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.

Bonus: Here is a writing lesson Mr. Mathews published on the Ploughshares blog.  Here is an interview Mr. Mathews gave to PortHere is what Ann Graham thought of the story.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Discussion:
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.

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4 Comments

  • ? The story is based on frequently-used archetypes: a “fool” or “clown,” who must get past a monster (the lion tamer) in order to obtain the beautiful “princess” (the aerialist). This trio occurs in stories (such as “St. George and the Dragon,” “The Elixer of Love” [opera], etc.) Thus, this story could be said to use archetypes, rather than real people with names and backgrounds, people with personalities that can be looked into. Thus, the story is a kind of “romance,” one that ends sadly. Is the narrator, who happens to be one of the characters, to be trusted? I don’t see why not. Does the tone (not of the author, but of the narrator) change as the story goes on? I don’t see it. The narrator tells the story in a cool, matter-of-fact way, It’s slightly sad, perhaps elegiac, fatalistic throughout. The story is dead and past. The narrator does have different feelings at different times in the story, but these are more a matter of his various moods, than of tone. He writes elegantly, good descriptions, nice metaphors. The big unanswered question is whether or not the beautiful aerialist dies at the end. 80% of the class I studied the story with this morning thought she died. I disagree. She is a charmed figure. She defies all odds (including possible death). I think she merely continues on–out of this circus world and into another. Tricky story; the writing is often very good, as is the use of metaphors.

    • Mr. Schoen-Rene:

      Thank you so much for your generous response to my little essay. I humbly submit that we examined the story through different lenses. Your ideas, of course, are far more learned and I hope that folks who read this essay see your response. I also hope that they explore the texts you mentioned:

      Here is a version of “St. George and the Dragon” that most people should find accessible.

      http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41350/41350-h/41350-h.htm#Page_15

      Here is a link to a YouTube video of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.”


      People can read music (I’m jealous!) may enjoy looking at the public domain score of the opera. Here is the San Francisco Opera’s English translation of the libretto.

      I agree that the narrator is matter-of-fact. I don’t have my copy with me to take another look, but I tend to agree that the trapeze artist is still alive. Not only is she “charmed,” as you point out, but I also like the idea that she is still alive. If the object of the narrator’s affection remains in the world, he can have hope, no matter how silly. Hope dies when a person passes.

  • Sloppy Explaining, so:

    During a New Year’s Eve feast at King Arthur’s court, a strange figure, referred to only as the Green Knight, pays the court an unexpected visit. He challenges the group’s leader or any other brave representative to a game. The Green Knight says that he will allow whomever accepts the challenge to strike him with his own axe, on the condition that the challenger find him in exactly one year to receive a blow in return.

