The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 4: The New Yorker

Techniques tracked (or nice “moves”):
-sarcasm/humor masking and revealing emotion
-objective correlative
-use of objects 

Had this series started with the publication that was both the most difficult and most desirable to publish in, that publication would have been The New Yorker. For a fiction writer, it’s probably almost impossible to get your unsolicited work picked up from the magazine’s slush pile, but we can still analyze the moves made by what’s supposed to be the best work in the country.

Luke Mogelson reported on the conflict in Syria and and the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone for the magazine before publishing his fiction in it. His story “Peacetime,” which appeared in the April 27, 2015 issue, begins with the first-person narrator—referred to only ever by his last name, Papadopoulos—telling us he’s living in “the armory on Lexington Avenue,” where he planned to stay for only a short time, but he keeps putting off reuniting with his wife. He works as a paramedic in between drilling for the National Guard; his ambulance partner Karen wants to be a cop, which bothers him since he steals something on every call they make. He frequently gets drunk with Sergeant Diaz, whom he served in Iraq with, then connects to a bag of saline so he’s not hungover. His unit has recently gotten a new, stricter captain, Finkbiner, who keeps the jawbone of a camel he shot in Iraq on his desk and whom Papadopoulos butts heads with; Finkbiner would not let Papadopoulos live in the armory if he knew about it. Papadopoulos and Karen visit a regular, Mrs. Olenski, who calls once a week for alleged chest pain but is really just lonely after her husband died. Papadopoulos and Karen frequently use the phrase “Don’t cut my leathers,” quoting an injured man’s response to the trauma shears when they needed to cut his pants off after his motorcycle accident; the meaning of the phrase is “elastic,” invoked in annoying or painful situations. Once, Papadopoulos overreached when he stole on a housecall, taking a handwritten note from the nightstand of a guy who’d taken too many of his wife’s painkillers, and the guy’s “sort of” son saw him take it. Soldiers come in to the armory for weekend drill training, and one lets the “Human Patient Simulator” die. Karen passes the civil-service exam and will soon attend the police academy. They get a call for an “emotionally disturbed person” who ran into a couple’s house and slit his throat in front of them, resulting in an absurd amount of blood. Papadopoulos mails a biohazard bag full of “lung butter” to the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund that wanted documentation of a disease he claimed he had. Karen lets on she knows about his klepto problem. When Mrs. Olenski doesn’t call, they eventually go to her house and find that she’s died; Papadopoulos steals her dentures. Then the next drill weekend someone steals Finkbiner’s camel mandible, prompting Finkbiner to get a surveillance camera, meaning Papadopoulos probably won’t be able to live in the armory much longer, which prompts him to finally visit his wife. He discovers she’s moved out; his neighbor tells him it was with another man, months ago. Karen’s getting ready to leave their job, and on one of their last days together, they get a call from the same apartment in the projects where the boy saw Papadopoulos steal the note. After they drop him off at the hospital, Karen realizes their drug box is missing. When they go back to the apartment, the box isn’t there, but Papadopoulos sees a group of boys near the building, who scatter when he approaches, and he chases one he thinks is carrying something. After a long pursuit, he eventually follows a shadow into a building and ends up on the roof, from which he has a view of the city and thinks he can hear someone calling his name.    

The story’s acute tension situation is introduced in the first sentence: Papadopoulos is living in the armory. The chronic tension is introduced in fourth sentence (still in the first paragraph): he’s estranged from his wife. The fact that he has recently—though we don’t know exactly how recently—served overseas is also a big part of his chronic tension, and seems to be the cause of the situation with his wife, which we are told very little about directly. This restraint—both about his time overseas and his wife—is one of the story’s nice “moves.”

The piece is largely structured around a series of calls Papadopoulos makes as a paramedic—these are what we get the most detail about. In the interview he gave to The New Yorker when the story was published, Mogelson, once an EMT and National Guardsman (though he went to Afghanistan as a reporter, not a soldier), comments on this episodic structure:

The story is told episodically—it’s a sort of a “scenes from a life”—instead of strictly sequentially. What effects does that allow you to achieve as a writer, and are there stories that you admire that take that narrative form?

It’s a mode that I definitely borrowed, or stole, from other stories: for instance, “Bettering Myself,” by Ottessa Moshfegh; “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” by Deb Olin Unferth; and “Beverly Home,” by Denis Johnson. Each of these uses concise, evocative scenes to cumulatively express the particular mood of a particular phase of its narrator’s life, while also managing to unfold gripping plots, as if incidentally. There’s a way, too, that they employ the conditional to describe things done habitually during the concerned period of time. The effect is a nostalgic kind of tone that suggests the phase (and whatever temporary circumstances defined it: a job, a relationship, a living arrangement) ends after the action of the story concludes but before the narrator’s present. In the hands of Moshfegh, Unferth, and Johnson, the tone is extremely moving.

The violence of what’s happened on these episodic paramedic calls imbues the story’s title and the repeated line: “It was peacetime, more or less” with much irony. That the descriptions of the violence he sees as a paramedic stand in for, or correlate with, the violence he saw overseas is a nice move that’s also known as the objective correlative. This correlation reinforces that for someone who’s been through war, dealing with its aftermath can be as much of a battle as the original battle itself.

For the reader to connect/correlate these two different realms of violence, peacetime’s and wartime’s, Mogelson does have to make sure the reader knows definitively that Papadopoulos’s time overseas was not spent in anything resembling a cushy post. There are two instances that confirm this. The first is relatively early on, in his description of going to bars with Sergeant Diaz, whose limp helps him get women when Papadopoulos uses it to comment: “‘Fucking Iraq.’” But Diaz didn’t get injured in the heat of battle, as we (but not the women at the bar) learn:

as a squad leader, Diaz contracted a bacterial infection while masturbating in a Port-a-John; how the infection spread up his urethra, into his testicles; how that made him lurch, causing a herniated disk, which resulted in sciatica.

This description presents us with a causal chain of events—a chain with rising action, each event in the chain more extreme than the last—that thematically echoes the larger and subtler causal chain the story is presenting to show us why Papadopoulos is the way he is now. It is the specificity of this description that is utterly convincing. What it might convince us of initially is that his time in Iraq was actually not all that bad, but he immediately undercuts this possible conclusion when he adds his commentary on what he does tell the women:

Instead, I’d say, “We lost a lot of good men over there.” Which happened to be true.

It might seem counterintuitive that his hardly discussing the loss of these men directly for the rest of the piece helps convince us of its truth, but it is emotionally true for the character that he would be avoiding it, which is further emphasized (or shown) by his obviously excessive drinking (which is itself shown rather than told via the details about his using a saline hookup). It’s roughly two-thirds into the story when we get a much more direct reference to what he went through over there, although direct as it is, it’s notably conveyed via the indirectness of parentheses:

At some point, the private from Long Island, the one who’d let Harvey die, asked Sergeant Pavone, “What’s the worst, craziest, most fucked-up thing you ever saw?” And Sergeant Pavone (whose two best friends had been crossing a bridge when an R.P.G. engulfed their Humvee in flames and knocked it into the river—who, after learning that their skin had been charred and their lungs filled with water, had asked me, over and over, with a kind of awe, “Burned and drowned?”) said, “Your mother’s box.”

