“Bullet in the Brain” Write Up by Ignatius Lines

Techniques tracked:
-Use of repetition to surprise the audience
-Character building through Anders’ attitude towards others

Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” begins with our main character Anders walking through a bank clearly annoyed with two women. After he insults one of the women for being rude two robbers come in intending to rob the store while Anders makes snarky comments towards them. After a back and forth between him and one of the robbers he is shot in the head and the story recaps many of his memories as well as his last one about him as a young boy about to play a baseball game before one of his teammates makes a grammar mistake and he focuses on it until the bullet goes through his brain and kills him.

Bullet in the Brain is mostly split into two parts. The first part is relatively simple, Anders comes into the bank and seems particularly annoyed but at what we are never told. After waiting in line behind two chatty women the teller takes a break causing one of the women to insult the teller behind her back to Anders. Though Anders is annoyed with the teller he seems much more keen on being aggressive towards the woman in front of him now.

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him.

This line tells us that Anders does not seem to have any directed hate, he is simply just cynical and looking for things to lash out at as he makes a sarcastic comment to the woman in front of him. Two robbers come in pointing guns at people and yelling yet still Anders makes sarcastic comments much to surprise and horror of the woman in front of him

“Oh, bravo, ” Anders said. “Dead meat.” He turned to the woman in front of him. “Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.”

This shows us that Anders is not just in fact snarky in social situations, but humorous to a fault. We do not know why Anders does this, showing that even though the story in the poem seems very concrete certain parts are left up to the reader’s interpretation.

After making enough sarcastic comments one of the robbers gets annoyed with him and pulls a gun to Anders’ chin. Even then Anders seems to be almost calm, although he does what the robber says he still finds himself snickering at a feminine cow painted on the ceiling of the bank. This causes him to laugh followed by the robber demanding he stop laughing before Anders laughs even harder because of the robber’s cliche language, the robber then shoots him in the head.

This is extremely shocking, as normally in a realistic crime thriller or something of the like the main character stays alive to experience it with the reader. Or if they do die it’s usually near the end.

This is when the second part of the story begins. As the bullet travels through his brain, a narrator explains past events of Anders’ life. This part gives us hints into Anders’ character as it states he loved his wife until “she exhausted him with her predictability.”

This hints at him having a relationship with his wife until he somehow snapped. It is not said specifically why he broke up with her but this further allows the reader to make their own assumptions. Additionally this part has a rather well built up turn around as we are described some of Anders’ memories but before each one the narrator says that Anders “Did not remember” So when he states “This is what he remembered” the reader is more drawn in on what could possibly be the one he remembered after all this build up. It turns out it was simply a baseball game he played in as a young boy. While discussing positions before the match one of his classmates says that “Short’s the best position that they is.” Anders becomes asphyxiated on this grammar mistake, repeating it in his mind before the poem closes off.

This story shows how you can develop a character without directly telling the reader the details of their character or their backstory. The reader can infer whatever they want about his motivations and decisions. The tonal switch unlike many stories is done very well in this simply because of how intentionally unexpected it is. Every part of the story is carefully worded and place so at to allow the reader to immerse themselves into the character, and be surprised when he is shot in the head. Simply ending it where it did instead of overexplaining or dragging things on gives the reader just enough to care yet so little they can still theorize. Overall This is a clever story that makes use of the reader’s expectations very well and is very easy to become invested in.

Discussion questions:

Why does Anders not seem fearful of the robbers?
Why did Anders focus on the other teammate’s grammar error so much?
Is the memory that Anders remembers mean something significant or was it simply a random thought?

“Variations on an Apple” Write Up by Angelica Atkins

Summary of the story

Yoon Ha Lee’s “Variations on an Apple” begins with Paris, and follows him (mostly) throughout. He gets drunk, and sees three goddesses: Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. They produce an apple and ask him to choose which one to give the apple to. He refuses all three of them. He instead takes the apple to Ilion, who is the city he resides in. Ilion is in human form as a male, and he eats the apple.

