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Causation and Logic in Surrealism with Jon Scieszka

Written by  mglyde in 

When my son was born, I inherited one of my favorite childhood stories through what passes for a time capsule in my family: a dusty box forgotten in the back of my parent’s attic. 

It’s called THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE, written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Daniel Adel. My son is a year and a half old, and thus got bored about half way through (he’s just too young, yet) but reading the rest myself, I remembered why I loved it so much as a child. It’s surreal and ludicrous and horrifying, and clearly an early, if until-now unacknowledged, influence on my work. Many spoilers ahead, for those that worry about such things. 

THE CHALLENGE

With surrealism being my main stomping ground, sometimes I’m angsty about the entire concept of causation: the point of surreal narratives is to surprise and shock, to drive you where you don’t expect or wouldn’t dare to go. 

But recently, I’ve thought about causation while reading a few surreal books, like Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL and Samanta Schweblin’s FEVER DREAM, and I realized that I’ve been thinking about causation all wrong. In surrealism, or really in any form of non-realism that trends close to fairy tale, including most horror, causation absolutely is present, it’s just finicky. It’s distinct. 

To dig into exactly what causation (and a causal chain) looks like in surreal work, few examples are more illustrative than Scieszka and Adel’s 1994 fairy tale. 

THE STORY

Published in 1994, THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE is a re-imagining of the classic fairy tale called “The House that Jack Built” which essentially unites a bunch of nursery rhymes in one long causal chain beginning with this first page:

This is the Book that Jack wrote.

The text is paired with a 3-D painting of the the book that Jack wrote (which in fact matches the cover of the actual book”). The next pages read as follows, with similarly representative images: 

This is the picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote

This is the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote

This is the Cat, / That ate the Rat / That fell in the Picture/ That lay in the Book that Jack Wrote

To read about half the text and see the illustrations (which publisher’s weekly called “bizarre but virtuosic paintings that evoke Alice in Wonderland by way of Francis Bacon”) in action, you can use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon

That same publisher’s weekly review gives away the core structural feature of the book, that “a causal chain is steadily built.” And while it’s a fair enough statement, the reality of the book’s structure (and it’s causal chain) is much more complex. Our first step has to take the idea of building a causal chain and make it more specific. 

THE SOLUTION

For starters, THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE is one of those rare stories that actually builds its causal chain backwards, although it’s not so clear at first. Also, I’d argue it’s much better than the other examples of backward-moving stories I’ve read (for the record: “Backward, O Time” by Damian Knight and “Currents” by Hannah Bottomy); by “better” I mean more satisfying and more willing to dedicate itself to the experiment.

In its conclusion, the Publisher’s Weekly review states that “Readers who require logic will be stymied; those who appreciate near Victorian oddities and Escher-like conundrums will tumble right in.” But here, perhaps, the reviewer is revealing a particular bias, because there is no shortage of logic in this surrealist fairy tale. On the third page, the causal chain begins: “This is the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the book that Jack wrote.” Notice the verb: “fell.” It prompts the question “Why did the rat fall?” We do not get the answer on the next page, where the Cat eats the Rat, but if we pay close attention to the illustration, we’ll notice that the book is no longer in the frame. How did the cat fall if it had been eaten? It’s this subtle ambiguity that keeps us from realizing, quite yet, that the plot moves backwards. But on the next page, we get our answer, perhaps if only through implication: “This is the dog,/That chased the Cat,/That ate the Rat,/That fell in the Picture/ That lay in the book that Jack wrote.”  

From here, it’s hard to know where the plot will go. It seems that the causal chain is complete–the Rat fell in the Picture when it dropped from the mouth of the Cat when the Dog chased it. This a little wibbly-wobblyness to the timeline here, a muddiness that becomes hard to parse if you think too hard. But if we look at this from a logic point of view, we can ask “Why did the Cat eat the Rat?” and the answer is clear: “Because that’s what Cats do.” It’s natural. And there’s a similar logic to “Why did the dog chase the cat?”

“Because that’s what Dogs do.” 

But when you turn the page, you find a different answer: the dog was afraid:

“This is the Cow sailing over the moon, / That spooked the Dog, / That chased the Cat, / That ate the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote.” 

This sort of twist marks the rest of the book, taking you deeper and deeper into its surreal causal chain: the Cow was tossed over the moon by a Baby; and a Pie that hit struck him, angering him enough to throw it; and the pie was thrown by a Pieman (of course) who was startled by an Egg (humpty dumpty, actually) falling off a wall, who was knocked out the window by a Mad Hatter who tripped on a rug that was frayed by a bug. 

Then, in an unbelievable (literally) twist, we see a Man in a tattered coat crush the bug, and then himself get crushed by the Book that Jack wrote, leaving us in exactly the place where we started. And, in fact, one of the key pleasures of the book is when you become smart enough to restart the book (as this ending gives you permission to do) and notice that the Man in the tattered coat (who by all contextual clues IS the titular “Jack”) was already crushed under the book, like a wicked witch, on the first page. 

So, as you can see, each page follows a specific kind of formula: introduce a character that creates a question, and then use the next page to answer that question but raise another. It really is a microcosm of story: constant movement and change, all linked in a causal chain (with some exceptions). 

But, for those paying attention, I think you’ll already have seen, the entire structure of the book relies on logic. In fact, I think there are actually four different kinds of logic at work here. This book tries to stretch your imagination back through each logic, starting in a comfortable place and going deeper into surrealism and absurdity as you progress. The logic forms are these: 

  1. Instinct/Natural Logic
  2. Fairytale Logic 
  3. Surreal Logic
  4. Absurd Logic

The first, natural logic, is embedded in the pages that introduce the mouse, the rat and the dog. These familiar creatures are given to us in these pages along with our most familiar form of logic: common sense, instinct, purely mechanical. This is, I think, the logic desired by the reviewer (although perhaps I am presumptuous) and that’s no surprise; it might easily be called “mainstream logic” today. It’s the closest a children’s book may ever come to the logic of a mathematical proof, with certain things as “given.” 

But at one time, that sort of logic was viewed with quite a bit of suspicion, when an older, fairy-tale logic layered the world in metaphors and stories and focused on how emotions led us astray. In the second section of the story, we find out that it’s fear that drives the dog to chase the cat, and anger the causes the baby to throw the cow, and shock that causes the Pieman to throw the pie. In this logic, instead of being driven by instinct, people are driven by their emotional states–they’re like children. This is often the logic of fairy tales (at least the Russian, with which I have the most familiarity): “Once upon a time, a poor villager named Ivan felt angry with his brother, so he locked him in cage” might be a fine start to a fairy tale, to a journey that will lead to an epic conclusion, where Ivan is crowned king after defeating a dragon. Except in our epic causal chain, an Egg falling off a wall gets a Cow tossed over the moon. 

