Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Malaria," "Encounters with Unexpected Animals," "Chapter Two," and "The Wilderness"

I want to talk about what amazed you about these stories. For me, the striking part of fiction is the "wow" factor, that moment where the story surprised you despite the fact that all the groundwork for the ending was laid out. Was it the odd way that Lisa reacted to the father in "Encounters With Unexpected Animals"? Or were you more attracted to the AA stories in "Chapter Two"?

For me, it was the point of view of the narrator in "Malaria." I was always told that you shouldn't have a passive narrator, and at first, I read Orlando as being passive. Here he was visiting a family that was a novelty to him, coming in as an observer. Of course, my fiction senses are tingling. I'm panicking. What is this guy supposed to do? How is his presence significant?

For me, watching Orlando develop into an active character in this story is something that I want to take note of and put in my writing toolbox. Though he doesn't converse with George much, he has the pivotal conversation about his growing illness, how he's losing himself, and is able to use that information to go on his own journey. Though at the end of the story Orlando admits that he cannot tell George's story, I feel that George's story has altered Orlando in a significant way, even down to how he perceives his own casual sickness.

What about you? Did you find anything in these stories that you would like to steal? Come prepared tomorrow to talk about what you would like to take from these stories. And I encourage to attempt some exercises based on what you responded to.


  1. What impressed me most in Nelson’s “Chapter Two,” was how much Hil revealed about herself in her stories of her drunken neighbor, Bergeron Love. The story is told primarily through the narrator’s own stories (does this count as metafiction?), and the style has this easy way of drawing you in. What’s so significant about the particular stories she tells among each group? We begin with the knowledge that she is in an AA meeting, but the narrator is unwilling to admit she has her own problem. Look how much worse she is, Hil argues. At least I’m not that fucked up. What I loved most about this story was the twist at the end. In Joe’s casual comment (“You didn’t share the part about Bergeron love being dead now.”) we’re thrown. Not in a grand-reveal plot twist that cheats the reader, but in a way that makes us reevaluate what we know. It reminds me of a technique Atwood uses at the end of The Blind Assassin (because I can’t seem to help myself from bringing her into every blog post now). We haven’t been lied to, we’ve not been deceived, but suddenly the narrative has been flipped on its head. In some ways I can’t even articulate why Bergeron’s passing has affected me so much. I don’t honor the taboo of not speaking ill of the dead, but even I wonder why Hil cannot quit clinging to this memory as she stops at pubs on the way home from AA. It makes me want to read the story again. How different would it be, knowing this woman, this huge presence in the story, is actually dead? I also love works where the narrator isn’t the central figure. Observing other characters allows the author to create an almost god-like presence within the main figure that would be otherwise impossible (I’m thinking The Great Gatsby and Moby-Dick here).

    I also really appreciated Johnston’s “Encounters with Unexpected Animals.” Not only for the title, but for how the piece moves. It’s short, but the reader can infer so much from the clues he drops. How does Lambright look at her? Why is rape the first thing that comes to the girl’s mind? Why did he bring her to this deserted spot? Did she overreact, fleeing from the car? There’s this severe tension in the piece that also makes me want to reread it. I want to diagram Johnston’s structure, to figure out how the author compacted so much in so little.

    Overall I appreciated the range among these pieces. From Tallent’s almost philosophical “The Wilderness” to Byers’s movement in “Malaria,” I feel that we have a lot to talk about in class tomorrow.

