Shaping the Short Story

A piece of fiction writing—a short story, for example—has two distinct elements to it. The first we can call synchronic, which means existing at one and the same time; the second is diachronic, which means existing through time.

                <p>Or to put it another way, a piece of fiction writing has both <em>structure</em> and <em>flow.</em></p>
                <p>Fiction writers must become artists in both domains, developing aesthetic skills that are akin to a water-slide designer's. They must build structures that impress upon the intellect, and develop a sense of flow to tickle their reader's sensations.</p>
                <p>The synchronic domain of fiction writing&mdash;its structure&mdash;usually becomes manifest in the arrangement of a story's scenes, but in a short story, where the entirety of the text may only include one scene, the synchronic domain has to become manifest in something else entirely. <span class="pullquote">When it comes to short stories, where does the structure come from?</span></p>
                <p>Let's begin by defining the short story as a narrative text that is intended to provide the reader with a unitary effect. As Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his essay, "<a href="http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm" target="_blank">The Philosophy of Composition</a>" </p>
                <blockquote>I prefer commencing [the composition process] with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view &mdash; for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest &mdash; I say to myself, in the first place, 'Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?'</blockquote>
                <p>The structure of a short story, then, comes not from the arrangement of scenes, but from the arrangement of sensations and impressions experienced by the reader, an arrangement designed to leave the reader, at the end of the text, experiencing a <em>unitary</em> effect.</p>
                <p>James Joyce said that he wrote his stories with an aim towards providing his reader with the experience of an epiphany. In <em>Stephen Hero</em>, a precursor to the text that became <em>A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man</em>, <a href="http://theliterarylink.com/joyce.html" target="_blank">Joyce wrote</a>: </p>
                <blockquote>By an epiphany he meant 'a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.</blockquote>
                <p>When Joyce writes, "vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind," he's using "vulgar" in its Latin sense, meaning "common and ordinary." It's important to note the radical nature of Joyce's project. His stories try to record the presence of the spirit as it manifests in everyday objects, events, and people. </p>
                <p>Joyce continues: </p>
                <blockquote>The clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany....I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin's street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany...</blockquote>
                <p>Joyce further explains the process of epiphany via Thomas Aquinas' theory of beauty, summarizing: </p>
                <blockquote>First we recognise that the object is <em>one</em> integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a <em>thing</em> in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is <em>that</em> thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.</blockquote>
                <p>For Joyce, epiphanies are the result of a structural beauty, which is comprised by the quality of an object's "integrity, symmetry, and radiance." </p>
                <p>Of course, short story writers can aim at different effects than Joyce's epiphany, but the success of their project will still be decided by the story's integrity, symmetry, and radiance.</p>
                <p>What do these words mean in the context of the short story?</p>
                <p>Aquinas (and Joyce) use "integrity" to speak about an object's wholeness. When you come across an object in the world, you have to first discern the object from the world around it, which means you have to divide the world into <em>the object</em> and <em>not the object</em>. Sometimes you have to combine several parts to actually perceive the whole, i.e., a chair may be comprised of two arms, a back, a seat, four legs, a handle to lift a footrest, cushions, multiple fabrics, screws, nails, etc., but even then, it is still <em>a</em> chair.</p>
                <p>A short story is not a collection of random words on a page, nor a collection of random sentences, settings, characters, events. The parts of a short story must work together to form <em>a</em> whole. This is what it means for a short story to have integrity.</p>
                <p>Additionally, integrity implies that nothing extraneous is included in a short story. If some character, event, object, setting, or even a <em>word</em> is not absolutely necessary to the integrity of the whole, then the writer should have enough integrity to excise it from the final draft. By deleting the extraneous, the writer begins to achieve what we've called "symmetry."</p>
                <p>Symmetry can only be appreciated through a process of analysis. As Joyce writes, we must "consider the object in whole and in part, in relation to itself and to other objects, examine the balance of its parts, contemplate the form of the object, traverse every cranny of the structure." Accomplishing this, we can begin to appreciate an object's symmetry.</p>
                <p>Short story writers can use the concept of symmetry to help them decide what needs to come next. When drafting a story, writers are continually faced with the question of the blinking cursor, the question of what should they write <em>now!</em></p>
                <p>One way to find the answer is through symmetry. If the writer knows that her final story must, in some way, achieve symmetry, then she can examine what she's already written with an eye towards putting it in balance. This balance could require changes to something major, such as the plot, or to something minor, such as the quantity of words the writer uses to describe the physical appearance of her secondary characters; the key is to discover those elements of the text that are out of balance with the others, and to decide if something can or should be done to correct them, whether through deletion or extension.</p>
                <p>Symmetry helps the writer to know that her "story" is complete (and by story, I mean "narration of the plot"). When the beginning, middle, and end of the story achieve a kind of symmetry, when every extra scene has been cut and every extra line of dialogue has been deleted, the writer can stop working on the "story" part of her text and start focusing on its "radiance."</p>
                <p>When it comes to short stories (or really, all creative writing), radiance refers to the text's clarity of vision. When a text is radiant, it lacks a certain fuzziness, a certain murkiness; it shines a clear light into the reader's imagination and dispells the shadows of ambiguity (this is not to say that a short story can't be ambiguous; it's to say that its ambiguities must be radiant).</p>
                <p>By placing a value on the radiance of the text, the clarity of the vision, the short story writer ensures that her reader won't wander lost and alone through a fog of impreciseness. The writer reads through her draft&mdash;"traverse(s) every cranny of the structure"&mdash;and revises all those instances where she used an imprecise phrase; for example, where she wrote "He looked at the woman, his eyes full of determination," she now writes, "He looked at the woman the way a bull looks at the waving red cape." The writer makes this revision because she needs the look on her character's face to radiate in the mind of her reader, but her original phrase, "eyes full of determination" created a murky image at best; the image of the bull is clear, and it <em>shows</em> the determination rather than <em>tells</em> it (in a later draft, the writer may want to improve the phrase by changing it from an analogy to a metaphor, but we don't need to take that trip with her&mdash;why is a metaphor an improvement over an analogy, you ask? Because analogies create <em>two images</em> in the reader's mind, requiring the reader to do the heavy work of transferring the qualities of one image on to the aspects of the other; metaphors, on the other hand, impregnate one object with the qualities of another, providing a single image for the reader to examine&mdash;a metaphor allows one image to beam with the radiance of another).</p>
                <p>Integrity. Symmetry. And Radiance.</p>
                <p>If writers focus on these three aspects of the text, the beauty of their short stories will begin to take shape.</p>
                <p>Of course, in the end, short stories will not only be judged by their beautiful structure, but also by the way the spirit of the text rises from the dead pulp and enters into meaningful communion with the reader. If integrity, symmetry, and radiance defines the story's structure, it is this quality&mdash;this quality of rising and communing&mdash;that defines the story's flow.</p>
                <p>But we'll talk about that some other time.</p>