Finally we come to the third logic, what I might call the surreal logic. These pages introduce the Egg, the Hatter, and the Bug. In this form of logic, things happen simply because something else happened, with very little sense at all. There’s a reflection of the first logic in it, in that it’s incredibly mechanical, but it’s hardly instinctual: why was humpty dumpty sitting on a window sill? Why was the hatter even walking down the hall to trip (the hall is a dead end by all counts)? Why would a bug be eating a rug, and how could it eat enough of it to fray the rug so completely? The answer to each is simply “because” with a shrug. But notice how, as much as it’s senseless, there’s still causation, and there’s still logic. And in some ways, just like the surrealism of Kafka, once you give it a little more though, this feels more real than the natural logic of the opening: because we often don’t really know people’s goals and motives. “Random events occurring randomly” is often our point of view perspective in life, especially when it comes to disaster. 

Finally we come to the final logic of the book: absurd logic. This is brought to life by the first two pages (the Man is already crushed by the Book! How did the Book open up on page 2 for the Rat to fall in?) and by the ending, where the Man squashes the bug and then is himself squashed by what appears to be his own book. This absurdism also, of course, frames the entire book, as on several pages (including the one where the Man squashes the Bug) we see a framed photo on the wall of the Man squashed by the Book! 

It seems to begin (as all absurdism does) with an appeal to a traditional sort of logic: just desserts, an eye for an eye. The bug gets quashed BECAUSE it frayed the rug–look at the mess it caused. And then the Man gets quashed, which seems a little strange for a moment, but then you realize it’s only fair, it’s only karma–until you notice the first page. 

If the man was killed by the book, before any of this happened, how could the cat have dropped the mouse in the picture in the first place. It’s enough to drive you a little batty. I thought I found my way out of the time loop labyrinth when I realized (duh) that instead of finding out why the Bug frayed the rug, we got the consequences of the Bug fraying the rug (getting quashed), which means we’re moving forward in time again. But it still doesn’t add up. You could, if you tried hard enough, find a convoluted way to but together a timeline. But you will never overcome one basic fact: when the Man quashes the bug, there’s a photo of the man, already quashed, hanging on the wall next to him. It’s absurd. It’s karma without justice, it’s cosmic punishment without care, it’s fate without gods. It’s a wild narrative of out of control emotions and tragedy caused by habit. No sense required. No cause even. For that’s the secret of absurdist logic–which we can only call post-modern–“Things Just Happen.” The Man crushed the bug not because of the rug, but because the bug was a bug, and the Man was bigger. And no justice was had when the Man was crushed by the Book: it was just a big book crushing a small man. In these final pages, this book obliterates its causal chain, turns the whole plot into a farce and dares you to read it all again. To memorize it and repeat it in your sleep, as I did as a small child. 

FINALLY

To the reviewer (whose review was absolutely lovely) I say: more logic? This book is brimming with, over flowing with logic. It’s just that it can’t seem to decide quite what kind of logic it likes the most. 

Although it’s surreal and surprising, its best surprises are delivered with a smooth transition and an almost “inevitable” feel, it surprises in the way it resolves the cause, rather than by feigning zero causation. 

At the same time, though, it does in the end make an argument for unknowable causes, in the surreal section, and for a lack of cause, in the ending.

But that shattering of its causal chain is earned, and that’s why it works. 

Earned is maybe too vague, though, when what I really mean is that the shattering of its causal chain is exciting. It’s a final twist that makes you want to read again, that rewards you for paying attention, that lets most of its story live in the more rational world of cause and effect so that when absurdity strikes it has impact and import. And it’s important that this book is in some ways trying to resolve a conflict between contemporary logic and the older logic of fairy tales, a logic we often consider childish today but is still fairly instinctual to most of us. A case can be made that we ignore fairy tale logic at our own peril. We’d be careless to ignore the way instincts can drive us, but also emotions, but also external disasters and just bad damned luck or the cosmic whims of the void. 

There’s also something else about the logic, and by extension, the causal chain of this book: it’s poignant but it’s also very simple. The answer is often plain, and even it’s most complex, most absurd twist, should have been obvious from the start. The Man’s feet always were poking out from the book. He was always going to be crushed. Perhaps this is a strange place to land when writing about a children’s book–and the horror of this book continually grows–but ultimately it must be viewed to some degree as an existentialist lesson about mortality. And it’s the lesson a lot of existential philosophers left us with: the one inevitable thing. We keep circling back to it, don’t we? 

Good a place as any to land. I suppose it’s now time to ask you what you think.

What do you think? Have you read this book? Have you recovered? Are there books from your childhood that have revealed themselves as influences later in life? 

Sensory Action with Samuel Delany

Written by  mglyde in 
Although I have yet to finish it, Dhalgren has already left some kind of mark on me. After reading Delany’s About Writing, I decided to give it a go, to take a look at the experiment he was attempting, quite intentionally, to write a character’s experience of the world on a finite moment-to-moment level. I’ve decided to call it “Sensory Action” and that’s what we’re going to look at today. 

THE CHALLENGE:
One of the big thing that’s been getting me, in writing novels, is pacing. After spending so long focusing on short fiction, it’s hard to know exactly how to fill 90,000 words without writing mostly fluff or without speeding through some insanely complex plot. 


How do people do it? 

Delany offers some answers for this, as you might expect. 

THE STORY: 
While it does not always work for me, Dhalgren is an interesting experiment in really evoking a character’s experience. At times it gets really really deep into introspection or just how something feels physically, and of course that makes everything take a lot more time. But that also means that large sections of the novel are intensely cohesive and that allows Delany to go really deep into introspection. 


I recommend Dhalgren to anyone interested in an experiment along these lines. Even just 300 pages in, it’s been well worth the effort so far.

And the moment I just experienced was crushingly good–so much that I could hardly pick up the book for days. This is a thing that happens to me when I read something that blows me away–but I usually have to get to the end first. 

ANYWAY. To look at sensory action, I want to start with 3 short excerpts, the first two of which worked really well for me and last of which gave me a lot of trouble. 

Pg11: Metal steps led up to the pedestrian walkway. But since there was no traffic, he sauntered across two empty lanes–a metal grid sunk in the blacktop gleamed where tires had polished it–to amble the broken white line, sandaled foot one side, bare foot the other. Girders wheeled by him, left and right. Beyond, the city squatted on weak, inverted images of its fires. 

