Don Shea’s “Jumper Down” and Point of View
In his seminal work on narrative discourse, literary theorist Gérard Genette suggests that “[i]nsofar as the narrator can at any instant intervene as such in the narrative, every narrating is, to all intents and purposes presented in the first person.” (244) – that is to say that even though Shea has done this explicitly, implicitly this is a device that all writers do whether unwilling or not. What then is gained by Shea’s choice to filter the protagonists experience through the narrator’s first-person perspective? I think that giving the narrator this explicit presence in the story can do one of two things: 1, that the reader will be willing to believe more what he is being told by the narrator – owing to the fact that he is being addressed by a character in the story – with close proximity to the protagonist. Or 2, the reader will doubt the narrator more because of their relative closeness to the protagonist – meaning that personal attachments, emotions and judgments may be clouding the narrator’s objectiveness in telling the story. With a third-person-proper POV, there is usually a lot of distance between the reader and the protagonist, with the narrator simply telling the reader a number of facts of the matter, leaving a lot of things to be filled in by the reader’s imagination. The closeness of the narrator to Henry in “Jumper Down” means that he should be able to offer insights into Henry’s character on a level that a distant third –person narrator cannot. But it seems that in this story the use of the first-person narrator does not offer us any more closeness than a regular third-person narration. I don’t know if this is because of the short form, but I think that the narrator’s voice and way of speaking about Henry says more about himself than it does about the protagonist.
Katherine Weber’s “Sleeping” and Creating Mystery
I enjoyed this story immensely. Weber is a master of mystery, and with this piece creates an atmosphere of longing and suspense from both the character and the narrative style. The story is written in a free indirect style – which is a third-person narrative mode that uses elements of the first-person POV to create a sense of closeness. It also, I feel, adds to the mystery of the piece, as the reported speech – rather than being direct quotes – means that the reader is never quite sure who or what is saying or being said by whom to whom and about what.
The story opens with exactly this kind of thing. “She would not have to change the diaper, they said.” This alerts the reader immediately to there being the potential for something unusual happening or having happened that we are soon to find out. In the second paragraph we are offered some information about the girl, Harriet, the babysitter, having never held a baby except once when she was six. There is an air of “this isn’t going to end well” about these two paragraphs.
In the third paragraph we are back in the present, with Harriet’s boredom palpable. Something about this story which I really like and which I think adds to the mystery and suspense in the piece is that very little happens. And even though it is a piece of flash fiction, it feels more like a page of a novel in its slowness. The writer is taking her time. The narrator is in no hurry to end. It is a very special device that works incredibly well. “By the time the Winters came home, Harriet had eaten most of the M&Ms in the glass bowl”, Weber’s description of the order in which Harriet had eaten the M&Ms seems beautifully cinematic to me.
The final paragraph, the conclusion to the story, offers none of what the reader had been expecting from the opening paragraphs. Deviating from the normal narrative structure, Weber decides to end the story on something of an anti-climax. At least first appearances may suggest that this is an anti-climax. But, in fact, the reader is offered another narrative right in these final moments to completely change all that had happened before. “When they reached her house he said, My wife.” This chilling and mysterious sentence made me shiver. The suspense of the first two paragraphs was all for the wrong reason. The reader is being tricked by Weber into thinking one event will occur and are then presented with this weird and unsettling twist. “My wife.” Those two words say more than the whole rest of the piece put together.
Hannah Bottomy’s “Currents” and John Biguenet’s “Rose”
At first I expected not to enjoy Bottomy’s “Currents”, since the repetition of “Before that,” in each paragraph, as I first scanned the story, seemed like it would be irritating or jarring or something else unpleasing. But I was wrong. This device is very powerful. The repetition of this phrase is almost hypnotic, meaning that as a reader, you are lulled into this kind of sleepy daze, where the story is washing over you and suddenly you realize that what you are reading is horribly tragic, and has been this whole time. The final sentence “Before that it was an ordinary summer day” made goosepimples appear all over my body.
I thought I would like Biguenet’s “Rose” better. And again I was proved wrong. I don’t know whether it is because it is more “wordy” than “Currents”, and perhaps it is only because I am comparing the two that I seem to like this story much less, but there doesn’t feel like there is as much impact in this piece as there is in “Currents”. It feels kind of empty. His vocabulary seems to be trying very hard and coming up a little cold. The use of words like “dawdling” instead of “walking” seems forced and this makes for a kind of disconnection for me as a reader. I know that I was supposed to talk about this in terms of the way that memories or flashbacks are being used, but for me this weird kind-of forced vocabulary meant that I couldn’t really get a feel for the story writ-large.
Kim Church’s “Bullet” and Objects Within a Story
The idea that an object in itself offers a kind of meaning to a story is something which permeates a lot of literary theory. Symbolism is important in story telling – it alerts readers to events in the past or impending events or a kind of character history, perhaps, all in the space it takes to describe an object, where it could take pages to describe these things otherwise. The opening line of Church’s “Bullet” is powerful (all opening lines in Flash Fiction need to be, there isn’t much time to dilly-dally!). Again, it seems to be alerting the reader to something terrible happening – there is an air of impending doom about a first-person narrator saying “I know what a bullet can do.”
It is hard to say exactly what is happening in this story, though. There doesn’t appear to be any great climax. The robbery is described quickly and then suddenly the story is over. There is an unsettling calm about the whole piece. It feels as though the narrator is plotting something but I don’t know how much of that is just me being a very suspicious reader. The lines “Here’s what I learned from marriage: I am not brave. I will never be. But I am patient, and I can outlast anyone” seem to be saying so much more than what I can fathom that they are saying. The bullet is obviously a very strong symbol of something in this story, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what.
- Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980. Print.
- Thomas, James, and Robert Shapard. Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006. Print.