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.