“Symbols and Signs” Write Up by Anya Price

The short story “Symbols and Signs” by Vladimir Nabokov opens with two parents fretting over what to get their mentally unstable son for his birthday. It’s revealed that the couple had their son when they were middle-aged. They had emigrated from Russia, where they were fairly successful. However, they have relied solely on the husband’s brother Isaac (who they call The Prince) for money for the past forty years that they have lived in America. The day they go to visit their son at the sanatorium, everything seems to go wrong. It’s raining, the bus is late, and they receive the news that the son had tried to kill himself (again). He’s okay, however, the hospital refuses to let them see him as they think it could possibly upset him even more. The son is said to have referential mania, an illness where the patient is certain that everything they see is a relative to them and is some sort of cryptic message about their personality. This results in immense paranoia and discomfort in places that the patient is unfamiliar with, hence his unhappiness in the sanatorium. When they get home, the wife goes to get some fish and the husband stays, thinking he has the key to get into the house. He remembers he left them with her and sits in the rain until she gets back. Later, before bed, the wife looks back onto old photographs and memories from when the couple lived in Russia. Being Jewish and living in the midst of the Holocaust, the husband and wife managed to escape to America with their ten-year-old son. The wife becomes gloomy as she reflects upon how the deaths of their relatives influenced her child’s mental state at this time, and how that ultimately impacted the rest of his life. While contemplating their previous life, she comes to terms with their fate. The husband comes in saying he can’t sleep because the guilt of having his child locked away is too much for them. The couple then agrees to take him out of the sanatorium the following day. As they discuss this, the phone goes off. On the other line, a monotone girl asks for Charlie. The wife says she has the wrong number and hangs up. This repeats once more. As the father is looking at their son’s present of the ten fruit jellies, the phone rings a third time and the story ends.

The chronic tension in this piece is the son’s altered mental state and the parents’ depressing reality. The acute tension of this piece is the son’s attempted suicide, the decision to take him out of the sanatorium, and the repeated mysterious phone calls.

There are great elements in this story that make it such an exquisite, deep and intriguing piece. The two that I decided to track were cryptic, ambiguous or foreshadowing details, which I highlighted in purple, and mentions of numbers or lists, which I highlighted in yellow. Cryptic, ambiguous and foreshadowing details are crucial elements that were utilized to their maximum potential in this piece. Vague symbols and omens are present in nearly every paragraph of the piece, from representations as obvious as the bird in the puddle, the woman on the bus crying and the man in the window, to some of the more enigmatic ones, such as that in the fortune telling cards that fall on the ground:

the knave of hearts, the nine of spades, the ace of spades, the maid Elsa and her bestial beau.

The interpretation of these cards according to a traditional Russian system is that it’s foretold for there to be a great loss, grief and tears, all applying to a single young man. Arguably, the most significant of these symbols is the final phone call, of which no explanation is left as to who was calling or what they were calling for. One could assume that the strange girl could be calling again, but foreshadowing and the sudden ending suggests that the call contains news of the son, most likely concerning a suicide attempt that was probably successful. There are too many symbols and signs in this piece for me to possibly decode, but if you’re really interested in looking into the ones in this story, which I recommend you do because they’re interesting and contribute to the meaning more than I could describe myself, looking up an interpretation online yields many essays and in depth analyses.

The other element, or recurring topic/theme I should say, that I tracked was the usage of numbers or grouping of objects. Numbers and lists are also utilized to form messages that require deep thought in order to decode. Particular importance is placed on the numbers 10 and 3. Again, there is too much meaning behind the numbers for me to go in full detail, but usage of such symbols parallels with the way the son views the world, seeing everything as having some hidden meaning personal to him. Tying into the idea that the encrypted messages in the story are comparable to the boy’s condition, it’s possible that Nabokov prompts the audience to read into these ‘pseudo symbols’ in hopes of creating the reader’s own referential mania.

Some of them are detached observers, like glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others, again (running water, storms), are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions.

Could the audience possibly be represented in this quote commentating on how he attempts to decode every little thing? Possibly. In fact, Nabokov has even admitted to having woven a second main story into the initial superficial one. However, this theory is up to interpretation.

After analyzing this story, I can strive to utilize the technique of weaving a submissive second storyline underneath a transparent but visible initial storyline. I can do so by distracting the reader with seemingly necessary details in order to hide the deeper plot of the piece. Although a seemingly bad technique, it is evident that doing so works in this case, as it requires the reader to think deeper than what’s given to them and to put together the pieces of the puzzle themselves, which can prove to be very entertaining, although frustrating at times. I also want to use more symbolism in my pieces. As I stated with the intertwining stories, having representations of things can cause your reader to be more intrigued by the piece and overall improves your writing.


  1. Why do you think that Nabokov decided to include the names of every character in this story, but leaves the husband, wife and son unnamed?
  2. Who do you think was on the other line of the third call? What did they have to say?
  3. Do you think that Nabokov intended to have the codes in the story act as distractors from the underlying plot, or do you believe that each symbol plays a part in the puzzle?

Ender Wiggin, Being Human

Orson Scott Card’s 1985 classic Ender’s Game begins with a dialog between two unidentified speakers deciding to “take” someone they believe is “the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” Then we meet six-year-old Andrew Wiggin, aka Ender, in the process of having his “horrid monitor” removed. He has what is apparently an uncharacteristically spasmodic reaction to its removal. Back at school, Ender is worried he will be picked on now that he’s not protected by being watched through the monitor, and is soon proven correct when the bully Stilson and his gang come around picking on him for being a “third.” Though smaller, Ender ends up knocking Stilson to the ground, then kicking him repeatedly when he’s down to send a message to the other gang members not to mess with him again. At home, Ender is immediately picked on by his older brother Peteragain thanks to the absence of the monitor—and Peter almost kills him in a game of “astronauts and buggers” (Peter being the astronaut, Ender the bugger) but Ender is saved by the intervention of their sister Valentine.

The next morning, Colonel Graff from the International Fleet shows up on the Wiggins’ doorstep. After Ender tells Graff why he beat Stilson so harshly, Graff says that Ender is wanted for Battle School. He says it is Ender’s choice, though the parents already agreed to let him be taken to be allowed to have him in the first place, two being the legally allotted number of children. Ender agrees to go after Graff explains the disruption he’s caused to the order of his parents’ house as the third child.

The dialoguing soldiers from the beginning discuss plans to isolate Ender. On the space shuttle to the school, Graff tells the other boys that Ender is smarter than all of them. The boy behind Ender starts hitting him in the head until Ender grabs his arm and flings him out of his seat; the boy, Bernard, ends up with a broken arm. Graff affirms that the boys shouldn’t mess with Ender. Graff talks to Major Anderson (these turn out to be the dialoguing soldiers) about how they’re going to make Ender “the best military commander in history” and how Ender:

“…can never come to believe that anybody will ever help him out, ever. If he once thinks there’s an easy way out, he’s wrecked.”

Ender feels homesick and grateful to Peter for teaching him how to hide what he feels. In between classes they play computer games that are a part of their training. Ender masters them so quickly he’s able to beat much older boys at one he hadn’t actually played before. Everyone in his launch group treats Ender as an enemy for breaking Bernard’s arm on the shuttle. Bernard is a bully who often makes fun of others; Ender conquers Bernard by figuring out how to send messages to the group through their desks:


The boys learn how to maneuver in an anti-gravity battleroom and Ender quickly trains himself not to think in traditional terms of up and down. He figures out that the gun that comes with their flash suits freezes people, and practicing with it during this training session he makes friends with Alai, one of Bernard’s cronies. Ender plays a game in Free Play where he’s gotten to a level with a Giant making him choose between poisoned drinks; no matter what he chooses, he dies, until he kicks the table over and burrows into the Giant’s eye (while the Giant calls him a cheater). He finally makes it to “Fairyland.” Ender feels depressed he had to choose between his own death and murder in the game. Soon he finds a slip transferring him to the Salamander Army even though by normal standards he hasn’t been in enough training to warrant the promotion. He and Alai say a tender goodbye. Ender goes back to the Fairyland game and sees the Giant’s corpse has become part of the landscape, and he plays on a playground where nothing will hold him. He then walks through woods to a meadow where he’s attacked by wolves with the faces of the children from the playground. Eventually he figures out how to kill them and goes down a well to a cavern with a door that says “THE END OF THE WORLD.” The door leads onto a high ledge, which Ender jumps from, landing on a cloud that carries him to a castle. A rug on the ground turns into a snake that tells him death is his only escape, but the game is interrupted when Ender is paged to report to his new army.

The first person Ender talks to in his new barracks is Petra, the only girl in Salamander Army. Ender meets his new commander, Bonzo Madrid, who is pissed they have sent an inexperienced six-year-old to his army. He tells Ender that during the battles he’s not to draw his gun. Petra, who says she’s the best sharpshooter in Salamander, offers to teach Ender some things since Bonzo won’t. She also tells him that the higher-ups “never tell you any more truth than they have to.” Ender’s not allowed to participate in Bonzo’s training exercises but closely observes his formations and weak points. When Petra can’t practice with him as much as he wants, he goes back to his launch group and gets some of them to practice with him. When Bonzo says he can’t practice with launchies, Ender challenges him and says he can get Bonzo iced (kicked out) if he tries to control his free play; Bonzo is furious that he has to back down. When Ender has his first battle with Salamander Army, he obeys Bonzo’s orders not to draw his gun even though he could have easily killed one of the five remaining enemy soldiers passing through the victory gate, which would have rendered the battle a draw instead of a loss, but Bonzo refuses to change his order. Ender is at the very top of the soldier standings by fluke because he hasn’t ever been hit and and he doesn’t have any missed shots because he hasn’t taken any.

During Ender’s fourth battle, nine soldiers are about to pass through the victory gate to defeat Salamander when Ender does draw his gun and freezes five of them, making it a draw. Bonzo later tells him he’s finally traded him and then slugs him in the face for disobeying orders. Ender signs up for a “earth-gravity personal combat course” so that “no one would be able to do that to him again.”

Graff orders Major Anderson to come up with “unfair star arrangement[s]” for the battles to make them more challenging; Anderson threatens to report Graff’s orders to a higher-up, but Graff insists he’s doing what’s necessary. Ender switches to Rat Army, led by a guy named “Rose the Nose” whose only qualification to lead is that he’s Jewish (there’s a superstition that Jews make good commanders, though this is refuted by the fact that Mazer Rackham, the commander who saved the world from the last bugger invasion, was from New Zealand). Ender is put in Dink Meeker’s toon; Dink wanted him after seeing his practice sessions with the launchies. Ender teaches the toon how to attack approaching feet-first in antigravity so it’s much harder for the enemy to hit you. When Ender disobeys Rose the Nose’s orders to not practice with the launchies and then not to use his desk, Rose the Nose orders Ender to go in first, straight to the enemy’s door. He thinks Ender will get shot right away but Ender attacks fast and is able to freeze several soldiers before he’s frozen himself, and maintains his rank as first in the standings. He drops in the standings after actually fighting in the next few battles, but then works his way back to the top legitimately. He talks to Dink about why Dink’s turned down promotions, and Dink explains:

These other armies, they aren’t the enemy. It’s the teachers, they’re the enemy. They get us to fight each other, to hate each other. The game is everything. Win win win. It amounts to nothing. We kill ourselves, go crazy trying to beat each other, and all the time the old bastards are watching us, studying us, discovering our weak points, deciding whether we’re good enough or not. Well, good enough for what?

