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Life Expectancy - 1056 words

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Old 03-05-2015, 10:02 AM
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Default Life Expectancy - 1056 words


I wrote this a couple of years ago and published it with a small online press. Now that I have the rights back, I would like to revamp it to try and get the most out of the story, and hopefully get it in print. Any suggestions are helpful. If you'd like, post a link to something of yours you would like me to read. Thanks.


Life Expectancy

My alarm yanks me into consciousness and my mind is on the whiskey. More specifically, the taste that's still in my mouth and how my brain feels like it's being pulled out through my asshole. I'm certainly not thinking about all of the people that are going to die today and whether or not I'm going to be able to save one of them.


It wouldn't make sense if I did. I've never saved anyone, let alone been presented with the opportunity. And until today, death has been an abstract thought. A chapter between sickness and funeral omitted from the story of someone's life whom I love because they made a mistake, and that mistake has grown up and made a similar mistake.


The average life expectancy of a human being is 66.12 years.


I leave the apartment late, as usual, for a job I can't wait to quit. Slinging burgers isn't a bad gig, but it's not even on my list of top five things I would do if I had to work with processed meats. It's the people that get to me. Or yet, their general lack of respect.


On my way in I chug a water and swallow a caffeine pill, my morning elixir. I fake a smile to the boss and tuck in my shirt. I clock in twenty minutes late without remorse and tie on the apron that I haven't washed since I started working here. Washcloth, spit, rub and repeat. Tomorrow I'll have been here two years.


Approximately 146,000 people die everyday.


It's 11:30 but I'm hours ahead in my mind. It's Tuesday, so I'm handling the smoking section. The hags I work with won't go back there since they put up this glass partition. They say it's too smokey, but they've all smoked since they were four. I'm pretty sure they're all dying of cancer anyway. Truth is, people will wait for a non-smoking table rather than sit in the smoking section, no matter how hurried they are. That is, since they put in the glass partition.


My first table is a cute little evolutionary chain of female trash. As the youngest sits looking around the table at her three predecessors sucking on their Benson and Hedges and Virginia Slims, I wonder if smoking is an inherited trait, or will she be so accustomed to nicotine that when she grows up and starts spending more time away from home that she will have no other choice? Probably not. It's probably the symptom of an overlooked gene. Maybe the same one that keeps Jerry Springer on television.


These same people spend their lives simply passing the time, passing their time, with anything that has the nutritional content of cotton candy, eventually achieving the mental agility of a small soap dish. When they realize they're going to die, one of two things happen. They either continue to say “fuck it”, or they spend the rest of their lives trying to stave off the inevitable. Eat right. Exercise. Antioxidants and Gingko Biloba. They've all answered the question, “If you were dying of cancer and had six months to live, what would you do?” None of them said, “Find a cure for cancer.”


Well done steaks with ketchup, substitute french fries for baked potato and more fries for the veggies. Extra ranch. Sweet tea. Diet Coke. More ranch. Food tastes funny. Funny how? Like metal? I don't know what the fuck she wants me to do about it. We don't flavor our steaks with metal. You're right. It probably is just you.


Of course, I don't say any of that. I'm not a complete asshole.


By now we're starting to get busy. If I stand a chance at making enough to put gas in my car I'm going to have to hurry these ladies up. Lunch is get in, get out. Turn 'em and burn 'em, they say. Every minute counts.


One hundred people die every minute.


I turn to head towards the kitchen with an armful of dirty plates, and end up right behind grandma in the slow lane. I'm trying not to lose my temper. I mean, I can't lose my temper without losing my job, so it's actually not as hard as it sounds. At this pace though, granny stands no chance of making it to the pisser with dry knickers. Especially if she has to keep stopping to catch her breath.


And she stops again.


Hurry.


The fuck.


Up.


She shuffles her feet a bit and reaches for a nearby chair.


She misses.


With my left arm still holding a stack of dirty plates, I put my right hand behind her to help her balance. Slowly, her head turns to face me. Her eyes are filling with tears.


Plates fall to the ground as her limp body falls back against me. Half eaten burritos hit the carpet as the weight of her body lands in my arms and I stand there stunned.


I ask if she's OK. No answer. Her body is lifeless, but her eyes are darting about. Her teeth grinding in obvious pain. Her mouth filled with brown, half eaten meat.


As I lay her down, she looks at me and I freeze. I'm the last person she's ever going to see.


I have no words of comfort.


I can't make her heart beat normal.


The girls yell.


“Mom!”


“Grandma!”


I yell.


“Call 911!”


