What Can We Steal From Benjamin Nugent’s “God”?
Title of Work and its Form: “God,” short story
Author: Benjamin Nugent
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: “God” made its debut in Fall 2013’s Issue 206 of The Paris Review, one of the biggest journals around. The story was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2014 and can be found in the anthology.
Bonuses: Listen to this audio interview Mr. Nugent gave to The Lit Show‘s Ben Mauk in support of his novel, Good Kids. Here is “The Rugby Witch,” a story that was published in The L Magazine. Here is a fun video in which Mr. Nugent discusses the word “nerd:”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience
The first person narrator is a college student and a member of the Delta Zeta Chi fraternity. The frat’s world has been turned upside down by God. No, not a supernatural being. God is the nickname they have given to Melanie, a young woman who has captured the heart of their leader, Caleb Newtown-also known as “Nutella.” Melanie flexed her literary muscles, penning a poem about Nutella’s problem with premature ejaculation. God’s revelation moves each frat brother’s heart in different ways. Five-Hour nearly manages to have sex with God, but he is prevented from doing so because of a little bit of erectile dysfunction. The story’s climax is the expected one, but Mr. Nugent does a good job of imbuing the story with far more weight than such a piece might otherwise have.
There’s so much to admire about this story, but I’ll begin with the point I was just making. I often mention my preoccupation with “the woman on the bus.” Lee K. Abbott, my stellar teacher at Ohio State, used this idea to describe the kind of audience he has in mind when he writes. I sometimes worry that our literary community has become too insular; that we’re not making as many new readers as are necessary to keep us going. Are we dealing with subject matter that is too esoteric for the mainstream? Are we abandoning plot and other elements that are attractive to a wide audience? We’re competing with TV, film, texting and the Internet, after all. Why can’t more “literary” work be “fun?”
This is a story about romantic attraction and its resultant sexual complications. People are interested in reading about that. This story is funny; I made at least half a dozen smiley faces in my copy. People like laughing. The story is packed with beautiful sentences, but Mr. Nugent keeps the story humming along nicely. I suppose that what I’m saying is that writers of literary fiction should follow Mr. Nugent’s lead and tilt the scales just a little bit more in the direction of entertainment as a priority. Art feeds the heart and mind; perhaps we should make the heart a little more prominent in what we produce.
“God” is a story predicated upon a classic and powerful conceit. For months, the world of Delta Zeta Chi and its members was stable. The brothers cared about each other, everyone admired Nutella and everyone had complementary goals. That was before Melanie/God showed up and turned Delta Zeta Chi upside down. After the young woman writes the poem, the social order and heirarchy of the frat is destabilized. Instead of doing what they can to find their own girlfriends, many of the brothers want to enjoy special time with M/G, as though having sex with her will transfer some of Nutella’s power to them. And the narrator has some very interesting reasons for wanting to have sex with her…
Think of the previous paragraph and replace all of the mentions of the frat with “Camelot.” Wow! It’s pretty much the same story! All is good in Camelot until that darn Lancelot comes around, pretending he’s all moral and high-minded…until Guinevere makes eyes at him. Writers are often interested in building worlds. What happens if you decide to destroy a world instead?
What Should We Steal?
- Lighten up and entertain. Should we go full Kardashian? Of course not. (That’s a gross mental image.) Perhaps we should be just a little more cognizant of the need to attract and keep more readers.
- Begin with a nice, stable subculture and setting…then shake it up. The Republic is doing just fine…until the Senate elects the obvious bad guy to be Emperor. The proverbial marriage is doing just fine…until one partner gets a couple hangup phone calls.