Tag: writing about a thing without naming it explicitly

Short story: “Beauty, a Terrible Story”

“Beauty, a Terrible Story,” by Caio Fernando Abreu, translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato

First appeared in 1989 in the collection The Dragons Haven’t Been to Paradise; appeared in English in Words without Borders: The Online Magazine of International Literature, July 2016

3,086 words, counting the epigraph but not counting the dedication

I admire the way this story avoids making any explicit (or even nearly explicit) statement about the main character’s situation. He keeps trying to tell her and failing. You can feel the weight of his silence.

Found via the Ploughshares blog.

“I remember translating the last scene of the story, when the protagonist ‘ran his fingertips along his neck, […] groping for a seed in the dark.’ Afterward, I realized that I’d placed my own hand on the right side of my neck like the protagonist. The experience wasn’t romantic or magical, but it served as a reminder that I was inhabiting someone else’s world, and that I could trust the reader to feel the story as intensely as I’d felt it, no further explanation needed.”

—the translator (x)


Short story: “The Night of the Curlews”

“The Night of the Curlews,” by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa

This translation appeared in the New Yorker, April 17th, 1978 (online here), and in Collected Stories (1984)

Perhaps 1000 words?

I’m not sure I really get Gabriel García Márquez. This story is well written but enigmatic to the point where I give up on figuring it out. Maybe it’s an absurd joke.

I like the opening, where the narrator implies that something terrible has happened without saying what it is.

Apparently this story gets echoed or reused in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Short story: “The Unplayable Études”

“The Unplayable Études,” by Ethan Chatagnier

Appeared in The Cincinnati Review, issue 14.1, summer 2017; excerpted here

Not sure how many words

I admire the way the line “He was such a strong swimmer” carries so much weight. The story doesn’t even have to tell us he’s dead.

The story also never tells us whether she succeeded in playing the unplayable, though it assures us she knows herself. Great metaphor, that music.

I like the narration of the father’s almost tidy grief, and of the mother’s messy, counterintuitive reaction to Charlie’s death.

Short story: “Summer after the War”

“Summer after the War,” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Appeared in Granta 7: Best of Young British Novelists, March 1st, 1983 (online here)

6206 words

Like a lot of Ishiguro’s work, this piece dwells on the irreparable mistakes of the past, and as always in a delicate way, refusing to state them outright. We understand, although the boy does not, that the grandfather’s reputation has been ruined, that he regrets his propaganda work (or perhaps not? perhaps he only regrets the public’s reaction to it), and that he does not have long to live, but he still takes joy and hope from his grandson’s young life.

By the way, congratulations to Ishiguro on the Nobel! Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled are fantastic. The Guardian says he is “currently ‘very deep’ into writing his latest novel, which he is juggling alongside film, theatre and graphic novel projects[,]” so that’s exciting.

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”).