How to Be Liked


WHISTLE BABY | Meredith Alling.

Cooper Street Journal.

⇒This is a really elegant piece, but not in a way that’s ostentatious or showy. The elegance here is of the understated, informal variety. In fact, Meredith Alling’s “Whistle Baby” is a very casual, natural narrative; you have to examine it closely to see how deliberate and refined this text truly is, since it reads as something delivered anecdotally, not through careful plotting and style editing and so on. To create a narrative this engaging while maintaining the freshness of a personal anecdote is a mark of strong writing. In my view, the best fiction consists of stories in which an author’s myriad craft decisions are not immediately evident.

So this piece is subtly elegant, its plot quite simple. And quite funny, actually.

Here’s what happens: our narrator/protagonist Sam is out in her yard “doing a thing or two” (the vagueness works well here) when her neighbor’s baby in the next yard over starts whistling. Yes, this baby, Clover, is a whistling baby. Sam’s response to this discovery? She smiles at the baby’s mom and shrugs.

Is a whistling baby a holy-shit moment? Sam doesn’t seem to think so, but apparently smiling and shrugging is not the reaction the baby’s mother, Shelby, would’ve hoped for. Later, Sam gets a letter slipped under her door, in which her next-door neighbors, Shelby and Brett, wonder why Sam was not more enthralled by the phenomenon of the whistling baby? The baby whistles pretty much around the clock and everyone else in the neighborhood is really impressed, say S + B, but why doesn’t Sam care? The implication, here, is that Sam does not like her neighbors. Interestingly, Sam feels her neighbors do not like her.

In the note’s conclusion, S + B invite Sam over, if she wants to visit.

So that’s our conflict. Sam feels her neighbors don’t like her and her neighbors seem to think the same way toward Sam, and meanwhile, there’s this baby who just won’t stop whistling. Just a random whistling baby who, absurdly enough, drives the narrative forward.

This story is comical and absurd and full of interpersonal awkwardness. Sam’s sense of insecurity, her private nature, are rendered clearly here, and Shelby and Brett’s expectant, sort of socially controlling nature is presented quite effectively as well. Ultimately, this story seems to be about how we perceive ourselves versus how others perceive us, as well as how we perceive others’ perceptions of us. It’s about social norms and expectations and comfort zones and the complexity and fluidity of seemingly straightforward acquaintanceship. It’s also about a baby who whistles, and she is without question my favorite character.

Read the story @ Cooper Street Journal.

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