A Heart of Mold: Alyssa Quinn’s “Mycelium” by Angelica Atkins

Summary:

In Alyssa Quinn’s “Mycelium,” two people, Peter and the main character, are on the couch, reading. They have symptoms of mold infestation, fatigue, nosebleeds, all the gross stuff. But once they conclude that they’ll have to tell the landlord (and probably move out), they decide to live with it. A segment later, Peter notices that the MC’s nose is bleeding. The MC justifies it by saying it’s not so bad, so both stuff their noses and wait it out. Peter spouts some mold trivia, and both he and the MC think about the mold being alive and sympathize with it. The pair go to the nursery, since it’s spring, and try to find a plant. They see spearmint, impossible to kill, but they go home empty handed. The MC mentions they should have talked about their flourishing mold, in some sort of pride. Peter takes it as a joke, but it was not, in fact, a joke. The pair experience further symptoms and begin feeling a connection to the mold. They also begin narrating their lives to it. While showering, the MC finds Peter’s hair, and carries it to him; he is looking into mold extinguishers. They then buy a sledgehammer and first make a hole in the wall, then destroy the walls themselves. This process takes time, but now they have forgotten each other’s names, and marvel at the good feelings. Then they are bedridden. Finally, the mold makes its way into their mouths. The MC likes the taste, while Peter (whose name the MC has forgotten; they have forgotten each other) freaks out, ripping the mold from his body and asking what happened. The MC tells used-to-be Peter that they did love him, feels the mold inside of them, and believes that their “decomposition is going wonderfully.”

Acute & Chronic:

The acute is the MC and Peter’s loss of agency (the MC welcomes this while Peter fights against it), and the chronic is the MC’s loneliness.

On this story:

For my highlights, I first focused on the pair giving up the fight against the mold and sympathizing with the mold, two things which were kind of contrary to our belief of pests in general. I know for me at least, when finding that something is invading your house, the first reaction is wanting that thing out immediately. But in this story, expectations are subverted. Instead, the MC (and Peter, kind of) welcome the mold into their house. Peter, interestingly, is the first to recognize the infestation as mold.

I was reading Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Peter was reading a book called Is Your House Making You Sick? A Beginner’s Guide to Mold.

The MC was first motivated by inconvenience, because living somewhere else for months was a lot of hassle. Plus, by this time, they already had coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, wheezing, headaches, nosebleeds, and fatigue,” symptoms which did not lend themselves to mobility.

However, what starts out as only fatigue quickly stems into the MC connecting with the mold. An interesting note is that the narrator uses the first plural in referring to the pair, though the ventures into the I voice are when connects with the mold.

We thought this over for a while, and then we shrugged and returned to our books.

In this, they both do things the other sees: reading and shrugging. This much is tangible; but, through this perspective, they suggest that they and Peter are of the same mind. The next instance is another action that they share because of the mold:

We grabbed a box of Kleenex and sat there, heads titled upward, soaking the blood.

The MC and Peter stay on the same page in the concrete realm, mirroring each other’s actions and succumbing to the mold. However, the MC later goes into more depth when thinking about the mold, imagining its spiraling and growing and being alive. It is unclear whether Peter shares these thoughts, though the MC imagines that they both:

felt a sudden tenderness for it, as if it were a child or a pet.

In the MC’s mind, they’re on the same page. After this, the narrator doesn’t diverge into singular first person until remarking that “’We should have told him about our mold.’ I said. ‘How it’s thriving.’”

Which Peter takes as a joke, because mold is a pest and you shouldn’t be good at growing that. But the MC is serious. They see the mold as a success, while Peter is still level-headedly thinking of the mold as an infestation. This divergence in opinion is clear, so the I voice remains, driving the MC closer to the mold while farther from Peter.

The longest the MC tells the story individually is the entire Peter-shower segment, a mini climax. They pulls out clumps of his hair from the drain and not only is he physically in the other room, but also he’s explicitly looking for exterminators, still resisting giving up to the mold. However, they convince him to agree again. The harmonious first plural remains until the very end, where Peter finally diverges from this harmony.

He raised a hand webbed bright with green, then stumbled from the bed. Pulled fungal strands from his face, ripped moldy clothes from his body, and stood naked and wheezing. The two of us stared at each other, neither one surprised, ultimately.

In this, the first person signifies the MC’s final disconnect from Peter and connection with the mold. Interestingly, through using the first person (since the mold is not the ‘we’), the MC is accepting being alone from human contact.

What I can use for my own work:

The use of first versus first person plural and singular to show diverging opinions was interesting to me. It showed converging and diverging viewpoints without wrinkling the narrative. I also liked how it subverted the assumed opinion of a thing, from the mold becoming this reassuring presence instead of an infestation that needed to be exterminated.

Exercise:

Take something which is commonly assumed to be either beneficial or harmful and subvert that idea in your story. This subversion should be influential to the plot, if not the driving factor.

Questions:

Did y’all agree with Peter or the MC?

Is the cost of losing oneself worth not being alone?

Do y’all think the main character was projecting, or do you think Peter agreed with them in their joint first plural parts?

Do you think Peter survived after the end?

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Loneliness, Clinginess and Betrayal

Summary Part 1: Meg

Twice a month, the protagonist visits his aging parents at their flat in Enugu. His parents have changed since they retired, becoming slower, both mentally and physically, and beginning to believe far-fetched tales that they would have dismissed as ridiculous before. The protagonist doesn’t believe in their stories, but still humors them in listening and talking to them. One day in November, the protagonist is listening to a story about armed robberies, which prompts his mother to say that the ring leader of a robbery was their former houseboy, Raphael. His parents expect that he won’t remember Raphael, but the protagonist, of course, does remember the former houseboy.

Raphael, at the beginning, was just another houseboy who’d come to work at the protagonist’s parent’s estate. He was a regular teenager from some nearby village, just like all the other former houseboys. The house staff mostly didn’t care about the protagonist, but they cared about not making his mother, who treated the staff poorly, upset with them. She would punish them for all types of offenses, including ones that wouldn’t be considered a very big deal. The protagonist was also his parent’s only child, born late in their lives after they thought that they’d have a child. Both parents were intellectuals, and very intense at that. The protagonist never like reading or academia as much as either of them, and spent his childhood worrying that he wasn’t smart enough for them and read only to make them happy. In all, the protagonist didn’t fit in very well at his house, not particularly liking books or badmitton.

Summary Part 2: Elijah

Onkenwa gets a new houseboy named Raphael after the last one was sent home following an incident where he insulted his mother. At first Raphael is like all the previous house boys until one day while onkenwa was is doing “kung-foo” he catches sight of Raphael watching him. At first onkenwa thinks he has embarrassed himself but then it turns out that Raphael is as much of a fanatic as he is. Raphael teaches onkenwa how to kung foo better. And their friendship blossoms until one day during dinner onkenwa’ mother discovers that Raphael has contracted Apollo. She then Quarantines Raphael to the back room and orders Onkenwa not to see him.

Summary Part 3: Avalon

After Okenwa spent some time in Raphael’s bedroom, helping him with his eye drops, Raphael is finally free of his Apollo. However, after waking up from a dream of Raphael and Bruce Lee, Okenwa discovers that now he is infected with Apollo.

Okenwa’s mother gets mad at Raphael, blaming him for infecting Okenwa with the contagious eye infection. However, Okenwa lies to his mother and tells her that he caught Apollo from a classmate, making up a name on the spot. He does this to avoid confessing to his parents that he was in Raphael’s room.

Okenwa’s mother calls his doctor and gets him proper medicine. She also bans Raphael from his room. For the whole week, Okenwa’s parents visit Okenwa to give him eye drops. The eye drops remind Okenwa of Raphael.

Then, Okenwa started to think about Raphael more, like why hasn’t he tried to visit him? And why didn’t he ever apologize for giving him Apollo?

