“Bullet in the Brain” Write Up by Audrey Germany

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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways could you use description to further the plot?
  2. Why do you think Anders remembered playing baseball?
  3. How could you characterize a lot about a character without using backstory?

Bird Box v. Elevation

‘Tis the season to watch movies, if you’re my family, anyway. According to questionable figures uncharacteristically released by Netflix, we were hardly the only ones streaming their new post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock. The film is technically split into three timelines but predominantly follows two: the beginning of an epidemic in which people commit suicide when they see some kind of unidentified creature(s), and five years later, when Bullock’s character Malorie is rowing her two small children, all of them necessarily blindfolded, down a river to a survivors’ compound. In classic narrative-hook fashion, the film opens in the latter timeline, with Malorie barking orders at the children that they aren’t to take their blindfolds off, no matter what.

The film is adapted from the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman. I haven’t read the book, but according to its Wikipedia synopsis, major changes in the adaptation would seem to include the third timeline, which, immediately preceding the river-journey timeline, is introduced a bit later in the film. In this thread, Malorie and the children are still with Tom, one of the survivors from the first timeline, who in the book is apparently killed with all the other original survivors at the climactic point of that timeline, when Malorie and one of the other original survivors give birth. There are two reactions one might have to seeing the creatures–instant suicide, or, if you’re already crazy (in what some have pointed out is a problematic depiction of mentally ill people), remaining alive to try to force other people to look at the creatures. In the first timeline, before this distinction has become apparent, the original survivors let a man, Gary, into their house who turns out to be one of these crazy people and kills them all by exposing them to the creatures. In the movie, Tom kills Gary and survives with Malorie, developing a romantic relationship with her, while in the book Gary kills Tom and escapes, leaving Malorie alone with the children–who then apparently that same day gets a call from a rando telling her about the survivors’ compound. The change of keeping Tom alive would definitely seem to increase and contribute to the acute tension, as it’s his eventual death, in the third timeline (which is also, in the movie, when they get the call about the compound) that drives her to take the risk of the river journey, risky not just for navigating a river blindfolded but because she can’t be sure the compound isn’t inhabited by the insane people. Developing a deeper relationship between her and Tom also creates a greater emotional impact when he dies saving her and the children. 

One major aspect of the film reminded me of a new novella, Elevation, that I’d just read by Stephen King, who also happens to have declared himself a fan of Bird Box. Neither of these texts offers an explanation for the mechanics of their central premise: Bird Box never explains what’s caused the shadowy beings that psychologically manipulate people into suicide upon sight to appear at this particular point, and Elevation never explains why its protagonist Scott is undergoing a rapid weight loss that manifests physically (he feels lighter) but not visibly (he doesn’t look lighter). Both texts instead position themselves as more interested in the consequences of these premises than in the literal logistics of them. 

Bird Box pulls off this lack of explanation more effectively than Elevation because it actually provides something in the way of chronic tension for its main character. The first scene in the timeline where the epidemic starts shows us a pregnant Malorie working on a dark painting that she tells her sister is “about people’s inability to connect,” at which point her sister tries to convince her that she will, in fact, be able to have an emotional connection with her own baby, which Malorie doesn’t seem to believe. Interestingly, the closest we get to an explanation of what exactly is going on with the creatures is when one of the original survivors, Charlie, describes (in something of a stilted heavy-handed speech) similar occurrences of such creatures in different mythologies that “take[] on a form of your worst fears or your deepest sadness or your greatest loss,” which include:

…the Surgat from ancient Christian occult beliefs that made pregnant women encounter their unborn children as other creatures such as lobsters or spiders.

Something in the movie that doesn’t seem to be in the book (synopsis) is when Malorie tells the kids on the river that one of them is going to have to look when they get to the rapids if they’re going to be able to navigate them, and that she’ll be the one to choose who looks. We’re set up to think that she might be inclined to choose the child who’s not actually hers to consign to certain death, but when it comes time to choose, she decides that nobody is going to look after all, indicating that she’s forged a comparable maternal connection to both kids. (Maybe this wasn’t in the book because it seems unlikely a four-year-old would have been able to help her navigate rapids blindfolded any better without a blindfold than with one.) 