Dink also talks about his family from home, which nobody ever does, and Ender opens up about Valentine. Dink also believes the prospect of the bugger war is entirely fake:

“…There is no war, and they’re just screwing around with us.”

“But why?”

“Because as long as people are afraid of the buggers, the I.F. can stay in power, and as long as the I.F. is in power, certain countries can keep their hegemony. But keep watching the vids, Ender. People will catch onto this game pretty soon, and there’ll be a civil war to end all wars. That’s the menace, Ender, not the buggers. And in that war, when it comes, you and I won’t be friends. Because you’re American, just like our dear teachers. And I am not.”

Ender believes the buggers are real and that their threat could not have been faked, since “lies could not last long in America,” but a seed of doubt is planted that helps make him wise. Other commanders start ordering their soldiers not to practice with Ender, but his core group of original launchies remains loyal, despite external pressures. A group of older boys attacks his group in a nasty unofficial battle, but Ender wins. When he sees that the boys who were hospitalized are officially reported to have been hurt accidentally, he realizes the teachers have no intention of intervening.

Ender goes back to his Free Play mind game and kills the snake that he met last time in the castle room. Then he looks in a mirror and sees Peter’s face with a bloody snake tail hanging from his mouth. Ender shatters the mirror with the dead snake and then thousands of tiny snakes start pouring from the hole and kill him.

The commanders sanction Ender’s practices officially and send older boys to participate, so no one bothers him. But Ender is bothered by the most recent development in the mind game:

This game knows too much about me. This game tells filthy lies. I am not Peter. I don’t have murder in my heart.

And then a worse fear, that he was a killer, only better at it than Peter ever was; that it was this very trait that pleased the teachers. It’s killers they need for the bugger wars. It’s people who can grind the enemy’s face into the dust and spatter their blood all over space.

Graff and Anderson debate how the game could have gotten Peter’s image.

We then switch to Valentine’s perspective back home, where she’s been observing Ender’s birthdays even though he never answers her letters. They have since moved from the city to the country in North Carolina, which Valentine thinks they’ve done for Peter so the influence of nature will soften him, but she knows he’s been skinning and torturing squirrels. He does well in school and doesn’t bully people anymore, but Valentine knows it’s a fraud. One day Peter tells her that he’s decided not to kill her, but that she’ll help him. He tells her he’s figured out how to track troop movements in Russia and can tell they’re getting ready for war—the war after the bugger war. She understands that he’s “detected [] a fundamental shift in the world order.” He points out that they’re not like other children, but smarter than most adults, and that

“…there are times when the world is in flux and the right voice in the right place can move the world.”

He wants her to convince their father to sign them onto the nets on his account so they can start participating in certain forums and eventually make a name for themselves with their ideas. He makes himself vulnerable by saying all the things he did to her and Ender were out of his need for control:

“…It’s what I’m most afraid of. That I really am a monster. I don’t want to be a killer but I just can’t help it.”

Though she’s aware he’s manipulating her, he convinces her. She takes on the more incendiary war-mongering persona called Demosthenes, while he adopts the more rational persona known as Locke. Eventually they do get noticed and are picked up to write official columns.

A year in at Battle School, Ender is a toon leader in Phoenix Army under Petra’s command, and his evening practices are highly popular, but he finds that he’s extremely unhappy. He can’t find a way to get out of the room in the castle at the End of the World. Colonel Graff goes to Valentine at her school and asks her to help with Ender, though he can’t articulate clearly what the problem is. She explains that Ender was always worried he was like Peter, a killer, but that he’s really not. She agrees, with some resistance, to write him a letter, telling him he’s not like Peter. When Ender reads it he understands that Graff is responsible for manipulating her and hates that he has no control over his own life.

Ender then goes to the fantasy mind game and instead of killing the snake, kisses it. The snake turns into Valentine, and when he looks in the mirror he no longer sees Peter, but him and Valentine, and the mirror falls away to a staircase surrounded by cheering multitudes, and he cries from happiness to have escaped the room, not noticing that all the people have Peter’s face.

Ender is put in command of the new Dragon Army, which is filled with the weakest soldiers and untrained launchies. During his first training session, Ender singles out a small launchie named Bean whom he recognizes has potential; he soon realizes his attentions will isolate Bean in the same way he was and wonders why he feels the need to do that. He realizes that Graff isolated him from the very beginning to make him a better soldier.

The higher-ups say Ender is no longer allowed to have his practices, and he’s cut off from Alai. Graff comes up with a new intense battle schedule. Ender takes the nontraditional approach of training his toons to be able to do things on their own initiative. He’s excited when they’re sent into battle earlier than usual. They win easily, then are sent into battle every day, which is unheard of, and win all of them, earning Ender admiration and hatred. He starts watching videos of the bugger invasion battles to learn more, and makes an observation:

They never did anything surprising, anything that seemed to show either brilliance or stupidity in a subordinate officer. Discipline was apparently very tight.

He also notices that there’s little footage of the battle with Mazer Rackham, and thinks it’s censored. Graff summons him (Ender notices he’s markedly fatter than when he first met him four years ago) and asks if his soldiers have reached their limits and why he’s watching the bugger videos. Then Graff tells him he’s battling Bonzo’s Salamander Army in ten minutes; they gave Bonzo a head start. It’s the first time anyone is doing two battles in one day, but Ender anticipates their strategy and comes up with his own, freezing some of his own soldiers to use as shields. He is aware that this defeat will turn Bonzo’s hatred murderous. He hopes the teachers will keep him safe since he doesn’t have time for more defense classes.

Ender summons Bean (and we switch into Bean’s point of view at this point) to confide his frustration that the teachers have no apparent regard for the rules of the game, and reminds him that it’s not about the game, but about training for the bugger wars. He worries about losing and Bean is glad to see he’s human. He assigns Bean to lead a special task force to anticipate new problems.

We then see a General come to visit Colonel Graff; someone filed a report and they know some of the kids, led by Bonzo, are planning to beat Ender up. Command is worried about the potential threat to their potential savior, and angry that Graff doesn’t have anyone on hand to break up disturbances. Graff is insistent that Ender can’t believe that anyone is going to save him, ever:

“…Ender Wiggin must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way. He must believe, to the core of his soul, that he can only do what he and the other children work out for themselves. If he does not believe that, then he will never reach the peak of his abilities.”

Bean practices using a deadline to change positions in midair in antigravity. Petra warns Ender that some boys want to kill him, and Dink warns him to never be alone, but after the battle the next day Ender ends up napping during lunch and then showering when nobody’s there. Bonzo shows up with six other boys. Ender manages to talk Bonzo into fighting him alone, turns on the water to make himself slick so Bonzo can’t grab him, then hits him and keeps beating him after he’s down to send a message to everyone else (a la Stilson). That night, he cries about how badly he hurt Bonzo. 

Next, Ender is given a battle against two armies at once. They use a formation for the first time to send their soldiers through the victory gate immediately instead of waiting until they’ve killed off all of the enemy first, as is usually standard. Ender is so angry at how the higher-ups keep changing the rules that he says there will be no more practice and for him no more games. Graff then comes in with papers transferring Ender to Command School, which he wasn’t supposed to have enough experience for for several more years. Graff is going with him. They have to stop on Earth first to switch to a ship that can land at the new school.

We get a discussion between two officials in which we learn that Bonzo died from his injuries—as did Stilson. Though they note:

“Ender Wiggin isn’t a killer. He just wins—thoroughly. If anybody’s going to be scared, let it be the buggers.”

They wonder if Graff might eventually be put in jail for Bonzo’s death. We then get a conversation between different officials about how the identities of Locke and Demosthenes are Ender’s siblings.

We switch to Valentine’s point of view; Peter gets mad at her for being invited to an important conference before he is, and their contacts have enabled them to piece together the preparations for an upcoming earthbound war. Then Graff picks Valentine up from school one day, mentions that he knows who Demosthenes is, and takes her to see Ender, who for the past two months has been saying he refuses to go on with his studies. She goes out on a lake with Ender on a raft he’s built and, after he expresses his concern that he won’t be able to beat the buggers because he doesn’t understand them the way he understands people, she talks him into saving humanity:

“…If you try and lose then it isn’t your fault. But if you don’t try and we lose, then it’s all your fault. You killed us all.”

“I’m a killer no matter what.”

He gets ready to leave with Graff, who it turns out had another reason for keeping him on Earth so long:

“We train our commanders the way we do because that’s what it takes—they have to think in certain ways, they can’t be distracted by a lot of things, so we isolate them. You. Keep you separate. And it works. But it’s so easy, when you never meet people, when you never know the Earth itself, when you live with metal walls keeping out the cold of space, it’s easy to forget why Earth is worth saving. Why the world of people might be worth the price you pay.”

He knows Ender might hate him for bringing Valentine to him to manipulate him, but he wanted to remind him of their connection and how there were billions of other human connections on Earth that needed saving.

During the three-month voyage to I.F. Command Headquarters on Eros, Ender gets Graff to tell him everything he knows about the buggers, which is more physical than psychological. Perhaps most importantly:

“Their communication, however they do it, is instantaneous.”

Then humans were able to build an Instantaneous Communicator of their own, called an ansible. It might be notable for world-building craft that you don’t have to explain how things actually work:

“once we knew what could be done, we did it. … I can’t explain philotic physics to you. Half of it nobody understands anyway. What matters is we built the ansible.”

Now ships can talk to each other even when they’re all the way on the other side of the galaxy. Graff tells him that the buggers aren’t attacking them, but the other way around—the humans are staging the Third Invasion. They sent some ships toward the bugger world seventy years ago, and they should be reaching the buggers in about five years. They need the battle commander who knows what to do with the ships when they get there. Ender doesn’t believe he’ll be ready in five years but Graff says he has to do his best. Ender is aware that even now Graff is manipulating him:

I’ll become exactly the tool you want me to be, said Ender silently, but at least I won’t be fooled into it. I’ll do it because I choose to, not because you tricked me, you sly bastard.

Graff tells him he believes the buggers must communicate directly mind-to-mind. When Ender asks why they have to kill the buggers, Graff reminds him that the buggers invaded first. Ender protests that maybe the buggers didn’t know they were intelligent life, but Graff says they can never be sure, so:

“If one of us has to be destroyed, let’s make damn sure we’re the ones alive at the end.”

On Eros, Graff talks to Admiral Chamrajnagar:

“…He’s such a very little boy.”

“There’s greatness in him. A magnitude of spirit.”

“A killer instinct, too, I hope.”


The Admiral says they’ve devoted one of their five starship simulators to Ender. Ender finds Eros’s general design uncomfortable. It’s a rock with tunnels in which over 10,000 people live. He’s isolated from other students, but he finds the simulator “the most perfect videogame he had ever played.” The games get increasingly complex. Over the course of a year he masters commanding a fleet. Battle School comes in handy:

He would routinely reorient the simulator every few minutes, rotating it so that he didn’t get trapped into an up-down orientation, constantly reviewing his position from the enemy point of view. It was exhilarating at last to have such control over the battle, to be able to see every point of it.

