May 022017
 

Michael Carson

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“An artist always incites insurrections among things,” says the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “The Structure of Fiction.” This is a grand claim. It makes art seem like the exception to everything else in experience—the things. I can’t speak for all aspiring writers, but I imagine this is what draws many would-be writers to literature in the first place: the impression that art is exceptional in its relationship to experience, that literature, unlike every other endeavor, allows the writer to shake things up, to rescue the magical from the mundane. So how do we make Shklovsky’s declaration less abstract? How do beginning writers—and here I very much include myself—accomplish this radical transformation and shake up the world around them to the point of insurrection?

Simply put: Artists shake things up through conflict and the primary vehicle of conflict is plot. While at first glance this response might seem reductionist or even crude when speaking of something exceptional like art, it is actually crude and reductionist for beginning writers to ignore what is in some respects the most difficult aspect of craft. A writer can do little with his or her brilliant ideas, characters, sentences or settings (much less start an insurrection) unless they appreciate what plot is and how effective stories require plotting.

Douglas Glover’s essay “How to Write a Short Story,” in his Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing, describes a short story as a “narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs B).” This conflict, he argues, “needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.” He describes this conflict as “a desire-resistance pattern.” A character desires something and another character resists (sometimes this can take place internally too, within a single character). According to Glover, this “central conflict is embodied once, and again and again, such that in the successive revisitings we are drawn deeper into the soul or moral structure of the story.” These articulations give a story “a rhythmic surging quality,” and they make possible the aesthetic space for the writer to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual implications of the conflict.”

This essay examines how three canonical writers—Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, and John Cheever—arrange a conflict between two poles to systematically draw the reader deeper into the “soul or moral structure of the story.” Through the course of the essay, we will see that even though each selected story possesses a unique conflict and writing style, all three possess congruent desire-resistance patterns, and each of these patterns provides its artist the aesthetic space necessary to incite insurrection.

 

Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” begins when a bull wakes up Mrs. May. The next morning Mrs. May enlists the help of Mr. Greenleaf, her farm foreman, to remove the bull from her property. She finds out from her sons, Wesley and Scofield May, that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf. She lets Mr. Greenleaf know this and reminds him of her order to get rid of the bull. She goes to the property of O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf to let them know their bull is on her property. She cannot find them and tells the boys’ foreman to give them a note telling them about the bull. Back at her farm, Mrs. May’s boys mock her. She cries. The boys fight each other, upending the kitchen table. Mr. Greenleaf appears at the door, asks if everything is alright, and Mrs. May reminds Mr. Greenleaf to get rid of the bull. The bull returns to her window that night. The next morning, Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf to get into her car. They drive to the pasture and Mr. Greenleaf leaves the car to kill the bull. He and the bull disappear into the forest. Mrs. May follows him into the pasture and then gets out of the car to wait. She falls asleep on the hood of her car. She wakes up to the sight of the bull charging at her. The bull gores her. Mr. Greenleaf appears and shoots the bull in the eye four times.

Flannery O’Connor

“Greenleaf” is a 9,500 word story related in the close third person. O’Connor divides the text into three sections, the first relatively short and the next two very long. Unlike the other authors we will look at, O’Connor’s section breaks do not denote a jump forward in time, or, more precisely, there is no chronological pattern to her section breaks: she has no problem jumping forward in time—like say to the next morning—within a section as well as between them. This is all to say the logic of the section breaks is different in O’Connor. The first short section details her first confrontation with the bull. Only in the second section does she confront Mr. Greenleaf and begin the desire-resistance pattern in earnest. Mrs. May wants the bull off her property and Greenleaf does not want to remove the bull from the property. He resists her desire through the second section. In the third section she takes active measures to remove the bull herself (but, interestingly, not actually do the work herself), first by going to O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf’s property and then by picking Mr. Greenleaf up in her car and forcing him to go the pasture with her.

O’Connor delays the actual conflict—the literal back and forth between antagonist and protagonist—until the second section. And yet O’Connor definitively establishes the conflict’s parameters through both backfill and the conditional tense. After being woken up by the bull, Mrs. May reflects on how for “fifteen years” she “has been having shiftless people’s hogs root up her oats, their mules wallow on her lawn, their scrub bulls breed her cows.” She blames Mr. Greenleaf, her foreman, for this ongoing oppression, and then imagines what would happen if she went to wake Mr. Greenleaf up just then and what he might say. “If hit were my boys,” says the imagined Mr. Greenleaf, “they would never have allowed their maw to go after hired help in the middle of the night.” This not only helps frame the conflict but marks the first iteration of a curious form of “recycling” where Mrs. May imagines the desire-resistance pattern and the different ways she might end it by telling Mr. Greenleaf what she really thinks of his wife (an eccentric religious enthusiast).