Here we also see that Papadopoulos is hardly the only one unwilling to talk about what he went through over there directly. We also see that Papadopoulos is not the only one who uses humor/sarcasm as a defense mechanism to avoid talking about it, which we see Papadopoulos do not just in dialog, but in the narration itself:

She was in the driver’s seat, one hand draped on the wheel, the other gloved by a bag of jalapeño Combos. Someday she was going to make a fine detective.

Here he’s not masking his pain about what happened overseas, but his pain that his partner Karen, whom he is obviously fond of, will leave him behind for the police academy. His sarcasm both simultaneously masks and reveals his pain, a very nice move indeed, and one Finkbiner comments on directly when Papadopoulos uses sarcasm with him:

“Papadopoulos,” he said. “What is that?”

“My name,” I said.

“Cute,” Finkbiner said. “So now I know who the joker is. The jackass. The clown.”

We see the objective correlative at work again in the description of the private who lets the “Human Patient Simulator” named Harvey die; death is described, but indirectly:

Sergeant Pavone articulated the elbow hinge and pressed two fingers to Harvey’s wrist, feeling for whatever widget was supposed to throb.

There’s a layer between between real death and his experience of it, representing the layer that exists in his psyche: he is not dealing directly with what he experienced over there, but every experience is an indirect reflection of it; it is all-pervasive for him at the same time he refuses to deal with it.

This story can help us distinguish between the use of objects and the use of the objective correlative, though these will sometimes overlap. We see objects used in the story when Papadopoulos steals them from the residences he visits as a paramedic. By the time he steals Mrs. Olenski’s dentures, he doesn’t have to tell us he stole them:

What was I looking for? I was about to leave when I noticed, there on the nightstand, the dentures soaking in a glass of water.

And that’s all he has to say for us to know what happens next; he does not need to actually describe it. The section ends with that line, and then a new section begins with this one:

Next drill weekend, Finkbiner was on the warpath. Seemed somebody had stolen his mandible.

This is an even more indirect way of telling us he stole something, but we know, or strongly suspect, that Papadopoulos is the one who took it. There’s an interesting similarity between these two adjacently stolen objects, the jawbone and fake teeth—both are pieces of something that was once living, are symbols of death. The theft of the mandible will induce a causal chain that will bring a resolution to the acute tension that we project after the story’s end: in reaction to this theft, Finkbiner will get a surveillance camera, which means he’ll discover Papadopoulos is living in the armory and will kick him out. Papadopoulos’s apparent mode of dealing with his problems—his kleptomania—doesn’t actually help solve his problems, but ostensibly makes them worse, a tragic pattern.

The dentures appear again briefly when a private starts playing with them during training:

The private from Long Island had something in his hand. A set of teeth. The private was clacking them. When I sat up, the private aimed the teeth at me, clacked them, and barked. I must not have looked amused. The laughter stopped; Pavone cleared his throat. “Are they yours, Sergeant?” the private asked.

I lay back down. I went back to sleep.

This is an interesting moment in that the “joker” and “clown” is not amused; he does not use humor or sarcasm as a defense mechanism. (It’s also the first time we learn his rank.) This is getting closer to the end, when his defenses have started to wear down. Much earlier, Karen makes a comment that enables us to see the lonely Mrs. Olenski as an objective correlative for Papadopoulos himself:

Later, in the bus, Karen said, “You think you’re being a good person, but you’re not. What you’re being is afraid. You’re afraid that’s you.”

His lackluster response to the private playing with the dentures would seem to confirm this: he does not answer the question of whether they’re his; rather, the prospect of the question seems to exhaust him. To admit they’re his would be to admit, in effect, that he is Mrs. Olesnki, who died alone trying to distract herself with the television.

We can again see object use and the objective correlative overlapping in the note that the boy sees Papadopoulos steal:

The note was all run-of-the-mill, derivative material. A lot of I love you so much, a lot of I’m so sorry. Still, after that day I carried it with me everywhere.

He does not tell us why he feels the need to carry it with him, but we might infer that it’s because it expresses the emotions he wishes he could to his estranged wife. Object use is extra important in this story to communicate the emotions of a character who is so adamantly trying to distance himself from them. It’s also a nice move that he’s reading this note the moment his attention is called to the fact that he’s missing something important:

I took out my wallet. I felt the note. I rubbed the paper between my thumb and finger. I brought the paper out. I smelled it. I unfolded it. I was just about to read it—I don’t know, I wanted to read it—when Karen, wild-eyed, hopped down from the back of the bus.

“Where’s the drug box?” she said.

That Papadopoulos then has something stolen from him—and not just stolen, but stolen by someone who saw him steal, and whom he was ostensibly stealing from—is the perfect action that this character needs in order to provide his arc some sort of resolution. The sense of closure the object use provides is directly connected to the use of sarcasm in resolving this arc: through all of the violence he has witnessed as a paramedic over the course of the story, he’s kept up his sarcastic shield, until the theft of the drug box:

Not until we were racing back to Ridgedale did the full magnitude of my blunder begin to impress itself on me.

The use of the object crosses into the objective correlative here, with this “blunder” standing in for the bad things he experienced off the page that we don’t get to see—that is, what he experienced overseas. Only now that this bad thing has happened—the theft of the drug box—does the magnitude of the other bad things start to impress itself on him. We can tell because after this point, there’s little sarcasm, except for possibly a reference to what he coughs up in the course of the chase as “beautiful black samples.” But past this point, the narration has achieved a new rawness:

I was so tired.

He’s tired from the immediate chase, but he’s also tired in general from a larger metaphysical chase—what he’s chasing in that sense we’re not exactly sure (nor is he: “What was I looking for?”), but whatever it is, it seems he won’t get it, as symbolized by his losing the object of his pursuit here, the boy who may or may not have the drug box. It seems significant also that what he’s lost are drugs—he’s lost a way to dull his pain. The final image also takes up the objective correlative:

I walked to the edge of the roof. Far away, on the opposite side of the projects, I saw the blue-and-red lights of squad cars, the white beams of flashlights sweeping bushes and dumpsters. Beyond that was the river, a slick of oil in a phosphorescent sea. And beyond that?

When he asks what’s beyond what he can immediately see, he’s really asking what is beyond for him in general, beyond this particular time in his life, his time in the armory. And the answer?

Somewhere someone was calling my name.

This is most likely literally Karen, but the larger answer to his metaphysical question of what’s beyond this immediate point in time for him is that he will have to find his own identity again. One might recall at this point the use of his last name exclusively throughout the piece (as well as Finkbiner’s references to it), but the “name” referred to here could be his first name, that part of himself he seems to have lost.  

The narrative stance here is one that is almost laser-focused on what’s happening in the present. We get a mere two references to his time in Iraq, and zero details about what happened with his wife, zero information about who he was before he was a soldier. This shows rather than tells us the emotional trauma he’s been through, the pain incumbent for him in thinking about anything but what’s going on right now. Unfortunately for him, what’s going on in the present for him doesn’t seem to be much better, capturing the tragic plight of those who’ve come back from war.

-SCR

What’s Your Reality?

