Exposition v Interpretation/’Loop’ short story

 

saul-steinberg-bust-of-man-the-top-of-his-head-is-a-maze-new-yorker-cartoon

So, I think I am going to stick a couple of shorter stories up at once now…I guess just because they are similar in theme. Though it’s a theme I would like to keep exploring, even if it is totally unoriginal.

For sure, I think I find the closer to reality parts of a story are, the harder they are to write. So, coffee shop, office scenes etc…aargh. I guess maybe I find them too hard to make interesting, or bring to life through words, like, as opposed to just a dispassionate sequence of events. With the more twisted, otherworldly elements it feels easier to do. But most of what I have been doing recently has more ‘real’ elements, even just in bits, and I have definitely found it harder, or noticed more points where the writing looks like a pastiche of writing. These words are all lined up in place for suspended amounts of time, correctly joined together in a way that is initially pleasing to the eye, but there is no communal thread or current of life running through them and linking them holistically together. They are hollow replicants, unmoving and tersely biding their time on the page, soulless squiggles that will never sear onto the retina, engrain themselves in the brain and linger within someone, eventually becoming an extension of the self in the way that the best writing I enjoy might do…

Perhaps I could force myself to write an endless coffee shop scene, or office scene, for a week non-stop, until I am either vastly improved, or have bored myself to death, or actually eventually enter the story and end up being doomed to live out my endless real-life writing-improvement scene, moping around an office or coffee-shop with other poorly sketched-out characters. Or perhaps, that is already happening? Ah, all life is writing in some fashion…it is happening all around us…

Also with these stories, and with most others, I was wondering about how much exposition is best to use. I was muddling about in my head the idea of how big a role the thrill of suspense and not knowing what’s going to happen plays in following a story. And how deflating or misjudged exposition can often be. Is it better to leave many elements to interpretation? It introduces a more interactive element to a story and allows the reader to decide for themselves where meaning is applicable. Equally it is hugely frustrating if there is not enough balance. I like stories that are open-ended; I see a lack of neatly tied-up endings, and even beginnings, as being reflective of real life to a certain extent: our lives are not so much a series of resolved stories, as they are fragmented moments. I would look to writers like Haruki Murakami and Kafka for this type of fragmented, almost dream-like reading. However this type of storytelling is not for everyone, and I have had rejection emails saying ‘..doesn’t go anywhere’ or ‘feels like part of a bigger story’, so, it’s all subjective.

With exposition, I have been thinking about questions like:

Would it be impossible to avoid clunky moments of dialogue where a character reveals large chunks of information for the reader’s benefit?

Are the above types of scenes not taking the reader for granted a little bit?

Is it better to leave a certain amount to everyone’s individual interpretations?

Is this the ideal balance in a lot of storytelling – to have a degree of incomplete exposition?

Anyway, blah blah.

Loop

tension_loop_02

That world lasted five hundred years.

Great pillars of stone, dragged on the raw shoulders of millions of slaves across shimmering white beaches, split the sky either side of the temple. Rolling oceans of people came to prostrate themselves before them, eyes ablaze with reverence every time they drifted towards the granite peaks. The couple stood together at the temple’s zenith; he slid a glinting knife edge across the throat of the offering, rolled the mutilated body down the stairwell and turned to clasp her hands. In time the pillars crumbled and drifted into dust, which clustered within the earth that gave rise to forests and quiet villages. She would watch at the door of their thatched cottage as he trod off to the mill, waving all the way down the earthen road. That same wave, accompanied with distinctly more lubrigious overtones, carried him away on a train weeks after his conscription letter. He would reach the beach in Omaha, and the second letter would leave her face down on the dining table, dragging nails across the mahogany surface as glottal gulps caught in her throat and eyeliner smudged her cheeks, but he would be laying a fond peck on each of those cheeks as they danced across the ballroom –

***

In his room, David sat reading by lamplight. At the close of each page his eyes drifted to the clock on the wall. Above him, the glow of the lamp sent streaks of boxed, angular light pouring over the ceiling and segments of wall. Grey shadows smudged framed pictures and banal landscape photography. The ratio of page-to-clock glancing increased with every passing moment. Soon David’s nervous eyes were frittering towards the ticking hands at momentary intervals, snatched from the text before him across the room.