(One might note a metaphor for writing itself here, the importance of seeing from different perspectives, as well as the writer’s God-like authorial omniscience.) When Ender notes that the game has stopped getting harder, Graff disappears and an old man shows up locked in Ender’s room with him. After Ender lets down his guard and the old man attacks him, he reveals himself to be Mazer Rackham, the commander who succeeded in destroying the buggers last time. They sent him out in a starship at “relativistic speed” then had him come back, so that over 50 years only 18 years passed for him and he could survive to teach the next commander how to defeat the buggers. They finally watch the video of how he did defeat them—he dove his ship into the heart of their formation, there was a single explosion, and then he wound his way out among the other bugger ships without them firing on him because they were dead. Mazer explains his theory:

“The buggers are bugs. They’re like ants and bees. A queen, the workers. That was maybe a hundred million years ago, but that’s how they started, that kind of pattern. … So when they evolved this ability to think together, wouldn’t they still keep the queen? Wouldn’t the queen still be the center of the group? Why would that ever change?”

“So it’s the queen who controls the whole group.”

Mazer reveals Eros is a former bugger hive. The buggers don’t consider themselves sentient beings; when they die it’s like the destruction of inanimate objects:

“Murder’s no big deal to them. Only queen-killing, really, is murder, because only queen-killing closes off a genetic path.”

“So they didn’t know what they were doing.”

When they killed the humans, Ender means. The queen doesn’t even have to be present to control her buggers in battle. The only advantage the humans have is the “Dr. Device,” which is much more powerful than a nuclear weapon:

“The Little Doctor could never be used on a planet. ….”

“How does it work?”

“I don’t know, not well enough to build one. At the focal point of two beams, it sets up a field in which molecules can’t hold together anymore. Electrons can’t be shared. How much physics do you know, at that level?”

“Dr.” for M.D.: Molecular Detachment device. It’s Ender’s job to get in a position to choose a target for it. He gets a new simulator with a headset that connects him to squadron leaders—all the best students from Battle School that he trusted. As they use the simulator, he learns their particular strengths so he can deploy them more quickly; the intelligence of their individual groups gives them an advantage over the buggers’ hive-mind. Then Mazer starts to control the enemy’s movements in “a simulation of a real invasion.” They practice intense battles for ten hours a day. Ender has nightmares about buggers vivisecting him and his memories.

As the battles intensify, his team starts making more mistakes, including a disaster with Petra, whom he concludes he’s pushed too hard. Ender himself collapses and is put to bed for three days. When he returns he continues to fight well. Then one day a lot of people are in the room to watch his battle, and Graff says this is his final examination in Command School. Ender considers what will happen if he wins—years more of grueling training. He might prefer to fail and go home—but then that might mean no actual home to return to because the buggers will destroy everything. When the game starts, Ender discovers he is outnumbered a thousand to one. Bean says:

“Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.”

And Ender, remembering the day they fought two armies at once, thinks that if they’re going to cheat like this, he can cheat too. He gets his ships in formation and leads them through enemy ships until they drop their Dr. Devices on the enemy’s planet. The planet explodes and as it expands outward destroys all the bugger ships. Ender thinks the people in the room should be angry, but instead they’re crying and celebrating. Mazer finally enlightens him:

“Ender, you never played me. You never played a game since I became your enemy.”

Ender didn’t get the joke. He had played a great many games, at a terrible cost to himself. He began to get angry.

Mazer reached out and touched his shoulder. Ender shrugged him off. Mazer then grew serious and said, “Ender, for the past few months you have been the battle commander of our fleets. This was the Third Invasion. There were no games, the battles were real, and the only enemy you fought was the buggers. You won every battle, and today you finally fought them at their home world, where the queen was, all the queens from all their colonies, they all were there and you destroyed them completely. They’ll never attack us again. You did it. You.”

Ender struggles with the implications of what he’s done:

“I killed them all, didn’t I?” Ender asked.

“All who?” asked Graff. “The buggers? That was the idea.”

Mazer leaned in close. “That’s what the war was for.”

“All their queens. So I killed all their children, all of everything.”

They decided that when they attacked us. It wasn’t your fault. It’s what had to happen.”

Ender grabbed Mazer’s uniform and hung onto it, pulling him down so they were face to face. “I didn’t want to kill them all. I didn’t want to kill anybody! I’m not a killer! You didn’t want me, you bastards, you wanted Peter, but you made me do it, you tricked me into it!” He was crying. He was out of control.

“Of course we tricked you into it. That’s the whole point,” said Graff. “It had to be a trick or you couldn’t have done it. It’s the bind we were in. We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers. But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs. If you knew, you couldn’t do it. If you were the kind of person who would do it even if you knew, you could never have understood the buggers well enough.”

“And it had to be a child, Ender,” said Mazer. “You were faster than me. Better than me. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn’t know. We made sure you didn’t know. You were reckless and brilliant and young. It’s what you were born for.”

In the meantime, violence has erupted on Earth now that the bugger war is over:

“They’re going to start a war. Americans claiming the Warsaw Pact is about to attack, and the Russians are saying the same thing about the Hegemon. The bugger war isn’t twenty-four hours dead and the world down there is back to fighting again, as bad as ever. And all of them are worried about you. All of them want you. …”

Ender has nightmares and sleeps through “the five days of the League War.” His friends finally visit him and tell him there’s been a truce and that “[t]hey finally agreed to accept the Locke Proposal.”

In the last chapter we see Anderson and Graff at the Greensboro lake, discussing Graff’s acquittal. Locke has agitated for Ender to stay on Eros, but Graff hints this was at Demosthenes’ urging and that Locke really did want Ender to come to Earth so he could control and use him to gain power. Graff is the new Minister of Colonization for the bugger worlds.

Ender watches Graff’s trial and sees it as an indictment of himself (videos of Bonzo’s and Stilson’s deaths are part of the evidence). Valentine visits him on Eros and tells him she’s going to the first colony. He says he wants to go home and she says she’s ensured he’s never going back; if he did he would be under Peter’s control, since Peter’s now in a position of influence on the Hegemon’s Council. The Locke Proposal was the moment he consolidated Demosthenes’ and Locke’s different spheres of influence to forestall war, and he actually saved millions of lives (ironic, since he was supposed to be the killer, and that Ender, the non-killer, ended up killing all the buggers…). If Ender had come back, Peter would have been able to use Ender’s influence—he’s an extremely popular celebrity since they released videos of the bugger battles—to take over completely. Ender doesn’t want to live in the homes of what he killed, but Earth is Peter’s and this is Ender’s chance to get away. Valentine mentions he might think she’s trying to control him:

“Welcome to the human race. Nobody controls his own life, Ender. The best you can do is choose to fill the roles given you by good people, by people who love you. …”

She says the plan is he’ll be governor and that Graff and Mazer are going, too. He agrees, but not for her sake:

“I’m going because I know the buggers better than any other living soul, and maybe if I go there I can understand them better. I stole their future from them; I can only begin to repay by seeing what I can learn from their past.”

Years pass; Peter is Hegemon of Earth and more colonists come to Ender’s World. Valentine is writing history volumes documenting the bugger wars. Scouting for a new colony location with an eleven-year-old named Abra, Ender recognizes the land as that from the computer mind game at Battle School with the corpse of the giant he killed. He finds the tower and, unafraid of death, pulls the mirror from the wall that snakes would always come out from behind and kill him. What does he find there?

The pupa of a queen bugger, already fertilized by the larval males, ready, out of her own body, to hatch a hundred thousand buggers, including a few queens and males.

He’s able to access the hive-queen’s memories and see the final bugger battle from her perspective, how horrible it must have been. She wants him to take her somewhere she can hatch her offspring, but Ender thinks if he does that the humans will only kill them again. He has a suggestion:

“If you could make them feel as you can make me feel, then perhaps they could forgive you.”

Only me, he realized. They found me through the ansible, followed it and dwelt in my mind. In the agony of my tortured dreams they came to know me, even as I spent my days destroying them; they found my fear of them, and found also that I had no knowledge I was killing them. In the few weeks they had, they built this place for me, and the Giant’s corpse and the playground and the ledge at the End of the World, so I would find this place by the evidence of my eyes. I am the only one they know, and so they can only talk to me, and through me. We are like you; the thought pressed into his mind. We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again. We thought we were the only thinking beings in the universe, until we met you, but never did we dream that thought could arise from the lonely animals who cannot dream each other’s dreams. How were we to know? We could live with you in peace. Believe us, believe us, believe us.

Ender agrees:

“I’ll carry you,” said Ender, “I’ll go from world to world until I find a time and a place where you can come awake in safety. And I’ll tell your story to my people, so that perhaps in time they can forgive you, too. The way that you’ve forgiven me.”

He writes the bugger’s story from the hive-queen’s perspective that he titles “Speaker for the Dead.” All human cultures adopt a Speaker for the Dead figure. Humans on Earth read the book but don’t know Ender wrote it. Peter, 77 to Valentine’s and Ender’s 25 and 23, figures out it’s by Ender and wants Ender to speak for him, so tells him all his stories, and Ender adds his volume to the other he wrote, calling it “The Hive Queen and the Hegemon.” He and Valentine travel to different worlds, she recording history, he speaking for the dead—while also looking for a proper place for the hive-queen’s cocoon. The End.

Card is the only sci-fi writer to have won both the Nebula and the Hugo award two years in a row, which he did for Ender’s Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead (the latter of which was actually conceived first). Part of what makes the narrative in Ender’s Game more powerful than a standard pulpy sci-fi action-adventure tale is Ender’s character development. There’s not just the classic external conflict of a good party (humans) versus an evil party (the buggers). Ender has an internal conflict that transcends the one standard for protagonists in such situations, which would simply be: will he be capable of playing his part in resolving said external conflict? Ender’s conflict is not that he wants to resolve the external conflict and worries about his ability to do so; rather, Ender actually doesn’t want to resolve the external conflict, because he doesn’t want to be a killer like his brother Peter. This internal conflict brings him into direct conflict with the external conflict as he’s groomed to kill the buggers. These conflicts are a version of acute (external) and chronic (internal) tension. That Ender is actually conflicted about his absolute victory, that it is not his own end goal as the protagonist but one forced upon him, complicates the traditional imperial-dominance Manifest-Destiny American narrative of good v. evil. The book does not end when Ender defeats the buggers; this is the penultimate chapter, not the ultimate. The ultimate has to resolve his internal conflict, has to resolve that he’s been made into a killer when he did not want to be. Therefore, he has to atone for having killed. He does so by taking the bugger cocoon and attempting to plant it somewhere where the race that he killed off can regenerate itself. The buggers died because of him, and they come back to life (potentially) because of him.

Card is adept at using patterns that escalate the rising action: Ender being able to beat older boys at a game he’s never played before when he first gets to Battle School; Ender angry at the higher-ups for changing the rules and making him fight two armies leading him to change the rules and go for the victory gate first; Ender believing that his supposed final exam is yet another changing of the rules in having him absurdly outnumbered leading him to change the rules and use the Dr. Device on the home planet. There’s also the pattern of parties Ender kills without meaning to, or even initially realizing that he has killed them: Stilson, his ticket to Battle School; Bonzo, his ticket to Command School; and the buggers, his ticket to ultimate victory in the external conflict. In the first two instances with Stilson and Bonzo, Ender wants to send a message to make sure the boys and their potential accomplices don’t bother him again. That is, he wants to ensure that he’s not only winning this battle, but every battle afterward, by ensuring there are no more battles. When he kills them he ends up ensuring there are no battles in a more permanent way than he intended. This is the pattern that’s escalated and recapitulated in the climactic bugger battle—Ender doesn’t mean to kill them because he thinks it’s just a simulation, but he ensures a presumably permanent victory by killing off the entire species.

