The Unpassing and Beginnings
I think the hardest thing is figuring out how to begin a story. You are drawing in a reader, of course, setting them up for what is to come. More important, perhaps, it's your one chance at a truly pure and vulnerable reader. The reader knows nothing, and must trust everything—or not—and you can work with that in the best ways.
The analysis I'm going to do right now is of my own perspective at the very beginning of a book, when I am completely fresh and uninitiated to the story. I haven't read past the first section! (I intend to read past it, however. I am captured by it.)
Chia-Chia Lin begins The Unpassing like this:
During an uneventful part of my childhood, my mother walked into the room with a plate of loose washed grapes. She collapsed. Grapes thudded dully on the carpet. One rolled under the couch. The plate lay overturned, and my mother's body was beside it, limbs splayed.
The mother's collapse is a surprise because it's the beginning of the book and I have no expectations; anything is a surprise. But the author intensifies that effect by quickly setting up the moment as mundane: "during an uneventful part of my childhood." The fact of the mother carrying food implies that she's not prone to falls, or already injured, or diagnosed with an illness. Certainly, she wouldn't just carry around loose grapes if she expected to drop them. And so the fall is not only unexpected because I am new to the book, but because the scene makes it so.
The way those grapes play with and against the posture of the mother's body is beautiful and frightening. The spread of them reflects her body so precisely that we apply the looseness and the washed-ness, too. Thus, the body seems fresh and cared for and spent. But it's also grotesque the way her limbs are splayed. The dull thud is ostensibly about the grapes, but it's hard not to hear it as her body hitting the floor. The whole paragraph combines the lovely with the gruesome in a way that unsettles. We have images of life and death, tangled. In this way the imagery raises the stakes of the fall, makes me understand it as serious, dangerous.
The next paragraph gives the children's reaction to the fall, which seems in line with my own.
My sister Pei-Pei and I remained very still. "Don't cry," she whispered to me. But she was the one who was starting to cry. Her bottom lip hung open, and her halting breath slid out.
Their shock is like mine. It's nice for my earlier interpretation to be validated by the children. It makes me feel close to them when I see we've reached the same conclusion independently.
I also love that Pei-Pei is talking to herself as much as she is talking to her sister. Even though the instructions are stated to be "whispered to me," Pei-Pei is the one who needs them. That creates an incredible intimacy between the two children and sets them up as inhabiting the same overwhelming world. Because I'm feeling just as vulnerable as these children, I'm also inside that world.
Pei Pei's hanging lip and halting, sliding breath echo the mother's body splayed in front of them. Again we see imagery of death, but created by its opposite. But this imagery has moved to inhabit the children. It's also more intimate death imagery because I've moved closer to these children and am inside their experience of it.
After this second paragraph puts us firmly in the perspective of the two children, the third paragraph brings us back to the mother's body.
Sunlight glossed the spread of my mother's hair. I saw veins of red in all that black. I felt a compression of everything I knew to one hard nut. Things ended. You couldn't stop things from ending.
The hair is spreading like those grapes, increasing our sense of the mother's disintegration. Again, there is the combination of dissonant imagery. Sunlight usually signals good and "glossy" hair is pretty. But the red makes "veins" so we see the mother not as a person but as a corpse.
I've broken the passage into paragraphs for my analysis because readers tend to process scenes one paragraph at a time. Yet a paragraph break is an arbitrary marker. Narrative paragraphs don't have the same rules as the paragraphs in different sorts of writing. They don't have to be organized around a central theme or thesis. In a story, a paragraph break can be a tool for drawing the edges of a moment, or creating a tiny pause or space for reflection.
In this passage, it's important that the reader is made to halt, for just a breath, at that moment of ending: "You couldn't stop things from ending."
Because the next paragraph starts things up again.
My mother's back twitched. Her limbs reordered themselves; she sat up. "I was testing you," she said. She was angry. She clawed at the grapes on the carpet, collecting them to be washed again. "Why were you just sitting there? Why didn't you call for an ambulance?"
Twitching is usually an involuntary movement and so at that very first moment, I think it means a worse fate for the mother, not that she is okay. Her limbs "reordering" seems less about her returning as a living person than as some reanimated form. The "clawing" also evokes horror—it's like the undead digging up from a grave. Only her emotions make her seem truly alive to me. And these emotions are negative. She's angry and "clawing" through the carpet.
And then suddenly, it's all mundane again, as she's gathering those grapes. She speaks and we see it's been a ruse.
The mother's trick is fascinating. I mean, of course, it tells about this mother and this family. But from a craft perspective, I love how it manages to fool me, too.
The whole scene is a lovely method of taking the (probably) adult reader into the experience of a child. It's possible that if I'd had context for the scene—perhaps if I better knew the mother, or the dynamics of this family—that I wouldn't have fallen so easily for the mother's act. But because I am brand new to the story and this is the first moment I'm with this family, I believe her collapse as fully as the children do.
Besides the devastating betrayal I feel, with the children, there's a smaller one that I feel as a reader. The realization washes over me that the lovely grapes and their dispersal may have been planned by the mother to make her trick more dramatic. My first thought, to be honest, is of sour grapes. I tell myself the imagery did seem a little too perfect. But I didn't think that until I knew it was a setup. It's like I'm annoyed that the mother placed those grapes, that I can't attribute the lovely imagery to fate. (Of course it's always the author placing the grapes, but notice the effects that different methods can have.) So I have been twice tricked, and made dazzlingly vulnerable.
Even as I am reacting internally to the deception, the two children are reacting in the story.
Neither Pei-Pei nor I could say a word.
"You didn't do anything." As my mother rose from the floor in a swell of indignation, the plate she held tipped forward and back, and grapes rolled right up to the precipice. "What kind of children have I raised? Tell me, do you want to be orphans?"
Those grapes hold the same precariousness, rolling "right up to the precipice," but also they don't. Now I know they are being manipulated by a character, I am more resistant, like the children are, to the lesson being taught.
The section ends with an unexpected takeaway.
I wish I'd never felt it, that relief—that total unburdening. My mother had wanted to teach us a lesson; what I'd learned was reversal. Things that had been splintered could be intact again.
Not long after, when we faced events that caused us sorrow, I yearned for that same erasure. Undo this. But although we tried, each in our own way, no one was able to go back even one step.
And so the opening passage teaches me to expect loss, but it also aligns me, deeply, with a character who has been poorly equipped for it. I'm told here that later tragedy will not be fixable. Still, I'm going to carry two sets of images through the book—that of a body collapsing while grapes spill and of a body reassembling and grapes recaptured. I suspect these images will both resonate with and complicate the further happenings in the book.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com
Love Reading Like a Writer? Sign up for Allison Wyss' class on Spooky Stories: How to Create Creepiness at https://loft.org/classes/spooky-stories-how-create-creepiness! This fiction class will be on October 26, 2019 from 1-5p.m.