Reading Like a Writer: THE IMPOSSIBLE FAIRY TALE and Atmospheric Violence
The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong) is about one girl who is spoiled and another who is abused, while exploring the responsibility of a writer to her characters. One of the ways it makes its point is through a scene of horrific violence.
I'm interested in the way that scene struck me as a reader. Of course, I can't speak for everyone, but when I reached the murder, it felt both inevitable and surprising. Even after I knew the intent of one character to harm another, both options (that she would or would not go through with the act) felt equally possible. Or maybe it's that they felt equally impossible. The suspense was chilling; the action itself was even more so, offering not a relief, but a fresh horror. This effect is incredibly compelling, but hard to achieve.
It seems like I might analyze the murder here, but instead I'm going to look at a much earlier detail, one that does important work to make the "inevitable surprise" possible.
Some children buy ice cream and get white and yellow stains down the front of their shirts, and some children buy chicks and drop them one by one from the apartment's rooftop.
Here we have an example of violence that is both casual and shocking. It's casual because it's included at the end of a sentence about something mundane. Putting two actions in the same breath often has this effect of equating their importance. It also picks up the look of ice cream. The yellow and white stains occur because little blobs "drop"—just like the chicks. The colors "yellow and white," though describing the ice cream, are also common colors for chicks and therefore sort of transfer to the birds in my mind. The two acts are thus made parallel by grammar, motion and color, so that killing baby chicks picks up the commonplace nature of buying ice cream.
But it's still shocking and part of that shock is because it's treated as routine. We'd be less surprised if the author had prepared us for the brutality. Instead, she sets up a safe-seeming world. Ice cream underscores that these are children, otherwise absorbed in typical childhood activities. And of course it's always more disturbing to learn that children, who are supposed to be innocent (Why do we think this?), are violent.
There's a little bit more to those "yellow and white stains." Of course this is the ice cream—the same children who buy the ice cream get the stains on their shirts. But because the chicks might also be yellow and white, it feels as though the children are stained with the killed animals. This isn't quite blood, but it's reminiscent of it. And any stain can signify guilt. These marks effectively pull all of the children into the bird-killing zone, wrapping them in a sinister haze.
There's a little bit of added danger because the birds are dropped from the rooftop. It's not the focus of the sentence, but we might wonder what children are doing up there in the first place. They might fall or jump or push, these kids who kill for fun.
Further down the page, the killings turn from casual to "triumphant" as one boy boasts of the different ways he killed multiple chicks.
I killed all four chicks I bought yesterday. I dropped one out the window, I put one in boiling water, I flushed one down the toilet, I left one on the bus, and even though I didn't kill it, it probably died anyway. . . . At once, all eyes and ears turned to the triumphant boy.
What is this world, then? One of casual violence executed by school children? It's important, I think, that we learn the violence is not typical of the entire city and country but specific to this group of kids. (This is important to me as a stranger to the greater culture. The point might be unnecessary to those who live in a similar city in South Korea.)
We learn where to situate this attitude of casual violence and how localized it is when outsiders react to it. In this case, there are rumors of the killings and they reach as far as—gasp!—the parents. Thus we get another perspective on the treatment of these birds.
The parents are less concerned about the birds than of the reputation of the children, however. They don't seem to investigate or punish animal cruelty so much as the spreading of gossip.
I can interpret this two ways. It could be that the parents don't care if their children are cruel, only if they're known to be cruel. Another possibilities is that the parents don't believe that the chicks have been killed at all and are concerned only with the telling of lies. In either case, the parents confirm that the children's actions and attitude are considered inappropriate to those on the outside.
And so the act is casual and shocking and particular to this insular world. Those are qualities that make it stick in my head.
And yet. The violence is put away.
Consider old Chekhov's gun. The idea is that if a gun shows up early, it better be fired by the end. It basically means that when anything explosive is introduced to a story, the reader is on high alert for the blast. But then, when it does happen, when that gun is fired, the reader will relax. The bullet is spent, the tension released. It has served its purpose.
The controversy surrounding the chicks is completed, it seems, when Mia is punished for spreading rumors. As a reader, I can put away this act of violence.
But an image so intense, even if it feels spent, doesn't go away entirely. Though this act has been completed, I know what the story is capable of. As I read further, the dead chicks haunt my understanding of these children. The casual attitude about violence becomes a sort of atmosphere or fog.
More important, I think "putting it away" helps create the inevitable surprise of the later, much more terrible violence. We haven't tossed it out, but carefully folded the idea of those slain chicks into some mental drawer. Because it's "away," we can be surprised at the later bloodshed. But it's still there somewhere, quickly pulled from the drawer, so it feels like it's always been coming.
This type of atmospheric violence—made vivid and then tucked away—can do really incredible things. In The Impossible Fairy Tale, Han Yujoo uses it to make a chilling scene even more so.
Allison Wyss's 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. Check out the Loft's Winter 2018 class offerings for her classes: Awkward is My Superpower: Writing Sex; and Reading the Other.