In Loving Miriam: A Study of Spoilers

            It is not often that we get definite genre fiction here at Periphery.  While looking back through Periphery 50 I stumbled across In Loving Miriam and had to share it.  

            What I was reminded of the first time I read through Asmita Gauchan’s wonderful story was a Shakespeare class I took (Bear with me here).  The class was about the four great Shakespearean tragedies with which, at the time, I was unfamiliar.  The professor, early in the lecture, mentioned off-handedly that all of the protagonists died in the end of their respective plays.  I was shocked that the endings would be spoiled so cavalierly for those students like myself who hadn’t read the play.  Apparently I was not alone in thinking this, because the professor stopped, turned to the class and said, “It doesn’t matter that they die, that isn’t as important as the path that brings them there”

            I think about that quote now, every time someone tells me they binged through a full season of a show because they ‘just had to know’.  I wonder about that validity of my professor’s statement.  The pull of knowing what happens at the end of a story is incredibly powerful, be it who sits on the Iron Throne or what is happening in Hawkins Indiana.  No one was asking what foreshadowed those things, or how character development and agency caused it; but how come we don’t ‘just have to know’ why that character become king or queen, or what caused the incidents around Hawkins Indiana?

            I have to imagine the richness of the story, the depth of it, comes from the road to that explanation.  Once the pieces of ones world have been put back together in a post understanding revelation, why does one revisit a story? It can’t be to experience the shock again, it has to be how the story got to that shocking point. Certainly my professor was correct about Shakespeare, but what about In Loving Miriam?

            What I find so interesting about the structure of In Loving Miriam, is that despite the fact that it holds its own twists, the start of the story is the biggest: Miriam’s suicide. From her suicide note, the story works to show how Miriam came to take her own life. The story of Peter’s journey to resurrect her is mostly about what caused her to take her own life in the first place. Reading the story again, the world painted by Gauchan with it’s interactive ads, floating buses, and futuristic milkshakes all take a backseat to fleshing out these characters, to showing their relationship and it’s eventual end.  Even the title seems to take the stance that the importance of the story is not its end, but what the effects of what happens when one loves Miriam.  The story skips the shock factor in order to allow the reader immediate access to the richness of how the story came to that shocking point.

            A now (in)famous study at UC San Diego found that people tend to like stories more if they are ‘spoiled’ first.  I wonder if that is because spoiled stories allow reader to see deeper into them upon a first reading.  I think this is an incredibly interesting topic and would love to hear what you all think about spoilers and In Loving Mirriam, so drop a comment and let us know!

            Here is the link to that study for all of you skeptical readers out there

https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/spoiler-alert-spoilers-make-you-enjoy-stories-more

Afternoon Nap: A Study of Suspense and Trauma

            The story this week after returning from the 4th of July break, is Afternoon Nap by Rai Ahmed-Green.  It was printed in Periphery 54 and can be found under the story of the Week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            The first story I ever read from Periphery was Afternoon Nap by Rai Ahmed-Green.  It is a story that ran in Periphery 54 and it shocked and awed me.  Upon returning to it, I found myself feeling the same way.  What sells the story for me, however, is not the gruesome imagery, nor the palpable sense of anguish and unfairness, but how Ahmed-Green frames the story, and how he builds suspense. 

            It’s funny looking back in this story to realize that it starts with a young girl building a budget for student council and ends with her vengeful spirit killing a family.  The distance traveled between those to points is incredible.  The shock that comes from the initial murder is all the more potent because Ahmed-Green takes time to misdirect the reader away from what is going to happen.  The first paragraph of Afternoon Nap, with its worries about a Trigonometry test and prom, could easily fit into an entirely different story.  Taking the time to fill the girl’s world makes the stories disregard for those concerns even more shocking.  Just as the girl never gets to experience those things that once filled her life, neither does the reader.  They are presented only to be taken away.  Those very first things the reader learns about the girl’s world are ripped from them, just as they are the girl.  Afternoon Nap could have easily started long after the girl’s death, but it would have lost what makes it stand out. 

            An interesting way that Afternoon Nap creates suspense is by focusing on specific details when something horrible is happening.  After the girl ‘wakes up’ and discovers the murder of her family, she spends a great deal of time discussing her mother’s sewing. 

The stitching is immaculate, patterned to resemble butterflies and flowers; a perfect dress for a beautiful spring day. The girl always loved to watch her mother sew.  (Ahmed-Green)

As a reader I was on the edge of my seat this entire paragraph.  I didn’t care about the detailed stitching or the pattern of the dress.  I care about the mother who was just murdered.  The girl takes her time to examine every detail of the situation before finally looking directly at her mother.  One can imagine her trying not to look, trying not to comprehend how her life has been irrevocably altered.  Not only does that specificity create suspense, it sets up the theme of lost scraps of fabric, while also showing how hesitant the girl is to accept the fate of her family. 

            The same pattern can be found with the Benise family at the end of the story.  All of the details about the commission on the house, and the lack of haggling keep the reader from what they really want to know: what the girl is going to do.  How is she going to react to these intruders into her home?  By the time the reader gets an answer to this question suspense has been built throughout the entire conversation. 

            More than its violence what stands out to me about Afternoon Nap is the pain that both causes and stems from it.  The girl’s frustration with being forgotten, the unfairness of a life cut short, and the inability of others to understand how she feels are all very human emotions.  Underscoring all of these points is the need for others to understand how one feels.  The reader can understand the girl’s pain, can understand why does what she does even while they are horrified at it.  This was a story that shocked me, and continues to do so, but more than that makes me sympathize with a scared young girl who can’t find relief.  Who is so angry about the end of her life, how quickly it was forgotten, and how little any of it mattered, she forces that same horrific experience on others. 

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.