Discussion: “Black Box,” Jennifer Egan

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Jennifer Egan story “Black Box”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • This story was initially published via Twitter (you can read a tweet-by-tweet archive of it here).  What sort of opportunities and constraints does such a format present? How do you see the influence of this form on the story?
  • What is defamiliarized in this story, and how? What tools does Egan use to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar here?
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Discussion: “Sexy,” Jhumpa Lahiri

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Jhumpa Lahiri story “Sexy”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How do the stories of these two women, Miranda and Laxmi’s cousin, complement one another? What is Lahiri accomplishing by juxtaposing them in this way?
  • This is very much a story about stuff–eye cream, the silver dress–and places–like the Mapparium, and Rohin’s obsession with world capitals. What role do you see commodities playing in this story? What about locations, and geography?
  • What do you make of Rohin’s visit? What effect does his arrival have on this story?

Discussion: “The Pelican Bar,” Karen Joy Fowler

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Karen Joy Fowler story “The Pelican Bar”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How does tone function in this piece? How would you characterize the tone, and how is it created?
  • This story skips over large amounts of time. How does Fowler manage this, and what effect does it have?
  • Is this a “realist” story? How do you know? Does it make a difference one way or another?

Discussion: “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” George Saunders

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the George Saunders story “The Semplica Girl Diaries”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How does Saunders create this narrator’s voice? What, especially at the sentence level, is Saunders doing to create a precise, idiosyncratic voice?
  • How is humor operating in this piece? How is it achieved, and what effect does it have?
  • How does Saunders introduce us to the unreal elements of this piece? How do we come to understand that the world of the story is not quite our own world? Where are these “clues” and how are they deployed?

Discussion: “What to Do with Henry”, Tania James

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Tania James story “What to Do with Henry”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How is the third person perspective operating in this story? What does it allow James to do? What effect does it have on the reader?
  • In several places, this story goes back and repeats scenes from the perspective  of a different character (for instance, we see Henry’s adoption from Saffa’s point of view and then, later, from Pearl’s). What does this repetition yield?
  • At the end of the story, we move from scene, with Neneh and Henry at the cage, to Neneh’s recollection of the previous night’s dream.  What do you make of the construction of this ending?

Discussion: “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)”, Junot Diaz

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Junot Diaz story “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How is second person narration operating in this story? Do you read the speaker as a narrator talking to Yunior, or as Yunior talking to himself? What difference does this make, if any?
  • What effect does the “instructional” style of the story have?
  • This is a story that dwells in the conditional tense, exploring possible future situations (ie, ‘If the girl is such-and-such, do this. If she’s not, do that,’ or ‘If you run into Howie, this is what will happen’) instead of clear action in the present tense. How does Diaz keep us grounded in a story that doesn’t exactly have what we might conventionally call scenes?

Discussion: “Ghosts” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie story “Ghosts”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How does Adichie relate information about the past in this story? Through scenes? Through summary? How are exposition and explanation deployed, and to what effect?
  • What effect does the first-person narration have on this story? How would this story be different if it were told from another point of view?
  • “Ghosts” looks like a realist story at the beginning, but by the end, it’s distinctly unreal. How does Adichie accomplish this transition? Does it succeed? If so, why? If not, why not?

Discussion: “Where We Come From,” Judy Budnitz

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Judy Budnitz story “Where We Come From”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How is defamiliarization at work in this story? What familiar things does Budnitz make strange, and how? What effect does this have?
  • This story is, in many ways, very close to reality, but it’s decidedly not realist fiction. How does Budnitz accomplish this movement between the quite plausible setting of this piece and the fantastical events that take place?
  • What role does narrative distance play in this piece? Whose thoughts does the narrator have access to, and whose not? How close is the narrator to those characters’ thoughts? What does the narrator’s position relative to the characters allow Budnitz to do that she might have more difficulty doing with a different kind of narrator?

First Person Present Narration

First person present-tense narration is a tricky prospect, and it’s one that starts to break my brain if I think too long about it.

Oddly, for someone who is comfortable with all sorts of wild experimentation and nonrealist twists and turns in fiction — Nonlinear storytelling? Bring it on! Witches on Mars? Sure, why not? — wrapping my head around a first-person narrator who tells a story to the reader as it unfolds sometimes threatens to be more than I can handle. It is, in some respects, a question of suspension of disbelief. Who really keeps a running commentary  through their entire day? Is that actually what consciousness is like? Do you honestly expect me to believe this narrator is capable of stringing together coherent sentences while dodging bullets or giving birth or whatever else is happening in your story?

The answer, of course, is, ‘Sure, why not?’ It’s a conceit of storytelling you simply have to accept. The same is true of omniscient third-person narrators. Some part of me revolts at the idea. ‘Where did this narrator come from?’ I want to shout. ‘Doesn’t anybody in this story notice the disembodied voice in the sky???’ (Plenty of writers have taken on this metafictional question, for example: Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist, Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, and the film Strange Than Fiction.)

Like third person narrators, first-person present tense narration doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too hard, but it’s a technique that allows you to accomplish certain things as a storyteller. It accesses the immediacy of present tense, without sacrificing the intimacy of first person. It lets us experience the events of the story right alongside the protagonist, in the very moment that they happen.

I don’t mean to say that it’s impossible to write a good story with first-person present tense narration, or even that I don’t like first-person present tense narratives. There are lots of great first-person present stories out there. But whenever I sit down to write in that voice, I reach a point where I have to interrogate why I’m making this choice: why from this perspective, why at this position in time? Sometimes, I can’t make a good case, or the logistics of maintaining that position are unfeasible (for instance, can you maintain first-person present narration after the narrator dies?). But other times, the choice yields valuable benefits for a story, and it’s just the kind of illogic I need.