The opening sections of Alix Ohlin’s wonderful short story “Taxonomy,” (TriQuarterly 146) shows how a simple plot can open into a compelling mystery through just a few quick descriptions.
In the first scene, the narrator Ed stops at a roadside Amish gift shop to try to find an appropriate gift for his daughter. As you might have experienced this holiday season, the more you know someone the more difficult it can be to buy a good present.
“At twenty-four, Meredith hasn’t cuddled a teddy bear in years, but the selection here is startlingly varied: gorillas, monkeys, snakes, and something that, if he squints and holds it at an angle, might be a lemur. What these animals might have to do with the Amish, he doesn’t know, but a lemur is a perfect gift, since that’s the animal Meredith is studying, in Madagascar. Studying and saving, or trying to save. As a budding conservation biologist, she’s researching the many species and subspecies of lemurs, along with their vanishing habitat. So she has explained to Ed—in, frankly, a bit too much detail—in passionate, jargon-heavy emails.”
This simple situation—one character’s desire (buy a gift) meeting an obstacle (which one?)—creates a natural opportunity for Ed to explore the character of his daughter. This initial scenario, though not complex, turns an interesting—but perhaps not yet dramatic—list of details about Meredith—she’s twenty-four, a conservation biologist researching lemurs in their vanishing habitat in an effort to study and or save them something she’s passionate about to the point of excessive verbosity—into more than they would have been otherwise. They’re clues flipping through Ed’s mind in his effort to solve a problem.
But they’re more than just clues. And they have to be. Though a mystery, buying the right present for your daughter doesn’t have the same curb appeal as solving a double murder. Do we really care whether or not he finds the appropriate gift? Not really. Not yet. But what the author has done through this simple plot is introduce a bigger mystery, implied by those details. Why on earth is Ed compelled to stop by a roadside store in Amish country to buy his daughter a gift she probably doesn’t want and is clearly too old for? Why does Meredith’s field of study bother Ed so much? (After all, she’s in the sciences!) And, wait, isn’t she currently in Madagascar?
This paragraph is a brief, odd meandering that’s filled with intrigue. It shows the kind of small incongruities that, in an early section of a story, makes me suspect that the details I’m reading are going to continue fanning out into a wonderfully full and complex story. A familiar situation subtly shows itself to be unfamiliar.
It’s common to talk of plot only in terms of stakes—the higher being the better. So why am I so often bored by stories that have such high stakes? I think part of it has to do with the fact that the reasons why the problem must be solved are often so obvious. Aliens are invading and we must stop them! I wonder why? Could it have something to do with the world ending? Hmm.
The point? In this story, the world isn’t going to end. There’s no double murder. But something is up with Ed, with his daughter Meredith, with this whole situation— something the Amish lemur stuffed animal he’s about to buy is simply a diversion from. Something dark and strange and far from obvious, and thank goodness for that.