Stephen Ornes: “Hilarious, In The Wrong Way” from One Story #160, 2/8/12

Claudio Alfaro Malebrán: "Un lago de mármol blanco" (A Lake of White Marble)

Claudio Alfaro Malebrán: "Un lago de mármol blanco" (A Lake of White Marble)

At the end of school, the intercom crackled and hissed before going quiet. Then the principal Mr. Weathers got on and said that Theodore was dead, and asked if we could have a moment of silence? The intercom was mounted over the door, concealed in a weathered wooden box that tilted so far from the cinder block wall it looked ready to fall down on someone’s head. I wondered if it had always been that way. I looked down and saw that my pencil still hovered over my paper because I hadn’t finished writing everything down from the board before Mr. Weathers said Theodore is dead.

That’s an interesting paragraph. Not just the content, but the details of form. For instance, the second sentence ends in a question mark, though it shouldn’t. If it was, “Mr. Weathers asked, Can we have a moment of silence?” that would be different, but it isn’t. That must mean something. Turning declarations into questions? Uncertainty? A barb at someone asking when really they’re telling? Not sure.

It becomes even more interesting when Ornes’ discusses, in his One Story Q&A, that the editors advised against his use of questions in the narrative:

…the generous editors at One Story pointed out to me that “questions from a narrator, however true they are to the character’s thoughts, leave the reader in doubt. Concrete details create confidence.” That’s also useful. After they pointed that out, I realized that I follow the same guideline in my science writing and avoid questions within copy as much as possible. Perhaps there’s no faster way to undermine your own authority than to pose a question to your reader.

Considering this advice, it’s incredibly interesting he chose to include a question, one that isn’t really a question, in the second sentence of the story.

I’m also intrigued by the switch of tense in the last sentence, though I think I understand that better. In the second sentence, he uses past tense: “…Theodore was dead…” and in the last, present: “…Theodore is dead.” It doesn’t take Ben long to take this journey, which somehow makes it more personal to him, going from what Mr. Weathers said to what is.

And of course there’s the content of Ben focusing on the angle of the intercom when he’s just heard of the death of a classmate, who, we’ll discover almost immediately, was a friend. We’ll further discover Theodore committed suicide by shooting himself with a shotgun.

Given how much I’ve found in this first paragraph, and the subject matter, I’m surprised to say that the rest of the story didn’t do much for me. It’s a fine story, but not at the level I’ve come to expect from One Story. Then again, that’s the problem with being my favorite literary magazine: you get held to very high standards.

We follow pubescent Ben through his process of adjusting to the idea that his friend is dead. Some great details come into play. Theodore had embarrassed Ben in front of Bethy a few days before, so he’d planned to put salt in his iced tea at the pot-luck dinner the night before. But Ben didn’t show. Ben remembers a look he saw on Theodore’s face at some point: “I’d seen this look before, when he seemed to have gone so far away that he wasn’t just lost, he also wasn’t coming back.” He remembers how Theodore had shown him a dead rat and offered to gut it in front of him: “…when Theodore went to the extreme, like he did with the rat, I valued him the most. It was thrilling and calming at the same time; I didn’t know anyone else who could do things like that.” Ben introduced him to ZZ Top; he doesn’t even like the music but listens to it anyway. He dabbles with hanging himself, just to see what it’s like, to have that kind of control.

Ben comes to a moment when he realizes something: “With every person I’ve ever met, and every person I’ll ever meet, either I’m going to die first or they are….” Saying goodbye is the price of living. And he realizes how precarious everything is:

…I stumbled, standing only on the ball of one foot at the edge of the dock for a moment, hovering over the water, like the split-second when a juggled ball hangs in the air, not rising or falling. Nothing had happened yet, everything remained.
Then gravity took me. The water smacked the back of my head like a shotgun. It blasted away Mr. Weather’s voice, Miss Ruckles’ hand, Justin’s bloody nose, ZZ Top, Theodore in an empty room, alone, with his finger flailing away from the trigger. The images appeared and vanished, water filled my open mouth, my eyes, my ears, my pockets. I flailed beneath the surface. I took water in every opening.

The doors between this world and its shadows were everywhere, always open and waiting.

Ornes is primarily a science writer, and used unstable equilibrium (“like a marble balanced on top of an overturned bowl: it can stay in place, as long as you don’t nudge bowl or the marble”) as the inspiration for this story: “I arrived at thinking about a character who, like an ignorant marble, suddenly realizes he—or anyone else—can slide down the bowl at any time.” He was successful in this, to a point.

But I find I liked the ideas, the tiny details like the first paragraph, and the inspirations and explanations, more than I liked the story. I had trouble getting through it. In fact, I put it down for a few days, then when Issue #161 arrived – Jim Shephard! – I knew I had to get going so I picked it up again and started over. Still, there are high points, and it’s worth reading, if only for those details and explanations and inspirations.

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