Fiction Analysis: The Arboretum

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

– Elie Wiesel

This is an analysis of the fiction piece The Arboretum.  If you haven’t yet read this story you can do so here.

Inspiration:

Like most of my angstier stories this one was written during and inspired by my tumultuous first year of University, specifically when I fell in love with a girl and everything went to shit.  I remember feeling like nothing had hurt more in my life, and wishing that I could just be numb.  That feeling inspired this story’s plot/message, and my University’s arboretum inspired the setting.

Summary/Meaning:

The story starts with a boy, talking to his therapist about a girl he’s fallen in love with.  I never actually had a therapist to talk to about such problems in real life (nor did I want one), so the conversation they have is based around similar conversations I’ve had with myself.  Essentially the issue is this: the protagonist is so wrought with self-pity and self-loathing (sound familiar?) that he is convinced she could never feel the same way, and even if she did he wouldn’t be able to handle the emotional volatility that comes with being in a relationship.

Feeling overwhelmed with emotions and the pain they bring, the boy mentions that he would rather feel nothing at all.  The therapist asks him if he’s sure, and while he admits that he isn’t sure, he says that if he didn’t feel anything then he wouldn’t have to be sure.  After a moment of silence the therapist asks him if he’s been to the University’s arboretum, and when he says he hasn’t he suggests visiting it.

We then flash forward to him doing just that, and as he takes his first steps into the park his mind wanders back as he contemplates how he came to this point.  He recalls his final meeting with his old therapist, and contemplates how much different his new therapist is.  He lists off his new therapist’s personality traits: detached, cold, distant, something that will be important later.

He then moves on to thinking about the girl he’s fallen in love with, recalling how he met her and so on.  This part is important in establishing his character and provides some helpful backdrop, but there’s nothing that really needs to be unpacked with further detail so we’ll skip ahead.

As he ventures further into the arboretum he forces his mind away from his problems and away from the girl, and before long he gets lost in the experience.  He observes and contemplates all the things the arboretum has to offer, snapshots of a life outside of his head.  There is a moment when he realises he wants to share this with someone, and naturally his thoughts first turn to the girl, but something stops him from contacting her and he ends up going on alone.

The idea here was that he’d achieved something that few people achieve or even strive for in life: a sense of pure contentment with himself.  He’s learnt to enjoy his own company, to think in terms of himself rather than through the eyes of a nonexistent lover.  Unfortunately this revelation pushes him to the brink of a very thin line, and he ends up off the deep end.  Something about the arboretum has changed him; from these snapshots of life he has gleamed some all-important truth, one which shakes him down to the very core of his being.  The opposite of empathy is apathy, and he gets exactly what he thought he wanted: he feels nothing at all.

Six days later he is back in his therapist’s office, and the therapist confirms that he knew what would happen.  In the conversation that follows the therapist shifts in his chair:

The therapist shifts in his chair, and the resulting sound of leather rubbing against leather is reminiscent of an awkward childhood that no one will ever talk about, that no one will ever acknowledge, will ever make eye contact with. Sometimes it’s just too late for a wound to be bandaged. Sometimes when it heals it becomes a callus, and nothing more ever comes of it.

This paragraph is meant to confirm what was hinted at earlier in the story: the therapist, just like the boy, went through a troubled youth which stemmed from feeling too much.  His emotions are the wound which has become a callus (sounds a lot like callous… see what I did there?), and as a result he is detached, cold and distant, just as the boy is now.

“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know what I wanted,” the boy says, his voice quiet and submissive and indifferent. “I didn’t know.”

Eventually, maybe in another week or two or even three, The Arboretum will grow cold, and people will stop coming, and it will be empty. And even when spring rolls around again, something will have changed, something that the returning warmth will never be able to thaw.

Those of you who read The Woods and the Way may have noticed similarities between the boy in that story and the boy in this one (at least, I hope so).  That’s because it’s the same character.  This story takes place after the boy in TW&TW goes off to University, wedged in right before the final chapter of TW&TW.

