Having recently come back from Trinity Prep School in Orlando, where the students were reading my short story “The Situation,” available at GeekDad, as well as its web-comic adaptation on Tor.com, I thought I’d post some of my notes about the story. This examination is a work in progress, and although it contains sub-sections, there’s a bit of bleed between topics still. There’s an emphasis on beginnings because for certain works of the surreal how the text teaches you to read it is extremely important. I may not have time to talk about the transition from text to comic this week, but I’ll return to it next week. And, in the meantime, you can, as noted, read both the text and comic online.
The title of this post indicates it’s from a writer’s point of view, but it’s also therefore from a creative writing teacher’s point of view in some sense.
This post contains massive spoilers with regard to “The Situation,” by the way. – Jeff
An employee of an anonymous company that makes fantastical creatures writes a report that describes the ever-worsening details of his employment and the degradation of a project he is helping to manage. Office politics of the kind typical in contemporary U.S. businesses factor heavily in the plot. An ensemble cast of fellow employees, and friction between them, provides the drama.
How It Began: Degradation of Existing Processes. My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic, with paper covering the plastic. They had always hoped, I thought, that one day her heart would start, but her heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage, animated to lift and fall only by her breathing. Sometimes, when my Manager was angry, she would become so hot that that paper covering her would ignite, and the plastic beneath would begin to melt. I didn’t know what to say in such situations. It seemed best to say nothing and avert my gaze. Over time, the runneled plastic of her arms became a tableau of insane images, leviathans and tall ships rising out of the whirling, and stranger things still. I would stare at her arms so I did not have to stare at her face. I never knew her name. We were never allowed to know our Manager’s name. (Some called her their “Damager,” though.)
POINT OF VIEW:
Although I’ve used a first-person narrator for “The Situation,” the nature of the story means that the narrator is theoretically constrained by the form, and characterization occurs within that constraint. The narrator is filing a report of some kind—a complaint, an account with the specific purpose to document “the situation.” For this reason, the narrator is not likely to suddenly give the reader a huge amount of personal information up front. As the story progresses and the narrator loses some of his dedication to the form he has chosen, or decides personal details are relevant, more clues about the narrator’s life, beliefs, and personality will become clear. But here, at the beginning, the narrator’s focus is elsewhere. Given the surreal quality of the story, this approach to point of view also allows the strangeness of the Company and its workers to stand out in sharp relief, unencumbered by the details of the narrator’s personal life.
In this kind of scenario, you must give the reader clues about the narrator through what is being described, in this case the Manager. For example, by the end of the first paragraph we know that the narrator is an employee at a Company where something has gone wrong (Degradation of Existing Processes). We know that his Manager has had to get angry at him, and that he doesn’t think this is fair. However, we can also assume that perhaps what has gone wrong is linked to the Manager’s anger. Further, we know that the Company is fairly dehumanizing—the narrator doesn’t even know his Manager’s name. We can also intuit that whatever “the situation” is or was, it must have been traumatic for the narrator to devote his time to writing an actual report. The narrator clearly fears his Manager as well.
At the same time, the narrator can be petty—the aside about the nickname of the “Damager” isn’t necessarily relevant information, and definitely conveys a subjectivity at odds with a report. “Damager” clearly is the narrator’s attempt to influence our opinion of whatever happens next, to put himself in a positive light. Also influencing our opinion is the shadowy “They” of “They had always hoped…that one day her heart would start.” Who is “They?” The best answer is the “They” of intra-office gossip, thus introducing the idea that the narrator may sincerely believe he is reporting objective truth but already failing to do so.
Given that the story includes the narrator’s co-workers, opening “The Situation” with a description of the Manager supplies the expectation that the Manager will provide an anchor, or cohesion, perhaps even serve as a framing device or organizational device. And, in fact, the story ends with the actions of the Manager, and that relationship weaves through the narrative in a way that the other relationships do not. Although the other employees are the instruments of the narrator’s misery, the Manager in a sense provides the spark.
What to make of a manager made of plastic, with a dry leaf for a heart? You might be inclined to take that description figuratively, and thus I follow up with a reference to heat melting the plastic and igniting the paper. In fantastical fiction, giving weight and physicality to a description can ensure readers do not interpret reality as mere metaphor.
“The Situation” plunges the reader into utter strangeness immediately. There is a definite moment of adjustment for readers. They will have to take a leap of faith, to accept that what might be figurative in a different type of story about an office building will have a literal beachhead in the reality of this story. Why is it important in this case to immediately immerse the reader rather than lead him or her into this recognition by degrees? Because the precepts and tropes of my story do not match up with the expectations a reader might have for a conventional fantasy or science fictional approach to the subject matter. Therefore, to provide a more conventional opening would send the wrong message.
And yet, what is the subject of the story thus far? Something completely mundane: an office employee complaining about his manager. The “situation” thus far is familiar to almost anyone; indeed, a situation that most people can easily identify with. Without that mundane aspect, the elements of mad invention in the story would be too unanchored, too ethereal.
