A good place to begin when looking at the effects that a story is having on you as a reader is to understand the four basic genres of storytelling. These are Epic (which contains the vast majority of fiction created by the human race, with its generally happy endings), Tragedy (a fall from grace, ending in death), Irony (a twisted version of an Epic, in which usual expectations are turned on their heads) and Comedy (which usually ends with a marriage or reunion of some kind). There is obviously a lot more to these four basic genres, and they are examined in some detail in my book How Stories Really Work.
For much of the twentieth century and the first part of this century, our culture has been in an Ironic phase - by this, I mean that stories (and other art) has turned dark, undermining the lighter and more structured frameworks of earlier fiction and deconstructing them, distorting them to create intentionally shocking and generally introverting effects. Much of what we call ‘modern’ and ‘post-modern’ fiction is about delving into the mechanism of fiction itself, usually with the aim of emptying the reader of any preconceived notion of meaning; much of modern and post-modern art has as its purpose, broadly speaking, the communication of meaninglessness. I know I speak in general terms, but the tendency of today’s culture is towards hollowness and paranoid subjectivity, especially in comparison to earlier periods.
It’s difficult for modern authors to step outside this trend and write something different. A close group like the Inklings, of which the most famous names were those of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, managed it: from within their small, informal company have come some of the world’s greatest counter-cultural best-sellers, like The Lord of the Rings, which reinvigorated the entire genre of High Fantasy, or the Chronicles of Narnia, which unapologetically brought Christianity back into mainstream children’s writing. But most of today’s authors are on their own - the temptation to ‘go with the flow’ of the post-modern world and write for the masses, penning formulaic Young Adult fiction, grim horror tales or darker and darker crime fiction is strong enough to overwhelm many.
Occasionally, there is an exception: an author like Gary Bonn comes along and not only refuses to be constricted by formulas but also twists the Irony back into an Epic on occasion. He does this by masterfully playing with reader expectations, as in the story The Boy on the Beach from his collection Through Another’s Eyes, available here. If you haven’t read that story, please do so before reading the rest of this article as you will then experience in all innocence something of what I am about to describe.
Bonn is an expert at ‘written impressionism’, the art of setting a scene using minimal wordage. Look at the opening of this tale and marvel at how quickly we are established within it:
Sunset. Everything blood red. There’s a little boy, maybe eight or nine years old, standing on the beach, right at the point where crescents of foam reach his toes. I don’t think my husband can see him; he hasn’t reacted, though the boy is only a few metres away.
If real estate is all about location, location, location, frequently so is fiction: we are given the time, the light, and something to concentrate on (a little boy), then the place; we are given a viewpoint, relationship and distances all within a few words. Whereas a lesser writer might concentrate then on getting things into motion with a ‘What happens next?’ type of scenario, Bonn instead gives us more detail about the boy and builds up the ‘What’s really going on?’ question of the story, the one designed to deepen mystery:
The boy, long-haired and dressed only in a loincloth of seaweed, stares towards the horizon, holding his arms out, snapping his fingers with both hands and talking in a susurrous voice, almost mimicking the sounds of the sea. His tone is lighthearted, even joyous. Switching to English he looks back and flashes a huge smile at me. 'Hello, tell Ben to carry on down the beach. Say you want to sit on that rock and think for a while.'
Why is this boy dressed only in a loincloth? Why is it made of seaweed? What is he doing? It’s all clearly non-threatening - ‘His tone is lighthearted, even joyous’ - but it’s very strange. The boy turns to our viewpoint and ‘flashes a huge smile’ - should we relax? The author has managed to create and then undermine a set of expectations for us in under two paragraphs, without even letting us know who our first person protagonist is - this is not an Epic structure, in which we are carefully introduced to a standard ‘hero’ who is then placed in context and moved towards a menace which he or she usually has to overcome: this is an Ironic beginning, in which our uncertainties outnumber our certainties. Bonn wastes no time (he never does) in increasing our uncertainty:
I look at my husband. He’s staring at me, confused. He says, 'What are you looking at? Why have you stopped?'
The boy continues singing but interjects to speak to me, 'Please, you need to tell him to go on. It’s best that we’re alone for this.' His tone is both authoritative and beseeching. 'Give him a kiss first,' he adds, turns and darts towards the cliff, scrambles up impossibly steep rock and disappears among the trees. 'Back in a moment!' he shouts down.
So the husband (our protagonist is the ‘wife’, then) can’t see the boy - mystery is magnified. And the boy, our only hope at this point of understanding what is happening, is ‘authoritative and beseeching’ and then vanishes.