There's no doctor in the house. Only spectators. Shoveling processed meats into their faces and washing it down with the free entertainment. The glass partition is our screen. Any second we're going to cut to commercial.


Two people die every second.







The paramedics arrived on cue. Paddles and needles and stretcher used as props to give us all a false hope that God may perform a miracle yet. A miracle that would have happened behind closed doors and been witnessed only by those who themselves have a God complex.


In a room full of people who couldn't believe what they had just seen, there were three who were trying not to believe it.

I paid for their meals and said I was sorry. I asked if there was anything I could do as they watched her being wheeled out.

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Old 03-05-2015, 10:14 AM
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I've got nothing to say... I read straight through it. This is good I thoroughly enjoyed it. I will try to keep scouring it to see if I can give you anything worthwhile, but, honestly, it's above my level.
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Old 03-05-2015, 10:23 AM
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I doubt that. I read your prologue and had even less to contribute. Thanks.
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Old 03-05-2015, 10:37 AM
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Maybe omit "And until today" in the second paragraph. It may be a little bit too much allusion. I think it would work well that way.

.....stil.....scouring......
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Old 03-05-2015, 12:09 PM
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Changes? Pffft. You don need no stinkin changes. The only "maybe, could be, well... I don't know" that I spotted is:

There's no doctor in the house. Only spectators. Shoveling processed meats into their faces and washing it down with the free entertainment.
Perhaps a comma after house, drawing into a longer sentence. But I get it if it is meant to be a hard, brutal look by the protag at the uselessness of the observers, and the hopelessness of the moment.


I particularly liked this due to the gritty observations. I watch people, and this is spot-on. I very much liked the descriptions. (Well done steaks with ketchup, substitute french fries for baked potato and more fries for the veggies. Extra ranch. Sweet tea. Diet Coke. More ranch.)

My first table is a cute little evolutionary chain of female trash. Perfectly smart-assed, sick of this shit observation.

By the way, this reminded me of the offerings of another on this site.


Carry on -

M
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Old 03-06-2015, 08:15 AM
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Good read. I liked this. A few nit-picks :

It wouldn't make sense if I did.
Same thing I was thinking. It seems odd to me that you're writing in present tense, but you're having thoughts in the first two paragraphs that would really only make sense if you were writing in past tense.

A chapter between sickness and funeral omitted from the story of someone's life whom I love because they made a mistake, and that mistake has grown up and made a similar mistake.
Could just be me, but I'm having a hard time figuring out what this means. Are you saying he was a "mistake" in the usual sense?

The average life expectancy of a human being is 66.12 years.
Maybe you should just let this aside do your foreshadowing -- and loose the death references that precede it. Unless you can address the kind of weird tense issue.

At first, it sounds like he's a cook. He's slinging burgers and wearing an apron. Then he's waiting tables. And not washing an apron for two years seems pretty unlikely.

but it's not even on my list of top five things I would do if I had to work with processed meats.
I know the kind of dry, world-weary humor you're going for, but this seems a little fuzzy to me. Could be me again, but I'm not making a connection to what any of the other five things could be. And to be really nit-picky, I don't think hamburger really is a processed meat. That's like cured meat with preservatives and chemicals etc. added. Maybe just refer to cheap cuts of meat and those weird formed patties.

Truth is, people will wait for a non-smoking table rather than sit in the smoking section, no matter how hurried they are. That is, since they put in the glass partition.
You'd probably only say "truth is" if you're somehow contradicting what came before it. And I'm not sure why you have to remind us that there's a glass partition.

or will she be so accustomed to nicotine that when she grows up and starts spending more time away from home that she will have no other choice?
This is pretty cumbersome. It also kind of takes the punch out of your "I wonder if smoking is an inherited trait" line.

It's probably the symptom of an overlooked gene.
Seems redundant to the inherited trait line.

Maybe the same one that keeps Jerry Springer on television.
Springer reference seems a little dated and cliche.

These same people spend their lives simply passing the time, passing their time, with anything that has the nutritional content of cotton candy, eventually achieving the mental agility of a small soap dish.
Not sure why you have to say "passing their time." It seems like since you're talking about mental agility, cotton candy is a metaphor for things that lack substance -- I'd probably just say something like: "passing time taking in things with all the substance of cotton candy." Anyway, it just seems off to me somehow.

They either continue to say “fuck it”, or they spend the rest of their lives trying to stave off the inevitable.
You're still talking about "these people" the trashy, chain smoking, Jerry Springer watchers -- probably not going to have a nutritional epiphany of some kind. You could say: They'll probably just say fuck it instead of spending the rest of their lives trying to stave off the inevitable. Eat right. Exercise..."

