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Consider This: A Thing as a Thing Before It's THE Thing
Let's talk about the fantastic mistake
Let’s start with a passage from the story Emergency by Denis Johnson
This is among my favorite moments in fiction. The story is in the Johnson collection Jesus’ Son.
The only light visible was a streak of sunset flickering below the hem of the clouds. We headed that way.
We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there had been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.
Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in man!”
“The drive-in…” I wasn’t sure what these words meant.
“They’re showing movies in a fucking blizzard!” Georgie screamed.
“I see. I thought it was something else,” I said.
We walked carefully down there and climbed through the busted fence and stood in the very back. The speakers, which I had mistaken for grave markers, muttered in unison…
The point is…
As always, how a character sees the world says more about the character than it does about the world. Rather than simply state things into being: We approached a drive-in theater… a mistake in perception allows the writer to state something deeper about the narrator’s psyche. The character, Fuck Head, sees death and angels as his default. The moment is funny yet revealing and shows his vulnerability; best of all, it morphs the scene in the reader’s mind first allowing the incredible, then explaining it away.
I did a similar trick in the story Guts by having the narrator assume a snake had sprung from the swimming pool drain. The mistake allows the reader to grasp the situation and feel smarter and thus more sympathetic toward the narrator. The trick is related to the “Impossible Detail” that begins the discovery process in stories. For example, the house in House of Leaves being slightly larger on the inside than on the outside.
The “Fantastic Mistake” tells the reader something impossible and makes the reader yearn for an explanation. And it reveals some secret hard-wired part of the character’s mind. It creates tension. Sustains it. Then quickly resolves it for humor.
An anecdote from life…
Every few years somebody dumps rubbish in my driveway. Old tires. A sofa. Most recently it was construction debris: busted kitchen cabinets, pink Fiberglas insulation, old carpeting. They dumped it at night, and when a neighbor phoned to tell me I walked down with a shovel and bags to clean up the mess in the dark.
The spot is under a motion-activated spotlight, and I worked away under that one light. Long before I lived here a famous serial killer met a woman in a local tavern, strangled her, and dumped her body on this same spot. A very dark and isolated spot. A fact that never leaves my mind entirely. And as I shoveled waterlogged insulation into garbage bags, a smell hit me. Under that spotlight I could hardly breathe, and then my next shovelful exposed the naked body of a dead child. At that, the motion-activated spotlight went out.
This left me standing in total darkness, choking on some stench, with a child’s body somewhere at my feet. Such moments last the rest of our lives. I swung the shovel above my head to activate the spotlight, seeing only the afterimage of the kid’s naked corpse. Of course, the light came on. The body was that of a pit bull, dead so long that all the fur had rotted away. What remained was skin stretched over a round head and the small skeleton of the body. Sad, yeah, but not a kid.
But in that horrible Denis Johnson moment, it was the fantastic mistake. All my fears had come true about finding a murder victim at night in the forest. It was a fear I hadn’t been aware of until that mistake. My default.
You don’t want to do this very often, but the fantastic mistake is a wonderful tool.
Can you think of other stories that use this trick?