Every now and then a story just hits you. I’m sure you know what I mean – it hits a chord and stays in your mind. In this case it is a short story called “The Reverse Bug” by a writer Lore Segal. I actually listened to it on the New Yorker fiction podcast read by the author Jennifer Egan. It was another one of those cases where I was in the gym and just stopped in my tracks as I listened and was simply awed by the events and complexities the author tied up and then unraveled.
As I writer, I tend to deconstruct stories as I listen to them or read them. I am constantly thinking of how the writer evokes traits in the characters or about the subtleties of interactions between characters, or even of the structure of the story itself. Sometimes something as small as an answering machine message explains a twist of a plot; or the fact that characters interrupt each other plays a major role in the unfolding of the drama. Just these little bits of detail can have a major impact on the way a reader perceives the actions and the characters.
Segal, who is Austrian, escaped the Nazi onslaught as a child by getting on a kindertransport – a train of Jewish children sent to England. This story is told from the point of view of a teacher who teaches English to immigrants at an institute of New York. Most of the characters are students in her class. One of the minor characters is autobiographical, but the rest are made up of sheer genius. The main action of the story actually happens outside of the classroom of immigrants, but takes place in a brand new auditorium inside the institute. Segal is masterful at creating the plot devices that move the story forward. Small details of the scene inside her classroom, which seem mundane at first blush, are actually foreshadowing the main action of the story. The personality quirks that appear in the classroom, become magnified against the backdrop of the main action of the story. The way Segal puts these devices together is nothing short of masterful.
This story, which asks important questions about the nature of torture, and the idea of pain – for both the villain and the underdog – uses the characters and their situations to force the readers to consider larger ideas such as genocide within the context of history, without giving the reader a moral hierarchy from which to base their thoughts. The reader is forced to think for himself.
Every time I hear a story like this, I learn. I learn about plot and characterization. I learn about juxtaposition of events in a story. I learn about using chronology to my advantage in writing the story. What a gift!