After this two-page section—again, much shorter than the other two sections—O’Connor places her two characters in the same room, establishing and clearly delineating the desire-resistance pattern: “The next morning as soon as Mr. Greenleaf came to the back door, she told him there was a stray bull on the place and that she wanted him penned up at once.” Mr. Greenleaf immediately begins his resistance, which takes a shape of a denial that there is any kind of conflict at all: “Done already been here three days.” Much of the story’s comedy derives from this passive–aggressive (or, in Mrs. May’s eyes, just plain aggressive) refusal by Mr. Greenleaf to admit to a problem. The scene’s internal calculus plays with this too, as Mr. Greenleaf, standing on her back porch, speculates, “He must be somebody’s bull,” rather than answer her questions. The reader also waits for Mr. Greenleaf to simply admit there is a problem.

The scene moves inside to an “off-angle” interaction, this time between Mrs. May and her two sons, each boy uniquely horrible. They are, in a sense, active manifestations of Mr. Greenleaf’s reproof, his resistance, which boils down to the fact that no matter how lazy or troublesome he might be, at least he’s not as bad as her two sons. Inside the house, they threaten to marry a woman like Mrs. Greenleaf when Mrs. May dies and gleefully let her know that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons. This is a long careful delay—note that the Russian formalist writer Shklovsky considers digression the essential component of narrative art—with much backfill on how Mr. Greenleaf was hired and a fleshing out of the two worthless sons, but the scene ultimately returns back to Mr. Greenleaf outside the house (never in the house) and Mrs. May ordering Mr. Greenleaf to put the bull “where he can’t bust out.” Mr. Greenleaf resists, comically, given the desire-resistance pattern, stating the obvious—“he likes to bust loose”—not answering, and not clearly saying whether or not he will follow her order.

At this point of the story the conflict and plot has consisted of the single—if prolonged and disjointed—interaction, this resistance on Mr. Greenleaf’s part to admit there is a problem with the bull or do anything about the problem. The first battle is undecided thanks to Mr. Greenleaf’s refusal to admit a conflict. Given the amount of characters involved—Mr. Greenleaf, Mrs. May, the two pairs of sons, and Mr. Greenleaf’s wife—a less experienced reader might get distracted here by not only the characters, but also the pervasive and pronounced symbolism. Does the derelict bull represent faltering class hierarchies in the post-World War II United States’ South? Is the bull emblematic of Mrs. May’s denial of Christ, her faux-Christianity and unacknowledged hubris? Why did O’Connor create doubles of the antagonist—the successful Greenleaf sons—in her own unsuccessful sons? Yet all of these questions should be put aside: they are reformulations of the basic conflict between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf over the literal fate of the bull. The conflict is the story. It is dangerous to mistake ancillary material and symbolic implications for the backbone plot (though these too are crucial); if we do, we risk missing the central narrative importance of the interactions between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf.

Thus we should take Mrs. May’s movement in the second scene, her journey over to the modern farm of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, as a plot-step variation, a delay and reformulation of the actual conflict between Mr. Greenleaf and Mrs. May (Douglas Glover calls this movement a “stepping out,” a delay in an event by creating steps within the event). That the Greenleaf boys are not home (we never meet them in the story) frustrates again Mrs. May’s desire to get rid of the bull; yet only when she returns to her own house, and after getting in another fight with her own boys, does Mr. Greenleaf appear on her back porch. What follows is the second tangible iteration of the conflict—remember that these plots almost always come in threes—and Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf again to get rid of the bull, this time threatening to shoot the bull, upping the ante really and signaling conflict-driven change and development in Mrs. May’s character. Mr. Greenleaf resists first by pushing the climax off, “Tomorrow I’ll drive him home for you,” and, when she shuts that down by repeating her order, through silence (this seems to be the go-to resistance reformulation in the modern short story: all three authors examined in this paper resist through silence in the second iteration of their respective desire-resistance pattern).

Mr. Greenleaf only breaks this silence not by discussing the bull, but by interrupting Mrs. May’s self-pity “quick as a striking snake” (a favorite O’Connor simile) to point out that she has two boys to do what she is asking him to do (again, the unstated assumption that Mrs. May can’t get rid of the bull herself, or without the help of a man, allows for the basic conflict and forces the reader to wonder if there is a sexual element to this conflict). The scene moves again to her bedroom and the nighttime and the bull munching away just outside the window. There is no line break here like the line break after the last nighttime interaction with the bull. This would possibly imply that O’Connor sees this entire scene, from the movement to the boy’s house to the next morning and the climatic confrontation with the bull, as one dramatic unit. The next morning Mrs. May arrives at Mr. Greenleaf’s house, “expressionless,” ordering him to “go get your gun.” Mr. Greenleaf reluctantly retrieves the gun and Mrs. May smiles at the thought that he would like “to shoot” her “instead of that bull.”

