the Wavering Knife

This explication was written for Professor Beth Lordan’s graduate fiction workshop at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.  It was based on her guidelines and the formal analysis at the end was based on what I’ve learned from her studies in fiction course.  While I’ve done the analytical work, she is due all credit for the ideas behind this.

Brian Evenson’s “Virtual” is told in third-person from Rudy’s point of view (or Roy’s point of view, depending on how you read the story).  The narrator is very close to Rudy’s point of view and makes judgments about the story, such as on the first page, in the second paragraph, when he says “The album he made the mistake of taking out,” or on page 109, in the fourth sentence of section two, when he emphasizes that “He could actually see the child in that photo and the photos that followed […].  It was this that made the version he first told himself seem false.”  These judgment calls suggest Rudy reflecting back on the events of the story.

The story is narrated in past tense with no shifts.

The events of the story take place in chronological order based on what Rudy thinks of while he looks through the photo album.  There are three levels of time in this story: the main action of the story, which is told in flashbacks; the action of Rudy looking through the photo album; and the action of a narrator close to Rudy telling the story.  Perhaps the story suggests that Rudy is the narrator and tells the story in third person because he can’t bear to think of himself within the life that he’s lived.

This is something interesting to take from the story, and something that I will soon explain how to steal: because the story mostly takes place during a time when Rudy looks through a photo album and sees himself through flashbacks, third-person narration fits well with Rudy as the narrator.  He sees himself through photographs, so thinks of himself as a character in his own life.  The final line at the end of the story, “And then he took out the album and turned through it again, hoping to render a new version of his life, one he could bear to live,” suggests that he wants external control over his life.  He’s unhappy with how things have happened, so by refraining from identifying with those events through this third-person narration, he can move on, with that life of the character Rudy (or Roy) somewhat disconnected from his life after that point.

What’s important from this, what I think we can steal in our own fiction, is that if we’re writing a story and want to suggest that our point-of-view character does not want to associate himself or herself with the person depicted in the story, we can write in third-person close to that point of view.  First-person narrators are wrapped entirely in the story.  The story is immediate to a first-person narrator.  A third-person narrator, on the other hand, is outside, looking in.  When themes within the story, as is the case here, suggest that the main character does not want to be associated with the story, third-person narration emphasizes that theme.

The story characterizes Rudy through narrating his thoughts, feelings, and perspective.  Second to that is characterization through dialogue, which is important to put him in context and let us know that he is crazy: that the child does not exist for anyone other than him and his wife.

I’ve already touched on the structure while discussing the order of events, but the story is broken into three sections, each of which progresses in the “life” of the child.  Most of the story is told in flashback based on Rudy looking through a photo album and remembering how his wife created an imaginary child.

While most of the text of the story narrates flashbacks, the main action of the story occurs in the more immediate time when Rudy looks through the photo album and provides his perspective on those flashbacks.  Thus, the most important of the elements that I’ve outlined so far is structure: that this is a story-within-a-story.  On page 104, after the section break, the flashback story is introduced with context from that more immediate perspective: “This is the version he initially told himself, the version he grew comfortable with but also the version which, as he told it over, he began increasingly to doubt.”  This provides a lens so that readers clearly understand how they are to read the flashback, suggesting that Rudy will change between the beginning and ending.  By coming into contact with the photo album and proceeding to re-live strange events in his life, he engages in doubting his previous perspective on the events surrounding his make-believe child, and readers have an understanding of that because of the clear perspective at the outset.

To sum up: the story is narrated in third person from Rudy’s point of view, in past tense, in chronological order based on when Rudy looks through the photo album.  Rudy is characterized through his narration and through his dialogue, and the structure is story-within-a-story, which is the most important element.

This story has a straightforward opening.  While I’ve tried to limit it to the first seven sentences, in accordance with Beth’s suggested rule for fiction, it goes beyond that—but not too much.  The first ten sentences, everything leading up to the page break on page 104, contain everything the story needs to begin.  I’ll analyze this sentence-by-sentence.

