Introducing our newest craft essay! “A Sense of Time and Place” is a wonderful essay on setting in fiction from our very own reader, Courtney Harler. Settle in as she dissects the mastery of setting in stories from Bender, Barthelme, Munro, Davis, and Joyce.
Most importantly, a strong setting enables readers to connect with characters, and that connection acts as the living, beating heart of the successful short story.
A believable setting is crucial to any short story. Broadly, an intimate, authentic sense of time and place is necessary to fully develop the overall narrative arc and solidify the greater significance of the story. The stories of Aimee Bender, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, and James Joyce illuminate the range of clever ways in which setting can function as a critical element. Most importantly, a strong setting enables readers to connect with characters, and that connection acts as the living, beating heart of the successful short story. To begin, let’s take a step back and look at the craft of setting from an objective view. Our goal here will be to study how the writer’s specific choices eventually coalesce into art.
In her surreal story “Tiger Mending,” Bender uses interesting juxtapositions of place to create a sense of otherworldliness. For example, the narrator’s smart sister first attends med school, then withdraws and later enrolls in sewing school. The parallel between sewing skin and sewing clothes is apparent, but it’s the opposing settings—the two very different schools—that generate the most interest and tension for the reader at the beginning of the story. Also, in terms of narrative flow, the sewing class allows the narrator’s sister to be observed and then recruited by her future employers (another set of sisters), an event that sets the plot in motion, quite literally, as the seemingly inseparable sisters then travel by airplane to the new job site.
Likewise, the narrator’s dead-end job at Burger King only seems drearier when juxtaposed with an exciting trip to Malaysia. The narrator says, “That night, she called me up and told me to quit my job, which was what I’d been praying for for months—that somehow I’d get a magical phone call telling me to quit my job because I was going on an exciting vacation.” In the previous passage, the key word is “magical,” which helps set the tone for the rest of the story. Readers are then introduced to the bewildering images of “tiger mending” inspired by Amy Cutler’s painting, but we are also permitted to witness the relationship arc of the sisters—its initial cohesiveness and eventual disintegration. The place where the tigers are mended becomes an actual, physical turning point in their lives through Bender’s magical realism.
To continue reading “A Sense of Time and Place” click here.
 Bender, Aimee. “Tiger Mending.” The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 28. Nook Book.