Shoot for the Stars: Tracking Techniques in “Teen Sniper”

A write up by Maja Neal, Caroline Paden, and Ignatius Lines

Summary of “Teen Sniper” – Maja Neal

In Adam Johnson’s “Teen Sniper,” we follow a fifteen-year-old boy codenamed Blackbird who’s a sniper for his local police department in an almost pseudo-future. The story begins with him killing a man on the job, but not able to ignore the feeling that comes over him just before the shot; that he really knew his victim. Blackbird – or Tim, as is his real name – is shaken by this. He distracts himself by spending time with his fellow employees or walking around with ROMS, the department’s bomb-sniffing robot. Later, he goes to train in martial arts and spars with a girl he’s immediately infatuated with. It turns out that she’s the daughter of the department’s chief communications officer. Tim finds himself thinking about her more and more, and eventually climbs up on a satellite dish to find her house and visit her; however, he drinks cans and cans of an energy drink, and is on a caffeine high and making no sense when he does go to talk to her. The next morning, he wakes up feeling terrible, and remembers pieces of the day before, inferring he must have tangled with SWAT. He goes to the bomb shelter to visit ROMS, who he insulted the day before; but ROMS forgives him and gives him advice about what to do with the girl, Seema. The week after that is rough for Tim. Two of his coworkers and friends quit, and ROMS is killed in a blast. After a new ROMS who looks exactly like the old one arrives, Tim can’t take any more, and runs out of his building, hanging his gun – the one he’s used on dozens of missions – in a random tree and abandoning it. He then goes to visit Seema, and he partly uses the old ROMS’s advice in trying to make up for his freaky behavior the last time he visited her. As the story ends, Tim is walking away from Seema’s house, thinking to himself that he wants her to see the real him.

Chronic tensions: The struggles and mental barriers that affect Tim because of his unusual career

Acute tensions: Tim fighting with ROMS, meeting Seema, and having his worldview changed

Technique Tracking: Caroline

The first technique I tracked was the use of optimistic/casual vocabulary in characterizing Tim. Tim mentions early on that he has trouble with “flash empathy”, or empathizing with his targets too much, and a concerned Lt. Kim is worried that being exposed to such a high-pressure, violent job at such a young age is harmful to Tim’s mental health. As a result, he uses flowers as replacement images for gore. There’s also evidence that Tim is desensitized to his situation at this point—he focuses on an Aladdin movie poster in the first scene, talking more about that than about the hostage situation unfolding before his eyes.

Tim’s inability to connect with other people well may also contribute to this. Tim doesn’t seem fully socially developed, and there are hints that this may be because of his job: “They see my rifle and know I’m a peace officer, that I’m here to help.” Throughout the story, “improving the world” is cited as Tim’s main reason for becoming a police sniper and justification for all of the violence unfolding around him. Whether it’s technology companies beautifying the world with flower displays or making the world safer by joining the force, Tim revels in optimism and positivity—even if it’s just a coping mechanism for killing multiple people as a job. These instances of off-putting or contrasting positive imagery can add to a sense of disconnect in the reader: how can killing as a job be seen in such an upbeat way? How is this so normalized? The reader questions this alongside Tim, and by the end of the story, Tim comes to the same conclusion as the reader: killing this frequently without being able to acknowledge your own empathy is unhealthy. It’s effective characterization, and worldbuilding, in its own respect.

The second technique I tracked was the instances of effective worldbuilding/hints the story is set in the future. Our first hint is the use of a soda brand that currently doesn’t exist, and the second is the fact that a fifteen-year-old is even allowed to work as a police sniper, regardless of ability. As time goes on, it’s clear that in this society, children using guns is not uncommon—in fact, even big companies like Disney sponsor shooting competitions.

The use of brands is also interesting here—obviously, Sony is a technology company, and doesn’t sell hot dogs or have modelling campaigns. Neither does Monsanto. Narrowing in on hints that this is in the future, the AOL conference that apparently ended in a huge loss of life never happened. Laws about sniping in Brazil and Switzerland, the new technology such as ROMS—all are integrated seamlessly into the story, with minimal exposition.

Johnson builds a world around the reader so effortlessly, if not for the obvious fictitiousness of it all, it would feel autobiographical. I want to be able to create an immersive universe as skilfully and as effortlessly as Johnson–I feel like I rely too much on exposition sometimes to create a realistic setting, and it ends up detracting from the story.

