I care more about voices than words. The textures and emotions and cadences - all of these features, to me, carry the most important parts of communication. But every now and then, I’m reminded of the power of words.
When I listened to T.C. Boyle read Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”, in The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, I had a minor epiphany. In the second half of the podcast, the host Deborah Triesman says that this particular story is really about language... and even though that’s not why I fell in love with the story, or why I wanted to listen to it, I immediately knew that she was right.
For me the New Yorker podcast can be hit-or-miss, since some written stories don't translate well into audio, and since some New Yorker writers seem lost in a culture of writers, and/or the culture of New York...
The STRUCTURE of the podcast, however, is solid: A writer reads another writer's story, then discusses the story in an interview with the New Yorker Fiction Editor, who hosts the podcast. This interview is where, for me, the story is able to grow some wings and fly, because these New Yorker people really know how to read stories in a way that I don’t, and when they talk about the story with each other, I start seeing things that I never would have seen otherwise.
When I first read “Bullet in the Brain,” I admired its structure: it begins with a curiously hatable character, then quickly (...fast as a bullet?), it coaxes you into empathising with him. It’s like a 3 page version of Citizen Kane. I love that.
But Triesman and Boyle don’t really discuss the story’s structure during their conversation. Instead, they focus on the fact that the protagonist cares deeply about words - In fact, it’s his dedication to language that allows the reader to be curious about him in the beginning, and then empathize with him in the end.
This analysis - delivered with casualness and ease - augments the story, bringing it to life by revealing why Boyle and Triesman love it. And you’ll find yourself loving it too, for the same reasons they do. Their pleasant discussion will guide your attention toward aspects of the story that you may not have otherwise noticed.
Hear it for yourself.
One With a Bullet
by The New Yorker Fiction Podcast
T. C. Boyle reads Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,”
and discusses it with Deborah Treisman
19 minutes (discussion of language begins at 15:40)