What Can We Steal From Aubrey Hirsch’s “Albert Arnold Gore”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Albert Arnold Gore,” short story
Author: Aubrey Hirsch (on Twitter @aubreyhirsch)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in an online edition of American Short Fiction.  You can read the story here.

Bonuses: Here is an interesting piece of science fiction that Ms. Hirsch published in Daily Science Fiction.  Why not check out Ms. Hirsch’s first short story collection, Why We Never Talk About Sugar?  You’ll also want to find out about her split chapbook.  This Will He His Legacy was published by Lettered Streets Press.  (You’ll also get pieces written by Alexis Pope!)  Want to see a video interview Ms. Hirsch gave to PANK?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Public Figures

Discussion:
The story consists of three vignettes, each centered upon one of the Gore men.  Albert Arnold Gore, Sr. was, of course, a Senator from Tennessee.  Al Gore, Jr. was the Vice President under Clinton.  Al Gore III is a business executive who, as of yet, has not entered the same public life as the earlier Al Gores.  In the first vignette, Ms. Hirsch turns her focus to the philosophy by which Senior conducted himself as a father.  In the second, Al Jr. is urged to enlist in the military in order to buffet Senior’s electoral hopes.  In the final section, Junior teaches III–a young man who famously suffered a terrible car accident–how a man should fight and when.

Ms. Hirsch “steals” in glorious fashion in this piece.  She is, of course, making use of the lives of public figures.  The Gore family has been prominent in American politics for several decades.  They have, to some extent, offered writers their identities.  It’s perfectly acceptable, within reason, to transform these public figures into characters in our work.  Sure, you probably can’t write a story in which you cast a real-life politician as a pederast or something equally abhorrent.  (Think about what Law & Order does.  We all know that the Monster of the Week is, say, Paula Deen.  The writers, however, have renamed the Southern Lady who’s in trouble for using racist terminology.  It’s not Paula Deen…it’s Maura Feen.)

By all means: write a short story about what Winston Churchill was doing while the Battle of Britain raged.  Write a poem about William Henry Harrison coughing on his deathbed.  We’re all curious as to what it’s like when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt take their children to a casual dining restaurant.  (Spoiler alert: I’m guessing a lot of Cheerios get crushed on the table and that they leave a big tip.)

Feel free to consult an attorney, of course, before you write your 500-page novel about Jessica Alba.  It’s my understanding that public figures have a lower expectation of privacy than do private citizens.  You’re well within your rights to fictionalize the life of a celebrity so long as you don’t stray into libel or slander or defamation of character.  (I’m also under the impression that you have a lot more leeway with people who are long dead.)  Ms. Hirsch is certainly well within her rights in “Albert Arnold Gore.”  The story is an act of scene making based upon speculation derived from well-known facts.

It just so happens that I read a Roddy Doyle this morning in which his protagonist refused to provide his own name or those of his friends.  This may be a logical move for the protagonist, but it could be a problem for a writer.  After all, the reader needs to know which character is speaking and acting.  Ms. Hirsch has a similar problem in “Albert Arnold Gore.”  All of the characters in the story are named Albert Arnold Gore.  Now, the three vignettes take place at very different times.  The Albert born in the 1980s can’t be confused with the one who is being encouraged to enlist and go to Vietnam.  Time just doesn’t work that way…yet.  Someday.  Still, there’s an awful lot of “Al” in this story.  How does Ms. Hirsch manage to keep everything straight?

  • Dates – The first sentence makes it clear that the section takes place in 1930.  The third, we’re told, takes place in 1991.
  • Generational Suffixes – There’s Senior and Junior and III.  The suffixes keep things straight in the story, just as they do in real life.
  • Clear Section Titles – Ms. Hirsch could have been a little less clear.  Instead, she helps us out by naming each section after the Albert Arnold Gore whose POV is employed within.

There’s a bigger point to be made.  It’s true that Ms. Hirsch is careful to keep the prose clear, but there’s an inherent and appropriate confusion in the story.  Each character is named “Al.”  Just as in real life, such a situation strips a little bit of individuality from each Al.  Each of these men have made respectable lives for themselves, but they are inextricably linked by their names.  Isn’t this the whole point of naming a kid for his or her mother or father or grandparent or family friend or dead aunt or uncle?  When future Vice President Al Gore and his then-wife Tipper named their child Al Gore, they were imprinting slight expectations and some kind of identity onto the child.  And why not?  Al Gore I accomplished a great deal of good.  Al Gore II was already in Congress when III came along.  I’m betting that III may feel a little bit of pressure, but being III also has its advantages.  The repetition of “Al” may give the reader a slight sense of disorientation, but it’s okay in this case because Ms. Hirsch is careful tokeep things straight.

What Should We Steal?

  • Cast a public figure as your protagonist.  What did President Bush (41) say to his aides after his mission in Iraq was accomplished?  What did President Bush (43) say to his aides after his mission in Iraq was accomplished?
  • Address possible sources of confusion in your work.  There’s a reason why we avoid populating a story with characters whose names are Mary, Marilyn, Maribel, Marie, Marianne, Maryanne, Maria, Marielle, Moira, Mariah, Mareyea, Miriam, Marian, Molly, and Marty.

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