Naked and Afraid. Toddlers and Tiaras. Big Brother. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. My Super Sweet 16. Jersey Shore. Inked. The Bachelor. The Bachelorette. Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The Amazing Race. America’s Next Top Model. 16 and Pregnant. Teen Mom. Say Yes to the Dress. The Real Housewives. The Real World. Shark Tank. The Apprentice. The X Factor. Fear Factor. Fixer Upper. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. So You Think You Can Dance. Dancing with the Stars. Dance Moms. John & Kate Plus 8. 19 Kids and Counting. America’s Got Talent. American Idol. Top Chef. Master Chef. Food Network Star. Kitchen Nightmares. Cupcake Wars. Chopped. Face Off. The Voice. The Biggest Loser. Intervention. Survivor. Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Pawn Stars. Hoarders. Deadliest Catch. Hell’s Kitchen.

Reality television has technically been around for decades—think Candid Camera or America’s Funniest Home Videos or Cops—but it became a dominant force in viewing around the turn of the millennium, with the trifecta of Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol. (With the election of Donald Trump, reality television has arguably proven itself one of the most influential forces on the face of the planet.) There have been book-length studies on why this genre is so popular; I will hazard a guess that a predominant reason, in addition to the business incentive of the low cost of not having to pay actors, is our fascination with “real” people, as opposed to mere portrayals of them. Of course, at this point most of us are aware that the majority of “real” people portrayed on reality television shows are, in fact, acting, or at the least, being manipulated or portrayed in a skewed manner via editing. As Rebecca Makkai, describing a current (fake) reality show’s contestants in her fictional piece “The November Story,” puts it:

But now they’re savvier. They like to think they’re in on the production aspect.

And, as per an article on the golden age of reality tv,

Reality television, for lazy media critics and beltway pundits alike, is shorthand pejorative for tawdry and cheap.

I’ll admit to sharing this opinion. The blatant un-realness of reality tv was for a long time the reason I personally couldn’t stand it. But my perspective changed when I came across Sherman Alexie’s flash fiction piece “Idolatry,” in which a young Native American girl is called, after a long wait, to audition before some judges, and, once she does, “the British man” tells her to never sing again. When she protests that many people, including her mother, have told her she’s great, the British man replies simply, “‘They lied.’” The girl rushes back into the green room, into the arms of her mother, and cries. The piece concludes with the line:

In this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.

Of course, most readers will recognize that the girl is auditioning for American Idol and that “the British man” is the notoriously cruel judge Simon Cowell. (How many dream-balloons has this man popped over the years? How many sugary insubstantial pop careers launched?) Alexie’s piece is as pithy and powerful as one of Cowell’s judgments. First, there’s the title, “Idolatry,” addressing at the macro level what we’ve come to worship as a culture: fame, fortune, our face on a screen. At the micro level, we might worship our personal dreams, for many a false idol in the sense of  not being realistically achievable. Then there’s the pun on the title of American Idol itself, a seeming nod to how the show established the entrenched reality-tv sub-genre of competing contestants being judged. But what really pulls the narrative together, what makes it a story rather than a mere set piece, is that final line—the lesson the main character derives from the experience. The girl is put in the difficult position of having no one to appeal to for comfort in this painful moment except someone who helped contribute to the pain of that moment in the first place—her mother. The character has learned multiple lessons at once—not just that she is in fact not a good singer, but that you can’t necessarily take what people say—even—especially—your mother—at face value. This story, then, follows a fairly typical narrative model of building toward the climax of an epiphany (or, in this case, epiphanies). The official definition of “epiphany”: “an experience of sudden and striking realisation.” Another way to put it: it’s a change in your reality. At the beginning of the story, this girl’s reality is that she is a good singer and that her mother is trustworthy and honest with her. By the end of the story, her reality has changed entirely.

Considering your characters’ relationship to their own personal realities—for really, to get philosophical here, there is no all-encompassing objective reality that exists without human brains to filter it—can be helpful in constructing a meaningful narrative arc for your character. Characters undergo changes based on their experiences; by the end of a story, their reality should have somehow, to some degree, shifted. Their reality at the beginning of the story would constitute the chronic tension; the event(s) that will change it is the acute tension.

The audition Alexie describes actually might not have been one ideal for ratings, as viewers might have felt too sorry for the obviously crushed girl. This American Idol audition clip, fairly typical of the bad auditions that viewers seemed to eat up, shares in common with Alexie’s character’s experience that other people told him he was good and that he should audition. But the clip diverges in a major way from Alexie’s when this guy does not, on camera at least, have the epiphany that the girl does. While Randy has been very blunt that “singing ain’t your thing, dawg,” this contestant emerges from his audition thinking—or claiming to think—that he failed not because of his voice, but because of his choice of song. While this maintained delusion ought to theoretically make viewers even sorrier for this contestant, the opposite seems true. He may be delusional, but he hasn’t been crushed, and we find that easier to watch. It doesn’t make as interesting of a story, though, unless we were to follow him to the moment where his delusion is finally popped, and/or explore the possible source of his delusion in the first place. (The life of a Revolutionary-War era tour guide seems rife with dramatic possibility. One also has the feeling that his coworkers’ encouragement to audition might not have originated out of love, as it does in the Alexie.) To an extent, we understand and sympathize with his impulse to shield himself from reality, and by preferring such narratives to Alexie’s, we too are shielding ourselves. But if it’s reality tv’s job to make us feel good about ourselves by looking down on others, it’s (good) fiction’s job to rip away that shield holding reality at bay.

Reality TV shows themselves cling fiercely to their own version of story when it comes to showcasing their contestants and participants. As the aforementioned golden-age article puts it,

Reality TV has learned to resolve its innate flaws with dedicated character development and well-crafted storytelling.

Having an interesting “background story” is what determines the selection of many contestants. What constitutes an interesting story, by reality TV standards? Typically, obstacles and hardship. The bigger the better. If viewers believe you’ve overcome some immense difficulty—or better yet, will overcome that difficulty by competing and ideally winning on the show—then viewers will sympathize and be hooked right in, continuing to watch. The golden-age article provides a typical example of such a story, along with what constitutes a supposed subversion of it:

Survivor winner Adam Klein had the most pat background story. Early in the season, the show revealed that his mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The Mortally Sick Family Member is a morbid but familiar story arc of competitive reality television, so Survivor viewers had beats to expect. At some point, to draw sympathy and trust, Klein would tell his allies of his hardship, and provide producers with a dramatic, episode-long throughline. But that moment never came. Instead, Klein revealed his personal battle to one other contestant: his biggest adversary, Jay Starrett.

What’s interesting to probe for the purposes of fiction is digging deeper than these typical trite cliches with their shallow mass appeal. What’s the story behind the story? How might some contestant or participant, knowing what we know so far into reality TV’s heyday about what the audience wants, exaggerate or fabricate parts of his or her own story? Or, conversely, how might producers make them do so? How might the contestant feel about exploiting themselves and letting some tragedy/obstacle define them? What kind of blowback might such an action incur in the outside world when the cameras aren’t rolling? What are the real conflicts surrounding the production of conflict for the camera? What is the camera not showing us?

