Funeral Weather: A Post Modern Funeral

Funeral Weather by Caitlin Allen is a story from Periphery 53.  It can be found in under the story of the week tab. The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between

            Where You are all Invited to my Joint Funeral with Benjamin Becker postulated about a potential funeral, Funeral Weather by Caitlin Allen shows us a very real one.  Despite that, Allen’s piece does much of the same work as Joint Funeral to undercut the significance of the event, albeit in a very different way.  Where Joint Funeral takes an absurdist, comical view, Funeral Weather focuses on a Post Modern understanding of traditional funeral narratives. 

            The part of Funeral Weather that first stood out to me were the comments on how a funeral should be.  The piece opens with the protagonist saying, “It was a perfect day for a funeral,” and just through that comment, we know what the day looks like.  It is cloudy, preferably rainy, cold, and somber.  We as readers know what the weather is like, because bad weather is the societal narrative for funerals.  From television shows and movies, when a funeral is shown it isn’t on gorgeous summer day.  And why aren’t funerals shown on gorgeous summer days?  Because they are sad events whose severity needs to be underscored.  Funeral Weather from the title and first line reference these understood narratives of funerals. 

            Comments like, “In the grand scheme of untimely unseasonable deaths, I found a car accident to be very disappointing and very unoriginal,” and “I watched the white linen of his robe dragging across the red carpet before realizing that wasn’t supposed to be what I should be focusing on, and looked up,” all work with the understanding of funeral narratives in mind.  Much of the protagonist’s internal struggle is the weight of these narratives.  She struggles against the belief that funerals should to be a certain way, and yet that narrative still doesn’t help her family understand their loss.  The narratives of funerals don’t help this family grieve, so what is their purpose?  In order to push against the significance of funerals, Allen shows us these narratives, and how absurd they are in helping the family grieve. 

            One of the best examples of Allen’s rejection of funeral narratives is the piano teacher who comes to the funeral:

“One woman who did, a lady in her sixties who I vaguely recognized as my cousins’ old piano teacher, was the last offender I allowed.  She walked in sobbing, howled when she saw my cousins, and then tried to redeem herself by moaning something about time healing all wounds.  It was a jumbled-up mess, but we all knew what she was getting at.  As much as she was crying, it was hard to trust she really believed what she was preaching, but she said it nonetheless.”

What is funny about this passage is how harshly the narrator critiques this woman.  She scorns the woman’s advice, and brands her an offender for trying to console the siblings of the deceased.  As a reader we know this woman means well.  There is no malice in her consolation nor advice.  Her grief is genuine.  What she stands for however, is a traditional narrative of funerals.  This piano teacher follows the funeral narrative to the letter by opening crying, and attempting to make the moment meaningful and didactic.  ‘Time heals all wounds’ is a platitude that attempts to understand and normalize the feelings at a funeral.  ‘Everything happens for a reason’ directly works to maintain funeral narratives by showing a reason behind the death.  By rejecting the piano teacher’s actions and critiquing her so harshly, Allen pushes against finding meaning in funerals, and thereby the meaning of them entirely. 

            The titular funeral in Allen’s story goes as well as it can.  It ascribed to narratives of funerals from the weather, to the grieving visitors, to how the family is going through the stages of grief.  What Allen draws attention to here, is that even though those narratives are followed, they don’t do anything to help the family.  The protagonist comments on this directly by saying, “It was what you were supposed to say or think, it seemed, and I was frustrated with myself for falling back on such a banality.”  The proscribed actions of a funeral become banal and worthless.  They have all been done before, and they don’t help anyone understand their loss.  Therefore what is the point of the somber weather, the grieving guests and the stages of grief if the family is still shocked and saddened.             

What I find so interesting about both Joint Funeral and Funeral Weather is how they both attempt to bring light to an otherwise heavy event.  Both Allen and Silva work to understand what happens when that event doesn’t necessary hold the importance that society puts onto it.  What does it mean for a funeral if the event doesn’t help a family grieve?  What does it mean for a funeral if it is a joke?  Both pieces picked up on that same idea and used them in different ways. 

The blog is going on break for the holiday, so have a Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at Periphery, and we will see you in December!

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. 

