More On Napalm
by Alex KeeganReturning to the excellent collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander's debut, we find his story "Tumblers."
In "Tumblers" a group of Jews, meant to be transported to the concentration camps by train find themselves on a different train, mistaken for a troupe of tumblers, acrobats. To stay alive, they frantically practice on the train. It's heartbreaking. The whole story is an example of making the pain stick, making it sink in.
At the end of the story the troupe actually have to perform, in front of a cackling audience, possibly Hitler himself. Of course they are terrible, but the audience sees them as comedic, and the main guest says from his theatre-box, "They are as clumsy as Jews."
There are three more heart-rending paragraphs like this. Englander simply will not let us go. There is another space-and-see sentence, then:
Mendel waved him off and stepped forward, moving down-stage, the spotlight harsh and unforgiving against his skin. He reached out past the footlights into the dark, his hands cracked and bloodless, gnarled and intrusive.In my previous article on Napalm, the art of making the story stick long enough to burn through to the bone, I discussed the idea of relentlessness: how often the hint of the problem ("Francis Macomber"), or the problem itself ("A Silver Dish," "Ballistics") is placed early in the story in such a way that the reader cannot escape, cannot skim, and the issue then influences every word that follows.
Mendel turned his palms upward, benighted.
But there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach out from the cracks in boxcar floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies.
What I often find when reading student stories is that the crucial words are there, but like the crime writer's clue hidden in plain sight, they are simply there, not displayed there. When we read a story, we should read perfectly, meticulously, but we don't, certainly not always. Sometimes I read and mark a story only then to hear a protest that on line seventeen the writer wrote some word or phrase that changes the meaning of what follows. Occasionally I have to confess I simply missed the thing!
Rarely, when I go back and read-to-see, does the story suddenly leap up the rankings. Partly I think this is because the words I have read once are now part of me, have become uncharged and the zip or power or pain cannot be added retrospectively.
But I say to the student, "Why did you allow me to miss the point?"
You see how here, in the paragraph above, I isolate MY point and emphasize it by italicizing the word allow? Here in my article, I want the word allow to be out there in the middle of a yard with floodlights around, with no possibility of being missed.
In my story, "The Reds," which won a first prize in Canada:
My brother is out of bed today and we pretend to play cards. We could talk about anything, it's been a long life, but we're talking about the Reds. He swears blind he scored two goals that day but he didn't; I got one, he got one and Dez Thomas scored a cracker, cutting in from the corner flag and letting fly with a forty-yarder.Don't look back at the story. What is happening? Did you read the crucial word in the first line?
In the first line they pretend to play cards. In a recent live-chat in my internet writing group Boot Camp we were discussing napalm and this opening popped up. I asked what was the crucial word and everyone (they looked again) said "pretend" and then they were able to talk about how the brother is dying and this is a case of people going through that awful time unable to talk about it.
Fine, good, aren't we clever, and isn't Alex such a cool writer?
Cough. Then someone said, "Sorry, I missed it when I first read it!" and out came the confessions. A third of the group admitted to missing the word! Whose fault is that?
Well, partly it's poor reading, but more importantly I did not shape the story in a way to ensure that the crucial word that sensitizes every word that follows is bound to be seen and absorbed.
How about this?
We pretend to play cards.Such a simple change. Now if someone misses the crucial word it's not the writer's fault, it's definitely down to the reader. But putting that line alone, up front, is how a poet might write. Set them up for the burn.
My brother is out of bed today; we could talk about anything, it's been a long life, but we're talking about the Reds. He swears blind he scored two goals that day but he didn't; I got one, he got one and Dez Thomas scored a cracker, cutting in from the corner flag and letting fly with a forty-yarder.
I have a confession to make. In my first Napalm article, I had intended to finish with "Tumblers," but when I read the ending of "The Twenty-Seventh Man" I felt I simply had to have white space, a long break, a pause, time to reflect. I needed to wait for the ache to go away. It seemed simply wrong to hit the reader like that, then break the mood, and say, "Right, here, we go, next point!"
That to me, says something important about weight, timing, the art of applying the burn. When we finish a very good short story, we should want to wait, think, feel the emotion and the meaning move through us.
I'm reminded of a publisher, who, after I had won a literary competition, said he knew of some of my work, would I send him my latest half-dozen stories, and another six or so?
I did, was forgotten. When eventually I chased the publisher up he said he'd read them that night. He did and the following day he rang. He was saying no. "I read your latest six straight after supper, and I'm sorry, but they were simply too intense."
I will, at this point, bite my tongue.
The more I think about stories which hurt, which get deep under the skin, and tear at the heart, it seems to me they employ relentlessness. Somehow they avoid that more common feeling of setting, set-up, run-in and punch-line. They insist on every word of the story enveloping me and echoing, back, forth through the piece. If the stories weren't often musical and beautifully orchestrated, they might be accused of repetition or failing to get to the point. Except, of course, it's all the point, just like Poe told us, every word, every sentence is doing a job. In these stories, doing a job on us.
Child abuse is a terrible thing, yet child abuse stories as fiction are now difficult to place. Why? They are tough to place because the matter, in fiction has been de-sensitized, turned to cliché by a flood of such stories in the late nineties. Also, often, there are barriers in readers, where direct reference to certain affairs feels wrong psychologically, emotionally, and we start to see words rather than feel feelings.
The poets say to show feelings don't be too direct, but do be concrete. That is write about concrete things to show the abstract. I am no poet so forgive me if the quote is incorrect. But too often my criticism of beginners stories is two fold. First, I say, it's TMAWIA, Too Much About What It's About. I don't claim the origin of that phrase. I first heard it from the screenwriter Steve May in a talk at Bath University, but I suspect it's older than that.