The third and final instance of the conflict, the climax, takes place in a secluded environment; the protagonist and antagonist are alone in a new story setting where the antagonist forces the desire to its conclusion. The bull must die. Mr. Greenleaf, characteristically, avoids the problem and runs the bull off into the woods. Determined to make this the climax of their long-running fifteen-year war, Mrs. May exits the car and waits on the hood. She falls asleep (again—she sleeps a lot in this story) and with the sleep comes the impression of a sun like a bullet bearing down on her head (the third instance of this image in the story). Also in these final moments we have more speculation from Mrs. May where she imagines the climax and resolution turning out differently, with Mr. Greenleaf gored by the bull and her being sued by Greenleaf’s sons. She calls this “the perfect ending.”

It is not in fact the “perfect ending.” It is the perfect ending for Mrs. May, who sees her entire life as one perceived injustice after another, an endless series of insults against her, her race, her class and her work ethic. The actual perfect ending, the ending necessitated by the story O’Connor constructed, immediately follows the imagined ending: the bull crosses the pasture toward her ‘in a slow gallop” and “buries his head in her lap” like “a wild tormented lover” (a deft reformulation and return the “uncouth country suitor” outside her window in the story’s first pages, and the ongoing “courtship” between her and Mr. Greenleaf). “Here he is, Mr. Greenleaf!” she shouts just before the goring, remaining “perfectly still, not in fright, but in freezing unbelief.” Her unbelief dooms her in a literal sense—I can’t help but feel this a joke from the Catholic O’Connor here—but the conflict has already been settled earlier, when Mr. Greenleaf runs the bull into the woods (the sight of Mr. Greenleaf’s wife’s ecstatic religious rituals).

What always fascinates me about this story’s ending is the way Mrs. May’s literal perception is changed by the bull’s horns. The horns lift her up and she continues to stare “straight ahead” but “the entire scene in front of her changed”; the tree line becomes “a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky,” and Mrs. May has the look of “someone whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the sight unbearable.” She then, from this upside down position, and even though she doesn’t face Mr. Greenleaf, watches Mr. Greenleaf approach with the gun, “outside of some invisible circle, the tree line gaping behind him and nothing under his feet.” This marks a return to Mr. Greenleaf’s earlier trait, his sullen-shy tendency to create an invisible circle around those to whom he speaks. (Also fascinating is Mrs. May’s imagined switch to Mr. Greenleaf’s point of view in this ending where he witnesses her “whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.”)

Sometimes when reading O’Connor I feel overwhelmed by the “on-the-nose” nature of her symbolism and thematic pretensions. This bull must then be another moment of that “grace” peculiar to the Catholic imagination, right? The scenario seems to have all the subtlety of a symbol for Truth or Unresolved Issues running up and attacking the protagonist (which is exactly what happens). But this reading willfully and lazily misses the carefully detailed desire-conflict resistance pattern that makes up the actual story. In a book review of William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo, O’Connor herself defines “genuine tragedy and comedy” as the place where “the definite is explored to its extremity and man is shown to be the limited creature he is, and it is at this point of greatest penetration of the limited that the artist finds insight.”

The key word here is “definite,” and with the definite comes a refusal to let one habit of perception—or urge to reduce the story to one meaning or another—dominate the other levels, levels of structure and craft O’Connor worked very hard to make definite; it is to ignore the desire-resistance pattern that actually frames the story and makes it a story at all. Though new writers often claim to resist detailing the specifics of plot out of a fear of unfairly “reducing” the story to the banal and everyday, the temptation to reduce a story to a certain reading or moral is actually strongest when we dismiss the importance of craft in the articulation of a writer’s vision. In other words, the awful vision of grace in “Greenleaf” is created not by the fact that O’Connor set out to write about the awe-filled vision of grace but because she found an interesting desire-resistance pattern and followed this desire gracefully through to its awful conclusion.

 

William Trevor’s “Teddy-bears’ Picnic” begins with an argument between a newlywed couple, Edwin and Deborah Chalm. Edwin, a stockbroker, does not want to go to a Teddy-bears’ Picnic, a get-together Deborah and her childhood friends attend every few years at the home and gardens of an elderly couple, the Ainley-Foxletons. Due to planning the Teddy-bears’ Picnic, Deborah forgets to cook Edwin dinner. Deborah attempts to make dinner. They argue more. Edwin drinks excessively. Edwin apologizes the next morning. They drive out from London to Deborah’s childhood neighborhood on a Friday, spend Saturday with Deborah’s parents, and attend the picnic at the Ainley-Foxletons’ on Sunday. At the picnic, after Deborah thanks Edwin for attending, Edwin excuses himself from the garden picnic to go to the bathroom. He drinks excessively in the house. He remembers a time from his youth when he made a spectacle of himself at a party. He goes outside and pushes Mr. Ainley-Foxleton over the edge of the lawn and the old man cracks his head on a sundial. Edwin returns to the picnic. Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton discovers her husband’s body. Edwin leads the picnickers over to the corpse, declares Mr. Ainley-Foxleton dead, and takes charge of the proceedings.