They've all answered the question, “If you were dying of cancer and had six months to live, what would you do?” None of them said, “Find a cure for cancer.”
That sounds too familiar -- like the punch line of a joke I've heard. Has that feel anyway.

Well done steaks with ketchup, substitute french fries for baked potato and more fries for the veggies. Extra ranch. Sweet tea. Diet Coke. More ranch. Food tastes funny. Funny how? Like metal? I don't know what the fuck she wants me to do about it. We don't flavor our steaks with metal. You're right. It probably is just you.
I like this. More unique than some of the other observations.

There's no doctor in the house. Only spectators. Shoveling processed meats into their faces and washing it down with the free entertainment. The glass partition is our screen. Any second we're going to cut to commercial.
This is good. Probably wouldn't repeat processed meats. "Cutting to commercial" might be a tad cliche.

The paramedics arrived on cue.
What cue? That seems a little imprecise.

Paddles and needles and stretcher used as props to give us all a false hope that God may perform a miracle yet.
I like this.

A miracle that would have happened behind closed doors and been witnessed only by those who themselves have a God complex.
You're saying that doctors in a hospital might have saved her? I get that, and I like the bit about the God complex -- but it seems a little fuzzy.

In a room full of people who couldn't believe what they had just seen, there were three who were trying not to believe it.
The contrast here isn't quite right. Maybe something like: "In a room full of people who couldn't believe what they had just seen, only three would have to believe."

It's like only three of these people really need to accept and live with this death. I think that's what you're trying to say.

I paid for their meals and said I was sorry. I asked if there was anything I could do as they watched her being wheeled out.
It seems odd that he would pay for their meals. I would think there would be a manager who would deal with that -- and I'm not sure that anyone would even be thinking about it in these circumstances.

I like this kind of character, even though he's kind of stock. Not in a bad way though. He's world-weary etc. but what makes him interesting is his intelligence and self-awareness vs. the fact he's in a dead-end job. So that raises a lot of questions -- not that they need to be answered. In order for that to work, I think his observations and humor need to transcend the banal -- and they do in some places, but things like the Jerry Springer line don't really cut it.

I think you're close though -- and I think there's a lot to like here. The end seems a little flat. I like that you're showing he has some compassion -- but it almost begs for one more sardonic observation -- like this kind of guy wouldn't want to end on a note that might betray softer emotions -- if that makes sense

Good work. Thanks for the read.

BTW -- a little more about the restaurant would be good. I remember when I was a kid going to a place that had a glass partition between the smoking and non-smoking sections. I'm guessing that's a thing of the past now -- so many places are non-smoking. But even then, I thought it was weird and it left an impression. I remember the bar was in the smoking section, naturally. It's a good image -- like that weird fishbowl like place in the airport where people are smoking -- it's a David Lynch sort of thing -- you know? Might be interesting to play up that the old grandma was in there -- so who was the smoker?

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Old 03-07-2015, 04:08 AM
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I've read through the other critiques to see if there's anything I can add and I think JoeMatt has pretty much hit everything I was thinking of commenting on and then some.

I really like this. Hoping I can write characters like this some day.
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Old 03-09-2015, 01:46 PM
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That's a pretty comprehensive crit, JoeMatt. I'm going to have to set aside some time to give it a proper read. Thanks a ton.
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Old 03-09-2015, 04:35 PM
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Hi midwestamp,

Loved the read. I have to agree with almost everything that Joe said, particularly the line about the sickness and funeral, that had me stuck too. It was also a good point about what the MC does at the diner, as it appears as if he is a cook/bus boy. Presentation would be necessary if he is in the front of house (therefore would need to clean his apron).

I loved the foreshadowing of the stats too. A clever device.

One thing I don't understand is why the MC paid for the girl's meals. Wouldn't he just comp them, via the diner - rather than pay out of his own pocket? This struck me as odd, because the MC doesn't seem to really care too much about anyone but himself.

Finally, I'll ask: what is with the equation? I ain't no mathametician, but it obviously plays into some kind of plot device regarding the inevitability of death.
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Old 03-09-2015, 05:07 PM
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Originally Posted by risk10 View Post
Finally, I'll ask: what is with the equation? I ain't no mathametician, but it obviously plays into some kind of plot device regarding the inevitability of death.
Entropy increasing in a closed system? I'm not familiar with this particular version of the formula but that was my guess.
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Old 03-09-2015, 06:10 PM
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I think some of the lingo I've used is a bit confusing. It may be due to my working in the industry, or maybe it's a demographic thing. Otherwise, it seems I need to address a few things.

