The Heimlich and Unheimlich in Short-Short Fiction William Boast

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The Heimlich and Unheimlich in Short-Short Fiction
William Boast
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The Heimlich and Unheimlich in Short-Short Fiction

A special awareness of the author-audience relationship characterizes the short-short fiction genre.1 Narrative theory and reader-response criticism has taught us that all forms of written fiction require the reader to concretize the worlds, characters, situations, and events implied by the author’s text. Reading is a constant process of filling in “gaps with essential or likely events, traits and objects which for various reasons have gone unmentioned” (Chatman 28). This process has a special significance in short-short fiction, a genre that asks readers to contend with more frequent and larger “gaps” in the text than do short stories or novels. Because of the limitations imposed by its brevity, a short-short requires the reader to make a relatively large number of inferences during the reading experience.2 The text of the short-short usually contains much less information (or much less written information) than a typical longer work. Therefore, one of the first challenges faced by the short-short writer is efficiency: how he can best stimulate the reader with a limited amount of information.

We often refer to Hemingway’s very short fictional pieces as models of compact and efficient writing, especially heavily anthologized works like “Hills Like White Elephants” and “Indian Camp.” In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway advises, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” This is Hemingway’s theory of omission, famously completed by: “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Omission—or, more accurately, selective omission—has particular importance for the short-short writer. It suggests a principle by which he can pare down his fiction to its most compact shape, but still retain the core content he means to convey to the reader.

This strategy of omission, however, also creates some of the trickiest challenges the short-short fiction genre poses. How does the short-short writer decide what to omit from a fiction? What are the things “he [the writer] knows”? How precisely does the reader feel those same things when the author doesn’t write them? If those things should be left out of a fiction, what should be left in? These questions can be best answered by the writer’s own experience as a reader. His guiding principle in the practice of omission is a sense of what the reader will find familiar in a piece of fiction.

Readers usually take for granted what they know and are able to predict about characters, settings, events, story shapes, etc. in works of fiction. We frequently say when criticizing a fictional work that a movie, novel, or short story is too “predictable.” What we imply by this sort of statement is that we recognize, for example, a certain plot device or character type in the story or movie with which we are familiar. That familiarity allows us to create expectations or predictions about what happens next in the story or how a character will act. If a story or movie follows our predictions, it gives us a diminished degree of pleasure, because it seems unoriginal and formulaic. The short-short genre, however, thrives on taking that same familiar (and sometimes formulaic) material and exploiting it to create effective fictions. The reader’s sense of the familiar becomes an integral component in the art of composition.

Applying Hemingway’s theory of omission, we can say that, if a reader will find a situation, character, conflict, etc. in a short-short familiar, then the writer can leave out a very large amount of information about that situation, character, or conflict. Charles Baxter says, “In the abruptly short-short story, familiar material takes the place of detail. Oh yes, the reader says: a couple quarreling in a sidewalk restaurant, a nine-year old boy stealing a Scripto in Woolworth’s, a woman crying in the bathtub. We’ve seen that before. We know where we are.” (Sudden Fiction 229) There are situations and characters that we encounter so commonly in both everyday life and in fiction that they are immediately recognizable. With even the most briefly described situation, we infer back story, envision settings and character traits, and predict future events.

To use one of Baxter’s examples, if a fiction mentions “a couple quarreling in a sidewalk restaurant,” we quickly assume a number of things. First, we assume the couple is a man and a woman. We also infer that they’re in a romantic relationship and that their argument relates to that relationship. When the man raises his voice, we could very easily imagine the curious glances of people passing by the sidewalk restaurant. Where is the sidewalk restaurant? We’d picture a large, bustling city like Paris or New York. Because our imaginations tend to run wild when we read, a large amount of information can be implied by a small amount of text.

