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Tag: flashbacks and flashforwards

Short story: “Waypoint”

“Waypoint,” by K. C. Vance

Appeared in Zone 3, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring 2018

About five and a half pages, maybe a few thousand words?

The way this story is written is interestingly oblique. The downplaying of the lost child, the lost marriage, in favor of the lost parakeets. The marriage, too, seems to have ended because of the pregnancy, so losing the pregnancy must be like losing her husband a second time. A lot of unstated emotion.

I like how we learn that she doesn’t tell her estranged husband about her miscarriage only when we’re told she left a message about the birds.

There was one paragraph where I had trouble with a flashback because it was in simple past tense instead of past perfect. I wish writers would stop avoiding the word “had.” It’s a useful word.

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Short story: “The Dupe”

“The Dupe,” by Jim Fusilli

Appeared in D.C. Noir (2006, part of the Akashic Books Noir Series), edited by George Pelecanos

About 15.25 pages in the anthology, unknown number of words

A good little yarn.

I thought opening the story on the day of the crime was a bad idea, especially because the author (or editor?) avoids past pluperfect, resulting in awkwardness (“Five days earlier, Port was summoned”). I understand the need to put the drama up front, but I would have opened with “My father is disappointed, Jordie.”

Short story: “Everybody’s Girl”

“Everybody’s Girl,” by Robert Barnard

Appeared in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology Mysterious Pleasures, 2003, edited by Martin Edwards; appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2005

A little more than eleven and a half pages, perhaps 3,000 words

A tale of an emotional vampire hiding in plain sight. The set-up and reveal of Ruth’s true nature is very clever. I’m a little uncomfortable, though, about the trope of the evil child and teenage seductress; the story blames Ruth for everything from her adult friends’ unhappiness to her own murder. Probably not a good attitude to take in real life, where children and teens are often unfairly held responsible for the failings of adults.

The last two pages switch rather abruptly to a different point of view, with a bunch of exposition and a major flashback. I find this clunky. I want to throw in some section breaks, not for clarity’s sake—it’s very clear and easy to read as it stands—but for elegance’.

Short story: “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”

“The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” by David Means

Appeared in the New Yorker, October 25th, 2010; read for the April 2015 episode of the podcast by Thomas McGuane

3,298 words

This story doesn’t feel packed with detail, but it is. Even the descriptions of the setting, which would usually bore me, reveal a lot about how the main character perceives the world.

I like this parenthetical insight a lot: “(yes, a stakeout was an act of humility that could easily, if not approached properly, turn to humiliation)”

How to write mid-scene flashbacks

I am considering a new rule about flashbacks. I distrust rules, but I try to give them due consideration, especially when they come from someone whose intellect I respect (me).

The most common problem I see with mid-scene flashbacks is that the reader doesn’t notice when the damn thing starts and ends. The beginning and end blur into the framing scene. Or, perhaps worse, the beginning is a blur and the end jars the reader into the realization that they’ve been stuck in the past for over a page now.

My new rule is that a flashback should begin only after the framing scene has gotten going. That is, the framing scene needs to start out with either some action or some tension or both—something to anchor us until we get back. Otherwise, why use the framing scene at all?

Edited to add that maybe this guy was talking about the same thing.

On freezing action in fiction

“It’s great to freeze action, you know. You can’t do it if you’re just sitting on the couch, because you’ll lose your reader every time. So Tobias Wolff does it by way of, you know, this bullet, and Steven Polansky does it by way of being stuck between second and third. So it gives you the narrative momentum to be able to digress because you know that you can keep your reader, you know, on the hook, essentially. And you can stretch that time as long as you want, as long as you just kind of keep the touchstones of what’s going on in the present, you know, situation.”

—David Gilbert, talking to Deborah Treisman on the November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast

Short story: “Victory Lap”

“Victory Lap,” by George Saunders

Appeared in the New Yorker on October 5th, 2009 (subscribers can read online here, but I regret to say I am not a subscriber); collected in Tenth of December, which is what I’m reading/listening to now; also found a very different, shorter version online on Longform

Maybe 5,000 words??—short version is around 3,400

Unlike “Puppy,”* this piece strikes me as differentiating effectively between the three characters’ points of view, even though they all have a similar Saundersian goofiness. Of course, I might be biased by the audio recording.

