What Can We Steal From Brendan Mathews’s “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer”?
Title of Work and its Form: “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer,” short story
Author: Brendan Mathews
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Summer 2009 issue of The Cincinnati Review. The piece was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2010 by Heidi Pitlor and Richard Russo.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
Mr. Mathews employs an interesting point of view in this story. The tale is told by a first-person narrator to an interlocutor: a trapeze artist. He addresses her as “you,” and tries to give his side of the story, explaining why things didn’t end up so well for the man who acts as the lion tamer for the circus that also employs both of you. The narrator, a clown, is in love (or at least is infatuated) with the trapeze artist. He begins his explanation at the beginning. He was attracted to her because of her skill under the big top and, yes, her beautiful face and body. Alas, the lion tamer won her affections and the clown responds by turning his routine into a dumb show intended to mock the lion tamer. As is the case with all love stories, there are unanticipated twists and turns, and no one ends up happy. (Sorry…I’m a pessimist at heart.)
First, I’m going to point out that Mr. Mathews borrowed from Hamlet, whether he knew it or not. The narrator’s jealousy leads him to strike back in a manner unique to his situation. He plans to perform a parody of the lion tamer’s underwhelming act using Scottie terriers instead of giant cats. The narrator expects the audience to release great peals of laughter as they mock his romantic rival. Now, it doesn’t work out that way in the story, but Mr. Mathews gets a great deal of mileage out of describing the image. We’ve all resented those who stand in the way of the man or woman we love (or think we love), and wouldn’t it be great to enlist a couple thousand people in your campaign to make the rival feel terrible about themselves?
How did Mr. Mathews borrow from Hamlet? Well, Hamlet makes the same kind of plan. The traveling players follow the prince’s script, acting out the way in which Claudius killed Hamlet, Sr. This dumb show is the confirmation Hamlet needs; when Claudius reacts, Hamlet knows his father’s ghost was right and that he must get going with the whole revenge thing…in two more acts. So what should we steal from Mr. Mathews? (In addition to borrowing from the Bard?) I love that the author creates such a powerful image in the reader’s mind and then subverts it. The powerful visual in the short story drives the plot, just as the dumb show propels the narrative in Hamlet.
The point of view that Mr. Mathews chose makes a big difference in the story. I love that the clown is telling the story to the trapeze artist. Why? Because he loves her. People are (usually) more likely to be honest with someone they love. Further, these are some very raw emotions. He knows that she doesn’t love him back, but still has some hope that she will begin to see something special in him. He doesn’t want her to hate him because of what happened.
The point of view is possibly most powerful just before the climax of the story. If you’re a longtime reader of GWS, you may already know where I’m going with this. There’s a gut-punch moment when the clown makes the mistake of telling the object of his affection how he feels:
“Say something funny,” you said, your eyes like jewels in the lamplight.
“I love you” tumbled out of me, the words pushing their way into the open like clowns from a car.
“That’s not funny,” you said, and your eyes snapped shut like I had slapped you.
And you were right. It wasn’t funny–it was hilarious. Coming from me, it was absolutely ridiculous.
As time crawled from one second to the next, your head ticked from side to side and a slow-motion no, and I could feel the pressure of all the things I’d left unsaid mounting in my head. If I had been a cartoon, steam would have shot from my ears.
The clown is going to describe this moment differently depending on who is listening to him. How would things be different if he were talking to a group of men? Well, he might tell the story in such a manner that he comes off as less emotionally vulnerable. What if he’s telling his possible future children how he felt about the trapeze artist? He might take on a more didactic tone. Alas, the clown is talking to a woman he loves who will never love him back, a woman he unintentionally hurt. Is there any better way to attack this particular story?
What Should We Steal?
- Allow your powerful visuals to drive the narrative. Making your reader chuckle or sigh with a powerful visual concept is great. A far harder and more powerful trick is to make that concept drive the plot, as well.
- Enhance your first person narrator’s honesty (or dishonesty) by unspooling the story to the appropriate interlocutor. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m going to be much more honest when telling the story to a friend than the waitress who asked why I was getting breakfast at three in the morning on Christmas Eve while wearing the Elton John Donald Duck suit.