In Elizabeth Tallent’s “No One’s a Mystery,” for instance, the reader can imply that the narrator and Jack are having a romantic affair from the first few lines of text without the fact ever being implicitly stated.
For my eighteenth birthday Jack gave me a five-year diary with a latch and a little key, light as a dime. I was sitting beside him scratching at the lock, which didn’t seem to want to work, when he thought he saw his wife’s Cadillac in the distance, coming toward us. He pushed me down onto the dirty floor of the pickup and kept one hand on my head…
The diary Jack gives the narrator, his wife’s approach on the road, and his reaction to his wife’s approach suggest a wealth of knowledge about the characters and the situation into which Tallent places them. Jack’s marriage implies that he is much older than the 18 year-old narrator. His reaction when he sees his wife implies that he’s concerned about being caught with the narrator and suggests that they are doing something that they wouldn’t want his wife catching them doing--having an affair. As readers, we do most of this fairly pedestrian interpretation automatically. Experienced readers go even further and start wondering what Jack holding the narrator’s head to the floor (and her allowing him to do so) says about the power dynamic or degree of respect in the relationship. Through repeated close reading, we continually find new richness and suggestion in Tallent’s language, right down to seemingly trivial details, the vehicles Jack and his wife respectively drive, for example. Only after the tenth time looking over “No One’s a Mystery,” did this reader notice that Jack drives a dirty pickup and his wife drives a Cadillac. This detail could imply a considerable disparity of wealth between the characters or that the two inhabit live somewhat different lifestyles.

Yoking the advantages of the familiar in short-short fiction is essential in creating economical fictions. As readers of fiction, we know, however, that a work must contain more than just familiar situations, characters, endings, and settings. A short fiction quickly becomes dull if it doesn’t contain possibilities, events, feelings, or characters outside of our everyday experience. We know intuitively that good creative writing almost always contains unexpected or unpredictable elements. Like all other fiction, short-shorts must also have a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Short-short fiction, however, is unique in the extent to which it exaggerates their coexistence.

The familiar, by definition, is easy to recognize and grasp. The unfamiliar, however, tends to defy our attempts to categorize it. We can begin to discuss the unfamiliar, however, by examining what critics of Gothic literature term the “uncanny.” In Gothic literature, the “uncanny” is the element of a fiction which creates frightening or disturbing effects. In Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” the German words heimlich and unheimlich are related to our English definition of uncanny. Heimlich literally translates as “belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly” (Freud 222). Unheimlich, its opposite, means “concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others.” While Freud’s discussion of the heimlich and unheimlich goes on to complicate these definitions to the point where he demonstrates that heimlich can be virtually identical in meaning to its supposed antonym, his ideas still apply readily to short-short fiction. Freud says of fiction writing: “In the first place, a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place there are many more means of creating uncanny effects than there are in real life” (Freud 249). How does a fiction writer create an uncanny effect? By adding the unheimlich to his tame, familiar, heimlich fictional world.

Although Freud primarily examines Gothic literature in “The Uncanny,” his discussion can be modified to apply to fiction as a whole. In Gothic fiction, the unheimlich produces frightening or repulsive effects. In fiction as a whole, it is an essential ingredient in creating tension. The unheimlich alters the reading pattern. It dislocates the reader, forces him out of the realm of the familiar, and replaces the ability to predict with uncertainty. The writer of fiction can employ the unheimlich, Freud says, because he has the license to “select his world of representation so that it either coincides with the realities we are familiar with or departs from them in what particulars he pleases” (249). Short-short fiction takes advantage of this license to great effect. The genre heightens the conflict between what is unknown, unexpected, or non-native with what is native and familiar.

Lex Willford uses the heimlich and unheimlich in tandem to produce an effective short-short piece in “Pendergast’s Daughter,” for example. His first two paragraph’s sketch out a very familiar situation, a man meeting his fiancé’s parents for the first time:

Leann and I were driving to her father’s new A-frame on Lake Nacogdoches, and I was nervous about meeting her folks the first time.

Relax, Leann said. Drink a few Old Mils with Dad, maybe catch a largemouth or two off the dock Saturday. When I got the nerve Sunday, she said, I could spring the news on the old man about wanting to marry his little girl. Then the two of us could get the hell out, head on back to Dallas. Lighten up, she kept saying.
Few readers would be unable to supply the implications of this common and recognizable situation. The narrator is nervous he might not get Leann’s parents’ approval. Given the casualness of Leann’s reassurance, however, it seems as if everything will go smoothly. As Baxter says, “We’ve seen that before. We know where we are.” Williford, however, quickly alters our sense of the familiar in his third paragraph:

The lake house was all glass in front so from the gravel drive we could see Mrs. Pendergast inside, slapping the old man’s face. Once, twice, then again. She shouted something about him not having any goddamn imagination, about some girl, twenty-six years old, young enough to be his goddamn daughter. He took her flat palms, rigid-faced—just stood there blinking at her. Then his face fell all apart, and he hit her in the sternum with his fist. She staggered back through the open door and up to the balcony rail as he hit her over and over again.