Acute Tension: Tim’s fight with ROMS

Chronic Tension: Tim’s struggle with flash empathy

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the optimistic vocabulary contribute to a sense of unease in the reader?
  2. What effect do you think was intended in the mixing up of brands?

PRESENTATION NOTES FOR TEEN SNIPER – MAJA NEAL

Techniques Tracked:

  • The way in which the author made the protagonist’s mental state deteriorate when he chugged like six energy drinks
  • The “spiraling” of the protagonist’s thoughts in every other part of the story

“Teen Sniper” is about a kid who’s under a lot of stress for reasons like and unlike the ones we ourselves experience – so it’s pretty apparent that his mental state is a little whack. Part of this is because of his almost-dependence on a certain brand of energy drink, and the tendency of his mind to blow up small events and go on spiraling and internal trains of thought. Both of those facts make big appearances in the plot of the story, and I’ll be tracking them both.

THE ENERGY DRINK SCENE

No lie, I love this bit of the story. It’s a great example of how to write a character slowly becoming delirious. At this point, our protag, Tim, is high above Palo Alto on a huge satellite dish, scanning the town with the scope of his sniper rifle to find the house of the girl he likes. As he does this, he begins to down cans of a new brand of energy drink, and as he’s almost finished a whole six-pack of them, he spots the girl’s house. He then rappels down the dish and jogs through the neighborhood looking for her. It’s at this point that you can really start to see his brain going off-track, with rambling statements, nonsensical questions, and run-on sentences.

I find myself jogging, and it’s like I’m wearing headphones that only play static. There’s a silver fire hydrant, and for no reason I go up and kick it. I’m running along, turning into her neighborhood, and have you ever taken a good look at your hand, I mean really stared at it?

The energetic and confusing train of thought gets even more rushed as Tim talks to his crush, Seema. In fact, he rambles for such a long time I’m not even going to put that paragraph in this evaluation. He goes on and on, until Seema’s father, a man who works with Tim, tells him to leave. After Tim downs his last energy drink, we cut to him waking up on the lawn of the police station, with next to no idea how he got there.

The point of including those sentences is that they demonstrate so well how to write a delirious character. Start peppering the character’s thoughts with unnecessary details, unrelated phrases, jumps from one topic to another, and heightened awareness of their surroundings.

TIM’S SPIRALING TRAIN OF THOUGHT

The whole energy drink scene is only one part of how the author writes Tim’s inner monologues so well. Now I’ll track a huge and effectively done part of Tim’s thoughts; how he can spiral until one thing leads to him thinking of something completely different.

Tim, working as a sniper at a very young age, obviously isn’t in the best mental state. This is maybe part of the reason that he seems to take a small fact and go on and on with it until he has a whole monologue in his head – like what he did with the paragraph where he rambles to Seema while under the influence of all his Buzz drinks. Here’s what I think is one of the best examples of his spiraling.

Then it hits me, this feeling that I really know this guy. In the rinsed color of my video scope, I study the tinselly lines of sweat coming from his brow, the flush of anguish in his skin. In a flash, I see a guy who left his culture and traveled around the world, only to become a hopeless outcast. His words are always a little off, and maybe people make fun of him because he looks different and can’t dress so good. Forget about the girls. It’s, like, because of your job, you have to leave your old friends behind, and then your new friends are always saying things to keep you down. You work side by side with them, and you’re really trying, but it’s like you’re not even there. They never ask you to lunch or anything. Sometimes you eat alone at a restaurant and spot one of them, but they don’t even see you. You overhear them talking about some new movie, and it’s a movie you want to see, and–I stop myself, try to get a grip. Like the L.A.P.D. says, this isn’t real.

The “flash empathy” that Tim has been trying so desperately to avoid hits him hard, and he begins to imagine every little aspect of his target’s life. Note how he gets more and more detailed, especially with how the man is treated; he begins imagining specific scenarios, and obviously connects with the idea of the man and the unfortunate life he imagines the man has.

This happens multiple other times; what I’ve highlighted is when Tim first meets Seema and shortly imagines what Brazil must be like, when he ruminates on what it’s like to be one of the people he shoots, when he’s looking for her on the satellite dish and starts picturing what she’s doing at the moment, and when he imagines what she must be like as a person. All of these scenes are effective at establishing Tim as somebody who tends to blow things out of proportion.