“Well after the death of his child, abandoned by his wife and sunk into a despair lasting the better part of a year, Rudy discovered the album.”  This first sentence sets up a lot.  First of all, the first clause, “Well after the death of his child,” suggests that much of the conflict of the story will be based on Rudy dealing with his child’s death.  More importantly, though, the way the narrator refers to the child suggests that at this point in the story, Rudy thinks of the child as having been a real person.  This is fine for now, and we proceed with the opening.

The appositive, “abandoned by his wife and sunk into a despair lasting the better part of a year,” sets up the stasis that the story will abandon: he has been through these things, but now, we’ll see what happens to him.

Finally, the main clause, “Rudy discovered the album,” gives us the crisis that the story will focus on.  Everything in the story is focused on Rudy looking through the photo album.

Proceeding from there, we learn that “His wife had hidden it on the third shelf of the linen closet, under a pile of sheets,” which suggests that his wife continues to offer conflict.  “A note tucked inside the front cover wished him a good life, just to remind you by God here is all you’ve lost” elaborates on the wife’s role in the conflict: she seems to blame him for the loss of the child.

“The note he left shelved, between sheets” is a calm sentence that backs off from the previous suggestion that the wife will have a large role in this.  It moves the opening toward the more important photo album, which he “made the mistake of taking out, carrying to the table, opening”: here, we learn that Rudy regrets, at least at the outset, looking at the photo album.

“Inside, a series of photographs: himself, his wife” is simple at first, but we’ll later realize that this sets up the ending of the closing, when we learn that the baby did not exist.  This prepares us for learning that later: we would expect the child to be in these photographs, but it is not.  “There were baby clothes too in many of the pictures, spread over his arm or smoothed across his wife’s shoulder” is the seventh sentence, but the opening is not yet complete.  We do have in this sentence a suggestion that something is amiss: the story describes baby clothes being treated like a baby, which is exactly what this story is about, but the opening is not yet complete.

The next two sentences continue describing their interaction with a non-child without saying what they’re doing.  It lets us know that something weird is going on without yet saying it.  The story shows us to let us draw our own conclusions: “In one picture, his wife held a tightly rolled blanket.  Beside it, a picture of himself holding the same blanket and peering down the end of it, smiling.”

The following sentence concludes the opening, and while it doesn’t tell us with absolute clarity what’s going on, it shows us everything we need to see: “There he was, sitting at a picnic table, arms around empty air, and there again, crowded into the right half of the photograph, squatting, arm propped out, hand kneading empty air.”  By repeating words—“There he was, […] arms around empty air, and there again, […] hand kneading empty air”—the sentence emphasizes this important detail to ensure that we readers understand what the story will be about, and to suggest that the narrator needs to drive this point in his head.  The opening began with the narrator referring to the imaginary child as “the child” and ends with him referring to the child as “empty air.”

This is the story.  Rudy has already been through this change, and the opening lets us know that.  It could be argued that the following sentence, discussing his doubts, could be part of the opening, but that conflict is already present in the first ten sentences.  Rudy calls the child “the child” and then calls the child “empty air,” and this is enough to suggest this conflict.  He doesn’t know what to call the child, and the story will be about him deciding not only what to call the child, but what exactly this child is to him.  Is it real?  Is it a figment of insanity?  He doesn’t yet know in the opening, but he wants to know.  He will explore this until the ending.

What this opening says for us is simple: in our writing, we should be clear about what is at stake from the start.  Our first sentence should suggest conflict, and the opening should elaborate on that conflict to let readers know, quickly, what the story will be about.  And then, on with the story.

The turning point of the story’s crisis is on page 114, surrounded by white space.  Surely this emphasis is only coincidence; it couldn’t possibly be to make this moment stand out to readers or to suggest that the narrator finds it troubling.  Nor to suggest that the narrator, while thinking back to himself about this moment as he looks through the photo album, doesn’t know what to say.  Impossible!

