What Can We Steal from Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Pilgrim Life,” short story
Author: Taylor Antrim (on Twitter @taylorantrim)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first presented to the world in the Fall 2011 issue of American Short Fiction, a journal with a storied past and a very bright future. The piece was subsequently chosen for the 2012 issue of The Best American Short Stories.
Bonuses: Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought of the story. Here‘s a very cool personal essay by Mr. Antrim that describes the encounter that made him feel like a real New Yorker. Here are some very interesting thoughts about second novels; particularly meaningful because Mr. Antrim was writing his second novel at the time.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Twenty-three-year-old Lewis just went through a very stressful time in his life. Not only did his mother’s cancer return, but Lewis felt directionless and didn’t have a very healthy relationship with his semi-girlfriend, Claire. Perhaps worst of all, Claire committed a hit-and-run while Lewis was in the car. Lewis investigated, proving that they hadn’t hit a deer, then hopped back in the car and told her to drive away. The police, of course, were pretty curious as to what happened that night. “Pilgrim Life” chronicles what happened during that critical time and allows Lewis to describe his ongoing process of growing up.
Mr. Antrim puts a lot of balls in the air. The story is “about” a lot of things:
- The strange kind of apathy that exists in folks who are young and insanely talented and rich.
- A crime story. What happened during the hit-and-run? Will Lewis go to jail? Should he?
- A relationship between an immature man and a damaged woman who has a lot of problems.
- Sibling rivalry.
Mr. Antrim tosses all of these conflicts (and more) into a pot and grabs the reader’s attention by inviting questions. The first invitation is even extended in the opening sentence: “By Thursday, I still hadn’t said word one about the accident.” Do we feel bad for Lewis? Sure. But it’s Mr. Antrim’s job to tell a unique story and to depict how his protagonist deals with his complicated situation.
The structure of the story is influenced by the number of stressors on Lewis’s mind. Aside from the last section, Lewis is telling you about events that happened in the past. Mr. Antrim cycles through the “mysteries;” after a section about Lewis’s sad relationship with his family, he presents a scene describing Lewis’s sad relationship with the troubled Claire. By alternating between conflicts, Mr. Antrim keeps each dilemma fresh in the reader’s mind, allowing them to percolate simultaneously. (This was indeed the way that Lewis experienced this time in his life.)
And what about that ending? The last section serves as an epilogue to update the reader as to what has happened in the time since the occurrence of the story’s events. After running through the roster of characters, Mr. Antrim has Lewis (now in Pensacola) make an observation:
Boom-splash. The pelicans take these kamikaze plunges into the water. The way they hit, not one should survive—but of course, they all do. They come up with their beaks full of fish.
The ending seems like a non-sequitur. I think Mr. Antrim is doing something interesting here. After a fairly “realistic” story, he makes one grand nod toward a poetic flair. Could Lewis be the pelican? Could Claire be one? His mother? All of the characters?
What Should We Steal?
- Torture your poor characters by putting them under a great deal of stress emerging from different sources. Exceptional characters deserve to be challenged by exceptional situations. (And if your work is not about something exceptional…that might be a bit of a problem.)
- Combine your conflicts to keep them on your reader’s mind. You have a hit-and-run and a troubled woman and a sick mother? Baby, you got a stew going.
- Violate the tone and aesthetic you established in your work…when it’s a good idea. A beautiful and abstract image can stand out if it concludes an otherwise realistic work.