[Editor’s Note: We are grateful to Lee Martin’s article “Stuart Dybek’s ‘Sunday at the Zoo’: A Class in Narrative Structure,” an article that served as our own model for the structure of the narrative analysis essay of short short fiction.]
Mining extraordinary flash fiction from the ordinary and mundane of life sounds contradictory, but David Barringer shows us how in “The More We Live Apart” as it appears in Quick Fiction 11. Barringer illuminates the extraordinary within the ordinary life of a father and husband by tracing the arc of the narrator’s day, juxtaposing the mundane with fantastical acts of superheroes. This motif of superheroes is established in the first sentence: “Superheroes everywhere save the day and the next day and then today again.” It is reinforced using superhero iconography throughout the story.
Once the motif of superheroes is established, Barringer works to intertwine the mundane details of the narrator’s life with the fantastical escapades of superheroes. Barringer juxtaposes “an old man sell[ing] puppies” outside a store, with this: “A toy store explodes, and a superhero gathers children at the peaks of their trajectories.” He continues this narrative device with a car exploding and a “superhero rip[ping] an X off the brick façade and hurl[ing] it like a disc into the side of an enemy helicopter, X-ing the black machine into the dumpster of a Chick-fil-A.” This extraordinary act is juxtaposed with the mundane act of the narrator “brushing the knots out of [his] daughter’s hair.”
The last example of these intertwining acts of ordinary and extraordinary occurs when superheroes “crash through the roof [to] retriev[e] the tub” that has fallen through the ceiling. This is juxtaposed with the mundane act of the narrator clipping his son’s nails and fixing dinner. In each of these examples, the extraordinary acts of heroism are treated as if they are mundane everyday chores. This narrative technique not only creates surprise and interest, but Barringer uses this to set up the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary in the end of the story.
Barringer layers the narrative by illuminating the narrator’s loneliness, peppering the narrative with a few lines like these: “The old man asks me about my sex life. ‘Emergency sex,’ I say. ‘We’ve been married a while,’” and, “Our friends grow apart into separate lives. My wife and I are alone.” These lines might seem jarringly unrelated to what is happening in the story, but they fade into the text unnoticed, as does the narrator’s loneliness into the background of a busy life.
The story ends with a visit to his dying father in the hospital, and this is where Barringer merges the ordinary with the extraordinary: “Superheroes fill the waiting rooms, reading magazines. Some wander the halls and peek into rooms as they pass.” By showing superheroes doing ordinary human acts, he transforms the extraordinary into the ordinary and the ordinary human becomes the everyday hero “sav[ing] the day and the next day and then today again.” By intertwining the superhero with the everyday human, Barringer illuminates the heroic work of everyday people and therefore mines the extraordinary from the ordinary.
Barringer deftly crafts the everyday hero and then ends with a reversal:
“My father is still conscious, in pain, for weeks, then months. The nurse asks, ‘Hasn’t he suffered enough?’ My mother answers, ‘No.’”
What is the reverse of the everyday hero? A wife refusing to be the hero by not releasing her dying husband from his suffering. This ending stands in stark contrast to all that Barringer has built in this story but does so with a purpose. In this last sentence, the wife is refusing her husband to save herself from loneliness, which ties in the emotional theme of the story that has gone unnoticed in the text. This line contrasts the heroism in the story with the human frailties of this moment. This reversal has the effect of underscoring the heroism of the everyday person having to face the death of a loved one and still go on with the mundane and lonely acts of life.
Barringer accomplishes an amazing act of defining a thing through its opposite, pretty tricky stuff. If I could reduce the narrative structure of this story to an algebraic formula, it would look something like this:
- Establish a fantastical or absurd motif. Use iconography (or image map) of the motif in the setting, names, and dialog, thus blending the ordinary with the extraordinary.
- Build the arc of the story by juxtaposing the ordinary/mundane acts with the fantastical/absurd acts. Make sure the extraordinary is treated as if ordinary in the story -repeat three times.
- Add emotional resonance with a few lines that illustrate the emotional reality of the character(s).
- Merge the ordinary with the extraordinary by using the extraordinary to represent the ordinary.
- Tie up loose ends—merge the emotional theme of the story with the ending.
- End with reversal. Once the ordinary is defined as extraordinary show an example of the ordinary refusing to be extraordinary.
How can you mine the extraordinary flash fiction from the ordinary in everyday life? Try using Barringer’s narrative technique, by first identifying an imperceptible or common human experience you’d like to illuminate. Then contrast this with its opposite using hyperbole, or the fantastical. Establish the hyperbolic or fantastical motif in the first line then continue as outlined above. Go extreme in the contrast, see how far from the thing you are trying to illuminate you can get.
FF.Net Author’s Note
Tori Bond is an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) candidate at Rosemont College. She graduated from Rutgers with a degree in English and holds an Associate’s degree in computer science. She identifies herself as a novelist, freelance writer, mom, and failed housewife with a flash fiction habit.