Now that my sarcasm has woken you up, know that I refer to the section of dialogue just before the space break at the bottom of page 114:

But it was too late.  He could hear her calling his name as he walked the other way.  Finally, he stopped, turned.

“Rudy, she said.  “You came.”

“Of course,” he said.

“Did you bring your baby?” she asked, straight to the point.

“Of course,” he said, and pushed his child out in front of him.

The child took one step forward, collapsed at his feet.

“Well,” the woman said.  “Where is he?  It’s a he, no?”

“Here,” he said.

She laughed, oddly.  “You already said you brought him.  Where here?  With your wife?”

He crouched down, picked the child up, set it back on its feet, watching her eyes as he did so.

“What is it?” she asked.  “Are you doing mime?”

“The child’s around here somewhere,” he finally said.  She continued to stare.  “He must be with his mother,” he offered.

This is the turning point both for Rudy in the story-in-the-story-past and for Rudy while he looked through the photo album.  In the inner story, this sets Rudy in motion to confirm that his child is a figment of his imagination and to kill this figment of his imagination, which completely changes his life.  In the more immediate story, it gives Rudy certainty that his child was only in his head.  This is how the beginning and ending are connected: in the beginning, Rudy referred to this turning point as “the death of his child,” suggesting that he believed the child to be real, but this turning point leads him to the ending when he realizes that the child was only in his head, but that he wishes that would continue.

Analyzing the story’s turning point further would offer little: it is one event.  It confirms what the story suggested previous to it—that Rudy believed his child was real—and provides tension against that.  It provides clarification to Rudy and to the readers that Rudy’s child was not real, or at least that his child was only real to his wife and him.  This clarification forced Rudy to kill his imaginary child and to realize that his child was only real to his wife and him.

The ending of the story, on the other hand—which consists of the final three paragraphs on page 118, the final nine sentences of the story—leads readers carefully out of the story.

“He closed the album, held it in his lap as he looked about the room,” the ending’s first sentence, suggests that he realizes that the album is not the conflict here.  While at the beginning, the narrator called “opening the album” a “mistake,” by the ending, he knows that this change in him was inevitable.  There was no denying his feelings: “He hoped to see his son again, static before him, or the floor coated with repetitions of his son’s face.  He hoped for something dramatic and significant.  He wanted to be haunted.”  Not only does he finally call his child “his son,” but he wants him to return.  He accepts that his son was “static” before, but he wants this back.  He accepts that his wife created his son in a “dramatic” fashion—which he previously described as quite troubling and difficult for him—and wants this again.  He accepts that his son was nothing more than a ghost of his imagination, and he wants this back.  “But even when he squinted there was nothing.”  He never knew how to create a child, but along with his wife, he did.  Now, he can’t.

“He went into the bathroom, filled the tub with water, stared, tried to make out the swirl of his son’s hair as he sank.  There was only water, a ripple of shadow through it.”  He stares at the water, trying to return to where he last saw his son, but the water is where he killed his son.  He does what he can, but nothing will bring his son back.

“He wandered like that, through the house, all through that night and into the next, seeing nothing, wandering as if he were the ghost and there had never been anyone to haunt him save for he himself.”  I find this second-to-last sentence to be quite vague.  His change to “wandering as if he were the ghost and there had never been anyone to haunt him save for he himself” is unclear: what does it mean to wander as if you were a ghost?  He’s certainly haunted by an absence in this sentence, but it’s unclear how he himself is being a ghost.  The child was his creation, and he is obsessed with the absence of this creation.  Perhaps this is what ghosts do.

