Periphery Blog: Giving and Taking

            Giving and Taking by Kyle Cornell is a story from Periphery 56 and can be found in the archives as well as the story of the week.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.  This weeks blog comes from Deanna Krikorian, a staff editor for Periphery 56 and the future Editor-in-Chief for Periphery 57. 

            Kyle Cornell’s Giving and Taking, which opens the Prose section of Periphery 56, examines the complex relationship between life and death as seen from the perspective of a dying vulture.

Giving and Taking begins with our protagonist speaking to its Young Egg, desperate in its final moments to pass along information on how the world works. What follows is the story of our protagonist’s life, the lessons they’ve learned, and the rules they stress must be followed. The rules are about “Waiting”, a crucial element in the feeding process, described by the protagonist as receiving the “Gift” of life from dying animals. These rules provide the protagonist with a distinctly human quality: they include avoiding feeding on children, remaining out of sight of the animal, and not attacking the dying animals before they’ve passed. The vultures have morals, a system of feeding based not on instinct but on respect. The rules emphasize gratitude toward the animals they feed on, admiration toward the very process of dying. “You receive a Gift, you do not take it,” the protagonist states. “It’s disrespectful”. Not only does breaking these rules lead to devastating consequences, it also goes against the humane morality of the animals, as our protagonist soon discovers.

The concern for decorum within the rules highlight one of the most interesting elements of Giving and Taking: the portrayal of survival, and the importance placed on fighting against your instincts. Survival is not an accident – it requires patience, understanding who you are and, more importantly, who you are not. Pretending to be something else, someone else, is a mistake many have made, and one the protagonist implores the young egg to avoid. The protagonist repeats this sentiment throughout the story, stating in the rules that “You are not a lion. You do not pounce.”

Despite the fact that the protagonist is not human, the tensions prominent within Giving and Taking echo elements of a Man vs Nature conflict, as well as Man vs Self. In order to maintain balance within the natural world, the protagonist must learn to resist the temptations of the “sun sounds”, the pressure both from nature as a whole and from its own natural desires. The perspective of the story is inherently animalistic, but the internal struggle combined with the maturity of the bird allows Cornell to explore an incredibly human feeling: the search for purpose in life, and the desire to understand one’s identity and place in the world.

The thought provoking morals presented within Giving and Taking are not surprising considering the tone of the piece. Giving and Taking feels reminiscent of a folk tale, a story passed down generations, a cautionary tale about finding and understanding one’s purpose. There’s a self-aware, nearly meta quality to the story, as it’s being told both to us and to the Young Egg. As a result, the voice that Cornell constructs is one that speaks directly to the readers. The vulture is passing wisdom down to its Young Egg; simultaneously, it’s passing wisdom down to the readers themselves, disguised as lessons about feeding and Waiting. The sentence structure also helps Cornell achieves this voice. Because the majority of the story is written in longer sentences, shorter sentences stand out from the rest and sound different in the minds of the readers. These sentences contribute to the vocal quality of the story as a whole, an element that sets it apart from other short fiction, both within Periphery 56 as well as in general. In the second paragraph of this piece, the protagonist warns its Young Egg before telling its story:“It will be like this”. The words call for the egg’s attention, as well as the reader’s. The line – and the story itself – is simple in its purpose: it asks the reader to listen.

There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book: The Use of Symbols and Legends

There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book by Lucius Pham is a story from Periphery 55 and can be found in the archives as well as the story of the week.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            I have always had a soft spot for surreal or absurd stories.  I think they are able to capture a mythic quality that is meant to be thought on: meant to be savored.  These stories do a really good job of creating symbols and themes overtly, showing them immediately in the foreground to force readers to think on them.  There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book by Lucius Pham does just that.  Images of towers of books and bodies tumbling from them are effortlessly evocative, and inherently deeply symbolic.  The story is reminiscent of legends and tall tales, where a lesson or warning is lurking behind the story and symbols.  How then, does There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book achieve this mythic quality? 

