail like Saunders and use it only where needed, and also to build up conflict and tension as artfully as he does. What did you think of Frieda? What is your favorite quality of the story?

The Lovely Bones’ Bones

Techniques tracked:
-plot problems v. plot-point problems
-premise problems: good fiction v. not-good

lbones

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, published in 2002, sold over a million copies, which is probably a big part of what makes it so polarizing. The popular book is often held up as a quintessential example of bad writing, yet for every person who hates it there are probably two that love it (that’s a guesstimate; I didn’t do an exact poll).  

Even those who dislike it often concede the first fifty pages are extremely compelling. Our first-person narrator, Susie Salmon, announces that she has been murdered and then shows us the scene of how, when a creep from the neighborhood, Mr. Harvey, lures her into a cave in a cornfield near her house. Narrating from heaven, or an In-between place close to heaven, Susie watches, and is occasionally able to reveal small signs of herself, as her family tries to cope with the tragedy of her loss. Her sister Lindsey almost immediately gets a new boyfriend who helps her cope and whom she marries by book’s end; her mother, having regretted sacrificing so much of herself to motherhood before Susie’s death, eventually has a brief fling with the lead investigator on the case then flees to the west coast; her father, instinctively ascertaining Harvey is the killer, slowly unravels with no evidence to prove it; her brother Buckley, only 3 at the time of her murder, struggles with his father paying more attention to an absence than a presence, which comes to a head years later when his father won’t let him use some of Susie’s old clothes, a confrontation that causes the father to have a heart attack. Upon hearing about this heart attack, Susie’s mother returns from the coast, falls back in love with the father, and reunites the family, though Buckley does show some resistance. Oh, and in addition to watching her family cope with her death, Susie watches her almost-boyfriend Ray and almost-friend Ruth, who becomes obsessed with Susie and death in general, and is able to psychically ascertain where other women have been killed. At one point after many years, Susie is able to cross a barrier and come back to earth, taking over Ruth’s body to have sex with Ray. This taste of the life and flesh she’s so desperately missed enables Susie to finally let go of her hold on life, accept that she’s dead, and move on, which is intimated to reciprocally help her family move on by the end. Susie also periodically watches Harvey, who is never caught but eventually killed by a falling icicle in the course of pursuing another victim.

One criticism leveled at the book is that the premise–a dead girl narrating the aftermath of her own death–is good, but the execution weak. Another criticism is that the premise itself is bad.

A subset of the first criticism is that the book has no real plot, that there is nothing driving the action, that the scenes that we’re getting are random. This criticism is off-base–the plot arc is the family’s and Susie’s parallel struggle to deal with and move on from the murder. Each individual character has an arc that then intersects at the end, exemplifying how the family initially deals with the tragedy in isolation but then eventually united in unexpected ways that would not have been possible without the murder, which gives us our title:

These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections – sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent – that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.

So the criticism that there’s no plot is baseless, but that doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t have problems. Reading the book in class, we tried to identify early on what questions were driving the plot, what the reader wanted to know that kept them turning pages. We said these questions were whether or not Harvey would be caught and if/how Susie’s family, and Susie herself, would get over the murder. The precise clock these questions set was unclear, and the more time passed, as is a general rule, the less tension there was.

Another plot problem: The chronic tension of the book would seem to be Susie’s murder; even though the first chapter is dedicated to describing it, it technically happens before the book starts, as Susie’s already been murdered in the book’s first lines:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

That makes the acute tension…the family dealing with the murder. Which would be to say, the acute tension is the dealing with the chronic tension. But this shouldn’t really be how acute and chronic tension work; in this configuration, Susie’s death is functioning more as the acute tension, the inciting incident that causes the rest of the action to unfold. Which now means there’s no chronic tension. The chronic tension would presumably be the preexisting state of the family, and all we’re given on this front comes largely from Susie’s mother Abigail and her lack of fulfillment as a mother. So the acute tension of Susie’s murder brings this to a head, causing her to flee. Okay, so the bones of a plot are there. 

