Monday, March 14, 2022

What is your story's praxis?


I like to listen to the author readings of their own stories in the New Yorker podcast. It's an enjoyable way to keep up with what's going on in literary fiction, and often inspires bloggy-type ruminations for me. A recent story, “Wood Sorrel House” by Zach Williams, made me think about the "story praxis", which is my own not-very-precise term for "what the central process is". Determining this is more helpful, I think, in a short story because they are usually more focused and narrow in purpose than a novel. But it might be useful also to consider what your story's central process is, even in a novel.

For example, the praxis (or process or progression) might be an interrogation or a quest or... Well, in this story, the praxis is a puzzle-- one that is never solved. This isn't a real spoiler-- the question is posed on the second page-- but the main characters find themselves in a remote cabin with no neighbors, phone, internet, or memory of how they came to be here.  That's the puzzle at the center: Who put them here and why?

It's a very intriguing puzzle, and shapes the story both narratively (as they try to figure it out) and syntactically (the prose style is descriptive and observational). What makes this a New Yorker story, I think, is that they never do find out. They keep creating tests and experimenting and seeking clues, but that quest becomes so circular, they start to lose track of why they are even trying. There's a spiral-shape, I think, to the narrative, as they circle and circle the question, and it always takes them deeper into un-knowing.

BTW, this was Mr. Williams's first published story. Imagine STARTING your short story career at the New Yorker!