He gazed across the wale of night water, all wind-runneled and sniffed for burning. A gust parted the hair at the back of his neck; smoke was moving off the water. 

“Hey you!” 

He looked up at the surprising flashlight. “Huh. . .?” At the walkway rail, another and another punctured the dark. 

Pg141: From where he sat, he could see into the kitchen: Other candles burned on the counter. Beside a paper bag of garbage, its lip neatly turned down, stood two open Campbell’s cans. He took another spoonful. Mrs Richards has mixed, he decided, two or even three kinds; he could recognize no specific flavor. 

Under the tablecloth edge, his other hand had moved to his knee–the edge of his little finger scraped the table leg. First with two fingers, then with three, then with his thumb, then with his foreknuckle, he explored the circular lathing, the upper block, the under -rim, the wing bolts, the joints and rounded excrescences of glue, the hairline cracks where piece was joined to piece–and ate more soup. 

Pg7 (In a dark cave, searching for something): He had to climb a long time. One face, fifteen feet high, stopped him for a while. He went to the side and clambered up the more uneven outcroppings. He found a thick ridge that, he realized as he pulled himself up it, was a root. He wondered what it was a root to, and gained the ledge. 

Something went Eeek! softly, six inches from his nose, and scurried off among old leaves. 

He swallowed, and the prickles tidaling along his shoulders subsided. He pulled himself the rest of the way, and stood: 

It lay in a crack that slanted into roofless shadow. 

One end looped a plume of ferns. 

He reached for it; his body blocked the light from the brazier below: glimmer ceased. 

He felt another apprehension than that of the unexpected seen before, or accidentally revealed behind. He searched himself for some physical sign that would make it real: quickening breath, slowing heart. But what he apprehended was insubstantial as a disjunction of the soul. He picked the chain up; one end chuckled and flickered down the stone. He turned with it to catch the orange glimmer. 

Prisms. 

Some of them, anyway. 

Others were round. 

He ran the chain across his hand. Some of the round ones were transparent. Where they crossed the spaces between his fingers, the light distorted. He lifted the chain to gaze through one of the lenses. But it was opaque. Tilting it, he saw pass, dim and inches distant in the circle, his own eye, quivering in the quivering glass. 


THE SOLUTION: 
The three excerpts above offer a good sense of how Delany is writing action in this story. From the first two examples, the key lines for me are   

A) “A gust parted the hair at the back of his neck; smoke was moving off the water”

The first line blows me away every time I revisit it. It’s simple, really, in form. But in function, it’s genius. First, note how deeply chronological the action is: first the wind comes in from behind, blows the hair on his neck, and then, as it passes him, it (implicitly) blows smoke off the water (we can see this same kind of chronology in the appearance of the flashlights at the end of this excerpt, another moment i really like). And if that wasn’t enough, the parting of his hair actually evokes the movement of the smoke; we can feel smoke parting around rocks on the shore.  


On a purely grammatical level, past experience tells me that the use of “moving” has something to do with that. If overused it can be obnoxious, but present particles like this in light touches can have a fairly cinematic effect (this is something Dennis Miller was known for). But that’s only part of what’s going on here. Don’t underestimate the importance of that semi-colon. 

and B) “First with two fingers, then with three, then with his thumb, then with his foreknuckle, he explored the circular lathing, the upper block, the under -rim, the wing bolts, the joints and rounded excrescences of glue, the hairline cracks where piece was joined to piece–and mate more soup.”

Notice that this example is actually less chronological than the last. It gives us some semblance of chronology, listing his body parts in chronological order and then what he explores in chronological order. But delivered in a parallel format, which is not only wonderful grammatically and visually, but also totally sensible. Imagine how frustrating the moment might get if he had said something along the lines of “first with two fingers he explored the circular lathing, then with three the upper block, then with his thumb, the under -rim. . .” etcetera. Maybe he had originally written it this way, given what he has said about the experiment in About Writing, but it’s a smart change here. Still, he maintains what chronology he can.

Another thing to note is that this sentence seems to evoke itself even more than the other example. It has this winding feeling, in part caused by the grammar of the sentence, the short phrases separated by commas, but also by the imagery, the way we seem to be winding up his hand and the way we are exploring the parts of the table. The specificity of the nouns really helps with this–he tells us every part of the table, and even though I don’t know what each of those pieces necessarily looks like, I have a good sense of what he’s doing, that his hand is moving, that it’s feeling around a table leg. We’re giving that as startup context. We’re signaled by the new information at the end of the previous sentence, which mentions the table leg. 

So one of the key takeaways from this one is that setting up context can be super important. Telegraph what you’re going to do, then do it. That boosts the evocation and makes the complex (if parallel) bit of action a little easier to process. 

Finally, let’s turn to the excerpt from page 7, with a key passage. It’s hard to pick out a single troublesome line in this moment, but this is probably where it starts: 

C) “It lay in a crack that slanted into roofless shadow.”

This part sets up a pretty confusing moment because we have no idea what “it” is–Delany hasn’t given us context for this moment, and he’s put the “it” at the start of a sentence, forcing us over the verb and the rest of the sentence, and in fact several more sentences (in which we see “it” looped around something and him reaching for it) before we learn what “it” is–a chain. 

And yet, somehow paradoxically, this final mentioning of the chain seems to weaken the passage even further. 

With the other passages, we gradually experience the world along with the character. Here, we get thrown into a rolling bit of pronoun confusion, only to have it rather rapidly resolved. One thing you might notice about this first chapter is that it’s paced much quicker than the other scenes. In slowing down, maybe this scene could have been fleshed out chronologically, starting with him noticing a glimmer, finding a charm, discovering that “it” is a chain and the other charms. 

FINALLY: 
These are perhaps just initial impressions; I haven’t yet finished the novel, although 300 pages of this style is pretty significant. But it seems like it’s really important, when evoking action, to try to really think through chronology and the order in which the character would experience the sensations. 

Further than that, it seems like context clues and grammar can also play a really large role in sensations. 

Do you notice anything I’m missing? What’s your take away? I’ll likely be doing a few blog posts on this book, since it’s taking me such a long time to read, so is there a particular Dhalgren-related topic you’d like to see? Let me know. 

Interview: Writing to Music with Daryl Gregory

Written by  mglyde in 
 Music has greatly influenced my writing, and I have a novel brewing that was inspired by a song, but I was struggling with how to take that inspiration and spawn a complete story. It occurred to me that I may not be the only one. So I returned to a book that I’ve read a few times, Daryl Gregory’s The Devil’s Alphabet. 