It’s the plot points that might more problematic than the plot itself. Perhaps the most commonly cited one (from Goodreads reviewers anyway) is Susie’s getting to come back down to earth, take over Ruth’s body, and “make love” to Ray. It’s not terribly clear what prompts Susie’s ability to return at this particular moment; it happens while Harvey is passing by Susie’s burial site at the same time Ray and Ruth are, so I guess we’re supposed to think this particular convergence has caused a rip in the cosmic fabric? At any rate, what’s not random is what this event, Susie’s bodily reconnection with Ray, ultimately enables: one last taste of the flesh and she’s able to let go, and once she relinquishes her grip on the family, they relinquish their grip on her. Perhaps the cathartic moment that enabled the climactic letting-go could have been something else, but what’s there, however corny, is serving a clear purpose, narratively.

For me the most problematic plot point has to do more with an entire plot thread, or character arc, which is Lindsey’s. Lindsey gets a new boyfriend two weeks after Susie’s murder, one she’ll essentially keep forever. Here’s Susie’s reaction at the two-week mark:

He put his hand on her forearm and – Wow! – what I felt when he did that. Lindsey had a cute boy in the kitchen, vampire or no! This was news, this was a bulletin – I was suddenly privy to everything. She never would have told me any of this stuff.

Susie’s reaction is to be happy to get to see and know stuff she wouldn’t have otherwise, but it seems like this ability opens up possibilities that Sebold basically ignores. Susie’s reaction is to be happy to be able to witness, but what are her feelings about what she’s actually witnessing–about the fact that her still-living sister gets to galavant around with a cute boy two weeks after her own brutal rape and murder? A little bitterness might be nice here, for the sake of drama. Lindsey’s character arc is missing plot’s lifeblood: conflict. The situation seems like it could be rife for conflict both between Susie and Lindsey and between Susie and her boyfriend Samuel. But any emotional problems Lindsey might have suffered in the wake of what happened to her sister don’t lead her to have any problems in her relationship with Samuel, as it seems like, logically and narratively, they might. For Lindsey, it’s pretty much all smooth sailing; the problems she has, like being made uncomfortable when kids at camp play “The Perfect Murder” game, seem superficial. This might be fine if her relationship with Samuel was part of the Lovely Bones that formed in the wake of Susie’s murder–ostensibly what the plot is supposed to be showing us/focused on–but that would have to mean the relationship would not have happened if Susie hadn’t been killed. But there’s nothing that indicates Samuel is pursuing Lindsey specifically because of the murder or circumstances that the murder created.

So the execution has some problems, but is the premise itself, the very thing that makes it stand out and that likely contributed to its astronomical (book-wise) sales, bad and/or problematic? Novelist Ali Smith argues yes, identifying an intriguing reason as to the book’s widespread popularity:

Perhaps the reason The Lovely Bones has been such a hit in the US is something to do with the aftermath of public mourning after last year’s terrorism, the reassurance and satisfaction of being able to hear the voice of the gone and to piece together the future after cataclysm.  

Smith goes on to compare Sebold’s book to AM Homes’ The End of Alice, released six years prior:

The End of Alice was itself a critical examination of the uses and acceptabilities of blandness – a dialogue between a bombastically voiced elderly male convict and his apparent opposite, a bland-talking straight-A college girl, both revealed by Homes to be equally horrifying paedophiles. But now clearly isn’t the time for anything so discomforting. The Lovely Bones is so keen in the end to comfort us and make safe its world that, however well-meaning, it avoids its own ramifications.

This comparison definitely invokes David Foster Wallace’s quote (from a teacher’s quote) that “good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” After 9/11, we were disturbed and needed to be comforted, but the comfort this book offers is, let’s say, a little delusional: that those we’ve lost are still with us, watching from heaven. Perhaps after 9/11 we should have dwelled longer in the disturbance, for it might well have been our being too comfortable that brought on the disturbance in the first place. The comfort The Lovely Bones offers is as hollow as any religion’s, which probably explains its gargantuan mass appeal. It has the potential to offer a good story, but it is not, by this definition, good fiction .

-SCR

Deer-Footed Lamps and Other Dead Animals

Techniques tracked:
-objects used to reflect characters’ (divergent) perspectives
-deploying scene v. exposition

deerlamp

In Joy Williams’ “Congress,” the main character, Miriam, lives with a forensic anthropologist, Jack, who’s revered for being able to confirm people’s loved ones are dead and provide closure. One day one of his enamored students, Carl, gives him a lamp made out of deer feet that Miriam is repulsed by the thought of, but turns out to be enthralled by in person, to the point of attributing it human emotions. Then Jack is severely brain-damaged in a hunting accident with Carl, who dotes on and takes care of him to the point of replacing Miriam. Carl, Jack, Miriam and the lamp take a trip together, breaking down in a town with a renowned taxidermy museum. After drinking with tourists excited by the museum, Miriam visits it herself, and the taxidermist, recognizing her as spirited after she slaps someone who gets mad at her for pointing out the animals are dead, asks her to replace him; all the stuffing has been done so she’d only have to answer questions, which she can make up the answers to. She agrees, and when she returns to the hotel finds that Jack and Carl have gone, but the lamp is still there.