I’m not crazy about how closely this story follows the classic, cliché female victim/male hero model. The story opens with Alison’s naive, self-aggrandizing fantasies; Kyle’s first section shows him to be a genuine innocent who deserves a better life than he has. Alison judges Kyle harshly for his looks and eccentricity; Kyle idolizes her for her beauty. Alison gets “punished” by the narrative, and as a direct result, she realizes how much she’s misjudged Kyle, her friend and rescuer. It’s never quite implied that the two will end up romantically involved, but the possibility is never averted either. At the very end, the story wisely dwells on Alison’s attempt to recover from her trauma, and on her own small act of heroism. But if we’re looking for some kind of closure for the romantic nonsense in the opening, we have to look at this final scene, in which she’s wholly preoccupied with Kyle—his moral choices, his growth as a person, his safety. And we’re used to the sort of story where the girl’s feelings for the boy are treated as his rightful reward.

On the other hand, we spend more time on Alison’s moral fantasies than her romantic ones, so it makes sense that her running outside to shout at Kyle would be the pivotal point of the story for her. At the beginning, she believes in goodness and moral courage, and at the end, her faith has been vindicated.

The Longform version is missing the sections in Kyle’s point of view, which makes me wonder whether Saunders added them in later or took them out. I think I might have preferred the shorter version. I like Kyle’s parts a lot, but he kind of steals the protagonist role. He takes action sooner and more dramatically than Alison does, and the way his character changes is bigger and more positive. Even the title belongs to him, not to Alison.

All that aside, I’m pretty impressed with the way this story works. Each section break switches voices gracefully. Each voice is distinct and fun to read for its own sake, even the slightly cliché rapist-murderer. Maybe he wouldn’t be as much fun if he weren’t slightly cliché, if his hokeyness (abusive stepfather, Biblical delusions of grandeur) didn’t take some of the stuffing out of his scariness.

Here’s a type of transition I find tricky to carry off: “For months afterward she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down.” How does that work so well? It comes four paragraphs (163 words) after a section break. Alison’s point of view is familiar and a relief, jumping from one idea to another in her characteristic fashion. The transition is the opening sentence of the fifth paragraph. And it doesn’t break the tension, either; we still have to find out what really happened and how Alison is recovering.

*Apparently that was two years ago. In my defense, I’ve spent the last two years reading a bunch of other stuff—it’s not like I decided not to read any George Saunders for a while.

Short story: “Requiem in the Key of Prose”

“Requiem in the Key of Prose,” by Jake Kerr

Appeared in Lightspeed Magazine in July 2012 (read and listen here)

2,277 words, according to Lightspeed

This story irritates me for much the same reason “Mono No Aware” did. I’m not absolutely opposed to stories about lone geniuses going on suicidal missions and saving the day. I’ll go further than that: I am unabashedly pro-heroic-genius-solo-death-mission stories. I just want them to convince me. I want to read No one else can do what I do and believe itI want to read There’s no other way without rolling my eyes. I rolled my eyes at the first mention of Violet touching her belly, too.

(Side note: Do self-indulgent love-conquers-all stories get published and awarded prizes with the same regularity as self-indulgent lone-hero stories? I don’t think they do. I certainly hope not. I can’t picture Lightspeed running a story from the Twilight franchise, even if it were well written. Perhaps this says something about how differently we value feminine and masculine fantasies.)

“Requiem” at least has a consistent character-based explanation for Adam’s unique abilities, and makes some effort to emphasize how ad hoc the construction of the fan was, but it’s not enough. To be honest, I was barely aware of the whole breathing apparatus for most of the story. There’s no sense of post-apocalyptic life, no mention of the drastic social and environmental changes that must have occurred.

If I could bring myself to care more about either Adam or Violet, I think that would go a long way. They both seem likable but nothing special. Everything about the “Flashback” section is unremarkable, except for the fact that the dome contains grassy areas where couples can lie and gaze at the moon, which strikes me as an impractical use of land.

The unusual style is sort of interesting, but it comes off as a cheap gimmick. It doesn’t have much emotional resonance (despite clever bits like “Present Perfect Tense”) and has nothing to do with the plot (none of the characters seem to be writers, or interested in storytelling techniques). I’ll admit that it’s surprisingly clear and easy to understand. That’s all I can say for it.

On techniques borrowed from film by prose writers

“As a writer, one of the things we all learned from the movies was a kind of compression that didn’t exist before people were used to watching films. For instance, if you wanted to write a flashback in a novel, you once had to really contextualize it a lot, to set it up. Now, readers know exactly what you’re doing. Close-ups too. Writers can use filmic devices that we’ve all accepted so much that we don’t even see them as devices any more.”

