Discover more from Chuck Palahniuk's Plot Spoiler
Gloves Off: Round XIII
This opening chapter left me hungry for more
Today we’ll take a longer look at Cradleland by Katy Harrison…
If you want to read it as originally published, please click here.
By the time baby is the size of a cabbage, a sharer bag of Doritos, a small cooked chicken, a choke of women tell her they understand why some mothers shake their babies.
They smile at one another and say, not that we ever(y) would. Not that we ever did. But after four nights of endless crying, why it was all they could do not to ram the baby’s head against the cot bars. And they laugh.
Not that they would. Not that they ever did.
My comments: Excellent beginning. As always, be careful of a series of three — cabbage, Doritos, chicken. It might be me, but I stumbled on the second use of “babies” after the “baby” at the beginning of the sentence. It might be too writerly, but you might consider changing the second reference to “newborns.” Your call.
Note, where I think you’ve made a typo I’ve inserted (parentheses).
Ella swirls the orange juice in the plastic wine glass. It’s rose tinted because her gums have started bleeding again. Every cup and glass that she uses is printed with a pink kiss.
It’s natural for a baby to cry, Ella says. Isn’t it?
Cyanide is natural, they say. Arsenic is natural. So is vaginal childbirth, but show me one woman who can sneeze without soaking her knickers after she gives birth. Natural doesn’t mean painless. Natural doesn’t mean nice. Did Ella know that on a bad day, the cry of a new-born is the same decibel level as a chainsaw? On a good day, perhaps only a lawnmower.
Ella has been preparing for the birth. She’s going to classes, she has an app on her phone. She thinks she’s ready.
They smile. It’s so cute how Ella thinks she’s prepared. That she’s ready.
My comments: Very nice. A very smooth way to get us into a physical scene by particularizing the blood-smudged glass.
Bunting in grey and yellow hangs in heavy loops from the church hall rafters. They match the cloud-coloured napkins and the sunshine balloons. Somewhere, her mother is refilling glasses and taking photos with resurrected relatives. Maiden aunts and estranged nieces. A swirl of laminated brows and foundation a shade too dark. Lips fattened with filler. Large-print maxi dresses and tiny clutch bags. Denise. Harriet. Alex. The two Lauras. Rebecca. They have their children’s names tattooed on their ankles above the straps of crippler heels.
My comments: The list of names, the particular details of the scene, it all works. I did stumble over “laminated brows” and I’m curious if others did as well.
Ella’s Mum wears a nearly new red dress with a necklace the size of her Dad’s fist. The pendant is glass, not diamond, and the filigree is silver plated, not silver, and will stain her neck by tonight. She hurries to take photos before she sweats and the green tinge gives her away. Men perspire, women glow, pigs sweat. She’s glowing today. Ella’s pregnancy suits her.
Maybe Alex pouts her lip and asks, So you’re back living with your Mum again?
Ella says, Just staying for the time being.
Staying. Like she has a choice in it.
Maybe Harriet waves a pale prawn dusted in chilli powder in her face, a pile of them keeled over on her paper plate. Not for you, missy! She tilts her head back and drops the prawn into her mouth then snaps her teeth shut. She chews and smiles. Not for another two months.
My comments: Still going strong. Clear, detailed action. Good attribution. Be careful around the pronouns; for example, “Ella’s Mum wears a nearly new red dress with a necklace the size of her Dad’s fist” tripped me up. For a moment I wasn’t sure if the second “her” referred to Ella’s dad or her mum’s dad. It’s a nice threatening comparison, but can you make it without the possible confusion?
A buffet of forbidden food winds along the back wall of the church hall. Brie. Prawns. Cold cuts of salami and pepperoni. Liver pate. Homemade tiramisu. Freshly squeezed juice and locally sourced fish. Pheasant. Oysters. Prosecco. Her mother explained there would be more than just her eating and to be quiet, be grateful. Bring a sandwich.
Maybe Denise says, Birth is just the beginning. You’re in for a whole world of hormones and haemorrhoids now. Why, sometimes, they were tempted to leave that cute, shitting bundle right there on the church step. And they laugh.
Not (that) they ever would. Not that they ever did.
