Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Need to Know

I've been reading an anthology titled The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett. After each story is a two- or three-page note from the author discussing the story's genesis.

I'm enjoying it. The writers are all accomplished, yet, with one or two exceptions, they aren't household names. No Annie Proulxs, no Alice Munros, no T.C. Boyles. The only story included that I've read before is "Love and Hydrogen," by Jim Shepard, which was included in Best American Short Stories 2002. Some of the authorial notes are very enlightening.

Today I read Robert Boswell's "A Walk in Winter." It's about a traumatic event that shaped the life of the narrator when he was a young boy. Now, as a man, he has been called back to his boyhood home to identify his mother's remains, or what may be his mother's remains: a collection of bones stored in Tupperware containers that, when the narrator stacks them on the floor, are "as tall as a person." By examining the teeth, he determines that the bones are not his mother's after all. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We don't learn that until the 15th of the 21 pages.

What was the traumatic event? Was it the death of his mother? Not exactly. We don't find out until pages 19-20. Boswell makes us read the entire story to get our payoff.

I'm not complaining, although some readers decry this technique of delaying information. The narrator knows damn well what we want to know and refuses, spitefully, to tell us! Yes, it's sort of a trick, but the narrator in every story knows everything in advance and refuses to tell us. After all, he has finished writing the story before we read it; yet, when the narrator is speaking in first person, this willful delay feels a little more devious. I don't think it's a fatal flaw, though, and it can certainly create profluence. It gives the story somewhere to go. If the nature of the traumatic event is unveiled too soon, what do we do with the remaining twenty pages? Also, to be fair, the narrator in this story doesn't know everything about the traumatic event until shortly after he examines the bones in the Tupperware.

The effect of this technique, in this case, is that the story is told backwards, with the narrator drawing closer and closer to the Big Event. (Spoiler alert, in case you plan to read this.)

Here's the order of events as they are told:

First we learn that the narrator is in Chapman, South Dakota, where his mother disappeared into the winter woods when he was ten. The father acted suspiciously.

Next, to throw us off track and also to reap the benefits of the beloved Dead Animal Trope (see Beating a Dead Horse), there is an automobile accident involving a deer.

Next is a brief flashback to an incident in the narrator's adult life in which he had a panic attack and wrecked another car. We don't know what caused him to panic, but we hope he doesn't do it again.

Next we get a little backstory about the narrator's boyhood: his mother had bad teeth, the farm was poor, and the winter was very, very harsh. The family subsisted on whatever the father could shoot and drag home to eat, including a neighbor's dog. At this point we learn that the narrator is returning home to identify his mother's remains. Her frozen remains.

Next we meet Officer Patty, and learn that the narrator's father hasn't been seen in years, but now he's a suspect in his wife's murder. There's also a rumor that the narrator might know where his father is. The narrator says nothing.

Next is a section where the dead mother is compared to the deer (the payoff of the dead animal trope), although, to be absolutely honest, we don't know if the deer, which scampered away, is dead. But it might as well be.

A little more childhood flashback to characterize the father as a not-very-pleasant man who was capable of violence.

Next, the narrator examines the frozen remains and determines, because the teeth aren't bad enough, that they do not belong to his mother.

Next, he learns that the police have discovered another piece of evidence (the timing couldn't be better): a shotgun, near where the bones were found. The narrator has a light bulb moment: the bones, he realizes, were the bones of his father, who killed himself with his shotgun.

Finally, we get the big payoff, the Traumatic Event: flashback to a day when the father takes the ten-year-old narrator into the woods. He makes him sit on a stump and face away. The father loads his shotgun. The narrator, certain that his father is about to shoot him, possibly to spare him from starvation, wets himself. In a strange (and barely plausible) show of compassion, the father takes the boy back to the cabin so that the boy's underwear won't freeze. The father soon after disappears; the boy never sees him again and is raised by wolves. Er, concerned relatives.

The story ends with the grown narrator taking some comfort from the epiphany that his father had planned all along to die with him (something that had apparently never occurred to him in the intervening twenty-odd years).

So, all snide comments aside, the story works as an example of one way to handle the event that is almost too big to write about. It's also an example of saving the biggest, juiciest scene for last even though it lies first on the timeline.