A familiar sequence of events takes a surprising turn, and we find ourselves, like the narrator, in unknown, unexpected, and uncertain territory. Williford forces the reader to reevaluate the story by injecting the unheimlich into what he portrays at first as a rather homey, pleasant situation. “He hit her in the sternum with his fist” jars the reader out of the comfortable, heimlich reading pattern established by a line like “drink a few Old Mils with Dad, maybe catch a largemouth or two off the dock Saturday.”

Mark Strand’s “Dog Life” takes a similar approach, but moves into the realm of the surreal. He begins with a familiar situation and conflict but quickly adds an unexpected twist:

Glover Barlett and his wife Tracy lay in their king-size bed under a light blue cambric comforter stuffed with down. They stared into the velvety, perfumed dark. Then Glover turned on his side to look at his wife. Her golden hair surrounded her face, making it seem smaller. Her lips were slightly parted. He wanted to tell her something. But what he had to say was so charged that he hesitated. He had mulled it over in private; now he felt he must bring it into the open, regardless of the risks. “Darling,” he said, “there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

Tracy’s eyes widened with apprehension. “Glover, please, if its going to upset me, I’d rather not hear….”

“It’s just that I was different before I met you.”

“What do you mean ‘different’?” Tracy asked, looking at him.

“I mean, darling that I used to be a dog.”

“You’re putting me on,” said Tracy.

“No, I’m not,” said Glover.
Strand makes the heimlich and unheimlich easy to distinguish. Although his title tips us off, few readers would expect Glover Barlett to reveal that his previous lifestyle was a dog’s. By the serious tone of the first paragraph, “Dog Life” seems, at first, to be heading toward an important revelation—that Glover has cheated on his wife, for example. But the first paragraph is really a set up for the surreal turn the piece chooses to take. Strand plays to our sense of the familiar and then exploits it. The twist in “Dog’s Life” greatly diminishes our ability to predict the course of the rest of the fiction.

Tension or suspense enters a fiction when we are no longer able to accurately guess its direction. The writer of effective short-shorts is able to anticipate our sense of the heimlich and the inferences we will extrapolate from it to the extent that he is able to guide our reading process. He creates suspense and interest, however, by muddling, complicating, or destroying our capacity to extrapolate future events from those we have already encountered. Strand maintains the tension in “Dog Life” through the opposition between the heimlich and unheimlich . For example, he recounts Glover Bartlett’s dialogue in the familiar language of a confession of past lovers and a young, wild lifestyle, but from an unheimlich perspective, a dog’s. His wife’s responses and questions, however, remain typical, as if her husband were talking about women rather than female dogs:

“Are you telling me that something is wrong with our marriage?”

“Not at all. I’m only saying that there was a tragic dimension to my life in those days…. I think of my friend Spot; her head high, her neck extended. Her voice was operatic and filled with a sadness that was thrilling as she released, howl by howl, the darkness of her being into the night.”

“Did you love her?” Tracy asked.

“No, not really. I admired her more than anything.”…

“Were there others?” said Tracy

“There was Peggy Sue, a German short-haired pointer whose owners would play Buddy Holly on their stereo. The excitement we experience when we heard her name is indescribable.”

The mixture and clash of the heimlich and unheimlich in this passage is largely a push and pull between realism and surrealism. It shouldn’t be too surprising that there are very great number of short-short fictions which use the surreal to produce unheimlich effects. So many, in fact, that, in his introduction to the anthology Sudden Fiction International, Charles Baxter lists the virtues of short-short fiction as “humor, surrealism, and some skepticism.” Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are just a few of the writers who have used surrealism to great advantage in short-short fiction. Surrealism is merely the unheimlich extended, so that a fictional world, not just aspects of it, diverges recognizably from our own.