Just when the scale of uncertainty might tip us into rejection, Bonn quickly fills in a few details, setting us up with Ben and his wife as playful seniors on a harmless trip to the beach:
Ben, leaning on his walking poles, says, 'Are you all right, my dear?' The wind whips his thinning but pointy beard, grey and white hairs flicked in the gust.
'Yes. I’m going to give you a hug and kiss and sit here for a minute. You get the ice creams. I’ll be along shortly.'
His bushy eyebrows rise in mock horror. 'I’m not going to leave a pretty young lady alone on this wild beach. Anything could happen!'
'Get the ice creams, you old fool.' I plant my walking stick on a stone, lean forward and peck him on the cheek. 'Mine’s wild ginger, raspberry if they haven’t got that. A cone…one of those with the bit of chocolate at the bottom. Quick now. I have thinking to do.'
'And what would you be thinking about?'
'How would I know? I haven’t had a chance yet. I’m having a thinking moment. Get on with you.'
Or is it harmless? Our protagonist hints that things may have gone a little too far, but balances this with comforting, warm words.
We shouldn’t have come this far from the promenade but neither of us have ever been sensible. We’re so close, so similar; two aspects of the same person. I love that man so much.
We are in: as readers, we have achieved a suitably welcoming anchoring position within the tale, nestled into the viewpoint of this loving, elderly wife. But now that we have ‘arrived’, the author has no plans to let things rest:
A sound makes me turn. The boy is back on the beach. In those insufficient moments he’s collected firewood, thin sticks, kindling and what looks like a nest of dry grass. He’s squatting down and talking to the grass in his hands. It’s like I’m hearing half a conversation in a foreign language, his voice, laughing, chiding, coaxing and chuckling in turns. A ghost of smoke rises from the nest like a pirouetting dancer, thickens and a tiny flame erupts followed by more. Within seconds the boy has a small cone of twigs alight on the sand and piles sticks over them.
With a beautiful economy of language, the picture is painted of this strange, not-quite-menacing but also not-quite-comprehensible boy starting a fire on the beach. Our ‘What is really going on?’ question deepens, but answers are delayed (intentionally) as we watch the boy prepare lobsters. Note the casual mix of uplifting signals with strangeness:
All the time he’s busy singing, whistling, and talking to things or people I can’t see.
Like us, our protagonist is fascinated and wants to know more about this boy:
I seat myself on the rock, and study him. He’s busy and doesn’t seem inclined to talk to me. I’m fascinated. He’s not human, that much is obvious. Everything I’ve ever seen has clearly recognisable states, but his is … are … ephemeral. One moment he’s so insubstantial I wonder how it is I can’t see through him, in another appearing beyond massive, as if he could walk through rocks and they would have to shatter around him. In the end I’m so mystified I ask, 'What are you?'
It’s our question too, by now. The boy’s answer is a kind of mini-manifesto for Bonn’s writing:
I remember now your need for names and categories and the illusion of knowledge and the even greater illusion of control. I have no category … nothing has. I am me.
We are discomfited, and this is further intensified by a couple of things that the boy says in his ‘explanation’: statements like ‘You’ll find out soon enough – in, hopefully, a nice way’ and 'So I want to tell you something … things … but don’t be frightened: we’re nice. The first is that we prey on humans. All I, any of us, do is destroy humans’ do not result in us feeling settled and at peace.
The protagonist’s question in response - ‘Are you going to kill me?' - is a natural one. But Bonn continues to challenge our tendency to want categories and comprehensibilities in a way which is redolent of Irony in the extreme. The boy is a mixed package: he says that he is there both to enlighten but also to destroy; then he gets into the protagonist’s mind - our mind, in effect - and begins tampering:
The important bit now is that I’m in your mind, reading your thoughts and slowing them down, blocking others so you ask the right questions. I’m doing this with all the intelligence and love I can muster.
Hypnotised like our heroine by this strange boy, we as readers have no alternative but to proceed. But then Bonn does something even more interesting: he outlines the growth of the Ironic culture in all of us, individually.
'Yes, a child. I was a human child: I loved being a child. Then I grew into an adult and it all went wrong. I tried to be what everyone wanted, what society expected and encouraged me to be. Too many conflicting pressures all claiming to be the most important … and somehow I failed to pick up sufficient wisdom and a thick enough skin to deal with them. The result was a malformed, twisted grotesque: a poisonous homunculus. I was revolted by the man I became. I didn’t admire or trust him … and I had to be him!' He pats my knees, rises and turns back to the fire. He calls, 'If I remember rightly, I killed myself.’