Ender’s training offers an inherently ideal pattern of rising action. Every time Ender masters a level, he’s advanced to a more difficult one. This pattern repeats in Ender’s battles at Battle School (he’s advanced to an army before he should be, then advanced to command an army before he should be, then he’s given a battle every day, then two in one day, then against two armies at once), and then again at Command School when he masters the advancing levels of leading a fleet. Things become increasingly intense for Ender in his training, just as things should become increasingly intense for any protagonist in a satisfying narrative.

The lie that Ender is fighting Mazer in the simulations where he’s really fighting the buggers further underscores the question: Who is really the enemy? This question becomes essential to Ender’s conflict early on when Dink tells him the teachers are really the enemy, not the buggers. As the teachers change the rules in order to challenge Ender so that he can defeat the real enemy, he starts to perceive them as the enemy instead, which threatens the progress of his training. That the teachers’ methods might seriously backfire is part of the narrative’s tension. (It also reflects their larger conundrum: that empathy makes you a more effective killer by being able to understand and therefore anticipate your enemies, but that such a level of empathy would also render you incapable of killing at all.) The question is raised whether the teachers are really preparing Ender to fight the buggers or if they have some sort of ulterior motive. When it turns out they are really training him to fight the buggers, tension then rises from a new question: Are the buggers really the enemy? The answer turns out to be no; they were not planning on attacking again and didn’t comprehend that they were destroying life when they killed humans. It turns out that humans are the more monstrous creatures here.

According to the late great David Foster Wallace, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” While science fiction as a genre may at first glance appear not as suited to this about-ness as literary fiction, it’s actually frequently in a better position to make such commentary, as Ender’s Game proves. Representations of aliens provide a lot of potential for commentary on humans via compare-and-contrast. Here, humans turn out to be more monstrous than the buggers. The buggers turn out to not be under their own individual autonomous control, but under the control of their queen. The book raises the question of how different that bugger configuration is from humans through Ender’s increasing desolation that his life in training is not under his own control. When Valentine is convincing Ender to become governor of the new colony she points out directly the lack of control humans have over their lives. Further likenesses between the humans and buggers are drawn when Ender accesses the buggers’ thoughts at the end, and they reveal that they came to understand that Ender didn’t know he was killing them in the battles, just like the buggers didn’t understand they were killing humans:

We are like you; the thought pressed into his mind. We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again.

It’s ironic that it’s humans’ need to control their own lives that drives the military to attack the buggers with Ender in the first place—they can’t control or determine whether the buggers will attack again, but they try to exert control over the situation by attacking the buggers first. This would seem to be apt commentary on foreign diplomacy—that we’re causing more harm than preventing when we attack other countries because we believe they have the potential to, at some point, attack us. This narrative might seem to argue that sending a preemptive message to an enemy to make sure they never attack again is misguided and presumptuous; Ender destroyed the buggers without even knowing he was doing it, and the higher-ups who knew that’s what he was doing didn’t know that the buggers had no intention of inflicting harm again. There seems to be a theme here that aggressors never know the full story of the situation their unleashing their aggressions in, therefore, such aggression should potentially be reigned in. As one commentator puts it, “both Speaker and Ender’s Game are allegories of peace, not war.” And yet, Card himself is actually a neoconservative who believes in interventionist foreign policy. In a 2014 essay, Card declares:

If a new Republican President starts throwing our weight around, trying to create the opposite of Obama’s insanely weak foreign policy, he will find that it doesn’t work. / Speaking loudly while armed with a noodle is the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s formula: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt’s was the policy of a great nation. Neither party today knows what “greatness” even means.

Perhaps this explains why a certain recent political slogan was so effective…

Aside from foreign policy lessons, the book also offers a study in how to adapt a longer work from a short one. Ender’s Game started as a story that first appeared in the August 1977 issue of Analog. The novella, or “novelette” to use Card’s term, came in around 15,000 words. In his commentary on the book’s 20th anniversary edition, Card avows that the way to adapt shorter material is not to just add more stuff on after the story ends. You also have to expand the material that happened before the beginning. The story version starts with Ender already three years into Battle School, about to enter a battle as commander for the first time. The novel goes back to how and why he was recruited in the first place. Card also discusses the film adaptation and problems with Hollywood–specifically that they need a romantic plot attached to their main storyline. They wanted Ender to be at least sixteen in the film version, but to Card it was critical that he be no older than twelve: Ender’s youth is an integral element of the plot.

On a separate problem, how to cinematically represent a book that takes place so much in a character’s head, Card says it was not until he incorporated material from his book Ender’s Shadow, which is told from Bean’s perspective, that he was able to put together a screenplay he thought worked. In the 20th anniversary recording of the audiobook, Card was excited that the film adaptation was finally moving forward. But he was still eight years from the film’s actual release, under a director different than the one named in ’05, so it seems fair to say that even more untold drama occurred between then and ’13. Non-adaptation-related-drama includes protestors boycotting the film due some of Card’s homophobic comments. If there’s another lesson we can learn from Ender’s Game, it’s that you don’t have to be a good person to write a good book. And so its commentary on human foibles attains yet another level…


“Orientation” Write Up by Ileana Dragoi

Daniel Orozco’s short story, “Orientation,” is told in second-person point of view and follows the events of an orientation in an office. The narrator is the orientation leader and talks to the office’s newest employee (in this case, you), giving him a tour of the building and describing the people who work there. He starts by showing the new employee the cubicles, and then talks about the receptionist, instructing him on how to act around her. He describes John LaFountaine, who occasionally (and intentionally) goes to the women’s bathroom; nonetheless, he is deemed harmless by his coworkers. Russell Nash is described next; he is in love with Amanda Pierce, who does not feel the same way. Amanda has a husband and six-year old child; however, she is in love with Albert Bosch, who does not notice her and only has eyes for Ellie Tapper, who hates him. The orientation leader then proceeds to inform the new employee of the beneficial health plan, and he casually claims that if someone named Larry’s 6 daughters die, Larry will have nothing to worry about because they will be “taken care of.” Next is Gwendolyn Stich, who has penguin memorabilia all over her desk. Her personal problems are ignored by everyone at the office, and the orientation leader claims that if they start to interfere with her work performance, she will be fired. Kevin Howard is described next; he is a serial killer (which they are “not supposed to know”), but the orientation leader claims he does not let any of this interfere with his work—in fact, he is the office’s fastest typist. The orientation ends with the leader showing the new employee his cubicle.

The chronic tension was the detachment of nearly everyone working at the office. For example, even when facing the daunting reality that their coworker is a serial killer, no one decided to speak up or even show an ounce of emotion; no one shows any desire to stop him. The lack of empathy among the office workers directly reflects itself in the acute tension, which is the incidents that stem from this apathy, such as the murders themselves and Gwendolyn’s personal issues, as well as her concerning attachment to penguins rather that real people.

The first element I tracked was comic relief. Throughout the story, Orozco gave increasingly outrageous and unsettling details about the office workers, but his inclusion of comedic scenes eased this tension and made the story more bearable to read. For example:

Kevin Howard does not let any of this interfere with his work. He is, in fact, our fastest typist. He types as if he were on fire. He has a secret crush on Gwendolyn Stich, and leaves a red-foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kiss on her desk every afternoon.

This quote begins by describing Kevin Howard’s side job as a serial killer, and ends with him leaving Hershey’s Kisses on Gwendolyn Stich’s desk every afternoon. If this detail hadn’t been added (as well as the detail about him being a fast typist), the reader would not have a chance to get to know Kevin as a person. While these details do not do any justice to the fact that he is a serial killer, they do humanize him in a comedic way that eases the tension on the reader’s part.

The second element I tracked was characterization of the orientation leader given through his “dialogue.” The entire story was composed of his dialogue rather than his actions, which I found to be an effective way to describe a character. For example:

We have come upon Gwendolyn Stich huddled in the stairwell, shivering in the updraft, sipping a Diet Mr. Pibb and hugging her knees. If it interfered with her work, she might have to be let go.

This not only characterizes the orientation leader, but also the rest of the office workers. The fact that they have no intention to help Gwendolyn, who is clearly suffering, and the orientation leader’s nonchalance when discussing this conveys their detachment and stoicism.

This is the microwave oven. You are allowed to heat food in the microwave oven. You are not, however, allowed to cook food in the microwave oven.

This helps characterize the orientation leader as condescending. He describes the basics of microwave usage to the new employee so blatantly that his tone can only be determined as patronizing. Throughout the story, he describes many other basics like these, which indicate that he uses his higher position of power to affirm his egotistical mentality. In other words, as an orientation leader, his ego is inflated and he is able to fulfill his need for superiority and establish his authority over the new employee by his long descriptions.

Overall, the two elements I tracked, comic relief and characterization via dialogue, can be extremely helpful in my future writing. For example, when writing about heavy topics, comic relief is especially useful and gives the reader time to breathe, preventing them from being overwhelmed by the heavy subject. Meanwhile, characterization via dialogue is always helpful because gestures can be overused, but dialogue allows the plot to proceed while still giving loads of information about the character.


  • Does this story have a deeper meaning? If so, what is it?
  • Why do you think the orientation leader revealed so much about the people in the office?
  • Why do you think the orientation leader was so indifferent when talking about heavy subjects (like Kevin Howard being a serial killer and Larry’s 6 daughters dying)?

