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Tuesday

Flash Reprint: A Critical Response to Brookmyre’s “Paranoid Fantasy”

Paranoid Fantasy in 225 Words 

(reprinted
with permission)

 

He's at the window again, looking
for us, checking his watch, pacing, twitchy, anxious. He knows we're coming; he
just doesn't know when.

 

            Unseen
inside the van, I can watch his face in close-up on the screens. When he moves
back into the room I can follow him behind the walls, picked out in infra-red,
heat trace yellow against green. Telescopic lenses triangulate him from
adjacent tower blocks, his position relayed through my earpiece, my replies
carried by sub-vocal mic.

 

            I
check my own watch. Fifty minutes now, but that's nothing. We've got a 100
percent record when it comes to the waiting game. Sooner or later, he'll make a
move. Sooner or later, everybody does. And that's when they're ours.

 

            'Subject
in motion,' a voice informs me, inevitably. 'exiting to fore at speed.'

 

            Like
you can ever be quick enough.

 

            The
green light comes mere seconds later. 'subject has cleared sightlines. Confirm
and note time, 11:46.'

 

            '11:46.
Confirmed and noted.'

 

            'Go
go go.'

 

            And
that's when I moved in, swift but not hurried, visible but not conspicuous, to
deliver the message.

 

            The
name is always different, but the inescapable truth never changes:

 

            'Dear
Mr. Jones, We called today at 11:46 to carry out work at your homes but were
unable to gain access. Please phone Transco on 0845 605 6677 in order to
reschedule.'

 º

"Paranoid Fantasy
in 225 Words" by Christopher Brookmyre immediately caught my attention with its
cheeky, self-descriptive title, but what made me truly appreciate the piece is
Brookmyre's brilliant craft. Reading it, I realized that sometimes fewer
details are more powerful than gracefully constructed imagery. The sparse
nature, concise wording, and mysterious tone all contribute to an intriguing
story that taps into everyone's secret beliefs about a rather boring sounding
event. Making the mundane mysterious is something that other flash writers
might be interested in utilizing in their own work.

One of the most
striking aspects of the piece is the lack of characterization. Many works of
fiction attempt to describe, or in some way convey, the characters/narrators/people to the reader. Brookmyre, much to
his credit, lets the reader guess at the identities, roles, and purpose of the
mystery figures and the watched man. He accomplishes this "mystery" by removing
traces of individuality through a lack of characterization. In an attempt to
unsettle the audience, Brookmyre writes in the first person, and occasionally
refers to an unseen "we" or "us." The fact that the narrator is watching an
unnamed, un-described man adds to the mystery and uneasiness. In typical
paranoid fashion, this feeling of invisible or unknown figures watching from some
secret hideaway perfectly fits the tone of the piece.

            This
tone is the real star of the piece; it's what made me want to write about it.
It blends an air of mystery with a sense of omnipresence and a twist of dark
humor. The choice of words in the few lines of dialogue adds to the sensation
of some type of mystery organization; Brookmyre uses terms and phrases commonly
associated with "spies" and "secret ops." Even the simple, regimented
back-and-forth between the two "watchers" is reminiscent of covert agents
tracking a suspect. These touches help maintain the themes and tone of the
piece and draw the reader into the world in a very short space, while the short
sentences and breaks keep the pace quick and focused, pulling the reader along
in the fantasy.

            The
last aspect that impressed me was the use of a common and mundane event -
waiting for utility workers to show up to do work - as his main plot point.
Simply put: brilliant. When reading the story, I can't help but think that's
what utility workers do. Brookmyre perfectly captures that shared belief most
people probably hold toward them, the classic feeling that "they said between
noon and 5 pm, so now I have to wait around all day and they'll just show up at
6 pm anyway!" In my opinion, it portrays our own paranoid fantasy of what
utility workers do played out in what we imagine as their perspective.

            Since
this piece intrigued me so, I decided to test how I could incorporate some of the
ideas in an attempt of my own paranoid fantasy (in 225 words):

            "30
feet, behind the hedges, southeast corner," I repeated the directions as we
moved quickly along the fence around the perimeter. "Shut off valves, replace
broken piece, prime device, power on." Simple, quick, no mess; the family in
the house would be completely unaware. We watched them through the leaves, sitting
at the table, occupied with their cereal; we had maybe five minutes to make the
switch and get out.

We ducked behind
the hedges near the device. We'd been working the job all summer, usually the
family was busy or out and we could move in unimpeded. That day they must've
caught wind of it and stayed in hoping to catch us.

"Quick, he's seen
the truck out front, he's moving around back," my partner said. If he
intercepted us, we'd have to modify the parameters of the job. We worked fast,
turning valves and moving pieces. Then curious footsteps crunched on the gravel
near us. He spoke through the hedge, asking us to do a cleaning before we left,
as if he was our only client.

I wiped my sweaty
forehead, "Uh, yeah, but it'll just be a real quick one 'cause we have other
jobs to do." I popped the lid back on the motor and holstered my wrench.

While my partner
skimmed the top of the pool, I vacuumed the bottom.

º

In my example, I
tried to keep the characters shrouded in mystery. I never mentioned the
location or actions of the partner and only mentioned the other man through the
narrator's dialogue. Like Brookmyre's piece, I tried to capture the mystery of
the mundane by intentionally obscuring the job of the "pool guys" and watching
the family from a distance, even going so far as to indirectly relay the
instructions via the narrator. The tone of my piece is also similarly abrupt
and focused, swapping detail for a quickened pace and an air of intrigue accomplished
by using sets of directions, focusing on actions, and concealing the reality.
Finally, I focused on the mundane and often overlooked or stereotyped job of
pool cleaners; however, I decided to bring the reader into the escapist mind of
a bored pool boy (which is closer to the reality than the stereotypes would
have people believe), thus creating a fantasy world. It's not quite paranoid,
but if viewed from the perspective of someone watching this unfold, it's
possible to see how some might view pool workers with the same suspicion as
someone snooping around their backyard.

Overall, "Paranoid
Fantasy in 225 Words" is an incredibly fun and intriguing story. It is an
excellent example of how sparse details can actually benefit certain pieces,
and how a writer can create a great story by turning the mundane into a
twisted, humorous version of reality. I suggest just taking a dull moment from
life, perhaps a past job (as I did with my example), and warp it into a
paranoid's fantasy version. Doing so is a great release, and it challenges the
writer to look at things in a completely different light. So, give it shot...and
don't worry, nobody's watching you.

Author's Note

Costanzo.jpgMichael Costanzo is currently
working toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. He holds a
bachelors degree in History with a minor in Psychology from Cabrini College
where he published his Historiography research paper
Emerging Art Trends: Video Games as Art in the 2012 Journal of
Undergraduate Research. Michael is also the co-creator and writer for the
entertainment/humor website "The Crispy Noodle" and the co-host of The Crispy
Noodle Podcast. In his off time, he enjoys playing video games, yelling at the
Philadelphia Eagles, being Italian, and writing (of course).

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