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 such 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.
In “Gideon” by ZZ Packer (published online at The Guardian, October 6, 2007), a young Black woman in a relationship with a Jewish Ph.D. student (the titular Gideon) confronts the weakness of their relationship after a pregnancy scare. That scare is the main driving force of plot in the story: After the condom breaks, the narrator takes a pregnancy test as soon as she is able, and once she discovers that she’s not pregnant she decides to test the relationship by faking a positive result and seeing how Gideon will respond. She has no preferred response in mind: “If he’d said anything, anything at all, I would have been fine.” But he doesn’t respond, and in his lack of an answer she sees all the answer she needs; if the pregnancy is real, she is an anchor around his neck. If the pregnancy is not real, she understands, then their relationship can continue to mean nothing to him, as it currently does. And so she walks away, aware that all the dreams she’d allowed herself to build while in his orbit were purely imaginary.
That’s a pretty straightforward story, and it’s told quickly. This is also a very short story: There are just a few scenes, a bit of exposition, one major climactic event, a singular decision made that leads into a quick climax and falling action. And yet, ZZ Packer’s genius has always been in writing stories that somehow manage to explore everything at once. This piece spans a significant-though-undefined amount of years even while in-scene barely covering a month of time, considers race and identity in multiple ways, weaves in class and education opportunism effortlessly, both relies upon and mows down argumentative theoretical frameworks, never forgets to wander through the power dynamics of every interaction, and within all of that stays How exactly does she manage to do this, and what lessons can we take away from her work?
One of the main ways this story accomplishes that depth with such brevity is by suggesting the larger world around these characters without fully exploring it. This is a byproduct of how much of this story is given to us in exposition rather than in scene—because we’re explaining so much in that more general expository mode, the story doesn’t need to stop and define or deeply explain. A perfect example comes from the opening paragraph, where we learn exactly one time that we’re telling this story from a significant time remove: “I was 19 and crazy back then.” It’s one line, and while it doesn’t go so far as to tell us where our narrator is speaking from, how far in the future or what she’s learned or who she’s become, it doesn’t need to. We fully understand as readers that she is in a different place, a place where she can look back upon this situation reflectively; we understand that she, and be proxy we, are looking upon the woman she was and judging her decisions; we understand that while she may be the hero, she is not perfect, and that the story is setting us up for some failures or mistakes on the part of all characters, narrator included. All this, from one sentence that is never referred to again in text; moreover, all this from one sentence that allows itself to be somewhat general, defining only the age of our narrator at the time of the story but removing the specificity from the speaker in her own moment.
There are a couple possible reasons for this choice (in-story reasons, from the narrator’s perspective). She’s clearly speaking conversationally, since the opening sentence of the story is, “You know what I mean?” So, she is quite likely talking to people who already know that information, and for us as young writers this is a great lesson: There’s perhaps nothing worse than reading a story which stops to insert information that all characters already know and have no reason to share in their moment solely for the benefit of readers. It completely ruins the illusion of immersion, of characters who are functioning for themselves rather than for the story. Secondly, giving the detail of her age in the story rather than her age at the moment puts the clear storytelling onus on that past moment, signaling to the reader where our attention should be—yes, there is a person telling the story, and they have obviously learned lessons from this moment and grown as a result, but that’s not where the piece is focused.
Coming back to this idea of depth in brevity, another essential detail presented in that opening paragraph is the information about Gideon’s physical preferences and personal fears: “He was one of those white guys who had a thing for black women, but he’d apparently been too afraid to ask out anyone, until he met me.” Holy hell, does that sentence say a lot without saying it; it leaves the heavy lifting of interpretation for the reader, even as the things that it implicates are incredibly clear. It’s the sentence in the piece that gets close to straight-out saying what so many other moments in the piece are hinting at: While Gideon is certainly attracted to her because of her Blackness, just as essential to his interest is the power dynamic at work. He’d previously been too afraid to ask anyone out, attraction or no, but then he met someone that he felt he possessed enough power over, and suddenly he could make a move. After all, she was young (and, as the story reveals later, worked at a fast-food restaurant when they met and had no aspirations of college until he insisted to her that she did), and he was a Ph.D. student entirely in his element. He controlled the relationship, he basically created her dreams, he introduced her to the world of the campus and for all intents and purposes owned her access to it and to a life different than her own. It was through him that she learned of things like tapenade and aioli—not necessarily things that mattered to her, but things that underlined, at all times, the differences between the two of them, what he knew and she didn’t.