Chronic tensions: The struggles and mental barriers that affect Tim because of his unusual career

Acute tensions: Tim fighting with ROMS, meeting Seema, and having his worldview changed

Discussion Questions:

  • Does the author make clear why Tim might be feeling the way he is now? In other words, does he give a possible explanation for his emotional awkwardness but sudden bouts of flash empathy?
  • What details does Johnson throw in to make Tim’s character obviously that of a teenage boy?

IGNATIUS LINES TECHNIQUE TRACKING FOR TEEN SNIPER

Techniques tracked:

  • Use of slang and “relatable” teen scenarios combined with depressing dystopian concepts that would be viewed as horrifying today
  • Tim’s commitment to the fact that empathy he rightfully feels to people he hurts or stands by as they are hurt is not normal and he should not feel it

It is made very clear in the story that this is not a normal world. Fifteen year olds are allowed to be snipers, torture is seen as fairly normal, and violent attacks happen on a much more frequent basis than normal. Instead of presenting these ideas as dystopian and alien, we are shown them through the lens of Tim, who seems to be very familiar with this world and sees these things as normal. He acts like a normal, hormonal weird angsty teenage boy who just happens to snipe and kill people on the regular. This creates an interesting contrast for the audience, who finds these things disturbing, because it portrays these things to be almost as normal as going to a 9 to 5 job or going to school. In the first scene where he is aiming at the man in the tech building we are shown this by the fact he acts like an angsty hormonal teen by stating to himself that his Lieutenant needs to “like, get of my back already” while he is preparing to heartlessly slaughter a man. Later on he starts to try and approach a girl and make a move on her while he is in the same room as a man being tortured.

It is also made clear that the main character lacks empathy, or when he has it he intentionally tries to snuff it out due to the L.A.P.D. convincing him that this is his brain playing tricks on him. As said before in the first scene he mentions this while aiming at the poor man (who seemed to have not hurt anyone yet) before promptly convincing himself he should not be feeling this and shooting him. In the aforementioned torture scene, he uses air quotes around the word “suspect” almost as if to say the man being tortured was not human, or not innocent in any way. This obviously makes the reader uncomfortable, but also makes us think about the state of things today

Chronic tension: Tim being lonely and depressed because of the combination of his career and peers but not knowing it

Acute tension: Tim having the chance to be friends with someone and have a real social life but nearly floundering it

Discussion questions:

  • How does the dystopian setting contribute to the theme. Is it easily ignorable part of a love story or is it the focal point?
  • Is the main character’s empathy truly real? Or made up?

 

 

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Simon Says: Preserve Your Leaving Wife’s Body & Try To Make Her Love You Again

  • A write up by Angelica Atkins

Summary:

In Henry Szabranski’s “Mortless,” Simon is a powerful man who at first sees his new wife and is relieved because he won’t have to say ‘goodbye.’ He turns to the technician, elated at the good news, and the technician warns him that she had sustained brain damage. River (his wife) had been pulled from plane wreckage (a while ago), her body damaged. Simon is glad he ‘insisted’ that the old human version of his wife get nanowires to record her brain, so that the resurrection chamber could work.

The technician, Morton (Simon nicknamed him Mortless because he’s responsible for the resurrection of his wife) tells Simon to “ask her something.” He asks her how she’s feeling, and she says “sleepy.” Then he asks what she remembers, and she recalls that she was going to a lover. She recalls their argument, and that she doesn’t love him.

Simon turns to Morton and threatens him, since he wants her memories of Gustav gone and for her to love him. Morton resists, citing how damaged River’s mind is, and that editing it probably isn’t possible. He also brings up the illegality of the procedure. Simon claims that the police won’t find out, and when Morton says that the resurrection chamber won’t work the next time, Simon threatens his job. Morton finally agrees, and asks Simon to leave the room. Simon refuses, as this time he’s staying. River’s body disintegrates, and Simon says goodbye.

Acute & Chronic tension

Acute: Simon trying to resurrect River & keep her loving him.

Chronic: River leaving Simon for Gustav; River continually rejecting him.

What we could use

So the concept of resurrecting tech isn’t new…but what if an asshole used it for his own ends? Honestly, this story was unsettling to read. Simon even starts out as a sort of normal guy, relieved that he won’t have to say goodbye and happy that his wife is alive, but as soon as River shows animosity, he kills her. I thought it was interesting that he is this rich asshole, so rich that he can determine whether she lives or dies, even though she’s (technically) already dead. He tries to suit her to his needs, but in each incarnation, she still slips away. Also, it seemed like the one change between this incarnation and the others was that he was going to stay and watch her form, since the other times he would leave and then Morton would call him in.

