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.)

One thought on “CC: Consumer Testing

  1. Hi Anaea,

    I love how you take apart the sentences and talk about the language because, as you say, that is a big part of what makes this story work. It’s the voice, the tone and the diction that delivers both the pathos of this character and the black humor of the story.

    We begin with a kind of bow to the idea of in media res, even though he wants to follow one of his fathers many maxims and “begin at the beginning,” he starts with “Already I have muddled it all.” A statement that immediately raises the question muddled what? Then we get jars of olives as if this were an example that made sense. The opening also demonstrates that no matter how hard he tries, the narrator cannot seem to follow his parents’ advice. This of course is his downfall.

    This story makes me think of J. G. Ballard with its main character who is unable to overcome a cascade of circumstances and in its unflinching examination of the human dynamic of isolation and abandonment.

    The father has a pithy saying for every situation, but “Stick with what you know” and “keep yourself to yourself” are the cornerstones of what makes up the family’s philosophy. This is contrasted with his mother’s single opinion, “No good will come of it.” Which the narrator points out has “universal application.”

    “No good” is where this story is headed. This is not a story of transformation, and it’s clear from the beginning that there isn’t going to be a twist at the end that will result in rainbows and lollipops for the narrator. This is not a story of transformation. It does not illustrate a change in the main character. This story is like a proof. The narrator makes a claim in the beginning, and all the events in the story show his claim to be true. This is a difficult thing to pull off, and one of the reasons I like this story so much.

    It’s also a head trip. Much of the tension in the story comes from being forced to puzzle out this world from the point of view of solitary, damaged and unreliable character.

    Like Kij Johnson in Spar, Greenwood makes great use of repetition both syntactically and in the objects that come into the narrator’s world. There are the items thrown away by the people who live on the other side of the fence and later the items delivered to him for “consumer testing.” All these things must be sorted into useful and useless and commented on. Yet there is no end to them and ultimately no escape from them or the alien world from which they come.

    Throughout the story he talks about his inability to recall past events or even his own actions, yet the objects that find their way to him relentlessly trigger childhood memories that peel away the layers of his personality.

    He talks about how he barely has the intelligence to get by, but with every sentence he negates this with his diction and vocabulary, e.g. elucidation, decried, remonstrate, apposite. Later this is explained. His father, believing that he did not have the constitution for activities such as woodwork or Bunsen burners limited him to vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. These subjects were also his father’s sole area of expertise. Our narrator claims his diction as his inheritance.

    At the beginning he tells us his parents are dead. Throughout the story he refers to them again and again. His method of survival has apparently been to live just as they had. Then there’s this beautiful and creepy comparison:

    “For twenty years I have slept in their bed, drank from their cups, spoken their words, worn their faces. For a corresponding period, they have slept beneath the potatoes, drank groundwater, spoken worms, worn dirt.”

    His method of survival has been to live just as they had. And despite the fact that they’ve been dead twenty years the cups and dishes are still “their” cups not his cups. He goes further, he speaks their words, wears their faces – stick with what you know, indeed! His parents, individuals in life, are combined in death. It made me wonder if he’d done them in. That this question isn’t answered didn’t bother me because this story is so firmly and confidently not about that. Regardless of how they died, he was the one to bury them under the potatoes.

    He goes on to muse about the items that are thrown over the fence into the vegetable garden. Ordinary things gain a talismanic quality as he tries to puzzle out the world beyond from them, or tries not to. When he wonders aloud about the meaning of the things or the timing of when they appear, he’s admonished with the terrifying adage: “Curiosity killed the cat.”

    It’s the juxtaposition of these mundane sayings with the events of his life that both reveals his character and provides the humor that pervades this piece. Another reason I like this story so much is because there’s funny stuff all the way through, with the humor consistently black as pitch.

    The first half of the story is about a recluse trying to get along in a perfectly normal, albeit uncaring world. Then the TV arrives and with it magic. The TV shifts the story onto another track. It is the beginning that the narrator refers to in the first paragraph under the glare of the olives. The TV comes to life and an “authorized representative of a subsidiary of the Mystery Shopping Consortium” appears with an offer that the narrator –though he wants to resist– somehow cannot refuse. It sounds suspiciously like a commercial but the narrator is clear that there is no electricity in the house.

    The Consortium sends him consumer products, which he is expected to review. Even the representative has a maxim: “All responses are valid.” The first box arrives. (He notes that “the box was the size to take a human head. A comparison he makes more than once). The first item is a dozen 12HB pencils, which leads to the most poignant moment in the story. Apparently, the house has been penilless for quite a while:

    “My swimming goggles and rubber gloves (my father’s precaution against accidental gouging and wrist strain) were abandoned in my haste. I wrote, and wrote it all out twice, but the copy is lost, and nothing comes to mind…”

    We don’t even know what he wrote and he doesn’t either, but writing reminds him of what little happiness he had as a boy. This skill his only “inheritance.” In his reverie he even reclaims an image of himself lost in the act.

    The next time the courier doesn’t bother knocking. Apparently the front door has no lock, or the courier has broken it. This stranger invades his home. Disregarding the “keep yourself to yourself” motto, he hands over his review of the pencils and receives another box. A typewriter arrives (which he refers to as a qwerty), and he tosses it out in the garden, perhaps hoping to reclaim the behaviors that have kept him safe from the world for so long.

    Then something that he recognizes as a kind of phone is delivered, and it triggers another childhood memory of a visit to another boy’s house. This forces his father to venture out and find a payphone to call and order his son home, shutting this brief window to the outside world forever. He distrusts even the memory claiming it may have been a dream.

    But the phone, like the TV, is weird and only sends and receives emoticons, still he’s riveted by this communication with someone, anyone. But the emoticons behave strangely, and he begins to wonder if there’s really a person on the other side or if the responses are decided by a set pattern.

    He chucks the TV into the garden, but he can’t stop the deliveries, which are increasingly surreal and disturbing with the penultimate:

    “visit from a silent, unsmiling woman who, given her actions once she had entered the house, I must assume was a prostitute.”

    Even after he himself has been violated, the final delivery is worse.

    “A voucher entitling me to 30% off the cost of a year’s membership of the Mystery Shopping Consortium”

    He does not want to complete the voucher, yet is somehow impelled to and, finally, receives the jars of olives. And so we come to those olives from the beginning of the story, now freighted with meaning. They are a testament to his failure to extricate himself from the Consortium. He has failed to keep himself to himself and his terrible little world has been destroyed. He knew it all along, his mother was right: Nothing good will come of it.

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