Weird Tales: Sarah Monette on Catastrophe

Writer: Sarah Monette
Weird Tales Story: The Yellow Dressing Gown (Issue #349, March/April 2008)
Writer Bio: Sarah Monette has a Ph.D. in English literature and insufficient bookcases. Books out in 2007 include A Companion to Wolves (co-written with Elizabeth Bear) and The Mirador. Her short story collection, The Bone Key, features the same narrator-protagonist as her Weird Tales story.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about catastrophes.

When I was teaching creative writing–many years ago now–I had a student turn in a story that was well-written, charming, deftly characterized: really an excellent piece of work except that it was nothing but a shaggy dog story, an elaborate build up to a feeble punchline. It ended as the narrator, having bought condoms in preparation for losing his virginity with his girlfriend, meets his girlfriend’s father for the first time, and, yes, you guessed it: Dear Old Dad is the pharmacist who sold him the condoms.

Rim-shot. Curtain.

“But that’s just where the story starts,” I said.

Everyone–the other students in the class as well as the author–looked at me blankly. They loved the story. They thought it was great. None of them had seen the twist ending coming. (I’d predicted it, with all the gloomy inevitability of Greek tragedy, as soon as the pharmacist showed up.)

Now, obviously, I could go off here on a tangent about cliches and conventions and why a shaggy dog story is only funny the first time you hear it (except possibly the boy-foot bear with teaks of Chan, who tiptoes through my mind at odd moments), but let’s leave that alone. Let’s talk about catastrophes instead.

Because twist endings are something we grow out of, both as readers and as writers. My students’ enthusiasm was the result of being naive readers. Being a naive reader isn’t a crime; we all start there, and we all have to achieve enlightenment in our own time. Or not at all, and that’s okay, too.

But the problem of catastrophes is a different kettle of fish. The example I used is a very obvious one, but I feel the same dissatisfaction with Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll (2003), which is as far from a shaggy dog story as it is possible to be, but which is still two hundred fifty pages of beautifully written, thought provoking set-up for the catastrophe of the last twenty-five pages. And it’s the catastrophe that actually, finally, shows us what’s at stake. What these characters have to lose and have to gain.

 The novel ends just as the story is beginning.

I like to blame Aristotle for things whenever possible (The idea of the “tragic flaw”? Aristotle. The misogynistic bias of Western philosophy and science? Aristotle. Global warming? Aristotle. The propensity of my cats to demand their breakfast at ungodly hours of the morning? Aristotle.), and he is certainly the authority who codified the structure of tragedy as leading up to and culminating with the peripeteia, or reversal of fortune: the catastrophe. The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning–one might even argue the reductio ad absurdum–is of course the Jacobean revenge tragedy. It’s hard to tell a story when all your main characters are dead. Unless, of course, you’re writing about vampires.

And the problem isn’t that tragedy ends with catastrophe. It’s that tragedy is the only model we have for stories with catastrophes in them. In tragedy, the story ends with catastrophe because the point of tragedy, its raison d’être, is to explore how and why the catastrophe occurs. It’s like a geometric proof and the self-blinding of Oedipus or the suicide of Othello is the dramatic equivalent of Q.E.D. The catastrophe is the story. But tragedy is actually a very narrow subset of the vast panorama of possible stories; most stories these days aren’t tragedies in the genre-specific sense, and their catastrophes aren’t meditations on human fallibility and its inevitable consequences. Most stories which end with catastrophe do so not because it’s their Q.E.D., the consequences of the choices made in the story, but because they’re following a structural model that has become divorced from its purpose. The catastrophe is the climax, the pay-off. Rim-shot. Curtain.

Thus ending with the catastrophe, unless you are writing a tragedy, involves the substitution of a structural pay-off for an emotional pay-off. It’s a cheat. Because the compelling aspect of catastrophe isn’t the disaster; it’s what happens after the punchline, when the protagonist has to pick him- or herself up off the floor and figure out what to do next. It’s the consequences. That’s the hard part, both to live and to write, but by the same token, it’s the part that matters. It’s the part that makes us human.

Comments

  1. kellys says

    Yeah, thanks for this. As a reader, what you’re saying resonates for me. Especially since I just finished Bret Easton Ellis’ awesome Lunar Park, which is 400 pages of living with consequences.

  2. Heather Gladney says

    A related word for that truncated story structure is “sentimentality,” when you demand an emotional impact on the reader (or viewer) which you have not earned. Many pictures painted on velvet commit this crime in a clear and obvious way, as one example.

  3. says

    I’d love to hear the dialogue over the dinner table when the boyfriend-with-condoms sits down to eat with his girlfriend’s family (assuming it was a family dinner date). It is too bad the story is from so far in the bast.

  4. SenLac says

    That dialogue, Bill, is precisely the kind of thing you will see in any Ricky Gervais or Larry David (latterly) show. Excruciating reality.

    The reason we’ve (mostly) seen that only in comedy is because it is hard to deal with in any other way other than laughing off the cringe. A special kind of schadenfreude, to be sure.

    Harder to do in the written word, I think. No examples of it spring to mind (although I’m sure someone wider-read and broader of mind than me will point to examples dating back centuries…did Shakespeare do this? Yeah, he probably did. Ben Johnson did it too, and more frequently, I think).

    I’m not sure Lunar Park works as an example, Kelly, since although he lays down – open and wounded – a lot of what he went through, the thrust of the story is wildly escapist horror (catharsis, mostly – a way for the writer to realise how bad things COULD be, or at least rationalise the paranoia that inevitably comes from such a lifestyle). It’s not so much dealing with a catastrophe as creating a constantly growing one that is safe because it didn’t happen.

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