A story that illustrates the heavy lifting you can make prose do just with the title, this week we’re analyzing Robert Swartwood’s Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady published in Pank Magazine in April of 2010. This story was a runner-up for the Micro Award, has been cited in numerous places as an example of quality lit fic gone speculative, and, perhaps most notably, fills in as my best friend when I’m claiming I am not a flash-fiction-bigot.
(Flash fiction, for those of you not hip with the terms, refers to super short fiction, generally 1000 words or less, though there are internecine wars over the true cut-off for flash, complete with heretics, purges, and plagues of locusts. Also, I am totally a flash-fiction bigot. Sorry.)
This story is brilliant and beautiful and full of things I adore in my fiction (Sibling love/protectiveness! Suicide! Creepiness!) but the thing that stands out about it and makes it worth pulling apart is its sheer, relentless efficiency. Genuine efficiency, though, not the pruned and constrained soullessness or lack of development you get with inferior flash. This story chooses its moments carefully, but having chosen them, gives them lots of space to breathe and grow.
Take a careful look at this story. There is no plot. None. It’s a list. There’s no character development – the entire story functions on Grady’s ignorance as he looks at the items and he is just as ignorant at the end of the list as he was at the beginning. There’s no lesson – at no point does the story instruct, moralize, or exposit on theme. In short, there no arc contained in the text. The arc, dear reader, happens in your head. It’s your ignorance that sets the stage for the development with the climax of your epiphany at the end. Swartwood has, in short, turned the audience into an active participant in the story because the thing that the story does is change the reader. At the beginning, you were just reading some hopped up flash piece with a clunky title. At the end, you need to go hug your sister. (This precise experience may not be universal)
This one’s so short I’m not going to quote from it much. Fortunately, the paragraphs are numbered, so it’ll be easy to keep track of where I am as I ramble.
The sneaking a story in through talking about objects technique is not new, and gets done badly all the time because the writer forgets that they’re supposed to be talking about the object, and wanders off into the story instead. Swartwood doesn’t do that. That first paragraph? Relentless. Every sentence is about the compass. Even the last sentence, which is where we get the details of Jason’s suicide, is about how the compass failed him. It’s a nice trick, too, because we’re reading the prose describing the compass failing, but we’re clever readers so we know that’s Grady projecting on the compass, which means we know it’s Grady feeling like he failed his brother. Not just any failure, either, but one he’d thought was a success. It was “the best gift he’d ever received.” But that wasn’t enough to keep him alive, which is so much more tragic than if it had simply been awesome, or cute, or “gee, thanks, kid.”
That doesn’t even get into how this compass manages to convey not only that Grady looks up to and idolizes his older brother, which is easy because we expect that given the context, but that he feels protective of him. Jason didn’t get that compass just because it was what happened to be in the cereal box on his birthday, but because he needed it. Grady isn’t a passive member of this sibling relationship. His contributions aren’t effective, and he knows it, but he does contribute. Which, you know, does a fine bit of setting up the gut-wrench in the finale.
Let’s move on to take a look at item four. This item doesn’t give us any details about the suicide, the murders, the brothers’ relationship, or their home life. This paragraph is entirely about Grady’s innocence and the contrast of it Jason. Grady doesn’t know what a condom is. He’s so ignorant that he thinks moist towelette? Candy? Nope, weird balloon. Meanwhile, Jason’s carrying a condom around in his pocket, and there’s nothing saying anything about that in the earlier paragraphs, but you have to wonder whether maybe the girls weren’t just slashed. Exactly how dark is Jason, the reader must wonder, while Swartwood presents you with endearingly cute confuddlement.
Grady’s ignorance on this point is also telling just in terms of his relationship with his brother – Jason is apparently not the kind of older brother who does sibling bonding through corrupting innocence, else Grady would know all about condoms, and a whole host of other things besides.
And we end the story with, what? An adorable picture of Grady? Jason kept a memento of his brother right up to the end? A memento so endearing that everybody likes it, so much that mom noticed it missing? Aw, maybe that gave Jason some comfort in his last moments. Or maybe worry about his brother delayed him, convincing him to stay strong and try to pull himself together.
On the back, scrawled like the rest of the pictures: FOURTH.
Syke! Now go cry in a corner, you manipulated little sap, because Grady has no clue what happened but you do and that means you have to have all the appropriate feelings for him. And don’t think about it too hard, or you’ll start picturing Grady’s reactions as he gets older and puts the pieces together, and then you start wondering whether it being midnight EST means your sister’s going to be at a spot in her sleep cycle where she won’t mind if you call her for an inexplicably maudlin, “You know I love you and will definitely commit suicide rather than let my mental illness/demonic possession force me into cutting you into pieces, right?” Or whatever your personal equivalent of that might be.
And on that cheerful note, I turn it over to the comments.
Next week, Comes the Huntsman by Rachel Acks.
The week after that, The Three Feats of Agani by Christie Yant.
And then, by popular demand, The Things by Peter Watts.