Eventually, Okenwa just tries to sneak downstairs to see Raphael, but his father’s already at the end of the stairs, so he aborts his mission.

One day, though, Okenwa’s parents are out, and he takes this as an opportunity to go see Raphael. While looking for Raphael, Okenwa hears his voice outside on the veranda and follows. He catches him talking to Josephine, another house worker for whom I assume is Okenwa’s neighbor. Okenwa grew agitated as he noticed how shy Raphael was talking to Josephine, and how flirty Josephine portrayed herself.

Okenwa calls out for Raphael, and then becomes embarrassed, so he tells him to prepare him food. Raphael asks Okenwa what he wants to eat just as he loses his balance. Okenwa falls off the veranda and cries out of humiliation. Okenwa’s parents arrive just in time to find Okenwa on the ground.

When asked what happened, Okenwa claims that Raphael pushed him off the veranda.

Okenwa reflects on the incident, saying that there was time for him to cut in and take back his lie. But he never did. Okenwa let the silence pass and Raphael is told to pack his things and leave.

Analysis Part 1: Meg

The first craft element of “Apollo” that I will analyze is point of view.

Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents…

In this quote, at the very beginning of Adichie’s story, the pronoun “I” is used. It is used throughout the story. The story in is in first person, narrated by a man at the beginning, who then flashes back to memories of his childhood. He talks, in first person, about his experience with a former houseboy, Raphael. The author’s use of first person convey Okenwa’s feelings, mostly towards Raphael, but also towards his parents and situations.

The second craft element of the story that I will discuss is characterization. Throughout the story, there are several characters. For the purposes of this analysis, I will focus on four: the characterizations of Okenwa, his parents, and Raphael.

Throughout my childhood, I worried about not being quick enough to respond when they spoke to me.

I sometimes felt like an interloper in our house.

These quotes describe Okenwa’s attitude towards his parents: He does love them but doesn’t connect with either of them very well. This leads to a feeling of loneliness present throughout his childhood until he meets Raphael.

I expected a mild reprimand. He had made my bed that morning, and now the room was in disarray. Instead, he smiled, touched his chest, and brought his finger to his tongue, as though tasting his own blood. My favorite scene. I stared at Raphael with the pure thrill of unexpected pleasure. “I watched the film in the other house where I worked,” he said. “Look at this.”

Okenwa feels a connection with Raphael very quickly. As the two grow closer, he becomes obsessive and clingy, expecting that Raphael prioritizes him as Okenwa does Raphael, going so far as to break rules to see and help Raphael.

I wanted to see Raphael, but my mother had banned him from my room, as though he could somehow make my condition worse. I wished that he would come and see me. Surely he could pretend to be putting away a bedsheet, or bringing a bucket to the bathroom. Why didn’t he come? He had not even said sorry to me.

Okenwa goes so far in his clinginess to be upset when Raphael does not break his mother’s rules to see him. Despite his mother’s direct commands and the fact that his mother would be incredibly angry at Raphael, he is unreasonably angry. One day, when both of his parents are out of the house, Okenwa seeks Raphael. Eventually, Okenwa finds him talking to a Josephine, a family friend’s house help, and becomes angry and jealous.

With her, Raphael was different—the slouch in his back, the agitated foot. He was shy. She was talking to him with a kind of playful power, as though she could see through him to things that amused her. My reason blurred.

Okenwa tries to drive Josephine away, by asking Raphael for food, but realizes that Raphael doesn’t care about him like Okenwa does Raphael. It is only when Okenwa’s parents arrive home that Raphael offers to help Okenwa, but it becomes clear that isn’t because of Okenwa; it is because Raphael doesn’t want to anger Okenwa’s parents. Okenwa realizes this and falls. Then, out of revenge, Okenwa tells his parents that Raphael pushed him so that his parents will be upset with Raphael.

Okenwa’s parents are similar people, who are vey competitive with one another and expect Okenwa to be like they are. As discussed earlier, Okenwa doesn’t really live up to their expectations.

I sensed my parents’ disappointment in the way they glanced at each other when I spoke about a book, and I knew that what I had said was not incorrect but merely ordinary, uncharged with their brand of originality. Going to the staff club with them was an ordeal: I found badminton boring…

Okenwa’s mother specifically is very strict, holding her house staff to high standards as shown in this quote:

All the houseboys treated me with the contemptuous care of people who disliked my mother. Please come and eat your food, they would say—I don’t want trouble from Madam. My mother regularly shouted at them, for being slow, stupid, hard of hearing; even her bell-ringing, her thumb resting on the red knob, the shrillness I hard of hearing; even her bell-ringing, her thumb resting on the red knob, the shrillness searing through the house, sounded like shouting. How difficult could it be to remember to fry the eggs differently, my father’s plain and hers with onions, or to put the Russian dolls back on the same shelf after dusting, or to iron my school uniform properly?

Okenwa’s parents are also shown to be smart and sharp, although, at the beginning of the story, it is shown that, in their old age, they grew dull, slow, and superstitious.

It is shown throughout “Apollo” that Okenwa’s parents do care about their son, but they don’t connect very well with him. Yes, they love him, but he doesn’t share their interests in books or badminton. The lack of a parent/child connection makes Okenwa very lonely, which is necessary for the story to make Okenwa’s clinginess to Raphael make sense.

Throughout the story, Raphael is portrayed idealistically through Okenwa. He is more caring and more polite than all of the other houseboys that Okenwa could remember. Raphael liked martial arts and Bruce Lee. Okenwa feels connected to him very quickly, due to shared interests. Okenwa hasn’t really shared interests with any friends before that we are shown, and Okenwa certainly hasn’t shared any interests with his parents.

Despite Okenwa being convinced that Raphael really cared about him throughout the story he only cares about not angering Okenwa’s mother. He does like martial arts and Bruce Lee, but, as Okenwa figures out in this quote:

Had my parents not come back, he would have stayed there mumbling by the tank; my presence had changed nothing.

Raphael is not as attached to Okenwa as Okenwa is to Raphael. This realization angers Okenwa, so he tells his parents that Raphael pushed him, exacting his revenge.

Throughout the story, Okenwa is portrayed through his own eyes. Therefore, the reader doesn’t really understand just how clingy and jealous Okenwa is about Raphael until the end of the story when it is revealed in the last scene. Even so, it makes sense how clingy and jealous Okenwa turns out to be upon rereading the story. The twist of Okenwa’s clinginess is very well-written and sort of unexpected, but also it makes sense with the progression leading up to the reveal. That is something I think could be taken away for our own writings.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does the author need to emphasize the strictness of Okenwa’s mother for the plot to go the way it does?
  2. Why does Adichie make Okenwa a lonely child? What relevance does it have to the plot?

Analysis Part 2: Elijah

My two craft elements were flash back and foreshadowing, for flashback I decided to focus on the main transitions from the present to the past. Which is mainly a section that takes places on page 2-3

“Do you know,” she continued, “one of the armed robbers, in fact the ring leader, was Raphael? He was our house boy years ago. I don’t think you’ll remember him.” I stared at my mother. “Raphael?” “It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.” My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents’ storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory. My mother said again, “You probably won’t remember him. There were so many of those house boys. You were young.” But I remembered. Of course, I remembered Raphael.

Here is the Initial beginning of the flashback, we have the conflict story and plot somewhat set up here all at once. Keep that in mind you will be seeing this again.

Flash back is particularly evoked in the last two lines especially

-But I remembered. Of course, I remembered Raphael-

The second part of flashback is when we actually flash back in time. Directly below the high lighted section is this continuation

Nothing changed when Raphael came to live with us, not at first. He seemed like all the others, an ordinary-looking teen from a nearby village

And there now we are in the past. The rest of the story is in the past as made clear by the continuous usage of “I did” “he did” “I was” “then,” which all clearly and distinctly puts the brunt of this story in the past.

