from Lightspeed (2013)
Vivian Gornick’s classic distinction between the “situation and the story” has been bastardized, misconstrued, and misapplied in the nearly two decades since her first explication of the idea. By Gornick’s own measure – and she was speaking especially about the construction of personal, nonfiction narratives – the “situation” refers to the bare bones “context or circumstance” about which the work is about. The “story” on the other hand, refers to the argument formed around that context, or the smooth transmission to the reader of the relationship the piece’s persona has to the “situation”. In other words, the situation is the ingredients and the story is the dish. In its quotidian usage, however, the situation is the plot and the story is the point of view. It’s a reductive prism through which to read stories, but it is not without its insights. And sitting that prism next to Hugh Howey’s “Deep Blood Kettle” allowed me to make sense of a post-read dissatisfaction I was having trouble placing. For Howey’s conceit was intriguing, not so half-baked, or bland as the general anthology dud. An unseen alien presence has delivered earth an ultimatum, basically amounting to “give us half the planet or we’ll redirect this large meteor at you.” There, then, is the “situation”—the raw materials of the tale. The “story” he builds out from this premise, however, was both stylistically and perspectivally unconvincing. He drapes the piece in the rudiments of bottom barrel literary fiction (as commonly understood): character development; mirroring the big stakes with small emotional resonances; minute description of banal activity; cryptic digression (the buffalo jump) as cryptic thematic development; and, of course, ambiguity. I mean, I almost have to give this a higher score for the gumption; and it is preferable in some ways. The beauty of the lit fic story is that it rewards contemplation — or, better put, the story is rewarded by contemplation, as it grows in parallel to the attempt to assign meaning and value. This literary sheen, however, is ill-served by its execution, and we’ve therefore little to reflect upon save the concrete elements we’re given, namely the perspective, here a needlessly oafish simpleton child, brought up in a sort of fundamentalist rural solitude, backgrounded by his farming family’s bloody tilling of their own land. The thoroughgoing, death-infused pessimism streaking through the story does not bode well for humanity’s ability to band together against the alien threat, a conclusion signaled by the symbolism of the bloody land and the deep blood kettle (*native American tactic of forcing buffalo over cliffs of their own volition before coming in and administering the coup de grâce themselves [See it?!]). What we’re left with, then, is our kid, looking up, and envisioning “nothing good.” Is that how we wanted this “situation” explored?