Cassandra, Paris’s sister, warns against the apple, but by then it’s too late. The ships come to Ilion, after which play out different possibilities. One is where Ilion tricks the general, but still ends up giving its respect to the conquerors, though the conquerors then become part of the city. In another, Ilion goes down into an artificial ocean world, and the ships that try to follow become parts of the sea themselves. The third is where Ilion eats all the sentient beings within itself, and becomes a wasteland. In all of these, Ilion is compromised because of the apple.

Ten years later, Ilion is still being sieged. Paris almost wishes the apple never came to him. The enemy fleets withdraw, and Ilion gives all of its citizens the task of analyzing why. Paris tries to edit out his need for sleep, but he still finds himself falling asleep. The enemy general’s attack using negative space opens all of Ilion at once. Paris is asleep when that happens.

Paris is locked in grav-weave, and is visited by the general. Paris says that the fairest isn’t a goddess or a city, but this metal warrior, who is Helen. Helen says she must kill him now, as the gods listen in on everything. She raises a gun to his head, and he thinks that “Ilion never stood a chance.”

The acute tension was the siege and downfall of Ilion, while the chronic tension was the destruction the apple brings.

What makes the story interesting?

The relationship between Paris and Ilion is what’s featured heavily, and it stays interesting in the unpredictability of an entire city. This is shown how each time Paris sees Ilion, it is a different person. Lee is able to handle Paris’s relationship with an entire city, and it’s handled almost in the way relationships with gods are handled in modern times.

Paris also is shown as painfully human. The first time the readers see him is when he’s drunk, and he only refuses the goddesses because he’s already in a relationship with Ilion itself. Ilion is also the strongest being he knows, since he says,

“If anyone has a chance of keeping the fortress contained, it’s the oldest and greatest of fortresses.”

Ilion is also an old Greek word for “Troy,” which is why Homer’s epic is called the Iliad.

What kept the story grounded for me was the real life mentions, like Zhuge Liang, Vauban and Mardi bin Ali al-Tarsusi, who are real strategists. There was also the constant references to math and technology and theories, which can get overwhelming at times.

I first highlighted Ilion in different colours, whether it was a city or a human or both. Sometimes the city and human part is indistinguishable, which I want to take away. People write odes to cities, but I’d never seen a city humanized in this way before. Ilion isn’t a nice city:

Ilion threaded his fingers through Paris’s hair. It almost didn’t hurt.

That casual mention stuck out to me. Paris is used to this kind of pain coming from Ilion.

Another thing I highlighted was the transition from myth to technology, and ways that the myth was turned upside down: Cassandra lives in the circuitry but can still see things others can’t, Hector is a ship, Ilion is in space, Helen is the conquering metal general and made out of metal, and Paris can edit out his need for sleep. Lee keeps the goddesses as goddesses, which is what hooked me was the very beginning, because Paris is drunk, and suggests that the goddesses choose who to award the apple to by random number generator.

The final thing I highlighted was the apple and the mention of choices. Both Cassandra and Helen imply that Helen had the same choice, and refused it. There is also the question of fate, and whether Ilion can escape the apple’s nature, even without Helen. But even in all of the different versions, Ilion manages be compromised in some way. In the end, Paris describes it as “Ilion never stood a chance.”

What can I imitate in my own writing?

I definitely want to take away the personification of a city. Ilion felt like a character, especially when there were grey areas when I couldn’t tell whether the city or the human manifestation was talking/acting. I also want to use the author’s comment on fate, and how even though parts of the myth are converted into tech, Ilion still falls. Ilion falls in each version of the story, because it cannot escape the apple’s nature. I also wanted to take away how much importance the author put on a seemingly insignificant object. The apple, in the original story, was the source of the conflict with Troy in the original myth, but the readers and the characters soon forget about it as the gods and the mortals get wound up in their own hubris. By shifting the focus to the apple instead of the war itself, Lee created a new perspective on an old story. I want to recycle ideas and put my own focus on them, too.

Questions:

Even though Ilion was doomed from the moment it took the apple, did you hold out any hope that it would survive?

Did Paris and Ilion have a loving relationship?

How did the existence of gods in this otherwise science fiction plot work for you? Was the universe believable?