What Can We Steal From Marie Potoczny’s “How Our Town Got Its New Name and Some Other Stuff That Happened”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “How Our Town Got Its New Name and Some Other Stuff That Happened,” short story
Author: Marie Potoczny
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was originally published by the excellent online journal failbetter.  Why not check it out right now?  It’s free!

Bonus: Here is Ms. Potoczny’s “Donor,” a story that was published in the Apalachee Review.  (It’s a PDF.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Voice

Discussion:
The story takes place in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  The citizens of New Mecca, Iowa are frustrated and don’t quite know what to do with their anger and despair.  They change the name of their town to something more patriotic: Rumsfeld.  (Of course.)  The residents of Rumsfeld subsequently get revenge…on all of the wrong people.  I don’t want to ruin exactly what happens, but it seems to me that Ms. Potoczny intends the piece to serve as an allegory of the public reaction to the George W. Bush era.

The story is told from the perspective of one of the citizens of Rumsfeld.  I also tend to believe that the narrator may be the mass consciousness of those who call Rumsfeld home.  One way Ms. Potoczny gives this character a unique voice is by allowing him/her/it to make the kind of grammatical errors we all make.  Check out the missing punctuation and the comma splices in this section of the very first paragraph:

I mean you could just hardly believe it. We took down the “Welcome to New Mecca, IA” sign, we were gonna do it anyway, but maybe the goat sped things up, and unanimously voted to change the name of our town to something a little more patriotic.

These “flaws” give the narrator some personality and also make sense within the context of the story.  The whole point is that the folks who live in the Town Formerly Known As New Mecca are acknowledging the mistakes they’ve made and the flaws that existed in their belief system.

Another thing I love about the story is the allegory hidden inside the central allegory.  The residents of Rumsfeld decide to get revenge by peeing into the water supply of the neighboring town.  What’s wrong with this plan?

  • They’re getting revenge on the wrong people.
  • They’re not actually going to hurt any of the folks in Alma
  • They’re degrading themselves in the process of attempting revenge
  • The citizens of Alma have much more potent forms of protection.

The deeper allegory is that the folks in Rumsfeld are impotent; they desperately want to get revenge and to protect themselves and to feel safe, but can’t figure out how to accomplish these goals.  Ms. Potoczny doesn’t employ too heavy a hand in constructing her allegories.  The best examples of this kind of literature allows for multiple reasonable interpretations.  (I read Animal Farm in fifth grade and thought it was an allegory on the political system in the United States; Orwell’s touch was light enough to make this reasonable.)  The least satisfying allegories force you into a critical straitjacket.  (I don’t want to list any examples of those.)

Ironically, writing a piece like this is a great way to exorcise some of the anger you may have about political developments.  If you’re anything like me, you get really angry about certain things that happen in politics and in culture.  I don’t know how Ms. Potoczny feels about any of the pressing issues of the day, but I can definitely imagine that deconstructing the post-9/11 response can provide the kind of catharsis that Rumsfelders were trying to achieve.

What Should We Steal?

  • Goof up if its going too reinforce you’re point.  Grammatical errors can be particularly appropriate for dialogue and may illustrate why your character is the way they are.
  • Shape your allegories with a delicate touch.  Allow your reader to make his or her own decision as to what you really meant with your grand allegory.  Not only will the comparison mean more to the reader, but you’ll empower readers to choose from more options.
  • Exorcise your political demons through the magic of storytelling.  You can run for office so you can change things in your country, but that will invite reporters to uncover all the embarrassing things you’ve done.  Why not simply write a story that could nudge readers ever closer to agreeing with your philosophies?

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