The chronic tension here is Miriam’s unrest in her relationship and living situation with Jack. The acute tension would seem to be Jack’s accident, though with the way Williams compresses scene and exposition, his accident could be considered the chronic tension, with the road trip serving as acute tension. By choosing to take the taxidermist’s place, Miriam is finally moving on from her stagnant position at Jack’s side, which she’s already been displaced from.

What constitutes Jack’s accident as the chronic tension (even though it happens after the story starts) and the road trip as the acute is the way Williams deploys scene and exposition. The only “scenes” we get before they start the road trip span no more than a couple of lines, if that:

He continued to speak calmly and patiently; he never got mad, he persisted.

“Miriam,” Jack said, “that is not meant to be a reading light. It’s an accent light. You’re going to ruin your eyes.”

The first sentence of the passage is describing a continuous span of time (exposition) while the second, a line of dialogue, momentarily locates it in a specific time and place (scene). The next sentence will slip into exposition again. A less capable writer might have started the story on the road trip and then packed the exposition about Jack’s accident and what led up to it into scenes in the course of that, but Williams can give us practically five straight pages of exposition before the story’s main event without having it drag via the specificity of her details that enable her to pack the briefest of scenes into the exposition:

“My son Ricky disappeared four years ago and some skeletal remains were found at the beginning of this year. Scattered, broken, lots of bones missing, not much to go on, a real jumble. The officials told me they probably weren’t Ricky’s but your Jack told me they were, and with compassion he showed me how he reached that conclusion.” The woman waited. In her cart was a big bag of birdseed and a bottle of vodka. “If it weren’t for Jack, my Ricky’s body would probably be unnamed still,” she said.

“Well, thank you very much,” Miriam said.

The bag of birdseed and bottle of vodka transport us into the scene, enable us to experience it, despite how short it is.

Notably, the exception to this pattern in the story’s first part, the predominantly expositional one that constitutes the chronic tension, is the conversation they have about whether or not to get the lamp. Whether we consciously notice this is a longer scene than we’ve gotten or not, we will register the lamp as important because of it.

One of the most unique aspects of this story is that we have a character in love with an inanimate object. Miriam’s love for the inanimate lamp is a symbol for her being in love with death. Death litters this literary landscape from the first sentence, entering the story via Jack’s forensic anthropology and then through the inanimate lamp. Jack initially represents closure for the living dead, then embodies a type of living death. Then there’s the road trip section, where dead animals are the predominant feature of the scenery:

…the landscape had changed considerably. There was a great deal of broken glass and huge cactus everywhere. Organ-pipe, saguaro, barrel cactus and prickly pear. Strange and stern shapes, far stiller than trees, less friendly and willing to serve. They seemed to be waiting for further transition, another awesome shift of the earth’s plates, an enormous occurrence. The sun bathed each spine, it sharpened the smashed bottles and threw itself through the large delicate ears of car-crushed jackrabbits. They saw few people and no animals except dead ones. The land was vast and still and there seemed to be considerable resentment toward the nonhuman creatures who struggled to inhabit it. Dead coyotes and hawks were nailed to fence posts and the road was hammered with the remains of lizards and snakes. Miriam was glad that the lamp was covered and did not have to suffer these sights.

Of course, Miriam is the one “waiting for further transition,” which the stop at the dead-animal museum will provide. The tourists in the town are, in contrast to these dead animals, “wildly stimulated,” seemingly because of the dead animals they’ve seen. It’s Miriam’s pointing out that the animals are dead that leads her to slap the man that leads the taxidermist to make his offer to her to replace him.

Much like how the husband’s and wife’s divergent opinions on the utility of the presidential hologram in Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana” reflect their divergent opinions on grief and coping with crises in general, in “Congress,” Jack/Carl’s and Miriam’s divergent opinions on objects  reflect their divergent outlooks on life.