The continued use of Simon getting his way, through intimidation and threats and his position in power, slowly becomes more menacing. That’s one of the things I highlighted, because characters are supposed to not get the thing they want, and here even the reader is rooting for Simon to never get what he wants. But it’s effective, which I thought was a nice turn from wanting the main character to win. River’s death is also the one instance it seems in his entire life that Simon doesn’t get his way, and it’s tearing him apart. The one thing he can’t get is his old wife back.

Personally, I think that’s the one reason he’s even reviving her, because this River doesn’t seem that alive and honestly seems a mindless copy. Her one moment of clarity is when she says “I hate you. I never want to see you again,” but she only responds whenever Simon directly asks her something or when she sees him looking at her. I was expecting her, after that line, to start spewing venom or at least demand to be let out or react to Simon’s demand to erase her memories, but she doesn’t. Instead she sits in the goo that made her and doesn’t do much of anything else. So Simon’s making endless copies of his wife and they all refute him. But he keeps trying to erase her memories, like that will erase her love.

And even if he does erase her memories and she does love him, would he even want her around? Before this, she seemed compliant or eventually gave in after he ‘insisted’ so her copy will doubtless, if having memories tampered, just be a body.

A final point I wanted to bring up was the reveal of Simon’s character. It started showing itself about a third of the story, in Simon’s first insistence. I was still hooked on what would happen, and I did leave the story thinking that Simon would never get River to love him.

Questions:

Were y’all satisfied with the ending?

Did you still want to read once you found that Simon was an asshole?

If Simon does succeed deleting River’s memories of Gustav, would she love him? Do you think each incarnation of River is even real?

Also theory: Simon caused the plane crash. But probably not.

“Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” Write Up by Ty Gates

Part I (you already know we’re summarizing)

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” by Haruki Murakami begins when Mr. Katagiri, a bank loan collector, walks into his small apartment and is confronted by a large anthropomorphic frog. While sharing a cup of tea, Frog describes in detail why he has come to Katagiri’s apartment; Worm, a creature that absorbs kinetic energy through the earth and turns it into pure rage, is going to cause a devastating earthquake beneath Tokyo at 8:30 AM on February 18, and Frog needs Katagiri’s courage to assist him in doing mortal combat with Worm.

Katagiri struggles to accept even the fact that there is a giant anthropomorphic Frog in his apartment that insists he call it ‘Frog’ and not ‘Mr. Frog.’ It is even more difficult to accept the fact that he is needed to save Tokyo. So, Frog promises he’ll get a group of mobsters to repay a loan that Katagiri wasn’t sure he’d be able to himself.

Frog gets the mobsters to repay the loan by the next morning, and convinces Katagiri that he’s real. He then tells Katagiri the bare bones of the plan (how they’ll get to Worm and when). However, the day before they intended to do battle, Katagiri is shot in the shoulder by a man on the street. He wakes up in a hospital forty minutes after Worm was supposed to cause an earthquake. After asking the nurse, Katagiri discovers there had been no earthquake, and he had not been shot at all.

Frog comes to Katagiri’s hospital bed, and tells him that he had defeated Worm. Frog thanks Katagiri for his help, and tells him that even while he was unconscious in the hospital, he helped Frog in his imagination. Then, Frog returns to the murk, and maggots and centipedes crawl out of his body and cover the hospital room. When they start burrowing into Katagiri, he screams, and the nurse returns, and Katagiri confesses that he was more fond of Frog than of any other.

Part II (you already know we’re talking about the craft elements)

The thing about this story that I find most interesting is Katagiri’s character. He’s a lonely man with v e r y little purpose in his life. He has no friends, no lovers, his parents are dead and his siblings don’t appreciate everything he did for them. It seems to me that Katagiri’s strongest desire, though he may not be aware of it, is to be appreciated or credited for something, anything, by anyone. He finds no fulfilment in his work because, while he is respected by other loan collectors, he is disliked and the rest of his coworkers have no respect for loan collecting. Even though he put his siblings through college and arranged marriages for them at his own expense, they show no kind of appreciation for him. All of this is why I think that Frog is an entity that Katagiri created to fulfill that part of himself that absolutely needs some kind of recognition. Even when Frog tells him that no one will know that they stopped worm, there is a plural first person involved. He will be a part of something, with another (I hesitate to say person) Frog.

