Reading Like a Writer: "Hungry" and the Tweaking of a Known Image
Elizabeth McCracken's short story, "Hungry" (Thunderstruck and Other Stories), is about a woman, Sylvia, who learns that her son is about to die, far away from her, and that she will not get to be there or speak to him before it happens. Then she goes across the hall and finds that her ten-year-old granddaughter, who is staying with her, has been spanked by a neighbor.
She wanted to plunk the plates one by one from the wall and smash them, and then she realized the strange feeling in her arms was her hands, which were heavy as sandbags and had been since she'd hung up the phone. Grief had made them huge. They felt ready to drop off her wrists.
Those heavy hands. I haven't experienced the particular loss of this character, yet the hands make me understand her grief in a way that is specific to her. It's distinct and it's overwhelming.
I think the description gets some of its power because it plays off an old cliché—the heavy heart—but tweaks that cliché by moving the heaviness to a new location, one that is strange.
Clichés are dangerous in fiction because they are skippable. We've heard it before, so we roll our eyes and read on, without considering if there's truth to the statement. Yet persistent clichés often have profundity at their core—that's why they exist in the first place.
One reason the heavy heart cliché has such staying power is it does the important work of making an abstract emotion physical. It pins a feeling to the body.
But the heart suffers as a location for grief because we don't think of it as a physical organ anymore. Through overuse, it's become more of a metaphor for emotion. Hands, on the other hand, don't carry that baggage and so they're physical. We can see them and move them and feel them in a more concrete way.
Placing the grief in the hands is a way of moving the abstraction of grief into the body. The hands, however, have a unique relationship to the body. They're part of it, connected to it, yet outside. A strong emotion can seem this way, too. We might try to hold it at a relative distance; we can do the same thing with our hands.
This grief is in the body at the same time that it is outside of it. A paradox like this creates the mental space that I believe is needed to feel intense emotion.
There's another almost-paradox at work. The reimagining of cliché reaches both the universal and the particular. Heavy is what we're expected to feel in the face of loss; and so we do. But where that heaviness sits in the body—that has become very particular to Sylvia and her specific loss. Thus, it's both universal and particular, both expected and fresh.
And then, about a page later, something really interesting happens with Sylvia's hands.
She was returning to her body. Her hands still felt oversized, but filled with helium.
We feel this character's grief more distinctly because it changes. It moves from too heavy to too light, becoming strange again. Sylvia's grief is not a thing that she gets used to; she must be made freshly aware of it.
Beyond the way this affects our understanding of Sylvia, I think the technique acts directly on the reader in a really smart way. Building something in the mind of the reader and then changing it is a good technique for creating intimacy between the narrator and the reader. When a voice can reach inside your head and put a feeling there, that's closeness. But when it can reach in and tweak what's already there, the sense of intimacy—the sense of violation—increases.
Consider if I hand you a pencil. It's your choice to pick it up or not. But if I snatch it back, I'm exerting my own power. I don't have to touch your hand to give it to you, but to take it, I probably do. I might brush your hand lightly in the transaction or I might have to uncurl your fingers, forcefully, from around it. Either way, because the pencil is already in your possession, my grabbing it is an invasion. When McCracken changes the image of Sylvia's hands from too heavy to too light, the same thing happens in the mind of the reader. She's snatching back an image that the reader has already accepted.
Thunderstruck is a dazzling collection—there are many aspects I could geek about. But I particularly like the small magic that happens in this example of the heavy hands, when an old saying is twisted and then twisted yet again.
Allison Wyss teaches "Writing the Modern Fairy Tale", and "Watching the Clock: The Art of Time in Fiction" this spring at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.