[Reading Room] The Third Tower by Deborah Eisenberg

The Opening

Therese

Julia found it in a pile of old stuff. She didn’t want it so she said she would give it to Therese.

I love this as an example of starting in medias res. We dont know what it is of who they are, but THEY do.

In medias res means in the middle of things but it doesn’t necessarily mean a car chase or a fight. In the middle of a conversation where the participants know their world better than we do, counts too.

And the author doesnt make us wait too long. In the next sentence we learn what ‘it’ is.

What was she supposed to do with that? These said—a beaten up old book with nothing in it but blank paper.

We still dont know much about the world, but the next line gives us a clue.

Well, you like to do handwriting, Julia said.

Between the foreignness of handwriting and the lack of conventional punctuation, I’m  already getting the sense that this is not our world or at least our time.

I’ve been plunged into this world, however, and I’m intrigued.

The Plot Thickens

The next section of the story begins with a new subheading. I love this kind of thing. It’s an indication that the author is taking the short story form seriously: it can do things other types of writing can’t, and ‘making the reader work for the meaning’ is one of those things.

(It would drive you crazy to have to work this hard for 400 pages of a novel, but I’m willing to play along for 15 pages!)

We learn a little more about Therese’s world, but never in a way where it feels like the author is stopping to spoon-feed the reader. Only things that makes sense in Therese’s thoughts, appear on the page. 

Even, as it turns out, things that don’t make sense in Therese’s thoughts…which turns out to be a major point of the story.

It soon becomes clear that Therese is not normal because she is…imaginative.

This is clearly not our world, but it’s close enough to be a little terrifying.

The End

The story never really explains what the titular ‘third tower’ is (or why it’s the third), or what exactly happens to Therese in the end….but I was OK with that.

This a story were not much actually happens (a girl goes to the city for medical treatment) and in which lots of questions are raised (are those really fireworks she’s hearing in the night, or is this a society at war? It certainly seems repressive enough). 

And yet I was swept along on emotion. I wanted certain things for the protagonist. I wanted certain things NOT to happen. I got upset when I thought bad things were happening, and happy when I realised there was hope. 

Writer’s Notes

I kind of loved this story, even though I can see how some people might find it frustrating and wish for a novel explaining the whole world. But then again, as you know, I love short stories precisely because they are able to set off little ‘what if-‘ bombs in my brain.

I don’t know that I’d have the patience to read a whole story about this world—the author would have to have a really compelling plot line. This is more like a thought experiment: What if it was bad to have an imagination? What if a world like this evolved in our near future? 

Sometimes it’s (more than) OK to write a story that is little more than an invitation to a thought experiment. Of course, to do it well you must, as Deborah Eisenberg does, give the reader a character they can care about, specific details of the world, and enough intriguing hooks and answers to keep them satisfied.

But you don’t have to answer every question or supply a detailed, photo-realistic painting of the world. Embrace your inner Impressionist! Daub colors on the canvas and allow the reader to step back and fill in the gaps.

Discussion

Can you think of some other ways to start a story in medias res?

Do you always wish the author had written a novel, when you’re left with questions at the end, or are you happy to say ‘yup, that was a short story’ and let it go?

Let’s discuss:

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