Moving past this mystery, he ceases to act like a ghost and returns to real life, doing whatever he can to get what he wants, “And then he took out the album and turned through it again, hoping to render a new version of his life, one he could bear to live.”  Starting the sentence with a conjunction that reaches back to what came before it, he turns to the past.  The ending up to this point has suggested that he wants his boy back, but this final sentence, preceded by a sentence full of mystery, puts this in doubt.  Does he want to make his boy exist again?  If he did, wouldn’t he seek his wife out?  Or does he instead want to convince himself that his boy never existed even for him: a much more simple and bearable life.  Perhaps he wants to look through the photo album and not see his boy in any of the photos.

This is unclear, but at this point, the story has flipped: while at the beginning, Rudy was unsure whether his child existed or not, at the ending, he realizes that his son existed only for his wife and him.  While at the beginning he thought his child’s creation was problematic and negative, at the end, he finds that problem to be positive.  He wants everything back.

This suggests things for our purposes that are as simple as what the beginning told us: endings should, in some way, reverse beginnings, and that reversal should be tied to a turning point.  Chris Haven, my fiction professor from GVSU, once told me that stories should end with a gesture, and this story does just that.  Because of the lack of clarity regarding what this ending means, I think that this particular ending lacks the resonance I would like to see in my work, but this ending confirms that the aforementioned technique works.  Rudy’s final gesture, turning back to the photo album, suggests change, and the vagueness seems to be necessary.  Rudy doesn’t quite know what to do.  He has found happiness in the past and understands how that past happened, but doesn’t yet know how to move beyond it.

By my estimation, I’ve now answered all required questions with about ten minutes to spare.  This is perfect, because there’s a lot more to discuss: things we can steal for our own writing.  I suppose this is an introduction for the first-years to Beth’s forms class.  Take it with a grain of salt, though, as I haven’t yet been able to analyze anything above a C+ level.  Regardless, I think discussing these things will be worthwhile, and you experienced folks will stop me if I get carried away.  So: first, I’ll outline what I intend to explore in this section of the explication:

  • Italics
  • Repetition
  • Starting with conjunctions
  • The genderless child
  • Missing conjunctions/comma splices
  • The passive voice

Italics are used in a number of different ways in this story.  They’re once used to set the narrator’s thoughts off, to display some of his wife’s and his own dialogue (and, once, dialogue spoken by the girl from accounting, on page 112) and his wife’s writing, and to add emphasis in prose.

Because italics once set the narrator’s thoughts off and otherwise the narrator’s thoughts are written straight, there must be an important distinction between these two modes of thought.  As I’ve said, the story is told in third person close to Rudy’s point of view, and his thoughts are often evident in the text without the text stating so explicitly.  Thus, there are actually three levels of his thoughts: those he thinks as the story is narrated, those he thinks explicitly, and those that he thinks along with the emphasis of italics.  Because this emphasis of his thoughts happens only once, I thought that perhaps it would be important, but I don’t think that it is in this case.  This occurs on page 106 at the start of the second full paragraph, when Rudy had thought to himself, “I am living with a crazy person.”

Italics calls extra attention to it.  The italics could suggest that Rudy also thinks this the second time he goes through this story, in the more immediate past when he is looking through the photo album, but this would be no different from a few paragraphs down, when “He was glad for the respite, [and] thought for a bare moment that she had swung back to her senses.”  These italicized thoughts are then a good technique to call emphasis to something in particular for the readers, but suggest little about Rudy himself as he re-lives the story.  It’s a good thing to steal, but surely you can use it for better purposes than what it’s used for here.

Next, there is a distinction in dialogue in this story: sometimes dialogue is written with quotation marks, sometimes dialogue is written in italics, and sometimes dialogue is written with neither.  I think this is used in this story a little bit better than the distinction in thoughts.

First of all, I’ll say that dialogue in quotation marks seems more real than dialogue told in any other way.  The quotation marks set it apart from the standard narration, and this is used with particular success at the turning point of the story, when something quite distinct from what Rudy expects intrudes on his conception of the world.  Folks at the picnic tell Rudy that his child is not real.  This also works in the first mini-chapter of the book, when the first dialogue in quotation marks we see is on pages 104 and 105 when husband and wife have a calm and realistic discussion with an intern about why the wife thinks she’s having a baby.