So you’ll be happy to know that he ends up getting a happy ending after all.

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Fiction Analysis: Sandman

I cannot go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.

– Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland)

This is an analysis of the fiction piece Sandman.  If you haven’t yet read this story you can do so here.

Inspiration:

There isn’t much to say with regards to this story’s inspiration, because I have no coherent memory of actually coming up with the idea for this one.  I sat down one day and the words just poured out of me.  I completed it in one sitting, which is pretty impressive by my standards: usually I’ll drag out the writing process for weeks or even months at a time until my motivation is all but gone.  Despite the lack of planning it still ended up having a lot of depth, and I’m really happy with how it came out.

The closest thing I have to offer by way of inspiration is that I like beaches and I like existentialism.

Summary & Meaning:

The first thing you have to understand is that this entire story is metaphorical.  The beach isn’t real: it’s a metaphor for time in a non-linear form.  The narrator has died, and the beach he stands on is the middle ground for his entire life, stretched out before him in past, present, future.

In the first paragraph he describes the place he’s currently standing, a.k.a. the present.  He describes how the water rushes up, wiping away all the impressions he’s made in the sand.  There are two ways to interpret this: in the first the water represents death, and the imprints he’s left in the sand are him, symbolic of his life being swept away.  The second interpretation is on a slightly larger scale: the water represents the passing of time, and the impressions are the sum of the impact of his life on earth.  Both are a little depressing, perhaps, but from his standing point he sees it as a cleansing process, a chance to do away with any earthly sense of self-importance or ego.

“The water rushes up with a sound akin to that of a mother’s call, familiar and comforting in its embrace, and as it washes up over my ankles soaking the cuffs of my rolled-up jeans, the earth beneath me shifts and I sink deeper into the ground.”

From the void we are born, and to the void we return.  The water (the void, or simply death) comes for him with open arms, a mother welcoming her child with open arms.

He then looks to his left, to a young couple sitting on the beach.  This is his past, a vision of him & his lover in their glory days.

“The nearest of my neighbours are to my left, close enough that I can see them but far enough that they are out of reach, a memory in passing as I look over my shoulder. It is a young couple, lying on a beach towel, in one another’s arms as they stare out over the sunset.”

Naturally this vision has him feeling very nostalgic, and he gets pretty emotional.  He releases a single tear, a testament to the time they spent together (it’s quality, not quantity, otherwise he’d be an absolute mess with snot and tears and shit just running down his face), and then nods, releasing the tear in a proper farewell.  There’s a whole thing about the tear falling into the ocean and becoming part of something bigger, but I’ll leave that up to your interpretation.

He then turns right, to the future without him.  He sees a mother and her two children, and (you guessed it) this is his wife and children, living on after he’s gone.  They’re farther away, and the image is blurry because the future is harder to see than the past, but their presence is powerful nonetheless.  She looks up (she can’t actually see him, of course), and he waves to her, saying his final farewell.  She raises her arm and waves as well, but not physically- it’s a symbolic farewell, one that means she’s finally moving on from grieving, accepting that he’s gone and coming to peace with that fact.

 Though I know she cannot see me, I still feel my heart flutter as a chill runs through my body.  I smile, and now the tears flow freely, and I know what must be done.  I stare a moment longer, the wind tugging at my clothes, picking up particles of sand that sting against my skin.  And then I raise my arm, and I wave.  She stares a moment longer, and then, though I cannot see it, she raises her arm too.

He begins to dissolve into sand, becoming a part of the beach and taking his place amongst the entire history of man, amongst something greater than himself.  He looks back at the footprints he’s left in the sand, at his past, and smiles.  But the last thing he sees are the footprints that lie before him, the footprints of his wife and children, who will continue on long after he’s gone.