            The most notable way that There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book strives towards a mythic quality is the lack of defined sentences.  Despite the many commas and quotation marks, there are three periods in the entire story.  The lack of differentiation between sentences just begs for this story to be read aloud.  The passage that sold me on it was this one:

I am mesmerized by it’s handwritten lettering

Entranced by it’s hypnotic text

Studying each line, singing every word in my heart

There is something about this book

Time passes and I check my timepiece

The books topple behind me as I get up to leave

It is a genius stroke of using prose to mirror narrative.  Each incomplete phrase leaves the reader hanging, waiting for the next one to fully understand what is going on, stringing the reader along word to word, phrase to phrase.  Then the narrative shifts suddenly, describing the books piling up around the protagonist, mirroring how time rapidly passes for the protagonist.  The stark shift surprises the reader just as it surprises the protagonist.  The wonderful metanarrative of the story of a young person becoming consumed with stories is perfectly shown through how easily readers become hooked with these sentence fragments.  The mythic quality comes from allowing the reader to feel the same interest that consumed the protagonist.  It makes them wonder if there is danger lurking within handwritten lettering or hypnotic text. 

            The use of symbolic imagery is key to There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book is key to the mythic quality.  There is something inherently evocative about a throne of books.  Ideas of knowledge, and enlightenment spring forth from the books, while power and regality are associated with the throne.  The man atop that tower of books brings to mind monks on top of mountains or hidden away in remote vistas safeguarding knowledge.  Everything that happens to them begs to be analyzed on a symbolic level.  What does it mean that the tower of books stands only a short while after the man dies?  What is significant about the height of the towers?  Whether or not Pham meant anything by these details, the symbolic nature of the images assigns meaning to them, and makes readers stop and think on it, just as they are meant to think on legends or myths. 

            Finally the cyclical nature of the story not only mirrors the structure of legends, but gives readers direct access to it.  It makes the tower of books seem like a perpetual entity.  Something that always has been, and will be.  Moreover, the failure to name characters allows the reader to insert themselves directly into the story, as if they too, might stumble upon a tower of books.  From there it is up to the reader to wonder if that is something to be celebrated, or feared.  Either way the story is meant to be thought upon, and it is a goal effortlessly achieved. 

Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake: A Study of Efficiency

            The short story as a conversation is a format we get a lot of at Periphery.  It is a framing device that I particularly enjoy; I find it to be a wonderful way to bring focus to a story.  That focus, however, comes with it’s own set of drawbacks.  If a story consists solely of dialogue, that dialogue has to do many things: provide background, characterization, and context, while at the same time actually tell a story.  In order to fit within the confines of a short story then, each line of dialogue has to be incredibly efficient at doing each of these tasks.  A beautiful example of that efficiency in dialogue comes from Tess Lydon’s Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake

            The introduction of Mar within the story hooked me the first time I read it.  It does a great job of avoiding of the major pitfalls of dialogue heavy stories, and is efficient at introducing characters and the context.  Take a look:

Evan: What are you doing out here?

Mar: It’s raining.

Evan: Come inside

Mar: It seems almost a little too on the nose if you ask me.  Rain on the day of a wake.  The universe is pathetic. 

Evan: Mar, please come inside. 

Mar, Forecast says it should rain harder on the day of the funeral.  It’s like the universe couldn’t resist the cliché

Evan: Everyone is looking for you

Mar: Then tell them to come onto the front porch

In a story of only dialogue it is perilously easy to slip into a single voice, where the author is talking to her or himself instead of characters having conversations.  Lydon sidesteps that pitfall by having the characters initially talk at each other rather than with.  When the characters initially attempt to talk over each other two distinct voices are able to emerge.  It takes Mar eight lines to even acknowledge what Evan is trying to tell her.  It is within those eight lines that the reader gets a deep look into both characters, and it makes both of their introductions memorable.  The reader instantly knows Mar is self-centered, ironic, and not shy about showing her feelings.  About Evan we can see that he is obedient, more pragmatic, but still cares for Mar and is used to putting up with her.  Not only do these lines efficiently characterize the two main characters, and develop two distinct voices, but also sets the scene.  It is incredibly efficient writing. 

