You Looking at Me?
It’s amazing how little the short story has changed in response to the technologies that are reshaping our lives, in particular, the visual culture of an on-line life. We live in an increasingly visual culture (obviously), but our short fictions only rarely reflect this. Many novels and memoirs make use of visual images—from Maso to Sebald, Bechdel to Flynn—but few short fictions do. Despite the great success of graphic novels and memoirs, the graphic short story has yet to come of age.
Perhaps short-story writers are nervous? Worried about seeming insubstantial, given the brevity of their form. Perhaps we steer clear of the visual for fear of looking unserious, of inadvertently wading into the children’s section of the bookstore.
Whatever the reason, I’d like to encourage the short-story writers among you to consider the possibility of incorporating visual elements in your short fictions by considering their use in a story by Canadian writer Diane Schoemperlen. I hope it may inspire you to employ visual elements in your work—or at least to consider why you don’t and how you might. (And for those who don’t write stories, I hope the following prompts you to look up Schoemperlen’s work, if you’ve not already.)
In her story “Body Language,” Diane Schoemperlen embeds anatomical drawings in her text even as she adheres to rather traditional story conventions. The story charms for many reasons, but above all for its foregrounding of form. Schoemperlen’s use of anatomical drawings in “Body Language” insistently draws the reader’s attention to matters of form—the human form, narrative form, the forms of love and betrayal “illustrated” by the story’s narrative. The danger, of course, of calling such heightened attention to “form,” is that one runs the risk of having formal considerations outstrip fictional ones, of style outstripping content, and of the whole project seeming precious. But in a good story, style is inseparable from content (as Susan Sontag maintains), and it is the triumph of this piece that the use of the drawings enhances, rather than distracts from, the story’s meaning.
From its first page, “Body Language” announces an interest in forms. There is the human form presented in the shape of the anatomical drawing, but there is also the tension created by seeing an uncommon formal element—the drawing—dropped into the middle of the text, disrupting the predictable short-story narrative. The tension between these forms is heightened by the fact that the drawings displace the narration, shoved into the paragraphs like a splinter under a fingernail. More than a gimmick, the dramatic placement means: it signals the psychological reality of the characters’ lives—the forms they have employed in their marriage, those domestic tropes (habits of lies, of accommodation, of betrayal) are crowding out the story between them. Just as the anatomical forms threaten to push the narrative off the page. (One might also think of this as a struggle against “image,” since there is also a concern for keeping up appearances.) Toward the end of the story, another form—that of figures of speech—emerges as yet another obstacle to authentic contact: “He can feel it in his bones.” “He will have to get it through his head.”
The specific characteristics of the anatomical drawings are significant. Just as the drawings reveal the inner workings of the body, so the story serves as a psychological autopsy of a marriage. Just as the drawings present one piece of the body at a time, rather than a vital whole, so the protagonist’s compartmentalizing of his life into good days and bad suggests a dismembered life and love—a moribund thing. Even the paragraphs are amputated limbs: separate blocks of text separated by spaces, each paragraph a form unto itself, a piece severed from the whole.
That the characters are themselves “forms” or types, more than individual characters, is underscored by the absence of personal names. We know the characters only as pronouns: he, she. Like the anatomical drawings, they are generic images of ourselves exposed, images both familiar and unfamiliar, a vision of ourselves we at once reject as other and must claim as our own. Unfamiliar and raw as they are, they are us.
The universality of the couple’s dilemma is further underscored by the author’s initial refusal to anchor the story in a specific place or time. Instead, at the opening, she gives us the generic forms of days: a good day, a bad day. The use of the simple present tense, a tense indicative of repeated or habitual action, further unmoors the action, creating a floating indefinite present. It is only on the bottom of page 29 that the author anchors us in a specific sequence: a bad day turned good, in which the wife returns home, they make love, dine.
The danger of privileging formal considerations in a short story (i.e., calling attention to the form in which it’s written) is the loss of profluence, waking the reader from the fictional dream. But Schoemperlen maintains our interest, by various means, including strategic use of repetition. By repeating phrases and details in slightly altered form, the author urges the reader to participate in putting the pieces together, to make connections among the story’s passages. This repetition is employed from the outset: “On a good day…. On a bad day.” But subtler examples obtain (for example, regarding shoes on pages 27-28; and within paragraphs, as on page 29, etc.). The point being that if one element of fiction is diminished (e.g., the conventions of verisimilitude), then other means of engaging and holding the reader’s attention must be employed to make us care.
We learn, toward the end of the story that this dismembered view is expressive of the protagonist’s character, not merely an authorial imposition: “He pictures [his wife] as he always does, one perceptible part at a time. Ankle, elbow, that small round bone protruding at the wrist….” In the story’s final lines, the full significance of the story’s style comes clear: “For now, as long as nobody says the words out loud, he can concentrate instead upon the language of her ankles, elbows, that small round bone protruding at the wrist.” Concentrating on the parts, he need not consider the whole—his marriage and its failure. The tight focus on body parts, as on forms, is revealed to be a diversion, buying him time before he has to get it through his head that it is over.
For the reader, Schoemperlen’s story offers strong evidence that visual images can enhance short fiction, if meaningfully used, if only we will get that through our heads.