"Slinging burgers" - A term usually used for front of the house employees, as opposed to "flipping burgers" being used for the back of the house.

"Paying for their meals" - Servers and managers often use this term instead of saying they will comp a meal because it sounds more gracious.

These, of course, are just from my own personal experiences.

The equation is a Riemann sum, where ex denotes the expected future lifespan assuming the person lives until x. It was inserted at the moment of the woman's death, also where the story switches to past tense. This particular equation was chosen for a couple reasons. 1. It was the most aesthetically pleasing in my opinion. 2. It allows for fluctuation of infant death rate, which is fairly high in the U.S. With multiple generations sitting at the same table, it seemed the most fitting.

As far as entropy increasing in a closed system, I find that to be very fitting. Sounds a lot like life to me. Chaos, disorder, its overall unpredictable nature, except for it's inevitable end. However, entropy is usually defined by the variable h.

Although I could easily defend why I've worded things a certain way, or why he hadn't washed his apron for two years (I'm pretty sure I went a year and a half just scraping dried food from mine), it's more important to me that the reader doesn't get hung up on silly details such as these. This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks guys.
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Old 03-14-2015, 08:11 AM
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Originally Posted by midwestamp View Post
The equation is a Riemann sum, where ex denotes the expected future lifespan assuming the person lives until x. It was inserted at the moment of the woman's death, also where the story switches to past tense. This particular equation was chosen for a couple reasons. 1. It was the most aesthetically pleasing in my opinion. 2. It allows for fluctuation of infant death rate, which is fairly high in the U.S. With multiple generations sitting at the same table, it seemed the most fitting.

As far as entropy increasing in a closed system, I find that to be very fitting. Sounds a lot like life to me. Chaos, disorder, its overall unpredictable nature, except for it's inevitable end. However, entropy is usually defined by the variable h.
Ah, that makes sense. I haven't worked with Riemann sums since high school, which is why I didn't recognize the formula. Variable conventions vary between fields so I wasn't sure. The entropy thing made sense to me since entropy is, like, the universal cause of death.

As for the possibly-confusing restaurant jargon: I thought it added realism. The only one I stumbled on was "pay for your meal" since I didn't realize that is understood to mean "on the house." Maybe just a simple change to "I comped their meal" or "I paid for their meal on the house" or something would make it clearer to those of us unversed in server lingo; but I don't know that it's a very important change.
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Old 03-14-2015, 12:36 PM
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This flowed well, read well, kept my interest from the beginning. But I'm not so sure it's a memorable piece. I'm not so sure you succeeded in presenting a change in your protag (if that was what you were trying to do).

For me, despite your attempt to add another dimension to your character, the cynicism that he displayed in sentence one remained with him after the old lady's fall.

Bottom line for me: Your main, though interesting, was as unlikable at story end as he was at story start.

Thnx
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Old 03-14-2015, 02:48 PM
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Was he supposed to be likable?
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Old 03-14-2015, 03:09 PM
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Maybe I phrased wrong:

Your main, though interesting, was THE SAME at story end as he was at story start. And of course, all stories are subjective and since it found it's way onto an online magazine, it obviously found an editor who had strong feelings about the story. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the read, just not sure it's something I'd find memorable.

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Old 03-14-2015, 06:52 PM
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That's great feedback, thank you. It is a goal of mine to give the mc an arc and by the end have you either like him or at least sympathize with him. That is my main objective with this piece, so I appreciate you pointing that out.

Most of my other shorts are "slice of life" type stuff. As a writer, my main goal is to write quality characters. Believable, honest, visceral, real life shit. I appreciate all of the feedback.
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Old 03-15-2015, 04:53 AM
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I don't think you need a character arc in short stories. Very often the point is to show how despite events, even extraordinary ones, the character doesn't change -- which to me is more like real life anyway.
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Old 03-15-2015, 05:54 AM
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I agree, somewhat. But, I don't think people experience a situation such as this and remain the same unless they possess some sociopathic qualities. People change in real life, and sometimes situations simply reveal a side of someone you had not seen.
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Old 03-15-2015, 06:36 AM
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Originally Posted by midwestamp View Post
I agree, somewhat. But, I don't think people experience a situation such as this and remain the same unless they possess some sociopathic qualities.
That seems like a bit of an overstatement. People can become desensitized to trauma to some degree -- it doesn't mean they have sociopathic qualities. So it really depends on past experience. And even if you are changed profoundly by this kind of event, it might not be something that happens right away -- or within the time-frame of the story.

To me that's what a good short story is about -- possibilities. And that includes the possibility of change -- or not. The point is, a short story doesn't have to include an arc where the character undergoes a visible change or has some kind of revelation -- that's not even true for novels, as far as I'm concerned.

