What Can We Steal From Blake Butler’s “The Cage”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Cage,” short short story
Author: Blake Butler
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published by Necessary Fiction and can be found here.

Bonuses:  Here is a profile of Mr. Butler that was published in Access AtlantaHere are just some of Mr. Butler’s contributions to HTML GiantHere is Mr. Butler’s page at HarperCollins.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Anomalies

Discussion:
Mr. Butler’s first person story is told by a…person who is in a very strange situation.  There’s a caged boy in a sand field behind the burial place of the narrator’s cousin.  The cage is made of plastic, but won’t burn or bend enough for the boy to escape.  The narrator considers the boy a brother and hopes to be able to bury him…if he or she can remove the body from the cage, of course.

I first learned about “anomalies” from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Geordi and Jean-Luc and Data would always mention an “anomaly” they saw in the sensor readouts.

What did I do?  I looked up the word.  The crew of the Enterprise was so concerned about anomalies because they are irregularities, deviations from the norm.  A potential threat or at least something that gets your attention that you may wish to investigate.  Stories come from anomalies, of course.  Who wants to read about characters and situations that are completely and utterly normal?

After establishing the narrator’s “strange” situation–an anomaly in itself–Mr. Butler sprinkles in anomalies that jar the reader a little bit.  This kind of technique is effective (and a bit of a necessity) in suspense and mystery stories.  Seemingly without explanation, the narrator of “The Cage” wonders if the boy loves him.  The narrator says in a non sequitur that he’s seen the boy’s naughty parts.  What has Mr. Butler done with these revelations?

  1. He’s added characterization.  Is the narrator trapped in some early Freudian state?  Why does he or she mention genitalia?  Is the narrator extremely lonely?  Why?
  2. He’s dispensed exposition.  The boy is injured in some way.  What the heck happened and why is the boy in the cage?

I also want to consider the introduction to the story.  A kind editor at Necessary Fiction introduces “The Cage” by telling us that Mr. Butler has been likened to William Burroughs and that the story offers “nightmarish” imagery and that the story features a “weird hairless and silent kid cooped up behind a burial plot.”

How does this introduction shape our understanding of the story.  Instead of being hit with Mr. Butler’s very clear first sentence, the reader re-reads the premise of the story in the first line.  This is not necessarily bad or good, of course.  “Strange” stories can be confusing.  One could argue that the introduction alleviates some of the “weirdness” and makes the story accessible.  On the other hand, some of the punch of the conceit may be lost.  Here’s one way to think of it.  Imagine you’re talking to someone who–GASP– has never seen The Twilight Zone.

What would you tell this person?

“Hey!  You gotta see The Twilight Zone.  It’s one of the best shows ever.  Just watch it!  Right now!  Here’s a DVD!  Cue up ‘Time Enough At Last’!  Seriously…go!”

or

“You’ll love The Twilight Zone, an anthology program in which Rod Serling and other writers present suspenseful science fiction and horror stories that offer substantial societal commentary.  In particular, you should begin with an episode such as ‘Time Enough At Last,’ in which the Burgess Meredith character plays a henpecked bank teller who simply wants to read all day.  After a nuclear holocaust, he gets his wish…except there’s a sad twist at the end.”

Both descriptions are accurate, but the latter deprives the viewer of some of the delicious tragedy of the ending of the episode.  When you write a query letter for a novel, for example, should you reveal the ending of your book in the first line?  What are the most important elements to describe to the editor or agent?  Of course, an editor or agent has different “needs” than a run-of-the-mill reader.  What’s the solution?  Unfortunately, it’s one of those complicated questions that has no simple answer.  As always, we must do whatever will best serve the story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Sprinkle anomalies into your works to keep your reader on his or her toes.  Things that don’t fit grab a person’s attention; take advantage of this psychological tendency.
  • Consider the effect of how you (or others) introduce your work.  Are you in a telling-a-story-by-a-campfire situation that requires complete suspense?  Should you offer your reader additional handholds to help them get a grip on your piece?

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