In our Stories That Teach series, we consider the lessons that some of our favorite stories can teach us about craft. In the past: David James Poissant has written about the elements he admires in “Heaven” by Steven Barthelme; editor Kim Winternheimer has walked us through the exquisite sentences in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empies”; and we have examined the authoritative magic in Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer.” Today, we take a close look at interiority in Anne Valente’s beautiful story “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart.”
“Interiority, when conveyed well, is an essential part of the story’s structure. It helps to propel the plot forward; it gives its physical descriptions weight.”
Discussed by Sadye Teiser
One of the first things that I learned as a student of creative writing was the common instruction: Show Don’t Tell. Don’t tell us that your character is nervous; show her fiddling with the tab on her soda can. Don’t tell us that she is angry; describe the flush that creeps into her cheeks. While this is certainly relevant advice, and a tool that can help shape a story, I wish I had realized earlier the reverse is also true: sometimes, the very best thing a writer can do is to pry open a character’s heart and tell us exactly what is inside.
As I went on to take more writing workshops, the discussion of interiority—the access that we are given to the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and interior worlds—became commonplace. Merriam-Webster defines interiority as “psychological existence,” which is the very thing that great fiction succeeds in describing. It is a testament to my own ignorance, rather than the instruction I received, that for a long time I considered such blunt descriptions of emotion inelegant.
Interiority, when conveyed well, is an essential part of the story’s structure. It helps to propel the plot forward; it gives its physical descriptions weight. It should be said that there is no “correct” approach to this. Great stories are written with varying amounts of psychic distance: some give the reader complete access to the characters’ thoughts, others almost none. But it is useful to study how interiority is conveyed in certain stories; to unpack the mechanics that the author uses to show a character’s mind at work. I can think of no better example than Anne Valente’s fiction.
Let’s look at one story in particular: “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart,” which appeared in Memorious and was the finale to her debut collection By Light We Knew Our Names. This story brilliantly maps the interior life of a man named Walter, whose job it is to tend to one hundred baby octopuses that will eventually be used as test subjects. His boss illegally captured their mother from the ocean. Ironically, he hopes to use her babies to prove that love is simply a scientific phenomenon: a chemistry that can be mapped. Performing on octopuses without anesthesia is against the law—because the animals would feel too much pain. Still: this is what Walter’s boss plans to do, and it is Walter’s job to prepare the tiny creatures for their fate.
By the third paragraph, we know exactly how Walter feels about all this: “What they’d done was wrong. Walter felt the wrong rattle the marrow of his bones . . . ” A conflict is established, and now we are eager to watch it play out. Walter feels guilty about the wrongs that he is complicit in each day; yet, he continues to do them. The story is not coy about its character’s emotions. At the same time, it does not linger on them excessively. One blunt, well-placed sentence is enough to illuminate the prose that follows. After the admission above, we are not surprised when the mother octopus, Sedna, dies after childbirth (as all female octopuses do) and Walter takes her to the saltwater pond behind his home instead of disposing of her in the lab, as he had been instructed.
The conflict deepens. While Walter knows that he is complicit in wrongdoing, he feels a responsibility to the captive creatures he cares for. This is soon linked to the sense of guilt and responsibility that Walter feels in his own life:
Walter thought of the marbled eggs, creatures balled inside their tiny wombs until they would burst to mollusks, their tentacles stretched and splayed beyond their shells. Roseline’s hand squeezed his, the squeeze of the childless while babies bloomed all around them, a grip that breathed I know.
In one intimate sentence, the action that follows takes on multiple dimensions. We learn that Roseline, Walter’s wife, has had difficulty having children. We see how this affects the way that Walter sees the world; as no one can, entirely, separate their past from their present experience. The “marbled eggs” and “tiny wombs” in the previous sentence are given a new weight. It follows that Walter soon sets a particular octopus—one who appears the most responsive, who turns the most brilliant colors—aside. It makes sense to us when Walter eventually secrets this creature, whom he has named Peabody, home, especially after the admission: “He’d become attached, just like Sedna, and like baby after baby until Roseline finally said enough, no more names and no more trying, we will just have to let this go.”
These brief jolts of interiority give the physical descriptions of Peabody more weight, infusing Walter’s observations with a fierce protectiveness and pride:
Walter watched Peabody swim, mornings before work and some evenings beside Roseline. Peabody grew quickly, no longer confined by the edges of fishbowls, and propelled himself around the pond, sometimes floating along the banks to absorb the last of the sun, and other times poking the frogs with wonder, tentacles pulsing lemon yellow when they responded and played.
Once we are given access to Walter’s interior world, the descriptions that follow hold all this knowledge inside of them. There is a clear affection behind the description of Peabody’s “tentacles pulsing lemon yellow” in response to his environment; there is a sense of responsibility to the creature who Walter has both held captive and saved. The story’s details are described with the same gentle care that Walter brings to his own life.
I will spare the reader a summary of the story’s gruesome ending. I will let you discover on your own the full precision with which Valente describes Walter’s emotional state. What is clear from this reading is that Valente allows us to move through the story with her protagonist, to inhabit it as he does. “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” is so powerful because of its ability to map its main character’s psychology. It allows us to inhabit the mind of another (fictional) person, a feat which is (unfortunately) impossible in real life, as this description of Roseline, near the story’s close, attests:
Walter listened to her breathe in and out, lung membrane, air sacs, cells. He felt her heart pulse through her fingers, through his jeans, just one muscle-strapped core instead of three, but beating hard all the same, strong, steady. All the eggs, all the frogs, all the mollusks and unborn children and here she was, her solid shape, all skin and cell that masked what she’d hide forever, some impenetrable core she held beneath bone.
Here, it feels like Valente is almost winking at us, because getting to that “impenetrable core” of another person is what so many stories endeavor to do, and what hers does so beautifully.