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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Short Story Analysis: All I Have To Do Is . . .

Good luck finding this one. It's in the Winter 2007 edition of Brutarian, and you'll spend at least as much on shipping as you will for the magazine, assuming you can find this issue for sale anywhere. Brutarian is a highly entertaining magazine featuring reviews of movies and records I've never heard of along with short speculative fiction. It reminds me a lot of the free arts weekly I used to read in Miami, crossed with Asimov's or something. I think I would seek it out if it weren't so dang hard to get a copy of.

Nick Mamatas's story was my favorite of the ones in this issue, but I'll tell you quite honestly that I'm not positive if I "got" it or not. It stayed with me anyway because the concept was fascinating to me. Liz is a teenage girl who experiences the dreams other people have of her. If someone dreams of having sex with her, she feels it, and wakes up with anal tears to boot. If someone dreams of strangling her, she feels that too. Gradually she learns that she is not only a receiver, but a sender. She can send other people experiences by way of her dreams. If I'd thought of this concept, there is still no way I would have written this story--but I wish I'd thought of it anyway. *grin*

The ending seems ambiguous to me--unless that's just me being dense. Liz starts out with plans for revenge on those who have wronged her--her parents, primarily--but claims to move beyond those fantasies and achieve enlightenment. In her enlightened state, she proposes to dream a dream of all of us, wherein we all "embrace the nothingness." She starts to do just this, and the story ends. Come to think of it, maybe it's not as ambiguous as all that. It seems to me like she decides to put us all out of our collective misery through death. She promises Nirvana, but, correct me if I'm wrong here, Nirvana in Buddhism isn't really heaven, is it? As I recall, Nirvana refers to ending the cycle of life and rebirth--to getting off the wheel. That seems to work with the whole idea of embracing the nothingness and of becoming "dead leaves on the damp earth."

This story defies analysis in terms of conventional structures I'm familiar with. Liz's ultimate goal just kind of coalesces in the last quarter. There isn't really a try-fail-try again thing going on here. I've seen it alleged that just about any story can be analyzed in terms of the hero's journey, but I'm struggling to connect this story with that structure at all, except by such vague connections that they may as well be meaningless. The only structure that seems to fit is the most fundamental of all--a character makes a choice, acts on that choice, and that choice has consequences. Liz is tempted to seek revenge. Instead, she (I think) chooses oblivion for us all, and sends us the dream that will make that happen. And then the consequence--we don't see that consequence because of course we are dead.

But all of that happens at the end of the story. I would estimate this story at about four thousand words long--again, a model of brevity for me to learn from. The first third, I'd say, serves to situate us in Liz's life. We get brief accounts of two of her mother's dreams of her, one of her father's, and one by her more-or-less boyfriend Ron. In the middle third of the story, Liz and Ron begin experimenting with the workings of Liz's experiences. She already knows what happens to her, but this appears to be the first concerted effort to really study and explore it. Then Ron threatens to use her condition against her, she turns the tables on him, suffers the dreams of others due to her newfound notoriety, and is visited by her father who explains to her that she can send as well as receive. The last third of the story, roughly, is when Liz goes to the mental hospital. There she gradually masters her ability and uses it to grant us all Nirvana.

That strikes me as a lot of set-up for that payoff. It works, though--for me at least--because the concept is so intriguing that I want to read on even before Liz figures out what it is she wants to do.

So what can I learn from this? I . . . am not sure, really. That traditional structures are a myth? The power of the concept to hook a reader? I'll have to think on this one for a bit.

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