Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘Simpsons Plot Detour

He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to right and left about him in the air. He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks. The blanket became a weapon of defense; he wound it about his head, and then in greater darkness beat at the birds with his bare hands. He dared not stumble to the door and open it, lest in doing so the birds should follow him.

If there is one element – and it’s easy to argue that there is just the one – that remains constant in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novella, The Birds, and the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, it’s the horror visited upon the human characters by the frenzied blitzkrieg of bird after bird after bird. The respective dates of release for the story and film give a clue as to what might have governed their many differences: Du Maurier’s backdrop of post-war austerity contrasts with the technicolour permissiveness depicted by Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter, embodied by Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels. For all that, and to say nothing of the vast differences in setting, plot, characters, themes and even the explanation given for the birds’ attack, both works are merciless in the way they peck at our vulnerability.

In the Reel Time Short Stories series, the issue of adaptation – detecting what exists within the short story that lends it to visualisation and expansion – is accompanied by the question of whether and how we might identify generic short fiction traits in the story told on film. Du Maurier, whose Jamaica Inn and Rebecca had previously found their way into the cinema under Hitchcock’s direction, was said to have disliked Hitchcock’s reinvention of her story. She wasn’t, in fairness, known to be a fan of very many of the screen adaptations of her fiction (Hitch’s far more faithful Rebecca among the few exceptions) but it’s also reasonable to suggest that a pretty decent movie could have been made using far more ingredients from the story of farm worker Nat Hocken and his efforts to protect his family from the waves of bird attacks that have swept across Europe and the rest of Britain, as far as Nat’s home on the Cornish peninsula. It’s a taut, naturally horrific narrative of survival. It would have made perfect sense to the readership so soon after a war which had been experienced on the Home Front in terms of battening down the hatches against bombing raids, clinging to the wireless for scraps of information and guidance, and the privations, still partially active in 1952, of rationing. Each is present and correct in Du Maurier’s story; indeed, the film, which prioritises diegetic sound over Bernard Herrmann’s more familiarly Hitchcockian musical prompts, suggests a wartime air raid when we first see the birds attack en masse at Cathy’s birthday party, the wing beats like strafes of gunfire, mixed with explosive squawks and popping balloons. Through Nat Hocken, Du Maurier goes beyond the sensation of such wartime sieges to represent the constant mustering of new resolve to resist, protect and then cajole and organise and take action to go through it all again:

He decided they must sleep in the kitchen, keep up the fire, bring down the mattresses, and lay them out on the floor. He was afraid of the bedroom chimneys. The boards he had placed at the chimney bases might give way. In the kitchen they would be safe because of the fire. He would have to make a joke of it. Pretend to the children they were playing at camp. If the worst happened, and the birds forced an entry down the bedroom chimneys, it would be hours, days perhaps, before they could break down the doors. The birds would be imprisoned in the bedrooms. They could do no harm there. Crowded together, they would stifle and die.

Nat sets about bringing mattresses downstairs and maintaining a reassuring commentary for his family. We then hear his thoughts:

“We’re safe enough now,” he thought. “We’re snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter. We can hold out. It’s just the food that worries me. Food, and coal for the fire. We’ve enough for two or three days, not more. By that time . . .”

I see strong parallels with the unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, steering his son towards whatever temporary, relative safety they can find, and also away from the worst kinds of barbarism they encounter, aware that there’s again a brutal relativity in those choices. In The Birds, the morning after his first battle in the dark with invading birds, Nat is sickened at the sight of the “little corpses [of]…robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings”, erstwhile companions to his work out of doors, that he has been forced to kill. Later, having gone to the farm and discovered the dead bodies of his supervisor, Jim Trigg, and of Mrs Trigg, the priority of survival over sentiment is not exactly easier, but more immediate and instinctive. The manner in which this new knowledge of his capabilities is absorbed can be seen in this tiny, powerful detail as his wife serves him food:

She poured out a plateful of the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.

