Off the Hinges

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

In workshop we talked a lot about two recurring themes: at-stakeness in fiction, the importance of putting of something on the line for a character so that his or her situation had undergone a change by the end of the story, and the narrative appeal of a character that is—to use the word we used—unhinged.

Meaning the character is not always going to make the right decisions for him/herself in the pursuit of a goal or happiness, and that flaw adds an intriguing layer of complication to the plot. And that is the kind of behavior that is going to have irreversible effects that will linger after the conclusion of the story. The reader expects to be taken to a different place, to see something sacrificed or gained or both.

One reason this came up is that my own stories tend to come off feeling very safe, with little change after the picture is over, or the kind of change that can simply be undone with an apology or the guy moving on. It’s like the sitcom plot effect; no matter how tightly you squish the sponge, eventually it reverts to its original shape. Even in my stories that have “worked”: the boys in “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” are still going to play ball tomorrow, and the worst that Petey got in “Return Policy” was a little humiliation in front of a cute ex-co-worker. (I suspect this may tie into my Parking Lot Problem, too.)

I thought about this when I was reading the stories in the current issue of Booth (Issue #5), put out by Butler University. There is some exceptional work here throughout, including a series of stories under the heading of “Winesburg, Indiana,” all set in that fictitious Middle American locale (a regular feature of Booth).

Andrew Hudgins’ “Raymond Snow” is my favorite of this quartet. Right away it puts us in the limited third-person view of a character that can’t keep his shit together:

I was wearing mittens because the warehouse was cold as hell so maybe I didn’t have as good a grip on the forklift’s wheel as I thought I did when I slipped my blades into the skip, and somebody must have got the load off-center because when I lifted, the forks hadn’t gone all the way in, and the TVs—the flat screens, plasmas break if you just fart in their general direction—sort of slouched on the pallet at about three feet up. So I sped up to try to force the fork all the way in. That’s when I kinda tossed ‘em into the shelving unit that tipped and hit another shelving unit that tipped too, but luckily there was a wall next, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.

Well, that’s what they have insurance for.

Raymond gets fired, an act which is he forced to own up to later at a family reunion when he is trying to make a good impression on his new girlfriend. His limitations (of patience and intelligence) get the best of him. Raymond does not start a fight, but seems like the kind of person capable of starting with one when he is cornered or outsmarted.

Then there is Matthew Baker’s “Tête-á-Tête,” written in the convincing first-person voice of a young female sculptor-barista who is prone to overreaction and neediness and finds herself running away from responsibility as a response to a perceived slight from her new boyfriend.

Carlo C. calls. “Hello?” he says. “Hi,” I say, and explain who I am, in case he forgot. We met once at the supermarket—Carlo C. asked for my number, then gave me his. “Oh, that’s right,” he says. “Sure, sure, I’ll come over.” Carlo C. is a renowned attorney with a firm here in town.

I put on my orange dress and mid-thigh stocking striped stockings. Next I try and fail to clean my apartment. Next I accidentally drink an entire bottle of wine. I call my sister but she doesn’t answer. I hook on hoop earrings that are très hip, take them off, hook them on. Carlo C. is at the door and I’m holding it open, been holding it open—how long? Not sure. I decide no more wine for at least twenty minutes.

Baker’s unnamed narrator isn’t just unhinged, she’s at a loss in her pursuit of happiness. The healthiest option is would be for her to simply move on, focus on the tasks in front of her, and not let her spite inflame her other relationships, but of course that inflammation is the drug hit she seeks; it is her only motivation. Hence her piling on lies and excuses to her work, landlord, and boyfriend; it is why she calls for her sister’s approval while at the same time is revolted by her need for it, and why she makes a straight line for a rebound while feeling the need to tell us, the reader, about the guy’s successful career. It is why she winkingly asks us to condone her wine-guzzling and poor work behavior and shitty apartment management.

When the sister doesn’t answer, the narrator imagines that “she’s probably mad at me or busy getting skewered by her super nice husband on one of the counters of their super expensive flat. To which I would say—mad at me? Whilst thou are skewered by a dreamboat husband, and thy unfortunate sister doth suffer outrage after outrage at the hands of lesser men?”

But irresponsibility alone cannot propel narrative drive; these characters are at least seeking something of value through their backward ways. Conversely, there have been books I’ve read that felt overextended by a character’s seeming refusal to face up to his/her desires or responsibilities, leading to a frustrating plot surrounding a juvenile individual you aren’t convinced to root for. The characters of these books weren’t unhinged or broken enough to follow through with a change in life direction out of impulse, misguided or otherwise. They were just kind of mopey and sad.


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