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Literary Theory: "Flashlight Tag"

Tuesday 6/4/19


The first strike caved a cheekbone. Then he did the other, like he was being merciful, to balance them out. They sunk so easily.


Someone read my new story, "Flashlight Tag,"and remarked that they had done so three times, and in each instance, they saw the story from a different perspective. This was a breakthrough work for me. It's just under 1000 words in length, but it does something I've not seen done in fiction before. Usually you have a prevailing perspective. That can be a character's, or it can be the narrator's. The narrator can be your seeing voice, if you will, the prism through which the dominant perspective is provided for the reader, whether that is a first person narrator or a third person narrator; a third person narrator is not as neutral as we sometimes think. A third person narrator can have more motivation to get you to see a certain viewpoint than a first person narrator, but it's like they come with a kind of cloaking device.


In this story, we have at least six perspectives. Each time you read the story, you are apt to see it through a different character's viewpoint. The story starts off like it's going to be about a game of flashlight tag, with some hijinks mixed in; two kids--let's say they are around early high school age, based on how they talk--have a can of spray paint. They come upon another boy--he seems to be older; he's bigger--sitting on a log, waiting out some portion of the game, hiding. We don't know. We don't need to. He has a friend who is with him. Between these characters, we will get four different perspectives. Two other perspectives come in from off-stage, with a sister, and a father. Then there are the other kids playing the game, who will enter upon this scene after its primary action has been completed, and then you have us, watching from behind them; so it's really like several concentric circles of perspective.


This is not going to be a story about flashlight tag. What I wanted to do was look at how the mob functions right now in our society, via a proxy member of the mob. A person who is actuated mob mentality in the form of one person. I wanted to look at their beliefs in what they are doing--because I think those beliefs are often loose and sketchy--and his motivation, and what he does in terms of action. His commitment to his action might not synch up with his belief. And what is belief? Who should be believed? Why believe anyone, when we struggle to even believe the validity of our own motives?


People in Ireland, he had read, liked to try and kill foxes. But then they also wanted foxes to be alive, so that they could continue trying to kill them.


Death to the fox, long live the fox. That was what Irish people said.


“What the fuck are you muttering now?” Two Heads whispered. “Get in there and do it. Do it for your sister, man.”


Each perspective in the story is equally valid, even though the perspectives sometimes contradict each other. What is unique is they are occurring sequentially, and the reader is receiving them nearly simultaneously. There is humor to begin. Some intrigue. It's a very taut, dramatic story, despite its length. There are various mounting tension points, there are several plot twists. I look at it this way: it has that life-enormity of Tolstoy, but the compactness of Chekhov. In Tolstoy, we see life happens as life happens. What almost every writer does--and what every other writer does now--is present not life as life happens or could happen, but life as they think it happens in a fiction workshop. They make choices to fit a preordained design. Whereas, I let life make the decisions. My characters, who exist, make the decisions. I record their decisions. But they exist. They are as real as you and me. They might be more so.


I couldn't have done something like this ten years ago. I could have written works as good, and I did. But this one had to wait. It had to wait for me to be ready for this kind of breakthrough. If you've seen the film Rashomon, you'll see it's a work about different perspectives. But they don't occur almost simultaneously; they are separated. You get them in installments. Comparative installments, let's call them. See the difference? What "Flashlight Tag" is like is a very complex, but meticulously engineered lock, with multiple parts, all clicked into one congruous design. It has high functionality, smoothness, that almost belies its sophistication.


A crime is avenged in this story, or is it? Who is to be believed? Who believes what? Who did the crime? Who set someone up to do a crime when the crime in the first place had never been done? What was the motive? What will happen next, after we leave these people as we have last seen them?


“There he is,” said Two Heads. “He’s just sitting on that fucking log. Oh fuck. That’s Mark Antony with him.”


People used to call Mark Antony Token Gay. He played on the hockey team, then he quit and he did school plays, but Token Gay was wrong, and Mark Antony had played Mark Antony so he was Mark Antony now.


Seen in the right venue, a million people would debate this story. It would be the inciter of a lot of discussion.