There’s the lamp:

Jack:

“Gosh, this appeals to me, though, Miriam.”

Miriam:

“You should resist the urge to do this, Jack, really,” Miriam said. The thought of a lamp made of animal legs in her life and turned on caused a violent feeling of panic within her.

Then there’s the taxidermy museum:

“I’ve heard about that,” Carl said. “And I would say that a museum like that, and the people who run it—well, it’s deeply into denial on every level. That’s what I’d say. And Jack here, all his life he was the great verifier—weren’t you, Jack? And still are, by golly.” Jack cleared his throat and Carl gazed at him happily. “We don’t want to go into a place like that,” Carl said.

Miriam felt ashamed and determined. “I’ll go over there for just an hour or two,” she said.

The dead animals, are, of course, a symbol for Miriam herself, as becomes most obvious, perhaps, in this passage from near the end:

Behind him was a large nonhuman shape on which progress appeared to have slowed. It looked as though it had been in this stage of the process for a long time.

The taxidermist then proceeds to pontificate about attitudes toward death, then describes how he’s different from another taxidermist who makes the animals look dead, because he makes them look alive. The taxidermist helps her acknowledge to herself that she’s in love with a lamp:

“I’ll think about it,” Miriam said. But actually she was thinking about the lamp. The odd thing was she had never been in love with an animal. She had just skipped that cross-species eroticism and gone right beyond it to altered parts. There was something wrong with that, she thought. It was so hopeless. Well, love was hopeless…

Amidst all the imagery of dead animals, the final image we’re offered of them is of them alive:

A thin maid in a pink uniform was changing the channel on a television set. Something was being described by the announcer as a plume of effluent surrounded by seagulls…

The image of a live animal stands out here at the end after so many dead animals, whether the reader consciously registers it or not. The seagulls congregating around waste, animals that aren’t dead, but responding to human problems, symbolizes Miriam’s return from the dead, emphasizing the irony that this return from death was only possible via a fixation on death and human waste. In her new role as the answerer of people’s questions, Miriam is, in essence, a seagull hovering around effluent.  It’s also relevant that this image of life is mediated through a screen, not experienced directly, which seems to inform Miriam’s conclusion that nothing really happens anywhere.

The taxidermist says what Miriam should realize is that she can answer people’s questions any way she wants. This is effectively what Jack does at the beginning of the story when he’s declaring people’s loved ones dead. The conclusion with Miriam colors our perspective of what Jack was actually doing here–it’s emphasized how happy people are with the information he can give them, but the taxidermists remark about answering people’s questions however you want seems to imply that this might have been what Jack was doing all along–simply giving people the answers they wanted to hear, and thriving off the energy they provided him in their gratitude. What Jack is to his clients at the beginning is what the taxidermist is to his clients–providing necessary, but potentially made up, answers. So by taking over the taxidermist’s role, Miriam has become who Jack used to be. Balance is restored, and even if we don’t consciously register how Miriam has now taken up Jack’s role, the ending provides a sense of closure. Miriam finally confronts her love of the inanimate lamp with the taxidermist because his talking about how the answers can be anything might have led her to realize Jack was not her answer; realizing Jack was making up his answers might have helped her figure this out.

This would not be the same story, or a finished one, if Miriam had simply gone to the museum and not had her exchange with the taxidermist, then returned to find Jack and Carl gone. This would be an action that happened to her, and as such it is not enough to complete her arc.

-SCR

Corporate Mythology in Kurt Eichenwald’s Conspiracy of Fools

-using scenes in journalistic accounts
-increasing journalistic credibility with use of detail

enron.jpg

In an interview about his research process for his book Conspiracy of Fools, which details the collapse of Houston’s own Enron, Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald says he was the last one who thought Enron would make captivating book material. But then he came to realize that the saga had a narrative arc out of Greek mythology: a meteoric rise, then the crash and burn, with the hubris of the parties involved seeming to make the collapse inevitable. (The book is divided into four parts, the first two about the rise, the second two about the fall.) Eichenwald’s narrative arc ultimately reveals how lust for short-term gains generated irrevocable long-term damage: Enron destroyed itself.