As Rebecca Makkai’s aforementioned “The November Story” shows, reality tv offers more than just the contestants’ perspectives to explore. Makkai’s piece, which she read an edited-down version of for NPR’s This American Life, is told from the point of view of a producer (for the made-up reality show Starving Artist) whose boss wants her to manipulate two contestants into falling in love (the acute tension) while, in the meantime, her own relationship is falling apart (the chronic tension). While the characterization of the producer-character’s personal relationship is, perhaps intentionally, somewhat lacking, the details about how producers manipulate contestants are intriguing and feel, ironically enough, very real:   

Kenneth is a genius. He lines the five remaining artists up in front of the book shelves where they’ll be judged and then tells them we won’t tape for a few more minutes, when really the cameras are already rolling.

He tells them to stand still for the light guys and then says, “We’re having more digital issues. We’re going to be here pretty late tonight folks.”

And the sleep deprived artists, dehydrated and trying to hold still and awaiting judgment, give the most beautiful looks of disgust and despair. The cameras are getting it all. The editors will splice it in with shots of their work being critiqued or a competitor winning. They always fall for it.

Once Kenneth had one of the camera guys give all the contestants some incomprehensible direction in a thick accent while the other camera guys captured the grimaces of confusion. At the third judgment, he directed Inez to have a loud phone argument with a boyfriend in the corner of the room. That time we had enough snickering and eye rolling to manufacture an entire rivalry between Leo and Gordy. It became one of our best plotlines.

Makkai’s producer’s acute-tension situation of having to manipulate what people will see on the show (filming contestants describing their thoughts about an elimination round as though it’s about to happen when really it’s already happened) causes her to have an epiphany about the chronic-tension situation of her own relationship:

“I’m so excited for the judges to see my work!” cry the artists who’ve just been mocked and upbraided and grilled for two hours. As if, by trying hard enough, they can convince us to love them again.

They remind me of someone.

The character sees that in her relationship, she is behaving like these contestants, trying to earn love that it’s a foregone and definitive conclusion they can’t get.

It’s important to keep in mind that we the viewers are being manipulated every bit as much as the contestants. Really, there are multiple perspectives reality TV can offer a springboard to explore: the contestants’ (as Alexie does), the producers’ (as Makkai does), the judges’, and the viewers’. The episode “Litchfield’s Got Talent” from season 5 of Orange is the New Black nicely characterizes the reality-TV-judge prototypes that one might work to subvert:

– Do you wanna be one of the judges?
– Finally. Someone appreciates me for my biting wit and of course, impeccable taste.

-Oh, see, the thing is, we need one of those, like, just-edging-outta-cool, needs-to-pay-the-mortgage types who can say useful things, but with a tinge of sadness.
-I’m the tell-it-like-it-is judge.
-But I thought I was tell-it-like-it-is and you were gonna be, like, comforting and supportive.

I met a guy on a plane once who said his brother was a producer for one of Bravo’s Real Housewives shows. He told a story about how at one point his brother was ordered to go out and buy a certain kind of cake one of the housewives specifically hated for a party she was throwing. That story might have ended with her flipping a table; I can’t remember (though I could make it up). The point is, it turns out the drama doesn’t come from the contestants as much as the producers. But what kind of conflict does this create for the producers off-screen, as Makkai explores in her story? What’s the conflict behind the manufactured conflict? Being forced to piss someone off is a great acute-tension situation to force a producer’s ongoing chronic-tension issues to a head. Consider the potential for dramatic expansion of this anecdote:

Playwright Annie Baker reveals that she worked as a handler on The Bachelor during some unidentified season when the women were staying at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. She told Vulture she quit because producers “told me to tell all the girls that they could sleep in, and then the cameras came into the room at five in the morning,” and “they were so upset that I had lied to them inadvertently. So I left. I loved them. … I felt very protective of them.”

This scenario is rife with dramatic and thematic possibilities. Is there something Baker, as a fictionalized character, might need to “wake up” and realize? Does it have to do with another situation in this playwright-producer’s life in which she might have inadvertently lied?

So, a reality-TV-inspired writing exercise could explore a) a potential behind-the-scenes conflict on an established show, or b) a new reality-show concept altogether, or c) a story about someone who’s appeared on a show without referring to their appearance on the show at all, instead showing some other aspect of their life, the underside of the iceberg we only saw the tip of on TV. How about this lady who appeared on Shark Tank peddling “Fat Ass Fudge,” named for the seemingly less-than-affectionate nickname her brother had for her growing up with seven siblings, six of whose names started with D? What about this alleged Hell’s Kitchen elimination round in which one teammate throws another under the bus but then he doesn’t end up being eliminated?

“I didn’t come here to make friends” is an oft-repeated phrase on shows from The Bachelor to Survivor to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. What this phrase essentially means is that contestants on such shows disregard one another’s humanity for the sake of competition. Fiction is about exploring and showcasing humanity. What happens when that humanity is suppressed? What could happen to make such characters have the epiphany that they and their fellow contestants are, in fact, human?

-SCR

The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 3: One Story

One Story, founded by writers Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha in 2002, is a unique journal in that each issue presents exactly what it sounds like: one story. As such, one might think its acceptance rate is automatically lower than at many other magazines, but the fact that they publish eighteen issues a year mitigates this discrepancy. Their rule is that they never publish the same writer twice. On their website you can find excerpts of current and past stories, editors’ commentary, and Q&As with the authors about their work. You can also find the description of the type of work they’re looking for:

One Story is seeking literary fiction. Because of our format, we can only accept stories between 3,000 and 8,000 words. They can be any style and on any subject as long as they are good. We are looking for stories that leave readers feeling satisfied and are strong enough to stand alone.

Laura Spence-Ash’s “The Remains” appeared in Issue 188, published January 16, 2014. The story explores the discovery of a corpse through a series of different characters’ points of view, characters who share some connection to the deceased, whether peripheral or direct.

The story begins with Sergeant Bill Marshall and his partner responding to a call and discovering a fully decomposed but still clothed skeleton in the foyer of a row house in Queens. The skeleton is wearing a coat that Marshall observes indicates the deceased is a “refined woman.” Examining her books and photos, one picture reminds him of his own wife, and he remembers how he recently went to a lot of trouble to get her a ring that she later wanted to trade for one she liked better. We then jump to Annie Moffatt’s point of view, the next door neighbor of whom we now learn is Mrs. Constantine. She’d thought Mrs. Constantine was gone on a trip, but then eventually started to get suspicious and finally called the cops. Once the corpse is discovered, Annie can’t believe she’s been so close to it this whole time. Watching the cops work, she remembers how she invited Mrs. Constantine to her daughter’s third birthday party, and Mrs. Constantine declined. Annie thinks that she’ll tell her husband she’s pregnant again tonight. Then, we jump to Leila Turani, who works at a tailor. When someone comes in and tells her a body was found that was “the lady who always wore that red beret,” Leila recognizes that it’s Mrs. C, one of their regular customers, who used to be one of her deceased mother’s favorites and whom she noticed hadn’t been in in awhile even though she had clothes to pick up. Mrs. C had brought food and a card when Leila’s mother died; Leila recalls her mother’s death and how she told her she’d take care of her father, which she wishes now she hadn’t. She folds up the clothes Mrs. C left behind. We then jump to Bob MacMillan, Sophia Constantine’s boss at a law office library, who cleaned out her desk a few weeks afters she stopped showing up for work. They often talked about books at lunch, which he immensely enjoyed. When she stopped coming to work, he filed a missing persons report and realized how little he actually knew about her. He hopes she created a new life for herself, remembering how she always took her vacations at the beach and one time when they calculated how far she was able to see on a ferry. When Bob gets the call from the detective that she’s dead, he has a drink and recalls how he never told his wife about her. Finally, we go to Mel Constantine, who divorced Sophie twelve years ago and hadn’t seen her in a long time. He’s returning to the house where he used to live with her to get it ready to sell, and Sergeant Marshall lets him in, warning him the cleaners were unable to get the stain out of hallway floor where she died. He finds her collection of airplane mini bottles, including the one from their honeymoon, which he thinks about before thinking about how they met in high school and reconnected after college. He then goes into the room of the baby they had, Zoë, who would be 22 if she hadn’t died. He’s relieved Sophie’s changed the room, since she left all the baby stuff in it for the eight years after the death before he left. He goes through a box of Zoë’s clothes and finds a tube in it of the baby’s ashes he takes with him. At home that night, he mixes the baby’s ashes with Sophie’s.                 