Too many stories are so clinically "this is what happened" and nothing but what happened, that we throw up the defence of "not again!" and the emotions never bite. The trick is to find a way round the defences. We can not be solely surface, not WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), and we must avoid being TMAWIA.
A very recent story in Boot Camp (it landed today!) approaches abuse by a father by an obvious denial. What she doesn't do is write about her father. She writes about a fox.
The fox, it smells a little. It trots across ash, a black, corn- stubbled field, heading for a thorn hedge. It sees, far-off, a tractor, a driver, a ruddy man, oblivious, facing the wrong way, birds wheeling.We immediately know, of course, what this is about. Primed. Charged.
The story is an incantation of pain, of avoidance but not avoidance. Paragraphs follow, almost all beginning something like this.
What she doesn't do is write about her father. She writes about sea lions, walruses. She writes about shingle beaches, great fat, blubbery animals, slapping, banging into each other, deep roars, bang, bang, slap-slap, bang! the blood, the splatter, Attenborough fodder, flashed blood, weight, roars, the males, the males, until just one, the heaviest, the most determined.
What she doesn't do is write about her father. She writes about the fox.
Nowhere in this story is there a word about a father abusing a daughter, nowhere is there a direct word. But the napalm is there because the story is not TMAWIA (the fox's story is real) nor is it WYSIWYG (because the fox story shimmers and vibrates with metaphorical meaning).
But the napalm also is there because, like the poet, we make sure that the first line is working, supercharging the rest; the napalm also works because the repetition becomes an incantation, a frightening repetition, a prayer; and the napalm is laid thicker by language, by sentences with many commas, building, aching, battering, refusing to let the reader off the hook.
Sometimes, the sensitization is trivial, arguably crude, but still can work. A very early story of mine was called "Postcards From Balloonland." In it a man, who knows he has not long to live, takes his wife and two young children to Disneyland. The opening was three postcards and the story said resolutely unsold. It was a poignant story but the postcards, seen alone looked like, well, boring holiday postcards!
The problem was solved by pre-emption, by as British footballers says, "Getting your retaliation in first". In front of the postcards, bold, italic, centred, highlighted I put:
There are things we should say, things we should not; And there are things we want to say but have never learned how.
This looks to my cynical, more experienced eye, a little twee now, a little forced, but by 'eck did it work! That unplaceable story immediately made print and was reprinted half-a-dozen times. The salter, the pre-sensitizer got the editors to read the "light" postcards with a different eye, a different ear, a different sensibility. The reader was made to absorb in a different way, slowly, building, knowing that this is doing something.
Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing," like many of Carver's stories, opens gently.
Saturday afternoon she drove to the bakery in the shopping center. After looking through a loose-leaf binder with photographs of cakes taped onto the pages, she ordered chocolate, the child's favourite.The baker isn't a jolly chap. The woman gives up trying to be friendly. The cake will be ready Monday morning. Carver describes it, all in that slow, echoey, deliberate style.
"A Small Good Thing" is a tragedy. The child dies suddenly, the parents are devastated, but there is still the cake. When the woman fails to pick up the cake, the baker starts to make telephone calls. How could he? But his world-focus right now is a cake, unpaid for, uncollected. The dead child he knows nothing of.
The telephone exchanges are horrible to us because we know what the parents are suffering, but where this story steps into something which ratchets tighter and tighter and tighter is that Carver never allows us the relief of that simple line; no-one stops long enough to say, "For God's sake, my child has died!" and the pain goes on and on and on and on.
By the last third, the parents just have to confront this man, this pig, this insensitive moron. Reading carefully, we realize it's not his fault, but the parent's grief and anger, the seething, deep, deep anger is peculiar and so real you can see it burning off the page.
I remember almost screaming at this story, "For God's sake, will someone, SAY IT!" Even when the final confrontation comes, still Carver keeps the misunderstanding going, until, finally, finally, the wife blurts out the facts and calls the baker a bastard.
What is different here, and what places this story in my top ten and will never ever come out, is that nothing was done glibly, with a single brush stroke. Instead I was forced to feel, to become, to know before the denouement. By the time it comes, I am there feeling, not watching. The last two pages are the bakers, first apologizing, and then comforting. Carver knows just how much time and space to dedicate to the simply clearing of a desk, the act of sitting down. It is drama of the highest order, exquisitely paced. Too slow and we waver, too fast the moment is no longer perfect. Then he speaks.
"Let me say how sorry I am," the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. "God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I'm just a baker. I don't claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I've forgotten. I don't know for sure. But I'm not any longer, if I ever was. Now I'm just a baker. That don't excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I'm deeply sorry. I'm sorry for your son, and I'm sorry for my part in this," the baker said.This continues. Taken alone these are such ordinary words, and frankly, not the words, in isolation, we would imagine in a quality piece of literature. But the difference here is the man has been built up from the opening paragraphs where he's terse and uncommunicative, through being the bringer of pain, to this sudden shame, deep in the middle of the night. NOW it's perfect writing.
The bakery is hot. The parents stand, take off their coats, then they sit down again. The baker makes them coffee. They sit together. They eat cinnamon rolls. We discover the sadnesses of the baker's life, the endless days, and empty sixteen-hour nights. He tells them, he's a baker, he feeds people; the smell of baking bread far better than the smell of flowers.
It's the dead of the night.
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel. His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. You may click here to see all of Alex Keegan's available books on Amazon.co.uk. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog can be found here.