Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Things That Fall from the Sky by Kevin Brockmeier

I've been thinking lately about how a short story really doesn't need to be a bullet, traveling a fast and straight line (do bullets travel in straight lines? what do I know? not according to this, at least). A hazard of overly applied rules of writing can be that short story writers fear both digressions and exposition, and especially expositional digressions. But for me those can be some of the most surprising and moving parts of stories. For example, Brockmeier, in the midst of "These Hands" a story about a male nanny who falls in a deep, not exactly disturbing but not exactly comfortable, love, for the baby girl in his charge, interrupts the flow of events to bring us this: "An old story tells of a man who grew so fond of the sky--of the clouds like hills and the shadows of hills, of the birds like notes of music and the stars like distant blessings--that he made of his heart a kite and sailed it into the firmament." It's possibly my favorite sentence in the story. But it's the kind of line that interrupts the story--and so what I'm arguing for is the possibility of interruptions in what can otherwise be too tidy narratives.

The other thing I've been thinking is how some writers who write in multiple forms or genres will claim that they know instantly if an idea is a story idea or a novel idea or a poem idea ... And maybe they do, I can't read their minds. But for me at least, this seems to be a conscious decision--though sometimes my inability to execute my decision leads to a new decision. For example, I worked one collegiate summer at the Philadelphia Marionette Theater, and I thought I would work the experience into fiction, but then I wrote about it in poetry, then I thought nonfiction, before finally the poems got combined back into fiction and became the start of a story that eventually appeared in The Saint Ann's Review (I can't remember the title; that's embarrassing... ah wait, it was "The Theater Itself; or Sam, Sometimes"). Anyway, just yesterday I read an interview with a big name writer in which she said the character and plots in short stories were typically characters and plots that could not be sustained over the length of a novel. I'm not buying it. What made me think about this was this page in Brockmeier's story "Small Degrees":

"'You think that people are nothing but time,' she said. 'You think that I'm nothing but time. But I'm not time,' she said. 'I'm something else.'

"What was he to say about such a thing? If he was this sort of person he had never recognized it. As he tried to puzzle it through, he heard her breathing deepen. A cricket sounded at the window, and the house and all its spaces seemed to spread with an electrostatic silence. 'I don't know,' he said, 'Perhaps you're right.' And when she didn't reply, he closed his eyes and gathered the blankets to his shoulders.

"He was soon asleep.

"The next morning there was an answer waiting for him on his desk, written in his wife's hand: I love you, it read, but the word love had been crossed out and replaced with the word miss, which had been crossed out and replaced with an empty space, as though his wife had given up on the message altogether.

"He looked for her in the kitchen and the pantry and the bedroom, though he'd just come from there. He stood on the front walk and watched his neighbors drifting by like sails: she was not among them He even tapped on the trapdoor of the attic with a broomstick, querying her name with a brief little note of embarrassment in his voice. When it became clear that he was alone in the house--and because the day was supposed to begin this way--he lit the stove and drew the curtains and prepared a breakfast of eggs and toast. ... All day long he listened for the sound of her shoes in the hallway, their change from pad to click at the edge of the carpet and floor. He listened for the snap of wood as she spurred the fire, and the creak of the pantry door on its hinges, and the thousand peripheral noises that told him he was home and she was near.

"It was not until the sun fell that he realized she had left him."

To my mind, that works great as a complete piece of flash fiction. But the whole story--with expanded character development, expanded plot--worked great as a short story. And if Brockmeier so chose, it could work great--with expanded character development, expanded plot--as a novel. Couldn't it? Doesn't it just matter what we want to turn the seed into? What it interests us to do? (and what we're capable of doing) Granted some ideas immediately seem big enough for a novel (or too big for a story), but isn't it all in how we choose to treat those ideas?