The Dead Key

My wife and I enjoy audiobooks on our long car trips — the hours and miles disappear — so as we prepared for our vacation excursion last month we decided to download the debut novel of someone we actually know.

D.M. Pulley’s 2014 thriller takes place in Cleveland during two different eras. In 1998, a young structural engineer named Iris is assigned to inspect a bank building that’s been abandoned for two decades. As Iris stumbles across secrets that were buried when the bank suddenly closed, we also get the story of Beatrice, an employee of the bank when it closed in 1977. Their timelines converge in a vault of safe deposit boxes, many of them left unopened when the bank shut its door. And as the title indicates, both characters come across a key that could literally unlock the mystery that lead to the bank’s closure.

I’ve been analyzing books with multiple timelines recently, and like the novel I most recently examined, Pulley’s work alternates chapters between the two timelines, and begins each chapter with a date. Each timeline also advances in a linear fashion. Keeping track of the timeliness is relatively easy, which is especially important for an audibook.

This was a great selection for our two-day drive. The story is suspenseful without being melodramatic or scary; Pulley keeps the reader wanting to know what happens next, and both Iris and Beatrice (who admittedly are a little too similar to each other for my tastes) are easy to root for. Cleveland natives will enjoy the local references, yet the book isn’t so provincial that it can’t be enjoyed by readers unfamiliar with the city. The audiobook reading by Emily Sutton-Smith is also engaging. This book made us keep our rest stops short so that we could continue listening, a sure sign you’ve made the right choice.

All the Light We Cannot See

I’m continuing my analysis of novels featuring multiple storylines with Anthony Doerr’s award-winning novel from 2014. This work features a dual narrative structure, with two principal characters living in the same timeline. What’s also interesting is that two separate timelines are maintained for both characters.

The novel is divided into 14 numbered sections, with section Zero serving as a prologue. Through section 11, the even-numbered sections occur in the Nazi-occupied French town of Saint-Malo over a five-day span in August 1944, while the odd-numbered sections begin in 1934 and show the development of the two principal characters (a blind French girl and a radio technician ambivalent about his role in the German army) in their respective countries over the ten years leading up to those five fateful days at the end of World War II. Each section begins with a date, making the transition between the two timelines easy to follow.

While the novel includes several memorable supporting characters, the focus remains consistently on either blind Marie-Laure or the brooding Werner. The chapters are short, most being two or three pages, and rarely does either character feature in two consecutive chapters. The balanced alternating structure highlights the similarities between the two characters, despite their being on opposite sides of the same conflict.

The structure of the novel works because the two principal characters and the dual timelines progress to the same point. Marie-Laure and Werner meet in Saint-Malo as the timelines converge in the eleventh section, with the last three sections showing the aftermath of their meeting. For all its complexity, the novel actually has a fairly straightforward progression.

The lesson on storytelling from this novel is on consistency. Keep the spotlight on the principal characters from the outset, and always let the reader know when the timeline changes. Being consistent allows the author to include a great deal of complexity.

Practice with Care

PHOTO PROMPT -Brenda Cox

Phase shifting is like dynamite — helpful when used properly, deadly if misused.

Misjudgments are frequent among newbies. Passing through an object in front of you without also passing through the ground underneath takes concentration. Even the best-trained shifters make mistakes once they begin practicing in the field.

Like this guy. Late on his courier run, he phased through a concrete barricade with ease. But when he saw the worker in his path he phased again, panicking the worker. The courier phased in too soon, bike tripping over a cable.

The residual energy in the bike hurled it into the building.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

The Divine Comedy

Some books can’t merely be read; they must be studied. Dante’s epic 14th century poem is an amazingly complex work, expertly combining ancient Greek and Roman literature, Christian theology, human psychology, and contemporary politics. If you don’t read the endnotes, you miss a lot of the work’s value.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the approach I took on my recently completed first reading of the text. I used the same approach that’s worked well for my reading of William Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Thomas Malory — download an audiobook and read along to the recital. I chose the Robin Kirkpatrick translation, as Audible had a matching recording. The performance, done by Kirkpatrick and two other readers, is fine, but the experience was unsatisfying because I realized how much I was missing by not stopping the recording and checking the notes.

I can say I’ve finally read the work, but I’m a long way from appreciating it.

Several moments do stand out from this initial reading, one in particular during Canto 24 of Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil encounter a thief, named Vanni Fucci in Dante’s text but translated by Kirkpatrick as Johnny Fucci. Anglicizing the name makes this character more relatable to readers like myself, and I also appreciate that Kirkpatrick doesn’t attempt to whitewash Johnny’s blasphemous diatribe against God. I did not expect to see an f-bomb, but there it was on line 2 of Canto 25. According to Wikipedia, Vanni Fucci has been used by a couple contemporary writers, and should the situation arise I might use him in one of my own stories.

Should I decide to read Dante again, I’ll take the studious approach I used for Ulysses — do the Great Courses overview, then read a canto or two at a time, flipping back to the notes whenever one’s available. That’s going to be a long project, but I picked up enough of the work’s majesty to know the experience will be worthwhile.

First Ride

PHOTO PROMPT© Lisa Fox

“Didn’t know they made motorcycles in 1914,” Henrietta said, hoping to get the gaunt man’s attention in front of the exhibit.

“Oh yes,” he replied. “Owned one myself.”

“You collect antiques?” He was becoming more interesting than Henrietta had hoped.

“No. I was a boy at the time. I remember my first ride, down a dirt trail near my family’s lakeside cabin. I thought if man could build such a wonderful machine, there was no limit to what we could achieve.”

“That’s… impossible.” He looked no older than thirty.

