The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.
“It was back in those days. Claudius Van Clyde and I stood on the edge of the dancing crowd, each of us already three bottles into one brand of magic brew, blasted by the music throbbing from the speakers. But we weren’t listening to the songs. I’d been speaking into the open shell of his ears since we’ve gotten to the party, shouting a bunch of mopey stuff about my father. Sometime around the witching hour, he stopped his perfunctory nodding and pointed towards the staircase of the house. “Check out these biddies,” he said. Past the heads of the dancers and would-be seducers I too saw the two girls he meant.”
So what do we know from these opening lines?
We know that this is a reminiscence from the very first line. We know who our two main characters are: Claudius and our narrator who has a problem with his father. We can assume they are young-ish because of the type of party they’re at and the implied relative-novelty of drinking beer, the brand of which they don’t seem to care about.
We also know something about the voice and style of the story we’re about to get into. That he is “talking into the open shell” of his friends ear and that he uses the word “perfunctory”, says to me that this is going to be a literary story, focused on language as much as on plot.
That he tells us he is, in the midst of a party, moping about his father suggests this is going to be a story that has much to do with character as any external events.
At this point the reader can make up their mind whether this is their type of story or they can move on.
But that’s not all it tells us.
Before I’m even halfway down the printed page in the book, Claudius introduces the idea of the two women our characters are going to pursue throughout the story. Already, I have a sense of the events of the story as well as the people populating it and the voice in which the story is going to be told.
That’s a pretty good opening!
The Plot Thickens
The story starts with the men pursuing the women through the party. It also explores the narrator’s relationship with his parents, and theirs with each other, through the lens of men and women’s relationships. He does a great job of painting this young man as one who doesn’t really know anything, despite being close to graduating from college.
It’s really fun to follow these two young dogs at a party, using all their learned tactics to try to get two women into bed, and then discover that the story is going somewhere quite different. There are clues early on—and in the title—that the girls are not going to be victims.
The story uses lots of storytelling techniques. It uses events in real time, the characters tell stories to each other, and the narrator reminisces within what’s already in reminiscence about his relationship with his parents. One of the reasons this works is that it is all tied to the same theme: men and women.
The story also moves location: at one point they are in the living room; at one point they go outside into the garden; they roam through the house …and at every point the writer pauses to ground us in the physical reality as well as the thoughts and the characters’ heads. This happens after the reminiscences as well—the writer describes the physical setting to bring us back to the present day of the party.
“Claudius and I spent the next two hours or so chatting, smoking and drinking out in the backyard, where the torches flattened everyone’s faces and made them clean. Eventually we went in. I munched on cookies and a sopping square of rum cake in the kitchen, intent on some sweetness.”
Notice how it’s not just “cake” but “a sopping square of rum cake’? That’s another signal that this party is being thrown by people with Caribbean backgrounds, something the writer alludes to several times throughout the story. But it’s subtle.
The more specific details you give a story the less you need to actually tell us.
When the characters move on and the scene changes, the author spends a few words orienting us to the new setting. In short fiction it’s especially important to signal to the reader when a scene change happens, because they’re not going to be spending as much time in the story world as they would be if this were a novel and you don’t want to lose their attention even for a second
“We stood together, surrounded by the high-pitched barking of a neighbor’s dog, the buzz of a faulty street light, the faint clinking of metal. I clapped him on the shoulder and said we should head back up to the campus.”
Imagery, Theme & Title
In the author’s notes at the end of the anthology, Brinkley talks about how his working title for this story was much different. It was something that evoked a much more violent, aggressive tone.
In the writing, discovering what happens to his characters and how they react, he found a different title. Throughout the story the word ‘bubble’ is used and the concept of impermanence and fragility crops up several times. The women use the word “bubble” like their own private joke, excluding the men from their conversation. They are almost literally in their own bubble, one that the men cannot penetrate.
So the title becomes “No More Than a Bubble”, a very different feeling from his original, aggressive, title.
Show, Don’t Tell
This story probably happens in the late 70s or early 80s. The writer never actually tells us, but there are lots of little details that give us a clue. Claudius has a pager. One of the women has an Afro. And possibly most telling is his description of Brooklyn,
“wooden boards slanted across the windows of the apartments above a corner store and lines of stiff weeds punched through cracks in the sidewalk. We passed a place called Salt, a bar that looked like it hadn’t been open for business in years… The ground became more densely littered with crushed paper bags, empty bottles of malt liquor, and other shapeless hunks of trash.”
Never once does he say “Brooklyn wasn’t like it is today, a hipsters’ paradise.” He doesn’t have to. He has shown us.
In an interesting turn, the narrator goes back to the opening sentence and reminds us that all of this has been told as a reminiscence. The modern day version of our protagonist reflects on the story he has just told us and what it might mean. He leaves us with a moment from the morning after the party which shows a distinct change in the protagonist’s character.
If this last paragraph didn’t exist, this story would be very unsatisfying. It would just be one of those stories that your friend told you about a drunken party. That we get to experience this change with the protagonist at the end, makes the story feel like it has a point. Plus it gives extra resonance to the title and its suggestion of impermanence and sudden change.
There’s a lot of discussion in writing circles at the moment about inclusivity, diversity, and the challenges of writing ‘the other’.
It’s not a great idea to write one-dimensional versions of people who are not quite like you. But of course it’s a challenge to get other diverse points of view right and there can be a temptation to omit characters who don’t look and sound like you.
If you’re not a young black man, how do you know how young black men talk about women or describe themselves or talk to each other?
Reading writing by the people you would like to include in your stories, is a great start.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about people of color being described purely by the color of their skin, with metaphors and similes related to food, and other lazy descriptions that set people’s teeth on edge. In this story our narrator describes the girls like this:
“A neat ladylike Afro bloomed from her head and she was a lighter shade of brown and her friend with the buzz cut, a thick snack of a girl whose shape made you work your jaws.”
Can’t you see them? And look, not a mention of coffee or chocolate to be seen! Of course it’s important to remember that this is still a problematic description of the girls, since it is being uttered by a clueless young guy who is acting on instinct and expectations as much as any real character…
When you want to include people from cultures other than your own, the best way, of course, is to talk to them, be-friend them, listen, ask.
The second best is probably a careful reading of literature written by them.
(Not necessarily watching TV shows and movies that include diverse characters but may not have been written by diverse writers. Also, while movies and TV shows are a great way to absorb story, if you want to be a writer of short stories you need to be reading short stories. Why not ensure that the stories you read are coming from a diverse background while you’re at it?)
I love Jamel Brinkley’s writing. I got a lot out of the story.
It’s still not the kind of story I would seek out.
There was a moment towards the climax of the story when a dog appeared out of nowhere and I really hoped that it was going to turn out to be an alien or transform into a robot or something, because those are the kinds of stories that I love.
So what should I do? Write to Jamel Brinkley and ask him to apply his formidable talents to the kinds of stories I love? Or should I study his writing and try to better craft the stories that only I can write?
(I think you know the answer.)
Do you read stories that don’t necessarily light you up, to learn from them? Do you also read stories you secretly love, even if you feel you shouldn’t? Have you encountered literary snobbery?