DESCENT | Carmen Maria Machado.
S P O I L E R S B E L O W
Here’s a dark, troubling little story that manages to keep the reader invested in its Russian-doll narrative while also poking fun at itself, playing here and there with meta-narrative gestures that (impressively) strengthen rather than undermine the story’s emotional immediacy.
The story begins in a simple, gently creepy fashion before drawing its reader down the windy, unpredictable path of Luna’s story.
The initial premise is something of a red herring, really. The narrator visits the packed-with-freak-show-curios home of private school teacher Luna and Luna’s nameless girlfriend. Everyone has brought warm potluck items and they quickly dive into the booze for what, we learn, is nothing more menacing than their monthly book club.
(Side note: is ‘Book Club Horror’ a sub-genre I’m not aware of? Horror authors should do more scary stories set at book clubs, I think.)
The first wink of self-referentiality happens early on, as the women are debating the merits of their book of the month:
“It dangles,” Janet was saying. “I can’t abide endings that dangle.”
Ha! says everyone who knows how the story itself ends–or rather, dangles.
Something else I noticed in my reading of this great story is a particularly memorable setting that appears during the story-within-the-story, when Luna (the storyteller) encounters one of her two troubled students (Salma and Nicki are both school-shooting survivors, just transferred to Luna’s private girls’ school) outside the building at its amphitheater. Yeah, it’s a school with an amphitheater. Just go with it.
There’s something about [the amphitheater’s] geometry — those concentric circles, down and down into the center — that I’ve always found soothing. It looks like one of those collapsible camping cups pushed into the ground, you know?
Intentionally or not, the nested-rings description is totally applicable to the structure of this story, which uses a many-framed story-within-a-story framework that goes like this:
- First narrator tells us about Luna’s house and the book club
- Luna tells story about school and the troubled girls
- Salma (one of the school-shooting survivors) discusses something her grandmother says
- Luna tells story about school and the troubled girls
- Back to outer narrative ring, where Luna continues her story
- Salma tells Luna about her experience during the school shooting
- Back to outer ring once more, where we discover something potentially devastating and totally surprising about the nameless first narrator (i.e. her possible Bruce-Willis-In-The-Sixth-Sense, I-See-Dead-People-Predicament)
The story ends when our narrator is confronted with the unthinkable: is she next?
Obviously, this isn’t a story about a book club.
I once studied with a writer who cautioned his students about meta-fiction, saying the breaking-the-fourth-wall, self-interrogating qualities of this form often trivialize the actions within the (now highly visible) narrative frame. Meta-fiction, he argued, should be saved for comic purposes.
I sort of agree, but I also think there are different degrees of “meta-ness,” and in its subtler application–as we see here in “Descent”–the meta-fictional strategy can enhance the story’s emotional impact.
A story that occasionally reminds its reader of its artificial or constructed nature may actually help the reader invest more deeply, may lead the reader to feel like an active participant in the transpiring fictional events.
Two other examples of this that immediately come to mind are TV shows I like: Mr. Robot and House of Cards. In the former, the protagonist’s voiceover addresses us (the viewers) and talks to us like we’re some sort of imaginary committee in his mind–a manifestation of his psychosis. In House of Cards, Kevin Spacey similarly does occasional asides to the audience, soliloquizing about his kill-or-be-killed political ethos.
I suppose the most important factor when it comes to maintaining emotional gravity while playing with metafiction is simple moderation. The focus must remain on the inner story and its characters; if the author’s camera pans too far back or for too long, the characters will blur and flatten in the distance.
So why did Ms. Machado opt for her complex nested-narrative structure? Why did the author choose to include her unnamed outer narrator in the book club, when all of the action has to do with Luna and her students?
There is no single explanation for the literary tradition of the story-within-a-story, which is a particularly popular and effective structure in the horror scene (see, for instance, Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or classics like Frankenstein and The Turn of the Screw). I think writers frame their narratives this way to create emotional cues for the reader, to manipulate time and language, to create unreliability or instability (House of Leaves does this to great effect), or to promote a sort of documentary realism (hence the glut of “home-video” style horror movies on the market).
There are plenty of reasons for this strategy, but I think “Descent”‘s framing has to do with one important factor: safety. Our unnamed narrator is detached by two or three degrees from the real horror of the story; she’s sort of an impartial Nick Carraway on the sidelines. This makes her “safe,” far from any potential danger. Through this distance from the dramatic center of the story, we get an unspoken “promise” from the author that the outer narrator will be exempt from danger.
The author breaks that promise, and the effect is devastating.