My second element of review was foreshadowing and, there is a lot of it sprinkled again in that thick area amongst the flashback transition. Here is a quote you have all seen before. Except this time. It is not flashback hidden in its heart but foreshadowing. a very well used foreshadowing, it is when an author gets right on the brink of contradicting themselves and then does not. I am sure we have all used this in some way or another.

Nothing changed when Raphael came to live with us, not at first. He seemed like all the others, an ordinary-looking teen from a nearby village.

Here is an example-

The town judge was a good man, just and honest, or so everyone thought.

See quite easy. This type of foreshadowing is used to set up the problem. The town judge is thought to be a good guy. When “reading between the lines” the message is noticeably clear that no. judge is a big bad guy. Same in Apollo.

Nothing changed when Raphael came to live with us, not at first. He seemed like all the others, an ordinary-looking teen from a nearby village.

In these words, particularly

 At first

And

Seemed

Clue a reader into to the right assumption that the story and connection between onkenwa and Raphael is deeper than what onkenwa would ever have first assumed.

Perhaps an even better example of foreshadowing in this story is at the very beginning of our introduction of Raphael. Which we get through the mother.

“Do you know,” she continued, “one of the armed robbers, in fact the ring leader, was Raphael? He was our house boy years ago. I don’t think you’ll remember him.” I stared at my mother. “Raphael?” “It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.” My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents’ storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory. My mother said again, “You probably won’t remember him. There were so many of those house boys. You were young.” But I remembered. Of course, I remembered Raphael.

Exhibit A, the way onkenwa mother speaks of Raphael.

Its clear from the words she uses when she speaks of R. is that of nonchalant. A tone one might use when they find something only mildly interesting and for a fraction of a second consider sharing but then decide it is not worth the effort. She also uses phrases like “I don’t think you’ll remember him.” “you probably won’t remember him” “there were so many of those houseboys when you were young.

From this I gather that the mother thinks truly little of R. from the last sentence I gather that she lumps all her former house boys into a group of little consequence and thinks that is it is just so happens that that R was one of those houseboys. The signifies to me that whatever happens between R and the family does not matter to the mother, overall.

Exhibit B.

On the father’s side he says

“It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.”

This tells me that the past event was in someway negative and though the mother and father place little significance on it, whatever happened led them to lead the assumption that R was no good anyway. This could also be being amplified by their apparent classism of their houseboys.

Exhibit C.

Lastly, we have Onkenwa himself who is perhaps the most telling of all. His line:

But I remembered. Of course, I remembered Raphael

Bears in direct conflict from what the mother said though interestingly not so much with the father. There are two main things I want to talk about in this line. The repeating of words. Very often in literature   and common language itself, repeating a word or phrase adds meaning or in some ways changes the meaning of words, E.g  hot hot, bed bed, close close, and in this case the word remembered which is amplified in turn by the preface of “of course” with just this simply repeating the sentence seemingly takes on a bigger depth, as if there is more to this more we want to know and will be important to Onkenwa. the second thing is the conflict this is with everything else we have heard about R thus far. It has all been he has a trouble maker, he was just a houseboy, extraordinarily little importance but from the way Onkenwa uses these 7 words it makes it seem that if only to Onkenwa that R was something different something more, and why of course he is- and that is-I feel, good foreshadowing.

Discussion questions

Is Onkenwa right to get so attached?

Does Raphael forgive him?

Analysis Part 3: Avalon

The first craft element of Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I tracked was setting. Adichie uses subtle details to help her readers envision the scenes of her story. For example, in the first sentence of Apollo, Adichie writes:

Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small overfurnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon.

In this sentence specifically, it lets the readers know the characters’ current location, which is Enugu. Adichie tells the readers where the story starts off in very first sentence, and I believe disclosing your character’s setting in the beginning of your story is very effective because it prevents any setting-related confusion that could generate later in the story.

Again, exclusively to this sentence, Adichie manages to imply to the readers that the main character, Okenwa, lives in a city other than Enugu, away from his parents. Because this sentence tells you so much about the characters and setting in such little words, I think it’s a brilliant way to open a short story.

Adichie uses concrete detail to describe the setting when she says “…small overfurnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon”. She uses concrete detail in different parts of the story to help describe the setting, as well.

Along with helping the readers better picture the scenes of this story, Adichie’s use of detail for setting also helps the readers better interpret some of the financial aspects of the characters in this story. For example, some sentences help to hint that Okenwa’s family is wealthy or middle-class (very comfortable).

Here’s an example:

Later, my parents drove to the pharmacy in town and came back with a bottle of eye  drops, which my father took to Raphael’s room in boys’ quarters, at the back of the house, with the air of someone going reluctantly into battle.

This excerpt, through my eyes, leads the reader to assume that Okenwa’s family is at least somewhat rich. It appears that Adichie added the detail “in the boys’ quarter” to imply that there are other boys (house help) who work for Okenwa’s family. Also, the last part of this sentence where it says “…with the air of someone going reluctantly into battle.” Could be interpreted as Okenwa’s father is nervous to enter the boys’ quarters, perhaps because he rarely does.

So to reiterate, I admire Adichie’s use of detail to express location and imply the main character’s family’s financial stance. As well as her brilliant idea of stating the setting at the beginning of her story. These are great aspects that I’d like to adopt in my writing, most definitely.

The second craft element I highlighted was concrete detail, which, surprisingly didn’t really overlap with setting. Adichie uses concrete detail very purposefully. Her words not only appeal to the senses but also reveal bits about the character.

Here’s some examples of concrete detail in Apollo that appeal to the senses:

They even smelled alike—a menthol scent, from the green vial of Vicks VapoRub…

Raphael served white disks of boiled yam on a bed of greens, and then cubed pawpaw and pineapple.

In the first example provided, Adichie could’ve easily stated that Okenwa’s parents smelled like Vicks, however, she decides to describe that scent for the readers. Adichie also described the color of the Vicks container. This sentence would have an entirely different feel if “a menthol scent” and “from the green vial” were removed. The thorough descriptiveness of this sentence is what makes this imagery so vivid and believable.

And the same goes with the second sentence, Adichie could’ve simply written “Raphael served yams, greens, pawpaw and pineapple.” But instead, she included the color and shapes of the food to make this image for appealing to the readers.

Moving on, the last highlight I’d like to include is when Okenwa wakes up with Apollo.

I pried my lids apart. My eyes burned and itched. Each time I blinked, they seemed to produce more pale ugly fluid that coated my lashes. It felt as if heated grains of sand were under my eyelids.

This excerpt has rather specific concrete detail that I’d describe as nauseating and effective. The detailing of the pale fluid is so well described that I found it disgusting. And the overall excerpt as a whole is very necessary because it uses show-not-tell to convey to the readers that Okenwa is infected with Apollo.

Adichie’s use of not excessive, but pleasantly thorough descriptions in her concrete detail help the story’s imagery appear more vivid to the reader’s, and this craft is something I feel I can learn from and would like to incorporate more in my own writing.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How are Adichie’s details about setting necessary to the story?
  2. How does Adichie’s use of concrete detail affect how Apollo is read?

The End???

