Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Improvised Explosive Devices of Story


An IED is armed service lingo for improvised detonating device.  In that military context, it has been the frequent source of shattering and random injury or outright death.  IEDs bring the confrontation associated with armed conflict to new and extreme levels formerly unthinkable.   In their horrific way, IEDS are the unthinkable of political conflict come to pass, reminding us how, boring though negotiation might be, negotiation is the more preferable method of confrontation.

On a more lofty level, although no less a political one, the short story has become the literary equivalent of the IED.  The modern short story, in the hands of such diverse writers as Annie Proulx, Deborah Eisenberg, and William Trevor, is explosive, often confounding the characters involved in them as well as the reader.

The writer does not, you believe, enter the short story landscape intending to wreak severe damage much less moral or ethical havoc.  But around the third or fourth run through the narrative, something happens, some strategic spot makes itself known to the writer.  Alert for possibilities of discovery and psychical mayhem, the writer is drawn to the point of considering the use of the IED.

Now it is planted, given appropriate camouflage, and left to announce its explosive presence when a character unintentionally trips it.  Some writers are so deft in placing these devices that the IED is left to detonate off stage, allowing us to imagine four ourselves the effect.

To be effective, the literary IED has to be something so ordinary that neither characters nor readers have their suspicions raised.  Often it is some minor detail, doing double or triple duty as a characteristic or a detail chosen to indicate ordinariness.  Neither reader nor character must suspect.

In that recipe the secret of the short story resides.  The ordinary is explosive in its implications.  The explosive is ordinary in its own implications.  This is the skeleton of the story; it is also the dramatic genome the writer must understand because it has been embedded in all of us who read.  Makes no difference if we like stories with happy endings or even stories, which are more fable or sermon than story.  We have all known the stealthy ways in which things we care about are lost.  We’ve had rugs yanked from under us with varying degrees of force to the point where now, at the slightest hint of something giving way underneath our feet, we tense, cringe, wait.

Much as we remind ourselves the bottle is half-full, our ducks are all in a row, things will work out well, we cherish the notion that we are not complete fools, only partial ones.  We’ve seen enough to know that lightning may not have anything against us as a person, but if we happen to be standing in the wrong place, we are going to experience the same result as Dolores Haze’s mother did in Lolita.  Lightning, picnic.      

We tell ourselves we may be optimists but we are not foolish.  Some of us come forth with the awareness that we are programmed to be aware of the cosmic IED, to believe we can see it and, thus, avoid triggering it..

There is nothing to be ashamed of; it is written into our genetic code.  Thus we are drawn to look at particular characters in particular circumstances, our preferences programmed into us by our genetic and cultural heritages and, of course, from that negative option source, our reading heritage.

We are not asked if we want something new to read any more than we are asked if we are tired or thirsty or hungry.  Something tells us we want something to read and we do, titillated and ecstatic over the prospect of reading about someone of our preference, walking down a road fraught with danger, not to mention IEDs.

With each new explosion in our reading, with each in our real time life, we are presented with information that gives us the potential to be alert to strange things awaiting us on the road ahead.

Each time an IED from a short story blows up in our face, we are relieved not to have had that same experience in our real life, but we are not really certain we mean it.

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