Du Maurier’s portrait of a man engaged in a struggle against nature, almost more than the horrifying images of the crazed flocks, is what makes The Birds utterly engrossing. Hitchcock and Hunter tend to allow brief glimpses of what Du Maurier contemplates at length in her text, though the sense of a man measuring his own masculinity by his ability to take control at a time of heightened danger, and to resist invaders, comes through when Rod Taylor’s Mitch barricades his mother’s house. Hitherto, his rugged exterior has belied a suspicion that he lacks the qualities to step into his recently deceased father’s shoes as the man of the house. In this, he shares a horror movie lineage with, among others, Duane Jones’ Ben Huss in The Night Of The Living Dead – whose masculinity is not in question but, as a black man, his right to address as an equal and even command other men in inherently challenged – and Simon Pegg’s Shaun in Shaun Of The Dead. John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of The Road may also be said to link Viggo Mortensen’s father to these characters in a way the book didn’t, by presenting more images of the family life, hinting at the clean-shaven Mortensen’s intellectualism and ‘soft’ white collar credentials, before entering the narrative’s post-apocalyptic scenario. Nat Hocken doesn’t need to prove himself in those ways; nonetheless, there is a sense of pride in the way he regards the emergency measures he’s taking:

He went and examined all the windows. His work had been thorough. Every gap was closed.

In Jon McGregor‘s 2012 story, If It Keeps On Raining, we can detect a similar satisfaction in the handiwork of another man building a defence against nature, in this case a tree house to evade the floods he expects to surge across the fenland of Eastern England:

It might not be the finest treehouse ever built but it does what it needs to. It’s difficult to get the details right when you’re fifty foot up in the air. It’s hard enough getting all the wood up there in the first place. It would be easier with two people. But it’s just him, now, so it takes careful planning. Some forethought. And hard work.

Daphne Du Maurier’s focus is on one man, and his family, engaged in a struggle for survival, and she chooses to leave the Hockens in that state. Short fiction, even in the somewhat longer form employed here, does tend to leave suggestive gaps which several film adaptations tend to want to fill. What’s interesting about the wholesale changes made to Du Maurier’s story by Hitchcock – for which he engaged Hunter, whom we’ve come to know better as the crime writer Ed McBain, preferring an imaginative re-working by an established storyteller to the technical workmanship of a hack screenwriter – is the amount of short story tropes inserted as the story re-locates to California. Whereas Du Maurier’s birds were terrorising a whole country and possibly a continent, Hitchcock’s terror is localised, allowing a familiar small town narrative to play out. After the San Francisco opening in which Hedren’s Melanie and Taylor’s Mitch play off one another like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a romantic comedy, the film offers a luxurious prototype of the Simpsons Plot Detour as Melanie brings her couture and her sense of entitlement to Bodega Bay in an initially straightforward pursuit of Mitch. Then a bird swoops to peck her forehead and she is sealed up inside this world in which she is seen as more of a malevolent outsider than the vindictive birds.

Du Maurier pits man against nature, though not, I suspect, in an especially gendered way: it’s just difficult to envisage, in her story’s social context, the main character being other than a man like Nat. Although the exact reason for the bird attacks in the story is a cause for speculation rather than firm knowledge – consistent with the first hours of any disaster – there is at least a gesture towards logic in the wintry climate and bitter winds which seem to be demolishing territorial distinctions between different types of birds and whipping them all up to a desperate feeding frenzy. The calm which returns whenever they’ve eaten their fill is echoed at the end of the film but the Bodega Bay birds seem motivated by a range of moral considerations. Melanie’s arrival in the Bay, carrying two caged love birds, might explain the first injury she receives, solidarity among the avian classes, but this repugnance doesn’t explain the demonic energy that continues to be unleashed. The suggestion – and this will not be news to anyone who has read Camille Paglia’s 1998 BFI Classics critical analysis of the film – is that Melanie’s most damaging import is her female glamour and sexuality. The birds are therefore akin to a feathered militia of Daily Mail columnists – and this can, of course, only make sense on a symbolic level. Paglia’s rich depiction of Hedren’s screen presence and remarkable performance (in her feature film debut) present such a compelling case that it’s hard to imagine her reading of the film not to have been the common perception throughout its lifetime. And there are moments when it seems impossible to believe that any other reading is possible. When Melanie, lodging with Mitch’s old flame Annie – whose black hair and smoky voice suggest she’s more the one who’s been flamed, cauterised for having dared in the past to do what Melanie is attempting now – notes that there’s a full moon, the two women exchange a look of knowing trepidation. They might not understand the reasoning of birds but they need no reminder of the mythical power of the female menstrual cycle. When a delirious woman blames Melanie’s presence in their town for the bird attacks, screaming “Evil!” in her face, it’s an experience with which other types of outsider would relate but the particulars of Melanie’s evil, once again, are possession of a loaded sexuality, with intent to use.

