This week’s story is Consumer Testing by John Greenwood. This came out in May of this year from Bourbon Penn. Something is going right here, because even Lois Tilton liked it. For those of you not in the know, Lois Tilton is a bit like the Roger Ebert of genre short fiction, except with an added reputation of being hard to please. Certain writers of short fiction I could name have “Write a story that makes Lois Tilton cry,” on their list of career goals. (Not me. I’m still working on getting to be the cream filling)
There’s a lot of complexity packed into this story, so I’m hoping plenty of you pipe in to pick apart bits of it. The voice is the thing that strikes me as the immediate and predominate strength. There’s a lot of sentence and clause-level detail in how he rendered it we could dig into, but what I find much more interesting are the conceptual layers built into the voice. This story is built on introducing a few images and ideas, let’s call them nuggets, and then returning to them over and over again, with a different payoff for each iteration. It grabs the reader right off by taking you through a whole iterative cycle in the second paragraph. The first paragraph introduces mother, father, and the jars of olives (mmm, olives) and that’s all the second paragraph needs to dive right in.
I should have listened to the advice of my mother and father. My father’s motto was “Stick with what you know.” My mother’s motto (though she would have not described it as such) was “No good will come of it.” Neither was well expressed nor, had they been better expressed, would have exposed profundities […] As guides for the safe conduct of life, these mottoes had little to recommend them (both parents died). […] It would be a comfort to say that I hold by their maxims still. I have not held by them, but now that it is too late to make amends, at least I know that I should have held by them.
I cut out chunks of the paragraph to pare the quote down to the bits we care about here. Mother and father have been introduced to our conceptual space, and here they get fleshed out with their mottos. This paragraph gives us the whole story in a nutshell. The narrator was raised by parents with these mottos, deviated from them, and in deviating from them discovered them to be true. The last sentence is an affirmation that “no good will come of it” through its assertion that none did. One loop.
The parentheticals throughout the story contribute to this too. Their use is dictated a lot by the prose construction going on in creating the voice, but they tie neatly into the conceptual space, too, because they take the information travelling along in the sentence, jump outside to something tangential, then loop back into where the sentence was going the whole time. I’m particularly fond of the “both parents died” parenthetical because of the implicative power laced in there – any motto espoused by anybody will, given time, have belonged to somebody who died. That this information is relevant enough to warrant a parenthetical break from where the sentence is going embues it with all kinds of extra information about the narrator and his outlook we wouldn’t get otherwise.
1) Death, while not an inherently painful subject (it’s so casually thrown in there) is also not a particularly familiar one, else the parenthetical would be silly
2) The narrator isn’t particularly analytical. He’s told is this directly already, but this establishes it nicely. He doesn’t leave room to consider whether they would have died sooner without these mottos; if he had, he might have said “both parents died young” or “too soon” or something similar.
3) It also works to establish the distance or alienation of the narrator from the world. This is something that the diction and timbre of the prose has been asserting from word one, but this parenthetical reinforces it nicely. “both parents” not “my parents” or “mom and dad” or even “mother and father.” Looking only at that clause, they could be anybody’s parents, and there’s no emotional content packaged into the clause either in and of itself or from its context – being parenthetical, it’s completely isolated from its context and is just an intrusion into an otherwise complete sentence.
The nuggets in this story are all great, and as far as I can tell, not a one of them is introduced without getting called back to at some point. “Mother,” “Father,” and the aphorisms are all nuggets, but so are each of the items thrown over the fence and brought for the consumer testing. Some of them happen right away:
In addition to rusted cans: unrusted cans, half-empty bottles, empty bottles, fouled disposable diapers, fouled reusable diapers, oddments of cloth, shoes, bald car tyres, leftovers, thumb tacks, the cadaver of a dog, mapping pins, roofing nails, safety pins (attached to diapers). Some of these (shoes, cloth, pins) my father made use of as he had used the rusting tins, others (diapers, dead dog) he did not.
The unrusted cans call back to the rusted ones, the empty bottles to the half-empty ones, etc. etc. Greenwood also establishes here the right for a delayed payoff, asserts that he isn’t just putting these items together because they create a nice rhythm in the sentence (which they do). We introduce and call back to the diapers right away, but then we call back to them again wiht the safety pins in the next sentence. Then we call back to the safety pins and the diapers, separately, in the sentence after that. Loops and cycles, pulling the reader through the conceptual space by mashing the different nuggets together and showing what happens when you do. It’s really neat.
Especially when you get far enough into the story for the bigger payoffs. My favorite of these is:
I squat here in the potato rows, typing all this out into the qwerty (the pencils long ago lost between floorboards or eaten by rats, or by me, I forget).
We’ve got the qwerty, potato rows, pencils and the rats all smashed together in a sentence. The pencils are the star here, both because their absence justifies the presence of the qwerty and the rats, and because, bizarrely, they might have been eaten. You’d be hard pressed to find something more inherently mundane or uninteresting than a pencil, but by the end of this story they’ve become so abnormal that you can squeeze the idea that they’re lost (typical) and the idea that they might have been eaten by our human narrator into the same parenthetical. When the reader goes over that sentence, nodding along because it fits right in with what you’d expect given its context in the story, it’s the prose equivalent of John Greenwood cackling and saying, “Dear Reader: I have utterly warped your brain, muahaha!”
And the reader’s awareness of having had their brain warped is, I suspect, a signicant portion of what makes the voice of this story so compelling and successful. If it failed, the whole story would read as nonsensical and pretentious blather and you’d never make it to that sentence.
There’s loads more here. Your turn.
(Next week is Robert Swartwood’s Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady. It’s quite short, so it should be easy for you if you haven’t read it before.)