Summary Part 1: Rylan

In T.C. Boyle’s “Chicxulub,” the speaker talks about his daughter being alone walking out on the sleek rode late at night and how someone who is not drunk would still have difficulty navigating the road. He interrupts himself, then goes on to talk about the explosion from a meteorite in the Tunguska River in Russia. He describes the power from the explosion suddenly reaching and killing a reindeer and a man very far from the initial explosion. How the explosion cleared seven hundred square miles of siberian forest, and talks about the possibility of it exploding over St. Petersburg and killing more people and suddenly eliminating the historically important city. The narrator makes his point and says that we should simply pray this doesn’t happen to us and explains earth’s asteroid cycles. He goes back to his daughter and talks about how he she is out and alone. He says he and his wife bought her the safest car, but it was in the shop and she was supposed to be brought home by Kimberly after sushi at the mall. Then he says that, Alice K. Petermann lost control of her car. It is just past midnight, and he goes back to back his present reality. He is naked waiting for his wife in the bathroom and listening to the sounds of her getting ready, presumably for sex. The phone then rings. His wife worries to that it might be his daughter Maddy, then he goes back to describing the sky the night Tunguska exploded. He talks about how this effect was minimal compared to what could have happened if a larger object had crashed into the earth. Then he speaks to the inevitability of this because of the natural orbit of the Earth. He talks about how when this happens there will be nothing left, no sun or crops for at least a year. Going back to his reality, his wife is on the phone with a nurse who tells her they identified a crash victim as their daughter because of her id. The woman won’t tell her the current status of her daughter over the phone, and the two hurriedly get dressed and rush to the hospital. Then he begins to describe Chicxulub, a cataclysmic meteorite that ended the dinosaurs and disrupted all earthly ecosystems. He then says that the odds of an event like this occurring is the same as dying in an automobile accident in the next six months, or living to one hundred in the company of your spouse. He then arrives at the hospital and says he only sees an endless row of windows and he and his wife hurriedly exit the car and run into the hospital.

Summary Part 2: Isobel

Maureen and Ted rush over to the hospital after receiving a call that said that their daughter had been in an accident. The couple rush into the hospital and rush to the lady at the front desk to ask where there daughter is and what condition she’s in. The nurse isn’t able to give much information, saying that she only knows that the girl was in an accident and brought in by paramedics. After learning that, Maureen pulls Ted through the corridors. While they are walking, Ted thinks about Chicxulub and how, in reality, we are all insignificant and have no control over what happens to us. When he comes back to reality, Ted sees that he and Maureen have been brought into a new room with a new nurse who isn’t able to give any new information.Ted loses his temper and yells at the nurse, who in response, leads the couple to a new room and asks them to wait for the doctor to come. Maureen begins to sob, and Ted tries his best to comfort her, but he is also really nervous.

Summary Part 3: Adele

The narrator, the dad of Maddy, Ted, and his wife Maureen are still waiting to hear the news of their daughter when a young doctor comes in telling the parents that he is sorry, which is news that the parents take as their daughter is dead. Ted cuts to talk about if another meteor hits the Earth at the right place, then thousands of kilometers of surface and rock will be pushed up towards the atmosphere and causing series of events to take place that include natural disasters. And everything that is to happen because of the meteor is unchangeable by Ted and the people on Earth. Everyone is powerless. The story comes back to the parents as they stand among gurneys being led towards the one that holds their daughter. Neither parents has the strength to lift the sheet but when Ted thinks about how he and his wife created the daughter they would see beneath the sheet, it gives him what he needs to lift the sheet. When the sheet is lifted, it takes time for the parents to realize, but they tell the doctor that the girl who died isn’t their daughter. Their daughter is alive and in her room at home while her friend, Kristi Cherwin, had Maddy’s ID and is the one who died. Ted tries to imagine the parents of Kristi before they find out their daughter has been killed. He tries to imagine them before Chicxulub comes for them and ruins their lives. Chicxulub hasn’t struck Ted and his family, but it has for the Cherwins.

Acute Tension

The acute tension of Chicxulub is Ted and Maureen thinking that their daughter is in the hospital, dying.

Chronic Tension

The chronic tension of Chicxulub is the looming presence of death.

 

Rylan’s Analysis

For my part of the story analysis I will be discussing the point of view, and characterization within the story.

When it comes, the meteor will punch through the atmosphere and strike the Earth in the space of a single second, vaporizing on impact and creating a fireball that will in that moment achieve temperatures of sixty thousand degrees Kelvin, or ten times the surface reading of the sun.

The entire story is told from beginning to end from the father’s point of view, but at some points in the text he seems omniscient and can describe events that he did not actually witness with great accuracy and also speak to what other characters are feeling. Now the father as we know him in the story is incredibly smart and seems to instantaneously recall tedious statistics about meteors and the likelihood of death by vehicle accident.

Every other paragraph, he seems to be drawn out of his current situation while he discusses explosions and meteors. When he does this he seems very distant from the current situation at hand, but Boyle would make sure to throw in some reference that would draw him back to his current reality.

 I can’t speak. I’m rushing still with the euphoria of this new mainline drug I’ve discovered, soaring over the room, the hospital, the whole planet. Maureen says it for me: “This is not our daughter.

He and his wife both feel relieved at the end when they realize that it is, infact, not their daughter under the sheet but her friend. Understandably so, but the speaker eventually feels wrong because he realizes that someone else’s child is dead. He almost shames himself into feeling remorse for the family that did in fact lose their daughter.

He brings up brief interactions he had with the girl’s parents while they were children to intentionally trigger a melancholy emotional reaction. When in reality, he seems like he may be feeling joy for his daughter being alive, but he is trying to run from that emotion and put himself in a dangerous place.

The characterization of his wife is different than the speaker. She seems more urgent throughout the story and adamant about going to their daughter. He often describes her as being in front of him or already being somewhere when he was just thinking of going there. It is even evident from the beginning when she goes before he does to pick up the phone, she knows it is late and her daughter was supposed to be home by now. So, she was already somewhat worrisome at the beginning of the story. While the speaker didn’t want her to go and was primarily focused on the *cough cough* task at hand.

…a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery…

From what the speaker says he has details that aren’t readily available from just looking at a situation. In the beginning of the text he says that he knows the exact number and types out drinks that Alice had when she went out driving. Although he couldn’t know that. This may have just been an exaggeration for the story, but the point of view was definitely unrealistic throughout the story.

My point? You’d better get down on your knees and pray to your gods, because each year this big spinning globe we ride intersects the orbits of some twenty million asteroids, at least a thousand of which are more than half a mile in diameter.

But my daughter. She’s out there in the dark and the rain, walking home. Maureen and I bought her a car, a Honda Civic, the safest thing on four wheels, but the car was used—pre-owned…

Then the question of when is occurring throughout the story. The alternate paragraphs where the speaker is talking about the explosions and meteors seem like he’s reflecting on past events, but the other paragraphs seem like he is in the moment while he is describing what is going on around him. First person is a very difficult point to write from because you have to be able to convey other characters’ emotions without breaking from the limited point of view of the speaker.

I can’t help myself. It’s that neutrality, that maddening clinical neutrality, and can’t anybody take any responsibility for anything?

“I don’t have that information,” the nurse says, and her voice is neutral, robotic even.

Though this break is what fuels the reader’s bridge between the nurse and the speaker and makes the reader have distant and possibly angry feelings toward them.

Our daughter has, unbeknownst to us or anyone else, fudged the rules a bit—the smallest thing in the world, nothing really, the sort of thing every teen-ager does without thinking twice. She has loaned her I.D. to her second-best friend, Kristi Cherwin, because Kristi is sixteen and Kristi wants to see—is dying to see—the movie at the Cineplex with Brad Pitt in it, the one rated NC-17.

Another example of this is when the sheet is pulled back and the narrator instantly knows how and why the girl ended up with his daughter’s id.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the author choose to have the father constantly reference extinction-level events and statistics about them?
  2. Why did the author make the speaker hold resentment for the nurses?

 

Isobel’s Analysis

Techniques Tracked:

  • Conflict
  • Artistic Purpose

Conflict

In the beginning of “Chicxulub” we see that Ted and Maureen are just about to enjoy a night without there daughter Maddy when they receive a call from the hospital saying that their daughter has just been in an accident. After receiving this call, Ted and Maureen rush to the hospital concerned that their daughter might be injured or dead. This uncertainty and fear of the unknown is one of the forms of conflict that I noticed early on in the story, and it continues throughout the rest of the short story as well. The couple struggling to get more information on what has happened to their daughter is what helps keep the story going and keeps tensions high.