What this novel does best is offer a window into an odd, sometimes horrific, world that simultaneously feels quite familiar. That familiarity largely comes from a connection to and understanding of the struggles of the main characters. But there’s another interesting fact that’s near invisible unless you’re a die-hard David Bowie fan: it was inspired by and outlined to the lyrics of “Oh! You Pretty Things.” Given that that is so hard to catch, I thought I’d change up the format a little this week to ask Daryl how he went about writing his novel. 

For starters, could you tell us a little about the story?

I call it an SF Southern Gothic murder mystery.  It takes place in Switchcreek, Tennessee, a small town nestled in the Smokies, where ten years before, a gene-altering disease swept through the town that killed many of the residents, but turning the survivors into one of three new species: the ten-foot tall Argos; the scarlet-skinned, ungendered Betas; and the bulky Charlies. Oh, and the elder male Charlies produce an addictive, hallucinogenic substance from the blisters in their skin. It’s that kind of book.  

The main character is Pax Martin, who was one of the “skips,” people who were supposedly unaffected by the disease. Yet Pax is haunted by the idea that he’s been changed on some deep, subtle level. He was sent away by his Baptist father when he was a teenager, but now he’s come back for the funeral of one of his best friends, a Beta who was murdered, and to take care of his father, who’s now a 600-pound Charlie being used as a living drug factory. (I warned you.)  The book’s about evolution, alienation, and the elusive nature of humanity, but it’s also about life in an East-Tennessee mountain town similar to the one my parents grew up in.


What particular set of music inspired this story and why?

A few of my short stories have been inspired by a particular song—my story “Damascus,” for example, came out of Johnny Cash’s rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Your Own Personal Jesus”–but this is the only novel I’ve written that was guided by one: David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things.” That was also the original title of the novel (minus the exclamation mark), before Del Rey decided there were too many other books with similar titles. I really wish I would have fought harder for that title.

I’m a huge Bowie fan, and always have been. When I was sixteen I wore out my cassette tape of Young Americans.  Blackstar, his final album, moves me to tears every time I listen to it. (I don’t turn it on when I’m driving in traffic.)  “Pretty Things” comes from the album Hunky Dory, way back in 1971, and it’s Bowie in groovy SF freakout mode. Here’s a typical verse:

Look at your children

See their faces in golden rays

Don’t kid yourself they belong to you

They’re the start of a coming race

The earth is a bitch

We’ve finished our news

Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use

All the strangers came today

And it looks as though they’re here to stay

See? It’s an SF novel waiting to happen.


How did this inspiration change your normal brainstorming, outlining, and writing process?

The Devil’s Alphabet was my second novel, and I remember starting it in a haze of panic. Did I have any more ideas? Could I possibly write another novel? I decided to help myself out by using “Oh! You Pretty Things” as my outline. There’s a sudden, God-like event—Bowie has a “crack in the sky” in the first verse—which leads to a struggle between parents and children, and the story ends with “You got to make way for homo superior,” the emergence of a new competitor to homo sapiens.

I laced other lyrics throughout the manuscript. This is a trick I first learned at Clarion in 1988, when my classmate Brooks Caruthers wrote an entire story linked by song titles on a mix tape. Maybe Brooks learned it from William S. Burroughs or Lou Reed, but wherever it came from, it’s a technique I’ve gone back to many times over the years. There’s something about borrowing an outside structure, or an arbitrary set of rules, that gets the creative juices flowing. Of course, later you can cut anything that doesn’t fit the story anymore, and that’s fine, too.


Were there any pitfalls in this process or in using music to guide you through a story? 

Well, the lyrics will only take you so far. They’re good for generating images you want to write about, but not so great at telling you why something is happening. Pax Martin is a kid in his mid-twenties who’s alienated and a bit lost: he doesn’t know why he’s come back home, isn’t sure what he wants from his father or his friends, and doesn’t know what he wants out of life in general. He’s not even sure he’s human!

When I wrote the book I was writing about people I knew who were lost at that age. But Pax’s disaffection makes him a difficult character to like. More critically, he’s not a great choice for a main character. He doesn’t want to participate in the story!

I shouldn’t admit this in public—and in general, writers should leave it to reviewers to bad-mouth their books—but because you and I have talked about this, and this newsletter is going out to other writers, I want to be clear: Don’t do what I’ve done!  When I teach plotting now I warn people against choosing this kind of protagonist. (Of course, you still can. There are no rules in fiction. If you’re Virginia Woolf, feel free.)


What did you learn from doing this? If you were going to do it again, what might you do differently?

I still stand behind The Devil’s Alphabet, and there are scenes, like the drug-hazed baptism scene, and the argo funeral, that I’m very proud of. But I’ve since learned to pick more active, decisive main characters.  It is possible to write characters who don’t know what they want, but you, the author, have to know what they desire subconsciously, and what they’re trying to get from other characters in the scene. Moment by moment, the character needs to be working on a concrete goal, even if it’s self-destructive, or in conflict with what the character “really” wants.

I say I learned this lesson from The Devil’s Alphabet, but actually I was re-learning something I’d had drilled into me in acting and directing classes when I was in college. (I was a double English-theater major, which I tell people is twice as unemployable as the usual liberal arts major.)  A professor once told me that as an actor you can’t play “running from a bear.” You can only play a “want”—wanting to reach a tree, or a shotgun, or the door to the cabin. If you don’t want anything, you’ve got nothing to do on stage.

Pax, in The Devil’s Alphabet, was running from life, but I hadn’t given him anything to run toward. By the end of the book he figures it out, but by that point he’s already frustrated many of the readers.

 

You have a new book coming out in June called Spoonbenders from Knopf! I could not be more excited, and have already pre-ordered my copy. Would you mind telling us a little about that project?

You’ve already pre-ordered? That’s crazy. Thank you. You don’t have to read it, by the way. By simply buying it you’ve done your duty as a friend and colleague.  

Spoonbenders is about Teddy Telemachus, a con man and card sharp, who falls in loves with Maureen McKinnon, a girl with real psychic powers, back in 1962. They marry and have three kids with somewhat mediocre powers—Irene is a human lie-detector, Frankie can move bits of metal, and Buddy can predict the scores of Cubs games—but of course Teddy puts them on the road as the Amazing Telemachus family. The book is about what happens after Maureen dies and the act (and the family) falls apart. Twenty years later, they’ve never made a dime with their powers. Then Matty, Irene’s son, discovers he has Maureen’s ability to move outside his body, and the family gets one more chance to make good.

It’s a bit of a romp, throwing together mobsters, the CIA, long cons, and old fashioned stage magic, but what drives the book is the family relationships. These grown kids fight with each other but also take care of each other when it counts.