Fiction Analysis: The Woods and the Way

Fiction Analysis: The Woods and the Way

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole… Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

– Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)

So my longest and most impulsive fiction venture to date is now complete, and I figured while it’s still fresh in my mind (and yours) I’d do an analysis.  Given how different this was to my usual work, I thought it fitting that the analysis be equally as impromptu.  So in lieu of the usual inspiration / meaning setup, I thought I’d just sort of throw some thoughts up onto the screen and see what sticks.

Note: If you haven’t read the story yet all 7 chapters are up & waiting here.  They’re in the order that they were posted in, so you’ll have to start from the bottom.

There wasn’t much forethought put into this project.  In fact, there really wasn’t any.  It was only as I finished the first chapter that I realised there was potentially more to the story.  So I decided to try making it into a segmented, continuous story, drawing inspiration from Orchid’s Lantern’s The Old Woman, The Stag, and Me, and Patrick W. Marsh’s Chains.

While there were no concrete plans for where I wanted the story to go, I did pick up on some emerging themes in the first chapter, and decided to tug those strings to see where they led.  Coming of age, loss of innocence, reality vs. ideals, the natural world and romanticism were all part of that tangle, and while I didn’t want to force the story’s hand I did make an effort to focus on those aspects whenever possible.

The story revolves around a boy and a girl who meet in the woods and strike up a friendship.  Early on they make a pact of sorts, deciding that so long as they are in the woods the outside world stays outside.  The forest becomes their escape from reality, from all the troubles that await them on the other side of the forest line.

Of course things don’t exactly go as planned, and they soon learn just how hard it is to escape the treacherous grasp of their problems, even within the borders of their sanctuary.

The boy, prone to profound attachments as a result of unresolved abandonment issues, inevitably falls for the girl.  She is wary of his feelings though, after being warned by her mother of the danger of romantics.  Eventually she tells the boy that she is asexual and therefore cannot love him back, but it is implied that this is a lie meant to spare his feelings.  Of course I can neither confirm nor deny this; your interpretation of the story is up to you ;)

They do their best to move past this, but once again the outside world sends things into a kilter.  Still trying in vain to avoid confronting his problems, the boy is eventually forced to tell the girl that he is going away, having been accepted to a university.  Tired of having their sanctuary constantly violated by the outside world they were meant to be escaping from, the girl complains that they’ve been wasting their time.  Believing he’s losing another home, the boy panics and begs her to tell him that she’s wrong, that their time together meant something to her as well.  She tells him that she will miss him, but refuses to admit that their efforts to escape were in vain.  Still they do their best to maintain the facade for just one more day, and in a way succeed.

In the epilogue we find that a year has passed, and yet the boy has not returned.  Disillusioned by the inescapable grasp of the outside world, the girl loses interest in the forest, no longer associating it with the sense of security she once did.  The place she first came to to escape hard truths becomes a constant reminder of the hardest truth of all: there is no escape from your problems.

Eventually he does return, but something is wrong, and he tells her that a part of him has died.  He is callous, unfeeling.  It’s almost as if in some misguided attempt to stifle the heart which has caused him so much grief he’s gotten more than he bargained for!  (This is a link, in case that wasn’t obvious enough.  Click the link.)

She tries to coax him out of it, but fails.  Devastated and not knowing what else to do, she starts to sing.  Her voice stirs something in his chest (gee, I wonder what that could be?) and as the song ends it is implied that while things are certainly not better, there is still a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Metaphors & Symbolism

The biggest and most obvious metaphor in this story is the natural world.  Time and time again we see the environment reflecting the characters’ ordeals.  The forest itself is symbolic of their sanctuary, their escape from the real world.  Changing seasons serve as a constant reminder that time is passing, autumn symbolic of the transition between childhood and adolescence.  Winter emphasises the cold stillness in the girl’s heart, be it because she is asexual and therefore feels nothing for the boy or because she is so callous as to lie to him and break his own heart.