  2. I was most surprised by Elizabeth Tallent’s “The Wilderness” for a couple of reasons. Number one: I was surprised by how long she was able to talk about the main character without ever really having her interact with anyone. Even when other characters were mentioned we just got a kind of summarization of her encounters with them. We actually didn’t get to see them happen. It just felt so opposite to me. We are told over and over again to “show, not tell,” but I feel like that’s what Tallent’s doing. For example, the main character keeps referring to this incident with another professor asking her what she would want on her grave stone, but we are never actually put inside the moment. She also thinks generally in her head often about how her students see her, how she interacts with them, what types of reactions they have to literature, but we never actually meet a single one. I think it would be interesting to try to do this. The challenge would be in trying to not make it sound like just a long inner monologue on what the protagonists thinks about all these incidents they’ve had with other people. It would be hard to keep it interesting enough that the reader does not feel like they would have gained more from the story if the author had just let them see the actual scene versus the analysis/summarization of it.
    Another thing that surprised me was the end when the main character started going on about her grandfather and how she seemed to want proof that he loved her. Apparently this is the story she has always been searching for, yet we do not discover it until the last section of the story. This is also where we get the real evidence why she was just as lonely as a girl as she is as an adult. I was kind of thrown for a loop. I was like where the heck did the grandfather come from? But it made sense that something had to happen to her as a child that has made her remain a lonely person into her adult life. I found in this story though I was much more interested in the form of it as I was reading than the actual plot. I think a way to turn this into an exercise would be to pick a scene that is really important to the character’s story and then not directly show it in the piece, but instead have it revealed through the character’s reflections on it afterwards.

  3. If there was one story that surprised me, it was "The Wilderness." There's just something about the way it was told that struck me and stuck with me, and I'm not entirely sure if I liked it or not, but I definitely remember it. It felt like there was almost no action in the story, which seems completely opposite to what a story should be. We're told that we should show a character through their actions, through their motivations, through their dialogue, but "In the Wilderness" is almost completely narration, and what isn't is all through the narrator's perspective and highly filtered. We are given poignant things and a whole lot to reflect on, but we're given it in a way that almost doesn't seem like a story at all, but somehow amounts to it. I think that's something that's hard to do, and the way the author breaks rules here is something I definitely admire.

    And then there's just the way it's written. It's philosophical, and it's a lot to take in. Her sentences are long. Long, thoughtful, completely thought provoking, and then topped off with these short, declarative statements that almost seem to not be from the same story. It's jarring in a way that involves you in the story, and the two styles which should technically clash come together in a way that really drew me in. I think there's definitely something to learn and take from that, and if there was anyone I wanted to try a sentence deconstruction with and try to write in the style of, I think this is it. As someone who appreciates philosophy, the way this story moves intrigues me, and even though I'm not sure I could do it myself, I'd love to try.

    It's more of an investigation than a story in the end. Nothing comes in the right order. That professor who asked her what she wanted on her gravestone is threaded through the entire piece, and there's no real resolution. Her grandfather comes completely out of left field, until you step back and realize that it makes perfect sense in context. It requires thought, it makes you think, and I think in the end all stories are investigations, are explorations, and that's something I definitely took away from this particular story. If there's one thing I want to do, it's to learn how to make my stories a journey for the reader, one they feel completely included in.

  4. I felt like all of these stories has an interesting twist about them but the one that stood out most to me was "Malaria" because of the narrator being so passive in the it yet have a strangely interactive role. I feel like if it was in George's point of view we would lose something from the story. I don't know what it is exactly and I don't know if you could even pinpoint it in the piece, but if it was not narrated by Orlando we would not have that last paragraph. To me it is the culmination of everything that has been building in the pace. That and fact that we can't have this same refection from George. We needed the distance in this piece so that was can start to think about what happened to George and how this affected Orlando as being more than just his disease. Orlando starts this and we are invited to continue thinking on it as the peace comes to a close.

    I would love to be able to steal this technique. To be able to build very round characters that are passive in the story but then allow you to see deeper into the peace then you would have ever been able to do if he was active. To even just take how Byers is able to leave you submerged in thought even when the peace is over. To keep you there stuck in this frame of mind along side the narrator. I think that is something that I have always wanted to do this a story and something I definitely would like to accomplish in one. I think that I could copy this style in that way but I don't know if I could pull off a passive narrator. I feel like it is very easy for you to get stuck in their head and become to distant from the action of the story. It takes a certain amount to balance that I think Byers pulls off nicely in "Malaria". This being said the success of the inner thoughts come with the fact Orlando being such a passive character. With Orlando’s almost awkward involvement he can come at this peace in an angel that allows him to have this deeper reflection in the end. In this introspection he becomes a strange sort of active character but active only in his own mind. I really enjoyed this piece and would love to be able to achieve this in my own writing.