When Ted and Maureen first get to the hospital, they go to a nurse in the front to ask her about what condition their daughter is in. The nurse tells them that their daughter is in surgery, and when the couple asks for more information, then nurse responds with.

“There was an accident,” the nurse says. “She was brought in by the paramedics. That’s all I can tell you.”

Shortly after, the couple is brought into another room where there is another nurse. They try to get information from her, but she tells them that she doesn’t have any information on the state of their daughter. This causes Ted to get upset and yell at the nurse.

I can’t help myself. It’s that neutrality, that maddening clinical neutrality, and can’t anybody take any responsibility for anything? “What information do you have?” I say, and maybe I’m too loud, maybe I am. “Isn’t that your job, for Christ’s sake—to know what’s going on here?”

If we are going in terms of man vs ____, I took this conflict as man vs the unknown. I guess it could also be man vs man because Ted had to ask the nurses about his daughter, and he ended up yelling at one of them due to that conflict. However, another form of conflict that I saw was man vs the uncontrollable (or fate I guess). Throughout “Chicxulub”, Ted begins to understand just how little control we actually have over our lives and just how fragile and insignificant life really is. This understanding and realization can be seen through the following quotes:

You’d better get down on your knees and pray to your gods, because each year this big spinning globe we ride intersects the orbits of some twenty million asteroids, at least a thousand of which are more than half a mile in diameter.

The thing that disturbs me about Chicxulub, aside from the fact that it erased the dinosaurs and wrought catastrophic and irreversible change, is the deeper implication that we, and all our works and worries and attachments, are so utterly inconsequential.

Ted feels like his daughter’s life is in the hands of god now, and that he has no actual control over the outcome of his daughter’s accident.

If I claim Maddy as my own—and I’m making deals again—then I’m sure to jinx her, because those powers that might or might not be, those gods of the infinite and the minute, will see how desperately I love her and they’ll take her away just to spite me for refusing to believe in them.

There are multiple moments in the short story where Ted is thinking about how he has no control and about god and how he wants to be able to help but can’t. I took this as Ted struggling to take control of the situation when he feels like he has not control over anything. He also believes that in the future another meteor like Chicxulub will hurtle into earth, and that there is no way to stop it from happening.  He thinks that the gods have all the control, so that’s why I believe that this exemplifies man vs. fate.

The final form of conflict that I saw was Ted and Maureen thinking that their daughter had died in the end of the short story. After the doctor comes into the room saying that he is sorry for the couple’s loss, Ted feels like he has lost everything and he and Maureen walk up to where Maddy’s body is, only to find that it’s not their daughter who has died.

Artistic Purpose

The second technique that I highlighted in the story, was artistic purpose. In the beginning of the story, Ted interrupts his thoughts of his daughter walking home by herself to talk about a meteor that hit an area in Russia, then he also talks about Chicxulub. The reason I think that Boyle decided to add the meteors in his story was to compare losing a loved one to a meteor hitting earth. Ted mentions things in the story like:

…day became night and that night extended so far into the future…

Astrophysicists call such objects “civilization enders,”…

I also think that Boyle included the information about Chicxulub to explain just how big the death of someone is. Just based off of the quotes from above, I could say that Chicxulub and the death of a loved one could cause someone’s world to turn upside down and seem to end their world all together. Also, when Ted and Maureen think that Maddy died, Ted begins to talk about when the meteor enters the earth’s atmosphere and destroys everything. This helps the reader understand that Ted feels like his entire world is ending. So, the reason the author included the information about Chicxulub is to help show some of Ted’s emotions and to show the severity of a death.

In the beginning of “Chicxulub”, Ted and Maureen are about to enjoy their night without their daughter, and they both seemed pretty happy. I think that the author included this small scene of the couple being happy to help with the symbolism of Chicxulub. I won’t go into the symbolism of Chicxulub, but just like Chicxulub fell quickly into earth’s atmosphere, death fell quickly onto the lives of Ted and Maureen. Another thing that I found interesting about the purpose of this scene, is that it goes with Ted’s realization of just how insignificant people’s lives are. The scene of Ted and Maureen being happy is so small compared to the rest of the story, showing that their life isn’t really that important compared to everything else.

The final thing that I highlighted for artistic purpose was Maddy not dying, and it ends up being her friend who died. There was a part in the beginning of the story where Ted says:

…calculate the chances that a disaster of this magnitude will occur during any individual’s lifetime at roughly one in ten thousand, the same odds as dying in an auto accident in the next six months…

I think that the artistic purpose of keeping Maddy alive was to keep the short story aligned with the idea of Chicxulub. Since the odds of another meteor like Chicxulub happening in your life time is small (just like the odds of dying in an auto accident in the next six months), I think that Boyle wanted to keep Maddy alive to show just how small those odds are. Ted and Maureen were lucky that the odds were in their favor and that their Chicxulub didn’t hit them, and instead hit Maddy’s friend’s family.

Discussion Questions

  1. Was there any form of man vs self in “Chicxulub”? If so, where was it?
  2. How did the death of Maddy’s friend go along with the idea of Chicxulub?

Adele’s Analysis

There is a lot of symbolism in this story, mainly featured around meteors and the connection to the situation Ted is in. The symbolism begins when Ted talks about Tunguska in Russia, a smaller meteor that burned up and exploded before striking the Earth.

This was the site of the last known large-body impact on the Earth’s surface, nearly a hundred years ago. Or that’s not strictly accurate—the meteor, which was an estimated sixty yards across, never actually touched down.

This was mentioned before Ted even mentions his daughter or how she got into a car accident. It was almost like foreshadowing of the news that was to come. This is the least severe of all of the meteors or large-impacts that is brought up, showing that Ted doesn’t know the news yet and is still in a situation that is joyful, like the way that Tunguska never touched down and where the explosion took place was sparsely populated so there were not any known casualties, leaving the world still in peace and comfort. Sure, it affected some people, but it wasn’t at the same level as something worse. And this connects to when Ted finds out it wasn’t his daughter that died. The meteor, or loss of his daughter, hadn’t hit him yet and nor had the news.

The next reference of symbolism was still connected with Tunguska but more with the affects it had on the rest of the world and places that weren’t right by the impact site. A symbol for the situation of Ted and his wife finding out that it wasn’t their daughter. Even though it wasn’t their daughter, they were still affected by the fear since at first, there was confusion as to who the girl was and how the doctors thought she was Maddy. In the end, Maddy’s parents weren’t the one’s who lost a child, but they still had to deal with the shock of it before knowing the truth.

The night of the Tunguska explosion the skies were unnaturally bright across Europe— as far away as London people strolled in the parks past midnight and read novels out of doors while the sheep kept right on grazing and the birds stirred uneasily in the trees. There were no stars visible, no moon—just a pale, quivering light, as if all the color had been bleached out of the sky.

The main symbol in the story was the asteroid that the story was named after, Chicxulub.

When it came down, day became night and that night extended so far into the future that at least seventy- five per cent of all known species were extinguished, including the dinosaurs in nearly all their forms and array and some ninety per cent of the oceans’ plankton, which in turn devastated the pelagic food chain.

This asteroid and the mentions of it symbolize the final impact of the loss of their daughter. Chicxulub was seen as the end of life on the planet, one of the six mass extinctions. This correlates to Ted and his wife. When they thought their daughter died, the felt like their world was ending. And this is why there are so many mentions of it after this point, because when the asteroid struck, everything was ravaged and not much survived due to the after effects. The same goes for the parents of Maddy. They love their daughter so much and losing a child is so hard on a parent that it was like Chicxulub struck them.

Ted, while mentioning Chicxulub once more, explained that everyone is powerless to the events that will occur. Even the gods. When Chicxulub struck, there was no surviving it or finding a way. The only species that really survived lived because of the way that their bodies were. They had no choice in their lives and they didn’t prevent the impact or the extinction of the organisms that weren’t biologically lucky.