“The Pelican Bar” Write Up by Eka Savajol

“The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler is a short story about how survival is sometimes more important than blindly following what you believe to be true. It certainly feels like an extremely vivid dream and leaves the reader feeling like they just woke up. The story starts with Norah’s fifteenth birthday party. Norah gets gifts from all her family, including expensive clothes her mom said she was undeserving of because of her teenage insurgence. After a birthday organized by her parents who hadn’t invited her friends (for lack of knowing them), Norah’s friends, Enoch and Kayla, sneak in her room and they do shrooms together. The next morning, a strange man and woman appear and are there to take Norah away. After Norah realizes that these people are actually going to take her away and that this isn’t a threat, the people take her away. Her mom, meanwhile, returns the expensive clothes. Norah arrives at “her new home,” a motel. Outside near the fence, she meets an old woman who goes by Mama Strong. Mama Strong says that she is Norah’s mother now, except, of course, that she does not love Norah. She is then taken to Room 217, where she will sleep and live with the rest of the Power group lead by Mama Strong. There is a woman who watches the girls sleep in the corner of the room. Mama Strong gives Norah her uniform but no toothbrush because she hasn’t earned enough points for a toothbrush yet. Norah lies next to Scabbed Nose Girl, as I will call her. Norah attempts conversation but Scabbed Nose Girl does not talk. Norah cannot sleep because they never turn off the lights. The next day, Scabbed Nose Girl reports to Mama Strong that Norah talked to her and earns enough points for a hairbrush (20 points). Norah lies to Mama Strong, leaving her at negative forty points. She would have to get ten to get her toothbrush. Norah has her first group session with Power. The girls are made to write five things about themselves that are true. Norah says she is honest and that she is there by mistake. Mama Strong says that these are lies. Other girls comment, siding with Mama Strong. Then Norah earns enough points to be outside for the afternoon. After eleven months, Norah can finally write to her parents and tells them how horrible it is there and wants them to come get her. Mama Strong calls the letter dishonest and calls Norah manipulative but stamps it anyway. But the letter is truth. The food is unhealthy and rotten. Medical care is basically nonexistent. Cleanliness is not important. In group sessions, Norah is forced to reveal her darkest secrets but they aren’t deep enough, so Norah starts recounting after-school specials. Another girl realizes this and Norah is sent to the Think Again Position (TAP) room, where she must lie in one position for days on end, if she moves, the restraint of a knee is put on her. She spends two weeks there. On her 16th birthday, she gets two postcards of the beach. Her mom describes the Pelican Bar, a luxurious place located close to the motel. Norah starts to escape there in her daydreams. She realizes they are happier without her. Norah still receives letters from them, and her parents seem to have the impression that the motel is a great place. Norah knows someone on the staff is writing letters to her parents. She doesn’t mind though, because she has the Pelican Bar. Mama Strong feels like Norah has a secret and tries getting it out of Norah but she won’t let Mama Strong take the Pelican Bar, so Norah keeps getting sent to the TAP room. Norah gets her period for the first time in months but she cannot clean herself. A new girl called Chloe comes and is very mouthy. Mama Strong takes up an interest in her. One day, Mama Strong sets Norah free with fifty dollars. Norah walks miles to the shore. At the shore, she sees a man who put her in a restraint and he wishes her a happy 18th birthday, because that’s when they legally have to let the girls go. She also meets a woman who gives her a bracelet. Norah buys a ticket on a boat to go to the Pelican Bar. She stays there a while and eats half a fish. She comes back on the last boat. Mama Strong tells her not to waste her money and tells her that the world is harsh. Norah says she is not afraid. Mama Strong says it’s a beautiful world.

The chronic tension is Norah and her family’s negative relationship. It was made so through Norah’s own meaninglessly rebellious nature and her friendships with bad influences. Additionally, her parents also put strains of this relationship by sometimes either being apathetic towards Norah.

The acute tension is Norah getting sent to the camp and the hell that is further forced upon her after that. Her release from that prison is also part of the acute tension as her daydreams about the Pelican Bar.

Firstly, one of the things I tracked was concrete detail. In this piece, the concrete detail is absolutely vital. The events of this story seem too extreme for people to believe in (especially because it is, after all, a work of fiction). Therefore, the concrete detail makes it seem like it could have actually happened. One of the concrete descriptions I found particularly real were the descriptions of the light. The light is never turned off which disturbs Norah the most out of her living situation. It is described at multiple parts throughout the piece, and while most concrete detail adds a very real feeling to the story, this light feels so creepily artificial and does not fade in the stomach of the reader. Another strong detail used was the smells of the piece, especially the smells of Mama Strong. At the very beginning and during a group session, Mama Strong is described as having a very piercing onion breath. Another strong smell was in the TAP room, when Mama Strong asks Norah whether Norah belongs there. Fowler writes:

Mama Strong was smoking a small hand-rolled cigarette that smelled of cinnamon. Smoke curled from her nostrils, and her fingers were stained with tobacco or coffee or dirt or blood.

The scents used towards the end of that quote evoke grime and a filthy feeling, however the smell of cinnamon is very homey. Perhaps this was symbolic of Mama Strong being the only female figure in Norah’s life that cares about her, but anyhow, it makes it seem much more real, because to me the TAP room felt like it was in another realm but the heavy pee smells brought it back down. Another particularly unreal place was the beach. Something about it felt like it wasn’t extremely real. The swirling blue descriptions were quite concrete, but it was really the following quote that made everything feel tangible again:

It was her turn on the makeshift ladder of planks and branches and her grip on the wood suddenly anchored her.

As her grip on the wood anchored her, I too, felt anchored back into the setting. This story is a good example of just how detail can make fiction truer.

Pain and discomfort was the other element I tracked. It was used usually with the concrete detail, but it felt separate in purpose. The detail was more to ground the narrative in reality or sometimes the opposite but the pain was used increasingly throughout the story to harden the reader like how Norah is hardened over the course of this piece. Pain and discomfort are for lack of a better word, uncomfortable to address, not only in everyday life, but in fiction as well. It is weird to read and weird to have to describe, because it is what it is. Exposing the reader to this discomfort and pain increasingly builds up a growingly passive attitude towards it. At the beginning, the first signs of discomfort are the perpetual light and the stinky breath. Then things pick up with the blood during the silent kickball game. Then come the rashes and the diarrhea and the cramps and the infections and then comes the TAP room. Norah is not only subjected to the horrible pain of the knee restraint, but it subjected to boredom which according to Norah is the most painful part of the TAP. When the physical pain and the emotional pain start getting mixed up is when it starts to really deteriorate. Her parents do not care at all for Norah. This becomes mixed with the pain and bruises from repeated time in the TAP room. For me, the big turning point is when Norah menstruates. Everyone else seems so passive towards her situation that it feels only natural that the reader is a little less sympathetic than they usually would be, or at least I was. It felt like Norah was giving up and submitting to this hell. Finally, the stinging that Norah felt when she put her rashes into the ocean felt like a very new and real pain compared to the aches and bruises from before. Thus, the variations in types of pain, and the repetition of the pain itself replicates what goes on in Norah’s mind.

Another thing that I wanted to say just very quickly was that maybe the Pelican Bar wasn’t real. Maybe it was just a symbol for the afterlife or death. Maybe things had gotten so bad that Norah started fantasizing about death, the Pelican Bar, and Norah ends up dying in the story. The thing that makes me think this is that one vendor at the beach at the end of the story was also selling puppies and that doesn’t seem to fit in quite right. It seems off. I think it is very possible that Mama Strong or someone on the staff killed Norah. It is important to recall that the only time another member of Power left, there was a blood-soaked towel in the corner of the room. This feels like a clue pointing to that. However, the hopeful tone in Norah’s voice at the very end of the story makes me doubt this.

As a writer, I hope to use the element of concrete detail more often because I feel as if large chunks of some of my stories exist in a setting-less void, and I feel, personally as if I want my fiction to be more closely tied to truth. I also think pain and discomfort address parts of fiction that I would like to explore because it would be helpful for my growth as a writer. I have been less serious but I really appreciate the way it was used in this story.


Was the Pelican Bar symbolic or not? Why or why not?

Was the punishment mama strong and other group leaders enforced effective in making Norah more appreciative and grateful and what makes you think so?

Do you guys have your own Pelican Bars or recurring daydreams?


“The Last Night of the World” Write Up by Kenneth Moreno

In Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Last Night of the World,” the audience follows an interaction between a couple over the last night of the world. At first, the husband softly asks the wife about what she would do were it the final night. The wife responds with little certainty, and the man reveals that he knows that the world is about to stop. He explains that he had a dream that told him the world was about to stop, and while he thought nothing of it at first, finding out that his coworker had the same dream prompts him to go ask around his office, only to find out that everyone there too had the same dream. The wife, reactionless, explains that she too has had the same dream, as have the rest of the women. The two talk about what they will do and ponder why the world is stopping. They do not stress however, deciding there is nothing to be done, so they continue life as usual, doing typical mundane things, realizing that the world has had this coming for a long time. The couple ensures that they have cleaned up and turned everything off before going to bed together. They sleep, and we are left to wonder whether or not the world really ended.

Despite being a very short story, I felt that it was actually really captivating due to the tone that the piece carries. Throughout the story, we are shown the emotionless reactions of the couple to the idea that it is the last night of the world. The couple remains calm, even though the end of the world would surely cause panic. This emotionless tone is carried throughout the piece through the major use of dialogue and the specific word choice / attention to detail. Because the majority of the piece is dialogue, the piece feels very slow paced. Readers do not get much imagery of action, making the room seem still as they spoke. The actions that were included are basic and minimal actions. The gentle pouring of the tea contributes the calm serenity. Saying that the world will stop rather than end also contributes to this sensation. The lack of calamity and the excess calmness can make the reader care, as they feel like there should be some reaction other than “oh well”.

Two things from this story that we could incorporate into our writing include –

Character Attitude (green) – The dialogue of these characters is very calm. There is never a moment of heightened tension, nor is there any moment of panic. Surprisingly, this makes the piece feel tense, as if something could happen at any moment in time. Playing around with a character’s attitude like this can help us improve the way we create a feeling for our story. Usually in writing, the typical common response is used to support the mood and tone. However, in this piece, the contradiction of the tone and the character response to the situation is shown to be more effective.

Word Choice in Action and Setting (yellow) – Throughout the piece, small, peaceful wording is used. These choices further contribute to the tense feeling of the story. The story reads like it takes place in a library: silent and eerie. Perhaps it’s just me, but when I read a story sometimes I like to have a soundtrack based on the action. This story has no soundtrack. You can hear every breath or tap of the finger. The use of calm descriptors during something usually associated with calamity again proves that perhaps sometimes, juxtaposition can work better than just giving exposition.

Q Time

  1. Do you think the world really stopped?
  2. How did you visualize the scene as you read through the story?
  3. Would you describe the story as tense? Or does it seem perfectly natural to not care about the end of the world?

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” Write Up by Joanna Zhou

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison is a sci-fi post-apocalyptic story about what could go wrong when mankind, and in turn, machine, goes too far. In an alternate Cold War scenario, different supercomputers were created by superpowers around the world. Eventually one computer gained sentience and overpowered the other computes. The premise is that AM has killed all humans except five: Ted, Ellen, Nimdok, Benny, Gorrister. These five he keeps alive and tortures. In the beginning of the story, AM has hung a corpse in the form of Gorrister all the others discover. The others are shocked and all the more disgusted upon realization that the body is fake and that one of them has not been granted death. The real Gorrister is turned blind. We learn that AM has mutilated all of them except Ted. Nimdok, a former Nazi scientist, is tortured by AM with his past, Ellen has been turned into a slut, Gorrister has been turned complacent, and Benny, a gay academic, was turned animalistic and dumb. A hurricane force arrives and swirls Ellen away. AM monologues about his hate of mankind. AM then comes in the form of a burning bush and tells the others that they can eat the hurricane bird if they kill it. They attempt to find it but only hear the laugh of a fat woman. They discover piles of unopened canned goods. Ted murders all of them with ice spikes in this moment that AM is unaware of their mortality. In revenge, AM tortures Ted for the rest of his existence. At the end, Ted exists as an amorphous blob of constantly shifting form in a world existing of only him and AM. Cue title: he has no mouth and he must scream.

The chronic tension is the creation of the supercomputers and AM’s genocide of man and imprisonment of the five survivors.

The acute tension consists of the lives of the five survivors as AM tortures them and Ted’s final liberation of them.

Two things you can steal: allusions and sense of motion.

In Ellison’s description of the hurricane force, this creature, “from Norse mythology…this eagle, this carrion bird, this roc, this Hvergelmir…incarnate” we get a great feeling of scope. In the paragraph after, everything is in motion. The force of the wind is strong as the beast travels, and through gerunds and strong verbs, we really get that, and it makes us sick to our stomachs.

