From The Archives: “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” by E. Y. Smith—Discussed by Benjamin Van Voorhis
E. Y. Smith’s “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” appeared in New Voices in April 2019, but this story about the last of a dying species is worth looking back on for its beauty and humor and sense of loss. It’s a timely piece that, in all likelihood, will only get timelier.
Crafting the Intangible
From its very first sentence, “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” feels like the kind of anecdote a friend might tell you over dinner.
“Here’s a story that you don’t hear every day,” it begins. “I once knew a man who owned the last red-feathered Austrian goose.” Casual, laden with personality, yet it’s easy to suspect there might be something important down the line—after all, this particular goose is the last of its kind. We don’t know anything about the people involved, but the stakes are already high.
He said that it came from a wintry mountainside, where the lakes had just about frozen over, and now he was adapting the goose to the winters of the Bronx. Well, I said, it just about makes sense that the poor thing would die off, seeing as geese can’t survive on mountaintops. Their feathers freeze and they can’t huddle together close enough to sustain the heat. But my friend shook his head. No, he said. It’s the people that do it. The geese’s feathers can withstand the snow and the ice, but the people can’t seem to stop hunting them. Anyway, said my friend. You should come and see the goose sometime before it’s too late. I think you’d like him.
We’re not in scene, there’s no sensory detail or direct dialogue, no real setting up of conflict—just this goose, the person who owns it, and the narrator, who makes some basic—and wrong—assumptions about the goose and why it’s the last of its species. And yet, there’s a feeling of both movement and tension here that propels us into the next paragraph. So, why does it work?
For one thing, the narrator renders all dialogue indirect (that is, in-line, un-quotation-marked). While this doesn’t create as much white space—and therefore breathing room—as direct dialogue might, it sits us firmly in the narrator’s perspective, filtering even more of the world through her telling than a typical first-person narrator would. Also, it’s worth noting that we open with contradiction. The narrator asserts herself, her friend corrects her. There’s already a disconnect between our point-of-view character and her surroundings, a move that always carries with it a sense of built-in tension.
But these decisions are circling around some pretty fundamental concepts. First, we have the narrative voice, already providing us with a strong sense of who the narrator is without us having seen her do much of anything at all. Second, the piece is starting to build an argument. (You might also call this “theme”—but I probably won’t.)
What the voice and argument of a piece have in common is that it’s easy to think of them as “intangible” craft elements—not because you can’t see them in action, or because they’re essentially unknowable, but because it’s sometimes difficult to draw a straight line between the choices a writer makes and an “effective” voice or argument, and therefore the way we as writers talk about them tends toward the floaty. With a more “tangible” craft element—say, pacing—those lines can appear straighter. A scene with more detail moves slower, and one with less detail moves faster. Easy peasy, at least in theory. But how do you define a strong voice versus a weak one? When is a story’s argument too overbearing, or failing to come through at all?
One of the great things about “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” is that it’s a fantastic example of these “intangible” craft elements in action. Its sense of propulsion comes not solely through interpersonal conflict or a character’s arc, but also through a steady and intentional development of both a character’s inner life/narrative voice and an overarching external thematic movement.
The Right Words
What does it mean to say a voice is “strong” or “weak”? In fact, what is narrative voice in the first place, and why does it matter? I’ve heard writers explain it as something like the style of writing, or the quality that lend writing its uniqueness. But those are pretty vague terms, and when we’re thinking about why something works, or how to put this stuff into practice, “style” and “quality” aren’t exactly helpful.
A more useful way to think about voice, I’d argue, is as the diction and syntax a narrator is most likely to employ. Framed this way, voice becomes an extension of character rather than an extension of the writer’s sensibilities (even though of course it is); it allows a writer to think more deeply not just about who a character is at their core, but about the little decisions and qualities that inform a reader’s impression of that character, and lead us to know them intimately. Narratives with “strong” voices might employ a particularly unusual vocabulary or sentence structure. On the other hand, a “weak” voice does not a weak story make; windowpane prose can be as effective as stained glass. The strength and quality of a narrative voice is, like anything else, a conscious craft decision that creates a specific effect in the reader.
Let’s return, for instance, to the narrator of “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose,” and her affinity for indirect dialogue. This choice serves a couple important purposes. First, it ratchets up the strength of the voice. When you tell someone else a story in your day to day life (as in an anecdote over dinner), this is how most of us render dialogue. Therefore, it’s one of the major factors creating the piece’s “told” quality, which by the end feels almost parable-ish. Next, it gives us data about our first-person narrator, namely that she herself is not direct, that she is indecisive and unmotivated and anxious.
