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.