When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.
“A Bedtime Story,” by Gideon Jacobs (published online at Joyland July 21, 2020), is about an insomniac named Nancy who discovers a novel way to cure her sleeplessness: she hires celebrities via Cameo to tell her a bedtime story.
In many ways, this is a simple story. Nancy wants to go to sleep, she tries various solutions that work for a while, and then the solutions stop working. This is intertwined with the B-plot, whereby Nancy is attempting to get her life on track now that she is sleeping again; when she gets a surprise interview for her dream job, she panics and backslides, losing all the progress she’s made to this point. The ultimate solution of the plot is basically lucked into—Nancy is at a restaurant with her father when Caitlyn Jenner appears, and she finds herself interacting with Caitlyn rather than simply watching via Cameo, “And they all lived happily ever after.”
The insomnia that functions as the throughline of this piece isn’t so much a conflict as it is an opportunity to explore the vagaries of celebrity culture: When Nancy buys her first Cameo, she watches it multiple times to understand the moment of life her celebrity Cameo is undergoing, and only once she’s Google-verified her assumptions is she able to focus on her own sleep concern. In our first attempted resolution of conflict, she asks Jackass star Bam Margera for a bedtime story, and though he ignores her request entirely to talk through his own interests, she still finds herself asleep instantaneously. This is true of most of the other Cameos in their own ways as well: Mindy Sterling hawks her sleep cream before telling her story; Tomi Lauren refuses to tell a story and dives into political discourse. In other words, all Nancy needs is the simple existence of the celebrity, and their sudden closeness—once she’s brought back to herself, the celebrity spell dissolves and she’s forced to order another Cameo to bring herself back to that space (“The craving for a new bedtime Cameo from just the right celebrity felt a little like hunger”).
On a plot level, this is pretty straightforward. On a theme level, it doesn’t take a ton of searching to understand the arguments around celebrity and commodification. On a character level, we’re not really exploring Nancy enough to get to much real transformation.
And yet, my students tell me they’ve never read anything like it. Indeed, they often say they didn’t know they were allowed to do the things this story does, like linking to videos or directly referencing specific people, places, and technologies. But even more than that, more than giving them the freedom to try things they may not have considered, they report that this story does something they thought fiction wasn’t able to accomplish: They report that this story feels real. What they mean by that, as far as I can tell, is that this story feels like the world they recognize. This is a story that exists completely and entirely inside its moment, and that moment happens to be our current moment.
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There are three very specific things that make this a story firmly rooted in its time. First are its casual reference drops. The most obvious of these come from celebrity culture: Caitlyn Jenner is mentioned first and becomes central to the climax of the piece; Bam Margera is the first Cameo ordered; another order comes from Larry Thomas, famous for his role as the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. But the references go more niche than that: Ken Bone gets a paragraph both to introduce himself as “sweater guy” in case the reader has forgotten and also to lament the idea that he has any fame at all; a Cameo is nearly ordered from the cohost of Tool Time, the fake show-inside-a-show on Home Improvement. These are all references that can only commingle at this exact time, where an internet-adjacent person could reasonably be expected to draw references from ‘90s TV, modern politics, Criss Angel and Gilbert Gottfried and Norm Macdonald.
Second, and related, is the deep reliance of the story upon technology. We see this in multiple places, although one is most central to the story: first, there are casual mentions of websites being used throughout the piece, from Nancy first hearing about Cameo through a friend’s tweet to the entire reason for her interest in Tomi Lahren stemming from FamousBirthdays.com. More importantly, there are links directly embedded in the story to each Cameo. It’s important to stop here and mention that these are actual working links, and that these links show the actual Cameos that are mentioned in the story. This story, though it is text, employs the multimedia abilities of its internet home to feel like it lives in conversation with everything else that exists in this moment in time: a hybrid mishmash of video and text and references.
The third, though again related, manner can be found in the tone the story employs, in the mood within which it exists, in the zeitgeist at which it is centered. As proven by its easy use of technology and celebrity culture, this is a story of the moment that is also clearly not for everyone who exists in this moment—this is a story for a distinct reader, a reader who has a very specific feeling about Tomi Lahren, for example, a reader who at least vaguely remembers Ken Bone and who will recognize the Soup Nazi.
That on its own creates a certain feel to the piece, but the story of course goes further: the major conflict of the story is an inability to sleep. That’s it, that’s the entirety of the conflict. I don’t mean to make light of insomnia. Rather, I use this to point out the extreme close-up that this combination of point of view and conflict provide: We are so deeply focused upon this one idea, this singular concern, that everything else fades away entirely from view. As conflict requires, Nancy is trying to achieve a thing, yes, but this thing is solely in reference to herself. It is undertaken entirely at home, and we do not see the consequences that it has on anyone outside of herself other than the fact that her father is a bit concerned. We know that sleeping better lets her apply for a job, but we don’t know what kind of job and the interview itself seems almost pure luck. Even the restaurants that dot this story go unnamed, as does her father and brother; perhaps the only non-Nancy detail we get in the entire story is that her brother is 25 years old.
And it is perhaps here where the story feels most closely aligned to the modern condition: we’re so deeply focused upon this singular concern of Nancy’s, this one concept that has taken over her life, that we don’t get the opportunity to learn anything about her outside of this moment. In many ways, perhaps in most ways, she remains a blank slate to us, a person with whom we have experienced an anecdote. There is no way to truly get to know her. She, or the narrator, is allowing us the façade of access while controlling exactly how much we see (which perhaps makes the use of Caitlyn Jenner as a character a particularly inspired choice for this piece). That has always been the author’s job, naturally, but here we embrace that bisecting responsibility as the normalcy that it is in our modern condition.
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I tell my students that they are allowed to write the world that they live in, by which I mean their places, their people, and their time. It’s not a sin to build place and time into a story. You’re not losing anything by name-dropping Leatherby’s Creamery in a story set in Sacramento; you’re gaining authority. The burst of recognition from those who get the reference is nice, but more important is the rhythm and feel of the world created by all these specificities. This is equally true of the websites a character uses, the apps they frequent, the memes they share.
And yet, often students tell me they can’t even remember if they’ve read any stories that feature cellphones, let alone computers, let alone the internet. When they think of literature, they picture stories that are “timeless”—although when they say that, they mean a generalized Hopper-esque America of a certain time and place: trains and cars, sure, but nothing more identifying than that, so that any (American, and plenty of other caveats to that) person will be able to at least somewhat recognize what they’re writing. With that as their backdrop, it can be a struggle even to get them to name a hamburger chain in a story, for fear of somehow alienating a reader.
But then they read this story, and they get it.
by Brandon Williams