The story’s chronic tension is that Sophia Constantine has died, as this occurs before the story starts. The acute tension is the fallout/aftermath of her death. The story’s structure is one of its most unique “moves.” We do have a main character, and we are following that character’s trajectory, but in an unusual way, looking at her exclusively through the eyes of others, which means a common narrative model of the acute tension being the main character’s has been upended here; the acute tension is instead spread across several characters. (Sophie does technically have her own chronic and acute tensions once we learn her full story: chronic would be the death of her baby; acute would be how she lived her life after that tragedy.)

The pattern of the order in which we meet these characters is part of the story’s power. Each character we’re introduced to knows the main character, the deceased Sophia Constantine, better than the last. We start with the guy who finds her, a total stranger who doesn’t even know her name; then the next-door neighbor, who knows her as “Mrs. Constantine” and seems to have had exactly one direct interaction with her; then the girl at the tailor’s, who, being more fond of her than the neighbor and having had multiple interactions with her, knows her as “Mrs. C”; then to her boss, who knows her as “Sophia” (and whom he remembers specifically made him call her that when he tried to call her “Sophie”); then to her ex-husband, who knows her as “Sophie.” The use of the names shows us definitively that each of these characters knew her better than the last: no name, Mrs. Constantine, Mrs. C, Sophia, Sophie. Hence, by meeting them in this order, we learn more about her with each point of view shift.  

Part of the pattern of each character we meet is that their reflections on Sophie (or however they know her) provide a springboard into their own lives, giving us a glimpse of their personal vulnerabilities. We learn about the distance between Marshall and his wife, about Annie’s nervousness to tell her husband of her pregnancy, about Leila’s mother’s death, about Bob’s intense feelings for his employee, and about Mel’s new life with his second wife. Getting these glimpses into each of these characters’ lives makes us want to see even more into our main character’s, which, by the time we get to Bob, we’re getting to see more of, until Mel’s section finally reveals the full picture, the key to Sophie’s reserved secrecy that we witnessed in the other sections. But also, the snippets of these characters’ lives that we get which don’t involve Sophia Constantine directly do involve her indirectly–which is to say, thematically. What these snippets reveal are actually things these characters have in common with Sophie–more specifically, with her defining trauma: distance in a marriage (Bill), nervousness about pregnancy (Annie), the death of a party in a mother-daughter relationship (Leila). By our last two sections with Bob and Mel, we’ve progressed from indirect connections to direct, which is how the rising action operates in this nontraditional narrative.

Another nice “move” is the way Spence-Ash integrates the characters’ reflections, how thinking about dead body/Mrs. Constantine/Mrs. C/Sophia/Sophie leads them to think about other things in their lives. Trains of thought are prompted by objects in the external environment, whether the current environment or a remembered one. For Marshall, it’s a photo in Sophie’s house that prompts him to think about his wife. For Annie, recalling the air freshener she used to cover up the smell of decomposition and how her husband always unplugged it gives us a hint to potentially more significant strife in their marriage. For Leila, it’s the physical artifact of Mrs. C’s clothes. For Bob, it’s a photo of sky blending into sea that he found in Sophia’s desk. For Mel, it’s the collection of airplane bottles that leads him to think about their honeymoon.

Spence-Ash slyly lets us know that her nontraditional narrative model is not unprecedented when she refers to a text that Bob and Sophia were reading together: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which a family struggles to bury its dead matriarch in the location she desired. Sophia’s comment about this text is actually commentary on the structure of this story:

“Don’t you see?” Sophia had said, her brown eyes meeting his. “Addie is the center. Addie is what makes it all hold together.”

Notably, however, Addie is not already dead when Faulkner’s novel starts, so it’s a bold “move” of Spence-Ash’s to have the main character be dead from the outset. This text also seems a thematically appropriate one for this story in that more than one character wonders how long Sophie might have been lying on the floor of her house by herself before she actually died.

The stain that Sophie’s body left behind is another nice “move” in the story:

“I don’t think they got the stain out in the front hall. Just so you know.”

This stain is a physical manifestation (which is to say, a symbol) of what Sophie’s left behind–of what remains of her. The fact that she’s left a stain shows that the impact of her life has not been entirely erased by her death, which we’re shown throughout the story through the different characters’ memories of her. Hence, the title gains layers of meaning–there are Sophie’s physical remains, emphasized by the stain and the powerful final gesture of Mel’s mixing her remains with their baby’s, then there’s the range of impacts she’s left on others’ lives. Mel’s mixing gesture nicely encapsulates how the story blends Sophie’s physical and ephemeral remains. It’s also a nice move to end with a physical gesture in the story’s present, rather than lingering in memory. This physical gesture, coming at the end, must necessarily provide some form of closure; this gesture is ideal closure for Sophie in particular because there’s been so much emphasis on how alone she was. The story’s most fundamental scenario reinforces her loneliness, since if she hadn’t been so alone she wouldn’t have been a skeleton by the time her body was discovered. By the end we’ve discovered the source of her loneliness–her dead baby. Some writers might have ended the story with this revelation, but Spence-Ash makes another “move” with the physical gesture. At the end of the story, Sophie isn’t alone anymore; she’s literally joined to the one whose departure caused her loneliness in the first place.

But if you’re going to catch an editor’s eye when he/she is reading hundreds of manuscripts, it’s ideal to have a nice “move” in the very beginning, so let’s revisit that opening line: 

Sergeant Bill Marshall was the one who found her white bones in a fetal position, nestled inside a tweed coat and a red woolen hat.

The nice move here is the use of the word “nestled.” This is a word with positive connotations, which places it in stark contrast to the negative connotations of the larger situation: discovering a dead body, one that’s been decomposing for so long, no less. This contrast automatically injects the narrative with tension. It also encapsulates the story’s structure: nestled within this seemingly horrible occurrence is the potential for human connection. Nestled inside Sophie are all the lives she’s touched.