Ella’s dress is a tea dress. Button front, flowing over the hips that have swelled with her cravings, a small pattern of blue flowers. Pockets. Her mother calls it a forgiving style. She bought Ella three of them.
Maybe Alex asks, Did Ella know what a fourth degree tear is? It’s when the perineum splits right up to your asshole. If they offer you a snip, take it. If they offer you diamorphine, take it. Tell them to stick their gas and air up their non-dilating cunts.
My comments: All good. My impulse is to put a single-sentence paragraph after the description of the food. For authority, I’d list several parasites or bacterial threats that such foods offer. Your call, but it would add unexplained medical jargon that would contrast with the otherwise simple, elegant language. If you add such, don’t explain, just allow the juxtaposition with the food to suggest the relationship.
Maybe Rebecca laughs. Oops, must mind language in front of Baby. Shellac talons in shades of apricot and labia pink graze the bump, where Ella’s bellybutton presses against the dress like the head of a drawing pin.
Ella digs her fingers further into her pockets and wills baby to kick away the pastel claws stroking its upside down knees.
Maybe Harriet says, Has she taken her folic acid? It’s too late now, of course, but Jenny’s friend, she didn’t take any and her baby came out with so many kinks in her spine it looked like a pink snake. And Sarah. The poor girl was so unlucky. That creature she gave birth to came out with a golf ball for a head. Looked like a sideshow pinhead. Never spoke a word and died at ten, still wearing nappies.
Maybe Rebecca says, I thought Michael had a giant head, like a water balloon?
Maybe Harriet says, That was Tina’s boy. He had water on the brain.
My comments: Okay, now I’d like to see more on-the-body details. Ella’s possible hunger. The taste of blood and orange juice. Eyes on the bloody kiss print. Especially the feel of those fingernails on Ella’s belly. And since Ella will eventually visit the bathroom, maybe a growing need to urinate. The story is so elegant, I’d love to see it get more visceral.
Later the vicar is mentioned, the floors, the high heels. Can you introduce one of those elements early?
Ella runs her tongue over her top teeth. They taste of citrus and rust.
Maybe Alex says, Does she have headaches? High blood pressure? Itching? Has she been doing pelvic floor exercises?
Maybe one of the Lauras says, I know you did three when I said that. I know the look. You’ll regret it if you don’t do them now. Why, I just have to sneeze and you’d think my waters were breaking all over again.
Brandon, someone or someone else’s son, runs over. Ella knows his name is Brandon because BRANDON is emblazoned up and down his designer tracksuit. A bag of red gummy bears in his fist. He drops a handful into his mouth and tries to grab a cupcake from the tower dusted in white edible glitter. Inside they are fat with either cornflower blue or Barbie pink frosting. Ella didn’t want a gender reveal. Her mum took her last scan from off the fridge door and gave it to a doctor friend to diagnose.
Maybe Brandon’s mum smacks his hand. Brandon sticks his tongue out. His eyes are spaced wide apart and his mouth is thin. Small low-set ears. It gives him a permanent faraway look that suggests he needs to take a shit. Ella wonders if his mother drank during pregnancy. He points at Ella’s stomach.
My comments: You had me at “cornflower blue.” And you’d better do something with that glitter later on. Glitter is such a great marking device.
As always beware of thought verbs. Instead of “tries” consider “he reaches to.” That gives us an incomplete physical action. I only mention this because you’ve been so meticulous about using decent verbs so far.
He shouts, Fatty! He runs off whooping, spilling red gummy bears.
Ella drives her fingers deeper into her pockets. The fabric snags against her last minute manicure.
Maybe Denise says, And are you having a natural birth? Or are you one of those too posh to push ones?
My comments: All good. I’m lousy at hyphenating, but you might hyphenate last-minute and too-posh-to-push to make them read smoother. I understand the convention of “maybe Denise” and “maybe Alex” but I wonder if it might be more clear if those were hyphenated, i.e. maybe-Denise, etc.
Ella says, Well, I have a birth plan.
Maybe Denise says, Oh, birth plan indeed! If you ask me, a real birth is through the front door, not the sun roof. If you have a caesarean it’s not much more effort than having your appendix out.
