Summary: The short story “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff begins with a book critic named Anders who is waiting in line at a bank. He is revealed to be a hypercritical person by judging the people surrounding him despite him not knowing them personally, including the bank tellers and a lady ahead of him in line. Two bank robbers are soon introduced to the story, and Anders does not hesitate to talk back to them the moment they enter. This ultimately prompts one of them to shoot him in the head after engaging in a petty dispute, and Anders states a series of things that he does not remember as he is suffering the repercussions of the bullet wound. Finally, he lists off personal fragments of what he does remember as he is dying.
Two Techniques: Two of my favorite techniques in this short story were a) consistency of the internal monologue and b) perspective.
Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him.
One technique used throughout the story is consistency. Anders is a book critic, which typically indicates that he as a person is judgmental and has no problem insulting others; this is confirmed as Anders continues to comment on the people surrounding him. In the above quote, even though Anders does not know the above people personally, he makes generalizations—“presumptuous crybaby”—which reveals that he judges people the same way he judges books for a living. In addition, throughout the story he criticizes everyone he sees and even comments on a painting on the ceiling. This also conveys his large ego; he seems to think he is flawless and only laughs at others. This pattern of criticism is maintained until the second portion of the story (mentioned in technique 2).
…and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.
The second technique I tracked was perspective. The above quote marks the beginning of the figurative second portion of the short story. The first half of the story had a rather comical tone; the narrator Anders’ outlook on life was lively and he made a joke out of everything he saw, even the bank robbers that determined whether he would live or die. However, as soon as Anders was shot, the story’s tone shifted from lighthearted to serious and the perspective, initially focusing on the people surrounding Anders and his cynicism, switched to Anders himself/personal details about him, such as what he did or did not remember.
To conclude, utilizing these techniques in my writing can spark the reader’s interest and help them better understand my character(s). Changing perspective or including elements of surprise like Wolff did in this story ensures that the reader is able to figure out what the main character is like by being given various outlooks on said characters.
- Were you able to sympathize with Anders despite his insensitivity? Why or why not?
- What do you think is the reason behind what Anders remembered/why he remembered certain things?
- Is Anders a dynamic or static character? Why?