Emotional Detachment Is Handy During Breakups + Also When People Die



Hypertext Magazine.

⇒Here is the first paragraph of John Milas’s short story “Hyundai Sonata”:

They told me the steering wheel pushed Dan’s jaw through his neck. I had touched his neck a few times before. You’d need a lot of force to push something through it. They said the air bag failed. They used the word “instantly.”

That is an absolutely devastating  paragraph, and I want to do some close reading of this opening because I think it will give us some clues to what’s going on in the rest of the story, not to mention some of the very effective strategies the author uses.

Look at the first sentence:

They told me the steering wheel pushed Dan’s jaw through his neck. 

We start with a violent image, an upsetting though deceptively simple description of the event that kills the character Dan (we do not learn the narrator’s name, nor do we learn her/his gender). The car crash is probably one of the most ubiquitous sources of human death, in literature or reality; I would say it is at the center of that triumvirate of death-causes: Disease, Murder, and the Car Crash. But I digress.

Dan dies, horribly. What’s interesting about this opening sentence is the fact that it’s filtered through a second-hand account; the narrator does not see/experience this directly, which is extremely fitting given the nature of this story and what we learn about this (seemingly) callous, self-centered narrator. Here’s the second sentence:

I had touched his neck a few times before.

This is basically an emotional left hook, its simple-sentence structure understating its significance while deploying a lot of major information and implication to the reader: the narrator was at least somewhat intimate with Dan (touching a person’s neck is almost always an intimate gesture), but the offhand manner in which this detail is presented subverts the impact of Dan’s death. Basically, this stark juxtaposition is emotionally devastating by virtue of its flippancy.

You’d need a lot of force to push something through it.

Here, this casual approach to the death of one with whom the narrator was intimately acquainted is calculated to make the reader a tad uncomfortable. Ironic understatement is a powerful literary device, and it can signal more than one possibility about the speaker. The narrator could be numb with shock–a very human response–and dodging the reality of this tragedy through practical considerations, such as the physicality rather than emotional significance of this death. Or, he/she could simply be an emotionally clueless asshole.

Here are the last bits of paragraph 1:

They said the air bag failed. They used the word “instantly.”

Here, the effect can be interpreted as shock–that sort of heard-in-fragments experience that accompanies trauma–but since it follows the sentence about what it would take to pierce Dan’s neck, we can probably just understand these last sentences to be another emotional dodge.

So that’s my close-reading of paragraph one, and I think this opening gives us a good set of clues to the symbolic and psychological significance of the story to come (which is comprised of the narrator’s trip to Dan’s funeral with flashbacks about the relationship with Dan interspersed between these passages). As our deconstruction of the first paragraph suggests, this is a very subtle, psychological piece, and I suspect there’s more than one way to interpret the psyche of our narrator (i.e., traumatized ex-lover or indifferent asshole) which makes this a very fascinating read. This is a very tragic story, and Dan’s car-crash death is just the beginning.

⇒Read the piece @ Hypertext Magazine.

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