So, what does it matter? What does anything matter? We are powerless. We are bereft. And the gods—all the gods of all the ages combined—are nothing but a rumor.

This continues the symbolism of Chicxulub to the situation Ted is in because of how he feels powerless to change anything that happened and how his daughter supposedly died.

The rock is coming, the new Chicxulub, hurtling through the dark and the cold to remake our fate. But not tonight. Not for me.

For the Cherwins, it’s already here.

In these last two sentences, Chicxulub better is seen as a symbol for the pain and loss and end of someone’s world. The parents of the girl who did died are unaware that their daughter is dead, unaware of the news they will receive. But when they do, they will feel helpless and like their lives are over. Just like Chicxulub.

This symbolism was very beneficial in this story because it helped to show the severity of the situation for the characters and it gave insight into how the characters felt. Ted’s point of view directly told how he was feeling, but the symbolism with Chicxulub and the other meteor, showed the reader how Ted was feeling without the straight up telling. It also helped the reader understand how Maureen was feeling as well, which was important because she too was dealing with the thought that her daughter died but the story wasn’t in her point of view.

Setting was very important to this story because it helped to place the reader into the situation and better visualize where the characters are. The setting in this story changed a lot because of how the characters moved from placed to place, like their home to the hospital. And there were small mentions of a different setting where Ted wasn’t but were still important to mention since they connected to his daughter and where she was or to Tunguska or Chicxulub.

…a town as safe as this—and it is raining, the first rain of the season, the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals, so that even a driver in full possession of her faculties, a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery, off the sidewalk and the highway median…

This was a description of the setting of the entire town where Ted and his family lived. Naturally, it’s placed at the beginning of the story so that the reader can understand throughout the rest of the story. This description of setting was especially vital because it gave some insight into more of the severity of the situation. This quote can tell the reader that one of the only reasons why Maddy could ever get into a car accident was due to how the streets were wet from rain, mainly because the town is so safe.

This is the main setting, the vast part of it and where the story takes place. But specific settings are described later that shows exactly where the characters of the large-mass impacts were. However, the settings of the impacts weren’t as detailed or described because it wasn’t as needed. The only settings that were given a lot of detail were where the plot was. Chicxulub, as important it was to the story, wasn’t directly incorporated into the plot and the characters weren’t there. It also makes sense because the story is from the point of view of Ted and he wouldn’t know too much detail about something he didn’t see with his own eyes. It maintains the realism of his thoughts.

…a cookout at their place, the adults gathered around the grill with gin-and-tonics, the radio playing some forgotten song, the children, our daughters, riding their bikes up and down the cobbled drive, making a game of it, spinning, dodging, lifting the front wheels from the ground even as their hair fans out behind them and the sun crashes through the trees.

This is the last described setting in the short story. It is very detailed for somewhere that Ted wasn’t, yet it wasn’t an exact situation, so Ted didn’t need to get his facts completely correct. The point of the description of this setting wasn’t to just show the readers where the characters are, but it was also to show that the Cherwins were in a happy setting and they were going to get news. It better showed the beginning before getting bad news and all the joy is gone. Almost like a representation of obliviousness.

The setting in this story wasn’t just to help the reader visualize where the characters were, but also as a sign of the emotion that was happening at the moment. Like with the rain, a common sad symbol, but shown as a setting to give the reader an idea of what was to come. Setting was an aspect of “Chicxulub” that was for more than just description.

Discussion questions

  1. Was it the author’s intention to use Tunguska and Chicxulub as symbols for the emotions of the characters or was it for another reason?
  2. Why did the author include that last description of setting?

The Undertaking of an Artist

Summary Part 1—Pearl

“The Young Painters” by Nicole Krauss starts off with the main character addressing a judge. She is recounting the story of a dinner party she attended at the home of a magnificent dancers home. She admires his home greatly.  She glances inside his room on the way to the bathroom and notices a beautiful painting. Before she leaves she asks the dancer who created it. He tells her it was painted by a childhood friend who was later killed along with his sister by their own mother, who gave them sleeping pills and then drove them out to the woods, setting the car on fire.  On the taxi ride home the main character continues to think about the dancers story.

Summary Part 2—Vera

The narrator uses the story she heard from the dancer in a story she wrote and got published. The narrator also writes a novel about her father’s old age. She knows that he would have strongly disliked it if he’d been alive to read it because it depicts the loss of his prized dignity as he loses capability. It also includes his shortcomings, which he would have disliked too. When interviewed, she denies that it was autobiographical in any way and explains that the writer must have freedom. She has that freedom now, especially since a sizable number of people are buying her books. She believes that the artist must serve their higher artistic calling and maintain artistic freedom, but there is less freedom in one’s personal life. The narrator, several years after having heard the story at the party, runs into the dancer. They catch up on each others’ lives.

Summary Part 3—Emma W

The speaker writes a story about the children who died in their mother’s burning car and publishes it without telling the dancer. She later writes a novel heavily based off of the mistakes and shortcomings of her recently deceased father, and defends writing so cruelly about him by saying that the writer should not be expected to always write an autobiography and should have the creative liberties to write in fiction, morals be damned. The speaker sees the dancer years later one day.

Chronic Tension: the artists obsession with taking stories from other people, even at the cost of demeaning others

Acute Tension: the dinner party where she hears the dancers story

Pearl’s Analysis

Vera’s Analysis: Artistic Purpose/Theme

This story is a reflection on what it means to be a writer, which is, of course, applicable to all of us here. It raises a lot of questions that are important for us to consider as we create. Also discussed in this section is this theme’s impact on the work itself.

The main character in this story is defending herself in a “court,” having been convicted of the crime of stealing other people’s stories. Though she has few qualms about her thievery in the name of devotion to art for most of her career, this changes when she hears a child’s cry at a playground. The cry gnaws at her psyche for some time to come.

And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself.

This was a genuine moment of humanity that perturbed the narrator. There are a few ways to interpret this; it ties back in with her earlier discussion of potentially having children with S, and it also brings us back to the children burning in the car in the forest. Whatever its significance, it causes her to feel guilty about her thievery.

The narrator is emotionally affected by the story when she first hears it, but as time passes, she seems to be more focused on getting her story about the children published than she is on the human impact of the event she is describing.

…after the story was published I stopped thinking about the mother and her children who burned to death in a car, as if by writing about them I had made them disappear.

She is also unconcerned about the emotional impact this could have on the dancer, who had been childhood friends with the deceased child. Since she is so eager to use this story, she seems to have lost sight of the fact that it took a toll on real people.

In the book written about her father, the narrator uses her writing to paint a demeaning portrait of him, through both a description of his old age and of his personal flaws.

I paraded his faults and my misgivings, the high drama of my young life with him, thinly disguised (mostly by exaggeration) across the pages of that book.

She was able to justify this with the following philosophy-

…the writer serves a higher calling, what one refers to only in art and religion as a vocation, and cannot worry too much about the feelings of those whose lives she borrows from.

She feels a little bit of guilt about this book, but it seems to be negligible as she was defending herself using the aforementioned philosophy.

…a sickening feeling sometimes took hold of me and dumped its blackness before moving on.

However, note that the narrator respects privacy in some cases that are special to her. She never divulges the name of her husband except for the letter s. We don’t even learn her name. She seems to have a bias towards things she has a closer emotional connection with (she seems not to have an extremely close connection with her father, seeing as she attacked his faults in her book). The cry makes her react emotionally, and she rethinks her philosophy and experiences the internal turmoil present at the end of the story. Before this point, the narrator seemed emotionally distant from what she was writing about.