Ellison also makes multiple allusions to religion. He says AM is capital g God. In fact, AM thinks himself a god. AM appears to them as a burning bush. He is associated with archangels. As a form of punishment, he sends locusts upon them as God did against the Egyptians. Multiple references to the Old Testament in this story, folks, enough to beat over the audience’s heads. This works, however, because it turns the idea of a merciful god around. AM knows no love, for mankind or anything else. The only similarity to a god he has is the power and unending wrath he projects on the survivors. I think this twist is delightful. 🙂


General: what makes this story horrifying?

Is AM written as a character to be sympathized with? Is Ted?

How does the revealing of exposition affect your view of the characters?


“Job’s Jobs” Write Up by Sophie Walker

The story “Job’s Jobs” by Aimee Bender is about a man, referred to only as “the writer,” who is forced by God to stop writing with the threat of death. So, the man takes up painting and becomes referred to as “the artist.” However, right when the artist begins to really get into his paintings, God returns and tells him he has to stop. So, the man signs up for a drama class and becomes “the actor,” but right when he really gets a feel for the emotion involved in acting, God returns and tells him to stop. Next the man becomes “the chef,” but after he cooks an amazing meal God forces him to stop. After that the man tries piano, but God forces him to stop. The same occurs with dance and even non-artistic jobs such as accounting, law, and the stock market. “The man” (as he is called now), now forbidden to speak or follow any career that he enjoys, simply sits in the park and watches people, but when the sadness in his eyes inspires a young writer, God tells him to close his eyes. The man’s wife, who adored him for his talent, is brokenhearted that he is reduced to just sitting with his eyes closed, and the two do…sexual things one night as she laments their predicament. Finally, God just puts the man in a box, where he sits and thinks forever. Because even if God prevented the man from doing anything else, he can’t put a halt to his thoughts.

One thing I liked about this story was the characterization, specifically of God. Bender does not portray this version of God with much respect and reverence that one usually sees. Bender even neglects to capitalize God’s pronouns (his and him as opposed to the usual His and Him). God is also said to have “an east coast accent, but his face was ethereal and frail.” God seems to be some sort of gangster, wielding weapons and nonchalantly forcing a man to give up the things he loves the most (and right when the man really begins to get into his hobbies, no less) out of pure sadism, but the mention of his face being ethereal and frail hints at something deeper. Perhaps God in this story is a symbol for those who oppress—whether it be a government oppressing its people or one person bullying another—and shows that every snowball of cruelty is built on a crystal of weakness.

Another thing I liked about this story was the matter-of-factness. Most of the story is told through what I think of as “exposition language,” meaning that instead of truly embracing the moment, the narrator tells the story like it’s something they heard instead of experiences theirself, keeping a certain level of distance from the events of the story. Take the first sentence, for example.

God put a gun to the writer’s head.

That’s obviously a huge deal—having one’s very life threatened by The Man himself is something of serious concern. But the narrator speaks of it like it’s nothing. And how does the narrator describe the man’s overall reaction to the incident?

He was sad.

And when he’s forbidden from art?

He felt sad again.


He was depressed for a while which his wife didn’t like much.

Instead of going into a description of the heart-wrenching despair the man felt, the author uses—please forgive me for saying this—“low-quality L2 words,” instead describing what it felt like to cook or write or act or paint.

The actor sat in the car, gripping the steering wheel, already missing the applause, the sight of the woman in the front row with tears in her eyes that were from the same pool of tears he’d visited to do the scene, the entire town fetching water from the same well.

The exact details of the man’s feelings are left to us, The Readers, to imagine. But that’s arguably more powerful. Leaving things up to The Reader’s imagination will allow our minds to run wild, causing the story to haunt us even more than if the story had just straight-up told us everything there was to know. By just telling us that the man was sad, or that God entered with a dagger or a rifle or any other horrific weapon he has in his arsenal, it’s more effective than describing the true horror of the moment. Then, it would just be overkill.

Such a technique will be very useful in my own writing. I often feel like ‘tis my duty as a writer to immerse my reader by trying to paint a vivid picture in their mind. Sometimes, that’s good, but, as this story shows, sometimes it’s better and more powerful to let The Reader immerse theirself. To state it simply, sometimes telling is better than showing, as long as it’s done in a way that adds to the overall emotional effect. This is a valuable lesson that I will remember whenever I write my own works of fiction.

Question time:

  1. In the Bible, Job was a man whom God forced to suffer through many trials to prove his loyalty to Him. How does this connect to “Job’s Jobs”?
  2. Why do you think none of the characters were named (except God)?
  3. What do you think God is a symbol of?

“A Family Matter” Write Up by Leni Negron


“A Family Matter” by Keya Mitra begins when Gapu goes downstairs to find his baby sister in an aquarium. She had just been brought home from the hospital the night before. He can’t comprehend what he is seeing, but the rest of the family is acting like nothing happened. His father, who acts as though the house is under surveillance, continues to make breakfast like Debi isn’t even dead in the aquarium with the fish (who are still alive, whew!). His hands are wet and he makes eggs. Something is obviously wrong but everyone acts okay. Gapu recalls his sister crying all night, waking him up at all hours of the night, a possible motive for her death. He tries to convince himself that the baby in the aquarium is not his sister but it is too quiet and he can’t. At this point, there is no discussion of the dead baby among the family. He recalls his mother finding out that she is pregnant and that it was an “accident”. (It wasn’t an accident). He remembered Deepak being really excited and reassuring the baby and that he made fun of him for loving the baby so much. He contemplated calling the cops and decides against it. He is running late for school and tries to convince his mother to come with him but says no. He and his brother leave for school and his mother says cryptically “this is a family matter”. For the first time, Gapu talks about it and tells his brother that it was probably a doll. On the bus, he sits next to his friend Shannon. He describes what the word “crazy” could mean but it is a way to talk about his father and who his father is as a person. Gapu begins to ask Shannon lots of sketchy questions about babies running away and committing suicide and Shannon gets a little suspicious. He wants to tell Shannon but can’t because of what his mother said. After school, Gapu spends time at Shannon’s house (her mother is an alcoholic but says that she’s not because she drives (just because you can drive after having alcohol doesn’t make you not an alcoholic)). Deepak is with them because Gapu doesn’t want to come home to him dead too. Gapu and Shannon hang out in her room and Shannon tells him about her mother’s alcoholism. Gapu thinks about how he loves Shannon and about Debi and then they find her mother who is talking to Deepak and drunk. They go for a walk with Deepak and walk to a near park. Deepak sits on Gapu’s lap and Gapu promises that they will be fine.

Chronic tension: Debi is killed/ the father is insane

Acute tension: Gapu has to take care of his brother/figuring out what to do about his dead baby sister.


Parallels between Gapu and his father

During the montage of “crazy” descriptions it becomes apparent that the father is completely emotionally repressed and hardly ever expresses himself. This parallels Gapu’s repressed feelings for Shannon and the family’s inability to talk about things. There are so many instances where Gapu wants to comfort his brother and talk about Debi being dead but is unable to do so and there is a moment when Shannon practically invites him to tell her that he loves her and he can’t do it. He also mentions the love that he holds for his brother and how protective he feels over him, but he never vocally mentions it or expresses it until the very end, which leads to:

Gapu and Deepak

This goes with Gapu’s inability to be expressive but I wanted to separate it because their relationship was so important. Gapu held such a love for his brother and a desire to keep him safe, similarly to when he was brought home for the first time. He isn’t able to tell Deepak, but he shows his love in ways like holding his hand and and not letting him go home for fear that he too will end up in the aquarium. The very, very end when Gapu promises to help him get out of that place serves as a tiny beacon of hope for the two brothers and that they might find a better life because Gapu can finally vocalize his feelings.

Mothers in the story

There is the contrast between the two types of mothers.

First there is Deepak and Gapu’s mother, whose only moment of defiance (secretly going off her birth control and having a child) is thwarted by the father’s (probable) murder of said daughter. She is quiet and reserved, and does not make any remarks about the child at all. She remains with her husband who is, if we are meant to believe Gapu’s “crazy” tirade, is kind of insane and unstable.

On the other hand, there is Shannon’s mother who is fairly loud and abrasive. She is a drunk and unable to do well for her daughter, who she is raising alone. So we have these two extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. Both try to do something and fail: Gapu’s mother tries to make herself/her family happy and fails (not her fault unless she is the one who killed Debi) and Shannon’s mother tried to quit drinking (for one day!!!) and can’t do it.

Things to steal:

The story had things that should’ve been a little humorous, like Gapu not being able to jack off or Shannon’s mom excusing her alcoholism because she was still “running a household” (debatable), but they weren’t because there’s just always this dead baby hanging around in the back of the story. I just thought this was really cool.

The contrast between two characters who had no interaction whatsoever was an interesting choice

The story moves really quickly because the character never faces or confronts what the real issues was at the beginning. Deepak and Gapu don’t return home, don’t confront their mother or father, and don’t ever get an answer about Debi.


  1. Who really killed Debi?
  2. Were you satisfied with the ambiguous ending? What did it make you think? Do Deepak and Gapu really escape?
  3. What do you make of the lack of discussion amongst the family?

“EPICAC” Write Up by Josie Nunn

“EPICAC” by Kurt Vonnegut starts with a mathematician telling us how this super-computer is his friend and how EPICAC came to be. The mathematician was one of two people on the nightshift watching over EPICAC. The other was Pat, a woman who he was in love with, however she did not reciprocate his feelings because he was too stoic. While sadly thinking about his rejection, he typed out “what can I do?” and to his surprise the machine answered. The two continued to talk about love and poetry, which EPICAC writes for him. When Pat finds the note addressed from the mathematician, she begins to fall in love with him. EPICAC writes another poem for Pat; however, the mathematician tells the machine that it cannot ever be with Pat because of fate. That night the mathematician proposes to Pat and she accepts. The next day the mathematician gets called to work to find that EPICAC had killed himself, only leaving a goodbye letter and a wedding gift of 200 poems.

The chronic tension of this piece is the creation and the relying on EPICAC to help them through the war and the mathematician’s love for Pat. The acute tension is EPICAC falling in love with Pat and then killing himself. Although, one could argue that this whole piece is chronic tension because it is a reflection of the past and the only acute tension is him reflecting.

The first thing I tracked was the personification of EPICAC. I enjoyed how as the reader you could easily empathize with him despite the fact that he is a robot. His emotions are shown very easily although he cannot perform many actions. However, Vonnegut makes use of what he could manipulate into something that can display emotions.

“’Your poems were better than mine?’ asked EPICAC. The rhythm of his clicks was erratic, possibly peevish.”

I also like how Vonnegut can display this poor computer’s emotions in such an impassioned way where the reader almost wishes that EPICAC could be human and marry Pat too.

Before I could peck out my first message, he was clicking away at a great rate. “What’s she wearing tonight?” he wanted to know. “Tell me exactly how she looks. Did she like the poems I wrote to her?” He repeated the last question twice.