Hitchcock’s The Birds is a horror and it does sample riffs from Du Maurier’s war allegory but its short story credentials are that it’s a small town chamber piece concerning the presence within a tight community of a vibrant outsider. In particular, the narrative resolves itself around Melanie’s effect on the other women: the tragic Annie, a walking ghost of spent sexuality, who allows Melanie to step around while she clings to a nurturing role in Mitch’s life; Jessica Tandy’s Lydia, Mitch’s mum and an elective crone; and young Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), for whom Melanie is an immediately aspirational figure. As with Nat’s heroic struggles against his fate, we don’t know by the end if Melanie has succumbed to the forces against her. As with much short fiction, we don’t seek to take away certainties, just a measure more of understanding. And, perhaps, a catapult, just in case it gets crowded on the jungle gym outside the school.

Each city is unique in countless ways but there is a language of city life, in the narratives of collective living and individual existence, that is understood in any dialect. The Manchester short story specialists, Comma, understood this when they published the 2006 anthology, Decapolis, which featured ten stories by ten writers, each set in one of ten European cities, and the 2008 Middle Eastern equivalent, Madinah. Shi Cheng (which means “ten cities”) is the latest such experiment, with the stories taking the reader northward across China, from Hong Kong to Harbin. Edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinhua Liu and Ra Page, these stories in translation demonstrate to English-speaking readers that contemporary China’s cities are adequately stocked with the particular and the universal.

This, of course, makes Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xi’an, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenyang and Harbin all eminently suited to short fiction, would they but know it. Short story writing (as distinct from its direct ancestor, the oral folk tale) is not an automatic cultural component in the way that novels, poetry and drama are essential ingredients of what a society needs in order to understand that it’s a society, to go alongside systems of government or belief, the means to house and feed the populace, transport, criminal justice and all that carry-on. Short stories develop in a cellular fashion and if you find as many as ten writers in one place – and that place can be a book – working in the form, it’s likely that some, if not all, have needed persuasion and nurturing before trying out the form. Several of the writers in Shi Cheng have more prominent backgrounds as poets, journalists and novelists than as short story writers. This is hardly a new nor an exclusively Chinese phenomenon: in Comma’s 2008 The Book of Liverpool, over forty years after he was first published, Brian Patten’s contribution was his short story debut.

The diversity of backgrounds among the contributors, as much as the geographical spread, gives Shi Cheng a distinctive texture. There is a sense of adolescence about some of the stories here, with Jie Chen’s Chengdu-set Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Lilu a particularly revelatory example. Adolescence, in this context, is a quality of tone and narrative energy within which we can see a radical, transgressive approach but also quite a callow approach to the short story form. The comic timing – in the self-absorbed narrator’s commentary on her frantic but nonetheless meandering dash over to her friend, Kangkang’s, home to facilitate the killing of Kangkang’s philandering husband, “That Fucker Zhao Lilu” – is beautifully judged in Josh Steinberg’s translation:

I left home at 5:20. I washed my face with a cleanser, and then put on moisturiser and liquid foundation even though it was still uneven on my nose. My nose has the texture of orange peel, and unless I spend twenty or thirty minutes putting foundation on, it looks awful. But, for Kangkang’s sake, I had to risk it.

The story evolves through this running commentary, knitting together a three-way conflict, but gives us a lingering image rather than resolution. This tells of a playfulness with narrative, and it’s there also in Yi Sha’s Rendezvous At The Castle Hotel, set in Xi’an, which changes tack like an episode of The Simpsons from a literary take on the All About Eve template of a veteran sidelined by a younger rival, via a murder mystery, to a consideration of the unreliable narrator. Ding Liying’s feather-light yet slyly macabre Family Secrets and Cao Kou’s urgent, colloquial And What About The Red Indians? similarly toy with the set-up, the telling and the completion of the story. The effect is that of writers, collectively, finding their way around short fiction and simultaneously finding uses for this most ancient and conservative form to say something about the China that’s as it ever was and the China that changes by the day. The characters, across all ten stories, come across as hungover from all the changes in their society, and the sense of alienation is overwhelming.

