What Can We Steal From Holly Goddard Jones’s “Proof of God”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Proof of God,” short story
Author: Holly Goddard Jones (On Twitter: @goddardjones)
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story originally appeared in Epoch, one of the most consistently awesome literary journals out there.  “Proof of God” was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories 2008 and you can find it in that anthology.  The story concludes Ms. Jones’s collection Girl Trouble.  You are well advised to buy this stellar book. Why not throw some business to a local independent bookseller?  If you’re in the Houston area, The Brazos Bookstore comes highly recommended.  (On Twitter @brazosbookstore.)  The staff seems nice and Keaton has some cool recommendations.  “Proof of God” is also available on its own as an Amazon download, but if you only buy one story, you miss out on the others!

Bonuses: Here is Elaina Richardson’s review of Girl Trouble from O MagazineHere is what the Emerging Writers Network thought of the story.  Here is a beautiful piece of creative nonfiction Ms. Jones wrote that bears the very clear title: “I Was a Teenage Bride.”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: A Writer’s First Duty

Discussion:
Gosh, what a great story.  Simon is one of those rich kids who rule in high school.  His father sells shoddy furniture, enough to give Simon a late-model Corvette.  Dad is a bit confused when someone slashed the word “FAG” all over the car.  “You didn’t do anything to encourage this,” he later asks.  Simon is indeed a homosexual, though he isn’t quite comfortable with his own feelings.  In college, Simon spends a lot of time with Marty.  Marty is a great guy: a good cook and a fun companion.  When he learns that Simon is a virgin, Marty decides to help out.  The two young men hang out with Felicia, a sweet and fun girl who is a little wary of “hanging out” and smoking pot in her room, but she accedes.  Bigger problem: Felicia ends up well and truly out of it, having sex with Marty.  Unfortunately, this was Marty’s plan to help Simon lose his virginity.  Marty invites Simon to “take his turn.”  The scene is excruciating; I think I’ll end summarizing the story at this point.  Just read it.  (Odd tonal connection with T.C. Boyle’s “Love of My Life?”)

There’s no way around it: Felicia gets raped.  Not only is she too out of it to consent or to participate in a reciprocal encounter, but she comes to a little bit and starts shouting for help.  Ms. Jones makes a prudent structural choice.  The story is a little “long,” but the hanging out/rape scene takes up at least ten pages.  Ms. Goddard shrewdly devoted a lot of page space to allow the actions of her characters to be clear.  (All the better to empathize, of course!)

Let’s confront the elephant in the room.  We’re all saddened by rape.  We’re all upset when people are taken advantage of in the extreme manner that serves as Felicia’s fate.  Ms. Goddard, however, does not allow her/our innate discomfort and anger with the events to get in the way of her primary duty: to tell a good and interesting story.  It would be very easy for the author to fail in her duty and to prioritize judgment of Simon and Marty above her duty to tell a story.  (I’ve fallen into this trap myself.)  No, even though we’re very disturbed by the events, we must reach these conclusions on our own.  At one point, Marty does something with air freshener that is terribly disturbing.  Not only do I love this detail (in a story way), but the gut-punch of the moment is more powerful because Ms. Goddard let me reach my own sad conclusion about what happened.

Ms. Goddard also frames the narrative in a very graceful way.  You could, in fact, think about this story as “A RECOUNTING OF THE TWO TIMES SIMON’S CAR WAS VANDALIZED.”  The two instances have very different causes and emotional impacts.  The unspoken but very clear contrast engages the reader and invites them strongly to enter the mind of the character. (Even if we’re not exactly stoked about what he’s up to at times.)

It is very easy to judge “bad” people harshly.  Does anyone think Adolf Hitler was a great guy?  Of course not.  But if we’re going to understand the motivations of a person or character, we must understand them in a complete manner, good and bad.  Which teaches us more about the psychology of evil?  Just saying that Hitler was evil or trying to figure out if the secret of his Jewish ancestry caused some sort of defensive aggression in his psychology?  I’ll take the latter approach, not just because it’s better for storytelling purposes, but because it helps us understand and perhaps prevent bad things in the future.  Ms. Goddard allows us access to Simon’s insecurities and his repressed nature.  He embraces Marty at one point; a beautiful moment.  If Ms. Goddard had only said, “Grr…Simon bad!,” then we would not have a window into why he does what he does.  There’s a reason why there are very few 100% evil moustache-twirling villains in movies.  Those are not as interesting as bad guys or girls who have a REASON to be bad.

What Should We Steal?

  • Leave judgment and expression of emotion to the reader.  Do you want a chef to describe how he or she feels about the food you’re eating while you’re eating it?  Eating and reading are two experiences that must have their solitary and social sides.
  • Frame your story by recounting similar experiences with different implications.  Context will lend incidents different meanings.
  • Allow ALL of your characters to be vulnerable.  Your story should be populated with characters–real approximations of human beings.  Not just characters who do bad things because you need some kind of conflict.

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