Badly Behaved Cephalopods: Why Perspective Matters

Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences by Madelyn Lemons, 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.

            A question I hear a lot about perspective in storytelling is, ‘when should an author choose the first-person perspective versus a third-person perspective?’  The best answer I can give is the story Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences from Perphery 55 by Madelyn Lemons.  Lemons’ story relies heavily on character narration.  The main character Jim’s internal monologue not only sets the scene, works to characterize every character we meet in the story, but is damn funny the entire time.  Few stories we receive at Periphery are so effortlessly comedic, but more importantly, use that comedy for a very specific purpose. 

            Take a look at the opening paragraph of the story.  Notice all that it does simply using character voice.  How would this scene have been different if it was narrated in the third person?

Be an octopus research scientist you said. It would be fun, you said. No no, they can’t steal things. Absolutely not. They don’t memorize night guard patterns and steal fish from other exhibits. They don’t open their tanks, slip their grubby tentacles out, reach into your candy drawer, and steal your Almond Joy. Not them. Dumb fish, yes they are.

Everything you need to know about the entire story you get from the opening paragraph, and all of it comes directly from the character’s voice.  It is Jim’s opinions about Lenny’s actions that matter here.  Lemons could have easily told us about how Lenny has escaped in the past and Jimi is made about having to find him.  A flat description here would have worked well enough.  By seeing those events through Jim’s eyes, however, the reader understands so much more about both the events and Jim as a character.  The reader knows that the protagonist is an Octopus research scientist who is bitter about their job and sardonic to a fault.  The reader knows the antagonist is a clever octopus who’s exploits not only show how intelligent he is, building up a persona and background for the story itself, but also are able to deeply characterize Jim, and show his crass nature.  Only by seeing the world through Jim’s eyes is so much content able to be put into simple descriptions. 

            Another great example of how Lemons is able to use descriptions to deeply characterize Jim is how she describes ‘Bill’: “I’m pretty sure his name isn’t actually “Bill the orange fish man” or even “Bill” at all, but I’ve never actually talked to him”  Like Jim, the reader still knows nothing about Bill, but hears all that Jim thinks about him.  The comments about Bill’s outfit, the mocking nickname, work to push the story forward while at the same time working to characterize both men.  These comments show the reader how judgmental Jim is in a much more powerful way than if Lemons were to simply tell us. 

            Lemons never has to say that Jim is judgmental, or angry, or well versed in octopi because the reader is able to understand that simply through the work Jim’s point of view does.  The odd phrases like “ugly yellow linoleum” or “I know his pissy eyes when I see them” show how bitter Jim is about his job, surroundings, and having to find Lenny.  Comments like “Octopus vulgaris” and “he’s a cephalopod without the ability to even perceive sound the way humans do” show how much Jim knows about taxonomy and octopi without Lemons having to spend time telling the reader these things.  Through character voice, Lemons is able to be incredibly efficient with her prose, having each line pull a lot of weight and tell the reader many things.  A telling aspect of the story is that the first time Jim speaks is six pages into the story.  We don’t hear a word from his mouth and yet we know so much about him.  By the time he does speak, his actions and motivations are clear to the reader. 

            So far I have glossed over just how funny Jim’s narration is, and I don’t that that is fair when talking about all that Jim’s perspective is and does.  The line, “Oh no, bad idea don’t do it danger zone he’ll eat you Jesus Christ Lenny’s one mean little bastard when he wants to be-” can only work in its breathless terror because it comes from Jim.  Even in this joke though, Lemons is moving the story forward.  The reader, just like Jim, is watching Bill try to wrangle Lenny, and through Jim’s perspective the reader gets more information about it. 