This alienation is most memorably depicted by Han Dong (pictured) in This Moron Is Dead and Diao Dou in Squatting. “This Moron Is Dead” are the words written on a piece of cardboard placed over the head of a dead man lying on the pavement at a Nanjing bus stop. This is satire that should be surreal and Pythonesque but Han Dong convinces us – much like a George Saunders – that the people going about their daily business, taking no notice of the dead fellow human, other than to take precautions against the body becoming an obstacle or distraction, are lifted straight from the street and slotted onto the page.

Diao Dou manages a still more extravagant satire in Squatting which brilliantly revolves around the earnest and civilised, if a little bumptious, efforts of a group of socially-concerned intellectuals to issue checks and balances, by means of letter-writing campaigns, on the way in which Shenyang society is managed and policed. When a crime-fighting decree forces everyone out on the streets after dusk to move only in a squatting position, Animal Farm and the world of Avaaz create a narrative blend that hollows out your laughter as it leaves your throat.

You can’t make this journey in just ten stories and the Damon Runyan-type figures populating Xu Zechen’s Wheels Are Round, Ho Sin Tung and Zhu Wen’s nods to the ethnic juxtapositions at the northern and southern extremities of the collection, and the very dark treatment of love throughout, give a taster of the life and literature there is to appreciate in contemporary China. This collection is a lively primer: This Moron Is Dead and especially Squatting make it an essential purchase.

It’s been marking season, blending into the new teaching semester at the various universities in and out of whose payroll I flit, leaving this blog short of even the single hand it normally occupies. If I had three wishes, it would be for a few extra days each week to remember the life that one’s work is meant to support and supplement. However, the story I’ve been using for teaching purposes this week has taught me to be wary of wishes.

W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 macabre masterpiece, The Monkey’s Paw, was Hammer horror back when cinema was old enough only for the PGs. That it’s an object lesson in how to while away a cold, dark night, when a fearsome wind is gathering, is evident by the adaptations, copycat narratives and Simpsons Halloween hommages it has inspired over the years. Jacobs, a whimsical Londoner whose stock-in-trade as a writer was humour, had a light enough touch to issue stagey winks to the gallery while ratcheting up the terror:

Mr. White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. “I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact,” he said slowly. “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.”

“If you only cleared the house, you’d be quite happy, wouldn’t you?” said Herbert, with his hand on his shoulder. “Well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that’ll just do it.”

His father, smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity, held up the talisman, as his son, with a solemn face somewhat marred by a wink at his mother, sat down at the piano and struck a few impressive chords.

“I wish for two hundred pounds,” said the old man distinctly.

A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran toward him.

“It moved, he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. “As I wished it twisted in my hands like a snake.”

“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son, as he picked it up and placed it on the table, “and I bet I never shall.”

It’s the stuff of spoof sketch shows, when Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho plays while a young woman takes a shower: as the music builds, so does her anxiety until with a shriek she pulls back the curtain…to reveal a sheepish string quartet. Herbert White’s ironic piano tells us that this is no primitive discovery of the spine chiller but a knowing piece of writing, whose three-act structure enables the hermetic space of the small parlour in Laburnam Villa to waver and warp like the minds of poor Mr and Mrs White after Sergeant-Major Morris offers them a furry fist-pound.

The story’s three acts work in the manner of a stage illusion. We have the pledge in act one, locating us in the type of story this is, with enough eye-catching vagary to stop us looking too hard: the ghostly ambience (but what part really does the foul weather and remote location play in the events that follow?); the traumatised visitor with the harrowing tale relating to his mysterious gift (why has he not burned it himself? why does he give it to them? what happened to him?); the first, modest wish for two hundred pounds, the equivalent of the sort of money that, on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? would do very nicely, Chris, to pay off the debts and maybe get a little holiday. The third act, the prestige, tells us what the illusionist has done: in this case, have the Whites – or the readers, or all – believing in magic monkey paws engineering freak fatal workplace accidents and bringing mutilated zombies out of the ground to bang on front doors, but answering no questions as to what actually has taken place.

