"Death!" Author's Commentary
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
Part of a continuing series wherein I make commentary on my stories from a craft, narrative theory, and general writing perspective. If you haven't read the story, I recommend heading to my fiction page and reading it first. All the stories discussed here are available there—most for free.
The Author’s Take: (definite story spoilers and deep narrative theory wonkery and spoilers)
This is the concluding story from my short story collection A World of Beasts, which I wrote as my MFA thesis, and I read it in its entirety at my thesis defense. I think there’s probably a bit too much going on beneath the surface for there to be any real expectation that people reading this story would think about the same things I was when I conceived this story. I’m pretty sure that’s okay, though.
There’s always a lot more going on than it appears, and if the story is entertaining enough on a superficial level to keep a reader engaged, you’re already doing far more than the mediocre writer can say. “Death,” I think for most readers, clears that bar at least.
But I think if another writer had written this story and I came across it, I wouldn’t quite know what to make of it, which I kinda really love about it. I’d like it to be enough of a curiosity that readers roll it around in their mind for a few seconds to get at some of the subtext, because there’s quite a bit there. (Feel free to do so before any reading further : )
There are stories from A World of Beasts that I’m not putting up here, and I may not ever put them out into the world. I don’t know. I’ll have to see if I get any interest one way or the other. Part of the subtext of this story is the theme of the whole collection—a naturalistic view of people as both a product of and a force of nature, and though that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when the average person thinks about a swanky cocktail party at a country club, for an evolutionary psychologist, it surely is.
In my commentary on “All Bad News,” I referenced the misery of the 90’s literary zeitgeist and how it crept into my short story writing far more than I’d intended, and I think a large part of this was the theme of the collection. People as self-aware yet un-self-aware animal actors, obliviously living out the roles they evolved into and will inevitably re-shape for the next generation. It’s an uncommon perspective, and I can’t help but think that it’s because it’s a bit too uncomfortable a perspective for people to really grapple with. Too close to home maybe. It might just change the way we obliviously go about our lives and see the world, and we couldn’t have that now, could we?
I once had a discussion with a very intelligent Ivy League educated lawyer with a philosophy degree who flat out stated that with modern technology we’d grown beyond evolution and completely eliminated ourselves from that equation. I’d heard that contention before a lot and was always baffled by it—especially from a philosopher.
I was working in the medical field at the time, and I gave this lawyer about ten different examples of how people’s behavior shaped their evolutionary fitness—the eccentric spinster with 15 cats; the 26-year-old morbidly obese type-2 diabetic, who for some reason just can’t seem to find a girlfriend; the adrenaline junkie, suddenly wheelchair-bound after pushing the limits one too many times. They’re all really out there, and in greater numbers than you might think.
I’ve also seen this perspective from naïve radical environmentalists—the belief that a human’s ability to alter the environment is somehow less a product of the natural world than a robin’s egg or a peacock’s tail. Serious environmentalists I’ve spoken with understand how many evolutionary twists our hominid ancestors had to negotiate before we became tool-making creatures, and they also understand that the complexity of a culture that is becoming self-aware about its power to shape the macro-environment is a product of simpler cultures yet to learn that lesson.
There’s a tremendous amount at stake for an individual at a cocktail party. It’s why there’s anxiety in social situations. This is fitting. We’re always being measured by our fellow creatures no matter how uncomfortable this may make us feel and no matter how much we may profess to the contrary.
I based Kapp off a friend of mine who was a publicist who used to throw these elaborate black-tie parties in Boston. She was amazing. And she was a lot like Kapp, floating between groups, getting people cocktails, making sure everyone was getting drawn into the event. When the energy in the room was low, she’d always have some trick to make it go. And she’d light up whatever corner of the room she appeared in. There were always a few people at these big parties who didn’t quite belong—you could kinda look around and see who was a genuine socialite and who was somebody’s +1, who probably wouldn’t be getting an invitation to the next one.