-SCR

The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 2: The Gettysburg Review

Continuing with “The Moves Lit Journals are Looking For” series, up next: The Gettysburg Review, published by Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Established in 1988, GR, which publishes four issues a year, claims that their

most important criterion is high literary quality; we look for writers who can shape language in thoughtful, surprising, and beautiful ways and who have something unique to say, whatever the subject matter or aesthetic approach. We have very eclectic tastes, but are highly selective, publishing only two percent of manuscripts submitted to us annually.

Interestingly, they advise potential submitters to familiarize themselves not with the journal’s content, but with its submission guidelines.

Alice Stinetorf’s “Where the Killdeer Lies” appeared in GR’s 2016 Autumn issue. Perhaps this story’s most impressive features are its use of the omniscient point of view, and the conceit it uses to establish that standpoint, a motif of descriptions of birds and their behavior. (Jonathan Franzen, literary birder extraordinaire, is jealous he’s never had this idea.) This motif is used as a lens to examine the trajectory of a delinquent son and its impact on the marriage of his parents.

At the story’s outset, we’re told that Sandra and Clive Hayworth don’t care about red-bellied woodpeckers or birds of any kind as a prelude to a description of that woodpecker having wings with a pattern resembling a zebra’s. By the end of the first page we have learned, via a description of the sounds different birds make, that the Hayworths are a family in crisis. They’re seeing a therapist to deal with their 19-year-old Zane, whom they still see as the child who used to raise rabbits for the county fair. The counselor wants them to get Zane to sign a contract to agree to certain terms for his behavior. We get exposition about Zane’s sudden falcon-like “swoop” into delinquency when he was brought home by the owner of a store for shoplifting. Through a comparison to a house sparrow who steals, we learn that Zane then progressed from shoplifting to charges for vandalism, drinking, and drugs. The counselor advises the family to do something together, so they return to the same library where Zane saw the flyer about raising rabbits when he was a kid, and this time find a flyer for a birding club. When presented with the behavior contract, Zane signs it without a fuss. Clive and Zane build birdhouses together, reminding Clive of when they used to build rabbit hutches. Later Clive and Sandra work on their therapy worksheets, inadvertently quibbling in the midst of reminiscing about Zane’s childhood. The first time Zane’s rabbits gave birth, the mother killed all the babies in the night and Clive cleaned up the mess before Zane woke up. At a birding meeting, they discuss how the mockingbird’s cry sounds misleadingly like other things. For a month, things seem fine with Zane, who works in a gas station a town over to pay his parents back for his court fees, but then he starts coming home increasingly past curfew; when they finally confront him he claims to be working late. They lie to their counselor that Zane is passing his drug tests when they haven’t actually been testing him. Both Clive and Sandra have seen Zane breaking contract rules without telling the other. Because they erroneously believe their communication with each other has improved, they continue to look the other way when Zane’s claims and activities become increasingly suspicious. Then one day, cops show up at the house with a search warrant, finding drugs and the makings for drugs in the shed where all Zane’s old rabbit stuff is stored. Zane is arrested. Clive and Sandra cancel their counselor appointments, claiming their marriage is better than ever. Clive cleans out the shed while Sandra cleans out Zane’s room. They’ll stay in the house and try the things they were bad at, pretending these things are going well.  

The major way the story’s conflict works is that the primary source of tension seems to be Zane’s delinquency, but this source really reveals the larger source of tension—the marriage—when Sandra and Clive fight over how to deal with Zane’s delinquency, then bond over their shared decision to ignore the signs that the problem is continuing. Stinetorf employs the bird motif by describing birds’ habits when they are similar to what the humans in the story are doing at that point, but she takes this a step further when she starts to contrast myths people believe about certain birds with scientifically established facts about them. This contrast is setting us up for the fact that Zane is lying to his parents, a setup which is underscored by this passage describing the birders’ experience of mockingbirds:

When the man finally saw and heard the bird in tandem, it was not yellow and olive and white. It was gray, slender, with white bars upon its wings. It was a northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, the king of avian deception. The Feathered Friends each have a story along this line. Yellow-billed cuckoo? Scratch that, mockingbird. Louisiana waterthrush? No, mockingbird. A car alarm whooping and blaring and shrieking in the morning hours? Mockingbird.

Another primary aspect of the story developed through the bird motif and underscored by the mockingbird passage is the use of sound, which emphasizes the problematic dichotomy between sound and sight: Zane looks like he’s obeying his parents, but he’s not. Stinetorf establishes tension by showing the reader that Zane is lying while simultaneously showing us the parents’ refusal to acknowledge this lying. The use of omniscience helps further establish this. We know what’s coming, we know Zane is lying, but the tension is raised by this knowledge because we want to know when and how Clive and Sandra’s bubble will be burst.

The bird sounds lead Stinetorf to describe other sounds, which are used to accentuate the main conflict:

The pull chain of the ceiling fan says t-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh, clicking against the glass light fixture as the dusty blades turn.

This passage is not just pretty but pointless description; it’s then used to heighten the tension when Sandra and Clive start to have a disagreement (it also nicely sums up the dual conflict of Zane’s delinquency and its impact on the marriage):

‘‘And I wasn’t,’’ he counters.

‘‘Well, you had a tone,’’ she says.

T-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh. Clive feels shut down, pissed off, hurt, but Lauren McCulloch keeps reiterating that learning how to communicate is a matter of trial and error, injuries and healing, and he is shelling out twenty-five dollar copays twice a week to hear these things, money he can’t really avoid to spend on top of all that has been drained into Zane’s criminal fines and court fees and attorney.

Stinetorf likely could have shown us Zane was lying without full-blown omniscience, but in a story where the main conflict concerns a marriage, omniscience is a nice tool to provide both the partners’ perspectives, both when they diverge:

Dance lessons were out because Clive’s sense of rhythm only kicked in when he was refinishing hardwood floors. ‘‘You’ll end up angry and making fun of me,’’ he said. Sandra knew he was right but denied it.

Cooking lessons were out because Sandra hated venturing outside her culinary comfort zone. She liked roasts and pot pies and pork chops as entrees. She liked green beans and mashed potatoes and stewed apples as sides. ‘‘You’ll get embarrassed of me,’’ she said. Clive knew she was right but denied it.

And when they converge:

Clive and Sandra feel they are communicating better than ever, perhaps because neither knows of the luxuries the other is indulging in.

He tells them that his manager needs him to cover some night shifts in coming weeks. Another new hire did not work out so well, and Zane has proven himself dependable. Myth: owls can see in total darkness. Fact: Clive and Sandra have opted for total darkness in this matter. They should drive to the next town over when Zane claims to be working overnights. They should not trust the cash he now gives them without showing them his pay stub.

This is marked as an important moment by the Fact and Myth not applying to birds exclusively anymore, but now crossing over to encompass Clive and Sandra.

Stinetorf is actually employing selective omniscience, as any author, save perhaps Tolstoy, necessarily has to—omniscience by definition means knowing everything, but “everything” is too much for the reader to know. The reader needs to know what’s important. What’s important in this case is the state of the marriage. Hence, we get to know that Clive and Sandra are both looking the other way regarding Zane without the other knowing, but we don’t get to know what Zane is actually doing the nights he comes home late and claims to be working. We don’t need to know, because we intuit: he’s doing cliched delinquent teenager things.

