Reading Like a Writer: Psychic Distance and "Bullet in the Brain"

Posted on Fri, Nov 22 2013 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


Editor's Note: One of the new features on our blog is the monthly Reading like a Writer column. The column features craft-focused book reviews by Allison Wyss.

Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" blows my mind. (Yes, I am punning).

The short story begins in a satirical tone with an embittered literary critic who mocks everything he sees. Then the man is shot in the head by bank robbers and the tone of the story shifts. We follow the bullet through the character's brain with a passage of startling lyricism, which summarizes a whole life and then ends with a simple yet intensely lovely moment of childhood.

When I first read the story, I didn't understand how it could change so drastically from the first page to the last. It wasn't just the character that changed, but the whole style of storytelling. I didn't know this kind of thing was "allowed" in fiction. I loved it.

In the years since, I've kept wondering how it worked. That initial question, "How does the author get away with that?" matured into the much better question of "How does the author make that happen?"

It turns out Wolff is a master of psychic distance and uses the third limited close POV to great advantage. I was astounded to see that the monumental shift in perspective, which happens when the bullet enters the brain, is already being set up, very subtly, in the beginning of the story.

Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

The first word of the story is the character's name—but what kind of a name is Anders? A first name or a last name? It could be either. The ambiguity—the question of whether it is the character's first name or last—creates a bit of immediate slipperiness in perspective. We're clearly in a third person POV that is close to Anders. But how close?

Think about it. Calling a man by his first name—that's what you do to your friend, your son, your brother. Calling him by his last name is what you do to your bro, a guy on your softball team, a public figure. Because Anders is simultaneously a first name and a last name, you feel both the intimacy and the relative distance at the same time. A zoom in and a zoom out.

Could this zooming prepare us for a later, more extreme shift in psychic distance? 

(My Minneapolis-based writing class tried to call bullshit on this theory, by the way. Apparently, Anders is a popular first name here. But I'm holding my ground. I really believe that for most readers, the name holds a particular kind of ambiguity.)

There's another paradox of distance in the choice of name. It's more intimate to use just one name than to use both first and last or "Mr." Yet that level of informality is paired with a decidedly formal name. It's not a nickname—not Andy or Billy or Stinky.  Is there more slipperiness there? Perhaps I'm stretching.

I'm also struck by the name because it ends in "s," which suggests a plural. More than one what? More than person? More than one perspective? More than one style of telling the story?

In so many ways, "Anders" creates an ambiguous distance. And I don't mean vague—it's not that we don't know the distance, it's that we know two different, but very specific, distances. Zoom in. Zoom out. But simultaneously.

Enough about the name. What else happens in the opening paragraph?

That first sentence puts us squarely in Anders's perspective. It's third person, but it's close enough to Anders that it's almost first person. The words "so of course the line was endless" clearly belong to Anders. That "of course" is idiomatic in a way that must be his own manner of speaking.

But what about the next sentence? "He was never in the best of tempers anyway"—something Anders would think about himself? Maybe. But we seem less squarely in his consciousness. The voice might be backing up a bit to comment on Anders from the outside. The word "murderous"—it's poking fun at Anders. We don't yet know, in these opening sentences, if Anders is the type to make fun of himself. Therefore, it puts the reader slightly on guard. How close to Anders are we?

Then, we take a more certain step back with "a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed." While, Anders must know his own job and reputation, he is very unlikely to be thinking about them at this moment. Thus, we have a bit more distance; the narrator has backed slightly away to give a different perspective on the character. And that dash that introduces the clause—it's almost a visible gesture that pushes us there.

Writers zoom around in third person all the time, sometimes to great effect and sometimes in ways that feel uncontrolled or amateurish. In this expert case, early subtle shifts prepare for a more extreme zoom later on.

The final zoom of "Bullet in the Brain" is wonderful and also worth close analysis, but even the beginning teaches about deft handling of psychic distance.


Allison Wyss earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She has also studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, and Grub Street Independent Writing Center. Her stories have appeared or will appear in [Pank] Magazine, Metazen, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Golden Key, and The Southeast Review.