William Trevor book cover image

“Teddy-bears’ Picnic” is about 9,000 words long and told through the close third person, switching from the consciousness of Edwin to Deborah and then back to Edwin again, with occasional rare moments of non-POV-dependent authorial summary. There are five sections to the story, each divided into substantial chunks of backfill and dialogue. Trevor’s “Picnic” features a protagonist who resists the action of the antagonist. But here it is Edwin, the husband, who resists his wife Deborah’s desire to go the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. The story’s first section, the longest, initiates this confrontation; the second provides backfill on the couple’s relationship and a short dialogue confrontation; the third, the shortest, escalates the conflict between the couple (if in a somewhat indirect way); the fourth consists of an extended memory/backfill from Edwin and the climatic action; the final scene provides aftermath by detailing the consequences of the already settled desire-resistance pattern.

Trevor registers Edward’s resistance to his wife’s desire to go to the Teddy-bear Picnic in the story’s very first line: “I simply don’t believe it,” Edwin asks, “grown-up people?” She tries to explain the Teddy-bears’ Picnic tradition, to continue to push her desire, in a way that hints at the fundamental miscommunication between the two personalities, which will surface again and again in the story. “Well,” she says, “grown-up now, darling. We weren’t always grown up.” This disconnect between Edwin’s understanding of maturity and his wife’s frames the desire-resistance pattern. Edwin’s next response—“I’ll absolutely tell you this. I’m not attending this thing”—makes obvious Edwin’s violent resistance to what Deborah sees as a perfectly harmless desire.

Through the course of the apartment scene—snippets of dialogue followed by a paragraph or two of summary, both of the principles drinking more and more—the desire-resistance pattern surfaces again and again. Deborah cannot understand why her husband would refuse to have “a bit of fun” while Edwin cannot understand how mature adults could “call sitting down with teddy-bears a bit of fun.” The idea of maturity pops up again and again, expertly “loaded”—to reference another Douglas Glover analytical term—through significant history, juxtaposition and word splintering, but the reader does not lose sight of the plot due to the recursive dialogue exchanges, all of which circle around whether or not they will go to the Teddy-bear’s Picnic. The scene ends with a silent truce. We are told that the next morning Edwin apologized, the implication being the first round of combat has gone to Deborah rather than Edwin.

In the next scene, Trevor’s continues his deft POV switches, showing, somewhat comically, how one side does not see this conflict as a big deal while the other views sitting down with teddy-bears as an existential insult. Because Deborah finds “the consideration of the past pleasanter than speculation about the future,” she spends much of the scene providing relationship backfill and seeing “little significance” in their quarrel over the picnic. Edwin, for his part, thinks about the future, his persistent anger, and how he can give the marriage “a chance to settle into a shape that suited it.” Yet only at the end of the scene, on the way to the weekend getaway—and in yet another admirably concise dialogue exchange—does Trevor push the conflict to the surface again. Deborah interrupts Edwin’s story about the stock exchange to tell him the story of Jeremy’s “Poor Pooh,” her adult male friend’s teddy-bear. Edwin “didn’t say anything.”

This silence constitutes the second movement in the conflict. Edwin’s passive resistance, his stony agreement to attend yet not substantively interact with others at the Picnic (a sort of adult pout really), colors both the second scene and the third. It persists through his arrival at the elderly couple’s house and as they sit down for the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. Edwin drinks heavily through this scene and privately rejoices that he “smelt like a distillery” during his introduction to the elderly Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton. He internally mocks the ridiculousness and ugliness of all of Deborah’s friends. He only breaks this silence at the end of the third scene, when he tells Deborah, he has “to go to the lav,” after Deborah whispers, “thank you.” (Interestingly Edwin makes no comment about and does not seem to have an opinion of the elderly Ainley-Foxleton, who will ultimately bear the brunt of Edwin’s rage.)

Edwin’s interpretation of his wife’s thank you is of course couched within his understanding of the desire-resistance pattern, which is to say Deborah sees Edwin’s attendance as a nice gesture, a moment of loving appreciation and give-and-take between understanding spouses, while he takes her words for a sinister reminder of his earlier humiliation. It also provides for the movement toward the third stage of the desire-resistance plan and the story’s climax; Edwin has in a very literal sense left the Teddy-bears’ picnic. It does not matter that he is just going to the bathroom and that this would seem a perfectly natural thing to do; within the framework of the short story this movement constitutes a definitive and provocative action, yet another resistance on Edwin’s part, and the necessary plot step that brings about the third, climatic confrontation.

