Tag: writing about a thing without naming it explicitly

On ricochet vision

“I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.”

—Ray Bradbury (x)


Short story: “Little Man”

“Little Man,” by Michael Cunningham

Appeared in the August 10th & 17th, 2015 issue (?) of the New Yorker and in the first episode of The Writer’s Voice: New Fiction from the New Yorker, March 15th, 2016 (online here); soon to be collected in A Wild Swan and Other Tales

5,115 words

As reworkings of fairy tales go, this is pretty good, though not as remarkable as some.

Cunningham says, “Just F.Y.I., the story’s original final line was ‘Like a parent and a child,’ which I cut, because it seemed less than graceful to nail down an idea that had already been clearly implied.” I read it slightly differently: Rumpelstiltskin has been getting a taste of various aspects of love, and now he is experiencing a form of marriage. Either way, I like the irony.

Short story: “Arizona”

“Arizona,” by Aaron Burch

Appeared in Quick Fiction (now defunct), issue 16, fall 2009

About 400 words?

I had to reread part of this before I realized they were almost certainly clearing out the home of one of her parents—or no, her grandmother. I like how the story avoids mentioning death, grief.

My rules about fiction titles

  • Subtle or obscure titles are hard to remember and accept, especially when the story is short or simple. A lengthy or complex work of fiction demands a lot of the reader’s time and attention, so a subtle title has a chance to sink in gradually. (This is a problem for movies based on books: the book has a chance to “earn” its title, but the movie must be brief and relatively shallow.)
  • Titles should not try to mean too much. Trying to cram explicit emotion into a title, let alone wisdom, usually comes off as mawkish. Again, this is especially true for short, simple works.
  • An inappropriate allusion can ruin an otherwise acceptable title.
  • A title that literally summarizes the story almost always reads as redundant. In very short fiction, redundant titles are rampant and they stick out. (See for example a lot of the otherwise excellent finalists in Robert Swartwood’s latest Hint Fiction Contest.) A titleless poem can avoid the problem by using its opening line as a de facto title, but that convention has never caught on in fiction.
  • A title named after the protagonist (or antagonist, or MacGuffin) is a safe choice. The only danger is that it will be too bland—and again, this danger is greatest with very short works.
  • Cute, punny, or self-consciously clever titles are annoying.
  • Titles that use clichés or stock phrases, without giving them any kind of twist, come off as clumsy and amateurish. Same with titles that use vague, trite imagery.

Short story: “Game”

“Game,” by Donald Barthelme

First appeared in the July 31st, 1965 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here); online here; read aloud on YouTube; collected in Sixty Stories; read aloud for the February 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast

1,926 words; 4.5 pages in Sixty Stories

A necessary precursor to DeLillo’s “Human Moments in World War III”?

Edit to say what a great bit of mental bargaining this is:

“Perhaps the plan is for us to stay here permanently, or if not permanently at least for a year, for three hundred sixty-five days. Or if not for a year for some number of days known to them and not known to us, such as two hundred days. It may be that they are pleased with us, with our behavior, not in every detail but in sum.”

Another edit to say I think this is the only first-person narrator I’ve read who claims to have omniscient knowledge and first-person limitations in the same breath. A good way to show the character’s breakdown. He’s unable to articulate “I am not supposed to know about Shotwell’s gun, but I do know about it, and he is not supposed to know that I know about it, but he does know I know about it” (et cetera), perhaps because he’s lost his grip on the boundaries of his identity.

Short story: “Human Moments in World War III”

“Human Moments in World War III,” by Don DeLillo

First appeared in Esquire in July 1983; collected in The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories (on Google Books); printed in Granta 11: Greetings from Prague in spring 1984 (subscribers can read online here; buy the issue here); published by PEN America Center here on September 10th, 2010, the year DeLillo received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction

5,400 words

I read this when I was pretty young and it took me a while to appreciate it, mainly, I think, because of my tendency to distrust what I can’t unequivocally understand. Even so, certain lines haunted me with their sheer rightness:

The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.