It’s the middle act, the turn, that deserves more attention for its writing sleight-of-hand. In narrative terms, the point of this section is to show us that, when the Whites wish on the monkey’s paw for two hundred pounds, the consequences were that their son, Herbert, was tragically and horrifically killed (“Caught in the machinery” of both factory and plot – a zeugma so satisfying, Jacobs makes sure it’s repeated in the dialogue), the compensation amounting to the very sum for which they wished. It’s a development that could have been reported in a couple of sentences but instead Jacobs gives a bravura display of dramatic irony, heightening every moment as the contentment built over a shared lifetime is cut away from the Whites like the paw from the monkey’s arm, and shredded like Herbert on the Maw and Meggins’ factory floor.

We’ve bolted down the jovial family breakfast, laughing off the silliness of the previous evening before Herbert takes his comedy routine off to work with him, but when, later, Mrs White is distracted by a strange, well-dressed young man at the front gate, Fate shudders to a halt and turns, slowly, gravely, to set off on its new direction:

His wife made no reply. She was watching the mysterious movements of a man outside, who, peering in an undecided fashion at the house, appeared to be trying to make up his mind to enter. In mental connection with the two hundred pounds, she noticed that the stranger was well dressed and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. Three times he paused at the gate, and then walked on again. The fourth time he stood with his hand upon it, and then with sudden resolution flung it open and walked up the path. Mrs. White at the same moment placed her hands behind her, and hurriedly unfastening the strings of her apron, put that useful article of apparel beneath the cushion of her chair.

There are so many joys in this paragraph. We’ve earlier learned that only two houses on the road are let so why paying a visit to one of them should be the cause of such uncertainty is beyond me. Of course, the reason for the young man’s dithering is to stoke Mrs White’s anticipation – she senses money in the young man’s dress – and foreboding. Note how the phrases are stretched out like pizza dough: “a silk hat of glossy newness” rather than a new silk hat; the absurd but brilliant aside about the apron – “that useful article of apparel” – as its strings are unfastened (ever tried doing that in a hurry behind your back?) and it’s shoved behind a cushion because you don’t receive visitors looking like you’re in the middle of the housework. Even when he’s inside, the visitor is given a quick inventory of everything in the house that’s not as spick and span as it ought to be, and when he starts to tell them about Herbert, he stammers, hesitates, and throws in a really bloody helpful riddle, about how Herbert is not in any pain, before getting round to the terrible news. Mr White’s reaction is beautiful:

He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife’s hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courting days nearly forty years before.

In this instant, the two of them revert to a time when they were filled with hope for the future, that has since come and is now gone; they are back to when it was just the two of them, as it will be again from now on; and they are reminded of being the age Herbert was until the machinery got hold of him. It’s immaculate use of a detail whose humanity would be stunning to encounter in any story, let alone one with generic supernatural trappings. The subject of compensation comes up and Mr White’s reaction is again one to cherish, a true ‘is this your card?’ moment as he recognises the trick that Fate has played on his family and

His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”

When you see the naked simplicity of that phrase – no artificial guesstimate of what his face might be doing or what particular omens the tone of his voice might carry; no he asked, worriedly, he asked with an anguished grimace, he asked but knew the answer already – and realise that the fussiness of the “silk hat of glossy newness” phrase was not archaic over-writing but a deliberate and mischievous effect, you should recognise why Jacobs’ story endures. The grand illusion of the monkey’s paw is a durable narrative, no doubt, but – especially in the second act, there is close-up magic in the writing.


Each of us, it would seem, orbits one another across ever-widening tracts of space. Is it that society, community, is what takes place in the furthest hinterland of our consciousness, or is it each one of us who is at the periphery of the larger narrative? Can writing, that adventure in solipsism, cope with the understanding that none of us was ever the story?

