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. 

Echoed Cries: Character v. Plot

            Echoed Cries by Jake Huebsch is a story from Periphery 50.  You can find it under the Archives tab or under Story of the Week.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            We have all been there, watching a scary movie or reading a horror novel where we shout at the character, “Don’t go in there!” “Don’t open the door!” “Just run away!”  More than many other genres, horror struggles to balance character with plot.  Many times in order to produce a more frightening story, characters have to act in ways that put them in more danger.  The plot demands that characters make certain decisions in order to produce more fear.  It can be difficult for authors terrify if characters make rational decisions and call the police or simply run away when a monster or murderer comes for them.  The hallmark of great horror stories, however, is when characters are able to make believable decisions and the horror to still come from those actions.  How then, can authors balance character and plot in a horror story?  Huebsch has some answers his story Echoed Cries. 

            The first thing that struck me about the story was how tightly bound character motivation and uncovering the Beauvont’s secret are within the narrative.  Only the protagonist would have a good reason to be in the Beauvont mansion, and have reason to look critically at the portraits to discover the Beauvont secret.  The background of the story does an incredible job of allowing the reader to understand why the protagonist goes to the mansion, stays there even after he realizes something is amiss, and looks critically at the portraits.  If the protagonist was a thrill-seeking teen, the deep examination of the portraits, as well as remaining in the mansion, would come off as unsatisfying.  The protagonist has a job to do within the mansion.  He is staying in the mansion to restore the paintings, so it makes sense that he would be looking at them critically and then staying in the mansion despite his fear.  The protagonist’s character is designed in such a way to explain why he stays when others wouldn’t.  We aren’t shouting “Get out of the library!” because it makes sense for him to be there, and stay there.  Character isn’t overtaken by plot. 

            There is something to be said about horror stories that isolate characters.  We think of The Overlook Hotel from Steven King’s The Shining or the ship ‘Nostromo’ from Ridley Scott’s Alien, or any number of lakeside cabins or country manors a la The Turn of the Screw, Get Out, and so many others.  Isolating characters in a terrifying place makes sense for horror, but it is important to note that all of those stories work incredibly hard to set up why characters go to those locales.  King goes into great detail about why Jack Torrance wants to be the caretaker of the Overlook, and what spurns the family to live there.  Early lines within Alien show the crew’s commercial interests and how heavily money and bonus’ weight on their minds.  Character is emphasized in all of these examples before plot. 

            It becomes frustrating as a reader or viewer when authors have characters go to, or inhabit these frightening places when we would not.  It draws readers out of the text because characters that don’t make rational decisions no longer function as characters.  They become slaves to plot.  Slaves to plot do not demand empathy or sympathy when terrible things happen to them, because they own irrational actions  caused their downfall. 

            The 2017 It film, despite being a good movie, is filled with these poorly motivated actions.  When I saw It in theatres, during the movie someone shouted, “Stop following the balloon!”.  The frustrated viewer was of course talking about how the ‘Loser’s Club’ consistently puts themselves in avoidable situations where the rest of us wouldn’t.  Of course terrible things happen to the kids when they wander into sewers, or abandoned houses.  

            2017’s It also has an incredibly novel look at character action in the opening scene with Georgie and his lost boat.  The now famous scene of Georgie sticking his hand down the sewer is painful to watch.  I squirm just thinking about it.  No one should ever stick their arm down a sewer, and Georgie knows this.  The scene is so terrifying because we watch Georgie get convinced to do something we would never do.  It’s genius.  Character is at the center of Georgie’s actions.  He is a little kid able to be manipulated, and he is worried about his brother’s anger if he loses the boat.  We are yelling at the screen for Georgie to make a better decision, not a rational one.  That distinction is key. 

            I was really excited to find Echoed Cries within Periphery 50 because at this time of year, I always itch to watch scary movies and read horror novels. I was even more excited after I saw how well Huebsch set up the story.  Horror as a genre balances and incredible amount.  Character arcs, pacing, setting, and plot are all just as direly important in horror as they are elsewhere, but on top of all that, the author is trying to frighten the reader.  Sometimes that balance can come undone, which means horror authors have to be vigilant to keep character agency at the heart of the story.  It is no small feat, which is why Echoed Cries stands out to me. 

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

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.