“Not at all,” he replied, turning to Henrietta with red eyes.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

Slaughterhouse-Five

I recently attended a workshop on writing stories with multiple storylines, and five novels were cited as examples. So why not read and analyze each of them?

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel is an example of a gestalt timeline structure. The narrative follows Billy Pilgrim, who has become “unstuck in time” and experiences his entire life when he is captured in World War II. He jumps ahead a decade, sometimes two or three, goes back to his boyhood on occasion, and is also captured by intergalactic aliens and taken to their homeworld. (Quick aside — this novel is often categorized as science fiction, but I fail to see why. If anything, it’s a parody of science fiction.)

Following a character unstuck in time could be disorienting, but two elements help bring order to the narrative:

A commanding narrative voice. The unnamed narrator is clearly a stand-in for Vonnegut, and his voice guides the reader through the numerous time jumps. The narrator’s tone is conversational (there aren’t a lot of big words in the novel; no need to keep a dictionary nearby) and he often repeats himself. This gives the impression that if you don’t exactly understand everything the first time you hear it, no worries — the narrator will eventually explain it again. Using a different narrative voice for each era in Billy’s life would have been disorienting.

A central timeline. After previewing the events in Billy Pilgrim’s life, the narrator then describes his experience during World War II. The events in this year of his life — training, joining his unit in Europe, becoming a German prisoner of war, surviving the bombing of Dresden while in Schlachthof-fünf, clearing the devastated city, being rescued by the Allies — are told in linear order. Whenever Billy journeys to different moments of his life, including his visit to Tralfamadore, he always returns to this core timeline immediately after the moment he’d become unstuck in time. It’s like being on a highway with multiple entrances and exits; no matter how far you travel down an off road, you have the comfort of knowing you can get back to where you were.

Combining experimental storytelling methods with more conventional techniques seems like an effective strategy. That’s my takeaway from this interesting and fun novel.

The People Could Fly

Virginia Hamilton’s 1985 collection of American Black folktales can be read as children’s literature. Audible certainly does, as it lists the collection in its Children’s Audiobooks section, and Andrew Barnes reads the tales like a grandfather entertaining a pack of toddlers. Yet the book also includes notes about the origin and development of these tales, making it a viable ethnographic study. I was hoping for more of the latter when I downloaded this book, and while I didn’t get what I expected I still found it valuable.

The tales are divided into four thematic chapters. The opening chapter focuses on animal tales, and I found it a bit disappointing, mostly because the stories about talking rabbits, bears, lions, foxes, and alligators reminded me more of Uncle Remus than Zora Neale Hurston. Barnes’ often over-the-top exuberance reinforced the impression that the tales were being told solely for entertainment, without any appreciation for their underlying meaning or significance.

Subsequent chapters, however, left a better impression. Hamilton provides good notes on the origin of the magical and exaggerated reality tales in the second chapter, and Barnes’ reading, while still spirited, no longer dominates the stories — he doesn’t need to alter his voice much to show the scariness of the Hairy Man. The third chapter, supernatural tales, demonstrates the complex role of the devil and forbidden magic, and the final chapter on slave tales of freedom is a triumph, ending in the magnificent title story.

It’s a book more for kids than for scholars. If you can accept that aspect, as well as Barnes’ hyperbolic delivery and the unspectacular bluegrass musical interludes, you’ll find it enjoyable.

Invitation

PHOTO PROMPT© Ted Strutz

“Lateral stabilizers.” Detective Jenkins squatted in front of the discarded parts. “Definitely from a K-47. I can call in the serial numbers, but if they aren’t from the Altarax droid I’ll eat them for lunch.”

Her rookie partner bit his lip. “But the AI in K-47s is too advanced to be this careless. If the droid knows we’re after it, why leave such a large breadcrumb?”

“Because it wanted us to know it had been here.” Jenkins stood and brushed hair from her face. “It wants us to follow its trail. We’re being led.”

“A trap?”

Jenkins smirked. “An invitation.”

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

Day 514

Been taking an extended break from blogging while on vacation the last few weeks. There’s few things I enjoy more than writing, but it’s something I only appreciate when I put effort into it. And I didn’t want to exert any effort while my wife and I took a break from our daily routines and obligations.

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The COVID pandemic entered a new yet familiar phase since my last post in this journal. The Delta variant, more contagious and virulent than the coronavirus’ previous iterations, has eradicated much of the progress made since the beginning of the year.

New infections, hospitalizations, ICU patients, deaths — all the bad numbers are trending up again. Mask wearing while indoors is being recommended for everyone, even the vaccinated. Many stores, including the grocery chain I work for, are now requiring masks for their employers; some are even requiring it for customers.

In addition to digging out my supply of masks, I’ve made a difficult yet necessary concession. My fencing club doesn’t have great ventilation and with all the exertion and requisite heavy breathing, I’m choosing to once again put off my favorite recreational activity. My world isn’t ending, but it’s going to be a lot less fun.

Haven’t decided whether to curtail my gym attendance (much more spacious facility with excellent ventilation) or library visits (not many people around during weekday mornings, and no heavy breathing). Being vaccinated doesn’t make me impervious, yet does provide a high level of protection.

The decisions I’m making now are similar to those around Day 1. Going outside my home puts me at greater risk of infection, but isolating myself in my comfortable home would exert awful emotional toll I don’t think I’d bear well. Better to take reasonable precautious and face the risk rather than let it cripple me with despair.

***

My wife and I have bough plane tickets for a December return to Hawaii. Twenty days ago, I felt confident we’d make the trip. Now I wonder if we’re heading for another disastrous holiday season, which would jeopardize our plans.