What Can We Steal From Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Volcano,” short story
Author: Lawrence Osborne
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story premiered in Issue 47 (Spring 2011) of Tin House, one of the best journals around.  “Volcano” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2012.

Bonuses: Karen Carlson shares her thoughts on the story; I love that she both appreciates and dislikes the story.  That’s the mark of complicated criticism!  Charles E. May, as always, has some important ideas about the story.  Here is the NYT review of Mr. Osborne’s latest book, The Forgiven.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Use of Dreams

Discussion:
Martha Fink, a forty-six-year-old attorney, is going through a rough time in her life.  She divorced her cheating husband six months ago and is still working through her understandable anger and confusion.  She packs up and heads off to Hawaii on her own.  As luck would have it, Martha books a room at a resort, “run by two gay dancers” that is “next to an active volcano.”  Martha doesn’t much like the resort’s regular programming; the people aren’t quite her style and she doesn’t like the lucid dreaming seminar she signed up for.  The Dream Express group is intended to allow her to remember and change her dreams.  She’s given drugs and a set of magic goggles to help her in that respect.  They don’t exactly work.  Martha decides to ditch the regular programming and rides her bike around the beautiful island.  She finds a hotel and a hotel bar that is tucked away in a remote location.  There’s a man at the bar, a retired geologist, who appreciates her as a woman–something that has been a challenge for her because of the whole husband thing.  After having one drink (and introducing herself as “Martha Prickhater”), she heads out on a bike ride.  Now it’s too late for her to go back to her resort.  She returns to the hotel/bar and has drinks with the geologist and decides to take a room in the hotel.  After going into her room and closing the door, Martha changes her mind and finds the geologist.  They have sex in the dark.  In the last paragraph, we get a carefully detailed description of the act and Martha’s real-time thoughts about it.  Dreams and the ability to control dreams play a big role.

What sets this story apart?  It’s a stellar example of the third person limited point of view.  Mr. Osborne offers us deep access to Martha’s thought and this access is crucial to the ending of the story.  The reader may have been jarred had Mr. Osborne started out with a wider third person before zooming in on Martha’s consciousness.  This is Martha’s story, so the author takes her hand and remains with her throughout.  This is also fitting because of the themes of solitude and disconnection from society.  Preventing the reader from accessing the thoughts of others allows him or her to understand Martha’s point of view.  She’s in her own head all the time and we share the experience with her.

Choosing the right point of view can be problematic.  I’m thinking of one of my current story ideas and I’m not sure which way to go.  Perhaps the solution can be found in thinking of the ending of the story and working backwards.  Mr. Osborne’s ending requires a blending of firmly grasping reality and slipping slightly into dream consciousness.  In the first person, this may be difficult because a first-person narrator could not offer objective commentary.  In the second person, the narrator would have to contend with the consciousness of the “you” and that of the reader.  The third-person limited is just right because it allows Mr. Osborne the best of both worlds: he can tell you what is really happening and tell you what is happening in Martha’s head.

Mr. Osborne also offers a master class in how to write dreams.  We’ve all been warned to avoid the cliche it-was-all-a-dream ending.  Why?  Because it’s a cheat.  Mr. Osborne warps reality in a meaningful manner.  Martha has dreams in the first half of the story and these do indeed illuminate her psychology for the reader.  Martha is forced to confront her trouble relating to others (a central character facet that leads to the conclusion).  The dreams are also not terribly abstract.  Mr. Osborne isn’t putting you into the role of a psychiatrist by offering some way-out-there descriptions of things.  A lesser writer (such as myself) would make the dreams so strange that the reader would be forced to take out pad and pencil and figure out what is going on.  Further, Mr. Osborne us careful to let us know when Martha is dreaming and when she is not.  Some writers would not be as vigilant in using the key words and phrases: “began to dream,” “awoke,” “got up,” “wrote down her dream straightaway.”

Mr. Osborne is also very careful to establish the “rules” of the lucid dreaming workshop.  When Martha reaches for the wall in the end of the story, it means something to us.  Why?  Because the lucid dreaming expert person told us that rubbing a rough surface will change the dream immediately, and then Mr. Osborne has Martha do just that during one of her less-than-satisfying dreams in the resort.  The reader will follow you wherever you want to go, but you need to establish the specific rules of the world you’re creating.  Mr. Osborne follows his own rules, which is important when he gets to the ending of the story.  He gets a TINY bit abstract and that’s okay.  It’s the end of the story and Martha is undergoing a…very important experience.  The reader understands the significance of rubbing a rough surface, so it means an awful lot.

What Should We Steal?

  • Choose your point of view by working backwards.  If you’re not sure which POV to use, consider which would facilitate the ending you have in mind.
  • Employ dreams as a tool, not a story element unto themselves.  If you’re listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” okay, fine; the “dream” is the point.  In a narrative, the dream must simply be another facet of the world and characters you create.
  • Establish the unique rules of your world very quickly and adhere to them.  Think of something like Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (I do this all the time.)  Does it make sense that the Enterprise can go faster than the speed of light?  Sure.  The writers established the “how” of the warp drive and adhere to the rules of the technology very closely.

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