ENZO PONZA | Joanna Walsh.
⇒I really love stories that employ dream logic. When it comes to storytelling that’s based in or exhibits the qualities of a dream, I think there’s a continuum along which lie forms or styles (or genres, if you want to use the g-word) ranging from all-out absurdity (see Mark Leyner‘s steroid-fueled meta-novels) to surrealist narrative (big fan of prose poets like James Tate and the late Russell Edson) to other forms like magic realism and fabulism. While I don’t want to get too deep into the ever-shifting taxonomy of storytelling modes, I just want to say that today’s featured piece, Joanna Walsh’s brilliantly understated “Enzo Ponza” falls somewhere on the gentler side of my dream continuum. This story is very subtle, it’s “magical” or absurd premise delivered with an excellent poker face.
The premise is very simple: a young girl (the narrator, speaking in past tense) goes out kidnaps a grown man. The man’s name is Enzo Ponza (interestingly, this is the only name we get in the story; everyone else gets a generic label like mother, father, husband, etc.).
I love when stories invert an expected premise (or even cliche, in some cases). I believe Tobias Wolff wrote a piece about a man biting a dog. Same sort of thing here.
Okay, so a girl goes out and kidnaps a man. Weird. But consider how the premise is revealed (quite casually) in the story’s opening:
I was still quite a small girl when I decided to kidnap Enzo Ponza.
I remember clearly deciding it would be him. He was standing in one of the sloping streets of shabby residential buildings that lead down to the harbour off the main road. Who knows if he lived there? He was speaking to someone who got into a car with a small child, perhaps his. When they drove away, he came quietly, and at once, almost as though expecting it.
I had never seen him before.
The mechanism behind this event, the man going with the girl to be her–her what: her pet?–is completely invisible to the reader. There is no triggering event, no come-hither, no cue or lure or visible prompt of any kind (as far as we can tell) to make the man go with the girl. He just does.
I’m pretty sure that’s a fairly basic rule of creative writing that’s violated here, the doctrine that every action must have a cause, implicit or not. But just like in dreams, we don’t need a reason for this to happen–it just does. So instead of any law of physics or nature being broken, we have a basic fact of society–that men do not allow themselves to be kidnapped by little girls they don’t know (without any ulterior motive, mind you)–and it’s basically up to the readers whether they choose to suspend their disbelief or not. I enjoy stories that defy my expectations, so I just sort of went with this story’s gently absurdist opening. Other readers, seeking a rational explanation for this whole premise, may resist the story’s course, which is a valid response as well, and one that the story seems more than capable of playing along with.
Nearly everything that happens following the inciting scene of the man’s kidnapping basically deals with the logistics of kidnapping a grown man and taking him into one’s home. Where will he sleep? What will he do with his time? Does he talk? Does he require water and sunlight? Are the parents cool with the girl having kidnapped a man and taken him home?
So the story’s opening (shared above) basically propels the rest of the narrative; everything that follows is a completely natural but equally absurd consequence of the initial event.
In college, we’re told that an essential quality of fiction is defamiliarization. Not only does this story masterfully defamiliarize its world and inhabitants and the ways in which they interact, this piece allows us to take a look at some of the assumptions we bring to a piece of literature ourselves. Maybe a story’s strength and possibilities aren’t just limited by the imagination and ability of the writer, but by the openness of the reader, too.