Thursday, December 24, 2009

Storyville : Bullet in the Brain

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff
from the night in question

It's only five pages long, and yet Wolff's story still feels somehow epic. That is partly because it jacknifes halfway through, turning from a seemingly simple and one dimensional narrative into a far more poetic, reflective character portrayal. And partly because that character portrayal is so precisely written and evocative that it suggests the complexity and turbulence of an actual human life. All in five pages.

Wolff is arguably the most celebrated living American Short Story writer. His main competition is probably Richard Ford, with whom he was once grouped alongside Raymond Carver as a "dirty realist", a term with no real connection to the work of any of the writers to whom it was most commonly applied. But Ford is now primarily known for his terrific novels, leaving writers from a younger generation, such as Lorrie Moore and George Saunders, as Wolff's major American peers in the genre. Woolf's command of the short story form is so great, and his focus upon it so complete (he has written two novels, one novella and two memoirs in forty years alongside his five story collections) that he is generally considered alongside Alice Munro and William Trevor as one of the world's best short story writers.

Bullet in the Brain (which I have previously written briefly about here) is the final story in the night in question, and it ends that fine collection on a grace note. It begins by following Anders, a "book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed" as he queues for a teller in a bank. This section appears to be told in Ander's style, to some extent, or at least under his influence, for Wolff observes almost everything with a critical perjorative attached. The woman in front of him - who seeks to include Anders in their disparaging of a certain teller - is a "presumptuous crybaby" and her conversation "loud, stupid". Even after two armed robbers enter the bank and hold it up, Anders cannot help himself. He mocks the criminal's patter, aloud, for its abundance of cliches - "'Bright boy'. Right out of 'The Killers'". Wolff appears to suggest that his position as a critic has given him a false sense of his own security, as if life is something he can tear apart with his casual, devastating critical barbs. Earlier, he has turned upon the women in the queue even though he shares their feelings about the teller. His sarcasm and contempt seem a pose, some sort of critical reflex which has infected his real life persona, something he himself is perhaps unaware of.

This persona is what gets him killed. He cannot help himself with the armed robbers - he regards and observes them with the same attention to detail he would a subject for review. That "weary, elegant savagery" is displayed in Wolff's descriptions of the men working the bank: "He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness, even torpor". He provokes them with his amused contempt, and then he gets a little giggly and hysterical, and it is only in the last seconds of his life, before they kill him, that the reality of the situation begins to impact upon him, and even then only briefly - "He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol". But he cannot hold in his laughter and one of the men, angered, shoots him in the head.

Until this point the story has been slight, even simplistic. Anders is one-dimensional, his hatred absolute and all-encompassing. He just about seems to get what he deserves, for his stupidity and lack of control over himself. But then Wolff lifts the story as he follows the bullet's trajectory into Anders' brain and documents the "synaptic lightning that flashed around it". Now he tells us of that most cliched of cliches, and acknowledges just how much Anders would loathe it: "Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, "passed before his eyes"."

There follows a lovely series of past events, people and experiences Anders does not remember, which, Wolff tells us, "is worth noting". And Wolff is right, for it is this nicely paced and modulated passage which makes Anders seem a rounded, complex, vulnerable human being. We learn he has had chldren, been married, had lovers, been a student protester, lost his passion for his work. We learn other things, details. Telling details. Wolff knows just what language to use to sketch a scene and yet make it indelible, to make its truth plain in a few simple sentences. The truth makes Anders universal and sympathetic, and perhaps even offers some explanation for his current persona, for its bilious negativity, in Anders' disappointment with the women he had known and loved "before she had exhausted him with her predictability", in the sad transformation of his daughter from a little girl lecturing her teddy bear on naughtiness to a "sullen" Professor ", and even in the grind of his own job: "He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry with writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else." Anders is brought to life in death, and Wolff finds an elegant final movement with which to end his story: "This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighbourhood gather for a pickup game". A much younger Anders, not the jaded urban sophisticate, but a more innocent version, perhaps in the suburbs or some small town, who is enraptured by a piece of everyday American poetry. Here Wolff manages to suggest why Anders chose the course in his life that he did - he loves the music of words, and is elated by them even at such a young age - and also give him an elegy of sorts, particularly in the beautiful and moving final sentence, which ends a brilliant story on a lovely note.

The best bit: you can read the whole thing right here.

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