Daring to Be Different: The Merits of Narrative Ingenuity
David Philip Mullins
My love for fiction has its origins in the fundamentals: voice, characterization, and plot. I don’t expect anything revolutionary or pyrotechnic, only that a narrative has been fashioned with expert skill. Precise, elegant prose; a convincing, engaging protagonist; a compelling, unpredictable storyline—these are more than enough to hold my interest and impress me.
As a writer, I came of age in the United States during the 1990s, the tail end of minimalism’s reign. Raymond Carver was still in vogue, as were Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff. Consequently, the literary style with which I tend to identify, and to which my attention is typically drawn, is realism, without frills. Call me boring, out of touch, but I’ve never been keen on experimental writing, on self-conscious innovation—metafiction, for instance. As Samuel Johnson wrote (albeit wrongly) of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, “Nothing odd will do long.” So-called “genre fiction,” too, no matter how “literary,” normally turns me off.
It was unexpected, then, that when I read Glossary for the End of Days, Ian Stansel’s second short-story collection, I was struck by the inventiveness and eccentricity of its premises and frameworks. Stansel’s first collection, Everybody’s Irish, and his novel, The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo, both display his exceptional talent as a storyteller. Glossary for the End of Days does more. Surprising and boldly unconventional, it is a departure from his usual, realist approach.
In the opening story, “John Is Alive,” it’s 1985 and fifteen-year-old Cal and his cousin Natasha are waiting in line at Tower Records for the midnight release of the new Beatles album. As the story’s title suggests, John Lennon has survived the four bullet wounds from Mark David Chapman’s .38 caliber revolver. (That isn’t a spoiler, though some of what follows in this piece may diminish suspense for a first-time reader of the book.) The narrative’s beating heart is the relationship between Cal and Natasha, and the plot consists of the scenes that unfold during and after their lengthy wait for the album. But the alternate history proves significant. In a poignant twist, Natasha accidentally falls to her death during a rooftop gathering later that night, and in the wake of the tragedy, Cal—the story’s narrator—muses on “other versions of reality.” In the version he gives thought to for many years afterward, Natasha is still dead, “but here John Lennon is also dead because in this one Chapman’s bullets did their job, killed him. Here Natasha and John Lennon meet—after all, if there are other dimensions, who’s to say there isn’t an afterlife too?”
The story “Someone Interesting I Know: An Interview with My Uncle Chris by Sadie Fenton” takes an intriguing form. It is a transcript of a homework-assignment interview, during which the interviewee, Uncle Chris, reveals and deconstructs the recent rock-climbing death of his grown son’s boyfriend. Though the assignment is Sadie’s, her mother is the one who has transcribed the recorded conversation, and woven into the narrative are the mother’s bracketed comments to Sadie’s teacher, Mrs. Perez. In one such aside—the story’s final, moving lines, a passage charged with subtext—Sadie’s mother wonders whether Sadie should start over and interview someone else, worried that the conversation with Uncle Chris falls short of what was assigned. “But I’m not sure,” she writes. “What do you think? Should we keep plugging away and see what we can make of it? Do we even have a choice at this point?”
The book’s unconventionality is pleasingly variegated: there is a second-person story; there are two half-page vignettes—“interludes”; there is a short novella. The contents are divided into three sections (the novella occupies all of section two), concluding with the title story, a master stroke. Like “Someone Interesting I Know,” “Glossary for the End of Days” experiments with form. Using an alphabetical list of terms and explanations, the narrator, Abe, chronicles his involvement with a doomsday cult and its murderous, suicidal leader. For example: “G. Guilt. That’s what they say I’m suffering: a type of survivor’s guilt. Like it’s so simple. Like I’m some line in a big shrink’s book.” It is an eerie account, made all the more chilling by the A-through-Z march of it structure.
If Glossary for the End of Days were nothing more than an assemblage of quirks and contrivances, the stories would be mere gimmickry. Rather, it is a collection long on the expert skill I mentioned earlier—its prose precise and elegant, its protagonists convincing and engaging, its storylines compelling and unpredictable.
It will not only hold your interest; it will impress you as well.
David Philip Mullins is the author of Greetings from Below, a collection of stories, and The Brightest Place in the World, a novel, which won the Nebraska Book Award. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his work has appeared in The Yale Review, The Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, the Nebraska Arts Council, and the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. He teaches at Creighton University.