So, I’m still writing about families, and mutants! But I’ve learned some lessons as a writer. With this book I went deeper into each character’s desires, even their modest, far-from-world-changing goals. The book has a rotating point of view, with each of the Telemachuses getting time in the spotlight, and I tried to not only understand what each family member wanted in each moment, but to find his or her unique voice, their way of seeing the world. Kim Stanley Robinson was one of my teachers at Clarion, and I learned something important from reading his books: He loves each of his characters, even those doing terrible things. His novels swell with empathy. In Spoonbenders I wanted that kind of love to shine through on each page.

Oh, and I also let myself be funny. In The Devil’s Alphabet, Pax was verbally awkward, and I stripped down my writing to show that. I deliberately cut out banter, pop-culture references, and much of the ironic attitude I’d used in my first novel, Pandemonium. (I guess I wanted to show… range? Hemingway-esque clarity?) I wised up for my third novel. The family in Spoonbenders—with the exception of Uncle Buddy, who’s almost mute—is a family of talkers, with a keen sense of the absurd. I hope readers have as much fun hanging out with them as I did.

Bio: Daryl Gregory grew up in Chicago and lived for 24 years in State College, PA, where he first met Mike Glyde. He’s the author of six novels, several comic book series, a short story collection, and the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which won the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards. In 2018, Tor Teen will reissue Harrison Squared, the first book in his Lovecraftian YA series, and publish two new sequels. He now lives in Oakland, CA.




Macro Choreography with Daryl Gregory

Written by  mglyde in 
When I read Harrison Squared, what impressed me most (at least technically) was how detailed the blocking of character action was always clear where each character was in a space, and where important objects were in relation to them, no matter how fast the action was moving. When I got to chapter 21, I was even more blown away when I was able to track the location of a huge field of action, and that’s what I want to discuss today. Careful for some spoilers. I’ll try to keep the excerpts light to avoid them, but it is fairly late in the novel. 

The Problem: 

It’s hard to know when you’re accurately depicting the choreography of an action scene. You can picture it all in your head, you know where everyone is, so the biggest challenge is being sure that your vision makes it to the page. In looking for some tricks to master this, I turned to a published example. 

The Story: 

Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared is a young adult Lovecraft novel with a special flare for adventure. It’s a quick and enjoyable read, and isn’t too dark–although some of the monster POV scenes can get there. It’s a sequel to his award winning novella We Are All Completely Fine, which was one of my favorites of 2015, and there are a few more books in the series on their way. 

What I loved about this big battle scene toward the end of the novel was that I never felt lost. I could always track where the character was, and the narrator seemed keenly aware of when I’d need a reminder. All this is done with simple and subtle tricks. 

The Solution: 

It really is quite simple and eloquent: there are 2 methods that Daryl is using to keep us in the know. 

1. Solid Setup 

The story takes its time to orient us to the field of action. No need to rush into the events when a reader won’t be able to follow what’s going on. Check out this excerpt: 

      “Suddenly the wind roared, and the Muninn spun like a toy boat above a bathtub drain. I was thrown to my knees.
      The Scrimshander lunged at Hallgrimsson and batted aside the trident. The two of them crashed to the deck. Hallgrimsson yelled, ‘Run, Harrison!’
      I jumped to my feet and ran, skidding and swaying, to the other side of the boat. Lydia stepped out of the other side of the pilothouse, the wind whipping her hair, and pointed.
     The water under the cloud break seemed to boil, churning with white tops. The Muninn was caught in the outer rim of a huge whirlpool, circling at great speed and rotating at the same time, like a spinning planet caught in the orbit of a sun. 
     The center of the whirlpool was a circle of smooth water like the center of a roulette wheel. The raft floated in that eddy, spinning slowly . . .  The Albatross was stationed well back from the whirlpool, Montooth standing at the bow. But that wasn’t what she was pointing at . . . The Muninn spun like a compass dial. I hung on, and then the raft appeared, perhaps a hundred yards in front of us” (291-292)

This setup involves two things of note. For one, descriptive metaphors that take this large battlefield and give it a meaningful, consistent image. He uses metaphors of scale, one small (a toy boat circling a drain) and one enormous (a spinning planet orbiting the sun) and what i notice is that these metaphors are essentially creating the exact same image, except the first begins with a scale we can fathom, and then the second expands that scale into a huge one, giving a sense of the immensity of the field on which this scene will take place. 

The second activity in this segment is the creation of monuments that you can imagine in various places in this orbit or around this drain. There’s the Muninn and the Albatross, the raft and the glassy center of the whirlpool, as well as the whirlpool itself. Being able to paste these monuments onto the metaphors above is key to tracking the events in the following scene. 

2. Use the Monuments as Touchstones

The action largely oscillates between “big” events and “small” events, switching from the macro choreography of whirlpools and boats, to the personal tale of Harrison struggling to get to his mother. When we emerge from these moments, often rising up from underwater, Daryl returns to these monuments to show us where we are (how far from the raft, how far from the Muninn), as well as to track the passage of time (the Munnin swirling back around the pool). Consider the following excerpts, only three of such moments: 

     “I tried to take a breath, but my chest had seized up. My jaw felt like ti was trying to grind my teeth to nubs. I pawed at my chest and was relieved to find the knife still there.
     A wave carried me up, and I looked around frantically. The Muninn was less than ten feet from me. Then I spotted the raft, much farther away. . .” (293). 
     
     “A thrill ran through me, a hot jolt of energy better than Aunt Sel’s tea. I turned about, spotted the patch of clear air. When the next wave came, I dove into it. I kicked hard with my meat leg, and then the buoyancy of the vest pulled me to the surface
     Swim. Don’t think. 
     Some time later I realized that the wind has ceased howling. I stopped and treaded water. The surface was a s glassy as a lake, and the raft was only fifty feet away” (296). 

     “I got to my knees, scanning the water. The raft still stood in the center of a glassy lake. The Muninn still orbited at the edge of the whirlpool . . . Behind them, safely outside the whirlpool, was the white bulk of the Albatross. I could see a huge figure on its frond deck” (299).

These two strategies work in congress to produce an obvious-in-hindsight but invisible-in-situ effect that left me feeling total clarity and increasingly impressed. I’ll definitely be stealing this going forward. 

Finally: 

Be methodical, be obvious. What may not appear to be a smooth strategy on the surface could very well pass unnoticed when readers are knee deep in the climax of your novel. Part of the genius of this strategy is how close it comes to simulating how we orient ourselves in real life. Consider a time when you passed onto a busy street, the light so bright you couldn’t see your surroundings at first. As your eyes adjust, you look for some touchstone that can guide your way, tell you how long you have to go.

