What Can We Steal From Michael Byers’s “Malaria”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Malaria,” short story
Author: Michael Byers (on Twitter @The MichaelByers)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the Fall 2012 issue of Bellevue Literary Review. The kind folks at the journal have made the story available online. “Malaria” was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and is included in the anthology.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Byers gave to Hot Metal Bridge. Here is where you can find the books Mr. Byers has published. (In addition to works published by people who have similar names.) Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. Here is the book trailer for Percival’s Planet:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Opening Passages
Several years ago, Orlando was in the blush of first love with a woman named Nora. But this is not a love story. Instead, Orlando is working out his understanding of George, Nora’s brother. George is an adult, but has some mental health concerns. The man was getting by, but had a bit of an incident that exacerbated Nora’s worries about herself and her future.
Yes, I’m being a bit vague in the summary. Why? Mr. Byers has given us a story that is not about a bang-bang narrative. Instead, the gentleman seems to want to explore the effect of mental health issues on the people who love the afflicted. Mr. Byers makes the very wise choice of keeping the story comparatively short; the slack narrative feels just fine in a story of this length.
The first thing I would like to point out is the skillful way in which Mr. Byers begins his story. Unfortunately, I read this piece just a little too late to include it in my video about the topic.
Let’s look at the first two sentences:
When I was in college in Eugene I had a girlfriend named Nora Vardon. We had fallen together sort of accidentally, I talked to her first at a vending machine where we were both buying coffee, and things progressed in the usual slow ways, we went out one cold night to look at the blurry stars, and that led to some kissing, and from there we started the customary excavation of our families, revealing, not quite competitively, how crazy they both were, she with a raft of depressives and schizophrenics and me with a bunch of drunks, mainly the men on my father’s side.
What has Mr. Byers packed into the opening passage?
- POV. We know it’s a first person story.
- Time frame. We know that the story took place some time ago, when the narrator “was in college.” The narrator also describes the love affair with the kind of wistful regret that is only granted with distance and earned wisdom.
- Diction. Mr. Byers gives us a beautiful second sentence that is enjoyable on its own.
- Subject matter. Romance takes a backseat to the real theme, which relates to mental illness.
- Internal narrative logic. Mr. Byers begins at the beginning of Orlando’s relationship with the Vardons, the central conflict/issue in the story.
Take a look at the first few sentences of one of your own stories. Are you packing in as much as Mr. Byers does?
A line or two later, Mr. Byers did something that seemed quite significant to me. (Your mileage may vary, of course.) I loved the sad suggestion of the tense Mr. Byers used in this sentence:
She had an open, genial, feline face, with big cheeks and dark eyes, and a big soft body that was round in parts…
Nora “had” an open face. We’ve only just begun our journey with Orlando, but that “had” is extremely suggestive. What is going on with Nora now? Is she okay? Are they just not together? Did they have a meaningful relationship? We may not have these questions had Mr. Byers cast the sentence differently:
- My old girlfriend had…
- Nora, my college girlfriend…
- I loved her open, genial, feline face…
- Nora, bless her heart, was a beautiful woman with a…
Instead, Mr. Byers has Orlando tell us that Nora “had” that face. (“Gee…I hope nothing happened to it.”) I guess I’m urging us to think deeply about how we use tense in our work. Think back to your first real breakup. The one that wrenched your heart and made you wear all black to school the next day. What should you say if you’re trying to convince others that the long-ago heartbreak isn’t a problem for you now?
- Sally broke up with me before graduation. (past simple)
- Sally was breaking up with me before graduation. (past continuous)
- Sally had broken up with me before graduation. (past perfect)
- Sally had been breaking up with me before graduation. (past perfect continuous)
Each sentence means pretty much the same thing, but the tense employed in the sentences carries a different meaning.
What Should We Steal?
- Pack your opening passage full of everything your reader needs to understand your story. The longer you take to introduce important elements, the greater the chance you lose your reader.
- Choose the tense that carries the subtextual meaning appropriate to your work. “The divorce meant nothing to Sally” or “The divorce HAD meant nothing to Sally”?