The well is symbolic of the boy’s own situation, one he is keenly aware of.  He relates to the fact that it too has been abandoned, that something with so much potential to give has been entirely forgotten, unappreciated and unused.  In the epilogue the well crumbles in on itself, just as the boy himself is figuratively broken.

Another slightly obvious but fun metaphor was that of his tear in the epilogue.  Replace the word “tear” with “troubles” and we have the same scenario; her singing brings out all  that has been troubling him, all the feelings and problems he’s buried deep inside in an attempt to forget them.  His issues have been blurring his vision, clouding his judgement and view of the world, but she helps him to let them go, i.e. release the tear.

Fiction Analysis: Webs

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.”

– Virginia Woolf

This is an analysis of the fiction piece Webs.  If you haven’t yet read this story you can do so here.

Inspiration:

I grew up on an island in the Caribbean called Trinidad, where the lines between civilization and nature were often blurred.  Our yard, though small in retrospect, was an entire ecosystem of discovery to my younger self.  Iguanas would sunbathe on our galvanized metal roof, sounds of their claws scraping and massive tails dragging audible from beneath.  Exotic birds would perch on our swing set, their constant calls the soundtrack to our life.  Green and brown anoles would scurry up and down the branches of trees and along the wall surrounding the property, and their larger cousins the zandoli would dash between bushes and under rocks on the ground.  There were frogs, bats, geckos, and even the occasional rat.  And of course there were insects, though my interest in them would come later.

My real favorites were the marine life, an interest that began with the aquariums and pond my father kept and would continue to grow as I was exposed to all the perks of an island life.  Boating trips with dolphins swimming alongside the bow, snorkeling at the beach in search of exotic fish and vibrant coral reefs, and watching the fish congregate at the docks of a family friend’s beach house all contributed to my ever-growing fascination with marine life.

I can’t say where the idea came from, but somewhere along the line I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist.  Even after we moved up to Canada, away from the ocean and all it had to offer, my love for the sea never faltered.  I went through high school with the full intention of becoming a marine biologist, even stayed an extra year to get the required classes for a marine and freshwater biology program at a university I was looking to apply to.  I was eventually accepted, and the following year I started my first semester in marine and freshwater biology at university.  Unfortunately, it would also be my last.

I learned a valuable lesson in those first few months of school: just because you love something doesn’t mean it loves you back.  The sciences were grueling, and all other factors aside I simply was not cut out for them.  I still love the ocean, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that that relationship will never be professional.

Anyhow, that’s where the childhood fascination comes from.  The bit about the insects was far more recent than that of my childhood memories.

Our home in Canada is a decent five acres, and was the inspiration for the story’s setting.  During the summer watering all the plants my mother has growing about the property can be a real bitch.  It wouldn’t be so bad if we could use the hose, but seeing as our water supply comes from the rain and not the city, she insists we use the pond on our property instead.  So what we do is we take the watering cans and go onto the dock to fill them up, and this takes about a hundred trips back and forth.  I know what you’re thinking: why the hell am I reading this?  Well, there’s a point to all this, honest.  We’re getting there.

One summer a swarm of wasps made a hive in the dock, and would get super agitated whenever we’d get close.  As you can imagine this made watering the plants even more of a bitch than usual, as you had to be careful not to rock the dock too much when getting water, or you’d stir up the hive and a bunch of pissed off wasps would come out looking for trouble.  But here’s where it gets interesting.

One day as I was filling up the watering cans on the dock a horsefly came over and wouldn’t stop trying to bite me.  If you’ve never encountered a horsefly before just imagine a mosquito the size of your toe with the determination of John Wick and also it’s the devil himself.  So here I am being pestered by this unrelenting ass of an insect, when a wasp emerges from the space between two wood panels and -get this- chases him off.  Then he went back inside, leaving me completely alone.