Via Tom’s death and the call from the survivors’ compound, the movie’s third timeline contributes to the narrative’s acute tension, thus justifying its existence, but it goes further by continuing to develop Malorie’s chronic tension. Before Tom dies, we see a contrast in their approach to parenting the kids: Tom wants to give them hope for a better life, while Malorie wants them to never forget the harshness of their reality. Not only that, she seems to be using the harshness of that reality to forego forging a stronger emotional bond with them herself–why bother when they could lose her at any second or vice versa? This lack of connection is underscored by her not giving them names but instead referring to them as “Boy” and “Girl,” while they call her not “Mom,” but “Malorie.”  

In the climax of the action, their boat is overturned in the rapids, but everyone manages to make it to shore (extremely unlikely, but the general premise has already asked the audience to suspend its disbelief in the unlikely, and by this point we sure as sh*t don’t want those kids to die). Stumbling blindfolded around the woods trying to find the compound, Malorie trips, falls down a hill, and gets separated from the kids. The creatures start calling out to the kids in Malorie’s voice that it’s okay to take their blindfolds off. Malorie gets back to Boy and starts calling for Girl, but Boy tells her that Girl is scared of her, inciting Malorie to call out a litany of all the things she’s done wrong by way of apology, and Girl comes to her before the creatures get her. This is a satisfying climax because the events of the acute tension have led to a moment that forces the protagonist to reevaluate her understanding of the chronic tension–she confronts that her harshness and attempts to forego an emotional connection for the sake of pragmatic rational survival attempts (“Every single decision I’ve made has been for them,” Malorie defiantly declares to Tom. “Every single one.”) have essentially made her as scary as the creatures they’re trying to escape. She has to reckon with the fact that her means of protection have almost cost her the very thing she was trying to protect. In a way, she’s confronted her worst fear without having to actually look at the creatures who were supposed to show it to her.

Contrast this with the plot of Elevation: our protagonist, Scott, is losing weight inexplicably without actually seeming to. The closest thing Scott has to chronic tension is an ex-wife, and while we don’t necessarily need an explanation of the weight-loss phenomenon, we could do with something in the way of an explanation for the breakup—but we don’t get anything there, either. What we get is something that seems to amount to chronic tension for the town where the story is set, Castle Rock, a King standby. A married lesbian couple has opened a restaurant in town, and the predominantly closed-minded conservative population doesn’t like it. Scott himself, who is their neighbor, never has a problem with it, though the lesbians, or one of them, anyway, has a problem with him, seeming to take his mindset for granted as an extension of the rest of the town’s. When this woman, Deirdre, a former pro runner, aims to win the annual Turkey Trot so she’ll have the privilege of lighting the town’s Christmas tree, Scott makes a bet with her that if he wins, Deirdre and her wife will have to have dinner with him, while if she wins, he’ll never bother them again. Since Scott presents externally as overweight and out of shape, Deirdre considers this a safe bet, but, thanks to his condition, he’s able to gain on her in the final yards of the race. When she trips and falls, he helps her up and lets her win. Deirdre and her wife have dinner with him anyway and become his confidants (Deirdre felt the strange phenomenon afflicting him for herself when he helped her up, since part of it is that anything he touches becomes weightless). Scott’s gesture of goodwill, compounded with something of a misleading picture in the local paper, results in the town’s acceptance of the lesbian couple and the unmitigated success of their formerly threatened restaurant. As Scott becomes increasingly lighter, he enjoys the goodwill of his new friends, then, at the end of the book when his weight has dwindled to nothing, lets himself float peacefully away into the atmosphere. 

