Analysis, Reviews

Short Story Analysis: Twelve-Step Program for Quitting My Life

TLDR: I analyze a piece of flash fiction.

Short fiction doesn’t get as much attention as novels for some reason, perhaps it’s the difficulty in separating the vein of good stuff from the surrounding rock. Perhaps it’s the difficulty inherent in selling the short stuff, though I’d have thought that e-readers would have helped more with that more than they have. Whatever the issue, I’d like to shine some light on this gem:

Twelve-Step Program for Quitting My Life by Kristen M. Ploetz

Click the link, you can read the whole story for free online. It won’t take long; it’s less than a thousand words.

Now on to the analysis…

Work the cold meat from the last bone.

Like so many great opening lines before it, this one conveys a sense of unease. Something is wrong with the world. Why is the meat cold? Why is it work to get it off the bone.

On reflection or second reading, there’s also a metaphor for how the protagonist feels: raw, stripped, at the breaking point.

The empty wings container drops into the sink and twangs against the sour mouths of last night’s empties.

“Twangs” actually rubs me the wrong way. I think it’s the wrong word and the wrong sound, but “sour mouths of last night’s empties” is exquisite. I can see the take-out containers gaping like a nest of hungry birds and their mouths are sour; the protagonist can’t even bring herself to rinse them. Also, like many other points in the story, the description echoes an unpleasant bodily sensation. I feel the sour stickiness of morning breath in my mouth when I read this line, which ends the first paragraph. That might not even be the author’s intention, but what a great time and place to conjure. Morning is the beginning and the protag feels awful. Will this day be any different from the last? Prospects are grim. This is at least the second night of being unable to cook for one’s self.

Nothing rational gets decided at three in the morning. Nothing changes if I wait much longer.

Caught between a rock and a hard place. The protag has to make a decision and live with the consequences. This story packs so much into such a small space. It has to.

The story then paints a picture of a threadbare human being, sanded down to almost nothing. It’s hard to read until we get a glimmer of hope…

two ones into the cheerleaders’ coffee can outside the bank because I used to smile like that too.

But things aren’t that easy. Even as the protag takes steps to make things better, the reader wonders if it will be enough. The text emphasizes that it might not…

A feeble attempt to cauterize the hole I punctured into their hearts.

A problem with short fiction is the frequency of ambiguous endings. Though I’ve been guilty of such endings myself, I think it’s an over used technique for authors to eject from stories they’re tired of, it turns off a lot of readers, and it’s too often defended as being “literary” and if you don’t like it, it’s probably because you have an unrefined palate. This is why I’m such a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s short fiction, because the man knows how to not only end a story but how to conclude a story…

…but I think it works here.

Finger out a dented pack of cinnamon, remember the taste of Red Hots on his tongue

After all, the connection to Twelve-Step programs for addicts is right there in the title. Whether or not the protag will return to addiction is a valid question.

A depressing ending is heartbreaking, especially in a piece that is already pitch black. An uplifting ending is cringey and possibly insulting to those people struggling with addiction, who have fallen off course and been forced to pick themselves up over and over again, each time harder than the last.

Life is ambiguous. I let this ending slide, but as I process my thoughts on this piece through writing about it, I realize that I let the ending slip by with approval because the story earned it. When the writing is this good, you’re allowed to break a rule here and there.


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