From the Archives: “The Drownings” by Brenda Peynado—Discussed by Benjamin Van Voorhis

January 17, 2024

One of the New Voices pieces that kicked off 2017 was Brenda Peynado’s “The Drownings,” a story about growing up, death, the attainment of knowledge, and swimming pools. It’s also a delicate balancing act between a unique point of view and a strong central metaphor. Let’s take a peek under the hood and see how it runs.

Metaphor, Metaphor, Metaphor!

The central metaphor of “The Drownings” slaps you like a wave from the first sentence: “The water glimmers in the corners of our eyes.” There’s no subterfuge here, no pretense that water is only set dressing. In this world, water is dangerously seductive, ubiquitous but also kind of unknowable, like something floating in your eye that flits away as soon as you look at it. “The pools are always within sight,” the next sentence tells us. This is our context for the kind of water we’re dealing with. Suburban, chlorinated, contained. Then: “We all know someone who drowned.” That’s a compelling progression of information; you can almost see the water coming into focus, enlarging until it fills up your entire field of view.

What’s especially clever about this opening paragraph is that it’s familiar—there’s nothing particularly magical or abstract about the way water and swimming pools act in the world of the piece—but there’s also this outsized importance placed on these things, an interaction between water and the narrator(s) that operates on a tilted plane, that starts with a subtle offness and culminates in the idea that “we want to be swallowed: the splash, the blue slipping over our heads, the rush of sinking.” This is our world, but it isn’t. This impression is engineered by Peynado’s emphasis, changing one fact to render everything else off-kilter. Here, drowning isn’t just a way to die, it’s the way to die. In our world, drowning is death. In Peynado’s, death is drowning.

What’s clever, too, about the way the piece builds around water as metaphor is that, as in the most effective metaphors, water refuses to be tracked neatly onto any single idea. It represents death, but also puberty, and addiction, and sex, and any other ambivalent quality you’d associate with growing up. The risk of leaning as heavily as “The Drownings” does on a central metaphor is that it might eclipse the story. If a reader senses that the argument comes first, the piece could start feeling solipsistic—or worse, polemical. Characters no longer matter, the narrative falls flat. One of the ways around this is by doing exactly what Peynado does here—imbuing the metaphor with an intentional sense of murkiness, an invitation for readers to build all kinds of arguments onto it, rather than building the argument herself. She’s guiding us in the right direction without leading us all the way, a careful balancing act that manages to display a sense of trust in her readers while not making us do too much work.

Think of these as three prongs in Peynado’s handling of metaphor: pulling the water into focus, building it into the tangible world of the story, not mapping it onto a single argument. It’s crucial that she lays all this out quickly and efficiently, in the first couple of paragraphs, so that when the characters and their actions take center stage, the foundation’s already built. Whether it’s in the corners of our eyes or right in front of us, the water never leaves our field of vision, and we know exactly how it’s operating, even on an unconscious level.


Building Character in a World of We

One of the most immediately striking characteristics of “The Drownings” is that it’s told in a first-person plural point of view (we, us, our). There are plenty of drawbacks and advantages to this perspective. On one hand, it can be a little more difficult for readers to immediately glom onto the protagonist(s), given our natural tendency to want to know who’s telling the story and who it’s about. Moreover, when the collective “we” includes the central characters, rather than acting as an observer narrator, referring to individuals within this collective can be potentially thorny. On the other hand, the first-person plural POV allows us to inhabit a collective, questioning the primacy of an individual sense of character. What matters here is the arc of the community as a whole (in this case, the teenagers of the community in which “The Drownings” takes place), rather than that of an individual person. The “we” perspective can also act as a kind of omniscience. It’s more intimate by nature than a traditional third-person omniscient POV (word of the day: heterodiegetic) but is similarly unconstrained by the limits of a single perspective. (Personally, I’ve also always found the first-person plural POV to have an otherworldly, Borg-like quality to it, which can be either a drawback on an advantage, depending on the context.)

Our central characters are Rosa and Zach, both introduced in the third paragraph. Rosa is from out of town, and therefore a mystery (another quality of adolescence/water), and Zach’s primary motivator is in peeling back that mystery—which he tries to achieve by throwing things at her (pretty typical adolescent romantic tension stuff). Rosa’s most defining characteristic, however, is that she can’t swim. This is one of the first things we know about her, and along with the fact that she’s out of town, it does something pretty interesting vis-à-vis the POV. From her introduction, it’s clear she’s not really part of the “we,” not in the same way that, say, Zach is. It precludes her from being one of the kids who “want to be swallowed” by water. Instead, she’s observing this collective from a distance, for most of the piece a locked box we’re barely able to see inside. Yet she’s also its focus.