That brings me to my second point, the fact that Frog is humanized, maybe even more than Katagiri. Not only does he reference classics like he has several masters degrees, he speaks with a much more casual and human tone than Katagiri. He even makes a balls joke. I mean, come on. It’s also important to note that he insists Katagiri calls him Frog instead of Mr. Frog, which is a very personal thing. Katgiri refuses to simply call him Frog until the last few pages of the story, lending a sort of emotional distance that, even though it’s not really unhuman, is lacking in human connection.

Part III (you already know we’re discussing discussion questions)

  1. What’s up with the whole “returning to the murk” bit? What is the purpose or meaning of the centipedes and maggots?
  2. Did Frog Exist? It’s obvious I think he didn’t, but I’m interested what y’all thought.
  3. What’s up with the whole “you were unconscious for no reason” thing?

The Princess Bride of the Future (with a slightly less happy ending)

*A Presentation on Leah Cypess’ “BLU3RD” by Melissa Alter

Have Fun Storming the Castle: You Guys Ready for Some Summarizin’?

This story takes place in the distant future, focusing on one woman’s relationship with her robotic husband, BLU3RD. Things seem to be going pretty well for them until she asks if he will love her for the rest of his life. While he says that he loves her at that moment, he knows that he is incapable of loving her forever, as he is immortal and will eventually move on since his programming requires him to love.

The woman has to report to the College, which ensures that the BLU3RD unit remains fully functional and will not decide to turn on the humans, as had happened before during the Robotic Wars. BLU3RD is summoned for his yearly exam, and his wife occupies herself with looking into his past memories, where she is confronted by the knowledge that he has loved several women before her, and will continue to love others long after she is gone. When the woman is questioned about BLU3RD’s love for her, she replies that she knows he loves her; however, the scans say that she is lying, so he is deactivated.

This all happened in the past; in the present, the woman is undergoing therapy, claiming to still be guilt-ridden over her role in causing BLU3RD’s deactivation, but also wanting to relive memories of their time together in the memory-hypnosis chamber. During one of her sessions, the therapist claims that BLU3RD never loved her, as he is a robot and incapable of love; the woman protests, saying that he knew what love was better than she ever could. She breaks off the therapy sessions and goes to see the public terminal in which BLU3RD’s memories are on display, but ultimately chooses to focus on her own memories of their time together and walks away.

The Cliffs of Insanity: How’d She Pull This Off? Let’s Talk Craft and What You Can Steal

Leah Cypess isn’t afraid to tackle the big questions, discussing the meaning of life and the nature of love. There are no unsympathetic characters in the story; rather, the main conflict is that of confronting the inevitable. This year, we have talked a lot about characters’ driving forces. In making the narrator’s primary goal something unattainable – for BLU3RD to love her forever – conflict is generated from the conditions of the world itself.

Fact: The narrator loves BLU3RD, and BLU3RD thinks he loves her.

Fact: The narrator will die, and BLU3RD will not.

Fact: BLU3RD will move on.

From the initial mention of BLU3RD’s immortality, the reader knows not to expect a happy ending. We are led to believe that it is impossible for the narrator’s main wish to be fulfilled, because something designed to love forever must eventually move on. Yet Cypess does an excellent job of subverting expectations, because in the end, the narrator’s wish is granted – BLU3RD does love her until the end of his days. The only problem is that ‘the end of his days’ is exponentially shorter than it was at the beginning of this novel. This would be an interesting tool to steal: the character gets what he/she wants, yet must give up more than that goal was worth. Reminiscent of the ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage, this technique works well to provide an unhappy ending for the characters, yet similarly satisfying for the readers.

On a similar thread, Cypess’ handling of irony is particularly pleasing. His ability to love is what saved BLU3RD from being destroyed after the Robot Wars; yet his need to love was also what ultimately got him deactivated. Having the very thing that enables a character to survive be the same thing that kills him would make for both a meaningful commentary on human (or robot) nature and an impactful death scene.

Speaking of humans and robots and the inherent nature of each, let’s discuss the humanizing and dehumanizing factors in the story (the humanizing ones are highlighted in yellow, while the dehumanizing ones are highlighted in gray). By placing the elements so closely together, Cypess blurs the distinction, as she gives traits of man and machine alike to BLU3RD; he has both “sad and tender eyes”, seemingly exhibiting human emotion, yet he also was “not created with the ability to lie”, another subtle reminder of his differences from humankind.

Cypess takes themes such as love and loneliness and places them in a futuristic context, reminding the reader of their timelessness. She raises unanswerable questions and fosters interesting relationships, expanding beyond the scope of human nature and questioning the essence of all things. 

