“The Passenger” Write Up by Eli Johns-Krull

Techniques tracked:

  • Use of concrete details
  • Use of flashbacks/narrative breaks

“The Passenger” by Marisa Silver begins with the narrator, Babe, explaining to the audience some about her life as a taxi driver, including her dispatcher Ruthanne, before it describes how she takes a job from LAX. Next, it explains what her life is like and introduces her mother who lives in a spiritual community, before describing the scene at the airport where she picks up her two passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Chin, who refuse to place their black suitcase in the trunk. It then goes on to talk about the first time Babe’s mother tried to kill herself, explaining that she called Babe to tell her before trying to take her own life with sleeping pills, which she failed to do because she threw up. Next, the story describes how Babe drifts off into her memories before she gets stuck in a traffic jam. The story then recounts an incident from when the narrator lived in Cleveland, explaining how the narrator and her mother ate with a man and a girl slightly older than the narrator where she and her mother left after eating, despite the daughter asking why they didn’t pay, to which the mother responds that they did. The story returns to Babe in the traffic jam, where it is revealed that it was caused by a fatal crash. The Chins begin arguing after speaking with a cop, which results in them leaving the car, abandoning their suitcase. Babe drives off, and, after opening the suitcase, discovers a baby that she takes to the hospital, where she is taken away because it is suspected that she mistreated the child. The story breaks off, detailing when her mother attempted to slit her own wrists. The narrative returns to the detention room of the hospital, where a police officer questions Babe, and the opening of the suitcase proves her innocence. The story then retells when Babe helped her mother pack to move to the spiritual community, before concluding with Babe’s thoughts in the hospital parking lot.

The first element I tracked in this story is the way that Silver uses concrete details to build scene and to convey ideas about her characters. One of the examples of this that really stuck out to me is when she describes the guards, saying

Two guards in uniforms stand behind her, their hands casually crossed in front of their stomachs.

At first glance, this seemed like a simple description of a character with a relatively small part in the narrative, but as I continued to think about it, I imagined the character more clearly. With the information that their hands were crossed in front of their stomachs, I got a feeling of honesty and fairness from these cops (the idea that people are less likely to be hiding something if you can see their hands), and because their posture was described as casual, my mind envisioned to guards who were very relaxed and more understanding and kind towards the “criminals” they were responsible for controlling. As I read this story, I realized Silver has a gift for giving the audience the right amount of information so that they can imagine a situation without the descriptions feeling as if they are dragging on. Another example of this is when the traffic outside the washer is described to sound

…like the rubbery sounds you hear underwater.

This conveys to the reader not only the idea of Babe’s detachment from the noise and the hectic environment surrounding her, it also serves to further the idea that is present throughout the story of Babe’s general detachment from her own life, which is further showcased through her thoughts about her job (it’s only what she did for now) and where she lived (every city would be essentially the same).

The second elements I tracked in this story was Silver’s use of flashbacks and narrative breaks. One of the most prominent examples of this is when Babe describes a memory she has from when she and her mother lived in Cleveland, and specifically the time the ate dinner with an unfamiliar man and a girl who is most likely his daughter. This scene introduces a character that the mother is most likely familiar with but Babe doesn’t know, and its conclusion, the mother saying

“We paid all right.”

introduces the idea that the mother thinks the man is indebted to her. This is tied back into when Babe is helping her mother pack to move to the spiritual community, and the daughter considers these two people to be among those

…she must have dropped along the way.

This idea is very important to me, because the way the mother has been dropping people, combined with the fact that the mother has continually tried to remove herself from her daughter’s life (and life in general) really tie into the idea of the last paragraph, specifically the quote

…she thought her baby would do better without her…

because it seems as if Babe has stopped speaking about the baby and is instead thinking about her mother’s own attempts to give Babe a better life, despite the cost to the mother. The mother is trying to help her daughter find paradise, even though it causes her suffering, and almost resulted in her death on several occasions.

I think that I will take the idea of providing enough information to create a visual or a sensory feeling in the reader without it seeming to over descriptive or becoming boring to the reader. Another element of this story I want to be able to imitate in my own writing is to be able to intertwine external information or scenes with a narrative so that they both lead to the same conclusion and ending, making the final lines and the closing scene or climax more powerful. A third element of this story I really enjoyed was the fact it had several small mental reversals that changed the audience’s viewpoint, and that Silver seems almost self-aware of this fact (for example, when the story starts with the narrator describing her nose ring, gives the audience just enough time to begin forming assumptions on her, and then states that the audience’s assumptions are false).

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think the flashbacks were impactful/important to the story? Why (not)?
  • Why did the narrator choose to use selling a child to introduce the idea of giving up a child so they can have a better life?
  • Do you think that the story is about giving up children so they can have a better life? If not, what do you think it’s about?

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