Title of Work and its Form: “Navigators,” short story
Author: Mike Meginnis
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in Issue 12 of Hobart, a stellar literary journal. It was subsequently chosen for the 2012 edition of The Best American Short Stories.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Endings
“Navigators” happens to have personal resonance for me, but the story is well-written enough to appeal to any reader. The story’s third-person point of view is limited to Joshua, a young man who is living with his increasingly broken father. Dad is a good guy, but he has been shaken by the dissolution of his relationship with Joshua’s mother. Father and son have an escape: Legend of Silence, a video game whose heroine, Alicia, takes on significance. Dad can’t bring himself to make enough money, but he can fill the walls with maps of the LoS game board. “If we map the whole world,” Dad says. “We can stop getting lost. Then we’ll really get cooking. We’ll be through in a month.” The gas is shut off, but at least they are helping Alicia make her way through the game. Then father and son move to a smaller apartment. The story ends, fittingly, as Joshua and his father finish the game. Legend of Silence gets pretty deep at the end, and so does “Navigators.”
It quickly becomes clear to the reader that the video game is an allegory for Joshua’s life and that Alicia is a kind of mother figure to the motherless child. In less skillful hands, this device could dominate the story. Instead, Mr. Meginnis ensures that the subtext remains, well, sub. How? He doesn’t explicitly connect the game to Joshua’s life, opting to describe the game as though it were real. This is not to say that there are not gut-punch sentences that clearly correlate to poor Joshua. In the middle of the story, for example, Alicia finds herself in “the chamber of the orange cork.” Then:
Joshua’s father pressed the B button and Alicia took the cork. She drew her gun, solemn as pixels can. She fitted the cork inside the gun, pushing hard until it stuck out only a little—a flare at the end.
“Now it won’t fire?” said Joshua.
His father shook his head.
His father nodded.
Mr. Meginnis has already established that Joshua and his father have some understandable hangups with women. When father and son are discussing Alicia, they are really discussing Joshua’s mother, both the real version and the one that is breathed to life by her absence. The author treats his reader like an adult, allowing him or her to decide the true nature of the connection. (Each reader will fill in the blanks for themselves, informed by their own experiences.)
The structure of “Navigators” is also very well chosen. At one point, I was Joshua’s age; Mr. Meginnis’s structure mimics the kind of reality I felt. There was a section of real life…then an interlude dominated by a video game or a book. More real life…then I was swept away by the music videos that were once played on Music Television. Mr. Meginnis immerses the reader in the perspective of a young man by structuring his story in the same way his protagonist understands the world.
The ending of the story, of course, explicitly unites the game and the lives of Joshua and his father. You, dear reader, may have a different opinion, but I find it very hard to end stories. The conclusion must accomplish a LOT. You have to wrap up the narrative of the story while offering insight as to what will happen in the white space after the last sentence, you must give the reader a memorable image, you will probably cram in some poetry…and it all must seem natural.
Mr. Meginnis, to borrow a gymnastics term, sticks the landing. The final section of the story unites the parallel narratives (Joshua’s life and the game), lays bare some of the emotion that father and son have been hiding and leaves the reader believing that the pair understand themselves a little more deeply, placing them on the path to happiness. The final paragraph mines one of Joshua’s memories of his mother, placing flesh onto the specter she has been through the rest of the story. Again, Mr. Meginnis allows the reader to vicariously experience catharsis by leaving the “answer” in the subtext.
What Should We Steal?
- Keep your subtext under the surface. This is one of the differences between drama and melodrama. There is real pathos to be mined when you have characters trapped in complicated situations and who don’t quite know how to ease their own pain. There is usually less pathos when a character walks around screaming about what is bothering them.
- Avail yourself of allegory glory. So much of human interaction is done through allegory, even if you’ve never thought of it that way. Think of a husband and wife fighting over who will take out the trash. Neither of them truly care who puts the trash can on the curb…they’re really arguing about some deeper, more critical issue. After all, it’s easier to argue about a tangible bag of trash than some misunderstanding. Mr. Meginnis draws out characterization and exposition by making Legend of Silence an allegory that parallels his characters’ lives.