I’d like to think that we struck up a kind of unspoken peace treaty that summer, in which they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them.  So long as we didn’t make too much of a ruckus they wouldn’t sting us, and so long as they didn’t sting us we didn’t nerf them with chemicals.  It didn’t last, of course, but for a little while at least I lived in a world of rational insects.

Summary & Meaning:

The main theme of this story is perception.  It’s about how we shape the world we perceive, whether it’s to block out certain undesirable truths as a coping mechanism or to favour others.  It’s about the lies we tell ourselves, and the webs we weave to shield us from cold realities.

The story itself is very open to interpretation: you can either choose to read it on the surface as a nostalgic childhood romp, or you can work through all those icky webs to find the ugly spider of truth hidden within.

For example, if you subscribed to the brighter side of the story you probably assumed Bono was a dog, because it’s such an integral and renowned part of childhood, but the story never specifies this.  If you were to look at the darker side of the story, and really pick it apart, you might think that Bono was actually an imaginary friend, the only companion the protagonist had in his turbulent childhood.

Bono’s disappearance after the very first paragraph (if you noticed after that he’s never mentioned again) is also part of the theme about lying to ourselves.  The author purposely chooses not to mention him again, possibly because he’s avoiding mentioning the darker memories and sticking to reliving the good ones.  Perhaps, assuming Bono is a dog, he has passed away, leaving the author truly friendless.  Or, if Bono is an imaginary friend, it’s possible the author chose to abandon him, whether due to teasing from his classmates due to the fact that he still had an imaginary friend, or maybe after one or both of his parents (who aren’t exactly portrayed in a positive manner throughout the story) make a comment about him “growing up” and giving up “those childish things”.  Or perhaps Bono was simply forgotten as the author goes through the years, like so many other things that are left behind deep in the recesses of our childhoods, fading from both memory and existence.

There are dozens of other little hints throughout the story that suggest the author has not had the best childhood.  Mentions of leaving behind pain through pleasant distractions, of malicious people whose actions he cannot make sense of, and fights between his parents all point towards darker subtext.  And of course there is the conclusion, in which the author chooses to believe the wasps have left peacefully and quietly, rather than having been killed by his mother.

The author himself mentions this theme, when he says the line “And in the end, don’t we all lie to ourselves one way or another?”  The only question left, dear reader, is to what extent?

Fiction Analysis: The Correlation Between Pawn Shops & Broken Hearts

“I was about half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty… you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are.”

– J. D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye)

This is an analysis of the fiction piece The Correlation Between Pawn Shops & Broken Hearts.  If you haven’t yet read this piece you can do so here.

Inspiration:

This was one of the first short stories I’d ever completed, and I wrote it at the precipice of a very dark point in my life.  At the time I remember thinking about how easy it was for me to develop painfully profound feelings for painfully un-profound figures in my life, specifically any reasonably attractive girl who so much as happened to look my way.

It’s one thing to know that certain feelings have no merit, no reason, and an entirely different thing to discount and discredit those feelings.  Sure, on some level I knew that I had no chance with the people I’d fall for, and more importantly that the feelings I was experiencing didn’t actually mean anything (case in point the fact that I felt them for practically everyone), but that didn’t seem to matter.

Of course the full effect of that revelation would come later, and at that point I was only concerned in the phenomenon, not its repercussions.  So, I came up with the idea of… documenting, so to speak, these cases of people falling in love with people they would never be with.

A little bit depressing, maybe, but at the time I thought it was romantic.  The idea was that at the end of it I would have a little anthology of flash fiction stories about love, and this was the first to come out of the project.  Of course, we all know how great I am at following through with my many spontaneous and rather overambitious ideas, so naturally this would also be the only story to come out of the project.

Summary & Meaning:

In the story the protagonist meets this girl at a bus stop, and of course he falls in love.  Over the next few paragraphs we’re taken through a summary of their ensuing conversation, as it’s being recalled (but not directly restated) in the mind of the protagonist.  The idea here was to have it strictly from his point of view.  It was, after all, a story about him falling in love with her, not the other way around, and certainly not mutually experienced.

