What Can We Steal From John Updike’s “A & P”?

Title of Work and its Form: “A & P,” short story
Author: John Updike
Date of Work: 1961
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story is frequently anthologized and can be found in countless collections of American short stories.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Description

When most people think about twentieth-century American literature, they think Honey Boo Boo.  (Unfortunately, that program is neither from the twentieth century, nor is it literature.)  John Updike comes a very close second.  The man was one of our literary lions for a half-century and deserves his due.  “A & P” is a tight little story about a young man who works in a grocery store.  He’s nineteen years old, so he definitely notices when “these three girls” walk in wearing “nothing but bathing suits.”  The young ladies make their way around the store and finally approach Sammy (the first-person narrator), who is working the register.  Unfortunately, the boss breaks the spell and ruins everything, telling the young ladies that they should dress “decently” when shopping in his store.  Sammy mutters that he quits and realizes “how hard the world was going to be” to him thereafter.

A lot of writers fight over how much they should describe their characters physically.  Unfortunately, the answer is not an easy one: writers should provide as much description as is necessary to serve the story.  It doesn’t matter what color her hair is, but it matters very deeply to Sammy that the young woman he calls “Queenie” is wearing a “kind of dirty-pink—beige, maybe, I don’t know—bathing suit with a little nubble all over it.”  The suit’s straps are down, “off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms…”  Updike chooses the details that would be noticed by the narrator.  You better believe that a heterosexual nineteen-year-old male is going to notice the “clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light.”

Coming up with names and getting them into a narrative can also be a problem at times.  How often do you walk around and hear someone’s name unless there’s a really good reason?  If you go to someone else’s family reunion, you’re going to hear an awful lot of organic introductions.  “Jim, have you met my Uncle Bob?  He’s married to my Aunt Sally.”  In many narratives, however, these opportunities may not be easy to come by.  That’s why Updike (through his narrator) simply calls the primary young woman “Queenie.”  Not only does the name reflect what Sammy thinks about the young woman, but it also shapes our understanding of the character.  After all, haven’t we all identified the leader of a group and focused on them?

What Should We Steal?

  • Include character details that actually matter.  Your reader is going to fill in a lot of the blanks, so include the specifics that shape your narrative or characters.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  What does it matter if your reader imagines that one of your characters appears African-American or Armenian or Argentinian?  In this case, the racial appearance of the character will only matter if it is important to the story.  Shakespeare only describes Othello as a Moor because…well…it’s the whole point of the play.
  • Dole out character names in a felicitous fashion.  Imagine you have a character walking through a dark, dank parking lot.  What should you call the man who is following him or her in a menacing fashion?  Well, you could call him “the man” or “the creep” or “Scary Jerk.”  Each identifier will shape the audience’s perception of your story, so choose wisely!

What Can We Steal From Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Harrison Bergeron,” short story
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Date of Work: 1961
Where the Work Can Be Found: Just about every anthology of short stories ever.  It’s one of the big stories, folks.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Well, if you haven’t read this short story, you should.  I know…I know.  It’s one of those stories they force you read in high school.  Here’s the deal: “Harrison Bergeron” is an incredibly subversive story that is practically screaming at you to DEFY AUTHORITY.  Can you believe so many high school teachers (including my own) were trying to tell you that there are many forces in American society that strive to glorify mediocrity?  That one of the overriding messages in American media is that you should sit down, shut up and watch crappy TV shows so you won’t think?  You have to give Vonnegut some love.

“Harrison Bergeron” describes the Bergeron’s family night of television.  Hazel and George, Harrison’s parents, watch a music and dance show.  The Handicapper General makes sure that everyone is “equal” by burdening the strong with heavy weights.  The brilliant people are forced to endure periodic aural disturbances so as to prevent them from thinking brilliant thoughts.  The ballerinas (masked to hide their unfair beauty) are plodding about when there is breaking news: Harrison Bergeron, “a genius and athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as completely dangerous.”  Harrison, the smartest and most athletic of us, breaks into the TV studio and removes his handicaps.  He declares himself “Emperor” and chooses his bride, the most beautiful of all the ballerinas.  Diana Moon Glampers, that Handicapper General, interrupts their honeymoon dance, killing them both.  Hazel and George?  They remember they saw something sad on TV, but can’t quite remember what it was.

The narrator of “Harrison Bergeron” is a big key to the story’s success.  Vonnegut is dealing with BIG emotions and BIG ideas, but the narrator is very calm and matter-of-fact.  “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”  If you look at the narrator’s sentences, they are very calm.  The narrator does not pass judgment on Diana Moon Glampers or the society she leads.  Instead, Vonnegut allows the reader to absorb the events and the dialogue and to draw his or her own conclusions.

It’s so tempting to make our narrators editorialize.  For example, I am writing a short story about a teenager who befriends a former major league ballplayer who played with men who had been in the Negro Leagues.  It is VERY EASY to want to editorialize in these kinds of cases.  How could Americans want to see segregated baseball?  What kind of a person would want to discriminate so blatantly against people based upon skin color?  What could have been?  Bob Feller facing Josh Gibson…Satchel Paige against Joe DiMaggio.  Instead, it is better to pull back and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.  It’s a matter of SHOW, DON’T TELL.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Consider an unobtrustive narrator to allow your points emerge from other parts of your writer’s toolbox.  Vonnegut’s narrator pretty much sticks to just the facts, ma’am.  This allows the dialogue to punch the reader in the gut.  Why can’t George simply reduce the weights that are part of his prescribed handicap?  “Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out,” said George.  “I don’t call that a bargain.” The narrator could easily have given us this information in this clumsy manner: “The government prescribed that the strong be weighed down according to their strength.  George could have reduced the weight in his handicap, but then he would have been punished with prison time and a big fine for each ball of birdshot…blah blah blah.”  See how bad that is?  (And not just because I wrote it instead of Vonnegut.)
  • Allow your narrator to match the needs of your story.  George Bergeron is a brilliant man (that’s where his son gets it), but he’s unable to concentrate because of the periodic sounds that derail his trains of thought.  For example, George “began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that.”  George and the narrator are both unable to focus upon the emotions inherent in the story because of the handicaps placed upon them.