  5. I think that my favorite story out of all of these was "Encounters with Unexpected Animals". It's not too long, but it tells a lot of story for a few pages. And I absolutely loved how Lisa responded to the father. I honestly laughed my ass off for a minute before going back and looking it over again for a minute. I was recently told the the best humor comes from when everyone is expecting one thing and then you suddenly make an unexpected twist. "Encounters with Unexpected Animals" does this in spades. From the way the first few pages set things up, it looks like Lisa is going to be threatened, I even wondered if the dad was being sleazy and planning something with his son's girlfriend. I think in this kind of story, you expect the father to be the aggressor, so it goes from something cliche to something unique and impressive when Johnston turns it on its head. But the part I like it that I believe it could happen. Lisa isn't a weak character. She's if anything, an 'bad girl' though I shudder to use that phrase. I can just see the gears turning in her head as she comes up with a way to get back at the father for his attempt to threaten her. And it's awesome. I get sick of characters that clearly have a way out of a situation and it's ignored for the sake of plot. The fact that she clearly not only knows that she's in a much stronger position than it seems, but she knows how to use that to her advantage. I utterly love this and I wish that I could write a scenario like this. The ability to turn a seemingly obvious scenario on its hand is a great way to keep a reader guessing, but doing it while keeping it realistic and interesting takes a lot of effort.

  6. I agree with Sean that Johnston does well to use stereotypes against the reader and to change up the preconceived notion of what we think the world is like. We are almost purposefully mislead by the narrator in Lambright's intentions throughout the whole story, starting on the first page with "[s]he had a reputation, a body[...]" and I think that goes to characterize Lambright through Lisa by how he looks at her, and how soon he is to take her home since her licence was suspended. That suspicion of his intentions are raised more by having his wife only known as "his wife," whereas everybody else is named. The only other mention of his wife is when her stuff was vanishing in the house, which seems to juxtapose her and Lisa just this one time.
    But to look further into Lambright's character, he has an almost obsession with her, knowing her tattoo ideas and the stories she told. And even if they were recent stories he still seemed to dwell on them. But this obsession was in a way for him to see what kind of a person she was and how much he had against her, and seemed to judge her. Johnston does well to encapsulate the characters through comparison, and that helping to further characterize them. To go back with what Sean mentioned though about Johnston being able to break the barriers of the expected, I think there is definitely a lot of build up involved. It is structured so that halfway through we realize he is not going to her home, "outside the city limits, miles from where the girl lived" (94), and from there until the very end we are led to believe that something is going to happen here, hints are thrown in and that really gives a transparency of character, to see what they do in this high tension situation. "She scooted an inch closer. Two inches. Three. He smelled lavender, her hair or cool skin" (95), and here is where the climax is and we realize how much he is being tempted, we feel that temptation, and when he thinks, "enough" (95), there is almost a sigh of relief that he didn't give in. This whole tension Johnston creates defines these characters more in these four pages than some stories do in much more, because they are backed into a corner and forced to say everything, to be exposed and to be vulnerable.

  7. I was definitely surprised and confused by the girlfriend's reaction in "Unexpected Encounters with Animals". Of course, it was a little sketchy for Lambright to bring her to a secluded area, and making it worse, he turned off the car lights and everything. Anyone would be scared. But the girl's reaction was so blunt and accusatory, that it made me question who she was as a character. Before this scene, we only see her through Lambright's eyes. She has green hair and a bar code tattoo, and steals jewelry and pills. She drinks with their son and got her driver's license suspended for unknown reasons. She has trouble written all over her. This scene shows a quite different side of her though. She's messing with him, telling him that she could convince anyone that he hurt her or raped her, which is possible in this scenario. Then she moves closer to him, and we actually get the sense that he's aroused from smelling her and being so close to her, until she finally makes the bold move of running from the car. Of course, this startled me, and worried me. What was she going to say? What would she accuse him of? But more importantly, Lambright just sat there, shocked. This split decision from a reckless girl could change his entire life. It could send him to court or jail; it could ruin his family. I didn't understand why he just let her run away, without even trying to call her back or explain himself.
    As a reader, I am intrigued by all of the questions I have regarding the characters. But, at the same time, I feel some sort of peace. Even though I'm not sure why this girl behaved like she did, I feel like it fits what I already know about her. Her taunting and threatening is reckless, which is what I've already surmised about her. Lambright is the type of guys who allows this girl to come over to "apologize" for her mistakes, but then tells her she needs to break up with his son. He considers this girl to be almost "too bold for her own good". But don't his actions prove that he is just as much "too bold for his own good"? She risked their respect and the relationship to take their stuff and drink. He risked his family, his reputation, and potentially his freedom, to use what can only be described as scare tactics, to get this girl away from his son. It makes me wonder why he's so desperate, and why did this authority that he gloats to himself about mean so much to him? How does this course of action equate to control over his family and his own circumstances? Maybe that's why he didn't do anything when the girl left. He was stunned from her taking back that control over him and his family, and actually taking more than she had before.