What we can take from this as writers is that we should not be telling other people’s stories in an insensitive way or in order to get revenge. We need to maintain an open hearted, emotional connection to our subjects, as cheesy as that sounds. We should not see other people’s stories as a means to get our work published, as happens in this story, and we shouldn’t use them for shock value. We also need to consider multiple perspectives in our work. All of the factors that caused a situation or person to be the way they are need to be considered if we want to use a story in our work. We also should not use our art to settle scores such as the one that the narrator seemed to have with her father just because doing that is petty and not nice. It’s pretty obvious that that’s bad, but it can be a tempting thing to do for some people.

Another thing to consider is that insensitive writing or writing that was produced to get revenge is generally of lower quality. If there is an emotional detachment from the story, it is probably going to be less affecting. Readers want something that is genuine, and a story written to check off a box on the writer’s resumé is not going to do the trick. Unless a reader mistook your book for a tabloid, they don’t want to read about you getting back at someone in your personal life. Stories written for revenge can turn out self-pitying and righteously angry. Turns of events can become illogical due to the passion involved, and characters can be made one dimensional as they are vilified.

This piece also raises another issue—should we be able to take stories and people to use in our work and to what extent? Writers use elements of real stories in their work all the time. Without a few lines of dialogue overheard at a coffee shop or without that one strangely dressed person on the sidewalk, a lot of stories would not be the same. Our life experience tells us what is plausible and what isn’t. But how much of this is too much? Can there be too much? Do we need permission from the people whose lives we take the stories from? These are questions that different writers will have different answers to, but they are worth considering.

The presence of this theme engages the reader because they are given the opportunity to evaluate the narrator’s actions. Its thought-provoking nature makes it memorable.

This theme also ties together all of the events of the story, which would be disparate without it. There isn’t an obvious connection between the cry, the painting, and the book about her father. In order to compile several events like these into one work, they need to have something in common.

Note that very few details are provided in this story, as discussed in the setting section. There isn’t anything extra to analyze that will distract us from the thematic content. We don’t even get the narrator’s name, and we don’t know a whole lot about her personal life aside from her work other than her dithering desire to have children. The lack of detail also makes this story universal-the narrator could be anyone.

Analysis: Setting

The first setting we see in this story is the dancer’s apartment.

The apartment was small and filled with the dancer’s unusual possessions, things he had been given or had found on the street or during his tireless travels, all arranged with the sense of space, proportion, timing, and grace that made him such a joy to watch onstage.

Specific things in the apartment are not pointed out here, but what is indicated by this description of the setting is the narrator’s mindset—she is making judgements about what she is seeing rather than just seeing the things themselves. Stories are projected onto every object as she imagines the dancer finding each object.

She also puts everything she sees in this apartment through the filter of being a dancer. The placement of a book or a coaster has to have some dance-related significance. The narrator goes on to lament that the dancer is moving normally through his house rather than dancing, indicating that she really wants his home life to be an idyllic dance-related world.

Next, we see the painting that inspires her story.

…in the hall I passed the open door of the dancer’s bedroom. The room was spare, with only a bed and a wooden chair and a little altar with candles set up in one corner. There was a large window facing south, through which lower Manhattan hung suspended in the dark. The walls were blank except for one painting… [in which] several faces emerged, as if from a bog, now and again topped with a hat. The faces on the top half of the paper were upside down…It was a strange piece of work…

The setting here is stark and simple, leaving room for the painting to be the main item. The painting itself is described, but not in extreme detail. The detail provided, however, is strange enough that it catches our attention just as it catches the narrator’s. The image of upside down faces wearing hats emerging from a bog is pretty striking.

The next part of the story is essentially a summary of things that go on in the following years in the narrator’s creative life. The next time we see a concrete setting is when we get to her walk through New York, where she meets the dancer again.

…I was out walking and came to a bookstore near Washington Square Park. Out of habit, I slowed as I reached the window to see whether my book was on display.

She is still very focused on the success of her work at this point. At this point, she sees the dancer and they have a somewhat awkward conversation. Something notable setting-wise that is mentioned here is the AIDS epidemic, which has killed one of the dancer’s close friends. This is yet another thing that has a real human cost and is juxtaposed with the narrator’s detached attitude towards the death and pain she writes about.

Finally, we come to the park.

As I walked, I happened to pass a playground. It was already late in the afternoon, but the small fenced in area was full of the children’s high-pitched activity…I’d always noticed that in the last half hour before dusk the children’s voices seemed to get louder.

This is where the narrator hears the child’s cry that disturbs her to such a great extent. This setting description is not very detailed, though it does include the section about the children’s voices getting louder before dusk. This detail is rooted in sound, which prefaces the cry well. It is also such a specific detail that we can imagine the rest of the playground around it.

The setting descriptors throughout the story are very simple, leaving room for the thematic elements to come forward. Nothing extraneous is there to distract us. What we can take away from this is that, when you have a somewhat complicated theme to convey, you should try to make everything else simple so people can understand everything more easily. If this had been a more detailed story, we would have had a lot more trouble figuring out what the point of all of it was.

Though they use few words, the setting descriptions are still vivid enough that we can imagine where the narrator is. Two good examples of this are the detail about the voices getting louder as dusk approaches and Lower Manhattan hanging suspended in the dark. These are both poetic yet concise, which serves the simplistic approach to setting taken here.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the author make the choice to have the narrator defend themselves in court?
  2. Why did the author choose to have the narrator and nobody else notice the cry?

Emma W’s Analysis

Character Analysis

As writers, to analyze our nameless protagonist in Nicole Krauss’ “The Young Painters” is to invite self-evaluation, to scrutinize our own behaviors as storytellers that have most likely, in one way or another, invoked the lives or actions of real people we have known. Our protagonist has done something I have an extremely hard time believing any of us have never done, that being having incorporated a real person’s story in our written work. The protagonist in “The Young Painters” starts the story at a party, hosted by a dancer who is a loose acquaintance of the protagonist (or at least they are not close friends), which ends with the dancer telling our protagonist a story of two sibling childhood friends who died burning in a car along with their mother who had started it. The story was told completely casually, and it unsettled the protagonist:

It may have been because I had my coat on, and the apartment was warm, but suddenly I began to feel lightheaded.

And it stuck with her:

In the taxi ride home that night, I continued to think about that mother and her children, the wheels of the car softly rolling over the pine needles on the forest floor, the engine cut in a clearing, the pale face of those young painters asleep in the back seat, dirt under their fingernails.

It affected her strongly, and we see that she soon writes a story about the dancer’s childhood friends, but with her own artistic liberties in the addition of small details. And so begins her practice of using other’s stories. She is able to publish the story in a magazine, and doesn’t tell the dancer about it. At this point, she only feels a few moments of guilt that are soon overshadowed by her pride at getting her work published, and slowly the children in the story faded from her mind. Also of note is that she speaks of her failure to have a child. Her failure to even have the chance to be a mother makes her look at this story of a mother burning herself and her children a different way. She missed her chance, but this mother burns her blessing. This screws with the protagonist’s head.

Next she writes about her father after his death. She writes cruelly about him, not only describing his shameful loss of dignity in his final days and stopping there, no,

-I did not stop there, but instead took his illness and his suffering, with all its pungent detail, and finally even his death, as an opportunity to write about his life and, more specifically, about his failings, as both a person and a father, failings whose precise and abundant detail can be ascribed to him alone.

She is absolutely brutal, tearing at his entire life in highly personal detail, and the insult is added to injury because she’s his daughter. And in the lowest moment for her, after she’s stolen a story in probably the harshest way you can imagine, she starts throwing up the defenses. She assures over and over that it’s fiction, she’s a writer and that should come with assumptions that liberties will be taken. She is very defensive about this instance of her using a person’s story, and says to the judge that she’s been talking to the entire time:

In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.