After an extended reverie on Edwin’s part, where he drinks the Ainsley-Foxton’s whiskey and reflects on a time in his youth when boredom, anger, and a need to come out on top pushed him to ruin a perfectly pleasant garden party—“within minutes it had become his day”—Edwin goes out to the lawn and tells Mr. Ainsley-Foxton that he sees fungus on the lawn below the rockery. He then murders Mr. Ainsley-Foxton. Deborah is not present in this scene but Edwin’s action cannot be interpreted as anything other than a violent resistance to her original desire. They are still within the same “room”—the sentimental and, to quote Edwin, “gooey,” world of the Ainsley-Foxton’s, Teddy-bears, and Deborah’s childhood (and, by implication, perpetual childhood, the antithesis of Edwin’s stockbroker “manliness”). Whatever the aftermath’s specifics, the consequences, the Teddy-bear Picnic will come to an end and no one will ever again—at least within Deborah’s circle of friends—be attending any Teddy-bears’ Picnics.

Trevor’s final section details the moments following the violent act of a protagonist, moments where he waits for the consequences of his actions. Trevor becomes hilariously mordant (and also philosophical) expertly juggling the juxtaposition of nostalgia and fear, violence and maturity, and innocence and experience in Edwin’s reflections on the blissfully unaware picnickers. And yet even though action does occur—Edwin and everyone else hear Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton scream and Edwin takes “charge of the proceedings,” becomes the grown-up in a world defined exclusively by death—this Teddy-bear’s Picnic has already technically ended because Edwin has already categorically and triumphantly resisted his wife’s desire.

The problem for readers like me is that we tend to mistake these endings for the heart of the story, which they are, in a sense. One leaves Trevor’s story impressed not by the conflict between actors, but by the profound emotional effect and intellectual questions the conflict allows. The effect is never simple; it inverts assumptions and resists explication. In a sense that is the “conflict” of literature. Most readers desire human experience be explicable within some heuristic; literature resists, heroically so. These stories are remarkable artifacts of that resistance; and yet they are nothing at all and mean nothing at all without their perfectly explicable internal desire-resistance pattern. All talk of heart and soul and transcendence aside, these stories—to quote Edwin—would be simply “gooey” without a plot to help substantiate them.

 

John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” tells the story of Lawrence (Tifty) Pommeroy’s visit to Laud’s Head, a summer place on the shore of one of the Massachusetts islands. Lawrence’s family—including the middle brother and story narrator—awaits the brother’s arrival with some trepidation, as Lawrence, the youngest brother, has not visited the family in four years. Lawrence shows up with his wife and two boys, begins complaining about the summer home’s proximity to the shoreline, and refuses to drink with the family. His mother gets drunk. Lawrence goes to bed and the rest of the family goes swimming. The next day Lawrence refuses to play tennis doubles with the narrator and the family goes swimming to escape Lawrence. That night, Lawrence disapprovingly watches the family play backgammon. Later in the week the narrator and his wife help plan a costume “come as you wish you were” dance at the boat club. The narrator tries to convince Lawrence to enjoy himself and attempts to physically force him into the dance. Lawrence resists. Everyone at the party goes swimming. The next day the narrator goes swimming and finds Lawrence on the beach. Lawrence agrees to walk to Tanner’s Point with the narrator along the beach. The narrator confronts Lawrence about his bad attitude. When Lawrence insults the narrator and walks away, the narrator hits him on the back of the head with a root. The narrator goes swimming. A bloodied Lawrence returns to the summer home and tells his family he is leaving. Lawrence leaves.

John Cheever

“Goodbye, My Brother” is about 8,000 words and is told in the first person, from Lawrence’s brother point of view. Cheever breaks up the story into six sections using line breaks. The major conflict—Lawrence (or Tifty) wants to show his disdain for his family; his family resists—takes places in sections three, four, and five. These major conflict sections take place chronologically, over the course of the two-week family vacation. The first section provides backfill, summary of the family’s history. The final section imagines and reflects on Lawrence’s leaving (aftermath rather than plot). It is important to note that of three stories examined, Cheever’s possesses the most complicated plot structure. Not only is the story told through a narrator who is physically implicated in the desire-resistance pattern only in the story’s second half, but the desirer—Tifty—also expresses his disdain for specific family rituals as well as specific characters. This creates a more elegantly algebraic plot pattern, less A vs B in three different rooms, than A vs X1, and then A vs X2, and then A vs X3. Further, each of these X variables is subdivided into a somewhat consistent pattern of smaller plot iterations—a1, b1, and b3.