In support of this familiarity, note, too, the clinical approach to the section titles: “How It Began: Degradation of Existing Services.” There’s a deliberate counterpoint between the neutrality of seeming objective neutrality re a title like “The Situation” and an opening subsection title like “How It Began: Degradation of Existing Processes” and the actual style employed by the narrator in describing the situation, which is meant to convey hurt and suppressed anger and sadness. This juxtaposition also highlights the disconnect between the business-speak often used by HR departments to make generic potentially dramatic situations. (Note also that the title is not something baroque like “The Mad Happenings at My Place of Employ During the Time of Walking Fish” for the same reason.)
Not only do these titles mimic business reports, they increase tension, foreshadow, and allow me to cut between scenes elegantly without the need for typical transitions. This last reason is important because some of the sections double-back to past events.
Surreal fiction, ironically enough, almost always uses precise observation and realistic details to achieve its affects. Any closer look at a Salvador Dali composition shows a rigorous and almost traditional adherence to conveying reality…all at the service on the macro level of conveying something surprising, shocking, non-realistic. The descriptions in “The Situation” are absurd to some degree, but they too depend on specific detail so that what seems like subtext poking up through the surface of the story (the Manager is heartless) is, in fact, surface detail tinged with a satirical flourish.
Whether you read further depends in part on whether the reader is willing to accept those initial absurdities, and in part that depends on how good I am at rendering those absurdities. Creating that effect in what is a static opening scene—a Manager sitting at a desk—means conveying some kind of action through description, as well. For these reasons, the Manager doesn’t just have “a leaf where her heart should have been.” Instead, the Manager’s “heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage, animated to lift and fall only by her breathing.” The Manager doesn’t just “catch on fire” when angry—the paper ignites and the plastic melts, with the consequence that weird images are burned into her arms.
Motion, then, plays a large role in this opening paragraph, and serves as a substitute for action. This motion also supports a hall of mirrors providing additional depth in that the narrator is conveying the essence of not one, current, meeting with the Manager, but several over a long period of time. The passage of time is also movement.
So what is happening in the paragraph? Not much. What’s happening? A lot is happening.
“The Situation” is largely an example of how in a surreal story, the physical strangeness of the characters and creatures described can become the setting. The office building itself has some quirks that I dually note, but for the most part it is the standard cubicles-and-desks space one would expect—a space deliberately blank so as not to clash with or obscure the character descriptions. Some elements that would be part of the setting in a “normal” story—like personnel files—manifest in this story as animals, and thus are pulled out of the setting to become, on some level, characters. Also note that because the narrator works there, it is unlikely he would describe much of a building with which he was so familiar.
Despite most scenes focusing on the narrator’s relationship with his co-workers, the Manager and her temper are referenced again and again, until at the end, after the narrator has been fired and physically kicked out of the building, he stares up at the window of Mord’s office, “and there my Manager stood: on fire from head to toe, and no extinguishing it this time. She looked down at me, and although I could not read the expression on her face I would like to think she was happy, for a moment. Then the Mord rose behind her, roaring as he rose and rose and rose, as if he might never stop growing, to fill the entire window. A slap of a paw and my Manager jerked back out of sight. The fire spread from window to window, room to room, while the Mord raged, thrashing and fighting. Once, he stopped to stare down at me, paws against the glass. Once, he looked out into the gray sky as if searching for something. A shadow, tiny and on fire began to drift down from the burning windows. Was it a leaf? Who could tell? By the time it reached the ground, it would have fallen away into nothing. This, then, was the situation at the time I left the company.”
From beginning to end, “The Situation” has fulfilled its explicit promise from the beginning to document a “situation” and its implied promise that the Manager’s relationship with the narrator will frame and define the conflict in the story. Ultimately, the Manager’s inaction, ineffectiveness, and poor decision-making doom the narrator more than any other element. The leaf that floated in her chest now floats to the ground, burning up. The narrator’s situation has also been her situation.
OTHER POSSIBLE APPROACHES:
How radically does a story change depending on the method of telling? Here are two ways I could have started the story.
—He hated his manager, who he called his Damager—a nickname he spread like a virus whenever he talked to anyone else in the Company, although he’d deliver it with a smile, only joking. But it was true he hated her. No matter how good his ideas, she always shot them down. If not for his terror at what Human Resources could do to him, he would have long ago reached across the desk and plucked the leaf that floated inside her empty chest cavity, held it, crumbling in his hand, and watched her plastic frame tremble with the knowledge that her life was his to do with what he wished.
—My employee was extremely insubordinate, always disobeying my direct orders and making products he had not been asked to make. This is what caused the situation—that and the way he would defy me in person, to my face. I tried to keep my temper, but I was not made to be calm or patient. This may have been a defect in my creation, but surely the Company had made me this way for a reason? I could always feel the timing mechanism that controlled my heart—a leaf; so delicate; so ephemeral—floating back and forth, and this made me angrier still: that the core of me should be so vulnerable, so exposed. It made me seek control in shameful ways: I cut myself, I gouged and curled the knife through my plastic flesh because I could, because it did not hurt when it should hurt. But my employee had no empathy for any of this, or the pressures on me from my own bosses. To him, I was just an impediment to his ambition. I was damaged.
What stories would have resulted from these beginnings?
Who tells a story and what they emphasize, what they remember, and how they perceive other human beings make enormous differences even when relating the same events.