Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

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State of the Blog

Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?

Well, hopefully, no.

Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.

This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.

When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.

Stay tuned.

 

Unexpectedness in Anne Carson’s 1=1

Photographer
Source: UCLA

Read “1=1” here in the New Yorker

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO NEATLY SUM up Anne Carson’s work. She’s written in a wide range of forms: poetry, essay, performance pieces, translations, and a genre invented by her called “short talks” which are hyper-condensed lyrical meditations on any number of scientific, historical, or anthropological topics. She pushes the boundaries of whatever form she’s in, often into the avant-garde. Sam Anderson wrote in his New York Times profile of Carson: ‘[she] gives the impression—on the page, at readings—of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate. For two decades her work has moved—phrase by phrase, line by line, project by improbable project—in directions that a human brain would never naturally move.’

To put it as straightforwardly as possible: Anne Carson’s writing is weird. She plays with form, structure, and genre, which can disorient a reader expecting a conventional approach, but if you come to Carson’s work with an open mind, letting the words guide you ‘phrase by phrase, line by line,’ you will most likely be delighted.

SHORT STORIES ARE A NEW venture for Carson in form, she didn’t write any before 2016 when she published three: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “1=1,” and “Back the Way You Went,” in Harper’s and the New Yorker, and each one is uniquely masterful. If Faulkner’s old quote holds true that every short story writer is a failed poet, then Anne Carson’s short stories are a testament to what happens when a successful poet decides to turn to short stories, not out of necessity, but as a creative choice.

“1=1” especially embodies Carson’s strengths as a writer. It is lyrical but strict in its brevity with short punchy sentences like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and the literary minimalists, but accomplishes a totally different effect, not a working class ho-hummy vibe—that is not who Anne Carson is as a writer—but as a means of legitimately condensing prose to only what is necessary, and, as Sam Anderson pointed out, usually in a direction ‘either extraterrestrial or ancient’.

Carson put it perfectly in an estimation of her own work at a recent Lannan Foundation event:

‘Somebody was talking to me about writing the other day. They said the good thing I did in my writing was to have every word resist the next word or resist the way it should go. I believe that’s accurate enough. It’s partly orneriness but it’s partly trying to make the words take you to a fresh place.

THE SENTENCES IN “1=1” are ornery but the plot is simple. A woman goes for a swim, reads the newspaper, and has an interaction with her neighbor. There isn’t a necessary causal link between these events, they happen in the same day but other than that it’s not obvious how the events work together. Although “1=1” feels like a coherent whole. The three main events: 1) swimming, 2) newspaper reading, and 3) neighbor interaction, happen in two acts.

Swimming takes up the entire first act. The first sentence is: She visits others. We don’t know who these others are. She swims and watches a man play fetch on the beach with his dog. As she swims and observes and has several interwoven revelations as the tense of the narration switches subtly from the beginning to the end of the first paragraph, from third person to second person, almost imperceptibly, pivoting from “she,” to “oneself,” to “you.” It becomes clear by the time we get to “you” that yes, swimming is a physical act this woman is performing in the story but it’s also a metaphor. In the middle of the paragraph, at the same time tense is about to change, so too does the act of swimming become something else:

People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet.

What does knowing beauty, hearing nightingales sing, grooms kissing brides, and clocking comets have to do with swimming? Nothing, except Carson already has us on the hook. She’s melded two concepts together without having to spell it out for the reader because she writes intuitively. As the woman gets in the water her mind wanders and we wander with her, as if the physical submersion she undergoes gives license for the prose to also become fluid. Swimming = the ambiguous resistance every person must learn to navigate, continuously:

Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.

THE SECOND ACT BEGINS with an ending: Her visit ends. Back at her home, she reads the newspaper. A story about migrants packed in a train, ‘filthy families and souls in despair…’ She considers her life (act 1) and theirs side-by-side, concluding: Words like “rationale” become, well, laughable. Nothing about this consideration is necessary to the plot but it illustrates further Anne Carson’s methodology. The main character faces the chasm between her and others—i.e. the isolation of selfhood—wherein no rationale is sufficiently explanatory; should this be framed as a question, [it] would not be answerable by philosophy or poetry or finance or by the shallows or the deeps of her own mind…

Faced with this problem, She goes downstairs and out to the stoop, hoping it’s cooler there. She then has an encounter with her neighbor Chandler who is drawing pears with sidewalk chalk. She tries talking with him but he doesn’t answer because he’s focused on his drawing: His gaze is ahead and within.

The second act ends by tying things back to the beginning. Thwarted by her attempts to connect with Chandler, the main character goes back upstairs and thinks of capacity, both ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’:

Upstairs, she finds herself thinking again about the failure to swim. It can be quantitative as well as qualitative. Imagine how many pools, ponds, lakes, bays, streams, stretches of swimmable shore there are in the world right now, probably half of them empty of swimmers, by reason of night or negligence. Empty, still, perfect. What a waste, what an extravagance—why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them? 

The beauty in the writing I think is partly fueled by Carson’s obsession with avoiding ‘rationales,’ or overarching explanations that demystify experience. It’s hard to explain what’s going on here and that’s kind of wonderful. It’s mainly meant to be enjoyed. But, at the very minimum, Carson makes clear her basic metaphor that runs through “1=1”: water, again, is a kind of potential of circumstance. Empty, still, perfect. You could be anyone but you are just you. Why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them?

Chandler rings the doorbell. Done with his drawing, he is reaching out to her. He wants to show her his drawing of a fox. She looks at it and feels its connection with her day. In the picture the fox is swimming. Earlier that day she was swimming. She stands awhile, watching the fox swim, looking back on the day, its images too strong, and yet the soul—how does it ever get peace in its mouth, close its mouth on peace while alive… The fox is stroking splashlessly forward. The fox does not fail.

What is significant about the fox’s not failing? It picks up where the question in act 1 left off: What does that mean, fail it. The question isn’t answered but it is addressed. The woman swam in act 1, the fox swims now. The fox is a work of art which is part of its perfection. But is the fox doing more? Does it have peace in its mouth? Is that perfection?

HAROLD BLOOM WROTE in How to Read and Why that basically all short stories are ‘either Chekhovian or Borgesian; only rarely are they both.’ What he meant was that short stories tend to either be realistic (following Anton Chekhov) in which the mundane is elevated by description; or they are fantastic (following Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka) whereby the fantastic is brought down to earth by being made tenable. Anne Carson’s “1=1” is this rare case that blurs the line. She’s able to do this by how she writes at the sentence level. Nothing supernatural happens in “1=1.” Nothing much happens at all. It isn’t a fairytale. It isn’t a straightforward myth. It’s basically realism but it’s by surprise that she captivates. The events in her stories do not fall in succession like dominoes but rhyme with symbol, metaphor, and intuition.

 


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