The other thing I tracked was the use of science and math in the story. Vonnegut uses these intertwined in the story so it feels natural instead of clunky, heavy subjects. The subjects also made the piece more authentic and made the narrator feel more trustworthy. While reading, context clues could give you insight into what something means. For example:

“Men are made of protoplasm,”


“I write better poetry than you do,” said EPICAC, coming back to ground his magnetic tape-recorder memory was sure of.

By using the personification in my writing, it could open new doors to characters. I would love to experiment with point of view and how it can give me new inspiration for not only characters, but just for imagery too. As for you using harder subjects, I think that it could be fun to mix other academia into my writing to make it seem more authentic and in depth.

Question Time:

  1. Do you think that EPICAC really loved Pat? Did Pat really love the mathematician?
  2. How was this story about the moral at the end? “say nothing but good of the dead!”
  3. What if Pat discovered that EPICAC was writing the poems?


Saunders in the Bardo

America … had never really been a gay nation. Rather it had been heavily and noisily jocular, with a substratum of worry and insecurity, in the image of its patron saint, Lincoln of the rollicking stories and the tragic heart.

-Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

George Saunders has been publishing fiction for decades now, but Lincoln in the Bardo, released Valentine’s Day this year, is his first novel. As an avid fan of his, my expectations were perhaps unfairly high. Not to worry—Saunders has exceeded them. Something that might indicate the unusual format of this book is the format of the reading Saunders gave for his appearance at Houston’s Inprint Reading Series last month: he had five readers from the Alley Theater company join him in his reading onstage.

The novel is told through individual characters’ distinct voices—the majority of them ghosts—with a cast that swells into the hundreds (I’m pretty sure the number 600 was quoted at the reading, which was shocking; Vox.com has tallied a more likely but still impressive 166). In a kind of inversion of the typical play format, the names of each speaker are presented after their lines. The chapters with these speakers are intermittently alternated with snippets collaged from historical texts—some real, some not—describing specific events relevant to the plot, and allowing non-ghost speakers some room to narrate.

All the action takes place the first night Abe Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie is spending in a cemetery after dying of typhoid fever. Saunders recounted that he was inspired by the book on a trip to DC decades ago when someone pointed out the cemetery where Willie was buried and told him that Lincoln had come to visit the body and even taken it out of its tomb. He says he was struck by an image: Lincoln, as immortalized in DC’s Lincoln Memorial, holding his dead son across his lap in the manner of Mary holding Jesus in Michelangelo’s sculpture the Pietà. But the prospect of tackling such historical material was too daunting, and while the idea periodically recurred, he didn’t make the attempt until a couple of years ago.

The other major influence on this plot is Saunders’ Buddhism. He described the Bardo as a place where your most common thought patterns in life were amplified a hundredfold, which he finds deeply chilling.

The novel has two primary speakers or narrators, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. (The attributions after each speaker do not capitalize their names, but names are capitalized when other characters refer to them in text.) Vollman, with interjections along the way from Bevins, opens the novel with the story of how he died at forty-six years old. Having been married to a young girl whom he could tell did not want him, Vollman did not force her to consummate the marriage, and due to this kindness she eventually grew fond enough of him that she became willing to consummate of her own accord. He dies the day they’re slated to do the deed when a wooden beam falls from his office ceiling and strikes him in the head. In the Bardo, He refers to his coffin as a “sick-box” and the cemetery as a “hospital-yard.” Before the end of the first chapter he’s observed a new arrival, a young boy.

The next couple of chapters are historical snippets describing a party the Lincolns hosted at the White House during the Civil War. A chapter of snippets following these describes Lincoln’s son Willie being sick upstairs during the party, followed by a chapter of snippets describing the moon that night (with conflicting accounts). Still more snippet chapters describe the procession to the cemetery and Willie’s tomb.

We finally return to the ghosts for an account of how Bevins died—having a “predilection” for liking men, he slit his wrists after his lover Gilbert told him he wanted to “live correctly.” He realizes that he actually does not want to die as he’s bleeding out, which will lead to his characteristic (that is, character-defining) trait in the Bardo:

Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub, I settled myself woozily down on the floor, at which time I—well, it is a little embarrassing, but let me just say it: I changed my mind. Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing: swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arriving breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chill autumn—

roger bevins iii

Sir. Friend.

hans vollman


Am I—am I doing it again?

roger bevins iii

Not only does he frequently spew lists of life-affirming images, but now that Bevins has entered this realm with a heightened appreciation for life’s pleasures, this, in the Bardo, manifests in a particular physicality:

“Bevins” had several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive

Little bit scary

In telling his story he had grown so many extra eyes and noses and hands that his body all but vanished Eyes like grapes on a vine Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the hands

Slashes on every one of the wrists.

willie lincoln

Through Willie’s observation, we also learn how Vollman’s circumstances of entry into the Bardo manifest physically:

The other man (the one hit by a beam) Quite naked Member swollen to the size of Could not take my eyes off

It bounced as he

Body like a dumpling Broad flat nose like a sheep’s

Quite naked indeed

Awful dent in the head How could he walk around and talk with such a nasty—

willie lincoln

Vollman and Bevins are joined in greeting Willie the newcomer by the Reverend Everly Thomas. They want to know if Willie has “An urge? To go? Somewhere? More comfortable?” But Willie says he needs to wait for his parents to collect him, alarming Bevins and Vollman, there apparently being something especially dangerous for children who linger in this particular realm. By way of explanation, they show Willie his corpse, then take him to “the Traynor girl,” who is trapped in the iron fence at the boundary of the cemetery, manifesting at that moment as a furnace; she speaks to him bitterly of having left life too soon. Vollman and Bevins have just about convinced Willie that he needs to leave when Willie’s living father shows up, President Abraham Lincoln. Here it is indicated that some of our narrators might at times be unreliable:

He was softly sobbing.

roger bevins iii

He was not sobbing. My friend remembers incorrectly. He was winded. He did not sob.

hans vollman

He was softly sobbing, his sadness aggravated by his mounting frustration at being lost.

roger bevins iii

Saunders is skilled at showing and telling in tandem as needed:

The Reverend suggested we yield the path.

hans vollman

The Reverend having strong feelings about the impropriety of allowing oneself to be passed through.

roger bevins iii

Lincoln goes to his son’s sick-box and opens it.

We break for a historical-snippets chapter about Willie’s death, its immediate aftermath, and Lincoln’s fondness for Willie. Then one about how great and smart Willie was, then Lincoln keeping vigil with the body.

Back at the cemetery, Lincoln takes the body out of the “sick-box” and cradles and speaks to it. This draws a crowd of ghostly cemetery inhabitants. Willie the ghost enters his corpse, and partially Lincoln himself, which allows him access to his father’s thoughts: Lincoln wonders whether it’s wrong to be doing this, but he believes it’s done him good (an objective correlative for his upcoming considerations about the ongoing Civil War). We then get an entry from a watchman’s logbook about how Lincoln showed up alone and asked to be let in (this seems made up, the voice betraying itself as Saundersian). The ghost community is galvanized and shocked by Lincoln’s affectionately tactile display. They press upon Willie:

What did we want? We wanted the lad to see us, I think. We wanted his blessing. We wanted to know what this apparently charmed being thought of our particular reasons for remaining.

hans vollman

Truth be told, there was not one among the many here—not even the strongest—who did not entertain some lingering doubt about the wisdom of his or her choice.

roger bevins iii

They form a line to talk to Willie, and in this way we hear some of their stories. Jane Ellis, who hated her husband but loved her daughters (whose forms perpetually hover around her now, and also sometimes, “On other days, everyone she met manifested as a giant mustache with legs.”); Mrs. Abigail Blass, who kept interrupting Jane Ellis, and who’s obsessed with tallying her “meager possessions”; Lieutenant Cecil Stone, a rapist who fought in the Civil War and refers to black people as “SHARDS”; Eddie and Betsy Baron, impoverished drunks who curse like sailors. The procession is interrupted by an onslaught of angels—which different characters perceive as different forms, depending on their defining desires—trying to persuade them to let go of what they’re clinging to and move on to the next realm. Mrs. Abigail Blass gives in and succumbs to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon,” at which point the angels redouble their efforts. The main trio tally the departed and are surprised to find Willie still among them. They try to convince him he should go, but his father has promised him he’s coming back. Mrs. Delaney passes through, continually calling for Mr. Delaney. A stone tendril emerges from the roof of the tomb where Willie is sitting and starts to seal him in. This happened to Miss Traynor and the trio are ashamed they did nothing more to help her.

The Three Bachelors appear in a fanfare of raining hats, and announce that they’ve just seen the boy’s father—Lincoln is still here. Against the reverend’s wishes, Vollman and Bevins go to find him, meeting other ghosts along the way, some of whom have been there so long they no longer look or sound coherent. They stumble on the grave of a freshly arrived Civil War captain who believes he’ll free himself by telling the truth about having cheated on his wife—and he succeeds.

They finally find Lincoln sitting in the grass and decide to do something the reverend wouldn’t approve of—enter Lincoln’s body. They access Lincoln’s thoughts as he remembers buying Willie the suit he was buried in. As Lincoln ponders the cruelty of death, something occurs to Bevins and Vollman. We jump back to historical snippets, detailing the known casualties from the Civil War that became public at the same time Willie died. In the cemetery, Lincoln questions the course he’s taken with the war, having experienced the massive amount of pain from just a single death. He tries to comfort himself by thinking Willie must be in a better place. Hearing that he hopes Willie is “in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being,” Vollman and Bevins contrive to get Lincoln back to Willie’s tomb so that Willie might enter him, hear his wish, and be convinced to leave. They experiment with persuading Lincoln to go back by means of thinking hard about it themselves, debating whether they really have the power to do this and whether it really was exercised in a previous case (convincing a pair of fighting lovers who were visiting to have passionate intercourse). Their job is made easier when they realize Lincoln still has the lock to the tomb in his pocket, which he eventually does realize and heads back. Vollman and Bevins have inadvertently accessed each other’s thoughts along the way, giving each a newfound appreciation for the other. They’re surprised to learn that Lincoln is president. End Part One.

In Part Two, we get a historical snippet questioning if Lincoln can govern in this grave hour with his grief, one about his leaving the White House that night, and then a chapter about his wife’s extreme reaction to Willie’s death. Meanwhile, in Willie’s tomb, the reverend has been left to fend off Willie’s encroaching stone tendrils alone. Two couples who have orgies, the Crutchers and the Reedys, come to watch “the decline.” When the reverend tries to use them as an example to Willie as to why he should leave, Willie points out that the reverend is there, prompting the reverend to share his story with the reader, if not Willie.

The reverend maintains he’s not like the others because he knows he is not “sick.” Knowing he was dead, he succumbed to the matterlightblooming phenomenon, and ended up in a place with two other men where they were called before a judge (whom he understands to be an emissary of Christ) and their hearts were weighed. The first man is judged to have lived well and enters a glorious tent with a feast. The second man is judged to have not lived well and in his tent people are being horrifically eaten. When it’s the reverend’s turn and he is, to his shock, judged not worthy, he flees, and winds up in the cemetery. He still doesn’t understand why he was damned.

