Damien Angelica Walters’s “Requiem, for Solo Cello” and How to Solve the Problem of Short Short Fiction
“Requiem, for Solo Cello,” by Damien Angelica Walters (first appeared in Issue 69 of Apex Magazine)
I’ve written before about the challenges posed by the popularization of short short fiction. As I pointed out then, there’s nothing inherently inferior about any medium. Genres and forms are like tools; they have advantages and disadvantages that shape the end result. “Requiem, for Solo Cello” clocks in at 1170 words , so it’s not the shortest of short stories, but I think that Ms. Walters’s poetic piece helps to illuminate some important issues.
First of all, I know the length of the story because the fine people at Apex Magazine include the word count with each story. Like I said: benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, I guess it is helpful to know that the story is not a 50,000-word novella. (Even though you could tell such a thing from the length of the web page.) Perhaps you’re going to bed and checking out the latest issue of Apex on an e-reader and you don’t want to start a long story that you can’t finish before you doze off. Okay, cool. On the other hand, do we really need such information? Should word count be one of the criteria by which we compose our reading list? As literature becomes an increasingly digital endeavor, I’ve really tried to make a conscious effort to read for the “right reasons.” (Word count is not usually a top priority, of course.) Am I the only one who has such a plan? Should I be?
Ms. Walters has broken her story into six sections, each of which contributes to a first person narrative about an unnamed woman who had an intense crush on a cellist. I use the past tense because of what happens in the story; the cellist and the narrator turn out to be incompatible lovers, but that doesn’t mean the affair wasn’t meaningful. The point of the story, it seemed to me, is that the narrator learned how to play her own instrument and to make her own music in the wake of heartbreak: a lesson that applies to all of us at one time or another.
“Requiem, for Solo Cello” illustrates how to solve one of the problems with short short stories. Ms. Walters (I’m guessing) knew that she was writing a relatively short piece and that her idea would not justify reams of page space. That’s fine; that’s why she created a story that fit the narrative in her head. How did she do so?
- She chose the right slice of story from the narrator’s life. This is the story of how she fell in a kind of love with the cellist and fell out love almost as quickly. Much more has happened in the narrator’s life, to be sure, but none of that matters, particularly when you only have 1200 words.
- She adopted a poetic diction and largely refrained from scenework. There’s no dialogue in the piece and the past-tense scenes consist predominantly of images released in pretty language.
- Perhaps most importantly, Ms. Walters’s story makes extensive use of an extended metaphor. You can’t cram a spy novel into 1200 words like Lady Gaga trying to cram all of her outfits into a single suitcase. You can, however, reduce the importance of the narrative itself and transfer that importance to an extended metaphor. Ms. Walters compares bodies to musical instruments; string instruments are perfect for such a metaphor. Not only do they resemble humans in shape (let’s keep it real, cellos have a very feminine shape), but they are also made from organic materials and are often shaped by human hands. See how there’s something beautiful and human about the cello?
Ms. Walters approaches the human/string instrument from a wide range of angles. We should follow her example and spend some time researching our extended metaphors. Here are some details that Ms. Walters works into her piece:
- Pieces often played by the cello
- The posture of the cellist and what it resembles.
- The beautiful “music” words, including glissando
- Specifics about the construction of the cello, including the materials used by luthiers
- Parts of the cello that resemble those of a human, including the neck and the “strings” that keep us together.
Whenever we construct a piece that makes use of an extended metaphor, we should sit down and just fill a few pages with all of the words and ideas related to the subject. We may not use everything we jot down, but that brainstorming work gives us more options and suggest opportunities upon which we may not otherwise capitalize.
To some extent, the piece succeeds because Ms. Walters doesn’t try to do too much with “Requiem, for Solo Cello.” We should admire the way she contrived the narrative to take advantage of the short short form and the skill with which she boosted the power of the metaphor to compensate for the requisite thinness of the plot.