Originally Posted by midwestamp View Post
People change in real life...
Sure people change in real life. But good short stories aren't always about that -- and they don't have to be.

Originally Posted by midwestamp View Post
...and sometimes situations simply reveal a side of someone you had not seen.
I think that's a great way to look at it too.

Overall, the thing I see on writing forums is the complaint that a character doesn't change, that he isn't sympathetic or likeable -- I have to wonder how many short stories they've read and by whom, or if it's based what they've read about how to write fantasy novels or something.
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Old 03-15-2015, 07:11 AM
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I agree a character arc isn't necessary in every short piece. I've read plenty of short stories that present a series of events and of a character reacting to those events and going on with his life. I don't remember a lot of them, but I've read and enjoyed them.

I think my crit zoomed in on this particular story. The main character in this story was going through a rut developed, I'm assuming, before the scene began. The reader learns about this character from the his observations coupled with his thought process.

Even as the event that tests the character is happening, he isn't reacting even slightly different. His observations and thought process are no different than they were prior.

Example: There's no doctor in the house. Only spectators. Shoveling processed meats into their faces and washing it down with the free entertainment. The glass partition is our screen. Any second we're going to cut to commercial.

In the end there is no visceral feeling in THIS reader that anything different has occurred in this character's life. So ultimately it became a journal in the day of a not-so-likeable guy who watched a woman die where he worked.

Writing very good. Story entertaining. Move on to the next piece.
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Old 03-15-2015, 08:26 AM
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Again, to me it's about possibilities -- I see lots of them -- and questions that aren't necessarily answered outright.

Of course, that's not what every reader wants in a story. But as long as you keep your audience in mind -- and you're not trying to please everyone, it's all good.
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Old 03-15-2015, 10:11 AM
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You're right, JoeMatt. There are lots of possibilities. As written, I'm sure this piece can be easily resubmitted and reaccepted. I guess I'm just looking at what could be done with the piece.

Hopefully, you don't think I'm challenging your response. I just think the author was going for this - change - and didn't quite achieve it.

Here's the ending of Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral'. Carver spends a lot of time letting the reader know his main character is a judgemental jerk. He could have ended the story with his main remaining untouched by the events presented and let the reader consider the possibilities. But he didn't. The reader knew by the small events occurring that a change was taking place in this character.

"Close your eyes now," the blind man said to me.

I did it. I closed them just like he said.

"Are they closed?" he said. "Don't fudge."

"They're closed," I said.

"Keep them that way," he said. He said, "Don't stop now. Draw."

So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.

Then he said, "I think that's it. I think you got it," he said. "Take a look. What do you think?"

But I had my eyes closed. I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

"Well?" he said. "Are you looking?"

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.

"It's really something," I said.


Anyway, just thought I'd share this.
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Old 03-15-2015, 10:33 AM
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I don't know if that's what the author was going for. He could answer that better than I could. I think the ending reveals a different side of the MC -- like what Midwestamp said -- for me that's enough.

And I'm a big Carver fan. Cathedral is one of his more sentimental stories -- and not one of my favorites.

More a long the lines of what I'm talking about would be his A Serious Talk. The MC is a bit of jerk, or he's acting like one, but you can empathize with him to a degree because of his circumstances. But he feels justified in his actions and seemingly even more resolute at the end of the story. He doesn't really change at all or appreciate how his behavior has affected the other characters.

Or maybe a better example would be something like, Chef's House -- one that's more open-ended -- where you want to hold out hope for the M.C., but it leaves you with a feeling he's probably going to go back to his old self-destructive ways. Beautiful story.

Cheers.
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Old 03-15-2015, 10:56 AM
Robert AD (Offline)
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Fair Enough. 'A Serious Talk' is one of my favorites, too.
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Old 03-15-2015, 11:24 AM
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The funniest bit is at the end when he steals the ashtray from his ex-wife:

There were things that needed talking about, important things that had to be discussed. They'd talk again. Maybe after the holidays were over and things got back to normal. He'd tell her the goddamn ashtray was a goddamn dish for example.
Classic.

Last edited by JoeMatt; 03-15-2015 at 11:41 AM..
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Old 03-15-2015, 05:00 PM
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Ok, I may have overstated in saying I wanted to give him an arc. What I'm really trying to accomplish is taking a guy who most people won't like, and giving the reader his perspective. He is sympathetic, but can only do so much in the situation. His ire towards the table turns to sympathy and is redirected to the rest of society. Him chastising them for not caring is supposed to show that he actually does care.
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