Our new assistant editor, Don Peteroy, has some definite ideas about fiction. Author of Wally (Burrow Press, 2012), an epistolary travel novella about an unstable protagonist who drives from Cincinnati to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to settle a score with Santa Claus, Don keeps a photocopied image of L. Ron Hubbard taped to his office wall. This morning, he was talking with one of our volunteers about how uncanny certain trends in contemporary American fiction have become. “It’s like a collective unconscious thing,” Don joked: “If a character’s blonde, he’s evil. If he has green eyes, he’s going to seduce someone. And, strangest of all, if a story opens with a couple painting a bedroom wall, you know a sudden death’s about to occur.” Read on to discover why Don admires Brock Clarke’s short story “The Radical” (11.2), which not only manages to avoid these tropes but successfully negotiates another theme that has become common to both fiction and nonfiction: the contemporary cancer narrative.
Don Peteroy: A writing professor of mine once advised, “If you can predict what your next move is going to be, do the opposite.” Brock Clarke’s “The Radical” seems to make best use of that technique: Inevitability is turned inside out; surprises escalate, one-upping each other; rules are established and immediately broken. Though it sounds like I’m describing a story by Steven Milhauser or Robert Coover, the experiments in Clarke’s piece are subtle; barely detectable. The protagonist finds out he’s got cancer. On the night of his diagnosis, he writes a letter to his wife, Therese. She never actually sees the letter, but hears about it years later, and this belated discovery marks the beginning of a slow-moving deterioration that will affect their relationship and that of their close friends.
I admire how much of the dramatic effect of this story hinges on dislocated time. Though the moment of narration is years later, we’re not aware of any retrospective distance until about halfway through the story. Up until that point, it’s strictly present tense—but then we must recalibrate. This isn’t a gimmick or trick: The shift evokes in us the kind of temporal and causal dislocation that the protagonist experiences. Furthermore, we get the sense that the protagonist admonishes the advancement of time—it brings about decay and dissolution. He attempts to forestall the inevitable. Structurally—even down to the sentence level—the story embodies the protagonist’s penchant for evasion. Soon, however, we’re thrown back into linear time, where there are consequences. This is evident in the last full paragraph, which builds tension by delaying closure, but cannot indefinitely forestall the inevitable, discomforting resolution. The effect is profound. Because the story is narrated from some point in the future, we’d expect the narrator to have come to terms with (or to have mastered) his interpretation of past events. Not quite. “The Radical” is both a story about loss, and a story about the drama of telling such a story.