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Topic Sentence #14

Dear reader,

Here is our topic sentence for today:

Notice

One of my favourite things about short stories is what they don’t have to be. They don’t have to be straight prose but can be: a comic, a sentence, a choose your own adventure, a guide about being a writer, or a list.

That last list is from Jennifer Egan, who is also the writer of our topic sentence/ Powerpoint slide above, which comes from the story/Powerpoint: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (click “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” at the link). It’s a chapter from her multi-award winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, but it also works as a stand-alone story, and comes across better online. In print, it’s needfully printed in black and white—online, we get to see it in colour, and hear the accompanying soundtrack.

Why does it work?

There are all sorts of ideas that sound naff, at least until they are executed well: What about a novel about Lincoln’s dead son in the afterlife? What about a musical song cycle based on the myth of Orpheus? What about a novel that omits the letter ‘e’?

That is, an idea in fiction has almost no validity/invalidity on its own, but acquires it based on execution and craft.

A story as Powerpoint slide sounds terrible partly because of our revulsion for the form itself. What good could ever come out of Powerpoint—that wellspring of banality?

But notice what the title of the story is: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”. And notice what a Powerpoint is: a series of pauses. You can almost hear someone say ‘Let me pause on this slide’. And in between each slide, again, the tiniest of pauses, transitions.

It’s a story where (slight spoilers ahead) the narrator’s brother, Lincoln, is obsessed with pauses in rock and roll songs—when there’s a gap in the music for seemingly no reason. He gets excited when he finds a pause for over a minute.

Alison, the 12 year old narrator, is also negotiating a pause—working out the distance between her parents, her relationship with her brother, and where she fits within those gaps. (And what is teenagerhood if not a pause between a verse and a chorus?) She lists her mum’s annoying habits, and “It’s a mystery why [Dad] loves Mom so much.”

In this context, our topic sentence speaks more than a fuller sentence could—it speaks into the pause, of the shared silence that only siblings could have, of what it means to try and define that gap, and surround it with words or shapes.

If there’s something to learn from this story/Powerpoint slide, find what is small and worth noticing: and then let it echo back out into the work, into the form, and all the gaps in between.

And you, dear reader? What is your favourite silence?

Stay safe,

Guan