From the garden outside, the sound of a twig snapping split the air. David gripped the edge of his desk and rose slowly. Creeping over to the window, he drew the thick curtains back and peered into the darkness outside. A gentle breeze shook the leaves of the trees at the end of the green square. He saw her approaching the window, her hair following the path of the wind. She strode from the centre of the garden, moving several steps forward. Thereafter she seemed to have trouble with forward. momentum, and was briefly stuck in a continuous cycle of extending her left leg forward, which jerked awkwardly back and forth. A sliver of moonlight trickled over her as she flickered alternately between the two positions.

David lowered his head and looked back at the clock. Two minutes had passed. It wasn’t usually this long. He ran through his previous thought processes as he watched her wrestle with the act of propulsion in his back garden. Six months she had been coming now. The first thought was to go to the garden and confront her. The stumbling block was that he could not walk any further than five paces himself during the times she came.

Somewhere deep in the black pools of time that swam across his pupils, he knew that it should not have taken this long; that it should have been a much smoother transition. Her limbs jerked in time to the rhythm that hindered his own movement in everything he did. The coffee cup that he raised to his lips every morning stalled even for the tiniest fraction of time; the mirror in the bathroom cabinet caught a fleeting reflection of something grey, fractured and rotting as he swung it shut, but his mind refused to acknowledge it, or left it scattered amongst the multitude of fragmented, distorted images that struggled to condense themselves within his consciousness.

The second thought had been to phone the police, to phone anyone. In this he felt uncertain, as it would require him to describe her face, and she had none. Her features, from the hairline at the top of her forehead, were a continuous mask of pale skin stretching across her skull.

For two months he had negotiated a period where he had concluded he was, in fact, utterly insane, and his madness was manifesting itself in this set pattern every evening. Perhaps it was a form of post traumatic stress after the crash, or a product of displaced grief. Recently he had moved on to a phase wherein he had decided this was a simple, natural extension of the living environment, albeit one that people chose not to mention to one another.

He screwed his eyes up through the pane of glass again. With a rush, she tore forward to the opposite side of the window, and an eye began to gestate above her cheekbone, skin curling away to allow it to bulge forward. He had seen the eye before, even before these six months. He had seen it for millenia, and there was no mistaking it. His heart sunk as her form collapsed and drifted into the shadows around it. It was over for another night.

***

Many weeks later he returned home from work late afternoon and slid through the front door, dragging his feet across the mat and shaking his jacket off. She was sitting at the dining table when he walked through. He felt his arms seize up. Of course, he thought. Of course she is.

Sliding into a chair opposite her, he looked into her predominantly blank face. A second eye began to appear in the gap between her right eye and the smooth lump where her left ear should be. This fresh eye gestated slowly again at first; the skin around it peeled back, moulted almost, allowing the white eye to well forth, before curling up instantly around the edges, a new eyelid flickering into place. Similarly, a nose began to probe forward, rising out of the blank central stretch of skin, and little lips formed gradually in the chin area. Soon Alice’s face was smiling faintly at him. He reached out to take her hand. She bit back tears as she looked own at it.

‘David…David, I don’t think I have any time left.’

He choked as he absorbed her perfect features.

‘That’s not how time works…’ he began, wishing so hard that he could say the right combination of words to put her mind at ease. She waved him off, bringing her hands up to cover her face as it crumpled.

‘l feel like I’m constantly aware of it,’ she spluttered, ‘it’s flying by at ridiculous speed. I had barely thought of it before, until now. And now, I’m counting every block of it, and it’s just…I don’t know, it’s just surging forward, or falling away around me, and I can’t reclaim it and make it more substantial, or…I’m not, I’m not making sense, I’m trying to…David, do you know what I mean?’

David nodded and looked down at his hands covering her own. He glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall, then pushed his chair back and moved to the sink, running himself a glass of water. It seemed to trickle down in stages, splashing in sections round the waiting rim.

Pouring the fluid down his throat, he tried to think of his work. He couldn’t remember what he did. His hands closed tightly round the glass. Was this it, then? This was all there was now? Sitting in a dark room, looking at a clock! Watching her try to come in. He felt a fool. He felt he had been made a fool of.

‘I think,’ he murmured, stopping himself and breathed heavily, ‘I think we might be stuck.’

She was beside him in a moment, gripping his arm and shaking it, her voice cracked and frantic.