This mini-tirade on the boy’s part outlines how modern adulthood twists the child within us into a parody of itself. The suggested suicide is the logical conclusion of the Ironic model. Bonn, though, is pointing us in another direction entirely:
'You’re dead? You committed suicide?'
'Yes … yes. I only killed the adult. I kept the best bit. There are so few benefits to being human. Keeping the best bits is one, family ties another. There are friendships too, but you get all these things anywhere. It’s hard to find any point in being human at all.' He turns the sticks and other pieces of lobster. 'Do you like mackerel? There are some close. I can call them.'
A thousand questions in my mind seem to evaporate. Yes, something is messing with my head. But for all that’s happening I remain tranquil and able to think clearly.
It’s easy to miss the mastery of that last bit, so effortless does it appear: the author has jumped us from the existential Irony of ‘It’s hard to find any point in being human at all’ straight into the objective, physical world of the story - 'Do you like mackerel? There are some close. I can call them.’ - and, using the ‘magic’ of the boy, kept us accepting as readers by tranquillising the protagonist’s mind. Kept calm in this almost preternatural way, we begin to suspect what’s going on: the boy must be some kind of ghost or returning spirit, arriving to host our elderly protagonist on her journey. It turns out that the destruction that at first seemed so ambiguous is entirely positive: the boy is in fact going to annihilate any trace of the irony which has poisoned the protagonist’s life:
'I love you!' He lets those words hang for a moment. 'We go into people’s heads, hearts, bodies and destroy everything we can. It takes a lot of us and a lot of effort. Why do humans even exist? Is there any point to them?' He stands, pushing a lobster claw with his toes. 'Nothing suffers anything like humans do. Nothing is so ignorant and out of control … and so removed from reality.' He looks at me, head tilted to one side. 'Tell me, what’s the point? Did you ever find a point?'
'Are you really going to kill me?' I close my eyes. Why did I close them; did he make me?
'No … I’m going to feed you. Look around.'
Destruction turns to feeding; the scene changes, and we are in the Epic world, more real, thicker, more alive:
Opening my eyes I see the beach has changed. This is a different place and the sun is just rising. The colours are unworldly. It all smells different, scents I can’t identify. The air feels thicker. I’ve been here before … some fleeting memory. I stand, my stick falling away: I don’t need it. That’s a shock. I’m strong again, stable… 'I’m dead?'
'No, you’re alive … just, this moment, born again.
Dying isn’t losing meaning in this world, it’s gaining it. When the protagonist replies that she can see a ‘strange but familiar place’, the boy responds:
'Just that … just one place? You’ve a long way to go yet then, but that will come.'
It isn’t the author’s aim to simply ‘spring’ his protagonist and his reader from a dark and meaningless world into a bright and wonderful one, however, though that would be enough for most. Bonn, having moved us this far, then wants us to reassess the Ironic world that we have left behind:
Maybe you’ll change into a child like me or stay as you are or become a … oh, let’s go for stupid names and categories while you still think like that; siren, selkie, huldra, demon, angel, fairy … anything so you can free humans from torment. Cancer, car accidents, ageing … anything. You don’t realise it but without us you’d all be trapped in hell for ever.'
Those things which we have grown used to seeing as ‘accidental’, ‘coincidental’ or ‘unfortunate’ in the modern Ironic framework we call ‘reality’ turn out, in the new way of perceiving, to be intentional, beneficial and salvational. Irony, with its empty chaos, has shifted into providential Epic.
As readers our minds swim for a moment, along with the protagonist: ‘Momentarily my mind is swamped with released thoughts fighting for attention.’ But Bonn has one last magic trick to perform. Another author might have left us there, satisfied to have reorientated our conclusions about what reality is and what death might be, content to have moved an entire genre paradigm around us, but Bonn wants it all to have an emotional as well as an intellectual effect. Dismissing her questions, the protagonist suddenly recognises the boy:
'Arthur!' I choke out a sob, fists pressed against my mouth.
He grins. 'Hello, Mum. Yes, I left hell. You’ve reminded me of how humans think, and my departure must have brought you great distress. For that I am so sorry, but it was all getting too ugly.
As the emotional wave washes over us, the author invites not contemplation but objective participation:
Look, we need to work out if there’s a better way to do what I just did. You’re going to be the best one to field Ben. We’re working on him – he’s going to be freed soon.' He hugs me. 'Come and eat.’
Pulled out of what we thought was reality, we are not left to either think or feel, but are asked to partake. In this way, Bonn secures his legacy as a master author in just one short story.