it’s a question I’ve heard used many times in fiction workshops to gauge the success of a narrative. As a writing instructor, I’ve posed a similar question to composition students by asking, “How would you summarize this?”
Provided with two stylistically different pieces of short fiction—Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics,” and “Sleeping Bear Lament” by David Means—I’ll ask students to write individually and then to produce a class summary for each text. Students dispatch “Popular Mechanics” with ease. They are in agreement as to the events of the piece, as well as to what details are key to its summary. Based on their work, here is how Carver’s story could be re-told: A man is preparing to leave home. As he fills a suitcase, he and his wife fight. The man intends to pack a framed picture of their baby, but the wife takes the photograph and refuses to return it. In retaliation, the man says he’s going to take the baby with him. The wife, now holding the child, will not allow the man to do so. The fight between the man and the wife escalates, becoming physical. Enraged, each parent, using their full strength, pulls on one of the baby’s arms.
A class summary of “Sleeping Bear Lament” is not so easy a task to complete. This is, in part, because Means’s story lacks a linear narrative that would lend itself to summation. Rather than a series of causal events—each leading to the next, building to climax—“Sleeping Bear Lament” has a fractured plot line, leaping backward and forward through time. Movement is motivated by sensation and emotion—the grit of sand underfoot or a moment of embarrassment—that hurdles the reader into the narrator’s childhood or far into his future. It is a story more reliant on thematic connections rather than step-stair relationships between events. In Means’s story, plot is secondary to voice, style, and form.
“Sleeping Bear Lament” requires students to interpret and analyze in a way that differs from work they have previously done with “Popular Mechanics.” As a group, they frequently discover that they are unable to agree on a summary. For some readers the story is about class issues, others see it as a reflection on masculinity, others as an exploration of the corrosive nature of guilt; but regardless of the narrative strains identified, their discussion focuses on ideas, concepts, and themes rather than on what happens next, and next—and students revel in their individual experiences of engaging the text. To analyze a story (or any text, really) only through plot analysis can be limiting and may sacrifice attendance to other aspects of the piece that are just as important, if not more essential, to its success.
— Jenny Hanning