A Response to Byers’ ‘Shipmates Down Under’

Okay, so I’m not sure if we were supposed to respond to this short story or not, but I thought I would take a second to talk about how much I liked Michael Byers’ Shipmates Down Under. I was hooked after less than the first page – I think the characters’ odd language (“bluh,” “mumph,” etc.) was part of the intrigue.

Byers gives the reader a look into an average family’s life, but in an interesting way. Part of the tension going on definitely has to do with their daughter, Nadia, being sick, but a lot of it already exists between the narrator and his wife. At first I got a sense that Alvin liked his son, Ted, more than his daughter and kind of resented both Nadia and his wife, Harriet. This alone was enough to make me keep reading; I wanted to know more about these characters’ relationships. Toward the end, however, the narrator seemed to care about both his children – it was just Harriet causing problems.

Obviously, a lot is left open in this story. We don’t know if Alvin and Harriet work things out. We never figure out what exactly caused Nadia to get so sick. We never discover – and I was particularly interested in this – why they say those made-up words. But none of this really matters. Byers has used his story to look at certain problems families may encounter, particularly between husband and wife. His characters are certainly believable, and I, as the reader, saw Alvin’s perspective and took his side – but Byers allows the readers to do this in such a way that they don’t necessarily see Harriet as the bad guy.

The characters themselves were all very interesting and not the norm or the expected. The entire family was a bit strange, but in a good way. Byers gains reader interest not by having a spectacular, earth-shattering plot, but by creating characters the reader is interested to know more about. I would definitely read another story about Alvin, Harriet, Ted, and Nadia… or perhaps just another story by Byers in general.


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.

A Response to Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’

John Cheever’s The Swimmer was brilliant and depressing at the same time. I had a difficult time getting into the story at first, but once I realized he was swimming all the pools in the county to get home, I was quite intrigued. Then, when the weird details started popping up – such as how early it is getting dark and how rapidly the leaves seem to be changing – I was even more hooked.

Cheever’s choice to reveal the truth about Ned’s life just a half a step ahead of Ned himself finding out was a successful one. Because the story is in third person, we see all the little hints at the same time as Ned does, but we can make sense of them before he thinks it all through. This adds to the aspect of tension, prompting the readers to try to figure out all the details and to wonder, When will Ned figure out what’s going on? I guess it’s kind of in line with the idea of suspense instead of surprise. Ned doesn’t just swim through the town all happy then come home to an empty house on an Autumn night that causes him to realize his sad life story. We are told something bad has happened to him fairly early on; it’s just the particulars we still need to figure out, so we keep reading.

Though I’ve finished the story, I’m still not one hundred percent certain what happens in it. Has this really occurred in one day, with Ned simply having a skewed perception of time and not realizing the true date until the end? Or is this adventure through backyards and swimming pools something he does regularly, his growing fatigue a sign of how he’s actually aged? Cheever leaves the reader with less questions answered than not, but this works to his advantage (think of the ending of the movie Inception).

Another thing I want to note – this idea of Ned swimming home by way of the neighborhood swimming pools and calling them the Lucinda River made me think that this could be a poem rather than a short story. Doesn’t a river of swimming pools sound like something that would be touched upon in poetry? (I guess this Repurposed Art assignment has me thinking this way.) Overall, The Swimmer was quite inventive.

A Response to Harty’s ‘Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down’

Ryan Harty’s Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down is a brilliant example of successful science fiction. Harty flawlessly weaves the futuristic and imaginary idea of robot children into a world as normal as our own. The story addresses spousal conflict, parental worries, and many other themes that could be found in any genre of fiction. These issues could be interesting enough to read about on their own, but Harty’s surprising inclusion of a mechanical, robotic son really ups the ante.

Because Harty writes about his robots as if they are completely normal – they look like human children, and they are treated more or less the same as anyone – the reader really believes it and doesn’t have that little voice in the back of his head saying, But this could never really happen.