On Fucked-Up-ness

Jason looks down and finds that it is indeed his wife beneath him, but that she is rotting. Her eyes are open but glazed over, staring up at him, without meaning, but bulging as though in terror of him. The flesh on her face is yellowish and drawn back toward her ears. Her mouth is open in a strangely cruel smile and Jason can see that her gums have dried and pulled back from her teeth. Her lips are black and her blonde hair, now long and tangled, is splayed out over the pillow like a urinal mop spread out to dry. There is a fuzzy stuff like mold around the nipples of her shrunken breasts. Jason tries desperately to get free from her body. But finds to his deepest horror that he is stuck! “This woman has been dead for three weeks,”says the officer in genuine revulsion. Jason strikes wildly against the thighs in his effort to free himself, jolts one leg off the bed so that it dangles there, disjointed and swinging, the long yellow toenails scratching on the wooden floor. The four assistants seize Jason and wrench him forcibly away from the corpse of his dead wife. The body follows him punishingly in movement for a moment, as a sheet of paper will follow a comb after the comb has been run through hair; then, freed by its own weight, it falls back in a pile on the badly soiled sheets. (Coover, 90-91)

Fucked-up-ness. A definition. It is an abstract noun that expresses a particular quality, a particular state. Fucked-up-ness expresses the quality, the state, of being fucked-up. In its adjectival sense, fucked-up usually carries a connotation of disorganization, of complete confusion (”Fucked up,” EVA): “Don’t go over Jim’s right now. His mind is all fucked-up,” a connotation that derives from the verb fuck-up, which means to botch, to bungle, to mishandle: “I’d ask Jim to take care of it, but with his mind all fucked-up, he’ll just fuck-up.”

With that being said, there is another adjectival sense to fucked-up, one that is related to disorganization at the same time as it expands the possibilities of the original term, allowing it to be used to describe those things that, while being highly organized, are indisputably fucked-up; rather than conveying disorganization, this sense conveys a state of total abnormality (”Fucked-up,” Macquerie). Fucked-up-ness. An abstract noun expressing a state of total abnormality. The imagination of Robert Coover begins in fucked-up-ness.

The Stationmaster emerges from his office, kneels down beside Alfred, picks up the knife. “Now watch, Alfred,”he says. “Watch!’ Alfred peeks through his hands, weeping, whimpering, as the Stationmaster severs the tall stranger’s head with three quick strokes. The eyes on the head pop open suddenly and the body jerks spasmodically for a moment. Blood gurgles out of the man’s neck, staining Alfred’s trousers where he kneels on the floor. Alfred continues to weep beside the long body, which twitches still with small private reflexes of its own, as the Stationmaster carries the head into his office. He returns, lifts the body up on his shoulders, and carries it out the door. The carcass can be heard tumbling down steps. (Coover, 103)

Fucked-up-ness need not be signaled by curse words, by the sexual act, nor by violence alone. It is a state, a quality, of total abnormality. The above scene, taken from Coover’s short-story, “In a Train Station,” is fucked-up not because the Stationmaster cuts the head off a man, nor is it fucked-up because the Stationmaster then brings the head into his office, “returns, lifts the body up on his shoulders, and carries it out the door.” No. What gives the scene its fucked-up-ness is the way Coover has blended ridiculous violence and hyperbolic action with the most normal of elements: Alfred wears trousers and weeps like a normal human being, the body twitches reflexively like a normal dying body, the carcass “can be heard tumbling down the steps” like a normal object would tumble down steps. Without those details, the scene would border on gratuitousness, but with them, it enters the sublime state of fucked-up-ness.

