You are all Invited to my Joint Funeral with Benjamin Becker: When to Break Rules

            You are all Invited to my Joint Funeral with Benjamin Becker by Daniela Silva is a story from Periphery 55.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            You are all Invited to my Joint Funeral with Benjamin Becker is a story that I have been wanting to talk about for a long time.  Silva captures a feeling of listlessness in very clever ways, while still being incredibly funny and poignant. Silva’s story falls into an archetype of stories we get from time to time at Periphery about funerals.  They come in all shapes and sizes: happy and sad, serious and funny, melancholy and profound.  What I have noticed throughout many of them, including Joint Funeral, is a push back against the severity of the occasion.  Often stories will work to undercut the importance of funerals, or how seriously society takes them, even if they are conveying genuine grief.  This week I want to look at how Silva undercuts the severity and importance of funerals using grammar, conjunctions, and syntax. 

            Joint Funeral has a meticulously crafted careless feel to it.  When transcribing the story for this post, I carefully added capitals to the beginnings of sentences and quotations, names and other proper nouns, before realizing how much work they do when breaking the rules.  The story feels irreverent about the future and funerals, and that ideology carries all the way down to the rules of grammar.  Lines like, “and ben goes “dude!!!! totally!!!” work really hard to showcase how far Silva pushes beyond foundational rules of grammar.  Careless uncapitalized ‘I’s litter the story, like the protagonist was writing it on the back of a napkin while sitting in their 1996 gold Nissan Altima.  The same ideology the point of view character and Ben have about funerals extends to how the story is written.  Grammatically the story is as irreverent as it is thematically. 

            No less than 33 conjunctions are used in Silva’s story.  That means that almost 5% of the 672 word story is conjunctions; that’s one of every twenty words.  Silva’s heavy reliance on conjunctions works to make the story sound colloquial, like it was an actual conversation.  Anyone that has ever transcribed an interview or conversation can attest that people don’t speak like they write.  Fragments, and run on sentences dominate all but the most formal speech.  Silva uses conjunctions to push against syntactic structure with sentences like this one:

we’ve been friends for nearly five years now,

and i don’t remember how i met ben exactly,

he wasn’t there and then he just was,

asking me about whether he should patent

an invention called the slitten

(which are literally just sleeve-length mittens)

or whether we should have a shuffleboard table at our funeral

and laughing at my jokes even when they don’t deserve it

One can feel the memories flashing before the protagonist’s eyes as they run through six different thoughts at mach 1.  Conversations do that.  They are peppered with disjoined thoughts all connected with ands and buts and ors even though grammar and syntax demand that writing doesn’t.  By breaking the basic rules of grammar and sentence structure Silva showcases how little either character seems to care about the seemingly severe topic of a funeral.  Through syntax the irreverent tone is underscored. 

            The adage ‘you must know the rules to break the rules’ holds especially true in writing.  Syntax and grammar should be tools of communication rather than chains that hold an author back.  These socially understood rules of written communication help authors convey meaning effectively to a wide audience.  Breaking rules inherently calls attention to itself.  A fragment, or run on sentence can stand out of a piece of writing.  Breaking that understanding of communication conveys its own message, but it takes a specific piece and a specific voice to use it.  It can be really tempting for authors to break rules for the sole reason of breaking rules.  All too often those choices shift focus away from the writing itself to the errors and the effect of them. Joint Funeral embraces that idea, making the focus on errors work for the story.  Joint Funeral works incredibly hard to look like it doesn’t care.  Every uncapitalized name and ‘I’ work to convey a specific tone.  The piece is built around a disregard for societal understandings of importance, and therefore carries that same ideology to rules of grammar.  Silva has a reason to break the rules, and the effect works with the piece instead of against it. 

            Why then do so many pieces about funerals push back against severity with which society views them?  Next week the blog will showcase Funeral Weather by Caitlin Allen from Periphery 53 and look at just that question. 

Twelfth Floor: What Goes Unsaid

            Twelfth Floor by Olivia Williams, is a story from Periphery 56.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

Twelfth Floor by Olivia Williams is a breath of fresh air of a story.  The heart of the story doesn’t come from incredible stakes, nor taking itself too seriously, but an intimate view of character.  It is as charming as it is succinct at showing how meaningful stories can come from even small encounters.  What I want to talk about in Twelfth Floor is what goes unsaid in a story, and how that creates meaning. 

