In Richard Bausch’s classic short story, “What Feels Like the World,” the looming grief over a mother’s death is conveyed through an impending vault at an elementary school gymnastics demonstration. In Amy Hempel’s classic, “When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog,” the tragic death of a spouse is portrayed through a carpet stain that refuses to be cleaned. Similarly, in Angie Kim’s “Optimism”—from this winter’s Sycamore Review (Volume 26, Issue 1)—when the protagonist suffers a terrible loss, the trauma is shown masterfully through the concrete and mundane elements of day-to-day life. What’s created is a rich, devastating subtext.
The protagonist Laura loses her toddler Jimmy to a terrible accident. Soon after, she purchases a “computerized doll that looked and cried like her two-year-old son” and begins to re-enact the events that lead up to and followed the tragedy. She repeats these actions, with slight variations, again and again.
“She closed the door gently so as not to wake the doll. She turned on the baby monitor in her room, set the alarm for 3:01 PM, the time she’d startled awake that day, and filled the tub with eucalyptus bubble bath. Like that day, she got in the tub at 2:35, closed her eyes, breathed in the piney mint vapors, and focused on the pitchless hum—the white noise—of the baby monitor. Unlike that day she didn’t fall asleep.”
These plain acts and sensual details ground Laura’s emotional and psychological experience in the physical reality of life, and in doing so keep it from being diminished into the sentimentality of lofty language and the nothingness of cliché. These concrete details don’t attempt to describe the unspeakable–they evoke it.
Mimicking the simple, grounded nature of the actions and details is the unadorned, matter-of-fact language Laura uses to describe them (which she calls experiments, creating further “objective” distance between her and the trauma, giving the subtext—I think—even more power).
“Her skull didn’t crack against he steering wheel or windshield. Fake Jimmy didn’t hit its hard plastic head against the window or the seat in front of him. The problem: the deer had appeared at the top of the hill. When she stopped, the car was on a steep uphill slope, gravity pushing them deep in their seats . . . Combined with the anti-lock brakes, it was enough to keep them safe, even without seatbelts.”
Laura is involved in cool, analytical problem solving, but as a reader we feel her internal desperation, which is made clear by the contrast between what she’s describing and how she’s describing it.
On the evocative power of concrete details, Richard Price famously said, “You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” The small things can feel so big. It’s not that they point to a larger reality; they’re endowed with it.
* Note: After writing this post, I found out that another of Angie Kim’s stories—from an earlier issue of the Sycamore Review, no less—was reviewed last year in this very column. The discovery wasn’t so much a surprise as proof of the high quality of her work. You can read that review here.