Even fiction, which has long since ceased to be based purely on the mythologies of Gods, Rulers and Heroes, can’t cope with absolute democracy. In any piece of fiction, characters will be central, secondary or peripheral. This even applies to stories told over several years, with dozens of characters engaged in hundreds of storylines: for a quarter of a century, on BBC TV’s Eastenders, whenever a major character has been called away to attend to a plot development, Tracey [played by Jane Slaughter, above] has covered for them on their stall or in their shift behind the bar of the Queen Vic. In NBC’s The West Wing, in a belt-and-braces expression of periphery, Renée Estevez – a member of the Sheen acting dynasty who wasn’t sent to assassinate Marlon Brando, wasn’t in The Breakfast Club and isn’t the internet’s own Charlie Sheen – held down, as “Nancy”, a desk job in the Whitehouse during seven seasons of the drama about the Presidency of Jed Bartlet, played by her father. She greeted members of the staff and guests going in and out of the Oval Office and had not one moment of plot devoted to her life or work. This was in a series in which there were fully-fledged peripheral characters (economic advisers Ed and Larry; personal assistants Carol, Bonnie and Ginger) who also had no plots of their own but they at least got to engage in significant dialogue and do the occasional trademark walk’n’talk scene with the lead actors. Nancy said “Good morning, Mr President” and opened doors, and that was it. As viewers, we follow the lights that shine most brightly but, as writers, if we look to the shadows, to the lives of the Traceys and the Nancys, that’s where we can find our narratives.


Writing in The Guardian in May about Tracey Emin
, Ali Smith – one of the key voices in contemporary short fiction – referenced a 1935 quote from Gertrude Stein in which she discussed how centuries of use in poetry had gradually sapped the “excitingness of pure being” from words which had once held tremendous resonance: “they were just rather stale literary words.” Narratives, too, grow stale and we need to pay attention to the ways in which storytellers will circumvent the glaring and the obvious. I’ve discussed the Simpsons Plot Detour previously, in reference to the way a typical Simpsons episode might embark on a narrative and then veer into a different story altogether after about five minutes. We can identify this as a device by the storytellers but it could also be a recognition of how the audience responds to narrative.

On our right, we have the 1947 painting, La Naissance de Vénus by the Belgian surrealist, Paul Delvaux. It’s a depiction of an event, a happening, and therefore it’s a story. And, in keeping with the narratives that our ancestors used to define and order our societies, it’s a story about a Deity. We can recognise Venus from the positioning of her hands and the tilt of her head but even a quick glance to our left at Botticelli’s canonical Birth of Venus shows us that Delvaux is drawing our gaze elsewhere. Delvaux’s goddess is not centrally located and is foregrounded to such a degree, she almost acts like a pillar blocking our view of part of the action at a sports ground. Almost immediately, we start to look past her – to the expression of exquisite sorrow on the face of what seems to be the maid to the right, to the naked bathers, the figures in the middle distance, the ghosts of giant faces suggested in the rock in the far distance, the ship which appears to lack a crew but must be piloted by someone…I’m guessing it’s Tracey from Eastenders.

In this late age for storytelling, the most effective route to a story may be to look to the edge of the crowd. The sense of what makes the world has changed to such a degree in the past century, we now have no doubts that, in society as in literature, the margins can reinvigorate the main page. Evolution tells us we’re all part of one sequence of molecular oscillation so no one story carries a ‘better’ truth than any other. Short stories must recognise this, because they rise and fall with the momentary, the illusory, the peripheral and the incidental.

Here’s an exercise for you: the recent story about the legendary French actor, Gérard Depardieu, urinating onto a CityJet plane’s carpet when refused permission to use the toilets prior to takeoff, was never going to be struggling for narrative potential. Like the appearance of the legendary footballer, Paul Gascoigne, at the fatal seige of a serial killer last summer, the nexus of spectacular human drama and a particular category of larger-than-life celebrity figure, immediately appeals to the sense that this was exactly what we used to expect of the ‘silly season’ and exactly what we used to expect from celebrities. The initial act, and the subsequent manner in which the story has played out in the media, may titillate or outrage us as consumers but needn’t concern us as writers. A fellow passenger’s eyewitness account of Depardieu’s actions on being caught short, in which she explained that “it all happened with courtesy,” is far more encouraging to our peripheral vision…