The real and the surreal, the heimlich and unheimlich, however do more than create interest and tension in a fiction. The dual role they play infuses the story with an uneasy balance between certainty and uncertainty. The unheimlich, especially, becomes important when we try to analyze the final effect a short-short has on the reader. Careful readers of short-short fiction will notice the seemingly paradoxical truth that, while good shorts are complete and self-contained, effective pieces never convey the sense that the events that transpire within them have truly and finally come to a close. It’s no coincidence that the majority of shorts begin en media res and end before a conflict has reached its actual resolution. A good short-short is one that breaks its textual boundaries and transcends the limitations of its brevity by continuing to stimulate the imagination of the reader. Mexican short-short writer Hernan Lara Zavala says, “The core of a good short story is that it contains an inner revelation, a sudden twist—tragic, humorous, moral—that allows the reader to project himself beyond the mere anecdote and the writer to build up a rounded structure.” (Sudden Fiction Intl. 324) By the reader’s extrapolations, the short becomes much more than the sum of the words on the page.

This “incomplete completeness” requires that the writer frustrate the reader in his or her attempt to draw tidy conclusions about the situations, ideas, or possible endings a fiction presents. This strategy prevents neat closure of ongoing conflicts. In “Pendergast’s Daughter,” for example, the text ends on an ambiguous and unexpected note:
Do something, Leann shouted at me. But I just stood there. I just watched till the old man pushed his wife over the rail.

At the hospital in Lufkin I told Leann, I don’t know what the hell happened to me. But then an intern came into the waiting room and said her mom would be all right, just some stitches, some bruised ribs.

Next week I must have left a hundred messages on Leann’s answering machine. I’m sorry, they said, you’ve got to believe me.

I remember we used to shower together every morning I stayed at her garage apartment in University Park. I’d slick her taut brown shoulders with Zest and I’d think, Jesus, this is good.

Significantly, we are not told in a definite whether Leann eventually forgives the narrator, nor why she is so angry that he did not intervene, nor why he could not intervene. Williford also chooses to end the piece with a fairly inscrutable last line, one that has the narrator remembering past events in the relationship rather than looking forward. An interpretive community would find it difficult to come to a shared reading of this ending. In fact, by a significant omission of information, the text asks the individual reader to supply his own subjective conclusions about the fiction’s continuing events. Complicated resolutions such as the one we see in “Pendergast’s Daughter” are very frequently found in short-shorts. Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance” and “Popular Mechanics,” Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Margaret Wood’s “Disappearing,” and Tallent’s “No One’s a Mystery” are all good examples of this. Many, many more exist. Short-short fictions which end with any sense of clarity are a rare species.

Identifying a richly ambiguous ending, however, is much easier than writing one. How do short-shorts achieve this effect? When Hemingway writes about omission, he also says, “This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood” (Hemingway on Writing 76). Short-shorts continue to work on the reader’s imagination by using suggestion rather than statement as their final effect. They often contain last lines or last paragraphs which surprise or reveal new information that complicates the resolution of the fiction or forces the reader to reevaluate what he has previously read. The last line of Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics” leaves the resolution of the piece hanging, quite literally, in the air.3 A man is leaving his child and wife. As he packs to go, he says that he is going to take the baby. They fight over the baby, physically tugging on it for possession.

No! she screamed just as her hands came loose.

She would have it, this baby. She grabbed for the baby’s other arm. She caught the baby around the wrist and leaned back.

But he would not let go. He felt the baby slipping out of his hands and he pulled back very hard.

In this manner, the issue was decided.

Clearly, however, the issue remains undecided inside the text. Carver’s narrator omits the information we need to predict who will win the struggle or whether the baby will come to harm. If we want to draw out this fiction to a definite conclusion, then we must supply our own judgement on the issue. “Popular Mechanics” not only alludes to the story of Solomon, it puts the reader in the position of Solomon. Arturo Vivante’s “Can-Can," Barry Hannah’s “Even Greenland,” and John Updike’s “Pygmalion” all contain similarly suggestive last lines. We find the evocative or surprising or inscrutable last line so regularly in short-shorts because it pushes the reader to keep thinking about a piece well after he has finished reading. More often than not the last line is the best line in a short-short—the one richest in language or most tightly packed with ideas. It becomes the focal point of a fiction, and frequently determines how its entire structure is built.

