What Can We Steal From Annie McGreevy’s “Letter to a Young Man in Madrid”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Letter to a Young Man in Madrid,” short story
Author: Annie McGreevy (on Twitter @AnnieMcGreevy)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the Winter 2013 issue of the Portland Review.  The kind folks at the journal request that you buy a copy through Amazon.  (If we’re lucky, the story will be available in a future Annie McGreevy story collection.)

Bonus: Ms. McGreevy was inspired by “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” a story written by Julio Cortazar.  The piece appears in Cortazar’s book Blow-Up: And Other Stories.  Don’t you love when readers are engaged?  Here is a fan-made trailer for the story:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Grounded Fantasy

Discussion:
This is an epistolary story consisting of several letters written from a young woman to a Spaniard named Manu.  The two had a relationship while she (an American) was abroad, but now the first-person letter writer is back in New Jersey to care for her ailing mother.  So the woman, as I understand it, had an abortion in Spain.  (My understanding of human reproduction is equal to that of a bright five-year-old.)  In the subsequent weeks, however, the narrator has seen some changes in her body.  Eventually, she experiences reverse peristalsis, and a “heavy white liquid rose up violently” through her throat.  Inside the liquid? A baby “no bigger than a cockroach, but thicker.”  The narrator places the baby (named Lolo) in a crocheted sack and carries it around her neck as she goes on about her day.  What follows are a number of beautiful scenes and ideas and phrases…pick up the story for yourself!

Ms. McGreevy makes it clear immediately that something is “wrong” in the story.  The narrator has terrible cramps and her breasts and belly are swelling and she hasn’t had her period in over a month.  Our Spidey-sense is tingling because she mentions a “decision” she and Manu made and a “doctor…”  So we’re guessing that (in the real world) she had an abortion and something may have gone awry.  This information prepares us for the “weirdness” that follows.

The “baby” is the primary conceit of the story, of course.  Look how Ms. McGreevy introduces the child:

When I bent down to scrub the carpet, I noticed something moving.  No bigger than a cockroach, but thicker.  A little thing with a little body and a little face, looking very proud of having been born.  It was a baby.

Your reader is willing to follow you wherever you want to go.  It’s your responsibility as the writer to make sure that you tell the reader what he or she must know in order to keep up with you.  A lesser writer (such as myself) would make the baby a more opaque concept.  This would be a mistake because such a story takes a left turn out of the “normal” world; you have to make sure that the reader understands the new world into which you’re ushering them.  So when Ms. McGreevy tells you, “Okay, check it out.  I know this is a little odd, but my narrator has a mouth-born baby that she’s carrying around in a little basket made of yarn,” we’re happy to go along with her.

Imagine you are Manu.  You open up these letters one by one.  You would, no doubt, have a little trouble understanding what your paramour was talking about.  While Manu probably has a lot of questions, Ms. McGreevy’s narrator answers the basic ones:

Manu, what I’m trying to tell you is that you have a son the size of my smile.

Unusual?  Perhaps.  But neither Manu nor the reader has any questions as to what is happening.  (At least, what the narrator thinks is going on.)  Great works of speculative fiction offer us “crazy” leaps, but are also grounded in the story’s reality.  Look at the works of Madeleine L’Engle.  Yes, she sends her characters through a made-up wrinkle in time, but Ms. L’Engle ensures that the reader understands the differences between the real world and the one she’s created.  Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison (two of the writers of speculative fiction who put together beautiful sentences) take you to other planets and to unrecognizable versions of Earth, but they always make sure they’re holding your hand during the journey.

So the narrator thinks there’s a mouth milk baby slung around her neck.  That’s cool, but those of us in the boring “real” world have a lot of questions.  How does Ms. McGreevy establish the distance between the narrator’s world and this “real” world?  She allows the narrator to meet other people.  First, she runs into Mrs. Steele, her eighth-grade teacher.  Think about one of your own teachers; if you had a milk mouth baby around your neck, wouldn’t he or she have some kind of reaction?  The narrator, in her own way, reveals that Mrs. Steele doesn’t react to the baby, leading to questions of debatable relevance:

  • Is the baby really there?
  • Does Mrs. Steele just have really bad eyesight?
  • Is the narrator imagining everything?
  • Does the baby represent something that’s going on in the narrator’s head?

The protagonist also goes to church and sees a priest.  She also has a sweet scene with her mother.  Neither character seems to notice Lolo.  Now, everything is filtered through the narrator’s perspective, so she could simply be unreliable.  But Ms. McGreevy is wise to set her character loose in the real world so we can take a look at a “strange” condition through a much more familiar lens.  Stories can be strange and fantastic; readers simply require a place to stand that allows them an illuminating frame of reference.

This is an epistolary story; one that is made up of several letters.  (Like Frankenstein!)  You’ll notice that Ms. McGreevy doesn’t include the salutation or address or any of the “normal” stuff that we usually include when we write letters.  What is the effect of this choice?  I love that it adds some reasonable confusion with respect to the narrator’s state of mind. Has she really sent the letters? Does Manu really exist? Does Lolo? Including a bunch of dates might make the reader “do too much math.” (No one likes to do math.) And if you’re anything like me, it’s a pain to come up with pretend addresses and to come up with all of the supporting information that one must include if one is writing a fake letter. Instead, Ms. McGreevy simply presents the text and allows the reader to react to the ideas within.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ crystal clarity when your work contains ideas that are slightly more opaque.  You want me to believe that the woman has a mouth milk baby?  No problem.  Just tell me that’s what’s going on.
  • Reflect the “oddness” in your story through a “normal” viewpoint.  Think about “The Lottery.”  Shirley Jackson presents us with a very “odd” little town; the “lottery” stands out greatly in part because of the banal normalcy of the rest of the town.
  • Experiment with the epistolary form.  If you haven’t written a story or poem in the form of a letter or a series of letters, why not give it a try?  Ms. McGreevy borrowed from a Julio Cortazar story that she admired; why shouldn’t we offer Ms. McGreevy the same courtesy?

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