  8. I really enjoyed Johnston’s Encounters with Unexpected Animals. First I want to just mention how cool that title is, and how it speaks to both the anecdotes within the story about strange animals, but also seems to characterize Lambright’s “encounter” with Lisa in his car at the end. As a small aside, I think I’d steal that design when it comes to naming my own stories (which I know is something that doesn’t always seem the most straightforward).
    I enjoyed his story because it manages to create such gripping tension in such a short period of time; only four pages. But he really does pack the story with meaning. The way the wife is only referred to as ‘his wife’ or worse, as ‘Robbie’s Mother’. The way Lambright has this great level of disdain and dislike for Lisa, yet seems to hang on every word she says. He sees her, like the title suggests, as a sort of animal. Johnston also uses stereotypes to help quickly characterize Lisa in particular, making her the “bad girl” with tattoos and hair dye and suspended license giving us a crash-course on her character relying on our stereotypes in order to quickly move into the more interesting facets of her and Lambright.
    I also love how the story culminates into this power struggle between Lambright and Lisa; Lambright impressed by how fatherly he sounds, and having control with the car and driving her out to the middle of nowhere where she has nowhere to run. And then her countering right back with her temptation, and then her power play of running out of the car and into the creek with all the power to make up (or not make up) whatever story she wants about what happened; an there’s a huge reversal at the end of the story, where it’s really Lisa who’s holding all the cards at the end.

  9. My favorite story was “Chapter Two” by Antonya Nelson. I think the author did a great job of revealing things about the narrator, Hil, through her telling of stories about her drunken neighbor at the A.A. meetings she attends. I was a little surprised at first at the way the story was structured. It started out saying that Hil was talking at an A.A. meeting, and that’s how the story starts – she is sitting in the meeting, talking. But then it smoothly transitions into the scene she is describing, so that we are no longer in the meeting listening to her story, but in the story itself. And then we are pulled back into the meeting, and then back into a different story, again and again. It’s such an interesting way to write, and I think it would be difficult to do, but I do think Nelson pulls it off well.
    This story actually reminded me a bit of the memoir Lying by Lauren Slater. In the story, Hil chooses to start her story from different points in her neighbor’s life depending on the audience she is in (since she goes to at leads two, possibly three different A.A. meetings). Slater is famous for twisting her stories around, changing them to suit her purpose depending on the message she wants to get across. It’s sort of similar, right? Also, Hil lies about her progress in her meetings, saying she is almost a year sober when she still drinks. (As a side note, I find it funny how 1. She lives with an obese woman to put her own problems in perspective and 2. And A.A. buddy doesn’t stop her from having beer because he thinks it doesn’t count (also, he seems to be addicted to Xanax and, like Hil, lives with a porno addict to sort of make himself feel better).) Slater, too, joins A.A. meetings even though she isn’t an alcoholic – it’s just to satisfy her compulsion for lying (and she does it so well the other members think she’s in denial when she tries to come clean).
    Anyway, I thought those stories were actually a good tactic to reveal characteristics about Hil. Because see, she chooses what stories to tell and when to start them and how to mention what happens and who’s there. It shows what kinds of things are important to her, like family. She mentions her son a lot and the bonds he has with her roommate, and the messed-up family of her drunken neighbor.
    I would love to be able to imitate this successfully.