The Art of Gary Bonn: Playing with Reader Expectations in 'The Boy on the Beach'

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: