Alright, so I was going to write a short story in my usual style, you know, quick setup of a scenario or situation, two or three characters, then let the dialogue carry it through. As much as I love dialogue, I don’t want to get too rigid or worse, stale, so I’m trying this approach, since there’s something I’m trying to get at. I’ll write a short story about the short story I was going to write.
The story’s called ‘The Magic Circus,’ and in it we open on a mother. She’s on the phone, listening intently, her face white with shock, though we can’t hear what’s being said on the other end. Eventually she hangs up, composes herself, and sits at the kitchen table across from her son. He’s just come in, and it’s the first time they’ve seen each other in years.
She tries to talk to him, get him to open up, though he doesn’t say much. She asks why he decided to visit all of a sudden, but he only shrugs or answers monosyllabically. Through the rhythm and action of the dialogue we can gather how strained their relationship has gotten.
Eventually she remembers a story she used to tell him when he was young, about the Magic Circus. She asks if he remembers and he says he doesn’t. She mentions regretting not telling him the story more often, and so she gets right into it.
Gale is a young boy, bored with sitting in a classroom all day and doing homework all night. Until, right before bed, outside his window is a bright light. He sneaks outside and discovers that the Magic Circus is right outside his house! Gale then gets swept up in the spectacle of the games and the shows, of all the animals and people performing death-defying stunts, seeing things he’s never seen before.
It’s been a while since she’s told the story, but the son’s memory is jogged and he fills in some details, what kind of games Gale played, or other things like Gale running through a house of mirrors, bumping his nose because he’s rather clumsy. They work on the story together, they’re actually talking.
Right before they get to the end of the story, when Gale sees the sun rising but doesn’t want the festivities to be over, the phone rings again. The mother gets it, and we hear the conversation in full this time. Her ex-husband is checking in on her, he just got the news, that their son was killed, a head-on collision. The accident was in the area, but the son moved across state a long time ago.
The ex-husband asks her, ‘Gee, you have any idea why he’d be in town?’ She says she doesn’t know.
‘Well, what do you think?’
‘What do I think what?’
‘You think he came to see me or you?’
She says she doesn’t know.
The call doesn’t last much longer, she returns to the kitchen table. By this point we would realize what the first phone call was about. The son is still there, he asks her what’s wrong, she says it’s nothing, and they continue telling each other the story of Gale and the Magic Circus, and the story ends.
So what’s really happening here? György Lukács once theorized that the novel is dialectically made up of two components, of form-giving and mimesis, or, to put it more simply, the relationship between what is and how it ought to be. Subject and representation. What is in The Magic Circus is the dead son, and how it ought to be is the mother having wanted to speak with him. This contradiction resolves itself in the plot, of the mother acting out the conversation she would have had with her son, had he really arrived. Similarly, the subject of this whole thing is The Magic Circus itself, the representation is me not wanting to write it in my usual style, the result is the very form of this short story.
Incidentally, there will always be a gap in what is being communicated and how it was communicated. In this case, the gap is The Magic Circus itself, had I actually written it in my usual style. Narration really is just the image of the act of narration, I’m not just telling the story of the Magic Circus, anymore than the mother is just telling the story of Gale (to someone who isn’t really there). There’s always something unreachable that exists behind the words and symbols we use to communicate, words ‘get in the way’ so to speak, and this blockage is inscribed in the very function of language, and storytelling itself. Ironically, in my attempt to get away from telling a story through dialogue between characters, I, the author as character, told the story entirely through my own voice. Words quite literally ‘got in my way.’
To borrow a term by Godard, the short film is a sort of ‘anti-cinema,’ like the ‘antibody in medicine, to strengthen the cinema.’ The short story, then, functions like an anti-novel.