But because of the distance this sets up between Rosa and the POV, we’re also able to glean different information about her than otherwise might have been possible or natural. She pushes back against the collective in small, important ways—remembering and repeating the names of the drowned, for instance (until she doesn’t). The death of her brother partway through the piece reveals the same push and pull that water exerts on the other kids, but in a different way. Maybe if she learns to swim, she can survive. Survival in this world isn’t just about living; it’s about becoming part of the “we,” about assimilating. “Rosa begs her parents to let her throw a pool party for her birthday,” we’re told before her brother drowns, a swing at some respite from her shunning classmates. Later, offering to teach her how to swim (and implicitly more), Zach asks, “Don’t you want living to be a choice?”

As our other central character, Zach is operating on two separate levels. First and most obviously, he’s a teenage boy trying to get the attention of a teenage girl. But narratively he acts almost as an ambassador for our POV, whose goal is to pull her into the collective, this “we” that is constantly shifting and changing as it grows. There’s something Borg-like in this after all, and without the POV choice this layer of tension wouldn’t be possible.


Go with the Flow

One of the deftest moves Peynado makes is with is the character of Jocelyn. At the start of the piece, Jocelyn has a near-drowning experience, which, after she’s revived, prompts her to go on a speaking tour about “living life to its fullest, how we never know when it could all be gone.” The collective narrator is disdainful of Jocelyn; she’s attention-seeking, vapid. But she’s also right, in a way. “It’s a speech we’ve heard before,” we’re told, “the words predictable enough we could sing them.” What’s smart about this is that Peynado knows it’s trite, what Jocelyn is saying. No one is more attuned to triteness than teenagers, so of course our “we” approaches this with a sense of jadedness. But the way the truth hidden in it slides past the other characters is tragic. For them, the fragility of life gives value to their risks instead of illuminating what they are risking. Here is another place where the piece could veer polemic, but it avoids this by using a distasteful character as its vehicle. And of course again the argument isn’t as simple as it seems on its face. There’s truth in Jocelyn’s triteness, but also opportunism, a shifty nebulousness that the collective narrator distrusts.

Of course, the whole idea of the story—its characters, its central metaphor, its point of view—is that young people do shift and change and run like water, that “the newness of one taste replaces the other.” Drowning begets kissing begets everything else. The kids are drawn to water and to the act of drowning (or almost drowning) because it’s new and exciting. Because they think that just beyond the veil of water are different, better, more grown-up versions of themselves. But the truth is there isn’t anything on the other side. It’s just death. They try to create a sense of stasis, to pretend that they don’t have to change to grow up, only to find that they do after all, as in this crucial passage:

Why do we have to change? Rosa asks.

Zach holds Rosa up. Extend your arm and stroke, he says. She extends her arm, pulls the string of her bathing suit top, now pilled from the wash like the rest of ours. It floats away from them. Her skin is tender with newness. Zach’s lips are warm on her mouth. In the water, none of us are awkward. Nets of light tremble over their bodies as they move together. They try to look at each other as they start the new forbidden thing, but their eyes keep slipping, the air never seems enough.

Remember this, Rosa says. We’re already changing, Zach says.

Afterward, when they pull up out of the pool, elbows locked to push up against the ledges, the rush of chlorine and water off them, their sudden weight feels like returning to the land of the living, and only in that moment do they know what it is like to drown. Out of the water, they are both awkward. You have to come back, Zach says. I haven’t learned yet how to swim, Rosa says. In our dreams, we are heavy. We roll over in our beds.

The reason Zach doesn’t survive this moment is the same reason we keep returning to (and end on) the names of the drowned. He wants desperately to freeze himself in this moment, to live in it forever. But, like water, death can’t be held onto.

What Peynado’s handling of metaphor, point of view, and character have in common is a controlled fluidity, an ability to direct the reader’s attention and emotion without telling us what or how to think. Growing up is an act of dangerous discovery, and “The Drownings” acknowledges this every step of the way, from Zach’s first attempted drowning to Rosa looking into his eyes and kissing him in the hallway while her brother dies, rendered all the more stark by Peynado’s understated description: “Rosa’s baby brother drowns in the shallow end. When they pull him out he’s tinged blue, like the water has absorbed him as its own.” But the discoveries are important, and inevitable, the changes and the fears.

“If we could name our fear,” we’re told in the final paragraph, “we would use the wrong words.” Which is exactly the point of bracing the piece with a metaphor as fluid as water and a POV like the first-person plural. There’s a productive, instructive alignment here between what happens (plot), whose story it is (POV, character), and what it’s about (theme, metaphor). This is only a transitory period. All the words were wrong the whole time. It’s water, all the way down.


by Benjamin Van Voorhis


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