What Can We Steal From Mike Alber’s “Mr. Disappear-o”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Mr. Disappear-o,” short story
Author: Mike Alber (On Twitter: @malber)
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story first appeared in Quick Fiction 11.  The piece can be found on Mr. Alber’s site.  See the PDF right here.

Bonuses:  Mr. Alber is a very cool guy and that really comes through in his appearance on the TV Writer Podcast. Cool, here’s an online chat he did for fellow TV writers.  (Isn’t it awesome how much he likes to share with others?)  And here‘s his IMDB page.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Economy

Discussion:
The male narrator, now an adult, is reflecting upon his habit of swallowing objects in hopes of changing the way people feel about him.  He swallowed cufflinks to keep his father at home.  He downed the objects on his teacher’s desk to amuse his classmates.  A girlfriend’s family heirloom went down the hatch because it made him a part of her family.  (Admittedly, in a very odd way.)  The story ends as the narrator breaks up with the girlfriend, but he carries a reminder of her in his gastrointestinal tract: one of her keys.

The story is very sad, even though it’s very short.  How does Mr. Alber pack so much meaning into less than a page of text?  He chooses one great central metaphor and doesn’t leave it.  The narrator swallows things because he wants the people he loves to be a part of him in a way that is otherwise impossible in his life.  (That’s my idea, at least.)  Mr. Alber didn’t have a lot of page space with which to work, so every paragraph relates to the idea in some way:

  • He swallows a cufflink to keep his father near
  • We learn the origin of his swallowing stuff; his peers enjoy the performance
  • He swallowed a girlfriend’s heirloom and has his eye on her Maglite
  • He met the girlfriend in an appropriate manner: she’s a gastroenterologist
  • Flashback: he swallows the items his peers give him
  • Dramatic present: he wants to confess his feelings to the girlfriend, but can only express himself in the way to which he has become accustomed.

You should always try to make your images and your characters’ actions as powerful as possible—think Susan Sarandon placing her husband’s picture face-down in Thelma and Louise.  The form of the short-short story requires you every element of your story to do as much “work” as possible.

Mr. Alber also exercises one of the fiction writer’s greatest advantages.  If you’re writing a play, you need to worry a LOT about scene changes.  Can we build a rocketship that we can get onstage after the chocolate factory scene?  How can Matthew Broderick sing is “I Want” song and be in a chicken costume two minutes later?  How can we let the audience know that six million years have passed between scenes?  Fiction writers can simply tell the reader what about the situation has changed.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Boom.  No matter what WAS happening, the reader knows that the narrator has brought him or her to the ranch.  Mr. Alber does this especially well in the third paragraph of his story.  In the second paragraph, the narrator is a child, and then—

Later, I was dating a nervous woman with exquisite breasts.

The reader easily understands that the narrator is referencing events that take place far later than the schoolroom scene.  A little kid probably isn’t “dating” and certainly doesn’t have a girlfriend who has “exquisite breasts.”  (The ability to zip through time is also very important in a story of this length.)  The narrator is also the kind of person who doesn’t have a lot of practice telling his story, making it a natural choice for him to jump around a lot as he tells his tale.

What Should We Steal?

  • Concentrate your imagery like Minute Maid concentrates orange juice.  The shorter your story is, the more powerful your metaphors must be.
  • Assert your right as narrator and slide between locations and time in a felicitous manner.  The methods will vary depending on the genre in which you’re writing, but take advantage of the unique ways in which stories can be built in the form you’ve chosen.

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