SOUR HEART and Depth in Flatness
Jenny Zhang's "The Empty the Empty the Empty" from her collection of stories, Sour Heart, is about a fourth grader who runs straight at whatever scares her—which is everything, and especially sex. Here's the opening:
Even though Jason was the second shortest boy I knew and his nickname was Shrimpy Boy or sometimes Shrimpson, I still wanted him to be my boyfriend, and it was the easiest thing in the world to do. All it took on my part was nothing because I lived, breathed, and exuded mind-boggling, head-spinning, neck-craning, heart-pounding, ravishing beauty. I was the best-looking girl in fourth grade. I had straight, long black hair that never tangled. In the mornings before our teacher, Mrs. Silver, yelled at us to sit down at our assigned desks, the other girls, who were taller and fuller and already developing tits and asses, cooed and aahed at me and ran their fingers through my hair and told me they wished they could be me, they wished they could have my hair, have slender arms and legs like me, and sometimes, out of sympathy, I told them I wouldn't mind knowing what it was like to have tangly messy hair, and sort of thick arms and legs.
I'm struck by how this description is both like and unlike flatness, as it is used in fairy tales. (The story is not a fairy tale, but it's useful to bring that sensibility to bear on it.)
In traditional fairy tales, characters are rarely given psychological depth. If they have any emotion at all, it's simple emotion. Even physical description is kept simple and abstract (abstraction being another hallmark of fairy tales). A character is often beautiful, but we might not learn the specific attributes of her beauty, and her beauty might be the only thing we're told about her.
But you know what else is rare in traditional fairy tales? A first person narrator. In fact, my recent fairy tale class argued that flatness and the first person just don't mix—that if we're getting the story through the voice of a character, that character necessarily has some psychological depth.
So what does any of that have to do with this passage? It seems to me like this is a first person narrator who is trying to be flat. She doesn't just say she is beautiful; she insists upon it. Phrases like "mind-boggling, head-spinning, neck-craning, heart-pounding, ravishing beauty" give us hyperbole without specificity. Beyond long dark hair and slender limbs, we don't even learn what she looks like. And by using a whole paragraph for so few details, but with such emphasis on the few, she's basically saying she is beautiful and that is all; she's telling us she's flat.
But is she? While the character tells us she is a flat character, the passage shows us something different. It's a great instance, in fact, of what I call "showing through telling." (The passage uses continuous time and is made vivid through scene-like examples, but it's still telling.) The narrator's selection of examples, as well as her emphasis and affect, reveal her personality and mental state.
Now consider what it is she insists—that she beautiful and that she's flat.
The repeated claims layer to become a sort of mask—an obvious one—for whatever she is not telling us. And since the mask is so clearly her physical appearance, the underneath is unquestionably her deeper self. When she denies that anything is there or covers it up so frantically, it only makes us more desperate to know. She presents imaginary flatness as a challenge, making us want to see behind it.
So what's behind the mask? Well, that's the question, right? This is the first paragraph. We ought to have questions.
Is she really as beautiful as she says? Is she vain and shallow? Or is she just invested in us thinking that she's vain and shallow? Why is it so important that we think she's beautiful? Could it be that she's not beautiful at all? Who is she most trying to convince of her beauty? What does she gain by convincing us? What does she fear will happen if we disagree?
We ask why she's trying so hard to appear flat, and that question—which implies motivation—makes her fail at her flatness. Behind the mask she presents, we sense a depth to her and in that depth—and her desperate attempt to hide it—we understand her vulnerability.
Even if we don't immediately know the answers to the questions, the fact that we ask them suggests that there are answers, and so we intuit that there is a mind behind the flat/beautiful mask she presents us. We are compelled to read on because we trust that we'll learn more about that mind, some psychological depth perhaps, in the rest of the story.
And we do.
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 Summer 2018 class offerings for her upcoming classes: Tell, Don't Show and Fiction Narrative: Finding the Right Voice.