“The feeling of the sublime,” Kant writes in his Critique of Judgement, “is a pleasure…produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion–not play, but earnest in the exercise of the imagination…The feeling of the sublime may appear to violate purpose…and yet it is judged to be only more sublime” (83).

Fucked-up-ness is a sublime state. It “violates” normality, but its effect is to make normality flow even stronger. Without the abnormal to check the “vital powers” of normality, all that is beautiful becomes mundane. By writing from a place of fucked-up-ness, Coover requires his readers to recognize the vitality of normality, and propels them to imagine a life beyond the mundane.

for listen I have suffered a lifetime of his doggy stink until I truly felt I couldn’t live without it and child his snore would wake the dead though now I cannot sleep for the silence yes and I have pawed in stewpots with him and have paused to watch him drop a public turd or two on sidewalks and seashores in populous parks and private parlors and granddaughters I have been split with the pain and terrible haste of his thick quick cock and then still itchin and bleedin have gazed on as he leapt other bitches at random and I have watched my own beauty decline my love and still no Prince no Prince and yet you doubt that I understand? and loved him my child loved the damned Beast after all (Coover, 17)

The stories in Coover’s collection, Pricksongs & Descants, often begin, not just in an abstract state of fucked-up-ness, but in its physical state as well. This is not the physical state of fantasy, as in the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien, with its elves and orcs, nor the physical state of science-fiction, as in the universe created by George Lucas, with its Ewoks and Jedis. Where those place a wide gulf between their physical world and the real physical world, Coover intersect his worlds with reality in abnormal ways.

For instance, in “The Magic Poker,” the relatively normal situation of a couple of sisters exploring a deserted island-estate in the middle of a lake becomes fucked-up when Coover introduces the possibility of two men still living on the island. Though the men appear several times throughout the disjointed narrative, Coover also writes, “Once upon a time, two sisters visited a desolate island. They walked its paths…broke a few windows…wrote their names…[and] went home (41-42).” There is no mention of the two men. The fucked-up-ness comes not from their presence, but from the possibility of their presence. By only allowing the reader to acquire the possibility of their presence, Coover creates a world covered in mist and populated by fragments.

In the exact middle of “The Magic Poker,” Coover asks, “At times, I forget that this arrangement is my own invention…Where does this illusion come from, this sensation of “hardness’…” (33-34). He wants to know how the imagination can provide the sensation of something that isn’t really there. The answer is simple: because the imagination is fucked-up. As a sublime state, fucked-up-ness causes normality to flow stronger than it would in other circumstances. When there is nothing, and yet still the sensation of something, it is because the imagination, in its fucked-up-ness, has discovered the sublime: “The sublime,” Kant writes, “is to be found in a formless object [emphasis added]” (82)–the imagination creates the sensation of the object when its form is not present.

Coover consistently uses his imagination to inject abnormal situations into relatively normal locations to help establish a state of fucked-up-ness. In “The Elevator,” he writes 15 numbered passages (one for each floor of the building), each of which take place within the same elevator and each of which describe some fucked-up situation, e.g.:

The elevator shrieks insanely as it drops. Their naked bellies slap together, hands grasp, her vaginal mouth closes spongelike on his rigid organ. Their lips lock, tongues hot. The bodies: how will they find them? Inwardly, he laughs. He thrusts up off the plummeting floor. Her eyes are brown and with tears, love him. (Coover, 134)

If it was as simple as that — abnormal events + normal locations = fucked-up-ness — then writers all over the globe could simply copy the formula and achieve Coover’s critical success. But it’s not as simple as that. The formula is not the combination of equal parts. To achieve the alchemy of creating an object where no form exists, one must struggle to achieve complete normalcy while at the same time giving free reign to the imagination. This leaves the writer at a paradox, because while struggling to achieve something, one works toward something, one has a purpose, but the imagination is only vital when it is free from purpose: “Free beauty,” Kant writes, “presupposes no concept of what the object ought to be…Its satisfaction…is immediately bound up with the representation through which the object is given (not through which it is thought)” (65-67).

What makes Coover so successful is that he allows his imagination to run wild throughout the illusions of heaven, but he keeps his sensations planted firmly on the ground. At the same time as he plummets his man and woman down an elevator shaft while the two of them are having sex (a fucked-up situation if ever there was one), he describes the feel of “her vaginal mouth clos[ing] spongelike on his rigid organ,” the sound of “their bellies slap[ping] together,” the taste of their “tongues hot,” and the wonderful sensation of looking into another’s eyes and seeing love. Coover is successful not because he has an abnormal imagination, nor because he has an abnormal fixation on genitals and violence. Coover’s success comes from showing his readers how the normal becomes sublime.

It’s kind of fucked-up.