    Stunned, Arthur hesitates to respond, but when the Green Knight mocks Arthur’s silence, the king steps forward to take the challenge. As soon as Arthur grips the Green Knight’s axe, Sir Gawain leaps up and asks to take the challenge himself. He takes hold of the axe and, in one deadly blow, cuts off the knight’s head. To the amazement of the court, the now-headless Green Knight picks up his severed head. Before riding away, the head reiterates the terms of the pact, reminding the young Gawain to seek him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. After the Green Knight leaves, the company goes back to its festival, but Gawain is uneasy.
    Time passes, and autumn arrives. On the Day of All Saints, Gawain prepares to leave Camelot and find the Green Knight. He puts on his best armor, mounts his horse, Gringolet, and starts off toward North Wales, traveling through the wilderness of northwest Britain. Gawain encounters all sorts of beasts, suffers from hunger and cold, and grows more desperate as the days pass. On Christmas Day, he prays to find a place to hear Mass, then looks up to see a castle shimmering in the distance. The lord of the castle welcomes Gawain warmly, introducing him to his lady and to the old woman who sits beside her. For sport, the host (whose name is later revealed to be Bertilak) strikes a deal with Gawain: the host will go out hunting with his men every day, and when he returns in the evening, he will exchange his winnings for anything Gawain has managed to acquire by staying behind at the castle. Gawain happily agrees to the pact, and goes to bed.
    The first day, the lord hunts a herd of does, while Gawain sleeps late in his bedchambers. On the morning of the first day, the lord’s wife sneaks into Gawain’s chambers and attempts to seduce him. Gawain puts her off, but before she leaves she steals one kiss from him. That evening, when the host gives Gawain the venison he has captured, Gawain kisses him, since he has won one kiss from the lady. The second day, the lord hunts a wild boar. The lady again enters Gawain’s chambers, and this time she kisses Gawain twice. That evening Gawain gives the host the two kisses in exchange for the boar’s head.
    The third day, the lord hunts a fox, and the lady kisses Gawain three times. She also asks him for a love token, such as a ring or a glove. Gawain refuses to give her anything and refuses to take anything from her, until the lady mentions her girdle. The green silk girdle she wears around her waist is no ordinary piece of cloth, the lady claims, but possesses the magical ability to protect the person who wears it from death. Intrigued, Gawain accepts the cloth, but when it comes time to exchange his winnings with the host, Gawain gives the three kisses but does not mention the lady’s green girdle. The host gives Gawain the fox skin he won that day, and they all go to bed happy, but weighed down with the fact that Gawain must leave for the Green Chapel the following morning to find the Green Knight.
    New Year’s Day arrives, and Gawain dons his armor, including the girdle, then sets off with Gringolet to seek the Green Knight. A guide accompanies him out of the estate grounds. When they reach the border of the forest, the guide promises not to tell anyone if Gawain decides to give up the quest. Gawain refuses, determined to meet his fate head-on. Eventually, he comes to a kind of crevice in a rock, visible through the tall grasses. He hears the whirring of a grindstone, confirming his suspicion that this strange cavern is in fact the Green Chapel. Gawain calls out, and the Green Knight emerges to greet him. Intent on fulfilling the terms of the contract, Gawain presents his neck to the Green Knight, who proceeds to feign two blows. On the third feint, the Green Knight nicks Gawain’s neck, barely drawing blood. Angered, Gawain shouts that their contract has been met, but the Green Knight merely laughs.

    The Green Knight reveals his name, Bertilak, and explains that he is the lord of the castle where Gawain recently stayed. Because Gawain did not honestly exchange all of his winnings on the third day, Bertilak drew blood on his third blow. Nevertheless, Gawain has proven himself a worthy knight, without equal in all the land. When Gawain questions Bertilak further, Bertilak explains that the old woman at the castle is really Morgan le Faye, Gawain’s aunt and King Arthur’s half sister. She sent the Green Knight on his original errand and used her magic to change Bertilak’s appearance. Relieved to be alive but extremely guilty about his sinful failure to tell the whole truth, Gawain wears the girdle on his arm as a reminder of his own failure. He returns to Arthur’s court, where all the knights join Gawain, wearing girdles on their arms to show their support.