As for the bird motif, it’s important to note that Stinetorf hasn’t chosen birds as a lens/point of comparison arbitrarily, as it might seem from the opening paragraph; birds become relevant to the plot itself when the characters start going to birding meetings. It’s also important to note that omniscience is required to use the bird motif to the extent Stinetorf does. She could have referred only to info about birds that the characters themselves knew or heard, but this would detract from the richness of the comparisons. But upping the ante with the descriptions and exploring a marriage are not the only reasons omniscience is the best choice for this story; as explored through the myth/fact dichotomy, how much one knows or doesn’t know is one of the story’s major themes and plot engines. The story’s sweeping scope of awareness contrasts with and thereby underscores Sandra and Clive’s joint lack of awareness, makes the reader feel it more, rendering it more tragic. It seems perhaps most important to note that the story’s content—delinquent teenager impacts naive parents’ marriage—could potentially be cliched or uninteresting; it seems like a story we’ve heard before. But through the lens of the birds, Stinetorf has provided us an entirely new way of looking at this subject matter. The lesson: it’s not what story you’re telling that matters, but rather how you tell it—or rather, show it.

Of the roughly twenty major passages that use the bird motif, not including minor comparisons like a character bobbing his head like a pigeon, the three passages that invoke the titular killdeer provide a general idea of the transitions Stinetorf uses:

Clive says that surely a literal ink-on-paper contract isn’t necessary. Sandra says that surely Clive doesn’t have his head buried that deep in the sand.

Myth: ostriches bury their heads in the ground when frightened. Fact: the killdeer, Charadrius vociferus, known too as the chattering plover, scratches its shallow nest right into the ground. Technically a shorebird, the killdeer scrapes its nest into Ohio’s golf courses, parking lots, gravel driveways—senseless human milieus far from any shore.

And:

Defending one’s young is a nearly universal instinct. Myth: mother birds will refuse to feed their babies if a human handles them. Fact: when the killdeer’s scraped nest is threatened, the bird feigns a broken wing and dashes away, on foot, to distract would-be predators. The male red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, turns positively Hitchcockian during mating season. It will attack horses. It will attack humans. Conk-a-ree-onk, it will sing, then peck and peck its victim’s flesh until blood renders it a red-beaked blackbird.

In the garage, side by side, Clive and Zane construct birdhouses.

And:

She folded her arms around him, wishing they were bigger, wishing her arms were soft wings that could swallow him whole.

The three-ounce killdeer puffs its chest and charges straight at any half-ton cow that might accidentally trample the nest, screeching kill-deer! kill-deer! killdeer! until the bewildered behemoth changes course. Sandra, upon learning this strategy, thinks it absurd, then perfect. Perfect. She could have paced in circles around the house before the swoop began, around Zane’s car, around his desk at Batavia High, screeching Hay-worth! Hay-worth! Hay-worth!

Meaning: This is my son. Leave him be. Don’t hurt him. Don’t lead him astray.

Out of all the birds mentioned in the story that the title could have been taken from, the killdeer seems to have been chosen for the possible multiple meanings of “lies”: literally lying down, lying in wait, and telling lies.  

The bird-comparison motif is one of the most original craft elements I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not just the motif itself that is impressive, but its execution. This could have been done poorly or felt like a trick for a trick’s sake, but instead it deftly enhances the emotional power of the story. As her descriptions of the rabbits also shows, it’s the specificity and precision of the details that help pull this off: 

He brought home a Best of Breed trophy for his sablepoint mini rex and the Best in Show trophy for his agouti Jersey wooly.

Interestingly, Stinetorf doesn’t end with a bird comparison. Instead, she returns to something non-bird-related mentioned earlier, the things each spouse was so bad at that they avoided lessons/classes/clubs about it, opting instead for birding. At the end, Sandra and Clive get the consolation prize of their improved marriage; they will now try the things they’re bad at that they wouldn’t before, with the troubling question/implication that lying might be an improvement:

She will teach him how to dance, if poorly. He will try to make curry, and she will pretend to enjoy it.

While they weren’t willing to pretend about these things before, they were willing to pretend about Zane, while now that they should have realized they were wrong to pretend about Zane, they’re willing to pretend about these things. The ending then, is bittersweet, as any realistic end should be.

-SCR

“The Last Night of the World” Write Up by Kenneth Moreno

In Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Last Night of the World,” the audience follows an interaction between a couple over the last night of the world. At first, the husband softly asks the wife about what she would do were it the final night. The wife responds with little certainty, and the man reveals that he knows that the world is about to stop. He explains that he had a dream that told him the world was about to stop, and while he thought nothing of it at first, finding out that his coworker had the same dream prompts him to go ask around his office, only to find out that everyone there too had the same dream. The wife, reactionless, explains that she too has had the same dream, as have the rest of the women. The two talk about what they will do and ponder why the world is stopping. They do not stress however, deciding there is nothing to be done, so they continue life as usual, doing typical mundane things, realizing that the world has had this coming for a long time. The couple ensures that they have cleaned up and turned everything off before going to bed together. They sleep, and we are left to wonder whether or not the world really ended.

Despite being a very short story, I felt that it was actually really captivating due to the tone that the piece carries. Throughout the story, we are shown the emotionless reactions of the couple to the idea that it is the last night of the world. The couple remains calm, even though the end of the world would surely cause panic. This emotionless tone is carried throughout the piece through the major use of dialogue and the specific word choice / attention to detail. Because the majority of the piece is dialogue, the piece feels very slow paced. Readers do not get much imagery of action, making the room seem still as they spoke. The actions that were included are basic and minimal actions. The gentle pouring of the tea contributes the calm serenity. Saying that the world will stop rather than end also contributes to this sensation. The lack of calamity and the excess calmness can make the reader care, as they feel like there should be some reaction other than “oh well”.

Two things from this story that we could incorporate into our writing include –

Character Attitude (green) – The dialogue of these characters is very calm. There is never a moment of heightened tension, nor is there any moment of panic. Surprisingly, this makes the piece feel tense, as if something could happen at any moment in time. Playing around with a character’s attitude like this can help us improve the way we create a feeling for our story. Usually in writing, the typical common response is used to support the mood and tone. However, in this piece, the contradiction of the tone and the character response to the situation is shown to be more effective.

Word Choice in Action and Setting (yellow) – Throughout the piece, small, peaceful wording is used. These choices further contribute to the tense feeling of the story. The story reads like it takes place in a library: silent and eerie. Perhaps it’s just me, but when I read a story sometimes I like to have a soundtrack based on the action. This story has no soundtrack. You can hear every breath or tap of the finger. The use of calm descriptors during something usually associated with calamity again proves that perhaps sometimes, juxtaposition can work better than just giving exposition.

Q Time

  1. Do you think the world really stopped?
  2. How did you visualize the scene as you read through the story?
  3. Would you describe the story as tense? Or does it seem perfectly natural to not care about the end of the world?

