Exploring the art of prose



Warnings From the Future is a debut collection of ten short stories by Ethan Chatagnier, published by Acre Books. Chatagnier is clearly interested in playing with form in his work, and a number of these stories allow the form and the content to work together to underscore the meaning of the piece. In this craft talk, we’ll take a look at two of the stories, “The Unplayable Études,” and “Coyote,” to see how Chatagnier uses a fragmentary structure to echo and reflect content.

In the opening paragraph of “The Unplayable Études,” the third-person narrator, a pianist, describes a day from her childhood, concluding her memory by thinking: “This was not the only perfect day, but like any piece of music, she thinks, you can only hear one moment of it at a time.” And that is then how Chatagnier builds this story, one moment at a time. There are thirteen small, titled sections here, each of which could practically stand alone as a short piece, but it is in the braiding of these pieces together that the story deepens and develops its meaning. Chatagnier asks the reader to participate in the process of making the meaning of the story; this is not a story to be read quickly and without care.

In the second section, for example, we’re introduced to Darin, and then we learn that “She’s never told him about Layla.” We don’t know who Layla is, and we don’t learn any more about her until the seventh section, which is titled “Layla,” and which is all about the narrator’s relationship with Layla. Each section contains mentions of people or objects or thoughts, which are then explored further at a later point. It’s a marvelous way to get the reader to pay attention, to draw the reader in, to create a whole out of discrete parts.

This is a story primarily about grief, although the present moment narrative is of the pianist preparing for and then performing a recital. We are deep in her interiority, as her thoughts move from one thing to the next, and breaking the story into these smaller parts mimics so well the way that our thoughts both obsess on one subject and move rapidly through others. The repetition that occurs from section to section underscores this as well. The final section, entitled “Questions,” begins: “How can opposite things exist at once, even in memory? Grief and persistence. Retreat and embrace. Music and silence.” This section nicely pulls together many of the various strands of the story, once again showcasing the use of a fragmentary structure.

“Coyote” uses fragments as well, but in a very different manner. Eli and Wesley are two men at a small religious and agricultural college, and we are allowed access to each of their points-of-view in the first person. The sections are titled by their names, so it’s always clear through which lens we are looking. Interestingly, the story opens and closes with sections entitled “Battle Creek College,” which are narrated by neither character. In a distant third-person omniscient voice, we are both introduced to and taken out of the more intimate story. Visually, it is as if these sections serve as funnels, to draw the reader in and then to deposit the reader back in the real world.

In this story as well, Chatagnier gives us a hint in the opening section of how the story will work. The omniscient narrator says, as he watches cowboys wrestle with and dismantle a dead cow, “There was a rhythm to it, a muscle memory, and none of the dwelling on past or future that came with idle time.” Unlike “The Unplayable Études,” then, this is not a story that will only focus on the thoughts of the characters. This is a story about movement and love and differing perceptions.

In the opening section, Wesley, who is a student at the college, speculates that Hugo, another student, might have killed the cow. Eli, who is not a student, but more of a teaching assistant, is not happy that Wesley has identified Hugo. As we then move from Wesley to Eli and back again—each man has five sections—we learn the backstory of Hugo from the two men. We watch as Hugo and Eli fall in love. In a particularly lovely section, Eli thinks, “Falling in love is like being flooded with water so that you feel it running down your head and body even as it rises around your ankles and immerses you.” We learn about their relationship from both Eli and from Wesley, who does not approve of this, and stalks the couple as their relationship intensifies.

By using a fragmentary structure and moving from one character to the next, Chatagnier allows us to quickly see this world through different lenses. It is hard to tell where our sympathies should lie: by switching POV, we are allowed to see everything from both sides. We never hear directly from Hugo, but his character is built, section by section, as we see him first from Wesley and then from Eli. As with “Unplayable Études,” the shortness of each section allows the story to focus in on a particular moment in time, rather than create more fully developed scenes. This does keep the emphasis on the three characters and allows the story to move quickly, with heightened tension. By using the bookended structure, with the omniscient voice, the movement back and forth between the two POVs is heightened and feels even more fraught.

As in the earlier story, the final section here serves to bring the fragments together, providing some closure for the reader with both Wesley and Eli. When there are multiple POVs in a story (or a novel), it is often difficult to know on whose POV the story should close. This technique of Chatagnier—of opening and closing with an omniscient voice—is the perfect way to solve this craft problem.

by Laura Spence-Ash