Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Immortal Goldfish

I've been reading David Means' collection, The Secret Goldfish. I also just finished James Salter's collection, Last Night; going back and forth between these two will give you stylistic whiplash, but more on that later.

The title story in the Means book is probably the most well known. "The Secret Goldfish" originally appeared in The New Yorker and was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2005. This is the story of a marriage, and its demise, as seen from the perspective of the family's pet goldfish. Technically the pov is omniscient, and there are some passages from the pov of the wife, but the overwhelming focus is on the fish. The fish is not excessively anthropomorphised; it doesn't know that the marriage in question is in trouble, or what a marriage is. The fish does not think about the people, or about anything, really.
All of this stuff, the history of the house, the legal papers signed and sealed and the attendant separation agreement and, of course, the divorce that left her the house—all this historical material was transpiring outside the gist of Fish. He could chart his course and touch each corner of the tank and still not know shit. But he understood something. That much was clear. The world is a mucky mess. It gets clotted up, submerged in its own gunk. End of story.
Will Fish survive? That's the question that drives the story. Fish lives in a murky sewer of a fishtank ("so clotted it had become a solid mass") that, apparently, gets cleaned about once a decade, until, finally, the divorce is final. Fish does survive. In celebration, the family (sans Dad) moves the fishtank next to the television, where, it is implied, the fish will be forever in the family's sight.

Is this a story? Yes. Is this a plot? I think you have to stretch the definition to find a plot; nothing happens except that the marriage and the fishtank get mucked up, and the wife and Fish survive. They don't do anything of note to survive. They just hang on. Yet, the story achieves profluence. We have to keep reading to see if Fish makes it.

Several of the other stories in The Secret Goldfish stretch the definition of story even further. In "Lightning Man," the subject, a man named Nick Kelly, is hit by lightning seven times. The story recounts each strike, and ends with Kelly awaiting Number Eight, the big one. It's entirely episodic, with no plot points, and no meaningful arc except the arcs of electricity that seek Kelly out. The structure of the story is a list, and this list structure is announced in the first sentence:
The first time, he was fishing with Danny.
We know that a second strike is implied, and then a third, and we read to reach the end of the line. Similarly, in "Dustman Appearances to Date," the nature of the story as a list is announced in the title; the story is a series of sightings of dustmen, spectres formed from dust and wind in the image of a rancher, a pirate, Richard Nixon, and others.

I think what makes a structure like this work is that the reader is able to discern a structure, or a pattern, early in the narrative. We know where we are going, to some extent, and that makes us comfortable. The traditional three-act plot structure does the same thing, but in a different way. It's like a piece of music from which we pick out a melody. We get a sense of what's coming, a sense of what we've gotten ourselves into.