Other choices create this impression, too, and other, equally significant impressions. She’s impulsive (“On the subway, I was overcome with an urge to see the red-feathered Austrian goose”), judgmental (“Strange tone, I thought, from a man who doesn’t want anything to last”), and anxious again (“By now, he was expecting me, as I had sent a flurry of apologetic texts and pretty much begged him to let me see the goose, but when I got to the door, he could only ask: What do you want?”). Emphases mine. These are all character-building choices, but they’re also, crucially, choices that create a sense of momentum, and that eventually build into the piece’s argument.
A Sense of Aboutness
All stories are about something larger than themselves, of course. Having an argument is a forgone conclusion. Even the sparest stories are out to convince you the world looks a certain way, that characters really act this way or that. What’s not forgone, of course, is using a fictional setup as a vehicle to tackle some broader thematic conversation, which is at heart a craft decision like any other.
In fiction, building an effective argument is like walking a tightrope. Too vague, and readers will come away without a clear picture of what it is the writer is actually trying to say. Too overt, and readers may feel condescended to, or reject the story as mere allegory. What makes “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” work on this front is that there’s nothing “mere” about it. Smith does a lot of scene work to make us believe in this world as a real, lived-in place, from the narrator’s nights out at the jazz club to the Bachelor marathon to visceral descriptions of subway rides. Including such specific, concrete details is, among other things, a way to avoid any read of this piece as simply allegory. It’s clear that the narrator is a fleshed-out character, and so is Ben, and so is the owner of the Austrian goose.
At the same time, it’s all too clear that the goose is not just a goose. Nor is Ben just a Tinder date, or the subway just a subway. All these things, in addition to being exactly what they are, build toward a sense of the ephemeral, an indictment of inaction about environmental collapse, or climate change, or whatever manmade apocalypse fits best. The narrator waits and waits before going to see the goose, and by the time she feels any sense of urgency about it, it’s already too late. There’s nothing she can do, and it’s not clear she would—or could—have done anything to help the goose in the first place.
I covered my ears. It’s a real tragedy, I said, but all my friend could do was look away toward the opened boxes. He had dug his hands into his pockets and offered me something to drink. I said, No thank you, and we stood there a while just listening to the bird. If you have courage, he started to say, but then stopped, I think, because he didn’t know what it would mean.
The narrator’s actions here work in concert with the metaphor, but they also feel like natural reactions to the situation. She really would cover her ears in response to a wailing goose, really would refuse a drink offered out of an awkward kind of hopelessness. She would, of course, project her own thoughts onto her friend’s half-sentence. If she doesn’t know what courage means, why would he?
Stick the Landing
The goose isn’t extinct yet when we leave it, but it will be, and this fits into the sense of a world coming apart at the seams, straining but not yet broken. Our narrator knows this, but she feels both helpless to act and overcome by the inertia of simply living her life—which is exactly how “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” builds its argument so effectively. We’re looking at it through the lens of a character with a strong narrative voice and a rich interior life, who feels very much like she belongs in the world as Smith writes it.
The argument, in other words, is not an argument at all. It’s a question with the force of an argument, felt most acutely when Smith lets the veneer slip just a little bit, just enough to see the bitter irony of it:
Below me, the people dawdled, certain that there could not be a red-feathered Austrian goose. I told myself that it was fine. That there could not be a better ending. That there were all sorts of special geese. That we were too important.
Finally, the narrator sees the goose as Smith wants us to see it: a zero-sum game. The goose’s death can only be a net benefit to the human race. But that the narrator has to “tell herself” this says exactly the opposite, that the loss matters because it is a loss, and that it’s devastating for exactly the same reason. That the human race can be, in the end, just as ephemeral as a red-feathered Austrian goose.
But Smith, wisely, doesn’t let us land on this note. We return to the narrator’s physical space, a set of concrete, grounding details:
We were stuck in a tunnel for a long time, and I thought that the conductor might say anything, but he stayed silent on the intercom until we started moving again. He made up some story about a delay in the communications or static interference. Some reason.
Because we’re in scene, it feels like we’ve come a long way from the opening paragraph. But at the same time, we’re exactly where we started. Indirect dialogue, the casual dismissiveness of “Some reason,” the thematic resonance of a person failing to acknowledge a problem and the narrator’s assumption that he’s fabricated an excuse. The echoes are subtle, but they create a sense of cohesion that’s all the more powerful for how little these moves draw attention to themselves. In many ways, we’re in the same place we’ve been the whole time—a world, an argument, and a voice strong enough to take us through it.
by Benjamin Van Voorhis