            Again and again the efficiency of the story is impressive.  The efficiency overcomes the lack of tools usually available in prose when a story is restricted to dialogue.  The conversation between Mar and Evan is carefully crafted so that each line does an incredible amount of work.  As Mar is talking about all the ways that Aunt Deb was ignorant, she is giving context to both her and Evan’s character, and while she is ranting, Evan is trying to distract her with carbs, again informing both their characters in a different way.  I would challenge readers to find more than a handful of lines within this story that don’t serve multiple purposes.  I know I couldn’t. 

            A comparison I wanted to make here was between Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  When I recently read Gaiman’s Hugo award winning novel what surprised me most about it was how inefficient it was.  Long segments of chapters detailing characters never to be seen again popped up several times.  Page-long descriptions of places only seen once in the story before being quickly cast aside were not uncommon.  A look into how a story specifically uses inefficiency can be telling into how it can and should be used. 

            Before I go any further it is important to note that short stories by definition have to be more efficient than novels, simply due to size.  To tell a complete story in less words necessitates efficient storytelling.  It is something that Gaiman uses knowingly.  The inefficient style is used for a specific purpose, but the different formats is worth noting. 

            The inefficiency of American Gods ties into the central themes of the novel.  One of the main themes of American Gods is what happens when people forget.  What happens to the old gods when people forget about them in a modern world?  Do new gods take their place?  Where their older gods before the ‘old gods’?  Does that mean there is an endless string of newer and older gods gaining and losing worshippers?  Questions like these greatly apply themselves to inefficient storytelling.  If people worship a endless string of gods one after the other, that system relies on inefficiency: one then the next, and then the next, rather than many at one time.  That concept easily parallels Gaiman’s descriptions of places and characters quickly discarded.  A more specific example of that inefficiency is in how Gaiman uses conjunctions:

“The Lights were off, and there was silence, mostly, nothing but the hum of the refrigerator, and, somewhere in the building, a radio playing” (Gaiman 256)

I noticed early in the novel that Gaiman tends to use several conjunctions in sentences, rather than lists of commas in order to elongate sentences and lists.  The sentences become diced up into discrete clauses, all jumbled after the other.  Does that sound familiar?  It is an inefficient style all the way down to the syntax, but it is used for a specific reason. 

            Between these two stories one can see the disparate ends of efficiency within storytelling.  What initially drew me to Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake was it’s focus.  The conversation seems monolithic alone on the page, like its message is supposed to ring out.  It is a finely tuned story where every aspect ties to itself or does many jobs.  Keeping stories tight and short is a much more reliable way to achieve that effect so finely captured by Lydon.  The beautiful exception to prove that rule is American Gods.  It shows how powerful the space can be to develop character and place at the expense of efficiency.  Gaiman uses the inefficiency knowingly and purposely; it is a wonderful example of how to break convention through the understanding of it. 

Spectral Light: A Gothic Upheaval

            Spectral Light by Lillian DeThomas, can be found in Periphery 56 downloadable online, as well as under the ‘Story of the Week’ tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between. 

When I first read Spectral Light by Lillian DeThomas, one of the first things I did was mark that this story needed revisiting.  While being only a little over a page long at 541 words, it executes a shocking and wonderful twist that made me return to this story, weeks and months after first reading it, and yet again after seeing it in print.  It is a classic, in this case singular, page turner that leaves the reader hooked until the very last word, where all is revealed.  On top of that suspense, Spectral Light manages to touch on grief, loss, and sorrow in a particularly poignant way.  The combination of those two aspects made the story a favorite among the Periphery staff, that was almost immediately and unanimously accepted into the publication.  Here I want to look at how the story does both of these complex tasks in parallel, and if you haven’t yet read the story, I will be talking about how it ends, so go take a read first, you can find it under the ‘Full Written Submissions’ tab.  I can’t recommend it enough. 

