If you’ve been online anytime over the past year, maybe you, too, have come across a particular sentiment, this idea that media (stories, novels, film, etc.) must get to the point and do very little else. If you haven’t been chronically online, then here is a taste: “What did this scene do to move the plot?” or “What is the point of this chapter?” or “Why did this side character’s story matter?”
I don’t have time for people who think that every crumb of a piece of art must be central to moving a storyline forward and that all else must be sacrificed. What I do have time for is “A Particular Woman” by Molly Jean Bennett, published in March of 2016. Take a minute to click here and read. There’s something of a surprise at the end of this story, and I’d hate to take that gasp of shock away from you.
This story comes in right around 750 words. In all writing, every word, every sentence matters. But that’s never truer than in flash. When I sat down to dig deep into this story, I was struck how much the fluidity of these sentences reminded me of a familiar lesson in varying sentence length from Gary Provost.
“A Particular Woman” is a glimpse at a woman while she sits on her porch in the evening. She spends that time taking an inventory of the parts of her body for “she ought to get herself down on paper.” Each body part has its own unique life.
In the second paragraph of the story, the first dedicated to the catalog, the sentences are long and detail-rich. The bladder “stood by the wall and watched other bladders whirl in tight foxtrots and quicksteps, throwing their heads back when their partners said something funny, or funny enough,” while the right knee “liked hockey and classic rock, and was known to give his friends a hearty slap on the back whenever he met them by chance in the street.” In the following paragraph, the sentences become tight and direct: “The eyes were hardly windows. They loved disco. They betrayed nothing. The sternum owned a successful machine shop. He apprenticed most of the ribs.” As the cadence changes between the two paragraphs, the story picks up speed. The catalog begins to quicken.
In the third paragraph of the particular woman’s work, we step for a moment outside of the body for a comment about the action itself. She is switching now from the organs and bones and specific body parts to the very “pores and follicles” of her body. “How could they not be important,” she asks. That question, too, has a touch of urgency to it. There is so much body to get through, so much to examine.
The work at the sentence level is expert, but the piece as a whole is well paced, too. If the story is divided up by paragraph, for the first two thirds, the action is the woman’s cataloging and the personalities and choices of the parts of her body: “The clitoris made poor decisions with her money. On a whim, she bought expensive cuts of meat that she did not know how to cook and vacations to the Amalfi Coast.” In this way, the story settles into a building rhythm, just for it to shift in the final third of the piece. Right as the reader feels a sense of comfort in the shape of the story, it changes.
Delivery of drama
As the cadence grows and the lens shifts, we arrive at the bulk of the action in this story, the moment where we step out of the woman’s mind and body and back onto the porch, back into her lived world. The transition is quick: “Pausing to rest for a moment, she leaned back in the swing. Just then, a man with a gun walked past the house.” Up until this point, there’s no mention of this outside man, no hint that where this story is going is where it’s landing. We know that she is on a porch, that the moon is rising, that there is a “crumbling house across the street,” but not of anyone in the streets. Bennett doesn’t linger in the surprise of the moment. She continues forward. The momentum has been built and there’s a story to tell.
The penultimate paragraph, in which the man appears and the significant action happens, is no longer than any of the others. The pacing here is not remarkably different: There are the short, direct sentences and the longer ones so lovely you almost hold your breath. The main difference is the space that the reader inhabits. We exit the interiority of the particular woman to meet this man and the concept of another woman:
“To the man with the gun, the particular woman looked just like another woman, a woman who had stolen two thousand dollars and a prize rabbit with soft, soft fur from him. That woman had fucked him so sweetly on the old couch in the attic that he imagined the blue-eyed babies they would have. She left in the middle of the night.”
The detail here is reminiscent of the catalog. We learn vivid, quick, intimate detail of this other woman whom the man has taken the particular woman to be. The pacing is similar too, in a condensed scale. For two sentences we are wrapped in the narrative of this other relationship, only for the pace to pick up, the end to fly forward, as she leaves him.
For all the description afforded to the organs and bones of the particular woman’s body, the climax of the story gets nine words. “He raised his gun and shot the particular woman.” The juxtaposition of the lush and vivid prose of earlier in the story and the blunt delivery of this fact lends it exactly the punch it needs.
While it might not feel like a lot is happening, what happens is placed so correctly in the story that I gasped when I read it.
Bennett pivots immediately after this. We don’t hear another bit about the man, where he goes, what happens to him. We learn nothing more about the other woman, or the rabbit, or the money. We hear about the heart, into which the bullet has just been shot.
The placement of this information feels like a dying breath, the final moments of the particular woman’s life. “It would have gleamed and gleamed,” the final sentence, feels like a heartbeat. And the separation of the heart’s description leaves us with this final image of the woman as the heart, a sum of all the parts, yes, but perhaps this one thing most of all: “The heart had always been a dreamer.”
Literature is Art
Somewhere out there is an X user who doesn’t understand why this woman is cataloging her body, how her spine can tell lies, how the left knee likes to “think about imagist poetry.” Someone, I’m sure, has read this story and asked what the point was.
The cataloging is an action for the particular woman, and it is a brief but beautiful glimpse into her mind and what she imagines for the parts of her body, and a bit of what she thinks of herself. The reader does not know what it is she does or who she loves or where she lives. There’s not concrete detail about her age. But the minute detail of her imagination (and consequently of Bennett’s) lends so much life to every part of her.
I read this story over and over in preparation to write about it. The first time—toddler babbling in the background—I thought the man meant deliberately to shoot this woman, our particular woman. The second time, I marveled over the details of her thighs and neck. The third, I lingered on the left bicep drinking to excess, in the act of lifting another beer. Again and again, I returned to the story, and each time I came away with something different, a fresh detail, a new emotion.
If you want to be very literal, there are two characters in this story. But please don’t be. Truly, what an incredible cast of characters.
by Kathryn Ordiway