What Can We Steal From Molly McNett’s “La Pulchra Nota”?

Title of Work and its Form: “La Pulchra Nota,” short story
Author: Molly McNett
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 78 of Image.  “La Pulchra Nota” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2014.

Bonuses:  Check out One Dog Happy, the collection Ms. McNett published through University of Iowa Press.  Here is an interview Ms. McNett granted to one of her former students.  Here is “Lonesome Road,” a piece of creative nonfiction that Ms. McNett published in Brain, ChildCheck out Karen Carlson’s powerful analysis of the story.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Historical Fiction

Discussion:
John Fuller is a 29-year-old man who was, as he says, “born in the year of our Lord 1370.”  He informs the reader that he has suffered a “grave accident” and no longer has use of his hands.  Fuller tells his story with the help of a scribe and does so beautifully.  Fuller was born with eyes that cast their gaze askew; his aesthetic misfortune led him to marry the first and seemingly only woman who would have him.  Katherine is from a wealthy family and their lives are happy enough until their beloved twins die.  As Katherine retreats from Fuller, one of his voice students gives him the attention that he has always craved.  Olivia is a small wisp of a young woman who manages to produce “la pulchra nota,” a heavenly sound.  She confesses her love, Fuller does a little too much thinking about the young lady and, well, just read the story.  It’s a knockout.

I know…I know…there are about eleventy trillion stories that are set in the past and historical fiction is its own genre.  I guess that I just don’t recall seeing too many in literary journals…and this is a shame because these kinds of stories are so much fun!  In a way, a story like “La Pulchra Nota” turns the reader into a time traveler.  What would it be like to stop by a bookstall and to buy a Shakespeare Quarto?  What was it like to live during the American Revolution and discover that you are married to a Tory?  Did Egyptian slaves have any time for romantic longing during the time they were building the pyramids?  (And could love set them free to any extent?)

Ms. McNett is also smart enough to sidestep many of the challenges inherent in the composition of historical fiction.  Do you know everything about fourteenth-century England?  Me, neither.  I’m wondering how well I could even communicate with John Fuller if we met; after all, he grew up in the time of Chaucer.  Ms. McNett doesn’t focus too closely on the clothing, language, food, science or customs of her specific time and place.  Instead, she keeps our attention on what we share with John Fuller, Katherine and Olivia.  Humans still suffer disabilities and disfigurement…we still love our children and mourn their untimely deaths…we still have sexual longing and can be driven to extremes when our needs in that arena are not met.

Ms. McNett’s use of Christian mythology is also a “binding agent.”  Whether or not you are an actual Christian, you are no doubt familiar with the worldview that puts stress on the Fuller marriage.  You are willing to ignore your curiosity about some of the finer details because you understand what it means when Ms. McNett writes:

  • “…divine providence was pleased to take the life of our dear twins…”
  • “…every devout man knows the great mercy he shows us in taking a child out of the world.”
  • “…it pleased the Lord to take to paradise my father the organist…”

Another facet of the story that I admire is the way Ms. McNett employs the first person.  After making it clear that Fuller is disabled, she has her protagonist unspool his life story.  In the hands of a lesser writer (someone like me), this story could have been pretty boring.  Instead, Ms. McNett focuses on the important, interesting and necessary moments in Fuller’s life.  We need to know about his disfigurement and how it happened and about his marriage and how and why everything changed.  Ms. McNett doesn’t bog the narrative down by including extended sections about where Fuller bought his food or what his education was like or anything else that would seem superfluous.  I love Les Miserables a ton, but you have to admit that some of the sections about the Paris sewer system aren’t quite as necessary as the scenes with Fauchelevent.  “La Pulchra Nota” never stops moving and that’s why we love the story.  Ms. McNett follows the advice of the great Elmore Leonard, whose tenth rule of writing is:

“I try to leave out the parts that readers skip.”

What Should We Steal?

  • Set your story in the distant past.  If we learned nothing else from The Twilight Zone, it’s that people are the same all over.  Mix things up by dispatching your Muse into centuries gone by.
  • Focus on the commonalities we share with old-time characters, not our differences.  Our ability to understand and/or relate to a character is more important than knowing what kinds of spice to which the protagonist has access.
  • Obey Elmore.  Leave out the boring parts.

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