Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘wim wenders

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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We’ll only know of our own deaths when someone hacks into our Facebook accounts and changes our status to “Deceased”. It was no surprise, therefore, that I learned about the death of Poly Styrene from seeing it mentioned on someone else’s Facebook status.

More thought-provoking was the way, within a few hours, the news served to provide the kind of generational stratification today’s come-one-come-all kidult playgrounds more usually eliminate. The “RIP” comments, quoted lyrics and YouTube links to X-Ray Spex videos started appearing with regularity and you could throw a blanket of no more than 10 or 15 years over the ages of the people making the comments. X-Ray Spex came and went and never became the mass media definition of punk the Sex Pistols had been; never grew to the global profile earned by The Clash; never became a pop act like Adam and the Ants; never had the 80s hits of The Damned, The Jam, Siouxsie or The Stranglers; were never re-discovered by younger fans to quite the same extent as The Buzzcocks. This means that they necessarily remain a detail of memory, a reminder of what formed “us”.

Of course, it’s unfair to label Poly Styrene a simple late 70s period detail, like Spangles, and not just because she had recently released a new album. The old punks shedding a tear of appreciation this week would have recognised that this was an outspoken feminist, unapologetic and uncompromising in Pan’s People Britain; that her identity as a mixed-race woman fuelled her activism but was not the most conspicuous feature about her public profile; that the music itself was instead the thing that mattered, anti-consumerist satires delivered with a ferocity that could be equated with Ginsberg’s beat poetry or The Watts Prophets’ declamatory Black nationalism, backed with a sound defined by a saxophone seemingly lifted from a manic klezmer band. There are sound arguments to be made about the influence Poly Styrene had on the music industry and on British culture, but there’s no escaping the feeling that hers was the sort of death that makes a group of people, who can be quite precisely identified as the John Peel generation, reflect on their own lives, their own development.

And this has made me think about the way influence works, how slow, often dormant, and then suddenly packed with coincidence, is the journey of an idea to the point where it becomes a piece of writing. This week, I also saw Wim Wenders’ astonishing 3D documentary, Pina, and it has nothing much to do with Poly Styrene’s death except that both happened at roughly the same time, and Poly happened to me when I was 11 or 12 and still taking shape, and then Pina Bausch happened to me about five years later. It’s another marker of a particular generation that I can remember when Channel 4 was known for its arts programming. I watched 1980 by Pina Bausch over two nights on Channel 4 at the age of 16 or 17. I had no knowledge of dance theatre; I don’t believe I even knew beforehand that what I was watching was dance theatre: it was simply the strangest and most captivating performance I had come across.

I’ve not really explored Pina’s work much since then – I treated it instead like a buried childhood treasure, something to create excitement if glimpsed again, as in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her. Yet projected by Wenders into the midst of the dance, I was able to recognise how much influence that brief introduction half a lifetime ago had exerted on my approaches to performance over the years. I also realised that one of the key works featured in the film, Cafe Muller, speaks to this blog’s present fixation with cafe-frame short fiction, as illustrated by the empty chairs and tables witnessing this terribly beautiful sequence from the stage production:

I’m not just saying see the film (but see it). The coincidence of having the space to think about these two women, how each set ideas in motion in my young mind and then left them there, and what these reminders of their lives have made me think about this week – like a pinch of saffron in a pan of paella, these will form a part of the ingredients for a work of fiction, at some point. What else goes in, I will – I hope – be able to record here as and when they make themselves known to me.


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