What Can We Steal From Ben Fountain’s “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” short story
Author: Ben Fountain
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece first appeared in Volume 88, Issue 1 of The Southwest Review, a great journal out of SMU.  The story was subsequently awarded an O. Henry Prize and was included in the 2005 anthology.  “Fantasy” also appears in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Mr. Fountain’s first collection.

Bonuses:  Mr. Fountain is an important figure in an article by Malcolm Gladwell in which he discusses “late bloomers.”  The title of this D Magazine article is pretty direct: “How Ben Fountain Overcame Being Called a Genius.”  Here is a cool interview Mr. Fountain gave to The Millions.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: The “Hook”

Discussion:
The story is narrated in the same manner as a historical essay.  Mr. Fountain begins by describing the career of Anton Visser, a pianist and composer who is notable for having what was called by some a “demonic extra finger.”  Visser made the concert circuit in the early 1800s and stunned audiences with a piece of his own composition: “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers.”  A piece, of course, that he alone is qualified to play.  The Visser narrative is an entry point and counterpoint for the real star of the story, Anna Kuhl, a Jewish girl born in the late 1800s who happened to be born with eleven fingers.  Anna shoots to stardom in the customary manner of a child prodigy.  Upon adolescence, Anna begins to feel insecure with respect to what makes her different: her extra finger.  The story is touched by the anti-Semitism that ran through many places in Europe at the time, as well.  Augmented with diary entries and “scholarly recreations of dialogue,” the piece builds to a climax that is once horrible and inevitable.

I’ve loved this story ever since I read it in grad school with the great Lee K. Abbott.  There’s a lot going on in this story, but Mr. Fountain’s work has remained on my mind primarily because there’s a really cool “hook” in the story.  This is “the story about the pianist with eleven fingers.”  Mr. Fountain makes use of a conceit that is strange, but easily understood.  Polydactyly doesn’t happen every day, but it’s fairly common and it involves fingers, something the great majority of us relate to on a primal, subconscious level.  I’ve never thought of the story in a simplistic manner, but “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers” is indeed THAT GREAT STORY ABOUT THE PIANIST WHO HAD POLYDACTYLY.

“The Lottery?”  One of my favorites, but it has a “hook.”  It’s THAT GREAT STORY ABOUT THE TOWN WHOSE CITIZENS STONE THE WINNER OF THE DRAWING IN ORDER TO KEEP THEIR POPULATION MANAGEABLE.

“Speckle Trout?”  THAT GREAT STORY ABOUT THE YOUNG MAN WHO GOES BACK FOR MARIJUANA ONE TOO MANY TIMES AND GETS HIS LEG CAUGHT IN A BEAR TRAP.

Writing shouldn’t be ALL about flash, but there’s nothing wrong with making your story about something “cool” and memorable.

The story is told through a third person narrator as though he or she is writing a real work of historical scholarship.  Mr. Fountain introduces the conceit in the first sentences:

So little is known about the pianist Anton Visser that he belongs more to myth than anything so random as historical fact.  He was born in 1800 or 1801, thus preceding by half a generation the Romantic virtuosos who would transform forever our notions of music and performer.

See?  Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of a Sacha Frere-Jones New Yorker nonfiction piece about some cool musician?  What does Mr. Fountain gain from employing this kind of narrator?  One huge advantage is that he is freed from doing perpetual “scene work.”  He can simply glide through the important parts of the Visser/Anna story and point out whatever he feels is important.  Even better, such a structure partially frees him from the burden of being an expert in every detail of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century life in several different places in Europe.  In a collection of traditional scenes, characters have to sit on chairs, eat food, look out windows…they have to do a lot of “stuff.”  Unless you’re an expert in the field, you may get some of that “stuff” wrong; readers who notice may be taken out of the narrative.  Mr. Fountain definitely knows his “stuff,” but his choice of narrator ensures the focus remains on Anna’s dilemma.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ memorable situations and ideas in your work.  A story about a pianist who performs a long-forgotten work?  Could be cool.  A story about a young woman pianist who has eleven fingers and a great deal of insecurity?  Sign me up for that one!
  • Choose a narrator for his/her/its ability to focus.  A person who writes a cool article about Richard Burbage for Shakespeare Quarterly is not necessarily expected to know every tiny detail about ordinary Elizabethan life.  A person who writes cool historical fiction in which every scene is described by a narrator who experiences Elizabethan life first-hand needs to get a lot more stuff right.

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