The Pit of Despair: Your Turn to Answer Some Questions! 

  1. The narrator claims that BLU3RD “knew more about love than I ever did.” Do you agree? Did BLU3RD love her? Could he?
  2. To answer the therapist’s question: What is the difference between mattering and being loved?
  3. Is it more ‘human’ to love forever, or to have the ability to move on? Is love temporary? Is it permanent? Does it always have to be one or the other?

Safety Man? More Like Save Me, Fam!

  • A write up by Celeste Schmidt, Lauren Sternenberg, and Eva Trakhtman

Summary:

“Safety Man” by Dan Chaon begins in describing an inflatable doll in the shape of a man, one which Sandi carries around in her bag and inflates on the go for protection. Safety Man is used as a substitute for her dead husband, Allen, and Sandi reveals that she and her two daughters are very fond of him.

Sandi goes on to tell about her family’s history of mental illness, but assures the reader that she feels fully functional—even holds a job—and is completely normal except for Safety Man. She tells about when she’d realized Allen had died, their family stopped thinking of Safety Man as a joke. They take comfort in his presence, but Sandi wishes that she could still feel a bit of Allen in her life.

Sandi positions Safety Man like a human, with a book, and in the time after Allen’s death feels detached from the pain of loss. She says that when her mother calls, since she’s super philosophical, that is the hardest part. When her mother asks if there is an afterlife, she goes off on a tangent until Sandi stops her at the religious part and begins to think about her job at the IRS instead.

There, she tells how one of her co-workers is often threatened, but she thinks nothing of it, which is odd to Sandi who becomes paranoid. Upon leaving the office that day, she sees a tooth on the ground and wishes to tell the story to Allen, but he isn’t here, so she substitutes him with Safety Man, even going as far as to place him in bed next to her.

Sandi says that she is still normal, although the grief strikes every now and then. She’s there for her daughters and mother.  She thinks she sees Safety Man glow in the corner of the room.

Sandi’s coworker asks about the guy Sandi is with, Safety Man, and tells her that she looks up to Sandi. Sandi doesn’t know how to respond, so she thanks her.

Sandi then meets another slightly crooked person in the park, and she tells about the tooth she saw, but the other woman eyes her suspiciously and walks away. At this, Sandi feels odd.

She begins to spiral out of control—in her own mind—in being paranoid and more and more negative in thought. Safety Man tells her she is doing fine, and then Sandi says that she is insane.

When Sandi picks up the girls, and has to deflate Safety Man, she feels upset and when one of her daughters says something about it, she goes to comfort him. Finally, she begins to stroke Safety Man like a real person, saying everything will be fine, but recognizing the fact that that is a lie.

Chronic tension:

The chronic tension for this story is Allen’s death. Allen’s death and the mention of Allen’s death is a constant in this short story because of the impact it had on Sandi. Sandi is in grief, and is spiraling out of control because there is no one there to keep her steady.

Acute tension:

The acute tension is Sandi seeing Safety Man as more than an inflatable doll. Specifically the more recent events where she starts replacing Allen with Safety Man. 

What interested Lauren:

This story was interesting to read due to the way Chaon navigates between normalcy and outlandish—or in this case, moderately insane. Safety Man as a character was interesting to read because, by himself, he isn’t even a character at all. He gets his power through Sandi, whose view of him allows him—as an inanimate object—to hold an abnormal type of sway inside of their family’s lives. This inter-character relationship was so strong, and its oddity was mind-catching since it was basically all carried on by Sandi and her family.

What interested Eva:

I personally, just enjoy any stories about people with insanity issues. It seems weird, but it’s actually really interesting seeing how an author develops their character and brings out their insanity factor. I think that Chaon did a great job in creating a very realistic example of everyday insanity, the main character was really easy to sympathize towards, and was so relatable, that you’d even forget that she is insane after a while. Safety Man, that was an unexpected and bizarre part of the story, but nonetheless anytime he was mentioned, I instantly became more interested.

What interested Celeste:

“Safety Man” ­by Dan Chaon was interesting to me because it told the story of Sandi’s descent into insanity through how she thinks and interacts with the people around her (especially Safety Man). These relationships outwardly change very little—instead they hold their weight in how Sandi interprets them.

What Lauren would imitate:

There was a lot about this story that I want to try and imitate. The main element is how the narrator, in Sandi’s point of view, gave an inanimate object so much power. Safety Man never actually spoke, but somehow it was as if he was manipulating Sandi in a way that is unseen unless you’re in Sandi’s mind. The power dynamic between them is incredibly unique.