Maybe one of the Lauras says, I heard that more than fifty percent of caesarean babies turn out to be autistic.
Maybe the other Laura says, That many?
Maybe the first Laura says, Well, maybe not that many. But it’s a lot.
My comments: All good, excellent. I would like to see Mom across the room or the flash of a camera, just to keep your key elements present. And possibly food or the smell of food. Keep the plastic wine glass present, or resolve it by dropping it on the tray of a passing waiter.
Maybe Harriet says, Please tell me you’re going to breastfeed. I mean, they say formula is safe, but how do we know?
Maybe Alex says, Tina’s daughter was bottle fed.
Maybe Harriet says, Yes, but look at her. That child must have had every illness going for the first two years of her life. Nasty little wheezing thing.
Maybe Alex swots her shoulder and says, Oh stop! You can’t say that about a child. It’s not her fault.
Maybe Harriet says, No, of course not. You can’t blame the child when the mother couldn’t be bothered.
They all murmur their agreement.
Not (that) they ever(y) would. Not (that) they ever did.
Ella touches a hand to her temple. Her head hurts. Her heart beats a staccato. Her skin burns. A heaviness in her crotch. Like the first day of a period, it descends to her knickers and then slips free. A gasp. A wrinkled nose, a flap of hands.
Maybe Harriet kneels. Sunlight cuts the air, shows up dust and scars on the parquet flooring. Divots from spiked heels the vicar begged them not to wear. The sheen on the quivering mass on the floor. Maybe Harriet takes a cocktail stick and gently lifts an edge. Mucus plug, she says. She drops a napkin over it, covers it daintily as a leftover sandwich.
You mean –
Brandon runs over, drops to his knees for a full slide across the church hall floor. His knees drive into the soft mess and leaves a long streak behind him. Someone screams at him to get his ass up now, those trousers are damn near ruined.
My comments: Here I expected more action. I thought the mucous plug signaled the beginning of labor. It’s a great surprise, and smearing it is brilliant. Can it give off a smell? But after the initial no-reactions, I’d expected Ella or someone to get busy with medical action. Yes, this is a misdirection (and a damned good one, bravo) but someone should get panicky.
And I’m stumped by “You mean.” Who’s saying it? Is it being thought? What’s its purpose? The same goes for “Does anyone know what gets mucus out of polyester?” I assume it’s a quote, but as such it needs attribution. I applaud you not using quotation marks, but that makes attribution even more important.
Does anyone know what gets mucus out of polyester?
Someone suggests Vanish. Perhaps bicarb.
Maybe Alex grabs Brandon’s arm. A red gummy bear is stuck to his knee. He shakes himself free and grabs a cupcake from the tower. He forces it whole into his mouth, chews and sticks his tongue out. Blue as a bruise.
Squeals. Someone claps their hands together.
A boy! It’s a boy! She’s having a boy!
My comments: Again, attribution. And it would be great if this was the mom prompting everyone with “A boy! It’s a boy!” since the mom has set up the reveal. It would also pop Mom back in.
And/or Mom could snap a photo of the fallen mucous plug, before Brandon smears it.
Question: Does food-grade glitter digest? In the ’80s many chic eateries used food-grade gold and silver gilding on edibles. So it was jarring to later poop and see flecks of gold/silver in the toilet bowl. Too much like seeing sidewalk dog turds at Christmas with tinsel in them.
Hands grab for the cupcakes. Everyone is stuffing them between their blowjob filler lips. They stick out their blue tongues. Maybe Alex and maybe a Laura take a photo together. Brandon picks the gummy bear off his knee and eats it.
Ella clamps her dress between her legs. More wetness eases into the fabric of the forgiving
tea dress(blue flowers.) Somewhere in the throng maybe Rebecca is congratulating her mother. Maybe Denise tells her mother they could tell it would be a boy, the way Ella sticks out in that dress she (herself) never would have worn, but she’s not judging. No, just not what she would have chosen.
Ella pushes her fists into her pockets where her new Shellac nails, pearlescent white, have clawed holes. She waddles past the buffet, past the gender neutral balloons and under a droop of bunting. Over the scarred floors the vicar will cry over and beyond the smell of buttercream and roast pheasant and the knowledge she is having a boy. That this should be feel like special, important news, but is as interesting as knowing her blood type.