I am standing at the corner of Forth and Main, where thousands are dead of unknown causes, their scorched bodies piled in the street.

The colors and all.

The narrator doesn’t quite manage to evade his real topic. He admits: “I try to keep the results of the operation out of my mind, the whole point of it, the outcome of these sequences of precise and esoteric steps. But often I fail. I let the image in, I think the thought, I even say the word at times.” And we see him fail. I don’t think it hurts the story. It’s all very darkly funny, the banality of the two men’s lives, the way they talk around what they’re doing.

The plot, I think, takes place inside the narrator himself. He’s caught between the need for real meaning in his life and the need to keep his long-distance murders at a long distance. For that reason he is threatened by Vollmer’s philosophizing, but comes to depend on it. Vollmer’s last line seems to indicate that he too has learned to avoid thinking too much, feeling too much, expressing himself too openly. He will no longer serve to give the narrator’s life its vicarious meaning. The narrator is on his own now, and in all likelihood he would be just as isolated no matter who was with him. The circumstances make real “human moments” impossible.

The use of the present tense seems apt because the narrator has not yet come to terms with what’s going on, and may never. Also because he is trying, however unsuccessfully, not to look beyond the present moment.

Rereading now, I get a glimpse of the impact DeLillo must have had on David Foster Wallace, particularly in the dialogue (“It sounded human in all sorts of ways”).

On emphasis by omission

“To omit a word always, to resort to inept metaphors and obvious periphrases, is perhaps the most emphatic way of stressing it.”

—Stephen Albert in Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths” (translated by Donald A. Yates here)

Compare Orson Scott Card’s teacher’s advice.

Edited to add: Albert compares the fictitious work to a riddle, which seems slightly different from comparing it to a joke or a magic trick.

Short story: “Good People”

“Good People,” by David Foster Wallace

Appeared in the February 25th, 2007 issue of the New Yorker (read online here); reprinted in the unfinished novel The Pale King

3,220 words (but only 5 paragraphs)

This story has taken a lot of flak for sentimentality. To me, Lane and his thought process ring true; at the same time I can see why people find it contrived. The prose style is intentionally clumsy. There are odd redundancies like “still and immobile” and, even odder, “it hadn’t brought her comfort or eased the burden at all[,]” where Lane seems to be using his own trite phrase and then tacking on another one he heard in church.

“Good People” seems to get compared to Hemingway‘s “Hills Like White Elephants” often, but the similarity strikes me as superficial and uninteresting. Abortion is a common problem in real life and in fiction; describing a thing without naming it is a common literary technique. The interesting part is when we come to understand, empathetically, why the unnamed thing goes unnamed.

Wallace’s trademark hyper-aware style is muted here (no footnotes, no obvious gags) but still in evidence. His usual agenda is very much in evidence, even in the title: a platitude (She’s good people) transformed into an agonizing moral problem (How can a person be good?). I think it’s been said before, but “What would even Jesus do?” is a line that only Wallace could write—all his variations on “I know this is trite but I mean it,” condensed into five words.


An amateur’s note on narration, point of view, and voice. I think this piece is entirely in limited third person, but not entirely in close third person, if that makes sense. Sometimes when the narration seems to stray outside Lane’s point of view (“he pretended to himself he did not know what it was that was required”), it may just be reflecting his own self-conscious thought process. Other times, the narrator’s knowledge seems to surpass Lane’s: “He knew this without admitting to himself that this was what he wanted, for it would make him a hypocrite and liar.” This might be because the narrator has access to what Lane will know in the future (“[…] what he would later call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace“).

Of course, the lines quoted above are clearly in Lane’s voice, clumsy and self-lacerating and laden with “that”s and “this”es. That’s true of most of the piece. Occasionally we get a word like “suffused,” which I tend to attribute to Wallace.

Short story: “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory”

“Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory,” by Orson Scott Card

First appeared in the Chrysalis anthology, volume 4 (1979); collected in Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories and Maps in a Mirror (on Google Books)

Maybe 4,000 words?