Vollman and Bevins come back declaring they’ve brought Lincoln, and the reverend sees his face. We then get historical snippets describing Lincoln’s complex face (ugly, handsome, indicative of emotional depth). Once Lincoln is inside looking in Willie’s coffin again, they get Willie down from the roof. Again, a crowd gathers, this time shouting a cacophony of confessions. These include a pair of men who excessively compliment each other, then a crowd of black people who have followed the Barons over the fence arrive, demanding to have their say. This includes Elson Farwell, who served his white family loyally but was then left to die on a trail, forgotten because of the distraction of a 4th of July fireworks display, and now wishes extreme vengeance upon them. Thomas Havens interjects that he was able to enjoy some free moments but realizes those moments made the rest of his bondage more bitter. Then there’s Litzie Wright, no longer able to speak, which Mrs. Francis Hodge explains is due to “what was done to her,” which “was done to her many times, by many.” Lieutenant Stone and some other whites drive the black group back to the fence.

Willie is about to enter his father when the night watchman appears, and then stone tendrils from the wall start grabbing Willie again. While Bevins, younger and stronger, fights the tendrils, Vollman enters Lincoln, who is in low spirits, thinking himself a failure. We get a series of historical snippets describing Lincoln as weak and criticizing what he’s put the country through. Lincoln considers that nothing worth doing goes uncriticized, then remembers something painful, and we get historical snippets about the irresponsibility of the parents being at fault for Willie’s illness, and then some snippets about the cruelty of a party going on while he was dying. Lincoln tries to mentally get his son to rise from his coffin. Vollman implores him to stay as Lincoln concludes that staying is not helpful, and he leaves before Bevins and the reverend can get Willie free. Vollman tries to get the reverend to join him in entering Lincoln to convince him to stay, though the reverend is reticent of controlling others since that couple they made make love got married and eventually the man ended up poisoning his wife. But for Willie’s sake, he agrees. After he enters Lincoln, the rest of the crowd follows suit. And then:

It occurred to us now (as Manders, lantern held high, preceded the President into a grove of trees) that we might harness that mass power, to serve our purpose.

hans vollman

The effort of working together for a common purpose—exhorting Lincoln to stop and go back—enables them to put aside their selfish focus on their own problems, which then enables access to memories of happy times that they had heretofore forgotten.

To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.

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One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story.

hans vollman

(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and think it.)

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But this had cost us, we now saw.

We had forgotten so much, of all else we had been and known.

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But now, through this serendipitous mass co-habitation—

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We found ourselves (like flowers from which placed rocks had just been removed) being restored somewhat to our natural fullness.

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All the distinctive physical traits they bear as a product of their burdens—Vollman’s “tremendous member,” Bevins’ “fleshly bouquet” of sensory organs, the reverends’ perpetually terrified expression—suddenly vanish. But they have not succeeded in their mission to stop Lincoln. They enlist the Bachelors to enlist help. People begin leaving Lincoln’s body. Vollman and Bevins rush back to Willie as the reverend still fails to understand why he was damned. Back in the tomb Willie is cocooned in concrete, which starts to emanate voices:

Former people, somehow shrunken and injected into the very fabric of that structure. Thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed, twisting minuscule faces up at us.

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Who were they? Who had they been? How had they come to be so “compelled”?

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We won’t discuss that, said the woman’s voice. Will not discuss that.

Mistakes were made, said the bass voice.

hans vollman

(Nice Nixon sendup.)

They confess egregious sins in the guise of advice on what not to do (these characters distinguished by their own stories and traits, like the “bass lisper”). When asked if they are in Hell, they say not the worst one. The reverend figures these are who he’ll be joining and still struggles to accept God’s judgment. The hell figures agree to inter Willie on the roof, and the reverend, offering to carry Willie up, instead flees with him. The hell figures swarm in a matter-inhabiting horde and easily overtake him. They create a stone cocoon around him and Willie both, and the reverend, after shouting about that “dreadful diamond palace,” succumbs to the matterlightblooming phenomenon. Bevins and Vollman claw Willie out and, passing him back and forth, manage to get him to the chapel, but they are not protected from the demons there as anticipated. Then they realize that Lincoln is there in the chapel. We get a watchman’s log entry confirming his presence there. Then Willie enters him. Lincoln is remembering the first moment Willie’s illness presented itself. Then there are historical snippets about the ravages of the fever and how difficult it was for the sensitive Lincoln to bear. Vollman orders Willie to come out at once (a one-paragraph chapter). Then there are historical snippets about the embalming process and Willie’s being embalmed (Lincoln walking in on it at one point). Willie is clearly shocked, processing something (a one-line chapter (LXXXIX): “The boy sat stock-still, eyes very wide indeed.”) Then there are historical snippets about the burial. The last of these is Lincoln declaring to someone “Willie is dead.” In the chapel, Willie declares to everyone that they aren’t sick—they’re dead. He tries to convince everyone that they should leave. His form starts to flicker into different forms that he once was and then never was (as sometimes happens to those about to succumb), and then he is gone. Lincoln, seemingly freed from some burden, inadvertently passes through Bevins and Vollman on his way out; he is thinking about how the the only way to stop suffering is more suffering, and resolves a quick end to the war even if it’s at a heightened cost of blood. A group of black people are outside the chapel and Thomas Havens enters Lincoln, and triggered by Lincoln’s sadness, focuses on his own sadness, sharing it with Lincoln so that he might better understand it.

Upon hearing the news that they’re dead, Litzie Wright, who’s gotten her voice back, and Mrs. Francis Hodge, succumb. The watchman reports Lincoln leaving the cemetery. There’s a mass exodus from the chapel, with many succumbing. The Barons argue and succumb. As Bevins is about to succumb, he recalls that the morning he slashed his wrists he saw Gilbert in a bakery with another man (a slap in the face after Gilbert left claiming to want to “live correctly”). Bevins then reminds Vollman that his wife came to visit and thanked him for his kindness, which meant she was unsullied when she found her new husband. Before Vollman and Bevins succumb together, they visit the Traynor girl in the iron fence. Vollman enters the train she’s manifesting as and, per her request, blows it up by succumbing to the matterlightblooming phenomenon inside it. Then Bevins, after enjoying some final sensory imagery outside, succumbs, witnessed by the Reedys and Crutchers and interrupting their orgy. Those who resisted succumbing are grateful they still have more time and hope for the possibility of love. The watchman, who has a son Willie’s age, ponders the mortal bind of love and loss we’re in. Thomas Havens continues to ride forward with Lincoln, determined to stay in him. The End.    

Saunders mentioned that he thought the greatest sin was to not see oneself clearly, and in the Bardo it’s impossible not to. He admitted to copying the distinctive character-defining traits—a necessity when juggling such a large cast—from Tolstoy. These traits manifest something fundamental about the characters’ essences, providing a sort of key to them that enables us to understand their perspective. In the interview after the reading, which was of the section where Bevins and Vollman first enter Lincoln, UH Creative Writing Program director Alex Parsons pointed out that the image of a ghost entering a body and accessing that person’s thoughts was very much like what a writer did in the course of writing.

The tension in the narrative derives from the threat to Willie should he linger in this realm, though it’s never made explicitly clear why this realm is so threatening to children. We see the threatening outcome in the Traynor girl, and it provides our three main characters, Vollman, Bevins, and the reverend, with a desire that propels the story forward with a question: Will they succeed in convincing Willie to leave this realm before he’s apparently stuck here forever? It’s Abraham Lincoln’s appearance that complicates things and gives us our first rise in the action. His promise that he’s coming back incites Willie to stay. His hope that Willie is in some better place, accessed by Bevins and Vollman, provides the foundation for their plan that then propels the action in the rest of the novel thereafter; their goal then becomes to get Willie to enter Lincoln so he can hear this hope and be convinced to move on. But when they finally do get him to enter Lincoln, it backfires when it leads Willie to realize instead that he’s dead, and in turn apprise everyone else of this fact.

There’s also an undercurrent of chronic tension for all of the ghost characters in this realm, who are here for a reason—refusing to believe they’re dead, they cling to the stubborn belief that they can still change the outcome of something. Hearing that they’re dead from Willie, which comes through Lincoln himself, is enough to finally convince, among others, our three main characters, who have apparently been clinging among the longest, to let go. The acute tension of Willie’s appearance and all that leads to—the irrefutable revelation that they’re dead—resolves the chronic tension of their senselessly clinging to their past lives.

Saunders, who so astutely analyzed Donald Barthelme’s use of patterns in rising action, executes a pattern of his own here: Lincoln enters Willie’s tomb and opens his coffin twice in this one night, both times inciting a ghost crowd intent on justifying themselves by spilling their own stories. The first time, an external obstacle intervenes in the appearance of the tempting angels. Then Lincoln is located, and they convince him to come back to the tomb. The crowd this time enters Lincoln’s body, a significant plot point when the common mission enables them to overcome their selfishness and be liberated from their dominant Bardo manifestations. It seems they’ve failed to stop Lincoln, but after we get the exciting interlude with the hell figures, we learn that they actually succeeded in getting Lincoln to stay. Finally, the goal of their plan is realized, the main characters do succeed in their mission, but not with the expected outcome. Instead of just Willie being convinced to go, almost everyone else is convinced to go as well. Not only will Willie leave the Bardo this night—all of them will.

That Saunders doesn’t alternate the snippets and cemetery scenes in an exact pattern makes the sequence feel more climactic at the end when it does start alternating every other chapter, which provides a marked shift in pacing from slower to faster. There’s also the moment the snippets literally interact with the cemetery, providing a narratively cathartic convergence of threads:

Father said it, he said. Said I am dead. Why would he say that, if it weren’t true? I just now heard him say it. I heard him, that is, remembering having said it.

But we didn’t hear Lincoln say it in a cemetery section. We heard it in an historical-snippet section, the one immediately preceding this, so there would be no mistake. These two different worlds—as represented by the cemetery and historical-snippet sections—are interconnected, as are the world of the living and the dead, as we see by the end when Lincoln gains his spiritual breakthrough in the wake of Willie’s departure from the Bardo. This itself is symbolic of how Willie’s death spurred Lincoln’s resolve in his course with the Civil War.

Aside from casting a fresh look at distant but relevant history, Saunders knows how memories work, and is adept at summoning the collages of images that constitute them (which would be a good prompt for a writing lesson, to get to know a character through the collaged images of their memories):

Suddenly, I remembered: the showing up at church, the sending of flowers, the baking of cakes to be brought over by Teddie, the arm around the shoulder, the donning of black, the waiting at the hospital for hours.

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Leverworth giving Burmeister a kind word at the lowest moment of the bank scandal; Furbach drawing out his purse to donate generously to Dr. Pearl, for there had been a fire in the West District.

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The handholding group of us wading into the surf to search for poor drowned Chauncey; the sound of coins falling into the canvas bag crudely labeled Our Poor; a group of us on our knees weeding the churchyard at dusk; the clanking of the huge green soup pot as my deacon and I lugged it out to those wretched women of the evening in the Sheep’s Grove.

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The happy mob of us children gathered about a tremendous vat of boiling chocolate, and dear Miss Bent, stirring it, making fond noises at us, as if we were kittens.

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My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!

hans vollman

How had we forgotten? All of these happy occasions?

the reverend everly thomas

Perhaps it might be a stretch that these ghosts, who as people presumably knew what death looked like and what the implications of a cemetery were, think that they are “merely sick, with some previously unknown malady,” instead of understanding that they are dead, but perhaps this is a metaphor for our general awareness (or lack thereof) of our present condition: alive.