As we go through their conversation we learn a lot about the girl, but not the guy.  Part of this is to allow the reader to step into his shoes and see themselves in this blank slate, but I also purposely avoided stating too much because I wanted to convey this idea of falling in love making you forget who you are.  When you fall for someone everything else just melts away in the background, and we tend to forget who we are, particularly who we are when not in relation to the person we’ve fallen for.  Keep in mind at the time I was rather sore about my unlovable status, so if you can’t relate to this then lucky you (and also I hate you for everything you represent and for embodying a life I will never know).

What we do learn of the protagonist is often told in reaction to something the girl says, which again just goes to show that we begin to think of ourselves in terms of the other person, rather than as a whole.  We conveniently forget all those parts of us that don’t fit together with the other person, and we convince ourselves of this notion that we’re meant to be together, when in actuality what we’re doing in putting blinders on to aspects of ourselves that would never mesh with theirs.

Then they get to talking about music, and what ends up happening is the guy gives his iPod to the girl so that she can get to know his favorites and hopefully see what a stellar sensitive and all-round awesome guy he is.  Now, fun fact, this actually happened to me.  I actually gave my iPod to this girl I’d quote unquote “fallen in love with” in university.  Long time readers of this blog (HA!) might remember her as the girl I wrote about in Infection (I know, romantic, right?  Just wait until my follow-up post, Scabies).

Anyways, I was feeling pretty meta when I was writing the story and decided to put it in there.  Part of me also believed that she would miraculously find her way to the story (after it had been published in some famous magazine, of course) and recognize the reference, and realize how I’d felt about her, and we’d have this really romantic moment where we’d be on our way over to one another’s residences but then we’d run into each other outside in the rain, and we’d just stand there for a second staring at one another before totally making out, but of course that never happened :(

But back to the story.  He gives her his iPod, but here’s the plot twist: it’s supposed to symbolize his heart.  He gives her his heart.  How great is that?  So then she’s all like “oh, I can’t take this,” but then he’s all like “I want you to have it” and then she’s like “we’ll probably never see each other again” and then he’s like “please, it would be an honor to have you steal my iPod (heart)” and so then she takes it but then her bus pulls up and she leaves, but not before giving him a kiss.

What happens next is this little monologue that takes place in the present, and he reminisces on their encounter and imagines what she might be doing right now.  He imagines her caring for his iPod (heart), nursing it back to life when it dies and toting it all around the country with her, keeping it safe and close.  He mentions that sometimes when he’s having a bad day he wonders if she’s sold it in some pawn shop, but tells himself that if she ever did that he would understand.

In the second last sentence he mentions something, and it’s so small and seemingly insignificant that I wonder if anyone who’s read the story picked up on it (hell, I wonder if anyone’s read the story, full stop).  He mentions orderlies.  Like hospital orderlies.  Maybe even like mental hospital orderlies.  “Okay, TML, so why did you put that in there?”  Well, I’ll tell you why.

I’m not really sure.

It could be that at the time I was feeling a little mental myself, and of course the protagonist was heavily based off of me, but I think it might also have to do with the fact that there’s a lot more to the story than we’ve been given.  For example on two separate occasions he mentions the death of his father, but we never really get the full story, and we hear next to nothing else about his own life.  In falling in love he’s forgotten himself, that much is obvious, but to what degree?  And why is he so profoundly impacted by this seemingly insignificant encounter with a stranger?

Maybe I was feeling a little lost myself when I wrote this, and wanted to try and mirror those feelings in the reader.  Or maybe I’m just full of shit and it meant nothing at all.  Who knows?  I sure as hell don’t.

 

 

Or do I…?

 

 

No, I’m kidding; I don’t.  Alright, well it’s 4:55 in the morning and this post has descended into madness, so I’d say it’s a pretty good start for the new section.