—Salman Rushdie (here)

I spend a fair amount of time reading stuff from before the film era, so I was surprised to realize I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what Rushdie was talking about. It may be that I still read more as a reader than as a writer. I rarely notice what sorts of literary devices the authors choose not to use, let alone which ones they simply don’t have available.

When somebody talks about how the audience for the fine arts has changed over time, it’s usually a complaint, and usually about attention spans. It’s nice to be reminded that new media and mass entertainment also expand the kinds of things art can do.

Short story: “Departures”

“Departures,” by John L’Heureux

Appeared in the New Yorker on April 7th, 1980 as a “Portrait,” whatever that means (subscribers can read online here); collected in Desires; anthologized in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (edited by Tobias Wolff)

Roughly 11.5 pages in this edition, no clue how many words

A bunch of barely organized thoughts:

In art, emotional distance doesn’t seem to correlate negatively with emotional intensity.

“His mother is beautiful, radiant, and she will not be dead for another fifteen years.” Every time I read this sentence, I trip slightly over “beautiful, radiant,” because I half expect it to be the start of a list of adjectives or adjectival phrases. I think this slight awkwardness is intentional. It’s as though that “radiant” caught the narrator by surprise, as it must have done to the priest himself in his memory.

The dice dream seems to implicate the priest in the ritual humiliation of Christ. In the Gospels, the casting of lots is a quiet moment of cruelty not unlike his greeting to his mother. He evidently doesn’t analyze it that way. In fact he appears to avoid analyzing it at all. The closest he comes is his thought that meditating on the dice “has something to do with not feeling, with the reason he is a priest in the first place.” Holding dice seems like a plausible symbol of “bring[ing] order out of chaos” as well, since dice are used to exploit blind chance within the formal rules of a game.

The kiss on the cheek, attempted twice and failed both times, also calls to mind Judas. Obvious, I guess. He could be a failed Judas, then, one who thinks he’s acting according to a plan, but is really only committing a pointless betrayal.

The priest’s fatal choice, I take it, was “order” at the expense of everything else. The “crazy couple” represents one of the possible traps he fears, the trap of what he sees as pointless emotion and public indignity and general inefficiency. He doesn’t realize he’s only walked into another trap until his dice dream becomes a nightmare.

What happens at the end? I can’t decide whether the priest has broken out of his trap or not. We know from the narration that he has another fifteen years to live. Does he walk out of the ceremony? Does he lose himself in drink? Does he reach out to take the dice, or perhaps to close his mother’s fingers around them and give them back, or merely to snuff out the vision he sees? The title suggests that he too is departing, but I don’t know from what.

I looked up the prayer he recites at the end, but I don’t see any particular significance in the words he fails to recite.* I think what stops him is the word “sanctify.” He has attempted to sanctify himself by ceasing to care much about anything. He must be realizing now that he’s failed, and/or that he was wrong to try.

The narrator is “omniscient” in that it knows things beyond the present moment, but “close” in that it almost exclusively speaks the priest’s own thoughts, without overt editorializing. I’m not sure if that even counts as omniscient rather than limited, since it’s technically possible for everything the narrator tells us to be within the priest’s lifetime knowledge. (Fifteen years from now, he may well be aware that he’s dying, and how fast.)

The author/narrator’s real opinions are expressed only indirectly, by making the priest’s thoughts ridiculous: “It is boring but good for him. Existentialism is good and humanism is good, and he feels that boredom is just something that goes along with the package.” And later: “But what is good? Well, he feels good and that’s something.” Mocking the priest’s inability to hold real (non-abstract) values or even to make a sincere search for them.

Present tense is widely said to make fiction more vivid. (Detractors say less reflective and less disciplined, but that criticism would be pretty laughable here.) I don’t think the choice of present tense in this story has anything to do with vividness. It’s probably a practical choice that makes it possible to mention past, present, and future events without grammatical difficulties. I think a lot of Muriel Spark’s fiction is in present tense for this reason. (Why don’t I have a Muriel Spark tag already?)

*According to the book From the Beginning to Baptism, by Linda Gibler, it continues, “Sanctify this new fire which was struck from flint and is destined for our use. Grant that we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires through this paschal feast that we may come to the feast of eternal light with pure minds.”