            The story opens with the line: “The walls were a jaundiced yellow. They were bleached to a crisp, but not by the sun” immediately starting the extended metaphor of the house as a body, or carcass.  The story references the ‘heart’ of the house, it’s darkness and claustrophobic atmosphere.  The husband and wife seemed trapped by it, being slowly digested in the bowels of the house.  It is only later in the story that the reader learns that it is not the house that traps them, but the sorrow and loss it represents: the death of a child. 

            The body imagery of the house in Spectral Light plays on the trope of the Gothic Mansion.  Many classic Gothic mansions like Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre or Bly from The Turn of the Screw, initially masquerade as being haunted, only to later draw doubt or complicate that assumption.  Within Jane Eyre the house isn’t haunted by a literal ghost, but the lady of the house, trapped away in the attic.  In The Turn of the Screw the existence of a ghost is ambiguous on whether or not the governess imagined it all.  In both of these cases, the haunting is used as a metaphor for underlying issues.  In Spectral Light the ghost of the daughter isn’t malevolently haunting the house, nor is the house trying to consume the parents; the sorrow and loss drives both of those haunted aspects of the story.  By hiding that sorrow beneath the pretense of a haunting, the reader can begin to understand how the sorrow of the family is also hidden away.  Under the mask of the haunting, the story exposes how the grief of the parents is hidden. 

            In order to get to that grief, to show how it is hidden, the story uses a shifting perspective as well.  Reading Spectral Light is like watching a slow camera zoom into the lives of the family.  Just as the sorrow and loss is hidden for the family, so too is it hidden from the reader.  At first they are simply a couple in an ominous house, only referred to as ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’.  It is only when the perspective is revealed, as from the ghost’s point of view, that the man is referred to as a father, and his relation as husband to the woman made explicit.  On top of this, the tragedy of the family is finally revealed.  The end of the zoom no longer sees the barren walls of the house as malevolent, but sorrowful as the parents couldn’t bear to see pictures of their lost family.  Here again, just as with hiding the tragedy behind the metaphor of a haunting, so too is that grief hidden with perspective. 

            That shift in perspective highlights how Spectral Light functions stylistically as well.  The use of almost entirely compound and complex sentences gives the story a rhythm, a sort of ‘buh-bum buh-bum’ heartbeat pattern.  Take the first paragraph for instance:

“In the end, the man and the woman that lived there would be fine. They shared the house and lived a simple life. Sometimes the woman cooked and the man cleaned and everyday distractions were sobering for them. Even though there was something in the air, they had each other.”

There is a dream-like quality to the lives of the man and the woman.  That quality is paralleled in the repetition of sentence length and structure throughout the story.  The reader, like the grieving parents, falls into habit through the use of syntax.  Tension is built through ominous details fitting into the pattern of sentence structure.  The reader sees “There was something in the air” and yet the man and the woman don’t seem to pay attention to it.  These details fit neatly into complex, compound sentence pattern, showing how these unsettling details fit into the everyday lives for the man, the woman, and the house. 

            One of the greatest impacts of the repeated sentence length and structure is how the pattern is broken.  When the perspective shifts to first person, so too does the syntax change.  Short simple sentences like “They were listening” and “I could see this army of specters” stand out because of the repetition.  The breaking of the syntactic pattern allows DeThomas to highlight details without unnecessary words.  These sentences stand out because of their abruptness in the midst of flowing compound and complex prose.  Fittingly, the last two sentences, the last pieces of the puzzle, stand out not only because of their impact, but because of their abruptness as well:

“He doesn’t know that he lives on my grave. He doesn’t know that he’s the one who buried me.”

            DeThomas, rifts from and adds to Gothic tropes, builds tension, and crafts sentences all leading to a wonderful twist.  Spectral Light does so in a tight package, not lavishing detail where it doesn’t belong, nor extending the story unnecessarily.  The story showcases the powerful punch that flash fiction can and should be.  It is the kind of story we at Periphery love to read, publish, and share with you.