The New York Times Book Review characterized the book itself as “light” in its subject matter, offering it as something of an anecdote to the heavy times we live in. Which could be another way of saying it lacks any meaningful substance and is essentially designed to manipulate warm feelies, as per so much meaningless mass appeal entertainment. While it tackles “the weight of closed-mindedness and prejudice,” as the Review puts it, this aspect of the book felt more preachy than integrated into a coherent narrative. King’s books often elevate plot over character, but in a book that actually focuses primarily on a single character as opposed to King’s more typical sprawling casts, Scott is woefully lacking in development due to that absent chronic tension. The change Scott undergoes is all surface–his weight. This acute tension cries out for a concurrent chronic change: what has this inexplicable experience of losing weight caused him to confront about himself and/or his past? What deeper change parallels the surface one? Nothing. Without this parallel change arising from the inexplicable circumstance, the lack of explanation of that circumstance becomes more glaring. You can only get away with not explaining such strange circumstances if the reader’s satisfied with the exploration of the consequences of those circumstances, and in this case, there are no meaningful consequences to explore. 

This is not to say that the preachiness of the Elevation’s prejudice aspect might not ultimately do some good for the readers who are satisfied with getting surface rom-com-type warm feelies rather than more substantial character development (and/or who think Stephen King is the second coming of Christ). I happen to be a recently engaged lesbian myself, and over my annual holiday sojourn, a family member suggested I was getting married to “make a statement.” (This was the same family member, incidentally, that I bought Elevation for as a Christmas present and the reason I happened to read it in the first place after seeing how short it was.) So I couldn’t help but be struck by the depiction of the town’s small-mindedness and hope that it might call my family member’s attention to her own small-mindedness: 

“If those women had kept it on the down low they would have been fine, but they didn’t. Now there are people who think they’re trying to make some kind of statement.” 

Lastly, I wanted to note Bird Box‘s use of an objective correlative, the box of birds the movie’s named for. The birds first appear in the movie in the earlier timeline, when a group of survivors makes a run to a grocery store. Why a cage full of birds would be in a grocery store is something else that you’ll have to suspend your disbelief for, but per Robert Boswell’s spandrel rule, the scene in which they’re introduced doesn’t exist solely to introduce them—it makes logical sense that the group would need to make this risky supply run, and we also see an exchange that starts to show us the effect seeing the creatures has on “crazy” people. The birds turn out to be an alarm system for when these crazy people and/or the creatures are around, which is why Malorie takes a box of birds with her on the river trip. She’s also been told to follow the sounds of birds to get to the compound once she gets past the rapids, and has to listen for them over the psychologically manipulative sounds of the creatures. The birds in the box survive being overturned in the rapids (suspend your disbelief again), and make it to the compound with Malorie and the kids, at which point Malorie asks the kids if they should let the birds go be with their friends. The kids agree, and the birds—three of them, not incidentally—fly up out of the box and away. This emotional culmination of the birds’ use as an objective correlative provides the narrative’s resolution: Malorie and the kids have attained their goal of making it to the compound, where it’s implied their quality of life will be vastly improved as they reconnect with other people, and the birds flying out of the box that symbolizes Malorie’s previously circumscribed existence drive that point home—not least because a story Tom tried to tell the kids earlier that Malorie refused to let him finish turned out to end with him climbing a tree to discover a nest of birds that then flew away. And not to mention this is also the point that Malorie finally gives Boy and Girl their real names, Boy after Tom and Girl after her real mother. Cue the waterworks.

I’m by no means claiming that Bird Box is a masterpiece of literary craft–The New Yorker‘s movie critic Richard Brody outlines several reasons that it isn’t, including that its world-building is “thinly and lazily conceived”–but compared to Elevation it’s a much better crafted piece of mass entertainment, predominantly because, to a certain extent, at least, it lets the character carry the plot rather than the other way around. Elevation’s conclusion of the weightless Scott simply drifting away could be read as a literal manifestation of the latter.