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.
In “The Pugilist at Rest” by Thom Jones (first featured in The New Yorker; it was also reprinted free-to-read by Lit Hub here), a Vietnam veteran is preparing to undergo semi-experimental brain surgery. He hopes to cure the rare temporal lobe epilepsy which has overtaken his everyday existence: He is forced to stay home, shrouded in his old boxing helmet as protection from the epileptic fits that could occur at any time. If the surgery fails, he will be effectively lobotomized.
The story’s conceit is that our narrator is setting down his thoughts in case the surgery does go wrong. He’s not exactly airing out his conscious so much as he is trying to find a narrative thread to his life, and he has settled upon violence as that throughline: the violence of his years in the military, the violence of the blow to the head that created his epilepsy, the concept of violence itself as filtered through the greatest warrior mankind has known (Theogenes). Paired with that is an alternate rumination on beauty, particularly the ecstatic glory that is revealed in the instant before his epileptic seizures. This bliss can only exist in concert with the violence of his condition, and moreover he is aware that in undertaking the surgery he will lose all opportunity to experience this euphoric state. And yet, as per the conceit, the decision has been made before these pages were even written for us.
This story is written in first person present tense, that common reflective tense, and on that level is pretty straightforward stuff. The present tense is obfuscated slightly by the fact that we’re in backstory and memory for most of the story, thus leading much of the reading experience to be in third person past.
By the simplest concepts of fiction (characters put into challenging situations; characters trying to make a decision; events happening that complicate the status quo), this story probably shouldn’t work. Literally nothing happens in the present moment; one way of reading this piece is that it’s ninety-percent backstory. The other way of reading it (and the one to which I subscribe) is that our narrator is exploring these memories in real-time, thus making them his present moment as much as any actual time in which he’s placed. As we learn in the piece, he is about to have major brain surgery, one that will cauterize bundles of nerves that could theoretically leave him lobotomized. He may never have these memories again. He is putting all these thoughts together, building some level of order out of the major events in his life, trying to view his own story through the lens of that story possibly ending with the surgery.
But moreover, the memories themselves are very nearly all the action of which he is capable. As we learn late in the piece: “If I am not having a panic attack I am engulfed in tedious, unrelenting depression. I am overcome with a deadening sense of languor; I can’t do anything.” He doesn’t leave his house for fear of seizures. He wears his old boxing helmet for protection from the falls that are part of his epileptic fits, and he keeps his mouthguard close by at all times. (And part of the genius of this story, of course, is the elegance with which we come full circle at all times: it was boxing that gave him the epilepsy, and it is the boxing equipment that he uses to prevent injuries from those epileptic fits.) There is, in other words, nothing for him to do, action-wise: He can’t function in his current moment, in his body as it stands, and so he doesn’t.
Fiction as Set Pieces
That stasis is a large reason why, for as long a story as this is, the piece circles around just a few choice events. This is a story of three incredibly violent moments, and the way that these mold and hold onto our narrator throughout his life: His initial attack upon Hey Baby that begins the story ultimately creates the opportunity for the narrator to become the thoughtless-violence-at-all-times Marine that he ultimately embodies; Jorgeson’s death (as well as the rest of our narrator’s squad) to ensure his own survival, and the glory that he takes for himself from that moment on, guarantees that he will never be able to look at himself as anything like the hero of his own story, even as he has to find some way to sit down and write that very story; and the boxing match that gets his bell rung which is the cause of the epilepsy that follows him through to the climax of the piece.
Each of these moments are written vividly, fully in-scene in a story that mostly avoids that in favor of rumination. They’re also, interestingly enough, presented almost as a foreword to the meat of the piece. Once we’ve gotten past those moments (which we never really get past, of course, as they sit deeply on the mind and are referenced constantly in the piece), the story takes a hard turn into exploring the mind of our narrator, but we front-load the piece with each of those actions and the deep scene-work they require.
We easily could have structured this piece in such a way that each scene got its moment, and then a present-moment scene or more expository section took over for a bit, and then back to the next scene—instead, we are led through these grandly, and the true heart of the story waits for us to catch up to it.
This works because each of the moments is treated as a full moment, dressed up and decorated in full detail; these are not half-scenes, not quick impressions trying to get as many events as possible in. It’s something I have to remind my students often: take the time to settle into the moments that matter most. Let them stand out to your readers. Give them space to be remembered.
Fiction as Essay
This story uses the rules of essay as much if not more than the rules of fiction: Our character details come almost entirely from memories; after the opening scenes, there are basically no characters whatsoever; the closest thing to an antagonist might just be our narrator’s own concept of his best friend in Jorgeson; and the inciting incident of this story (which I’m scanning as the decision to get the operation, although I suppose an argument could be made, based on alternate readings of story structure, that the inciting incident is either getting hit and the injury that results, or going further back to him joining the military at all since that’s where the piece starts and where he meets Jorgenson to begin his contemplation regarding the nature of a warrior) leads us to a conflict that has already been decided by the time the story starts. And of course, that reflective first-person narrator is a common memoir choice.
What is interesting about this piece, as with the best of nonfiction, are the ideas at play. The question of what exactly constitutes a warrior, with our narrator considering his multiple personal experiences as such and equally considering the legend of Theogenes, is absolutely fascinating to me. It shows clear research, and it leads the reader to their own conclusions while also firmly establishing the narrator’s own thoughts. And of course, unless you’re a classicist, you learn some history from that rumination, which isn’t always a stance that fiction would be willing to take. It requires a trust that your reader will follow you, but it also requires a certainty that you have something to say that is worth saying; there are no quirky character details or stunning plot twists to entertain the reader with pyrotechnics.
There is also that the epilepsy from which the narrator suffers is one “so rare as to be almost unknown.” I certainly had never heard of it, but the piece takes great pains to educate the reader on the symptoms and on how it has affected other sufferers, and gives us a list, including many of our most famous mystics, whom the narrator believes may have suffered the same. The narrator’s interests overtake any plot (or character, honestly) in the piece; rather than debating whether or not to have the surgery, rather than learning anything about our narrator outside the scope of injury and violence, instead we wander through an exploration of Dostoevsky’s battles with this same condition. As with an essay, the piece is focused on its thesis, on the themes that it has uncovered, and it does not waver from those.
This is not an easy read; it’s very long, meandering, exists almost entirely in the mind, has basically no antagonist and relatively few scenes and almost no conflict. Moreover, at this point in our collective reading experience the war stuff on which the story opens has little new to say, and that’s not only the opening pages of the story but somewhere around half of the story! That’s…a lot to ask of a reader.
I dispute none of that. Honestly, I find myself skipping that opening on some rereads, as long as I can remember the broad strokes.
And yet, this story blows me away every time I read it. The exploration of Theogenes fascinates every time I come back to it, and from that point in the story on, it utilizes those essayistic strategies to pull off that greatest feat of literature: I find myself forgetting that these are made-up characters, that this is not a memoir. Truthfully, and with the same sort of awe that our narrator claims anoints the coming of his seizures, I believe.
“Apollonius, Boxer at Rest, detail with head” by Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0