Consider that mood of courtesy. Look past the embarrassed superstar, peeved cabin staff and bewildered passengers. Move down the aisle. Pause for a moment at the woman paying close attention to the scene, noting the levels of courtesy and preparing the statement she’ll make to reporters. Think about her spreading this observation back through the plane so that those, who were unable to see the kerfuffle or hear the splash into and out of an inadequately-sized Evian bottle, have acquired a sense of having been there, of having been privy to the courtesy, and part of the story. And then there’s one passenger for whom none of this has an impact. For this passenger, the famous man, his bladder, the plane’s carpet – that’s all the periphery. What is this passenger’s story?

In the Wikipedia entry for the season 6 episode of The Simpsons entitled “‘Round Springfield”, the plot summary begins thus:

Bart gets a stomachache after accidentally eating a jagged metal Krusty-O with his breakfast cereal. Lisa is the only one who believes him, however, and Homer and Marge send him to school. Bart struggles through the test, and after finally convincing Mrs. Krabappel that he is actually ill, she lets him go and see the nurse. Bart collapses on the medical room floor, and is taken to Springfield General Hospital where he undergoes surgery from Dr. Hibbert and Dr. Nick, as it emerges he has appendicitis. While visiting Bart in the hospital, Lisa meets her hero, jazzman Bleeding Gums Murphy, in a bed in another ward.

This was a notable episode. Bleeding Gums Murphy became the first recurring character to be killed off in The Simpsons, just one of an untold number of demonstrations the show has given over the years of its capacity to transgress expectations, not only of what we expect from cartoon animation but also within the conventions of storytelling. What is typical about the above plot set-up for “‘Round Springfield” (the title makes oblique reference to the Thelonious Monk composition, ‘Round Midnight) is that the main narrative in the episode is only signalled by the final sentence of the paragraph.

This device – “The Simpsons Plot Detour” – has not, to my knowledge, been given due acknowledgement in critical texts about structure in fiction so I have no idea if anyone has given a name to the device. If you know of any writing on this subject, I’d be grateful to hear about it; if not, I’m calling it for The Simpsons Plot Detour (SPD). The SPD will allow us to become involved in a storyline – here, the box of cereal, the metal Krusty-O and Bart’s hospitalisation – through regular functions of linear narrative: establishing the setting (home) and central characters (Bart and the family); introducing the motor for the plot (the cereal); and engaging our emotions in the plot developments that follow (Lisa standing up for Bart; Bart’s struggle with the school test; the anxiety of the operation). At this point, the detour occurs and Lisa’s wander down the hospital corridor takes us to the bedside of Bleeding Gums. The story that will unfold for the remainder of the episode is now one in which the story dynamic is the relationship between Lisa and Bleeding Gums, his mentorship of her, even from beyond the grave, and her advocacy to keep his memory alive. It’s a disruption of narrative convention but we’ve learned to accept it because it’s The Simpsons and that’s the way they tell stories.

As it happens, the misdirection of Bart’s encounter with the metal Krusty O isn’t completely discarded. He goes on to earn compensation money, which helps Lisa to purchase Bleeding Gums’ only LP, and so that eventual sub-plot manages to serve the main narrative. In the same way, Bleeding Gums’ celestial reappearance to Lisa has resonance with the story that is the main reason for this post. Nevertheless, I bring up the structural device of the SPD solely as a means of arriving at this instructive point: the decisions you make about the structure of your story are as important as the idea for the story itself.

This week, the short story specialists, Comma Press, have been pushing their call for submissions to their next anthology, The Reveal. Previous anthologies, drawn from open submissions, have presented an over-arching theme within which the writer needed to work. Although largely commissioned, some of the stories in the 2009 anthology, Re-Berth, including my piece, Scent, came from a submission process. The theme was “Cities On The Edge”, itself the theme of a civic, commercial and cultural partnership between the six European port cities represented in the book. So writing the story involved first solving a puzzle as to how to make this a Liverpool story, a story about being “on the edge”, being marginalised in some way, and a story that I would be able to tell. The remits from publishers and competitions can appear daunting or irksome but they can often provide the pinch of sugar needed to activate the yeast. An idea or even a whole draft that may not quite have been coming to life can, with the introduction of this new imperative, suddenly start to breathe. Rather than a theme, the publishers here are building their anthology around a structural device: the “reveal” of a disguised narrative (not a surprise twist) at the denouement of a story. What Comma has recognised is the role of structure in making a story work.

