Bewildering Stories discusses...
Where’s the Evidence?
J. C. G. Goelz’s “Responsibilities of Being a Man” begins in issue 798 and concludes in issue 801. The Managing Editor summarizes an on-line debate about various aspects of the story.
In “Responsibilities of Being a Man,” some readers have a negative emotional reaction to the violent scene in parts 7 and 8 and, to a lesser extent, the epilogue. Granted, the grotesque events would overstep limits of common sensitivity if real people were involved, and current taste warrants readers’ advisories like those seen on television.
Qualms are understandable. What would you think of someone who said, “I really enjoy seeing characters bashed and carved up. I want more like it”? You wouldn’t trust that person with a butter knife; aversion is more normal and reassuring.
A reader says, “Editing is not just about writing quality but also about ideas.” True enough; everyone has personal preferences, but editors ought to be wary of systematically proscribing ideas. In world literature, everything is open to discussion. And so is everything in Bewildering Stories.
Editing is not the same as choosing a dessert. Bewildering Stories’ editors will have many different favorite “flavors.” “BwS” is a big operation, and it isn’t a department store; it‘s a cooperative. Consider the alternative: “best of” magazine anthologies that have a single editor run a big risk; readers are very likely to see the selections as only “more of the same.” Not here. Variety is an inexhaustible quality, and Bewildering Stories thrives on it.
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Some readers feel that the confrontation in parts 7 and 8 is “rushed.” What does “rushed” mean? That the scene should be depicted in super-slow motion, in even more detail than it already is? Or should part 6 include filler, to delay the action? Or does “rushed” mean that the readers are simply not ready for what happens? If they were, wouldn’t we be hearing the common — and meaningless — criticism “predictable”?
Another reader had been not only expecting but avowedly hoping for the opposite: a conventional “nerd versus jock” story. The expectation is incredible. “Nerd” is a condescending term for a studious, unathletic social outsider. Does any such character appear in the story?
The narrative sounds a violence alert very early. The first section of part 1 cites two lynchings that have occurred not in fiction but in real life, and the brutal events are a matter of public record. In telling us what such events mean to him, Kelvin Stoddard outlines his own story in advance. One must keep Kelvin’s youth in mind; he strives to be fair-minded, but he is young and tends to think in terms of rather simplistic categories:
If some guy treats girls like whores, maybe he’s been seeing a bunch of whores. There are certainly enough to go around. But if he’s wrecking a bunch of good girls, young girls that don’t know any better, maybe he ought to be encouraged to stop. It’s part of the responsibility of being a man. I take that seriously, though I’m only fifteen.
The conflict emerges promptly, in the second section of part 1. Sterling Richardson deliberately taunts Kelvin with what he knows must be a painful memory:
“That’s funny,” he said with a slow, measured pace. “I’ll have to remember that. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that about you driving. I know your dad can’t drive a stick shift these days.”
Readers can learn a lot from the scene where Kelvin’s father is gruesomely dismembered in an accident. His life is saved only by Kelvin’s extraordinary initiative and presence of mind — and his knife. The scene is too long to quote in full, but it climaxes with:
Finally the auger stopped, and I went to my dad. I didn’t know where his forearm was, and his humerus was somewhere up the auger, torn out of his shoulder. Part of the flesh of his upper arm was still attached to his body, but a strip of flesh wound away, up the drill.
He had passed out, and was hanging from the machine by the strip of flesh. I took out my pocket knife and had to cut him away. I had to cut through the flesh that used to be his upper arm. I kept tying things around his stump, my kerchief, and some nylon rope. The blood stopped. I didn’t know if he had much left in him.
The accident scene sounds a clear warning. Spectators who see such action in the first act of any film or play must ask themselves, “How is the author going to top that?” If they don’t want to know, they had better leave the theatre either immediately or at the end of part 6. Surprise is not an option.
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The quease factor
Another reader says, “The violence was typical for a revenge tragedy, especially one involving rape and mutilation or murder, for example Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.”