But my friend did have this way of drawing reluctant people out. If you’ve never been to a party like this, it may come as a surprise that there would be people in the room whose job description involves just this skill (among others), and that there are people who get invited to these events consistently because they naturally do the same. Think Gatsby’s party list. That’s a real thing, and there’s a real reason there’s a list in the first place. Being on it means something to the people in the room and the people who don’t get in.
The white crosses are also a real thing. I learned subsequent to writing this story that they’re maintained by the American Legion in Montana. I think I first saw them as a teenager when my family took a road-trip around the western U.S. I don’t think we quite got into the same sort of morbid game as Vechio’s kids, but they certainly were enough of a curiosity that a ten-year-old and a younger sibling could certainly find that entertaining in the days before iPads.
The last layer to this particular subtext cake is that this story is an ars poetica of sorts—at least in a philosophical sense. Before I read this story to the attendees at my thesis defense, I recited “The Lee Shore,” chapter 23 from Moby Dick, which haunted me from the moment I read it. I had no idea what Melville was going on about, but I couldn’t stop reading this short chapter over and over again.
Until I finally realized, he wasn’t talking about Bulkington at all; he was talking about himself—the writer throwing himself to the merciless sea with every instinct being to shun the cruelty of the expanse out there throwing your musings back at you with a vengeance. This chapter is the ultimate ars poetica. The author dares to take the floor, with all the arrogance that entails, and seeks an apotheosis as though worthy of it.
Melville certainly proved worthy, and perhaps one of the reasons he did was that he was bold enough to embed such a cryptic little nod to his hopes and vanity right there in the text for all to see. The other option was to put down his condor’s quill and cravenly crawl back to land, and thank the muses he didn’t. If you only ever read a few lines from Moby Dick, make it this chapter, please.
The last bit of narrative theory wonkery is the way I was playing with the unwritten rules of conversation in “Death!” There are social psychologists who study such things, and the narrative theorist David Herman outlines them quite well in his book Story Logic (for you really serious narrative geeks).
The four rules are: Adjacency Pairing, Turn Taking, Topic Switching, and Floor Taking. These are the implicit rules for conversation in a social setting:
Each statement should be processed within the conversation’s context and responded to appropriately—i.e. someone mentions an anecdote about sharks and someone else tells a story of the time they saw a shark while on vacation in Aruba;
People should take respectful turns exchanging ideas;
Topics are changed only with consent of the whole group, and;
The appropriate amount of speaking time should be allotted for each speaker based on the payoff the group can expect to receive from said speaker. In other words, the more time you dominate the conversation, the more you are expected to regale the audience—they have to feel value in order to allow their fair share of speaking time to be usurped.
All of these things happen in a room when people get together to socialize, and they happen without the rules ever being explained or taught. This was what I was hoping to dramatize in “Death!” and all these processes actually take place in the dialogue within the story.
My hope as I conceived the story was that the transgression Vechio engaged in would be as subliminally obvious to the reader as it would be to the person listening at the party: he took the floor for too much time without the skill to pay off the listeners with a satisfactory outcome. He badly misjudged his audience, and the result in an evolutionary psychology sense was the “death” promised at the start of the story—all of the socialites, including the prospective mate, literally turned their backs on him and ostracized him from the group.
So did you get all that on your first reading? Yeah, thought not. And really, that’s not how stories work. You strive to leave a reader with a sense of something that isn’t quite articulatable outside the form itself. Maybe just a sense that there are gears turning behind the curtain, both in the text and in the sliver of the real world the story’s trying to reveal.
This story, I think is my own little cry at the infinite sea regarding what I saw as a very experimental collection of short stories. I don’t think I was being nearly as bold as Melville, figuratively crying out with poetic glory my desires for a literary epitaph marking the spot of my artistic apotheosis. I think that’d be a bit much for an MFA thesis, don’t you? I think I was more hoping for a sincere, “Hey, nice book, Rowe. I’m going to recommend this to people.” It’s about as much as one can ask for when they dare to take the floor—a fate at least slightly better than death.