Structure is about how you organise the storytelling and this, in turn, encompasses factors such as the chronology of the narrative and the Point of View. When he emerged in the 1990s. one of the aspects of Quentin Tarantino’s film-making that showed off his cineaste credentials was his approach to structure: the three-card trick of shuffling the heist movie plot strands in Reservoir Dogs so that the heist itself was never shown; the even more radical liberties taken with linear structure in Pulp Fiction (whereby John Travolta could be killed off a third of the way through and then reappear in a different, earlier episode placed at the end of the film); and, in Dusk Till Dawn, for which he wrote the screenplay, the near-Simpsons Plot Detour of a road movie turning into a vampire flick halfway through.

Making the audience or readers think about how the story is being told freshens the information you present to them. The “it was all a dream” ending Comma outlaws, on the other hand, can make previously fresh narratives seem tired, as can the structure of “thing that’s happening now – extended flashback to explain in a wholly linear fashion what has happened before now – back to the now to end with a platitude about what has been learned from the experience” that should make readers weep with rage if they encounter it from a professional writer.

Point Of View (POV), similarly, can coax unexpected depths from material that might otherwise belong on charity shop bookshelves next to hastily-discarded paperbacks by breakfast TV presenters-turned-authors. It’s important to think about POV not simply as the voice chosen to tell the story. In relation to the way the story’s information is structured for the reader’s absorption, it’s also about the level of knowledge about events in the story and life beyond it, and the emotional and intellectual perspective from which it’s told.

I know every inch of Christina’s body and mind, each sensation, each mood. I know every one of her likes and dislikes, her favourite band, the place on her neck where she likes to be touched when a man is kissing her. I know the exact strength she likes her coffee and the words her grandmother whispered to her in the hospital just before she died. I also know the effect the handful of bitter pills will have on her physiology after she swallows them. I know every name of every chemical Christina will synthesise as each complex molecule of each pill starts to bond with receptors in her weary, stricken brain.

In Hari Kunzru’s Deus Ex Machina, a young woman named Christina attempts to kill herself after an unhappy affair with a man named Robert. She doesn’t die, though: a man named Yukio chances upon her just in time and this signals a future, far happier romance. Told from Christina’s POV, this might have been a darker Bridget Jones but the POV Kunzru brings in lifts it – I’m tempted to say, literally – into a different realm. The narrator is Christina’s Guardian Angel, which allows Kunzru to indulge in a comedic, metaphysical preamble which skewers some and confirms other myths that have built up over centuries about such beings:

Yes, we angels do dance on pinheads, and the usual number we fit on is one-hundred and seventy six for a standard gauge pin. This is not because of some restriction in size. As I say, we are entirely immaterial. It’s just that for pin-head dancing, one-seven-six just feels like the right number. Call it tradition.

There are parallels with Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, Wings Of Desire and its tender images of Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander resting their heads on the shoulders of Berlin residents and thereby hearing their thoughts, in the loving devotion, the “almost luminous love”, our narrator has to Christina. The contrivance of the Angel’s POV – and the further contrivances this then works into the plot – allows Kunzru to make a distinctive statement about a woman like Christina, whose low self-esteem, poor body image and weepy vulnerability to awful men would make her a Chick-lit cliché. She is beautiful. There are no qualifying remarks to add to that fact. Kunzru uses the trappings of religious imagery to lead us to this understanding but the fundamental device here is literary – the title is, of course, the name of a literary device.

This is a story that puts us back in touch with the core of our humanity. Christina’s redemption is from the mediated ideologies that distract and diminish us. It shows how love is the tool we’ve found and named for the impulse to save, preserve and celebrate our lives.

And it’s a message that gets across because the story structure, for all its transcendental flourishes, shines a true spotlight on the moments that we can recognise from our real lives.


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