Lastly, I’d like to imitate the process of having an insane character be fully conscious while falling into insanity. The concept in itself is very interesting and hard to pull off—especially in a short story versus a two-hundred-page novel.

What Eva would imitate:

I personally, am extremely impressed by Dan Choan’s ultra-realistic world building, so I’d like to imitate that. I like his creepy, “you’d see this type of thing in real life” narrative, I think it’s very unique and could be fun to work with. I like how although Allen has been dead for a  while, he is still a crucial part of the story even after his death. It’s interesting working with the impact one person might have on another.

What Celeste would imitate:

In my own writing, I’d like to try out some of the strange/slightly random observations that Sandi has. They fit in perfectly with the story, while still being just unexpected enough to stand out. I’d also like to possibly try out the use of an object (like Safety Man) to sort of reflect and explain the main character’s emotions—or just something about them—subconsciously, or at least without straight up offering more information.

Techniques Lauren tracked:

The two techniques I tracked were the narrator slipping into Sandi’s perspective and the slight ques certain sentences give to a darker atmosphere. I chose these two elements because they can better showcase the unique way Chaon grew this story, and better highlights the odd feelings this story carries when I looked deeper.

When the narrator switches into Sandi’s thoughts, it provides insight to how she is actually perceiving everything that is happening. These moments also reveal much about her psyche, and the line about her knowing that she is insane really caught my attention because do insane people really know that they are insane?

This quote:

I am an insane person, Sandi thinks. They will all recognize it, eventually. She can’t go on like this much longer. Sooner or later, they’ll begin to realize that she is not really one of them; that she is in a different place entirely…

I chose this quote to properly highlight what was so interesting about Sandi as a character. My being attracted to this quote was mainly due to the knowledge I already have about people with insanity. The phrase I’ve heard so much about is, ‘An insane person doesn’t realize that they are, in fact, insane,’ and, the literal definition of insanity: someone repeating the same actions over and over again, expecting a different result.

Sandi conforms to only one of these, being the second. She clings onto Safety Man, telling herself that even though he isn’t Allen, he is Allen’s ‘replacement.’ She inflates him repeatedly, telling herself she will not become weird like her family, yet she does anyway upon becoming close to Safety Man.

My second technique is the light showing of the darker tones in this story.

She maneuvers through her day, despite the cannibal letter-writers, despite teeth in ashtrays, despite Safety Man janitors steering their wheeled mop buckets past her workstation…

I picked this quote to really showcase the more morbid route this story seemed to be taking. The fact that Sandi doesn’t pay attention anymore to things such as cannibal letter-writers is really unnerving to me. It can also show how Sandi is slowly blocking out how weird everything that is going on is, she is ignoring her own descent into insanity, while somehow being fully aware of the changes simultaneously.

Once, as she leaned over Molly’s bed, the child stirred.

This line just creeped me out. I chose it because this is when—while I was reading the story for the first time—this is where the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. AT first it was just because, ‘Why is she leaning over her kid’s bed?’ but as I began thinking, there just wasn’t any way this could’ve made sense in a normal household. It reflected the disjointed grip Sandi has surrounding Allen’s death, and her children are helpless to think otherwise. It was just super freaky…standing over someone while they’re sleeping is creepy. 

Techniques Eva tracked:

The first technique that I tracked was Sandi referring to/mentioning her insanity. I wanted to track this technique in order to show her gradual character progression, or in this case regression to insanity.

Throughout the whole story, Sandi talks about how she is “functional” or how she knows that she is insane. There are in betweens where she mentions her family members’ insanity and then refers to herself, stating that there is a chance she might end up like them. This story is written in the third-person-omniscient P.O.V., meaning that it focuses on Sandi but isn’t told from her exact perspective. It does give us the insight to what Sandi is thinking, though. And most of the time Sandi’s thoughts are wrapped up by conclusions, whether she concludes that she is in fact insane, or that she isn’t and will be alright.

My favorite quote from this technique that I tracked was the last line:

“It’s all right,” Sandi says again. As if she means it.

I thought this quote perfectly showed the technique I was trying to track. It summed up the whole story with Sandi’s contradictory look on herself and her insanity.

The second technique that I tracked were Sandi’s flashbacks. Most of the flashbacks in this story were about Allen or about Sandi’s mother. All of the flashbacks showed Sandi but through the eyes of the people that are close to her. The flashbacks were randomly put in after or before confusing parts of the story to help make sense of the situation and to give more personal background on Sandi.