In his sprawling account of the various factors that influenced Enron’s collapse, Eichenwald describes practicing “narrative journalism,” which is often derided by “journalistic purists” but which he believes requires a more rigorous investigative process. Eichenwald aims not merely to relay facts, but to paint a picture in the reader’s head, to put them in a scene. His purpose is not just to inform, but to entertain by arranging the information in a narrative arc for maximum dramatic impact. The prologue, as prologues will do, essentially gives us the entire narrative arc in condensed form; from the scenes he uses to construct the prologue–Andy Fastow’s dismissal as CFO and the  former CEO Jeff Skilling’s breakdown when the collapse becomes imminent–we can tell what the major narrative threads will be (they will revolve around Fastow and Skilling).

Rendering a full-blown scene requires more details, which requires more authentication to confirm the details are accurate. The goal of this extra work is to make the material more enthralling to your readers. Thus, instead of “telling” passages like “Andrew Fastow met Ken Rice for dinner,” Eichenwald offers passages like:

THE WHITE MAZDA NAVAJO turned onto an inclined driveway off Westheimer Road, heading toward the purple-and-white stucco facade of Armando’s Mexican restaurant. A valet watched the vehicle slow to a stop before hustling over to the driver-side door. Andy Fastow popped his seat belt and stepped out, handing over the keys as Lea emerged from the passenger side. He escorted her to the restaurant’s wooden door and swept inside.

All of this was constructed from info Eichenwald must have gotten from Fastow, with some info then extrapolated from what Fastow told him—what kind of car he would have been driving, and since he knew what restaurant they went to, he knew what road they must have driven down to get there. Eichenwald provides details that “show” instead of “tell” to pull us into the narrative via scenes, but he’s also carefully selective about what he uses to construct such scenes. Fastow probably didn’t explicitly describe handing over his keys to a valet, but Eichenwald knows from other research that the restaurant would have had it, and if it had it, Fastow would have used it, and Eichenwald’s putting the valet in here shows us Fastow’s casual wealth and implicitly emphasizes his off-handed attitude about it.

It’s the specificity of detail that not only paints a picture in the reader’s head, but that implicitly reinforces the credibility of the telling:

Carter maneuvered her fiancé up the terrazzo steps and into the hotel’s high-ceilinged lobby.

By caring enough to include such tiny details, enough to include that the steps are terrazzo and the lobby has a high ceiling, Eichenwald is implicitly sending the message that he cares about larger more story-important details even more.

Through his narrative journalism technique, Eichenwald occupies the thoughts of his subjects as if he’s in their heads (he points out that his journalism reads like “a novel”). He’s only able to do this by constructing so much of his account from primary sources—from interviews with the people he’s describing in the account. Only a primary source will do when you’re presenting people’s thoughts in this way—a secondary source can’t tell you someone’s thoughts—only the person him/herself can do that. Eichenwald only presumes to know what someone feels if that person described to him what they were feeling in that moment.

Eichenwald faces the challenge of translating the nuance of corporate accounting scandals into laymen’s terms, of explicating complicated deals that were made specifically for the average person not to be able to understand, and to locate and highlight the drama inherent within them—the stakes and consequences. His goal is to isolate the causes of Enron’s downfall and to present the chains of events that constitute these causes in scene. One of the biggest causes of the collapse were some of the deals put together by Enron’s Chief Financial Officer, Andrew Fastow, who created complicated financial vehicles that allowed Enron to hide their debt by manipulating technicalities in accounting rules, and who also carried out transactions between Enron and a personal account of his that eventually came to light as an egregious conflict of interest. Thus, a major narrative thread that emerges in Eichenwald’s account are meetings and discussions about this personal account of Fastow’s and people’s different reactions to it—and of course the most interesting scenes to hone in on are the ones where people’s reactions are conflicted.

One of the character’s whose in-the-moment feelings are particularly important are those of Ken Lay, Enron’s CEO. Lay always insisted he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing, particularly on Fastow’s part. Eichenwald’s account is able to remains true to his source without letting him off scot-free by emphasizing Lay’s naiveté. We can see this at work in the prologue, when we get Lay’s interior monologue:

We had every protection in place. We disclosed it all. They just don’t understand.

And:

Fastow would be a victim. It just wasn’t right.

Lay had no idea that Fastow had failed to tell him the most devastating news of all—news he wouldn’t learn for years to come.

Eichenwald remains true to Lay’s interior monologue, but finds ways to let the reader know how it’s misguided or problematic.

-SCR