My comments: Consider that if she has clawed holes Ella can touch herself. Feel her skin. Feel the baby. That could give us more of a physical sense of her.
She turns a corridor to the room where the toilet stalls are tucked away. They haven’t changed much since she was a child. Echoing white tile and the smell of rotting wood and Domestos. A faded poster for The Tufty Club on the wall.
She goes into the stall and locks the door. The paint on the doors has been redone, but under the thick layer of green gloss she can still see the scars of names, swear words, phone numbers. The toilet seat must still be the same when she came here as a child. Black porcelain, cold as grave. The smell of urine and fresh damp. A staccato drip of water. Tucked beside the pipes is a Rentokill trap. Acid blue pellets dot the floor tiles like Forget Me Nots. She slowly pulls out damp napkins from her pockets and unwraps them on her knee. She pauses, glances up at the door. Then she’s shovelling handfuls of cold pepperoni and slices of wilted Brie into her mouth. She wipes her mouth on her arm and lip-gloss and grease glue the fine hairs to her skin.
She drops prawns into her mouth the way Brandon does his gummy bears. She mashes a portion of tiramisu, bloated with wine and uncooked eggs between her lips. The oyster shells sadly are empty, their contents already smeared down Brandon’s Sunday best pants, squeezing through the rips in her pockets.
Her stomach lurches, baby kicks. She burps. Presses her thighs together and manages three pelvic squeezes.
My comments: Nicely done. The mucous plug was an oyster.
The graffiti in the toilet stall seems like too good a set-up not to touch on. Just give us one ancient quote or name or year, one clear detail, whether or not you pick it up later. Or something in Latin, like the graffiti found in The Handmaid’s Tale, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It can be translated or resolved later, whatever it is. And because it’s carved, it can be touched like braille.
Now, something from the school of “Chuck always goes too far.” If she were to wipe her bum with toilet paper, or glance into the bowl, and thus see glittery feces, that would show that she’d snuck a cupcake and thus already knew the gender of the child. I understand that this might seem too crude, but consider it as a way to pay off the glitter. A very physical moment before the dialog about to come.
A clicking and clacking of heels on the tiles, the taps running. Heavy perfume fogs the air and Ella holds herself still, her hand covered in tiramisu partway to her mouth.
Beyond the door, she can hear maybe Denise, Harriet, Alex, Rebecca, the two Lauras say, Single mother living with her mother. How sad. She didn’t have a lot going for her before, but now? Who would want poor knocked up Ella living in the same bedroom she wet the bed in as a child. I pity her really.
My comments: I wanted one of those bitches to mention the baby’s father or the mystery of the baby’s father. It’s a huge void in the story and need not be resolved here, but it should be stepped on for later use.
When baby was the size of an avocado, a lightbulb, an éclair El(l)a made an appointment she never kept. She had the choice and good for her.
Not that she ever would. Not that she ever did.
She stands up and flushes. Unlocks the door and steps past their now frozen shoulders and arched eyebrows. Someone stifles a giggle. She washes her hands. She makes eye contact in the mirror whilst she dries her hands on her dress. She reaches into her pocket and holds up a cold prawn.
Ella says, I never really noticed how much they look like foetuses.
My comments: It would be nice to revisit the bleeding lips here. And — because the mom’s voice is NOT among those who speak — it would rub salt in the wound if Ella were to look in the mirror and see her mother among the harpies. But get those bloody lips back in. Or apply gloss. Or blot the blood on a tissue/napkin like a kiss and drop it.
She drops it into her mouth and snaps her teeth shut. She smiles and her teeth are bright, wet and bloody.
My comments: Excellent. I knew you wouldn’t fail me here. But… logistics. Unless she’s seeing herself in the mirror it’s awkward for her to describe her own appearance. If she were to lean forward and kiss the mirror, she could leave behind a kiss that’s bright, wet, and shining with blood. Still, this is a very small point. The scene is wonderful, and makes a great opening chapter. It’s amazing how easily you did so much with so few words. Well done.