            Why then is Lemons’ Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences an answer to the question, ‘when should an author choose the first person perspective versus a third person perspective and why?’  Because the story doesn’t function without the character voice.  Every line in this story works in several ways either to describe the surroundings, characterize Jim, talk about Jim’s job, or characterize Lenny or Travis.  A story that relies so heavily on a character’s perspective demands to be told by it.  If a story does not, it shouldn’t be.  Madelyn Lemons shows us a wonderful example of that through Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences

Crisscross Applesauce: How to Pull Off a Plot Twist

            Crisscross Applesauce by Ashley Flaws is a story from Periphery 55 and can be found in the archives as well as the story of the week.  This post will be talking about how the story uses plot twists and foreshadowing.  If you have not read the story I would recommend that you do so before reading this.  You have been warned.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            Crisscross Applesauce is the kind of story that made an editor get up on a table and shout about when it was first discussed before the Periphery staff.  It is the kind of story that sucker punches you in the gut on the fourth page; M. Night Shyamalan would weep hot tears that this wasn’t his idea.  Beneath the talk of Barbies and triple scoops of ice cream lays something dark, and I love it for that.  What I want to talk about this week is how Crisscross Applesauce uses foreshadowing and why its plot twist works. 

            To me, the beauty of Crisscross Applesauce is how effortlessly it misdirects from the plot twist.  The quick succession of names on the first page of the story, of the girl’s Barbies, of the principle and school teacher, keeps a reader from focusing on the fact that you never get the main character’s name.  I didn’t realize the name is never given until much later in the editing process of edition 55 than I would like to admit.  That is how perfectly Crisscross Applesauce misdirects. 

            The most effective way Crisscross Applesauce misdirects is by framing the story from the perspective of a troubled child.  Details about a “Cool trick off the swing” to make her mother smile, or fantasizing about what it must be like to be seventeen, not only attach the reader to the main character, but stop them from picking up on what is really going on.  They also drown out the other details that could point the reader in the right direction like, “We have matching pigtails braids and the same pink dress on”  The framing also makes readers think differently of details that would otherwise hint at the twist.  Details such as how the twins have to “Talk really loud because Mom and Dad are yelling downstairs” makes the reader worry about the girls and their home life, long after it becomes apparent that her parents are yelling about her mental health.  As a first-time reader, I was much more concerned about the parent’s fight and how it affected the twins, than what the fight was about.  Flaws does a wonderful job of showing how much the fighting disturbs ‘the twins’ and making me care about that, rather than the hints put into the conversation. 

            From the first line of the story, the identity of the ‘twins’ is construed.  “I talk too much, that’s what my sister, Cali says”  The first thing the reader knows is not the name of the point-of-view character, but her sister.  Also From that line, the only thing the reader knows about the speaker, is what her sister thinks of her.  Immediately, the identity of both of characters is intertwined.  On top of that, little hints like how Flaws describes the girls playing with their dolls: “I saw him. He looked nice,” Cali makes Susie say” have an entirely different meaning when the main character makes Cali makes Susie say.  Early foreshadowing cements the twist in the story, making it seem more real and earned. 

            These details, of Cali crying and the speaker consoling her, become incredibly worrying, once the twist is revealed.  Most importantly, they don’t simply reframe the story in a new context, but shows the interiority of the main character.  That second point, of having a plot twist do something more than shock, is a key part of plot twists that is often forgotten.  A twist should be shocking, but it also should do something more than that.  Returning to our friend M. Night Shyamalan, the reason why the twist in The Sixth Sense is so good, is because it not only reframes the entire story, but the conversations between Cole and Malcolm show how Cole is caring about spirits, and gives insight into how Malcolm is unable to accept his own death  The twist gives great insight into both characters rather than simply shocking the viewer.  Crisscross Applesauce does the same thing.  Through Cali, the reader can understand how the main character is disturbed about her parents yelling.  The conversations between Cali and the main character show the internal resilience of a child, and how it can go wrong.  The twist also sheds light on a dysfunctional family, and how parents struggle to help their children. 

            Looking back at Crisscross Applesauce I wonder how many people figured out the twist before it was revealed.  I wonder if Flaws was laughing the whole time while writing this piece because she would be playing her reader like a fiddle.  I went from concerned to sympathetic to worried to horrified in the span of less than 1800 words. 

            Quentin Tarantino said in a 2005 interview about his movies, “I want to play you as an audience.  I want to be the conductor and you’re my orchestra.  There are sounds that I make you to make, and feelings I get you to feel, then I stop you from feeling those feelings, then I stop you from feeling that, and make you feel something else yet again.  If a director call pull that off, that is a real lucky audience member”  That is specifically what Flaws did in Crisscross Applesauce, and I’m still not over it.