Rudy can accept that all of this dialogue in quotation marks is real.  He has no choice to accept that it’s real: it’s outside of his narration.  He has no power over this.  He has no power to make others see his child and has no power to change what they say about his child.  Quotation marks bring others into the story and add credibility to the words.  He is certain of what is in quotation marks and must deal with it.

Italicized dialogue, on the other hand, is less certain.  It is not part of the standard narration, but it isn’t as definite as quotation marks.  Is this because Rudy doesn’t remember the italicized dialogue as clearly, or is it because he doesn’t want to remember the italicized dialogue and because he wants it to change?  The first italicized dialogue we see comes from Rudy, when he responds on page 104 to whether or not he wants to “rest his throat against [his wife’s] belly and talk to the fetus” by saying “Absolutely not.”  Would he want to change this at this point?  When on page 106, in response to his wife’s habitual begging, “It won’t be born, he would [habitually] say, or There is no baby,” would he want to change this?  When on pages 111 and 112, “At least bring pictures, the girl from accounting insisted,” would he want to change this?  I think so.  I think that italicized dialogue indicates that his later narrating self wants these things to change.  Perhaps this is part of his life that he wishes to re-render toward a life he can bear to live.

What about dialogue that has no special distinction?  This appears in two spots: page 104 and page 113.  On page 104, “He didn’t love her, she informed him, let alone the baby.”  Dialogue that is not set apart from the narration blends in with the narration.  My initial thought was that this is an emphasis of the malleability of italicized dialogue, but it blends so seamlessly into his narration.  It is on the same plane as the previous sentence, “She wept for what struck him as an interminable length of time,” and the following sentences, “This apparently rendered him heartless.  When he declared there was no baby, she grew hysterical.  She broke plates as long as there were plates to be broken, then stopped cold.”  Could he doubt the reality of these sentences and want to forge them into a new reality?  Possibly.  Nothing sets them apart from the rest of the text, text which he wishes to change—to “render a new version of […], one he could bear to live.”  If he can doubt the reality of everything not in quotation marks and go back and re-render it, perhaps the italics then suggest the moments he especially wishes to re-render.

I hope this discussion hasn’t been rambling and nonsensical.  It seems circular, but I hope that that suggests something about these techniques: that they are so important to be tied intensely to the story, rather than that my thoughts are undeveloped.

One more note about italics.  They once emphasize a word in prose, and that word is ruddy.  Toward the bottom of page 110, when Rudy speaks with his supervisor, his supervisor calls him “Roy,” Rudy corrects his supervisor that his name is actually “Rudy,” and his supervisor mistakes this for Rudy saying that “things at home” are “Ruddy,” the word ruddy infects Rudy.  Someone else’s idea about the baby, ruddy, becomes his own thought about the baby, because “when he went home he found the baby ruddy, color to it, body, more substantial than before.”  What happened in reality had a profound effect on Rudy’s perception of his imaginary child.  Later, on page 115, at the bottom of the third paragraph and after the turning point of the story had suggested that the child was not real, Rudy wishes to use this word to the same effect.  “He willed the child to swell into full existence, grow ruddy, run about.  But the child remained as it was, a creature mostly of air and shadow, present yet not present.”

Even though he has adopted the word as his own—no longer emphasized, with italics, as someone else’s word—it has no effect.  It has lost its magic.  It has deflated.  It is part of his bag of tricks, which has been rendered worthless.  He needs someone else to confirm the reality of his son.  This actually adds a great deal to interpreting the story.  It suggests something that isn’t otherwise explicit in the story: that just as Rudy can’t create a real child alone, he can’t create an imaginary child alone.  This suggests that the information leading to this conclusion is there for him to notice, but also that he hasn’t realized it yet.