The Shakespearean play has become a little obscure over the years, but Bergman’s film is more recent (1960). Its depiction of violence is relatively tidy, at least in the North American version; it is visually alluded to but not shown. The reader’s examples are quite appropriate, but one could also start a lot earlier.
How would a film show the spearings and swordplay graphically depicted in Homer’s Iliad? And who dragged whom how many times around the walls of what? Dare we witness Sophocles’ Oedipus, who seizes Jocasta’s golden needles and plunges them into his eyeballs in front of the audience in the amphitheatre of Athens?
Even Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a sensation in its day (1960), shows a slashing knife and blood, although not much of the victim. Hitchcock’s film has shock value precisely because of surprise: the audience knows that something must be about to happen but not what it might be. Today, such scenes are not only expected but considered, for all practical purposes, routine.
The TV series The Tudors avoids surprise by resorting to ritual. It shows Anne Boleyn, blindfolded and kneeling on a public stage at the Tower, listening desperately to the tiptoeing swordsman. The viewers know that the scene will fulfill their expectations and, sure enough, the film editor cuts to her head lying on the stage. One would expect her decapitated body to be gushing blood onto the morbidly fascinated spectators, but the producers may have felt that such realism would occasion too much mopping up after the scene had been shot. Or perhaps they acceded to standards of current taste.
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“Gratuitous” = ?
To “keep the readers on the page” with the author, especially in prose fiction, editors must consider mainly narrative logic. If anything is omitted, what will be the effect? If anything is added, will it write a different story or will it plausibly support the original?
Some readers have decried as “gratuitous” the violence in parts 7 and 8. In every case, “gratuitous” seems to mean “something I don’t like.” No, the word does have a meaning. and that meaning may help the readers talk about the story rather than about themselves. Bewildering Stories defines “gratuitous” as something that has no significance beyond itself. It’s a specialized synonym of “superfluous”; anything is “gratuitous” if it can be omitted without making a substantial — or, sometimes, even noticeable — change in the story.
Let’s take an example from another story. In “At the Tillicoultrie Inn,” Felipe, a restaurant patron, suddenly dies quite dramatically at dinner. The cause is never determined, and the event has no consequences. Is it gratuitous? In itself, yes. However, it serves as a grotesque climax to the story of the restaurant’s aspiring young chef, who has been having a very bad day. Readers may decide that something less macabre would be more in tune with the comic mode of the story.
The “battle” scene in “Responsibilities of Being a Man” is quite different; remove it, and there’s no story left. Why is the scene necessary? In part 7, Kelvin offers Sterling a reasonable alternative:
I said, “This is one screwed-up situation, Sterling, but if you let us go now, we can avoid a catastrophe.” I could tell April heard me, but I wasn’t sure about Jimmy.
Sterling rejects the offer by describing how he intends to rape and murder April, Jimmy and Kelvin. He also states a rationale:
Oh, I’ll get away with it. I’ve brought girls here before, and no one has said a thing. With my dad’s money, I’m invincible, ain’t nothing can touch me. When we’re through with you, we are going to take your bodies to the curve in the railroad track and, when the four-thirty train comes through, there won’t be enough left of your bodies for anyone to ever know what happened to you.
Is Sterling Richardson’s boast merely a bluff? One might wish it were, but what purpose would it serve? The readers — like Kelvin — know that Sterling has no reason to speak idly and must be taken at his word.
Consider the alternatives; what might readers prefer? Shall April return from her date in love with Sterling, who turns out to be the Prince Charming that everything he has said and done tells us he is not? Or shall Kelvin and Jimmy slink back home as cowards and abandon April? Or shall the three watch while their tormentors carry out Sterling’s promise by violating and murdering them one by one?
Are the dismemberments distateful? Yes, of course. What is their function? Does Kelvin’s knife thrust have intentional or accidental consequences? How else can April show her feelings without acting in cold-blooded deliberation? One can hardly expect prim, ladylike restraint. With April, barbarism meets its match.