And so begins her spiraling. After this, she finds the dancer again years later. She is uneasy, but the dancer is friendly; she finds that he’s taken down the painting, and they part with the dancer gently tapping her cheek. The protagonist initially takes it as friendly, but she begins twisting it in her mind, finding hostility where there was none. She thinks he is belittling her, and thinks this is unfair because of the nature of his telling her the story. On edge, she passes by a playground and hears a terrified child’s scream, but cannot see where it’s coming from. She would hear the child’s scream occasionally when she writes or wakes up, and she soon began to read an undertone of mockery in the scream too; she claims it haunts her.

The twisting of the scream and the dancer’s words and actions all points to a deep guilt that the protagonist feels in light of stealing the burning children story. Interestingly enough, we never know why the protagonist is speaking to a judge and what particularly she is on trial for. We don’t know if maybe the dancer sued her, we literally don’t know. But the judge gives a deep impression that she feels guilty, maybe she’s putting herself on trial in her own mind for the things she did. She’s defensive at first, but it slowly drives her mad. Using the stories of a two burning children and her ashamed defective father incites a guilt in her that messes with her mind more deeply then let’s hope it ever affects any of us.

One of my favorite details though, is that even with all the stealing of stories she’s doing, even with all the exposing of deeply personal stories at that, she never says what her husband’s name is, referring to him as S. She had a lot respect for him.

Questions:

What did the framework of the protagonist speaking to a judge do to affect her characterization?

Does the writer portray her actions in a negative way or not? How if yes or no?

Plot (rising action) Analysis

The plot is a build-up of increasingly more drastic forms of using other people’s stories, as well as the decline of the protagonist’s mental being and emotional stability. It begins at the dancer’s party, where the dancer casually tells the protagonist the story of two childhood friends of his that died in a burning car lit by their mother. She writes the story and publishes it in a major magazine, only feeling slightly guilty but defending herself by saying that he said the story so casually that she doesn’t think he would mind her using it. This is a pretty low level stealing of a story, and in this point of the plot, she does not feel to guilty about it. There is the slightest tension that the dancer will actually care about her using the story of his dead childhood friends, but our protagonist doesn’t seem to hung up about it, thus the audience doesn’t feel too hung up about it. She then takes a huge step by writing a novel about her father after his death describing in great detail his failings and mistakes.

I did not stop there, but instead took his illness and his suffering, with all its pungent detail, and finally even his death, as an opportunity to write about his life and, more specifically, about his failings, as both a person and a father, failings whose precise and abundant detail can be ascribed to him alone.

This is completely slander. Here she defends herself much more desperately and forwardly. She says a writer is expected to write fiction and take their own creative liberties, that she in no way did something wrong and the book shouldn’t be taken as a biography or her actual feelings about her father. She says that writers shouldn’t even have to think about the feelings of those whose lives she’s borrowed from. The ante has definitely risen. There is a harsh defensiveness here, and the leap from borrowing a story mentioned at a party to exposing her father’s flaws bare and in great detail serves to rise the tension considerably. There’s no turning back. So when she sees the dancer years later, she’s on an edge. The audience is just as on edge as well, we don’t know how the dancer is going to react too her. But he seems nice and friendly, the only hinge being that he says he took the painting down because of a reason he doesn’t give, which adds tension because of the possibility of it being because of our protagonist. He strokes her cheek affectionately and leaves. And this is where the protagonist enters a spiral of mistrust. She grows suspicious of him and his odd gesture, thinking that it was not as genuine as it seemed. She then happens to walk by a playground, where she hears a child’s scream. She cannot identify the location of the child though, implying she imagined it. Her later mention that she sometimes hears the scream when she writes further solidifies her deteriorating mental health, as well as her emotional instability with the phrase

Other times, I’d hear the cry just as I crossed over into wakefulness or departed from sleep, and on those mornings I rose with the feeling of something wound around my neck.

The rising action consists of the transformation from the protagonist using a story that she’d heard casually at a party, to losing her mind over the guilt.

Questions:

How did the jump from the protagonist writing about a story she’d heard at a party to writing about how sucky her father was built the tension?

How did the climax tie the story together and provide a conclusion to the narrative?

Pearl’s Analysis

Scene vs. Summary:

In The Young Painters Krauss uses scene and summary to convey the passage of time and to focus in on the most important details. The passage and pausing of time are very important to the story for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it helps add more weight to the final meeting with the dancer.

I read everything you write. Do you? I said, surprised and suddenly agitated. But he smiled again, and it seemed to me that the danger had passed—the story would go unmentioned.

In this instance summary and scene work together to evoke tension and emotion. The
reason summary improves this scene is because it helps explain character motivation. When we first hear this line, we are prepared for the writer to be confronted. To be put in  her place in some shape or form. But we realize that so much time has gone by since her story on the dancer’s past was published that any confrontation on the dancer’s part has been dismissed. The large amount of summary in the middle of this story zooms through years of life that the reader only gets a glimpse at. If this scene had taken place a week after the story was published, then it probably would’ve happened differently. The dancer might have been more vocal, or at least might have addressed what the author did. The fact that in the actual scene the dancer is only able to do this through a vague comment, makes the meeting a lot more powerful. It makes the reader further question the morals of the main character and causes us to be frustrated that she hasn’t learned her lesson after exploiting so many people. Which makes the end more satisfying when she finally does learn a lesson. (even if it was indirectly) The author’s use of summary helps add more gravity to the story they are telling.

The authors use of scene is also very important. The author only picks out a handful of
important moments to put into scene, summarizing the rest. The moment I’ll focus on is the final scene in the story, where the writer is walking after meeting the dancer and hears a child scream in terror.

until a cry rang out, pained and terrified, an agonizing child’s cry that tore into me, as if it were an appeal to me alone. I stopped short and jerked around, sure that I was going to find a mangled child fallen from a terrible height. But there was nothing, only the children running in and out of their circles and games, and no sign of where the cry had come from.

This seems like a small detail. Something that would probably jar the average person but
wouldn’t stick with them the way it stuck with the writer. The fact that the author put that moment into scene shows how significant that moment was to the main character. The child’s scream was described in intense detail, but the aftermath of the event is completely summarized. I believe that the reason the author did this was to only focus on the most important thing. Everything that happened after the scream was a product of that scream, so the scream should be given the most focus. The summary afterwards also conveys that this was a slow process. It took a while for the trauma to sink into her and to cause her to, “distrust herself.”

Acute and Chronic Tension:

The chronic tension is the underlying problem that existed before the story starts. In The
Young Painters the chronic tension is the writer’s obsession with other people’s stories,
which is caused by her selfishness. This seems to be a large character flaw and is probably what led into writing in the first place. She even admits to her obsession stemming from dissatisfaction with her own life.

“All the same, once I got used to this and began examining his many little collections I had the elated, otherworldly feeling I sometimes get when entering the sphere of another’s life, when for a moment changing my banal habits and living like that seems entirely possible, a feeling that always dissolves the next morning, when I wake up to the familiar, unmovable shapes of my own life. “

This is a deep-rooted personal struggle that has obviously plagued her for many years which then led to her obsession. The reason I believe the obsession is the chronic tension and not the dissatisfaction is because most people feel unhappy with their lives at some point but not all of them become as obsessive or cruel. These decisions come from the writer’s selfishness.

The acute tension in the story is the writer discovering the dancer’s painting.

The walls were blank except for one painting that was tacked up with pins, a vibrant picture out of whose many bright, high-spirited strokes several faces emerged, as if from a bog, now and then topped with a hat. The faces on the top half of the paper were upside down, as if the painter had turned the page around or circled it on his or her knees while painting, in order to reach more easily. It was a strange piece of work, unlike the style of the other things the dancer had collected, and I studied it for a minute or two before continuing on to the bathroom.

This is what reveals the writer’s obsession to us. Before maybe we thought she was a bit of a snoop but now we know the truth of her nature. Without her seeing the painting the story never would’ve been set into motion and the chronic tension would’ve never been revealed.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why does the author have the main character tell this story to a judge?

2. How does the author use summary to set the mood of the story?