Sandi used to have a normal life. Didn’t she? She remembers thinking so, when they first moved to Chicago. She’d loved the big north suburban house they’d bought—so old, so much history! She loved that there was a little park right around the corner, and not far beyond was a row of small quaint shops, and beyond that was the girls’ school, everything comfortably arranged. She was away from her crazy family at last, away from the small-town restrictions of her former life.

I think this flashback perfectly showed Sandi’s life progressing into a kind of uncertainty, neutral chaos. The first sentence “used to have a normal life” already informs us that something is now wrong, and the rest shows the “normal life” that Sandi used to have.

Techniques Celeste tracked:

The two techniques I tracked throughout the story were Safety Man as a symbol and Sandi’s observations/coincidences, because both reoccur throughout the story and contribute to Sandi’s collapse into insanity through how she thinks about them.

First Technique: Safety Man as a symbol

Safety Man starts out as something to fill the void that Allen left behind with his death, as a sort of safety blanket for Sandi (but in the shape of an inflatable, posable man). As we move on, since Sandi has been relying on Safety Man for some time, he quickly begins to symbolize, or embody, Sandi’s stability. Two quotes:

Besides Safety Man, there is nothing abnormal about her life.

and

She is no different from them, despite the inflatable man in her totebag.

show how Safety Man allows her to be like everyone else, keeping her ‘sane’ for the time being…. They also showcase the impression she has of herself—an undercover insane person living as an imposter in the ‘normal world’— (much earlier than she actually admits this to herself) in reassuring terms, like she’s letting herself know that she’s pretty much normal, and that Safety Man is the one, tiny, difference between her and everyone else.

Later, the loneliness sets in from not having been with Allen for a long time. Sandi finds herself wishing that he was still with her somehow, as a ghost, a smudge in a photo, an orb, anything she could possibly imagine. Yet again, Safety man comes to symbolize that loneliness Sandi feels in herself, without her even knowing it.

Alone beside the standing lamp, Safety Man considers the passage as Sandi sleeps…He reads and reads, a lonely figure.

At the very end of the story, Sandi lets the air out of Safety Man with a sort of finality, assuring herself that ‘it’s okay,’ and in that moment, Safety Man becomes a symbol of Sandi moving on, accepting the fact that Allen’s gone and that she has to keep going, keep living her life and taking care of her kids. Safety Man is used as a symbol to reflect Sandi’s emotions as she deals with Allen’s death and comes to terms with it as well.

Second Technique: Sandi’s observations/coincidences

The second technique I tracked were Sandi’s observations/some coincidences she noticed. She begins with two people’s behaviors: the old religious lady praying where she eats her lunch, and the man who follows her down the street, mistaking her for ‘Kelly.’ These two serve as a premonition for Sandi’s future, even though she doesn’t notice at first.

The old woman is nicely dressed, about Sandi’s mother’s age, speaking calmly, good posture, her gloved hands clasped in front of her chef’s salad.

This quote in particular shows how similar to these ‘desperate’ people Sandi becomes, because the old woman has so many aspects of a perfectly functional person—she speaks calmly, has good posture, ordered a chef’s salad—but Sandi still recognizes her as a crazy person, much like her later on, when she’s living a pretty normal, functional life, but still thinks that someone’s going to call her out for being insane.

Sandi later finds a human tooth at the ashtray at work.

There, among the slender, lipstick-stained cigarette butts, which stood up in the gravel like dead trees, she saw a tooth—a human tooth, lying there. She stood staring at it. What’s happening to the world? she thought.

This experience sticks with her, and Sandi later mentions this to the mom at the park pestering her about hormones in food, but what really sticks out about this line is how strange it is. Just…a tooth hanging out with some cigarettes in an ashtray. Her final thought of ‘What’s happening to the world?’ mirrors the ‘Something is happening to her’ she had said much earlier. Like with Safety Man, it’s almost as if Sandi projects her feelings and how she’s thinking to the world around her.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the author keep the POV as third person? Why not shift it completely to Sandi in first person?
  2. How/what do the other characters’ perspectives add to the story?
  3. Why did the author choose to have Allen be dead before the story even began? What if the story was told while Allen was still alive?
  4. How does the author use coincidences to foreshadow Sandi’s own mental decline?
  5. How does the author create the elements of insanity throughout the story?
  6. How does the rising action show throughout the story?