What Can We Steal From Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s “Dear John”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Dear John,” short story
Author: Sarah Gerkensmeyer
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published by Guernica, a cool online journal. The story can be found right here. The story is also featured in Ms. Gerkensmeyer’s short story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying: Stories.
Bonuses: Here‘s an interview with Ms. Gerkensmeyer that was conducted by Midwestern Gothic. Wow…what an interesting feature over at The Next Best Book Blog. Ms. Gerkensmeyer created a list of beer pairings for each story in her collection.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Magical Realism
Ms. Gerkensmeyer’s first-person narrator introduces her dilemma in the story’s first line: “When my husband first announced that he was leaving me, there were no packed bags.” But the narrator is not being abandoned in the usual manner. The departure is a “gradual process.” The narrator releases a number of increasingly important clues as to what is happening. In my view, the narrator is imagining the departed husband. As he becomes more of a ghost, her memory smooths over the man’s imperfections. His skin regains its youthful glow. His eyes sparkle with the love he once felt for her. The narrator is aware of reality, but nonetheless imagines her husband gardening with her and admiring her beauty in the pure and unfettered way she misses.
I will admit that it took me a little while to formulate my personal concept of the conceit of the story. After a little more thought, I think I know why. Ms. Gerkensmeyer’s story is certainly a “literary” work, but it is also a work of magical realism. She is therefore working in the tradition of writers such as Bernard Malamud, who set their stories in the “normal” world, but introduce magical elements. Husbands simply don’t get younger and better-looking. In a world touched by magical realism, however, a man who has moles can eventually have blemish-free skin.
What does Ms. Gerkensmeyer gain by employing the conventions of magical realism? Once the reader understands the concept, she is free to write beautiful sentences and to choose which actions are most important for the fantasy husband. The narrator, it seems, had a miscarriage. Fantasy husband offers the comfort she wishes real husband would have given her. The apparition recedes as the narrator heals psychologically as a result of her indulgence. In fiction, as in life, moderate amounts of denial and imagination can set a person on the way to mental health.
Here’s one of fiction’s vast dilemmas: how much are you allowed to “confuse” your reader? How much of the story’s conceit and exposition are you allowed to hide and how long? There is, of course, no hard-and-fast answer. Every story is its own special case. Here’s the hopelessly ambiguous answer: You can confuse your reader and hide information so long as you offer the reader enough information to know what is going on. Think of it like rock climbing. You may not know what is at the summit of the mountain, but there must be enough handholds and footholds to allow you to get there.
What footholds does Ms. Gerkensmeyer offer? She makes it clear that the departure of the husband is a “gradual” process. “Okay,” the reader says. “Whatever is happening will take a long time.” The “clues” get increasingly outlandish. At first, the fantasy husband holds his coffee cup in a loving manner. Then, Ms. Gerkensmeyer makes it clear that “months” pass. “Maybe years.” His skin changes color and a scar disappears. Ms. Gerkensmeyer eases the reader into the magic of the story. She challenges you a little during the climb, but never takes you up a slope that is too steep.
What Should We Steal?
- Sprinkle genre elements into your literary work. Each genre offers you access to a different toolbox. When you’re writing magical realism, you’re allowed to use the conventions of fantasy to shape your narrative.
- Ensure that your readers have the footholds they need to understand your work. You can write a story about the craziest things, so long as you give your reader enough clues to be able to follow you. It’s not the reader’s job to take out a piece of paper and a pen and map out your story; don’t confuse opacity with mystery.