Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain” is about a man who gets shot and dies in a bank. The story begins with Anders, a jaded and callous book critic, standing in line at the bank behind two women. Their conversation annoys him, so when one of them turns around to comment on the bank teller that left her station, he replies with a snide remark. She says nothing because she sees two masked men with guns standing to the side of the door. One man says they’re all dead meat if someone sounds the alarm, and Anders makes a sarcastic comment on his word choice. As the masked men rob the bank, Anders continues to deride them. One burglar hears Anders, so he walks over and prods him with his pistol. Anders is shocked by the burglar’s ammoniac breath, and the burglar uses his pistol to push Anders’s face upwards. Anders sees the painting on the ceiling of the bank and critiques it. The burglar taunts him and says Capiche, which makes Anders laugh. The man shoots Anders in the head. As the bullet makes its way around his brain, the story recounts multiple moments in his life that he does not remember. He does remember one baseball game in which his friend’s cousin joins to play. The cousin says he’ll play shortstop because it’s the best position they is. As Anders dies in the present moment, he remembers playing baseball as a child in a trance, whispering they is, they is, they is.
The acute tension is the long line Anders has to stand in, the burglary, and Anders’s death. The chronic tension is the scene that plays in Ander’s mind as he dies, and every scene that he does not remember.
The use of description in “Bullet in the Brain” makes the story compelling to read because it reveals more about the character, and it changes the narration. There isn’t much super detailed description until the latter half of the story, but one early section reveals a lot about Anders:
He did this by making himself stare into the man’s eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue, and rawly red-rimmed. The man’s left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol.
This description works because it not only paints a clear depiction of the burglar but also reveals that Anders only realizes the gravity of the situation when he smells the burglar’s breath. Since Anders only feels slight unease, this description says that Anders is either very bold or very stupid. But this next section says more about Anders’s character:
Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter’s work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again – a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backward glance on the faces of the cupids and fawns. The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders’s eye was Zeus and Europa – portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droopy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there’d been a bubble coming out of his mouth, it would have said, “Hubba hubba.”
Even though a burglar was literally pushing a gun against Ander’s neck, he critiques the painting. This description shows that Anders is a real critic at heart, even that he does it automatically, since he had to look up because of the gun’s pressure. Similarly to the first description passage, it reveals Anders cannot take the situation seriously. Also, the description of the sexy cow provides comedic relief in a grave situation, which puts us closer to Anders’s mindset since he had been making humorous comments throughout the burglary. This also prepares us for when Anders bursts out laughing at capiche. The final bit of description changes the narration:
The bullet smashed Anders’s skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occured, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years passed, and long since lost to memory. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at 900 feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lighting that flashed around it.
This description switches the narration from the bank to Anders’s brain by following the bullet, and it works because it allows the story to step inside Anders. Since the narration has more movement, it can now move out of the bank entirely into Anders’s past and talk about what he doesn’t remember. It would’ve been more jarring if the narration cut immediately from the shot to list what Anders was not remembering. Also, this description makes the story more compelling because I just think it sounds really cool, and I haven’t read many stories that depict exactly what a character’s brain is doing (especially not after they’ve been shot).
The characterization in “Bullet in the Brain” is another technique that adds to the grip of the story. The first of Anders’s characterization happens right at the beginning:
He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders – a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.
Starting the story with this line makes Anders a dislikeable character for a significant amount of plot. Anders is even more dislikeable as he continues to mock everything he sees. But this first line encompasses everything we know about Anders until he’s shot in the head. Since he’s characterized as a weary critic that remains static throughout the robbery, we might even be glad he gets shot. But then, the narration delves into Anders’s past, and he is characterized more:
Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, “Lord have mercy!” He did not remember deliberately crashing his father’s car in to a tree, of having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an anti-war rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.
This huge influx of characterization we get as Anders dies changes the story completely. All this sudden information about him humanizes him, and it makes his earlier actions understandable (even excusable). Even though everything listed happened out of the story, Anders becomes a dynamic character. It makes Anders’s death a more meaningful ending.
In my own writing, I want to imitate Wolff’s use of description to not only appeal to the five senses but also change the narration and develop the story. Also, I want to copy his pacing of characterization to reveal a lot about a character at once and change the story completely. The writing exercise is to begin a story with little characterization, and end the story with a ton of characterization that changes the plot completely.
- In what ways could you use description to further the plot?
- Why do you think Anders remembered playing baseball?
- How could you characterize a lot about a character without using backstory?