Harty uses the perfect balance of detail and mystery. The reader doesn’t know every detail about the world of the story – how common it is to have a robot child, how these robots actually work, how and why people want or need to adopt a robot child – but doesn’t need to in order to comprehend the story. The world constructed by Harty seems to be the same world we live in, but with a futuristic and scientific twist.

One of the issues at the heart of the story is the conflict between Mike, the narrator, and his wife Dana. Their disagreements, though revolving around their robotic son Cole, could happen without the sci-fi aspect of the novel; any couple could disagree over what course of action to take with their child, causing them to grow apart and contemplate leaving one another.

Another successful element of this story is the believability of the characters’ emotions. The little details about Cole when he gets upset convey his emotion really well – “a look of panic overtakes him,” “he’s trying to appear calm for my sake,” “his eyes suddenly fill with tears and he has to glance off at the picnic tables,” etc. – and as a reader, I really feel for both Cole and his father.

Since the story is told from Mike’s point of view, I take his side. I agree with him about not wanting to get Cole a new chip and almost view Dana as the bad guy (almost, because I still feel Mike’s love for and desire to get along with his wife). Would anyone exchange their human child for another if he got sick? No. So why would someone do that with a robot child? Harty makes the reader question right and wrong in a way that isn’t so black and white – clearly, we don’t have to deal with exactly the same issues that the narrator and his wife do, but their problems are very similar to ones we could encounter.

I think the biggest reason Ryan Harty’s short story is so great is that he writes about something odd in a way which makes it seem normal, connecting his story’s conflicts with real life and providing the reader with just enough detail. Additionally, using a modified line from the story as the title was an excellent choice.

A Response to Russell’s ‘St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves’

I am a huge fan of science fiction, so I was surprised to find myself less than impressed upon finishing Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Perhaps I was disappointed in the short story because I’ve spent a lot of time reading stories and novels of this genre and have high expectations, but I feel Russell could have done a much better job presenting her ideas to the reader.

One problem I have with this story is its vagueness; yes, mystery can be an effective tool to keep the reader’s interest, but too much abstruseness can confuse or distract the reader. Throughout the entire story, I was anticipating a description of the halfbreed girls – do they appear fully human, or are they covered in fur? I was surprised that a better description wasn’t provided on the first page, but I had hope that it would come later. I ended up let down and left with a lot of questions.

In a different genre of fiction, leaving the characters appearances up to the reader’s imagination works just fine – the reader can often place herself into a character’s shoes and construct the character’s appearance as she likes – but this doesn’t work as well for science fiction. Because Russell introduces a new way of looking at werewolves (or at least new to me since this was the first story I read about werewolves having human offspring), the reader cannot simply refer to more common descriptions of the beings. Not only did I question what the halfbreed humans looked like, I also wondered about their purebred werewolf parents. For example, when Claudette, the narrator, goes back to visit her family and they are feeding, are they in full-on wolf form, or have they transitioned into humans?

Though it was an entertaining read, the story’s lack of information distracted me quite a bit; the amount of mystery Russell chose to include in her story did not work to her advantage. Since she is writing science fiction and is choosing to create her own world, she should paint a picture for the reader of how this world looks and operates. Since her way of looking at werewolves is so unique, Russell’s story could have been a lot better had it been told more effectively.

I don’t mean for this review to be completely negative, because the story was certainly fun to read, and I don’t doubt that Karen Russell is a good writer – some of her prose was quite lovely. However, she neglected to tell what I feel are imperative parts of the story. Her idea could easily be made into a full novel that actually explained in more depth the steps the girls went through to become civilized, and perhaps that is why it fails for me: it covers too much for its length and leaves too many questions unanswered.

Because my curiosity about the characters’ appearances was not satisfied, I searched for any cover art of the story in case it would help. The three different covers I found do not really help at all, except for maybe letting me assume the parents are full-on wolves. I still don’t know what to think of the daughters.