That’s exactly how Harrison is colliding with his antagonists in this scene. 

Do you have any tricks for managing huge scenes of battle? Any particular stories or moments come to mind? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and whether you think I missed anything at all. 

Thanks for reading!

First Chapter Structure with Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Written by  mglyde in 
Years ago, when I first read One Hundred Years of  Solitude, the first chapter blew me away. It’s a book that is hard to get into at first, but once I’d made it through the first chapter I was hooked. I wanted to take a look at what that first chapter is doing structurally–in the same vein as my discussion of Canticle for Leibowitz from last week. As much as possible–I’ll have to avoid discussing too much how this chapter connects to larger themes of the book–spoilers will be avoided. 

The Problem: 

Again–novels. Chapter structure is an odd thing, and it seems like it differs a lot from book to book. So I wanted to take a look at a second example, one that I think most people would find to be a quite different novel, to dig a little deeper. This will also be an examination of what this first chapter is doing. 

The Story: 

I’ve never read another book like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even Marquez’s other work, which I’ve also enjoyed, comes close to the brilliant experimentation taking place in this novel. They also don’t come close to matching the depth and breadth displayed here. Even the works of Allende and Borges, contemporaries said to be writing in the same subgenre, don’t really compare. It’s not, by any means, a fast-paced thriller, but it is profound and fascinating and reading it feels like steeping yourself in someone else’s mind. 

Probably the closest reading experience is Kafka, which I think is what Marquez intended. 

Anyway, enough drooling! The first chapter of this book is enlightening for its structure and it’s actually surprisingly similar in some ways to Canticle, which will probably become clear below. On top of structure, I’ll also discuss the things this story is doing as a first chapter to introduce the rest of the book. 

The Solution: 

What’s fascinating about this chapter as an opening is how much it feels like an opening, especially in contrast to Canticle. In the latter, the first and second chapters together almost feel like a short story that outgrew itself and had to turn into a novella and then a novel, while the former really feels like it’s introducing the story. Almost like the introductory paragraph to an essay, it has all the elements that will weave through the rest of the book–it touches on themes of solitude and superstition versus connection and science. It reveals the weird playing with time (Macondo, the central village, exists at a time when most things don’t have names, the narrator declares, but also Memphis exists–so late 19th century at the earliest). It shows how the names of the main characters repeat as the generations pass. These are all themes and conflicts that span the novel to its final page. 

Beyond that, the narration goes out of its way to emphasize happenings that feel inconsequential but will have major effects on teh rest of the story. It says things like “The children would remember for the rest of their lives” (which we will see all of) (4) and “…he made him a gift that was to have  profound influence on the future of the villlage: the laboratory of an alchemist” (which will feature on the last page) (5). This sort of thing is creating a kind of simmering anticipation, not quite suspense, at least not in the Steven King sense, but a longing to understand, to fill in blanks. 

These are all powerful things that the chapter does for the novel. The final thing it does, right at the outset, is very similar to Canticle in some ways: it provides an occasion. Here’s what it says: 

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). 

This is doing two things simultaneously. First, it’s giving structure to a huge portion of the book by mentioning the firing squad, which will not reappear for decades (or hundreds of pages, depending on how you count). This is, of course, vital to the sense of suspense for the book, and is a move that has been stolen 1000 times since–we might call it an extended occasion. But it is a two part occasion, just like the example from Canticle, and the other part (discovering ice) structures this chapter, with it ending at the moment they discover and react to the ice.  It’s just strange enough to propel you through the chapter to the end. A final note of difference: this chapter does not end on a cliffhanger. If anything, it ends in a way that feels complete, as if you could close the book and return later. Personally, I found this willingness to resolve in small doses to be a wonderful, refreshing thing. 

A second thing holding this chapter together, allowing it to cohere, is a unified type of plot event. It’s arranged basically as a series of visits by the gypsy (mysterious outsiders who bring a carnival and inventions from around the world) and the Colonel’s father, Jose. Jose is a bit of an inventor, and becomes a bit of a scientist, and it’s this gypsy named Melquiades who guides and encourages him on this journey. The chapter only briefly departs from describing these visits, a section specifically defined by their absence. This gives a sense of unity and purpose to the chapter, and direciton–any time something needs to happen, the troupe returns, bringing some new marvelous thing. 

And finally, something that will look familiar to those who read my last post, the chapter is structured using simple arcs. These differ a little from the other book in key ways. For one, they are a little more cohesive, a little subtler, with full transitions and gentle backtracking. Also, instead of being based on conflict, they are largely based on POV–namely, the distance the omniscient narrator takes at any given point in the story. Here are the arcs as I saw them. 

Arc 1: Close to Jose and Aureliano (P1-5)
Arc 2: Widen out to the family (P5-7) 
Arc 3: All the way out to the village level (P7-14) 
Arc 4: Narrow back to the family (P14-16)
Arc 5: Return to Jose and Aureliano (P16-18) 

This structure does a lot of important things. It introduces the village itself as a vital player in this story–community as character. It also gives a hugely necessary sense of pacing and real change over a chapter that get its unity from a repetitive plot, and uses huge blocks of detailed summary as its style. Without these arcs, it seems clear that the story would just wash right over you.

Finally: 

So in comparison to Canticle, this story also relies on arcs that progress and then regress. It also makes use of a two part occasion to leap into the story, giving a strong sense of mystery at the opening and unifying the chapter’s events. You could easily call this the “Ice Discovery” chapter on an outline, just as Canticle’s first chapter could be described as “the arrival of the pilgrim”–and I notice that the authors seem to have gone to great lengths to establish this sense of unity.

Also, a key element in the difference of pacing in these books may be (beyond that one is largely summary and the other largely immediate action) because of the rate at which these books introduce and resolve occasions. Canticle’s two part occasion is resolved by the end of chapter two, while Marquez delays the second half of his occasion until nearly 200 pages in. This made for massively different reading experiences, although both were quite pleasureable. 


What do you think of the differences between these two novels? Is there anything important about this chapter that I’m missing? Have you read One Hundred Years of Solitude? I’d love to hear what you thought of the book. Thanks for reading! 

Disaster Plots in Short Stories with Daniel H. Wilson and Paul Tremblay

Written by  mglyde in 

Today we’ll be discussing disaster plots in short stories, comparing two stories for answers. Each image to the left links to one of the stories. As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

Ultimately, I want to understand this: how do I write a successful story in which the end implies that we all die? And a couple of restrictions are useful. First, I want it to be short. Second, I want it to be deeply personal and in a close POV. Finally, I want the ending to pack a wallop, rather than feel anticlimactic or unresolved in some way. 