    And if that’s not too much:
    Act 1[edit]
    Nemorino, a poor peasant, is in love with Adina, a beautiful landowner, who torments him with her indifference. When Nemorino hears Adina reading to her workers the story of Tristan and Isolde, he is convinced that a magic potion will help him to gain Adina’s love. The self-important Sergeant Belcore appears with his regiment and immediately sets about courting Adina in front of everyone. Nemorino becomes anxious (although, Adina meanwhile secretly derides Belcore’s complacency) and, alone with Adina, reveals his love for her. Yet Adina rebuffs him, saying she wants a different lover every day and following her example would do Nemorino better. Nemorino declares that his feelings will never change. The travelling quack doctor, Dulcamara (the self-proclaimed Dr. Encyclopedia), arrives, selling his bottled cure-all to the townspeople. Nemorino innocently asks Dulcamara if he has any of Isolde’s love potion. Despite failing to recognise the name ‘Isolde’, Dulcamara’s commercial talents nevertheless enable him to sell a bottle of the cure-all – in reality only cheap Bordeaux wine – to Nemorino, withdrawing all his savings.
    To make a safe escape, Dulcamara tells Nemorino the potion needs 24 hours to take effect — by which time, the doctor will be long gone. Nemorino drinks the potion in a haste in order to watch the effect tomorrow. Emboldened by the “elixir” (in fact, drunk), Nemorino feigns indifference when he encounters Adina, as he expects that the elixir will facilitate his conquest of Adina the following day. She becomes increasingly annoyed; perhaps she has feelings for Nemorino after all? Belcore returns and proposes marriage to Adina. Still riled by Nemorino and wishing to give him a lesson, Adina falsely promises to marry Belcore in six days’ time. Yet Nemorino only laughs in response: such confidence is sustained in the belief in the magic potion. However, when Belcore learns that his regiment must leave the next morning, Adina promises to marry him before his departure. This of course panics Nemorino, who cries out for Dr. Dulcamara to come to his aid. Adina, meanwhile, invites everyone to the wedding.
    Act 2
    Adina and Belcore’s wedding party is in full swing. Dr. Dulcamara encourages Adina to sing a duet with him to entertain the guests. The notary arrives to make the marriage official. Adina is annoyed to see that Nemorino has not appeared, for the whole deal has been intended only to punish him. While everyone goes to witness the signing of the wedding contract, Dulcamara stays behind, helping himself to food and drink. Having seen the notary, Nemorino appears, depressed, as he believes that he has lost Adina. He sees Dulcamara and frantically begs him for a more powerful, faster-acting elixir. Although Dulcamara is proud to boast of his philanthropy, upon discovering that Nemorino has no money any more he changes his tune and marches off, refusing to supply him anything. Belcore emerges, musing about why Adina has suddenly put off the wedding and signing the contract. He spots Nemorino and asks his rival why he is depressed. When Nemorino says he needs cash, Belcore suggests joining the army, as he’ll receive funds on the spot. Belcore tries to excite Nemorino with tales of military life, while Nemorino only thinks of getting the potion and thus winning Adina, if only for a day before departure. Belcore produces a contract, which Nemorino signs in return for the money. Nemorino privately vows to rush and buy more potion, while Belcore muses about how sending Nemorino off to war has so easily dispatched his rival.
    After the two men have left, Giannetta gossips with the women of the village. Swearing them all to secrecy, she reveals that Nemorino’s uncle has just died and left his nephew a large fortune. However, neither Nemorino nor Adina is yet aware of this. Nemorino enters, having spent his military signing bonus on – and consumed – a large amount of the fake elixir from Dr. Dulcamara. Hoping to share his fortune, the women approach Nemorino with overly friendly greetings. So out of character is this that Nemorino takes it as proof of the elixir’s efficacy. Adina sees Nemorino with the women, is rattled by his newfound popularity and asks Dr. Dulcamara for an explanation. Unaware that Adina is the object of Nemorino’s affection, Dulcamara explains that Nemorino spent his last penny on the elixir and joined the army for money to get more, so desperate was he to win the love of some unnamed cruel beauty. Adina immediately recognises Nemorino’s sincerity, regrets her behaviour and realises that she has loved Nemorino all along. Although Dulcamara seizes the opportunity to try and sell her some of his potion to win back Nemorino, Adina declares that she has full confidence in her own powers of attraction.

    Nemorino appears alone, pensive, reflecting on a tear he saw in Adina’s eye when he was ignoring her earlier. Solely based on that, he convinces himself that Adina loves him. She enters and asks why he has chosen to join the army and leave the village. When Nemorino explains that he was seeking a better life, Adina responds that he is loved and that she has purchased back his military contract from Sergeant Belcore. She offers the cancelled contract to Nemorino and reassures him that, if he stays, he will be happy. As he takes the contract, Adina turns to leave. Nemorino believes she is abandoning him and flies into a desperate fit, vowing that if he is not loved he might as well go off and die a soldier. Deeply moved by his fidelity, Adina finally declares that she will love Nemorino forever. Nemorino is ecstatic. Adina begs him to forgive her, which he does with a kiss. Belcore returns to see Nemorino and Adina in an embrace. When Adina explains that she loves Nemorino, the Sergeant takes the news in his stride, noting that there are plenty of other women in the world. Adina and Nemorino learn about the inheritance from his uncle. Dulcamara returns and boasts of the success of his elixir: Nemorino is now not only loved but also rich. He exults in the boost this will bring to the sales of his product. As he prepares to leave, everyone queues up to buy the elixir and hails Dulcamara as a great physician.
    Most Noted Aria (try itunes, it’s lovely)
    Una furtiva lagrima / “A furtive tear” — Nemorino

    • Thanks so much for adding this for the benefit of others! It is indeed amazing how we have always retold the same stories; time and technology may change our world, but they don’t change humanity.

      “Una furtiva lagrima” is a beautiful aria. Here is what I believe is a beautiful performance of the piece:

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