As I look over and scour through the materials I select for teaching fiction, I see that I have a strong preference for stories with salient plots. Quiet Checkovian stories are certainly admirable, but I find the pull of fiction strongest with a good mix of character development and enticing plots.
I also make room to teach a variety of literary genres beyond the traditional realist fiction. I teach “Bouncing” as an example of absurdist fiction when we’re ready to approach innovative fiction.
For those of you who need a refresher on the term, Wikipedia defines absurdist fiction as follows:
Absurdist fiction is a genre of literature, most often employed in novels, plays or poems, that focuses on the experiences of characters in a situation where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events. Common elements in absurdist fiction include satire, dark humour, incongruity, the abasement of reason, and controversy regarding the philosophical condition of being “nothing.” Works of absurdist fiction often explore agnostic or nihilistic topics.
While a great deal of absurdist fiction may be humorous or irrational in nature, the hallmark of the genre is neither comedy nor nonsense, but rather, the study of human behavior under circumstances (whether realistic or fantastical) that appear to be purposeless and philosophically absurd. Absurdist fiction posits little judgment about characters or their actions; that task is left to the reader. Also, the “moral” of the story is generally not explicit, and the themes or characters’ realizations—if any —are often ambiguous in nature. Additionally, unlike many other forms of fiction, absurdist works will not necessarily have a traditional plot structure (i.e., rising action, climax, falling action, etc.).
“Bouncing” appeared in Tin House #24 and was one of Travieso’s earliest publications.
At first blush, the world in which “Bouncing” develops is a perfectly ordinary suburbia of cookie-cutter houses inside subdivisions, patrolled by friendly policemen who know their neighbors, and where neighbors make popcorn balls for Halloween. Travieso paints this suburban paradise with efficient eloquence:
Then home, a little rowhouse on Able Avenue where mothers, dogs, and babies waved and smiled, and walked and drooled, and barked and chatted, and went to the park. Dry leaves in piles painted porches, and three-step marble stairways, all the way down the line. City street as mirror trick: a house looking at a picture of a house looking at a picture of a house looking at a picture of a house. The asphalt was sparkled with embedded glass. The fire hydrants were little, smiling men dressed in red, white and blue. And there were lots of babies.
Then Travieso astounds us again using one and a half pages of describing the intimacy between a new mother and her newborn son when life consists of nothing but playing with mom and listening to silly songs and strolling in a pram down the safe neighborhoods where “men with mustache” give the baby stuffed dinosaurs, only because “he’s such a baby!”
Travieso balances the details of specific moments with passages that sweep through years:
And then he got his first tooth and then he walked and then he said, “Ma” and then he got potty trained and then he made a drawing, and it was clearly a horse, and then he told a joke (goes on for a while)…And birthdays every single year, squirt-fish fights and ice cream cake and then freeze tag in the park until it got dark, and then and then and then and then and then. Until Seth was ten and it was time for a really enormous very long complicated talk.
…which becomes the absurdist (and dark) element in the story. In this world, boys come of age when they murder their mothers.
Bedtime approached, and all across town boys delayed sleep. Two streets over from Seth’s house and one street down, on the corner of Canterbury and Fleet, Donnie Harris, a boy Seth knew from math class, was in his pantry, staring at a shovel.
Travieso then sustains humor and tension through Seth’s reluctance to undergo this barbaric initiation, emphasizing both the absurdist premise and its dark humor through the vulgar glibness of the dialog used to discuss this barbaric habit:
“Oh my God, dude. It was so freaking awesome. At first I was like, “i don’t know, I’m scared, what if I mess up?” But then I was like, ‘Dude, I’m right behind her and she can’t even hear me, she’s totally begging for it’ You know? Like, if she can’t hear me sneaking up, then she’s totally freaking asking for it, right?
Seth’s angst grows as time passes. The older he gets, the more inadequate he seems in the eyes of society. The pressure builds up so that by the ending is a sense of relief and also what Flannery O’Connor would have termed “surprising but inevitable”: an unexpected ending that, in hindsight, reflects a consistency of character.
Here are some of the things to point out about this story’s craft, beyond plot and characterization.
Images and mirroring
Travieso has a special talent for mirror images in this story, so that we see reflections within reflections. Any good short story should possess strong images and I’ve provided in the above passages only a handful of all the great ones that appear in just a few pages of this story.
A good short story opens with a strong image and closes with an equally strong but mirroring image. This is especially apparent in bouncing, where early in the story we are treated to the softness and playfulness of Seth as a baby playing with his mom. She “bounces” him by tossing him up and down on his knees.
At the end of the story, when Seth and his mother are both lost to the inevitable thrust of what their world wills them to do, Seth reflects his early childhood experience thus:
And he’s looking for his mother, anywhere, anywhere. He wants to see her and grab her, hold her perfectly tight and speak to her as she falls and just look at her for a while; he wants to catch her in the air and say loudly so that she can hear him, “I love you, now that you’re gone there’s no one else, you are my only mother…
Juxtaposing is particularly effective when contrasting the lovely, clean safety of suburbia filled with babies and neat houses with the darkness of a world that will not allow its women (mothers) to grow old, because, as Seth’s mother explains, that would make the sons unhappy. The normalcy of the world is what emphasizes effectively its abnormal element. Considering how heavy-handed the distortions come across in genre fiction, this is a good model to teach students who are interested in playing with paranormal or absurd elements. There is no necessity for fireballs and flying brooms: if a writer makes good use of juxtaposition, even just one aberration wil effectively stand out.
Juxtaposition in this story appears not just in images, but also in the premise itself, in the sense of humor and the dark undertone, in the loving and trusting relationship between the mother and Seth and the growing gap that separates them.
Focusing in and fast forwarding
Travieso is also particularly able at slowing and speeding up action. Not only are we treated to detailed images, but also to specific moments in time.
When he slipped out, the doctor held him up with straight arms and said, “this boy is not perfectly right,” and the one nurse lowered her head and refastened the drip, and the other smiled and brushed Set’s mother’s hair away from her face, and said “Oh pooh,” and Seth’s mother looked at the doctor’s fine hands and said, “Give him to me.”
This specificity and moment-focusing is then interspersed with passages during which Seth grows and the world changes in only a few lines. The story serves as a good study for how to move between scenes and how to manage time in a short story.
There is lots about this story that is thoroughly enjoyable, but a good teacher can remind her students about how the old elements of craft (character and motivation, plot and tension, setting and voice) can be revived and refreshed with some thoughtful new twists. Finally, there is also Travieso’s lyricism, sentences flowing and bouncing off the tongue like nursery rhymes, echoing with loveliness and strangeness.