Saturday, April 9, 2011

We’ll Say the Past Was Now - #24

STORY: "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian" by Jim Shepard

FROM: LIKE YOU'D UNDERSTAND, ANYWAY (Knopf, 2007)- National Book Award Finalist, you guys! Good stuff!

BASICALLY: A 7th-grade kid plays cards with his emotionally unstable older brother while his parents verbally spar. Family histrionics played for laughs, but closing on a somber--almost menacing--note.

Jim Shepard is known for his lengthy, history-based short stories—he's covered the Hindenburg, the French Terror of the seventeenth century, and the shooting of the movie Nosferatu. So of course I chose an extremely short piece (four pages!) about a contemporary family trying to get through an afternoon at home together without killing one another. Go figure. ((As you might have noticed from the recent mere-trickle of posts, my attention span is facing fierce competition at the moment. Four pages is about perfect.))

But Shepard proves here that he doesn't need twenty pages to evoke an entire world and outlook and set of relationships. In a few deft strokes of his opening paragraph, he establishes essential information like place ("a crappy rainy morning in Bridgeport, Connecticut"), narrator age ("I'm home from seventh grade with a sore throat"), situation ("and my parents and brother are fighting"), and historical period ("Jonathan Winters is on Merv Griffin, doing his improv thing with a stick").

From these grounding details, he begins to paint the picture: 

My father's beside himself because he thinks my mother threw out the Newsweek he's been saving to show my brother. It had war casualties on the cover. "You couldn't find your ass with both hands and a banjo," he tells her, though she's not looking.
Shepard places funny lines like this throughout, making this story a lovely example of a strong voice and a convincing family dynamic, but what I'd like to focus on is something he does more subtly. Although Shepard has chosen to tell his story in the present tense and from a youthful perspective, he drops hints that let us know that the true point of view is an adult looking back. Someone older is telling this story, and because he's chosen this particular day and this particular card game with his brother and this particular fight between his parents, the audience can sense that something important is going on. This quality of temporal perspective makes all the difference in telling a short story versus telling a funny/painful childhood anecdote. There's absolutely nothing wrong with anecdotes, but pretty much by definition, they stop at short and amusing. By injecting "Proto-Scorpions…" with a sense of the long view, Shepard deepens his story considerably.

When I say that Shepard "drops hints" about the adult perspective, here's what I mean.

  • Look at what I said about the opening paragraph of "Proto-Scorpions…" The kid says that he's home from seventh grade with a sore throat. But no kid would actually say it this way—he'd say that he's staying home from "school." Naming the grade creates historical distance. If I say, "My senior year in college, I stayed home sick one day," you wouldn't think I meant last week. Note that this kind of phrasing would be a mistake if Shepard weren't trying to create a sense of historical perspective on the story, but since he is, it's marvelous and subtle.
  • Next—and this is crucial—Shepard doesn't drop any more hints for a while. For over a page, he just gets the story going, using description, dialogue, and action to establish his characters. This serves the purpose of making sure that the story is grounded in the here and now—the point of the story is still the story, not the fact that it's being told by an adult.
  • When Shepard finally slips in another historicizing element, this time more clearly, the audience already has a good idea of when the story's taking place. The narrator says of his brother, "He's at this point eighteen or nineteen and has, as he puts it, his whole fucking life ahead of him." Shepard doesn't want his audience to get confused by his time shifts; his purpose is to enhance meaning, not obscure it.
  • Once again, Shepard goes back to his story. For about two and a half pages. Remember, this thing's only four pages long. So he can hit very, very lightly on these elements and they still have a powerful impact.
  • But he does pull the historical point of view back in at the very end. If it had come out of nowhere, it might feel a little gimmicky—but we've been prepared for it. And he hits the note fairly hard, here. After the narrator beats his sick brother at rummy multiple times, his brother upends the card table. The narrator's dad gets mad at him and wants to know if he wants to help his brother. I bolded the two parts that show that it's an older narrator looking back on the event.
"Yeah," I tell him, tearing up.
"Well then why don't you help him?" he wants to know.
Because there's what we want, and what we do, I'd figured out, even then.
"You want to help him?" he asks me again.
"Not really," I tell him, sitting there. Not really, I tell myself, now.

    This story reminds me that great short fiction is always operating on multiple levels at once. I can completely imagine this story told as a personal experience essay ending in some platitude, and it's cringingly dull. But the way Shepard does it, with the past told in the present and the real present only hinted at, the whole scope is broadened. Of course, his perfect lean sentences and funny dialogue don't hurt, either.

    * * *
    One other thing—I didn't especially feel like writing about this today, but if you're teaching writing (to others and/or yourself), I think this would be a fantastic story for studying showing versus telling. In the whole story, or even just on the first page, it'd be a great exercise to highlight the action sentences in one color and the internal sentences in another. Students (and even strong writers in earlier drafts) have a tendency to include large blocks of reflection as they try to work out their characters' psychologies. Shepard provides a nice example of how little of that sort of thing is actually necessary—the internal life of his narrator comes through beautifully and clearly, but there's only a sprinkling of direct thought. When Shepard does use it, he makes it count


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