“The Ceiling” by Kevin Brockmeier follows a man and his family after an object appears in the sky. The object, named The Ceiling by the press, is a perfectly flat obsidian square slowly but steadily getting closer to the Earth, and threatening to crush the town. As the ceiling makes its descent, the signs of the marriage’s failure and the wife’s affair with the neighbor become more obvious until the ceiling finally crushes them all.
The chronic tension is the failure of the marriage and Melissa and Mitch’s affair. The acute tension is the ceiling.
I think the most interesting thing about this story is how Brockmeier uses metaphor. This story is rife with it. The story is driven by the controlling metaphor of the ceiling. The impending dread and the world-crushing weight of the ceiling is a stand in for the affair that Melissa is having on the narrator.
Controlling metaphors can be tricky, but what I think makes “The Ceiling” stand out is that the metaphor isn’t perfect. It’s not exactly a one to one. The instinct with controlling metaphors is usually to make every part of the symbol relate back. Brockmeier, however, lets his metaphor live its own life a bit. This can be seen when the barber and the main character participate in a joke about the ceiling that had been “circulating” the town “since the object appeared.” With this event it’s a bit difficult to find how the symbol is shedding light on the marriage. Really, it’s not. Brockmeier is simply making the ceiling real in the world and allowing it to have some freedom from the affair.
Of course, the ceiling is still an effective driving metaphor. For one thing, every time a new development is made in the discovery of the affair, new information about the ceiling is given almost immediately after. When the affair officially comes out, the ceiling crushes the water tower right after, the first time the ceiling destroys something essential to the town’s existence.
The way the news of the water tower’s destruction is given is through the account of a townsperson. This paragraph, in my opinion, sums up the whole story. Hankins the grocer says he was driving when he saw the water tower’s “leg posts buckling” under the weight of the ceiling. The affair comes out, and the main character feels the “kick of pain.” Then, when the water tower collapses, Hankins is carried away in the deluge, losing all control. This is, simply put, the marriage collapsing. But the reason I love this paragraph so much is because of how layered it is. There is the controlling metaphor of the ceiling crushing the essential foundation of the marriage that has already been established. Then, there is the sub-metaphor of the main character completely losing control in the flood of emotions resulting from the water tower’s collapse.
What I want to incorporate into my own writing, or at least try out, is the imperfect metaphor. By letting the ceiling exist only in part separate from the affair, and letting it become a part of the story’s world in its own right, Brockmeier gives the world some depth and the metaphor some grey. It makes the story a bit more interesting. Developing the symbol more as just an element of the world also brings up other aspects of the symbol that can be used in the metaphor. For example, the wind caused by the ceiling being so low to the ground literally shakes their house and threatens its structure.
Take a fantastical element (ex. the ceiling, a hole opening in the ground) and develop a metaphor. Then, develop the element within the world (how do people react to it? How does it change everyday life?).
Why didn’t the townspeople just leave?
How does the town’s complacency regarding the ceiling relate back to the marriage?
What do you make of the final scene, especially the fact that all of them are lying together helpless to the force of the ceiling?