Reading Like a Writer: Subtext, Shadow Self, and The Fishermen

Posted on Wed, Jan 4 2017 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is about four brothers growing up in Nigeria. It's also about the ways a mind can be poisoned and how an obsession can destroy you.

The scene I'm about to discuss is not pleasant. Two children are murdering a man to avenge their brothers. If you haven't read the book and don't understand the full context, it will seem even worse.

"The madman's eyes were closed and even though we'd lunged forward with a frantic cry spilling from the deep of our souls, he did not notice we were upon him. The djinn that seamed to suddenly possess us that moment leapt to the fore of my mind and tore every bit of my senses to shreds. We jabbed the hook of our lines blindly at his chest, his face, his hand, his head, his neck and everywhere we could, crying and weeping. The madman was frantic, mad, dazed. He flung his arms aloft to shield himself, running backwards, shouting and screaming. The blows perforated his flesh, boring bleeding holes and ripping out chunks of his flesh every time we pulled out the hooks. Although my eyes were mainly closed, when I opened them in flashes, I saw pieces of flesh unbuckling from his body, blood dripping from everywhere. His helpless cries shook the core of my being. But persistently, like caged birds, we flung our anger wild at him, leaping from bar to bar of the cage, from the room to the floor. The madman jabbered about, his voice deafening, his body in flustered panic. We kept hitting, pulling, striking, screaming, crying, and sobbing until weakened, covered in blood, and wailing like a child, Abulu fell backwards into the water in a wild splash. I'd once been told that if a man wanted something he did not have, no matter how elusive that thing was, if his feet do not restrain him from chasing it, he would eventually grab it. This was our case."

I'm interested in the ways that the murderer and victim mirror each other in this scene.

It's not something I noticed on first read. I was caught up in the suspense of the moment, afraid for the characters, both eager to know and dreading what would happen next. It wasn't until later that I spotted the extra work it was doing.

First, the passage merges the characters through the actions and description of the characters. Before Benjamin and his brother physically tear away Abulu's flesh, "the djinn… tore every bit of my senses to shreds." Benjamin and Abulu both have their eyes closed. The scene also plays with who is a child, who is a man, and who seems "mad." Those are the obvious ones.

The characters fuse in a more intimate way when Benjamin says that Abulu's "helpless cries shook the core of my being." This could be metaphorical, but in a passage like this, it reads as physical. I perceive the boy shaking as if with his own crying. Yet it's Abulu's pain that causes the reaction in Benjamin. This places Abulu all the way inside Benjamin's body.

And look at this sentence: "We kept hitting, pulling, striking, screaming, crying, and sobbing until weakened, covered in blood, and wailing like a child, Abulu fell backwards into the water in a wild splash." Because the "we" (Benjamin and his brother) is the first noun, the reader attaches it, accurately, to the "hitting, pulling, striking, screaming, crying, and sobbing." After that, it's pretty easy to go ahead and attach "we," inaccurately, to "weakened, covered in blood, and wailing like a child." "Abulu" doesn't appear until late in the sentence, at which point the reader casts backward, finally understanding that much of the sentence applies to him. It's slippery, even hard to read, but the momentary conflation of characters does a smart thing—it nudges the reader to apply these descriptions ("weakened, covered in blood, and wailing like a child") to both the murderers and their victim.

Even the structure contributes to the effect. Another writer might have separated the descriptions of the boys and Abulu, perhaps with a paragraph break or a careful transition. Obioma, however, has meshed their experiences into one jumble, without distinct pattern. This may cause the reader to briefly attach descriptions to the wrong person, which is—oddly—exactly right.

Thus, through a variety of techniques, the passage forges a profound connection between murderer and victim. A shadow self emerges.

But why do it? And haven't we seen this sort of murderer-victim-reflection before?

I think it's essential to what's happening in both the scene and the book as a whole. In order to commit this horrific murder, Benjamin has to become, like Abulu, a "madman." (It's a madness, I believe, that encompasses more than the particular atrocities of Abulu—more also than a clinical understanding of mental illness.) His journey to become that "madman" is the whole point—it's how his own mind is poisoned. Benjamin has watched something similar happen to his brothers. Now he must take the same risk, knowing he might not survive.

Beyond that, the mirroring is crucial to the reader's experience of the story. Since the reader is already inside Benjamin's head, when Benjamin becomes Abulu, the reader becomes him, too, thus feeling the murder from both sides. If Benjamin merely killed some monster of an "other," it would be less devastating.  

And it's smart that this work is done through subtext, instead of Benjamin explaining it to us outright. Because the reader can feel the effect without explicitly noticing it, it becomes almost bodily rather than mere words in the brain. That's powerful. I suspect the impression of physicality also makes us more likely to relate the ideas to the larger world, instead of just remembering an instance of the same thing in another story. Putting these details on the level of subtext, then, might obscure the fact that the author is returning to a common—though authentic—trope in literature.

By now, it might be difficult to believe the details I've described are subtext. Once quoted and analyzed, they tend to seem obvious. But amidst such action—a murder—they're unlikely to be noticed. Only the subconscious grabs every one.  

Looking back at a passage can never be the same experience as the first read of it.

Here's one more thing about that murder-shadow-self cliché (if you believe it is one): it's that the murderer must identify with the victim, not that the reader must identify with both. Integrating the characters on the level of subtext makes both of those things happen. And there's a glorious side effect: an old trope is made new.

The scene graphically and horrifically depicts a murder, but that's not all it does. Through careful patterns of language and sentences that are deliberately slippery, Obioma imbues the passage with a rich subtext—one that aligns murderer with victim and the reader with both.

Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this winter: Awkward Is My Superpower: Writing SexHow'd They Do That: A Craft-Based Book Club for Writers; and Watching the Clock: The Art of Time in Fiction. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (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.