STORY: “The Last Worders” by Karen Joy Fowler – It’s so cool that you can read it here, isn’t it?
FROM: WHAT I DIDN’T SEE (Small Beer Press, 2010)
BASICALLY: The narrator and her twin sister are searching for the boy they both loved in high school. Precisely the same in every thought, wish, and fear, the sisters have agreed that the boy must be the one to choose between them. They arrive by train in remote San Margais, where he’s recently been spotted at the Last Word Café, a venue infamous for its Poetry Slam. To the death. But the locals evade all their questions about the place. Amid anecdotes about San Margais’ curious history (its stain of slavery, an exquisite poet, and the despotic ruler that erased her every poem from living memory), the narrator is stunned to discover that her twin can still surprise her.
In THE LIE THAT TELLS A TRUTH: A GUIDE TO WRITING FICTION (a book I like quite a lot), John Dufresne counsels writers, “You start your ending when you write the first line of the story.” It’s true in a very literal way (you know, just like the cheerful notion that every single breath you take is one breath closer to your last), but I prefer to think about it as an approach to beginnings. Some stories seem one way throughout, but take on an entirely new meaning once we’ve reached the end. And holy crap, how I love to read a story like that—I’m participating in it because not just the characters, but also I, the reader, have changed. “The Last Worders” is a fantastic example of this kind of story. Here’s the opening paragraph:
Charlotta was asleep in the dining car when the train arrived in San Margais. It was tempting to just leave her behind, and I tried to tell myself this wasn’t a mean thought, but came to me because I, myself, might want to be left like that, just for the adventure of it. I might want to wake up hours later and miles away, bewildered and alone. I am always on the lookout for those parts of my life that could be the first scene in a movie. Of course, you could start a movie anywhere, but you wouldn’t; that’s my point. And so this impulse had nothing to do with the way Charlotta had begun to get on my last nerve. That’s my other point. If I thought being ditched would be sort of exciting, then so did Charlotta. We felt the same about everything.
(Spoiler-Avoidance Reminder: You can totally go read the whole thing for yourself at Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet before I ruin everything. Okay? Okay.)
You guys, this is a brilliant first paragraph. There are SO many things right about it. I will use a handy bulleted format to break it down.
- We get the narrator’s particular voice right off—conversational, kind of wry and dark (“It was tempting to just leave her behind”), but prone to equivocation. We’re not sure where she stands, morally speaking.
- Charlotta’s name gets mentioned three times right off the bat, which, considering her importance, is no accident. We’re immediately introduced to the way that her thoughts and the narrator’s thoughts are so intertwined as to be nearly indistinguishable. Most crucially, the tension between the sisters is already seething.
- Not just tension, either. Thoughts of abandonment. Competition. Acting on impulse.
- And the setting? On a train, traveling to a remote place called San Margais. The train evokes romantic travel scenes of yore, but then the narrator muses about “the first scene in a movie,” so we know it’s more or less modern. The atmosphere here, as in the rest of the story, is steeped in desire and insecurity and a heady sense of adventure.
- Basically, this paragraph is a microcosm of the whole story.
- And the big thing, the main number one thing, is that all this information is conveyed without the sentences seeming to do anything at all except provide a beginning. There’s nothing beating a reader over the head with its self-conscious cleverness, no blinking neon sign imploring us to TAKE NOTE IMPORTANT FOR LATER, nothing to suggest that this paragraph contains anything at all except vital narrative that eases us into the story.
But the entire ending is encased in the thoughts that begin the story. The abandonment of one sister by the other does actually take place—what’s so fascinating, of course, is that it means the narrator was right: the twins really do think exactly alike. She’s right and yet she’s wrong, because one of the story’s last lines is her claim, “I would never have done to Charlotta what she had done to me.” So is she an unreliable narrator or a reliable one? Every piece of the story must be reconsidered in the light of the ending—all the characters’ vagaries and biases take on new weights as we mull over the evidence. The story’s final image, with the narrator climbing the interminable stone steps from the gorge and arriving at the top alone, in the dark, also recalls the beginning’s sense of adventure while simultaneously changing its meaning. Karen Joy Fowler uses her beginning and her ending to form a circular kind of structure in her story, and man, it’s a powerful technique.
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Soooo…Hi. It’s been a while. Like, a big little while. I’ve missed my lovely readers (the few, the delightful, the fairly nerdy) and the indulgence of an outlet for my incurable over-analysis. Stupid life, getting in the way of my blogging. Still, Story Number Five-Oh is an exciting place to pick up the thread in an exciting new year, and even if I might have to change the name of this blog to A Hundred Stories in About a Year and a Half Or Maybe Two But I’m Not Promising Anything, I hope you’ll continue to hang out and enjoy the journey with me. I revamped a couple of things (see, for example, the new page of Optional Explanations) so please do take a look around and let me know if I broke anything else on the blog in the process.