The story’s conflict takes a definitive shape about a page into the story’s second section. This scene is defined almost exclusively as a confrontation between Lawrence and his mother, with the other family members watching on. Initially, there is “a faint tension” in the room at Lawrence’s arrival, but Lawrence does not press his disdain on the family and no one actively resists this disdain until Lawrence reappears from a visit to the beach. Here, in a short dialogue exchange, Lawrence’s mother asks Lawrence what he thought of the beach and if he wants a Martini: “’Isn’t the beach fabulous, Tifty?…Isn’t it fabulous to be back? Will you have a Martini?’” She calls him Tifty—one of two family nicknames for the youngest brother; the other is “Little Jesus”—and essentially answers the question she asks for her son, rhetorically providing him an “out,” what he needs to say to elide his four-year separation. Lawrence response—“I don’t care…Whiskey, gin don’t care what I drink. Give me a little rum”—makes clear that he will not fall back into the family banter and habits and has arrived not to rejoin but has come to disapprove of the family. “We do not have any rum,” says the mother with the “first note of asperity.” The narrator then goes on to provide more backfill, to explain Lawrence’s original separation from the family after their father’s death, when Lawrence originally disapproved, when he decided that his mother was “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.”

Unlike the other stories examined, Lawrence’s initial attack seems misdirected. He first gets into a fight with the mother, then makes a snide comment about the sister’s promiscuity, and finally ridicules the dead father’s “damn fool idea to build a house on the edge of a cliff on a sinking coastline.” The scene concludes with the mother getting “unfortunately” drunk and declaring that if there is an afterlife, she “will have a very different kind of family,” one with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children.”

Because Cheever’s story is narrated by a character who has no direct exchanges with Lawrence in the first plot scene, the reader might conclude that this long first family interaction with Lawrence is not plot. This reader would be wrong. Lawrence’s disdain here addresses a particular family pastime—getting together to have drinks—and—with this—the process of coming together, of reuniting after a long separation. Lawrence’s challenges—which come in three neatly forceful dialogue exchanges with the mother—represent an assault on the family’s “delight at claiming a brother,” their efforts “to enjoy a peaceful time,” and, most importantly, their ritualistic drinking, which refreshes “their responses to a familiar view.”

Douglas Glover, in an essay on Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung,” argues that Munro is “almost always precise and transparent in terms of her desire-resistance patterns” because “her story organization is heterodox.” In other words, the more complicated the plot structure, the more important a precisely delineated desire-resistance pattern. This holds true in the first scene of Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother.” Because Lawrence is in conflict with an idea or family ritual rather than a specific person and knowing that Lawrence will be conflict with another ritual in the following scene, Cheever must guide the reader carefully through the scene, expertly modulating the conflict’s pressure, insistently reminding the reader of what is in fact at stake. We have seen in the other stories that a desire-resistance pattern tends to work best in three iterations. Cheever knows this, so he gives the reader this three-pronged pattern within the scene itself (think back to the “stepping out” observed in the O’Connor story). Lawrence’s rejection of the family’s ritualistic drinking comes three times—remember the three almost parallel dialogue exchanges?—that leads to the mother drinking too much and insulting the family. The scene itself could be a story. It has its own desire-resistance arc (a+b+c=A (Tifty) vs X1 (family drinking)), one that the consequent scenes (where A will be in conflict with new rituals, new X variables) will reformulate and expand upon.

In the third scene we finally have direct story interaction between the narrator and Lawrence. The narrator asks Lawrence if he wants to play tennis. Lawrence, through indirect dialogue, says “no thanks,” and the narrator excuses Lawrence’s decision because “both he and Chaddy play better tennis than I,” but then, just a few lines later, “Lawrence disappears” when family doubles are about to begin, which makes the narrator “cross.” This frames the later direct confrontation with the narrator and Lawrence—which will be the climax of the story—while carefully and consistently perpetuating the desire-resistance pattern established in the previous scene. Here Lawrence shows his disdain of family tennis doubles, then comments on the house’s specious gentrification—“Imagine spending a thousand dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck”—and finally the family’s eating habits. We have again the three iterations, but this time of three separate family rituals; and yet—since we just had this in the last scene and the key to quality plotting is reformulation, as Viktor Shklovsky says in his Energy of Delusion, plotting requires “inversion and parody”—these three expressions of disdain function as a prelude for the scene’s central dissatisfaction, that is, Lawrence’s disdain for family backgammon (the X2 in the basic plot pattern).