While exposition is a great tool for dropping this type of implicit characterization, another perfect example of Packer’s skill at folding details in without needing to explain them fully can be found in-scene. After the condom breaks (which he blames her for, by the way, for daring to get Freestyles; she gets them from the clinic, sprinkling in the clear 1. class dynamic since he never thought about where she got them or how she afforded them, 2. gender dynamic, since he’s placing all the burden of safe sex upon her getting the condoms and not even aware of where they came from (or how they work, since he thinks condom breaking is a myth), and 3. power dynamic, for about a hundred reasons), and she explains to him how pregnancy tests work, Gideon has the temerity to say, “Is this the voice of experience talking?”
Hoo boy, the reactions that line gets when I read it aloud in class. The idea of this politics-whining, dissertation-avoiding asshole who was attracted to but terrified of Black women then asking the one Black woman he dared approach whether she had experience with pregnancy scares because she has a basic awareness of sexual education; it says so much about who he is, his place and station in life, the way he approaches the world, that he can throw a line like that out there without even considering what he’s saying. You can imagine him so easily, in that line, the kind of man terrified to ask out a girl but then thinking of her as easy because she was willing to go out with him, and can unfold that out to all of their interactions throughout the entire relationship.
One other thing that allows us to build our understanding of this story without stopping and diving deep that I’d like to discuss is setting. The great majority of this piece takes place in a very small space: Gideon’s apartment. We leave that space only briefly: in flashback to the falafel place where they met, and then in the end when she walks away from him and his apartment (in that moment, it’s worth mentioning, we also leave the space mentally, as our unnamed narrator explores the future that she always kind of knew never would have happened). The setting of Gideon’s apartment also allows us to stay constantly aware of the differences between these two characters, the wide gap that exists between Gideon’s world and our unnamed narrator’s. It also, on a physical level, means that we are always in a space that Gideon controls. Even in exposition, we do not see our narrator’s home, just like we don’t get her name, just like we don’t learn much about her past. The closest thing to personal space that she gets is the falafel place where she works, and even that spot is overtaken by Gideon, both in the conversation of her coworkers and in her conversations with him on her work breaks. In this story, Gideon overtakes every crevice.
* * *
All that said, when I show this story to my students, there are two moments that overshadow all of those other discussions. First is the sex scene, which makes them uncomfortable though they’re not quite able to enunciate why exactly. That one takes some glossing for them to understand exactly what’s happening, but once they do it all clicks: Gideon has told her that using the word sex for lovemaking is just as bad as calling the act rape (so, he is defining her terms for her, and once again forcing her to conform to his ideas and expectations). But at the same time, our narrator describes a moment during their lovemaking where he makes her do something that she doesn’t want to do—she doesn’t like looking at people during the act, but he tells her, “Look at me. Really look at me.” So, her terminology is violence to him, but her boundaries are nothing to him. Mm-hmm. It doesn’t take long in a class discussion to see how, at best, icky that is.
But the other scene is always a fascinating discussion, with folks willing to land on both sides of the aisle. As we get to the big moment of the story, our narrator decides, actively decides of her own volition, to add a second pink line to the pregnancy test. She decides to lie to Gideon, to test him, to see what he thinks of their relationship.
There are students who read this story and cannot forgive her for making that choice. Others read this story and say that it’s such an incredibly rare opportunity to see how a person would truly react, and so they understand why she did it. Another school of thought that often arises suggests that if she was that far into her doubts about the relationship and about Gideon, then everything was about to fall apart regardless. Still others think that because he’s so terrible a person to her, that he deserves it. And plenty of readers are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt because she’s our narrator and therefore the closest thing to the hero in the piece.
What I love about this story is that we’re not forced to read it from any of those perspectives. Though we’re in a first-person point of view where there is plenty of space to do so, our narrator does not bother to try to convince the reader that she’s right in her decisions. Perhaps this is where the wisdom of our aged narrator comes into play, looking back on this scenario from the benefit of many years of hindsight. Regardless, she tells us of her decision with something almost like a clinical detachment; the decision was made, and the action performed. Whether we agree with her or not, she has done what she says.
What I’m getting at here is that this character, and as a result this story, is not didactic. We do not walk away from a ZZ Packer story having been taught a clear morality, a lesson on the right thing to do or what exactly that choice has done to our character. It’s hard to step away from that idea, to exist in the perpetual uncertainty of a moment that has changed a character simply being a moment that has changed a character and leaving the reader to their own devices in interpreting that moment, but this story is pushing us toward our own choices with every detail and every omission of detail. Where we ultimately land, and even where our narrator ultimately landed as a result of her choices, is left in the same uncertain space. It’s messy, the intersection of all these different arguments, ideas, and details having to merge with the moments that shape us as people, but that messiness is the point.
by Brandon Williams