This story has stuck with me over the years. The main character is riveting from the start because he always wants something and he usually finds some way of getting it. It’s funny how enjoyable an “unlikable” character can be. Even if I didn’t admire Howard’s cleverness and ruthlessness, I would still want to read a story about him manipulating people and/or getting his comeuppance. Part of the appeal is seeing what depths of selfishness he can sink to, and how effectively he can rationalize them.

Another thing that’s stuck with me (from Maps in a Mirror) is this quote from Card’s writing teacher Francois Camoin: “When you have a word embodied in a story, the word itself should never appear. So don’t ever say the word ‘guilt’ in this story.” This strikes me as great advice, even though, like most writing advice, I wouldn’t take it completely literally. A story like this shouldn’t be explicit about the really important stuff. It should make the reader’s mind keep working on that stuff, seeing it again and again, maybe naming it for themselves rather than having the name supplied.

Here I should make a confession: I’m the type of reader who needs things spelled out. One of the things I said about “The Beach” was that I appreciated how blatantly vague it was. By being obvious about it, the story allowed me to see its vagueness as a technique and therefore, in some sense, feel that I “understood” the story. This is probably a flaw in my style of reading; I can’t bring myself to really enjoy a piece without “understanding” it in an analytical, English-departmenty way. Anyway, “Eumenides” leaves its tiny Furies unexplained, but the connection to Howard’s crime becomes clear late in the story. It’s made almost explicit: “No little monster is going to be born.” I can’t decide if the story is better with that line or without it. It’s the kind of tidiness that both satisfies and disappoints. By giving such a blatant hint at what the infants “mean,” the story stops readers from seeing them as ruined versions of Howard’s baby girl, or as images of his monstrous self, or as something else altogether. And yet that line also gives the story some extra unity.

One thing I’m not a fan of is that late in the story, when the wife and daughter show up, they both seem flat and overly convenient. They exist mainly to amplify and shed light on Howard’s torment. Alice is tough and bitchy and all business, and I cannot believe she put up with Howard’s manipulations for so many years. I find it easy to believe that Howard raised a daughter with martyr tendencies, but Rhiannon’s angelic blandness irritates me. Also, the idea that she went and “laid her head on his chest” without Alice pulling her away strains my credulity.

Another minor thing I have some trouble with is the statement that Howard “could not remember” what he had done. If we read this as literally true, we would have to accept that Howard is capable of suppressing a recent, upsetting memory so completely that he can no longer access it—which isn’t something that even sociopaths are capable of doing. We have to read this line as Howard telling himself he can’t remember. I guess I would find that easier to swallow if the phrase were “didn’t bother to recall” or “couldn’t be bothered to dredge up” (that is, if I could hear Howard’s voice in the line), or if the statement were the literal truth: “He didn’t remember.” This might seem petty, but something that irks me about a lot of commercial genre fiction is when a story depicts a mostly realistic, believable world and then fudges a few details (like psychology) for dramatic effect.

(Side note: I wonder if people with birth defects are offended by this sort of deformity = repulsiveness thing. Card doesn’t comment on that in his notes in Maps in a Mirror, though I know that after writing this story, he had at least one kid with congenital disabilities. The story could easily be read as suggesting that incest-related deformities are even more unspeakable than the act that produced them. Hard to imagine it without that central image, though.)

Short story: “The Mouse”

“The Mouse,” by Shirley Jackson

Collected in Just an Ordinary Day: The Uncollected Stories Of Shirley Jackson

Around 2,000 words?

Apparently never published in Jackson’s lifetime. It stuck with me because I didn’t understand it at all on the first couple of reads—what does the mouse being fat have to do with anything?—and then later, when I had set the book down and was doing something completely different, holy shit. The build-up is so subtle that I almost missed it too: the husband setting aside money for someone who doesn’t exist, and his wife seemingly figuring it out without saying so directly. The last lines give me a horribly real image of her face, although her expression is not described or even specified except in terms of the husband’s reaction to it. Remarkable how much hints and atmosphere can do when they’re used well.