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” Write Up by Joanna Zhou

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison is a sci-fi post-apocalyptic story about what could go wrong when mankind, and in turn, machine, goes too far. In an alternate Cold War scenario, different supercomputers were created by superpowers around the world. Eventually one computer gained sentience and overpowered the other computes. The premise is that AM has killed all humans except five: Ted, Ellen, Nimdok, Benny, Gorrister. These five he keeps alive and tortures. In the beginning of the story, AM has hung a corpse in the form of Gorrister all the others discover. The others are shocked and all the more disgusted upon realization that the body is fake and that one of them has not been granted death. The real Gorrister is turned blind. We learn that AM has mutilated all of them except Ted. Nimdok, a former Nazi scientist, is tortured by AM with his past, Ellen has been turned into a slut, Gorrister has been turned complacent, and Benny, a gay academic, was turned animalistic and dumb. A hurricane force arrives and swirls Ellen away. AM monologues about his hate of mankind. AM then comes in the form of a burning bush and tells the others that they can eat the hurricane bird if they kill it. They attempt to find it but only hear the laugh of a fat woman. They discover piles of unopened canned goods. Ted murders all of them with ice spikes in this moment that AM is unaware of their mortality. In revenge, AM tortures Ted for the rest of his existence. At the end, Ted exists as an amorphous blob of constantly shifting form in a world existing of only him and AM. Cue title: he has no mouth and he must scream.

The chronic tension is the creation of the supercomputers and AM’s genocide of man and imprisonment of the five survivors.

The acute tension consists of the lives of the five survivors as AM tortures them and Ted’s final liberation of them.

Two things you can steal: allusions and sense of motion.

In Ellison’s description of the hurricane force, this creature, “from Norse mythology…this eagle, this carrion bird, this roc, this Hvergelmir…incarnate” we get a great feeling of scope. In the paragraph after, everything is in motion. The force of the wind is strong as the beast travels, and through gerunds and strong verbs, we really get that, and it makes us sick to our stomachs.

Ellison also makes multiple allusions to religion. He says AM is capital g God. In fact, AM thinks himself a god. AM appears to them as a burning bush. He is associated with archangels. As a form of punishment, he sends locusts upon them as God did against the Egyptians. Multiple references to the Old Testament in this story, folks, enough to beat over the audience’s heads. This works, however, because it turns the idea of a merciful god around. AM knows no love, for mankind or anything else. The only similarity to a god he has is the power and unending wrath he projects on the survivors. I think this twist is delightful. 🙂

Questions:

General: what makes this story horrifying?

Is AM written as a character to be sympathized with? Is Ted?

How does the revealing of exposition affect your view of the characters?

 

“A Family Matter” Write Up by Leni Negron

Summary:

“A Family Matter” by Keya Mitra begins when Gapu goes downstairs to find his baby sister in an aquarium. She had just been brought home from the hospital the night before. He can’t comprehend what he is seeing, but the rest of the family is acting like nothing happened. His father, who acts as though the house is under surveillance, continues to make breakfast like Debi isn’t even dead in the aquarium with the fish (who are still alive, whew!). His hands are wet and he makes eggs. Something is obviously wrong but everyone acts okay. Gapu recalls his sister crying all night, waking him up at all hours of the night, a possible motive for her death. He tries to convince himself that the baby in the aquarium is not his sister but it is too quiet and he can’t. At this point, there is no discussion of the dead baby among the family. He recalls his mother finding out that she is pregnant and that it was an “accident”. (It wasn’t an accident). He remembered Deepak being really excited and reassuring the baby and that he made fun of him for loving the baby so much. He contemplated calling the cops and decides against it. He is running late for school and tries to convince his mother to come with him but says no. He and his brother leave for school and his mother says cryptically “this is a family matter”. For the first time, Gapu talks about it and tells his brother that it was probably a doll. On the bus, he sits next to his friend Shannon. He describes what the word “crazy” could mean but it is a way to talk about his father and who his father is as a person. Gapu begins to ask Shannon lots of sketchy questions about babies running away and committing suicide and Shannon gets a little suspicious. He wants to tell Shannon but can’t because of what his mother said. After school, Gapu spends time at Shannon’s house (her mother is an alcoholic but says that she’s not because she drives (just because you can drive after having alcohol doesn’t make you not an alcoholic)). Deepak is with them because Gapu doesn’t want to come home to him dead too. Gapu and Shannon hang out in her room and Shannon tells him about her mother’s alcoholism. Gapu thinks about how he loves Shannon and about Debi and then they find her mother who is talking to Deepak and drunk. They go for a walk with Deepak and walk to a near park. Deepak sits on Gapu’s lap and Gapu promises that they will be fine.

Chronic tension: Debi is killed/ the father is insane

Acute tension: Gapu has to take care of his brother/figuring out what to do about his dead baby sister.

Analysis:

Parallels between Gapu and his father

During the montage of “crazy” descriptions it becomes apparent that the father is completely emotionally repressed and hardly ever expresses himself. This parallels Gapu’s repressed feelings for Shannon and the family’s inability to talk about things. There are so many instances where Gapu wants to comfort his brother and talk about Debi being dead but is unable to do so and there is a moment when Shannon practically invites him to tell her that he loves her and he can’t do it. He also mentions the love that he holds for his brother and how protective he feels over him, but he never vocally mentions it or expresses it until the very end, which leads to:

Gapu and Deepak

This goes with Gapu’s inability to be expressive but I wanted to separate it because their relationship was so important. Gapu held such a love for his brother and a desire to keep him safe, similarly to when he was brought home for the first time. He isn’t able to tell Deepak, but he shows his love in ways like holding his hand and and not letting him go home for fear that he too will end up in the aquarium. The very, very end when Gapu promises to help him get out of that place serves as a tiny beacon of hope for the two brothers and that they might find a better life because Gapu can finally vocalize his feelings.

Mothers in the story

There is the contrast between the two types of mothers.

First there is Deepak and Gapu’s mother, whose only moment of defiance (secretly going off her birth control and having a child) is thwarted by the father’s (probable) murder of said daughter. She is quiet and reserved, and does not make any remarks about the child at all. She remains with her husband who is, if we are meant to believe Gapu’s “crazy” tirade, is kind of insane and unstable.

On the other hand, there is Shannon’s mother who is fairly loud and abrasive. She is a drunk and unable to do well for her daughter, who she is raising alone. So we have these two extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. Both try to do something and fail: Gapu’s mother tries to make herself/her family happy and fails (not her fault unless she is the one who killed Debi) and Shannon’s mother tried to quit drinking (for one day!!!) and can’t do it.

Things to steal:

The story had things that should’ve been a little humorous, like Gapu not being able to jack off or Shannon’s mom excusing her alcoholism because she was still “running a household” (debatable), but they weren’t because there’s just always this dead baby hanging around in the back of the story. I just thought this was really cool.

The contrast between two characters who had no interaction whatsoever was an interesting choice

The story moves really quickly because the character never faces or confronts what the real issues was at the beginning. Deepak and Gapu don’t return home, don’t confront their mother or father, and don’t ever get an answer about Debi.

Questions:

  1. Who really killed Debi?
  2. Were you satisfied with the ambiguous ending? What did it make you think? Do Deepak and Gapu really escape?
  3. What do you make of the lack of discussion amongst the family?