Craft Essay: Greg Hrbek’s ‘Sagittarius’

Longer than most of my short story response posts, this will serve as my critical essay for the assignment. Greg Hrbek’s Sagittarius was my short story of choice. I call it a “fragmented” walkthrough because I did not cover everything I could have or would have liked to; I stuck with the points I made for the sake of brevity and keeping the essay within the confines of the assignment. In addition to posting this as text, I’m including the Word document version here: Craft Essay (since WordPress isn’t very formatting-friendly).

A Fragmented Walkthrough of Sagittarius

From just looking at the title, the reader can tell that Greg Hrbek’s short story Sagittarius is not going to be the norm. In the first moment we glance at the piece, Hrbek sets our expectations and gives us a vital piece of information. The word “Sagittarius” is automatically associated with astrology, causing the reader to think of the otherworldly, the heavenly; Hrbek provides us with an image of the mythical creature that is central to his story right away – a half-human half-horse, centaur-like being – even if we do not pick up on it at first.

If this association is not made from the title, Hrbek flat-out gives us this knowledge in his opening section. He sets up the scene, defines the major conflict, and introduces three of his four main characters. We are given Sebastian, the baby with an upper “human half” and horse-like “hindquarters,” who has run away from a “they” whose identity we are not quite sure of yet (106). The end of the paragraph clarifies one of “them” as Sebastian’s mother, which alludes to the fact that the other is his father. The only character we do not get is his older brother, Kaden; this exclusion of him in the introduction is effective by its echo of his possible feelings of unimportance and neglect later in the story. Hrbek is already giving us insight to the relationships and lives of his characters, right from the start.

Another – perhaps more obvious – accomplishment of the first paragraph is the establishment of point of view, tense, and narrative distance. Hrbek starts in third-person past tense, but soon shifts into present tense, showing us that there was not much narrative distance in the first portion of the paragraph to begin with; this event of the baby running away has happened quite recently, and it is still taking place. We get the idea that we will be allowed to see into the minds of more than just one character by the sensory details of multiple characters: “they heard his hooves… but were too late to see him jump,” “he stands in the trees, hominid heart thundering in his chest,” and “he hears his mother call” (106). This omniscient narration is confirmed as the story continues, showing multiple characters’ thoughts.

While reading, something that quickly becomes apparent to the reader is Hrbek’s structure and organization; each section is a very long block paragraph, and the story bounces from character to character. Both of these choices add to the dramatic effect of the story’s pace. By going from the mother to the father to the son at home and back again, we get the panicky feeling these characters themselves are experiencing. We get to see the commotion from every angle. The block formatting does not allow the pauses that normally accompany paragraph breaks, quickening the pace; the characters thoughts and lines occur simultaneously with the action.

The choice not to put quotation marks around most of the dialogue and not to italicize thoughts also adds more emphasis to the thoughts of the character in that particular section. Without thoughts being in italics, we read them just as we read the normal narration; thus, we feel as if we actually enter a particular character’s mind for a moment. For example, Isabel’s thoughts trail into what seems to be the narration when Hrbek writes the following:

“No, Isabel thinks. Dawn is ten hours away. We’ll find him before then. We have to. Hardly April. The temperature still hypothermic at night. Even if he wanders for a mile, in this silence we’ll hear him. Except that his cries, until today, have been so very faint… She herself can scarcely speak” (106-107).

Everything from “No” until “faint” consists of Isabel’s thoughts, and Hrbek chooses ellipses to transition back to narration. This short section mimics first-person narrative, making the mother’s thoughts seem more authentic to the reader. The exclusion of quotation marks around dialogue occurs when the characters are alone and reflecting on a conversation, emphasizing that it is a memory occurring in one person’s head. We sometimes do see quotation marks and new paragraphs for dialogue, but only when it is actually occurring in the present, such as Martin calling out to his wife about the deer. Hrbek follows a pattern with these choices that is easy for the reader to pick up on.

Insight to a mother and father’s thoughts and actions during a situation such as this – a young child running away from home at night – is common, but Hrbek also provides us with the other son’s point of view. Because Kaden is only three years old, Hrbek’s use of the child’s thoughts is inventive and attention-grabbing. Indeed, for me, the Kaden sections were the most riveting. That he worries his parent’s anxiety is his fault, knows his brother’s escape was his doing, and is so accepting of his brother’s condition all at such a young age makes him a very dynamic character. While his parts were most interesting to me, other readers might have been more attentive to the mother or father’s sections; Hrbek creates flexibility in his story with the view of multiple characters, making Sagittarius appealing to a range of readers.

As for the supernatural or science fiction aspect of Sagittarius, Hrbek addresses this in a way that works quite well; it does not really matter if his readers cannot believe the existence of a half-human half-horse baby, because his characters themselves are finding it hard to believe. He integrates this presence of a mythical being into the science and medical world in a way that Sebastian is viewed as an anomaly. Because he lets his characters question this creature and marvel over how it could be possible, we as readers do not feel obligated to do as much questioning ourselves. To explain this further, if we started reading a story about a world with centaurs and other mythical species that viewed them as normal, we would immediately realize the author’s fictional world was different from our own. With Hrbek’s world, however, the idea of this type of baby seems plausible, because his world is so similar to ours.

Greg Hrbek followed an atypical path in writing Sagittarius, which is exactly why it is successful as a short story. His organization reflects the mood of the story overall, and his characters add different layers to the plot. Sagittarius is another example of a short story that includes a science fiction aspect in a way that is not ridiculously far-fetched or distracting. I could say a lot more about what he does well as an author, but I think I’ve covered most of the main choices I appreciated.

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