Unsurprisingly, given Cheever’s previous patterning, the backgammon scene-let can be further subdivided into three iterations also (a+b+c) that blooms from the climax of the original three iterations (tennis, house, food):[1] Lawrence watches on with disdain as the narrator plays his other brother’s wife (a), the narrator plays his other brother (b), and finally the other brother plays their mother (c). As the games proceed, the narrator is sure that Lawrence “finds an inner logic” to this innocent family ritual, and “it will be sordid.” He will, according to the narrator, see each loss and victory as evidence of “human rapaciousness,” that they battle not for money, for fun, but for “one another’s souls.” It’s also important to note here that all of this is filtered through the narrator brother, who, importantly, not only internalizes his brother’s criticisms but also interprets and voices them. While one might think that this distancing might mitigate the intensity of the desire-resistance pattern (why not just have Lawrence verbalize these accusations?), the fact that this interior monologue of disdain comes from the narrator’s imagination of Lawrence actually increases the conflict’s intensity. The disdain Lawrence feels for the family is bottled up by the narrator and fermented, and the narrator “resists” Lawrence’s disdain by trying to articulate it, trying to frame it, which again foreshadows his eventual failure.

Lawrence wins this scene’s desire-resistance pattern. He effectively expresses his disdain for this family ritual through silence (which the narrator verbalizes) and then, in the final paragraph, actively states, “I should think you’d go crazy” and “I’m going to bed.” Here, about halfway through the story, we have a seeming break from the desire resistance pattern, as the narrator makes a point to avoid Lawrence over the next few days, to enjoy his vacation and plan for the “Come as You Wish You Were” dance. But this is not an actual break in the plot. Like Mrs. May’s decision to go look for the Greenleaf boys and Edward’s pouting, this is an attempt to resolve the conflict by a new form of resistance (escape). It is another plot step, but one accomplished in the form of a delay (remember Shklovsky on digression and delay). Lawrence might not be physically present or even mentioned through the majority of the scene, but the reader waits for his return, which roars back at the end of this fourth scene with the same puritanical disapproval, this time of the dance party ritual (A vs X3). The narrator resists by pushing Lawrence into the party—the first physical resistance of the story—and Lawrence fights back limply, asking, “Why should I? Why should I?” The narrator returns to the party without Lawrence and they all dance and drink and “chase balloons”—another attempt to escape the conflict, and also the satisfying and logical climax to that scene’s desire-resistance pattern.

The fifth and climatic scene follows the pattern established in the previous scenes, but Cheever adjusts the movement, reformulates it in a way that speaks to the increasing pressure of Lawrence’s disdain on the narrator specifically. It might be useful to think of this in cinematic terms. The first part of the story has a distant shot of the desire-resistance pattern and Cheever moves in closer and closer until the conflict becomes a physical one (a close-up) between Lawrence’s disdain for the family and the narrator’s resistance. This is not to say Lawrence in this final section does not despise a family ritual too. He very much does—he despises the very idea of a beach vacation. After Lawrence’s wife’s vacation laundering affronts the narrator—her “penitential fervor,” iteration “a”—he goes to swim and finds Lawrence at the beach (iteration “b”). He swims with Lawrence watching. Upon exiting, the narrator imagines Lawrence’s criticisms—this again comes in a neat three-iteration cycle; remember that Cheever constantly has the third iteration give birth to a subset of three iterations, like algae blooms of conflict—and the narrator confronts the way Lawrence “kept his head down” as they walk along the beach (iteration “c”). Lawrence responds with the first explicit expression of disdain: “I don’t like it here.”

Following this blunt description of the desire-resistance pattern, the narrator resists verbally by repeating, “come out of it, Tifty.” Lawrence then insults the narrator physical appearance. The narrator strikes Lawrence from behind with a “sea-water heavy” root. This violence comes fast and is surprising, yet at the same time it is expected; through the successful cycles of desire-conflict exchanges, how Cheever reformulates each in their movement toward this particular confrontation, and the fact that the narrator has been verbalizing Lawrence’s disdain for the family through the entire story, it only make sense that the narrator would end up committing violence on a family member and, by extension, on the family.

Why? Because this is the exact pattern established in the first confrontation with the mother and the drinking— her afterlife with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children”—where Lawrence’s disdain for the family produces a disdain for the family from the family itself. This action is a plot twist and yet is also firmly within the established pattern. So too the narrator’s actions after the violence—his binding of the wound, his silence about the action, and his decision to go swimming yet again, to throw himself into that baptismal font, that “illusion of purification,” the one place in the family’s world that Lawrence “neglected to name,” and thus the one place resistant to Lawrence’s powers of “diminution” (one gets the sense that the narrator cannot name it either, and that is what keeps it redemptive and viable even after the events of the story; it is also, of course, where their father drowned—ironic conflict means syntactic excitement!).