‘What if we’re not, David? What if we’re not?’

He felt sick. He shoved the glass under the tap again and spun it forcefully round.

‘David, you’re not listening! David, how long have I been dead?’

‘Six months,’ he breathed, without hesitation.

‘David, it’s not!’ She screamed, which took him by surprise, and slapped the glass from his hand. It shattered on the linoleum floor. ‘It’s not! I haven’t been here before! I haven’t lived here before!’

‘No…no, there was a crash. There was a car crash…’ His lower lip trembled.

She grabbed at his arm and dragged him to the living room window. Pulling the curtain back, she propelled him from behind towards the glass.

‘Where? What car? What car would I have been in? There are no cars there! There’s nothing out there!’

The area outside the window looked like white sand. Or similar to white sand; perhaps more fluid in its movement. It rolled like waves, rising and falling.

‘No…’ he muttered, ‘no, I just got in from work…’

She screamed again. Her face was red and gaunt, and her eyes were moist and blazing.

‘David, you didn’t! You just got up and walked out the door, and back in again! And I do the same! I walk out, and in again!’

A cloud passed over his mind and he turned to respond, but her face was blank again. She gestured wildly, clawed at his suit, then fell to her knees, scrabbling at the skin that covered her head. He backed away, catching sight of his own face in the vague reflection of the clock, chalking off the remaining seconds. It was blank and featureless too. He stumbled into the chair to accept whatever came, as white sand flowed into the room and spread around them. She stayed on her knees, flinging handfuls of it over her head until their forms collapsed into particles of dust and blended into the beach.

The white beach fostered the stone that rose to become the pillars that flanked the temple.

***

 

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9 thoughts on “Exposition v Interpretation/’Loop’ short story

  1. I only recently began to study the works of Sam Shepard, he is among the elite group of people who are “masters” at the short, short story. The beginning quickly puts the reader right in the middle of the story, and he wraps most stories up with “come to your own conclusion readers”. I have begun to tighten my own writing after reading and re-reading his work. Your post are all enjoyable reads. Ann

      • His second collection of short fiction, ‘Great Dream of Heaven,’ a resonant examination of interpersonal crisis and revelation in 18 lean tales. This Stephen is truly great study in how to write a short story. I have reread this books until the cover is worn just to be inspired. Have a great weekend, Ann

  2. I’m enjoying reading your work, Stephen. I admire your ability to write surrealistic stories — and you do so without an overload of exposition. I have little patience for a lot of exposition. I don’t want to be told every last detail. I want to fill in some of the blanks myself. In writing, I have to fight the urge to “over tell.” I have to remind myself that the reader can fill the scene in his/her head, can figure out that the character has walked out the door and down the steps and into the driveway without following every single step. The same thing with endings. Ambiguity can be a good thing. It depends on the story, I think. Go with your gut, I say.

  3. I read it to the end. But I had to return to the beginning and reread the entire story one more time, because the end takes the reader back to the beginning. As the title says, it is a loop. An endless loop. And it is dark, scary. I am reminded of the movie Triangle (2009) in which a woman is stuck in a twisted, mind-hurting, horrifying loop between a ship and her house in an attempt to save her son.
    You write fine, Stephen. Your prose is accomplished. Prose like this is increasingly becoming rare as writers are led to believe that their readers have short attention spans and will not spare time to delve into works of such profound prose as those previously deemed meritorious. Modern readers therefore experience works of prose that really have no prose in them. There is a strain to optimize on their said limited attention–which actually is a weakness–instead of attempting to improve it so that such formidable prose as those of the likes of Joseph Conrad can still be read, cherished, and emulated. I am still staggered by the fact that the more enlightened we claim to become, the more much that once held meaning become meaningless, and the stronger grows a certain lingering sense of emptiness in everything.

    • It’s a bit of a cultural reflection though too…short youtube videos, twitter, rolling news coverage, fast food. Does anyone have an attention span anymore? it’s all on the surface anyway…there’ll always be people who want to invest time in good prose, i am loving getting free chekhov and ibsen on kindle, there are lifetimes of wonderful writing available, make your own meaning. time is a construct, it will all come around again. fear not! cheers for reading as ever and your thoughts, look forward to your next story.

Thankyou for reading, feedback/constructive criticism always welcome :-)

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