Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday Fiction Fix: "Ziggurat"

Last week, the Fiction Fix took a different twist to what had been our typical approach. This week continues that trend. Today's author is a guy named Stephen O'Connor, who has published three novels, and seen shorter works published in The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, Harper's, and many others. He teaches MFA writing at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College, received his undergraduate degree from Columbia and his Master's at California-Berkeley.

His piece "Ziggurat" appeared in the final June issue of The New Yorker, and can be found here.

Today, we'll not attempt to excerpt lines and have them tell us another story. Instead, we'll examine a few lines for the sheer sake of the imagery they conjure. For a writer who, in comparison with others that have been featured in FFF, is less acclaimed, this author displays an incredible talent as a wordsmith. For this and this alone, we examine his piece today.

The story begins with a character hammering away at a computer game. There is a Minotaur lurking nearby, a creature that destroys and devours at will, all humans who cross his path.

"It is true that the Minotaur was very strong...But in fact he didn't really look like a bull...His lips were fat and earthworm pink, his eyes were asymmetrical, and his eyebrows were like forests of black wire."

Okay. I lied.

What's fascinating about this piece, though, and really with any good bit of writing, is that the writer's use of language as a descriptor, a compressor of time, and as a vehicle for theme, is tops. For example, his description of human behavior through the eyes of the Minotaur as something that consists of "loud noises and a series of cowardly acts. Running, etc. Curses, self-soiling" is superb.

The creature finds it "not uncommon for one human being to push another into his path, or even to slay that human an offering."

The insight of the monster is inspiring in that it too, has its tendencies.

"(H)e got up and lumbered off to a tiled tunnel, where he could always find a skulking dog or two, sometimes whole packs."

The Minotaur's hunger leads him to constantly consume, to devour incessantly, yet ironically, he has never experienced the simple joys of beer, pool playing, or even sex. He does not even have a favorite place, as we learn, in the labyrinth. He of course cannot discover these things of his own accord. A helper, of sorts, points them out,

giving "him tips about wrist action, momentum, angles of incidence, about which part of the (redacted) ball to hit when, and about the need to care just enough that you noticed you cared, but no more than that."

The Minotaur of course has his view on humans as well: "None of the things they yearned for would come to pass. All their beliefs about destiny and justice, all their rituals, injunctions, inhibitions and plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face truths: trash, irrelevant, wrong."

He loathes those that sit "atop vinyl-covered swivel stools,

savoring their own tasteless and puny repasts..."

On a journey, both characters make discoveries, the helper finds that "(a)t every turn, the geometry of the world was reinvented," that "footsteps were wholly devoured by (the) past." The Minotaur reconsiders his thinking "of himself as a messenger bearing the ultimate truth:

You were created to be destroyed. That was it. Simple."

On their journey, they discover bizzarisms, oddities, like upon entering any diner, "there were always two cups of steaming coffee waiting on the counter. And, nearby, two little stainless-steel pitchers of half-and-half, always brimful and cool, even though there was never anyone else there: no customers, no staff."

Other noteworthy pieces of imagery include a face "like a soap bubble in candlelight," or the fact that the helper can't remember a favorite place either, but is led, by the Minotaur, to a place where a mother's needlepoint cushion "portraying a smiling lamb jumping a fence," a father's chessboard where the toppled king's "bottom rolled around the pivot of its top," and a moving rocking chair with nobody in it.

And the Minotaur finds himself alone for a spell, his steps that shook dust streams from the ceiling," so that "the lamination would dwindle to gossamer cross-hatching, to a golden web..."

O'Connor takes the reader on a trip, in search of enlightenment, hoping to avoid failure, one with numerous interesting twists. If you enjoy the story, navigate to his Web site, where you can find opportunities to purchase some of his works.