What Can We Steal From Kate Walbert’s “M&M World”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “M&M World,” short story
Author: Kate Walbert
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was originally published in the May 30, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  As of this writing, you can find the story on their web site.  The story was selected for Best American Short Stories 2012 and can also be found in the anthology.

Bonuses: Here is the NPR archive of their stories about Ms. Walbert.  This review of the story is not entirely favorable, but the writer seems earnest and the motivation for her criticism seems pure.  A very interesting discussion takes place after this review at the excellent blog The Mookse and the Gripes.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Ginny made a promise to her daughters and now Maggie and Olivia are finally getting to go to M&M World in Times Square.  Along the way, Ginny considers life’s ever-present dangers as Ms. Walters alternates between depicting the dramatic present and how Ginny related to “the girls’ father.”  Before long, the inevitable happens: Maggie disappears into the M&M World crowd.  After a moment of terror, Ginny gets the good news: Maggie had found her way to the stock room.  As Ginny prepares her daughters to leave, she considers the experience in the context of an in-joke she and “the girls’ father” shared.

Well, Ms. Walbert uses white space to split the story into twelve sections.  When you are reading the story for fun, you can simply work your way through them and enjoy the story.  When you read analytically—which we should all do from time to time—it’s probably a good idea to jot down what happens in each section.  That way, it’s easier for you to see how each piece contributes to the whole.

  1. Introduces Ginny, Maggie and Olivia and their situation.  They’re going to M&M World.  Danger is introduced in the form of Ginny’s concern over Olivia getting hit by a car.  The girls trip each other.  Danger.  Introduction of “the girls’ father” and a vacation they took in Chile on which she saw a whale.
  2. Ginny considers her flaws.
  3. Arrival at M&M World.  The ladies get ice cream.
  4. Flashback to vacation in Patagonia.  The romantic moment when Ginny decided to have children.
  5. Ginny thinks about society.  Maggie drops her ice cream.
  6. The women walk through M&M World.
  7. The scene in which “the girls’ father” discuss their breakup and how they will tell the girls about it.
  8. Maggie is lost.Fear.
  9. Back to the divorce discussion.
  10. Maggie is located.
  11. Rumination about the whale and what it meant to Ginny and “the girls’ mother.”
  12. The women leave the store; the dramatic present is united with the whale memory.

The third-person narrator allows Ms. Walbert to alternate somewhat between the dramatic present and flashback in order to build the significance of previous events.  I don’t have any children, but I do believe that every parent is going to lose a child in the store at some point.  Right?  The little buggers are built to slip away and hide.  On its own, that narrative may be a little thin.  Ms. Walbert makes this common experience something far more special by including those flashbacks and making the story about Ginny losing her children, as opposed to some generic mother losing her children.

Ms. Walbert also uses her narrator in an unexpected way.  I noticed early on that the narrator is very strongly aligned with Ginny.  Look at the way the narrator characterizes the little girls: “They are gorgeous, bright-eyed, brilliant girls: one tall, one short, pant legs dragging, torn leggings, sneakers that glow in the dark or light up with each step, boom boom boom.”  The statement seems to come from a person who cares about the girls more than an impartial narrator might.  I’m particularly interested in the way that Ms. Walbert’s narrator refers to the ex-husband.  He’s always called “the girls’ father.”  The narrator withholds a name and seems to have something against the guy.  The reader wonders why, all because of the way in which the narrator refers to him.

What Should We Steal?

  • Contrast the dramatic present with significant moments from the past.  Past is prologue; instead of TELLING the reader what an important moment means, you can SHOW them.
  • Decide your narrator’s allegiances and exploit them.  Your third person narrator could be standing beside your protagonist or could be sitting across a table from the protagonist with arms folded.  The story will be influenced by the choice you make.

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