Because I’m now running short on time—my guess, as little as three minutes left—I’ll run through my first thoughts on the remainder of items in this list.  This run-through will be very brief and rough: what I say here needs more elaboration and investigation.  I’ve studied the story pretty thoroughly by this point, but am giving this section only the limited amount of time we have left.

Repetition isn’t a huge theme in the story, but glancing at the ending suggests that it’s doing something, and I think we can steal this technique.  The first four sentences, the sixth sentence, and the eighth sentence of the ending start in similar ways: “He closed […].  He hoped […].  He hoped […].  He wanted […].  […]  He went […].  […]  He wandered.”  Each sentence starts with the pronoun “he” for Rudy and a simple action he performed.  The repetition here emphasizes what he wants to do otherwise: he wants to repeat his past life.  He wants to continue to have his imaginary son.  While these actions suggest his acceptance of his son’s absence, the repetition suggest otherwise.  He wants to repeat past actions.

I’ve already touched on starting with conjunctions in my discussion of the ending: the final sentence says, “And then he took out the album and turned through it again, hoping to render a new version of his life, one he could bear to live.”  This “And then” at the start of the sentence of course reaches back to the previous sentence, but the theme of conjunctions to start the sentence suggests a more generalized reaching back, which fits with my interpretation of the story.  Rudy wants to go back to a time when his son was real to him.  He wants to connect with what came before.

The genderless child is, I think, fairly simple.  It isn’t until the ending, when Rudy wants to make his child real, that he calls his child a son.  Others throughout the story have referred to the child as a male child, but at the end, when Rudy wants his child to be real, he makes that small step to show that he wants the child to be real.  Instead of calling the child “the child” or “it,” he calls the child his son.

There are many missing conjunctions/comma splices throughout the story.  Grouping these together may seem unfair, but all suggest missing words from the text.  When conjunctions are missing, the story suggests that the narrator has trouble connecting two things together.  A prime example is on page 109, at the midpoint of the second full paragraph: “He would see the baby only in the presence of his wife, only when the two of them were alone.”  Rudy doesn’t know the connection between these two clauses, so can’t show the relationship between them.  Leaving out the word “and” (or however else he would connect them) suggests that he doesn’t know how they go together.

Also toward the bottom of page 109, I notice that the story uses the passive voice twice consecutively: “The growth was always announced by his wife and not seen by him at first, but then quickly there.”  If this were a bigger theme of the story, I would suggest that the story is about his passivity and that he blames his wife for what happened to him.  However, this is a passing phase.  It’s worth noting because it stands out, but it doesn’t seem important.

To sum up:

  • The story is narrated in third person from Rudy’s point of view, in past tense, in chronological order based on when Rudy looks through the photo album.  Rudy is characterized through his narration and through his dialogue, and the structure is story-within-a-story, which is the most important element.
  • The beginning and ending are concise and to the point, loaded with meaning, and these are flipped because of the turning point.
  • When themes within the story, as is the case here, suggest that the main character does not want to be associated with the story, third-person narration emphasizes that theme.
  • The opening gives us a simple lesson: in our writing, we should be clear about what is at stake from the start.  Our first sentence should suggest conflict, and the opening should elaborate on that conflict to let readers know, quickly, what the story will be about.  And then, on with the story.
  • The ending is simple, too: endings should, in some way, reverse beginnings, and that reversal should be tied to a turning point.  Ending with a gesture is an effective technique to suggest what the main character will do next.
  • Dialogue in quotation marks seems more real than dialogue told in any other way.  Italicized dialogue, in this story, is less certain.  My interpretation of that for this story may be off, but it seems to suggest here that Rudy wants this italicized dialogue to change.
  • Adopting a word from another person, first using this word in italics, and later adopting it as his own (a strategy I give Beth full credit for finding in Updike’s A&P, of course), here suggests the effect of someone else’s word on the main character.
  • Starting with conjunctions reaches back.
  • Leaving the child genderless until the end suggests a change.
  • Missing conjunctions suggests Rudy’s difficulty to connect things in his mind.
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