In the next scene, the narrator imagines his brother leaving and reflects on the morning’s intensity and wonders whether anything can be done with “a man like that.” He then looks out his window to see the women of the family emerging naked from the water. In terms of story, the sublime imagery and wordplay are ancillary (though no less important). The plot has already ended. The conflict itself came to a conclusion on the beach. Likewise, the narrator’s philosophical ruminations, all the varied reasons he gives for Lawrence’s disposition and disdain, are tempting to privilege (as they come at the end), but this misses the fact that the actual story, the plot, would not work at all if not for Cheever’s determination to follow the original conflict—that of Lawrence’s puritanical disdain for the family—through the course of the story and to let them play out in three similar yet distinct scenes. This nuts and bolts craft substantiates the lyrical prose and philosophical digressions to follow. Missing this craft does not mean we miss the point of the story; it simply means we will likely have a good amount of trouble writing one.

In his Theory of Prose, Shklovsky argues that “art is not a march set to music, but rather a walking dance to be experienced, or, more accurately, a movement of the body, whose very essence it is to be experienced through the senses.” Each of these three stories has a pronounced musicality to them, and it certainly feels at times that the reader is carried along through the background music alone (whether that comes in the form of syntax or theme or psychology). But this is not what makes a story. As E.M Forster declared in his Aspects of the Novel, a story qua story has but one single merit: that it “makes the audience want to know what happens next.” This merit exists only in an author’s capacity to create a “walking dance to be experienced,” a determination to follow with “the body,” an investment with “the senses.”

We have seen this play out in the three stories analyzed. Each takes a specific character’s desire and invents a situation where another character or group of characters resists this desire. It then takes this conflict and reproduces it at least three times in at least three distinct scenes, and each iteration is reformulated to provide a sense of syntactic excitement, irony and elaboration without ever abandoning the original desire-resistance pattern. This steadfast commitment to the original conflict creates the aesthetic space for the “movement of the body” because this plotting is, ultimately, a commitment to the senses on the part of the author and the reader, to exploring—to quote O’Connor again—“the definite to its extremity.”

Culturally Americans tend to treat literature as an unknown quality, unique with respect to other art forms and disciplines, both urgent and enduring precisely because it cannot be planned, described, and compartmentalized. But this isn’t quite true. The urgent and enduring qualities of literature extend directly from the fact that literature is, as Douglas Glover says, “a process of thinking with its own peculiar form.” Contrary to popular belief—a romanticized and lazy understanding of what art accomplishes and is—this peculiar and specific form provides literature its unknown quality. Writers create interest through, as Glover argues, “variation of form, surprising turns or denials of expectation, dramatic action and emotional resonance”; writers move readers through a walking dance, never for a sentence forgetting that there would be no dance without conflicting bodies and no interesting bodies without this formulaic dance.

—Michael Carson

Works Cited

Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: First Vintage International, 2000.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

Glover, Doug. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Ontario: Biblioasis, 2012.

Glover, Douglas. The Enamoured Knight. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2004.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Compiled by Leo Zuber and edited with an introduction by Carter W. Martin. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Energy of Delusion. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2007.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 1990.

Trevor, William. The Collected Stories. Penguin: New York: Penguin House, 1992.
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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A note here on syntax: Cheever actually reproduces this exact plot pattern on the sentence level in much of his writing. He likes to use the three-beat pattern and then lightly disrupt it, extending the sentence into a six-beat pattern. Here is a particularly strong example from the ending of “Torch Song”: “Jack emptied the whiskey bottle into the sink./ He began to dress./ He stuffed his dirty clothes into a bag. He was trembling and crying with sickness and fear. He could see the blue sky from his window, and in his fear it seemed miraculous that the sky should be blue,/ that the white clouds should remind him of snow,/ that from the sidewalk he could hear the shrill voices of the children shrieking,/ “I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain.”

  4 Responses to “Plot Structure in Three Short Stories | Essay on Conflict and Form — Michael Carson”

  1. Thank you for this fine essay. So much here to ponder!

    It is so much easier to understand a technique with examples. My own touchstone for the entire structure of a novel is Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair.” Every time I read it again, I see something fresh and inventive. For some reason, I am more emotionally moved by Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter,” but for sheer technical perfection, I don’t think anything beats “Affair.”

  2. P.S.

    “The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War” received some incredible reviews. Looking forward to reading this anthology, including your story, and to viewing the illustrations.

    Best regards,

    Maureen Murphy
    Washington DC

    • Thanks for the kind words! Those are two of my favorite novels, but I haven’t read them in ages (and I agree with you about the emotional power of The Heart of the Matter; I think it has something to do with Scobie versus Bendrix). Now I’m looking forward to looking at their structure.

      Hope you enjoy The Road Ahead. Benjamin Busch, one of the contributors, did a great job with those illustrations.

  3. Great article!

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