            The line that sold Twelfth Floor for me was: “The elevator groaned inwardly, as it always did on the eighth floor”.  So much work is done by that single line, it is a stroke of genius.  The context that Jackie takes this elevator ride every day hits the reader from out of nowhere.  More stunning, however, is the next realization, that all of the tension of the story is in the context that the elevator ride is something Jackie does daily.  All the anxiety that comes from the other people in the elevator and a spider the size of her big toe is a daily occurrence.  Those anxieties are routine for Jackie.  From that single line, Jackie’s seemingly specific anxieties become generalized, her character is revealed but only through oblique detail. 

            The dual revelations of that line betray yet another.  Williams never says Jackie works in this building, nor that she is an anxious person.  Williams never says these things because she doesn’t need to.  She shows how simple things cause anxiety, how those tensions weigh on Jackie, and then that they are a daily occurrence.  The subtext screams these messages to reader through how Jackie sees the world, and how she acts in it.  These integral aspects of the story go unsaid.  They demand that reader pay attention, and put the pieces together for themselves. 

            Twelfth Floor is a perfect example of “The Iceberg theory” as coined by Ernest Hemmingway.  Hemmingway is famous for his minimalist style, and sparse descriptions.  That minimalism goes beyond syntax and diction, however.  Hemmingway believed that great stories should omit important parts, and only show them through subtext and theme.  A story then becomes like an iceberg where it has substance beneath what the reader can see. 

            The classic example of Hemmingway’s theory is his short story Hills like White Elephants.  In the story a couple sits at a Spanish bar and orders beers while waiting for a train.  The couple bickers before the argument gets cut off by the train arriving.  A passing glance at the story leaves a reader with little to work with.  The man and woman never specifically say what they are arguing about, and their curt conversation circles on itself several times.  Hemmingway leaves what they are arguing about unsaid.  He forces the reader to surmise what the two are talking about from generalities of their conversation.  Each line becomes a clue to help the reader figure out what the couple is actually talking about.  In reality the couple are arguing about whether the woman should get an abortion, and what would happen to them afterword.  The reader must put that together for themselves, however. 

            Why is it important that integral aspects of a story go unsaid?  Firstly, stories often are more realistic because of what goes unsaid.  People don’t spout exposition because most of the time, both participants in a conversation already know the context.  In White Elephants people commonly use euphemisms, or mask tensions by talking about other things.  Each line where the couple talks about beers and the future carries the tension that they aren’t really talking about those things: that isn’t what is important to them.  In Twelfth Floor Jackie would never tell strangers in an elevator that she works in the building.  It wouldn’t make any sense.  Secondly, the impact of leaving key aspects unsaid forces the author to show rather than tell.  The extent of Jackie’s anxiety is shown through her actions.  We see her struggle with routine, mundane encounters.  We understand her fears even if they are out of proportion to her surroundings.  We understand these things because Williams takes the time to show us.  The impact of Jackie’s anxiety would be nothing if we were simply told she was anxious.  In fact Williams never describes her as nervous, and only uses the word anxious to describe how Jackie thinks the spider sees her.  By never overtly describing Jackie, Williams forces the reader to pay attention to her actions and make their own decision about her. 

            An example of the depth created by leaving Jackie’s anxieties unsaid are these two contrasting descriptions:

            Jackie’s eyes wandered left, to the watery reflection of the young man. The tall, quiet         shape stared back.

            Jackie, trapped inside a 7 x 5 metal box with a large-sized spider and an average-height            young man, inwardly screamed.

Jackie first describes the young man’s reflection as tall, only to later describe him as average height.  Did she describe him as tall because he was intimidated by the stranger?  She possibly saw him as larger than he really was, only to later more accurately describe him as of average height.  Did she describe him as tall simply because she is short and therefore to her an average height man would seem tall to her?  All of these questions can be asked to better understand Jackie.  Details here have depth because of the ambiguity.  If Williams had simply told us, it would have not forced the reader to examine them as closely. 

            Clocking in at 825 words, Twelfth Floor goes to great lengths to stay focused on the story at hand: Jackie’s elevator ride.  The reader never learns about the job Jackie is going to, the setting, or even Jackie’s backstory.  Despite the lack of background, Jackie feels incredibly real.  Much of the reason for Jackie’s interiority is because it goes unsaid.  Similar to when we meet a stranger, we only see their actions.  From those actions we have to surmise an entire character.  Leaving Jackie’s character unsaid give incredible depth to her actions because as a reader, we are piecing together who she is.  Each detail works to show us who Jackie is.  They hint at something larger about the story, something that goes unsaid.