Why this kind of story? Why these restrictions? Because I’ve read not 1 but 2 stories recently that blew me away and did both of these things. 

The Stories:

First, I read Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks” in Bourbon Penn. Then I read “The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson, which appeared in Carbide Tipped Pens, although I read it in Best American SFF 2015. These stories both got to me. In some ways, these stories are quite different: “Swim…” works better on a metaphorical level with the natural disasters of the MC’s life and the disaster is introduced almost immediately, although we never fully understand it; “The Blue…” comes to tell us exactly what is going on (in fact our MC is one of only a handful who fully understand it) and so the end is far less open. 

But what strikes me more, looking back, is just how much they have in common.

Both have distant narrators that dominate the voice of the story, one is distant because of drug addiction, the other because of his highly-analytical scientific language and through processes. Both involve a single parent and their one child. Both have 4 scenes. Both end in lyrically-described disaster.

For the first step in the solution, I’ll break down these stories a little further. 

The Solution:

A little outline for “Swim…”: (1–124 words) A micro scene implying past trouble of mom with law (through her daughter); (2–2025 words) A scene of MC at work, where we learn about her troubles and normal life; (3–686 words) A sort of “bridge” scene that becomes progressively more distant, the character at her most high/destructive; (4–2410 words) MC interacts with daughter in a house and soon destruction rains down around them. 

A little outline for “The Blue…”: (1–529 words) A scene of MC with his daughter in which we learn about his problems and normal life; (2–602 words) A flashback scene in which we learn about how things went between MC and his ex-wife; (3–920 words) A scene in which we learn, scientifically, analytically, about the danger occurring, and at the end the mystery of it is finally revealed, all in context with our MC’s research and life; (4–1749 words) MC returns in time to maximize time with his daughter, interact a little, and then the end comes. 

Both of these stories are SO SIMPLE. And they keep it pretty short, for the whole world ending. They each have a single central character, with a young child as a secondary character. “Swim” has a few other, very minor characters. Both have a relate-able conflict: the parents feel in some way distant from their children, one because of drugs and actual no-custody style distance, and the other because his daughter is changing, growing up.

So this must be how the authors are keeping it short. 

1 scene to introduce the character’s problem– Scene 2 in “Swim…” and Scene 1 in “The Blue…”
1 scene to deepen that personal issue– Scene 3 in “Swim” and Scene 2 in “The Blue” 
1 scene to bring personal and universal destruction together– Scene 4 in both stories.

The scenes that are outside of the pattern are also interesting, though. In “Swim…” it’s a micro-scene at the start that seems mostly about setting tone–it has this distant, lyrical tone of the end of the story, which is very different from the mundanity of the first scene. Meanwhile in “The Blue…” the extra scene is scene 3, and this seems mostly a function of genre. It’s hard scifi, thus we need a scene that tells us, scientifically, what is happening–Wilson puts it all here, so that it won’t bog down his ending. 

It also seems, based upon this outline, that the stories remain personal and impactful (while gaining distance) by devoting about half of the space of the story, and most of the scenes, to the character’s workaday world. To their conflicts at home. Only in the final scene do we really get to a novum. 

So on to the final question. What about the ending? This seems, to me, the hardest part to pull off, but to some extent, they are easy to pick apart. Some reasons the endings have such an enormous impact: 

(1) They are endings: endings get automatic emphasis, and that is boosted if the endings come along with conflict resolutions and a uniting of disparate story elements (creating a sudden release of potential energy). 
(2) The principal players of the stories (parent and child) are super secluded in the endings, and so the ends are sooo focused on them. It’s what really allows the disaster to take on a more personal meaning–it HAS to be about them, because they are all we’re seeing. In “The Blue…” the MC and his daughter are chained to a pipe. In “Swim…” the MC and her daughter are in an unfinished mansion. 
(3) The stories grow progressively more distant as they go along (“Swim…” gets more drug-infused, “The Blue…” more science-infused, with every scene that passes) until the tippy-end, the final paragraph, when the destruction and the MC’s struggle come together. 
(4) It’s easy, I think, to underestimate the level of impact made by variations in sentence length and style in these stories. The final few paragraphs of these stories have sentences notably longer than the rest of the story (especially evident in “The Blue…” which has pretty typical hard-scifi short sentences for most of the story) and the styles lean distinctly more lyrical/less practical at the end, which certainly fits with destruction that really is poetic and absurd at its heart. 

Two other things I’d like to note about the ends, specific to each story. 

In “Swim…” the final scene is split into 3 distinct sections, each doing something different–each shows the relationship between the MC and her daughter differently, each has a different level of distance, each ends with a sort of cliff-hangar propelling you into the next scene. This gives the final scene an very deliberate sense of pace, structure, and drive.

In “The Blue…” you can almost argue for a happy ending. This is spoilery, but in the end, the MC basically gets what he wants: he’s frustrated by his daughter growing up, and in they will be frozen in this moment for eternity. She’ll never grow up. Also, unlike in “Swim…” (where the end really seems disastrously pointless for the MC), the MC of “The Blue…” has an epiphany at the end. His conflict gets a positive resolution and he gets a moment of change. It’s particularly striking. 

Finally:

I’ve gotten out of hand with length! But I feel like I’ve barreled through these stories, tearing them up and canning them–they’re tuna now. Go read them, because this post doesn’t do them justice! 

Nevertheless, I find myself amazed by how similar these stories are. In my readings, I don’t think I’ve read any other short, personal disaster narratives, but I wonder if these have some kind of classic-scifi antecedent. It is, relatively, plausible that Wilson’s story was inspired by Tremblay’s but that seems to me too coincidental, and they came out so close that it would have meant an incredibly quick turnaround for Wilson to outline, write, and sell the story. 

Have you read any other disaster narratives like these? What do you think of the uniquely late introduction of the novum?

Open Endings with Brian Evenson

Written by  mglyde in 
WindeyeSomehow I think this whole collection is miraculously available on Google Books! Just click this link and then click the third option down that shows the title page. There the story begins. 

http://bit.ly/1U8ufhb 

Also before I get ahead of myself, definite spoilers this week as we’ll be talking about THE END. 

The Challenge:

My tastes run decidedly strange. I love lyrical stories with hapless protagonists and open endings.

An open ending is one of those things, like second-person POV, that never pleases everyone. For some people, open endings are a major turn-off (consider one of Terry Bisson’s Rules for Writers: “stories must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click”). Yet stories that end with a wheeze instead (that’s opposite a click, right?) can be pulled off with the right audience, when done well. 

