In the first story of Zachary Tyler Vickers’s remarkable new collection, Congratulations on Your Martyrdom!, an origami hobbyist with pathologically stubby fingers is stuffed like the roadkill he prepares for children. If you’re looking for the fiction about married people drinking lattes, this probably isn’t the book for you.
It’s hard not to read Martyrdom without thinking of George Saunders: Vickers mines the same vein of absurdist satire. But Vickers’s work is not, to borrow a phrase from “Disfigured Paper Animals,” merely a “Genuine Imitation.” For all their gonzo inventiveness, these stories are character-driven meditations on loss. Many of them experiment with form, so I asked Vickers how he found his stories’ structure.
1. “Disfigured Paper Animals”
A man who stuffs roadkill for children gets what he wants, but not in the way he wants it.
ZTV: It’s fitting that this one comes first—it’s the first story that I wrote. I like to think of this collection as a good representation of my process and work between 2008-2011. Here is where I had a kind of aesthetic breakthrough. This story originally was operating with two competing narratives: (1) the in-store Stuff-a-Bear antics with the roadkill pelts, and (2) the main character who was also the one shoveling up the roadkill pelts. I kept spinning my wheels—I couldn’t get any traction with this character because he was too preoccupied with his own logistics to breathe on the page. When I simplified the narrative, kept him in-store (which interested me much more), and brought in Uncle Angelo, the taxidermist, to supply the pelts, the story freed itself up to explore Jimbo more, and it took off.
2. “That Which Has No Fixed Order”
A boy thinks about his family as he holds his breath in a contest.
ZTV: This story is one of the few times I wrote with a predetermined structure. It’s one very long sentence because I wanted the reader to feel the breathlessness—or maybe the tension of breathfulness—of the character (he’s in a breath-holding competition). I knew I had to keep this piece short to honor the biological restriction (he can only think so much and hold his breath so long). So, as the story indicates, the world record for holding your breath is 1,161 seconds, and this story is exactly 1,162 words long—in theory, he triumphs and breaks the record.
A man breaks his arm, loses his girlfriend, and finds her again.
ZTV: I played with structure by inventing three vignettes that hinged on each other and around a childhood accident, which ripples through one character’s life. Each section is labeled after each of the three bones that construct the elbow, and they play into that particular section, too. Large jumps in time are difficult in short fiction (a lot can happen in those gaps), and so I needed an anchor in order to justify the leaps in time—I think the hinge/joint of the elbow helps me achieve that.
4. “The Cry”
An old woman drops cassette players from a balcony to discover the truth about her grandson.
ZTV: This story culminates with the larger narrative question of the book: who was this boy who jumped into the lake, struck a boat, and died, and where did his body go? Originally, repressed memory was represented in small footnotes repressed on the page. I liked this, but as the editing of the book moved forward, I saw that the footnotes might be too disruptive—the pulling out of the body narrative was too jarring for the payoff of the repressed language. So I integrated it back into the main body. While, visually, we don’t get the repression, we still have its interruption within the present narrative in a way that I think is also an accurate representation of memory.
The very last paragraph is also a simulation of an action/motion (zipped-lips for spoiler purposes), as well as acceleration/inertia—it was conceived in a conversation with Michael Martone, who also enjoys good structure-play. I think we were destined to be pals after that.
Zachary Tyler Vickers is the author of Congratulations on Your Martyrdom!, available everywhere books are sold. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was the Provost’s Fellow. He is the recipient of the Richard Yates Prize, and his stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Iowa Review, The American Reader, Diagram, KGB Bar Lit Magazine, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. He can be reached through his website: ztvickers.com.