In this brand of last line, we find the unheimlich at work. We find a piece of information previously unrevealed, a surprising turn of events, an unexpected change in language or tone. Who could guess the last line of “Popular Mechanics? Or predict that Williford would end “Pendergast’s Daughter” with: “I’d slick her taut brown shoulders with Zest and I’d think, Jesus, this is good”? There’s something in each of these last lines which defies explanation. This deliberate ambiguity might be inappropriate in, say, a critical essay, but it works to the advantage of the short-short. Ambiguity and open-ended resolutions can stimulate the reader’s imagination well after the final sentence has passed. For short-short fiction, ambiguity plays a vital role in giving a very brief piece a much longer shelf life.

Short-short fiction plays with many of the same rules that all fiction acknowledges. It works according to the opposition of two vital elements in writing—the known and the unknown, the heimlich and unheimlich. To ground our reading and create economical prose, the short-short fiction writer must learn to effectively use the reader’s sense of the heimlich. In doing so, he can create worlds, characters, and conflicts in a matter of sentences, sometimes a matter of words. It is difficult, however, to create interest and tension with the familiar alone. In a great majority of short-shorts, we find surprising turns of events, surreal situations, unexpected characters, dramatic shifts in language. The nature of the short-short makes it a challenging form, for the reader as well as the writer. The reader must not only make more inferences—fill more gaps in the text—he or she must tackle an exaggerated relationship between the unheimlich and heimlich.

Truly, there is something both heimlich and unheimlich about the short-short fiction genre itself. It should be recognizable. Common forms like jokes, anecdotes, and fables are all as brief if not briefer, yet the short-short remains somehow foreign and aberrant. Some of the strangest and most surprising pieces of contemporary fiction are being written in the genre, and the short-short only becomes more protean and more experimental. The rules of the form are being constantly re-made and constantly broken. Perhaps it is the push and pull of the heimlich and unheimlich mandating it never settle into a concrete shape. Indeed, if we could predict the leaps, twists, and reversals of a short-short, it would lose its very essence.

Works Cited
Carver, Raymond. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? McGraw Hill: New York, 1976.
Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film.

Cornell University Press: 1980.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny” The Complete Psychological Works. Hogarth Press:

London, 1953.

Hemingway, Ernest. Ernest Hemingway on Writing (quotations). ed. Larry W. Phillips.

Scriber: New York, 1984.

Sudden Fiction. ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas. Norton: New York, 1989.
Sudden Fiction International. ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas. Norton: New York, 1989.
Williford, Lex. Macauley’s Thumb. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City, 1994.

1 While the short-short has become an increasingly popular fictional form, it remains difficult to categorize. The short-short resembles both the short story and poetry, but doesn’t fit neatly into those categories or, indeed, any other. Of course, when we attempt to study or judge the success of a short-short fiction, the model to which we most often refer is the short story. We approach the short-short as a miniature version of the short story, and our assessment of a particular short-short piece is often based on how effectively it creates a narrative. We must realize, however, that short-short fiction is extremely protean. It takes on forms and shapes of all sorts, many of which do not need narrative to succeed. Short-shorts can be character sketches, vignettes, anecdotes, parables, fables, experiential fragments, even questionnaires. It may be true that the best short-short fiction is story-like (i.e. has narrative), but we would be mistaken in assuming that the ability to tell a story is requisite to the success of a short-short. For this reason, I use the word “fiction” to describe short-short pieces throughout this paper and avoid the word “story.”

2 The style of short-short this paper describes is in length somewhere between one and five pages (usually 1000-2000 words). Works that number only a paragraph or two tend toward prose-poetry, and those longer than six pages start to move into the realm of the short story. The short-shorts I’m looking at generally have more prose language than poetic and structurally tend to appear fairly conventional on the page.

3 Carver retitled “Popular Mechanics” “Little Things” when it was collected in Where I’m Calling From.

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