It’s important to note that there are many kinds of open endings. Consider, for instance, the “Open Choice End”, a common form of open ending in which a character is presented with a choice but the story does not tell us which one is chosen. It was used in “The Three Dancers of Gizzari” in BCS, for instance. For my purposes, I’m not interested in studying those kind of open endings because they seem (to me) fairly simple to pull off: either make the character’s ultimate choice obvious beforehand, or make it so the choice doesn’t matter (in the BCS story, what mattered was what Bathenica had learned about herself and the people around her). 

What I want to talk about are truly open endings. As in, you have no clue what is happening to the main character or where he’s going next. 

The Story:

Brian Evenson, hands down, has had more influence on me than probably any other writer. His novella “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” haunts me to this day, and is so worth reading if you enjoy weird dark stories (assuming you don’t mind a little gore)–the novella was reprinted in The Weird Compendium and there’s a sequel that’s packaged with it as the novel Last Days

Of his short story collections, Windeye has to be the most accomplished (note: I have yet to read the new one). Beginning right with the title story, the first story in the collection, Evenson reveals a knack for and love of open endings. One of my particular favorites is called “The Sladen Suit.” It’s just one of those stories that sticks with me constantly because of the incredible imagery that gives you this raw, physical sense of presence in the story. 

The Solution:

First and foremost, I think you need a basic outline of the plot either so you can keep the whole plot in mind, or in case you don’t have much interest in reading the story. 

  1. We find our narrator entering the sladen suit, claiming he’s the third. 
  2. Our timeline shoots back to when the captain is first discovered murdered with a diving knife. No one feels bad, because he got them all stuck in this terrible storm on a boat and now they are all going to die. 
  3. “The Twins” Stig and Tore dispose of the captain’s body but only one Stig comes back (although everybody seems to agree that Stig is actually Tore). 
  4. It becomes clear that they are all going to starve before the storm clears. 
  5. They sleep and play games until Stig hears something and they all discover a “voice pipe” they don’t remember seeing, which leads up to the deck where supposedly the Captain and Tore lay dead. Stig says that he is speaking with Tore and that leads them to the sladen suit hidden in the captains cabin. Tore called the suit their salvation. 
  6. Stig enters the suit. We witness him struggling to crawl through the rubber tube into the suit. Stig appears to make it into the suit, and runs down the hall. By the time everyone catches up to the suit, it has flattened out and Stig (maybe Tore) is gone. Everyone thinks that maybe they hear screaming inside the suit, but they aren’t sure.
  7. A summary discussion of whether the suit is actually a hungry creature or some kind of portal to safety. 
  8. Another man goes into the suit (Asa) with a rope tied around his ankles. This scene progresses much quicker. He disappears and the rope comes back, still tied but covered in blood. 
  9. Our guy enters. We experience his crawl into the suit, his being in the suit, and then his crawl out, which takes much longer (and god that imagery! He thinks something of himself is being smeared onto the walls. He’s losing himself) and only ends when he uses the diving knife to cut his way out. He emerges back in a ship much like his own, but empty. And he appears to be trapped, although it seems the storm has ended. It seems he also cannot die of starvation any longer. 
  10. Before he finishes writing his account of events, he lets us know his plans: he will go back into the suit and, hoping to find a way out or at least his other companions or, if he must, he will turn the knife on himself to end this. It is also revealed that he is the one who killed the captain. 


You may notice that the ending brings up a lot more questions than it answers.

If this account is written out by this guy (a tactic used in many of Evenson’s open-ended stories), how did we come across it so we could read it? If he’s heading back into the suit, won’t the same things happen all over again? Of his companions, he was the only one with a knife, so does that mean they never made it to this second ship? What happened to them? Will he do this forever?

So how does this story not leave the reader on the stormy seas of confusion? That, at least, is answerable. At the start of the story, two major mysteries were introduced: who killed the captain? and what does it feel like inside the sladen suit? 

Even though the other major mystery, introduced in the middle (what happened to the first two travelers in the Sladen Suit?) does not, the two opening mysteries get answered. Those answers are very full–they lead us on another quest and into a second act for the story. 

Perhaps this open ending also works because, although it does not end with a click, it has a very pleasing shape. It begins with the narrator entering the suit. It ends with the narrator entering the suit. It has a sort of small intro paragraph and a small outro paragraph. Something about the actual structure of the prose on the page is satisfying. 

Still, though, there’s more to the satisfaction of this ending:

In a story sense someone had to find this account and make it available to us. It’s a written note. And, theoretically, since there are no more notes, the story is suggesting that the story really does end here. No more messages were found. That ending says something really did happen to the narrator. Further, because of the quick “outro”, Evenson has limited the number of possibilities to 3. 

  1. The sladen suit leads somewhere. Our guy gets free. He lives. 
  2. The sladen suit devours our guy. This was all one long process of digestion. He dies. 
  3. The sladen suit goes on forever. Our guy chooses to take himself out, ending his torment. 

Ultimately, you don’t like the character enough to be angry if he dies. You don’t hate him enough to be angry if he lives. I think the real genius of this ending is that it really somehow opens up to the reader. It lets you decide, based on your worldview, what happened to the narrator. My personal thought has always been that he made it out, that he’s free in some remote location. Or, as a secondary idea, I think that freedom was definitely at the end of the journey, but that maybe he got impatient and killed himself too soon. 

Not sure what that says about my world view. But for some readers it might be just as easy to decide that the guy was swallowed up by the sladen suit because he killed the captain and that means he deserved to die. Not my interpretation, but there’s plenty of proof for it. 

Finally: 

A lot of stories build their own world, and build this thematic sense of how the world works–Lord of the Rings tells us that Middle Earth is a world where the good triumph but not without injury, and Serenity tells that in the world of the Alliance vs the Frontier, people who believe in something have power, but that such power can be used for good or evil. In “The Sladen Suit,” Evenson builds a visceral world that is so secluded that we have no clue what the world at large is like.

Somehow he gets us to impress our own beliefs on this world and thus the ending is not really open at all. Not once we’ve come to a decision. 

Let me know if you agree or disagree. What are your experiences with reading and writing open endings? Have you read work by Evenson? I’d love to hear what you think of him.

Side note: I, at first, planned on discussing Gene Wolfe’s “The Ziggurat” but I really didn’t want to ruin it for anyone. If you haven’t read it, it’s an incredible story. You can check it out here: http://epubbookonline.com/b/3531/james-patrick-kelly/the-secret-history-of-science-fiction/14