The reader is as much a captive of narrative logic as the characters are. And the reader is forced to take sides: if not Kelvin’s, then heed his warnings in part 1.
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Cleaning up clues
Some readers may wish that the story were something else entirely. If not “nerd versus jock,” how about a police procedural? The genre can be defined as a story that is told wholly or partly from the point of view of an institutional or other authority and solves a mysterious crime. The authority may range from an amateur or private detective to a prince of the realm. By that definition, the fairytale “Cinderella” is — at least in part — a police procedural; a prince undertakes an investigation to find out whose foot fits the shoe left at his party.
Where are the police in “Responsibilities”? We do not hear from them. One reader makes an important point but, in the process, assumes that the police are both incompetent and omniscient. The police arrive on the scene ready to prove what only the readers know has happened. However, forensics fails to find clues in the bodies; crime scene investigation fails to turn up blood traces and DNA evidence at the Richardsons’ house; and the parents are not questioned.
Let’s be fair to the police: they are competent but not omniscient. Have the bodies been left unsplattered — indeed, more or less intact — after being run over by a train? Is there enough evidence to justify suspicion of a crime? The Richardsons’ home is not self-evidently a crime scene: in fact, Kelvin, Jimmy and April have been “perfect spies”; no one knows they’ve been there. They might have been seen, but they weren’t. Parents were undoubtedly questioned, but what could they add?
Nonetheless, two pieces of evidence remain unaccounted for. Our reader rightly points out one: the tarpaulin in Sterling’s pickup truck. We can add another: April. Narrative logic fails unless both are explained. What additions might be plausible?
How might Kelvin and Jimmy dispose of the tarp? Burning seems inadvisable; burying it, perhaps less so; or, probably easiest, simply slipping it under the lid of a dumpster on the way home in the dark. Would it be missed? Anyone who knew that the truck had a tarpaulin could assume that the equipment had been stolen. The detail could have been explained away somehow; unfortunately, it remains a “loose end.”
April’s date with Sterling is a matter of common knowledge. The police would have to question her, because she is known to be one of the last to have seen Sterling alive. She can tell, at most, only part of the truth: the date went bad, and Kelvin and Jimmy met her on her way home. The two boys corroborate her story, as far as it goes, and the parents can add little or nothing to it. It’s another loose end that the author and editors missed.
In any event, Sterling Richardson boasts that his father has the authorities in his pocket, and his claim is credible. The police need not be incompetent or corrupt; a single official sympathetic to Sterling’s father would suffice to head off any public embarrassment to the family.
* * *
All’s well that ends.
Does the epilogue detract from the story? Is it “contrived”? In either case, how? One might ask, rather: What does the epilogue add? How would its omission change the story?
The epilogue has a precedent in the film American Graffiti, although the film’s epilogue is more a list than a narrative. Some 25 years after the original story, Kelvin tells what has happened to Jimmy, April and himself. Some readers may not care; they may dismiss the subsequent events as inconsequential and say that the story concludes in part 8 with:
We walked home without saying a word to each other but, when we were about a mile from home, we heard a train whistle. We all smiled, but none of us laughed.
If the story did end there, what would readers think of the three protagonists? Is their story complete? What do the events mean to them? Readers may imagine their own epilogues, of course, but that is the author’s job.
Other readers may want to know what happens to the three protagonists. The answer is that their future proceeds as inexorably from the past as in any classical tragedy. Does any of them benefit from the battle with Sterling and his co-conspirators? Only by being allowed to live. And none lives “happily ever after.” Jimmy is killed while defending a hospital; April is a widowed mother; Kelvin lives out his life alone as a caregiver for his parents.
Are the three scarred by the battle with Sterling? Some readers may conclude that it goes without saying; others may ask to be told. In either case, the epilogue ends the story as a tragicomedy; a tragic event restores an equilibrium, where life continues as it ought to, and where the three protagonists live by the principle that Kelvin sets out in part 1: to protect the vulnerable.